Ever and anon the moon shines out from amid the fast-flying clouds; then, as though it has seen enough, hides itself again under the ghostly mist. The sighing of the wind through the forest is like the trembling of fever-stricken nature. In the stillness of night, through the pathless forest, rides a troop of horsemen. Their little long-maned horses sniff their way with low, sunk necks; by the shaggy fur caps of their riders, and their long lances hanging far back at their sides, they are to be recognized as a party of Don Cossacks.
The first of these three houses is outside the village on a great green hill, round which the herds of the village peacefully crop the pasture. Only now and then does one or other of these quiet beasts start back when it suddenly comes upon a white skeleton, or a bleached bullock-horn, in the thickest patches of the high grass. The house itself has no roof, and the soot with which years of heavy rains have bedaubed the walls, points to the fact that once upon a time the place was burnt out. Now, dry white stalks of straw wave upon the mouldering balustrades.
The iron supports have been taken out of the windows, on the threshold thorns and thistles grow luxuriantly. There is no trace of a path—perhaps there never was one.
The land surrounding this house is full of all sorts of fragrant flowers.
"Benedicite," began the Prior. "Here is a message from our most gracious patroness." With that he laid upon the table a sealed letter in Latin, which the others passed from hand to hand. All understood it, but it was evident that not one of them liked the letter, for they turned up their noses, pursed their lips and knit their eyebrows.
"One of us is bidden to the court of our most munificent patroness to educate her only son."
"He is a little devil!" exclaimed the Abbot.
"He talks and whistles in church," cried another.
"He reviles the saints and the souls of the departed."
"He torments animals." Each one had something to say; especially the last.
"He is the accursed child of a mad mother."
"She is the destruction of all men," continued the Abbot. "She sins against all the commandments."
"She tramples under foot all the sacraments."
"She is a raging fury and a sacrilegious witch."
"She sent her husband to his grave with a deadly drink."