The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
Kunitz meanwhile was keeping strangely quiet. Not a breath, not a whisper, had reached the newspapers from that afflicted little town of the dreadful thing that had happened to it. It will be remembered that the Princess ran away on a Monday, arrived at Baker's in the small hours of Wednesday morning, and had now spent both Wednesday and Thursday in Symford. There had, then, been ample time for Europe to receive in its startled ears the news of her flight; yet Europe, judging from its silence, knew nothing at all about it. In Minehead on the Thursday evening Fritzing bought papers, no longer it is true with the frenzy he had displayed at Dover when every moment seemed packed with peril, but still with eagerness; and not a paper mentioned Kunitz. On the Saturday he did find the laconic information in the London paper he had ordered to be sent him every day that the Grand Duke of Lothen-Kunitz who was shooting in East Prussia had been joined there by that Prince--I will not reveal his august name--who had so badly wanted to marry Priscilla. And on the Sunday--it was of course the paper published in London on Saturday--he read that the Princess Priscilla of Lothen-Kunitz, the second and only unmarried daughter of the Grand Duke, was confined to her bed by a sharp attack of influenza. After that there was utter silence. Fritzing showed Priscilla the paragraph about her influenza, and she was at first very merry over it. The ease with which a princess can shake off her fetters the moment she seriously tries to surprised her, and amused her too, for a little. It surprised Fritzing, but without amusing him, for he was a man who was never amused. Indeed, I am unable to recall any single occasion on which I saw him smile. Other emotions shook him vigorously as we know, but laughter never visited him with its pleasant ticklings under the ribs; it slunk away abashed before a task so awful, and left him at his happiest to a mood of mild contentment. "Your Royal Parent," he remarked to Priscilla, "has chosen that which is ever the better part of valour, and is hushing the incident up."
"He never loved me," said Priscilla, wistfully. On thinking it over she was not quite sure that she liked being allowed to run away so easily. Did nobody care, then, what became of her? Was she of positively no value at all? Running away is all very well, but your pride demands that those runned from shall at least show some sign of not liking it, make some effort, however humble, to fetch you back. If they do not, if they remain perfectly quiescent and resigned, not even sending forth a wail that shall be audible, you are naturally extremely crushed. "My father," said Priscilla bitterly, "doesn't care a bit. He'll give out I'm dangerously ill, and then you'll see, Fritzi--I shall either die, or be sent away for an interminable yachting cruise with the Countess. And so dust will be thrown in people's eyes. My father is very good at that, and the Countess is a perfect genius. You'll see."
But Fritzing never saw, for there was no more mention at all either of Kunitz or of influenza. And just then he was so much taken up by his efforts to get into the cottages as quickly as possible that after a passing feeling of thankfulness that the Grand Duke should be of such a convenient indifference to his daughter's fate it dropped from his mind in the easy fashion in which matters of importance always did drop from it. What was the use, briefly reflected this philosopher, of worrying about what they were or were not thinking at Kunitz? There would be time enough for that when they actually began to do something. He felt very safe from Kunitz in the folds of the Somerset hills, and as the days passed calmly by he felt still safer. But though no dangers seemed to threaten from without there were certain dangers within that made it most desirable for them to get away from Baker's and into their own little home without a moment's unnecessary delay. He could not always be watching his tongue, and he found for instance that it positively refused to call the Princess Ethel. It had an almost equal objection to addressing her as niece; and it had a most fatal habit of slipping out Grand Ducal Highnesses. True, at first they mostly talked German together, but the tendency to talk English grew more marked every day; it was in the air they breathed, and they both could talk it so fatally well. Up at the cottages among the workmen, or when they were joined by Mr. Dawson, grown zealous to help, or by either of the young men Robin and Tussie, who seemed constantly to be passing, the danger too was great. Fritzing was so conscious of it that he used to break out into perspirations whenever Priscilla was with him in public, and his very perspirations were conspicuous. The strain made his manner oddly nervous when speaking to or of his niece, and he became the subject of much conjecture to the observant Robin. Robin thought that in spite of her caressing ways with her uncle the girl must be privately a dreadful tyrant. It seemed difficult to believe, but Robin prided himself on being ready to believe anything at a moment's notice, especially if it was the worst, and he called it having an open mind. The girl was obviously the most spoilt of girls. No one could help seeing that. Her least wish seemed to be for the uncle a command that was not even to be talked about. Yet the uncle was never openly affectionate to her. It almost seemed as though she must have some secret hold over him, be in possession, perhaps, of some fact connected with a guilty past. But then this girl and guilty pasts! Why, from the look in her eyes she could never even have heard of such things. Robin thought himself fairly experienced in knowledge of human nature, but he had to admit that he had never yet met so incomprehensible a pair. He wanted to talk to Tussie Shuttleworth about them, but Tussie would not talk. To Tussie it seemed impossible to talk about Priscilla because she was sacred to him, and she was sacred to him because he adored her so. He adored her to an extent that amazes me to think of, worshipping her beauty with all the headlong self-abasement of a very young man who is also a poet. His soul was as wax within him, softest wax punched all over with little pictures of Priscilla. No mother is happy while her child's soul is in this state, and though he was extremely decent, and hid it and smothered it and choked it with all the energy he possessed, Lady Shuttleworth knew very well what was going on inside him and spent her spare time trying to decide whether to laugh or to cry over her poor Tussie. "When does Robin go back to Cambridge?" she asked Mrs. Morrison the next time she met her, which was in the front garden of a sick old woman's cottage.
Mrs. Morrison was going in with a leaflet; Lady Shuttleworth was going in with a pound of tea. From this place they could see Priscilla's cottage, and Robin was nailing up its creepers in the sight of all Symford.
"Ah--I know what you mean," said Mrs. Morrison quickly.
"It is always such a pity to see emotions wasted," said Lady Shuttleworth slowly, as if weighing each word.
"Wasted? You do think she's an adventuress, then?" said Mrs. Morrison eagerly.
"Sh-sh. My dear, how could I think anything so unkind? But we who are old"--Mrs. Morrison jerked up her chin--"and can look on calmly, do see the pity of it when beautiful emotions are lavished and wasted. So much force, so much time frittered away in dreams. And all so useless, so barren. Nothing I think is so sad as waste, and nothing is so wasteful as a one-sided love."
Mrs. Morrison gave the pink tulle bow she liked to wear in the afternoons at her throat an agitated pat, and tried to conceal her misery that Augustus Shuttleworth should also have succumbed to Miss Neumann-Schultz. That he had done so was very clear from Lady Shuttleworth's portentous remarks, for it was not in human nature for a woman to be thus solemn about the wasted emotions of other people's sons. His doing so might save Robin's future, but it would ruin Netta's. We all have our little plans for the future--dear rosy things that we dote on and hug to our bosoms with more tenderness even than we hug the babies of our bodies, and the very rosiest and best developed of Mrs. Morrison's darling plans was the marriage of her daughter Netta with the rich young man Augustus. It was receiving a rude knock on its hopeful little head at this moment in old Mrs. Jones's front garden, and naturally the author of its being winced. Augustus, she feared, must be extremely far gone in love, and it was not likely that the girl would let such a chance go. It was a consolation that the marriage would be a scandal,--this person from nowhere, this niece of a German teacher, carrying off the wealthiest young man in the county. The ways of so-called Providence were quite criminally inscrutable, she thought, in stark defiance of what a vicar's wife should think; but then she was greatly goaded.
Priscilla herself came out of Mrs. Jones's door at that moment with a very happy face. She had succeeded in comforting the sick woman to an extent that surprised her. The sick woman had cheered up so suddenly and so much that Priscilla, delighted, had at once concluded that work among the sick poor was her true vocation. And how easy it had been! A few smiles, a few kind words, a five-pound note put gently into the withered old hands, and behold the thing was done. Never was sick woman so much comforted as Mrs. Jones. She who had been disinclined to speak above a whisper when Priscilla went in was able at the end of the visit to pour forth conversation in streams, and quite loud conversation, and even interspersed with chuckles. All Friday Priscilla had tried to help in the arranging of her cottage, and had made herself and Fritzing so tired over it that on Saturday she let him go up alone and decided that she would, for her part, now begin to do good to the people in the village. It was what she intended to do in future. It was to be the chief work of her new life. She was going to live like the poor and among them, smooth away their sorrows and increase their joys, give them, as it were, a cheery arm along the rough path of poverty, and in doing it get down herself out of the clouds to the very soil, to the very beginnings and solid elementary facts of life. And she would do it at once, and not sit idle at the farm. It was on such idle days as the day Fritzing went to Minehead that sillinesses assailed her soul--shrinkings of the flesh from honest calico, disgust at the cooking, impatience at Annalise's swollen eyes. Priscilla could have cried that night when she went to bed, if she had not held tears in scorn, at the sickliness of her spirit, her spirit that she had thought more than able to keep her body in subjection, that she had hoped was unalterably firm and brave. But see the uses of foolishness,--the reaction from it is so great that it sends us with a bound twice as far again along the right road as we were while we were wise and picking our way with clean shoes slowly among the puddles. Who does not know that fresh impulse, so strong and gracious, towards good that surges up in us after a period of sitting still in mud? What an experience it is, that vigorous shake and eager turning of our soiled face once more towards the blessed light. "I will arise and go to my Father"--of all the experiences of the spirit surely this is the most glorious; and behold the prudent, the virtuous, the steadfast--dogged workers in the vineyard in the heat of the day--are shut out from it for ever.
Priscilla had not backslided much; but short as her tarrying had been among the puddles she too sprang forward after it with renewed strength along the path she had chosen as the best, and having completed the second of her good works--the first had been performed just previously, and had been a warm invitation made personally from door to door to all the Symford mothers to send their children to tea and games at Baker's Farm the next day, which was Sunday--she came away very happy from the comforted Mrs. Jones, and met the two arriving comforters in the front garden.
Now Priscilla's and Mrs. Jones's last words together had been these:
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Priscilla had asked, leaning over the old lady and patting her arm in farewell.
"No, deary--you've done enough already, God bless your pretty face," said Mrs. Jones, squeezing the five-pound note ecstatically in her hands.
"But isn't there anything you'd like? Can't I get you anything? See, I can run about and you are here in bed. Tell me what I can do."
Mrs. Jones blinked and worked her mouth and blinked again and wheezed and cleared her throat. "Well, I do know of something would comfort me," she said at last, amid much embarrassed coughing.
"Tell me," said Priscilla.
"I don't like," coughed Mrs. Jones.
"Tell me," said Priscilla.
"I'll whisper it, deary."
Priscilla bent down her head, and the old lady put her twitching mouth to her ear.
"Why, of course," said Priscilla smiling, "I'll go and get you some at once."
"Now God for ever bless your beautiful face, darlin'!" shrilled Mrs. Jones, quite beside herself with delight. "The Cock and 'Ens, deary--that's the place. And the quart bottles are the best; one gets more comfort out of them, and they're the cheapest in the end."
And Priscilla issuing forth on this errand met the arriving visitors in the garden.
"How do you do," she said in a happy voice, smiling gaily at both of them. She had seen neither since she had dismissed them, but naturally she had never given that strange proceeding a thought.
"Oh--how do you do," said Lady Shuttleworth, surprised to see her there, and with a slight and very unusual confusion of manner.
Mrs. Morrison said nothing but stood stiffly in the background, answering Priscilla's smile with a stern, reluctant nod.
"I've been talking to poor old Mrs. Jones. Your son"--she looked at Mrs. Morrison--"told me how ill she was."
"Did he?" said Mrs. Morrison, hardly raising her eyes a moment from the ground. This girl was her double enemy: bound, whatever she did, to make either a fool of her son or of her daughter.
"So I went in and tried to cheer her up. And I really believe I did."
"Well that was very kind of you," said Lady Shuttleworth, smiling in spite of herself, unable to withstand the charm of Priscilla's personality. How supremely ridiculous of Mrs. Morrison to think that this girl was an adventuress. Such are the depths of ignorance one can descend to if one is buried long enough in the country.
"Now," said Priscilla cheerfully, "she wants rum, and I'm just going to buy her some."
"Rum?" cried Lady Shuttleworth in a voice of horror; and Mrs. Morrison started violently.
"Is it bad for her?" said Priscilla, surprised.
"Bad!" cried Lady Shuttleworth.
"It is," said Mrs. Morrison with her eyes on the ground, "poison for both body and soul."
"Dear me," said Priscilla, her face falling. "Why, she said it would comfort her."
"It will poison both her body and her soul," repeated Mrs. Morrison grimly.
"My dear," said Lady Shuttleworth, "our efforts are all directed towards training our people to keep from drinking."
"But she doesn't want to drink," said Priscilla. "She only wants to taste it now and then. I'm afraid she's dying. Mustn't she die happy?"
"It is our duty," said Mrs. Morrison, "to see that our parishioners die sober."
"But I've promised," said Priscilla.
"Did she--did she ask for it herself?" asked Lady Shuttleworth, a great anxiety in her voice.
"Yes, and I promised."
Both the women looked very grave. Mrs. Jones, who was extremely old and certainly dying--not from any special disease but from mere inability to go on living--had been up to this a shining example to Symford of the manner in which Christian old ladies ought to die. As such she was continually quoted by the vicar's wife, and Lady Shuttleworth had felt an honest pride in this ordered and seemly death-bed. The vicar went every day and sat with her and said that he came away refreshed. Mrs. Morrison read her all those of her leaflets that described the enthusiasm with which other good persons behave in a like case. Lady Shuttleworth never drove through the village without taking her some pleasant gift--tea, or fruit, or eggs, or even little pots of jam, to be eaten discreetly and in spoonfuls. She also paid a woman to look in at short intervals during the day and shake up her pillow. Kindness and attention and even affection could not, it will be admitted, go further; all three had been heaped on Mrs. Jones with generous hands; and in return she had expressed no sentiments that were not appropriate, and never, never had breathed the faintest suggestion to any of her benefactors that what she really wanted most was rum. It shocked both the women inexpressibly, and positively pained Lady Shuttleworth. Mrs. Morrison privately believed Priscilla had put the idea into the old lady's head, and began to regard her in something of the light of a fiend.
"Suppose," said Priscilla, "we look upon it as medicine."
"But my dear, it is not medicine," said Lady Shuttleworth.
"It is poison," repeated Mrs. Morrison.
"How can it be if it does her so much good? I must keep my promise. I wouldn't disappoint her for the world. If only you'd seen her delight"--they quivered--"you'd agree that she mustn't be disappointed, poor old dying thing. Why, it might kill her. But suppose we treat it as a medicine, and I lock up the bottle and go round and give her a little myself three or four times a day--wouldn't that be a good plan? Surely it couldn't hurt?"
"There is no law to stop you," said Mrs. Morrison; and Lady Shuttleworth stared at the girl in silent dismay.
"I can try it at least," said Priscilla; "and if I find it's really doing her harm I'll leave off. But I promised, and she's expecting it now every minute. I can't break my promise. Do tell me--is the Cock and Hens that inn round the corner? She told me it was best there."
"But you cannot go yourself to the Cock and Hens and buy rum," exclaimed Lady Shuttleworth, roused to energy; and her voice was full of so determined a protest that the vicar's wife, who thought it didn't matter at all where such a young woman went, received a fresh shock.
"Why not?" inquired Priscilla.
"My dear, sooner than you should do that I'll--I'll go and buy it myself," cried Lady Shuttleworth.
"Gracious heavens," thought Mrs. Morrison, perfectly staggered by this speech. Had Lady Shuttleworth suddenly lost her reason? Or was she already accepting the girl as her son's wife? Priscilla looked at her a moment with grave eyes. "Is it because I'm a girl that I mustn't?" she asked.
"Yes. For one thing. But--" Lady Shuttleworth shut her mouth.
"But what?" asked Priscilla.
"If it's not the custom of the country for a girl to go I'll send Mr. Morrison," said Priscilla.
"Send Mr. Morrison?" gasped the vicar's wife.
"What, the vicar?" exclaimed Lady Shuttleworth.
"No, no," said Priscilla smiling, "young Mr. Morrison. I see him over there tying up my creepers. He's so kind. He'll go. I'll ask him."
And nodding good-bye she hurried out of the garden and over to her cottage, almost running in her desire not to keep Mrs. Jones any longer in suspense.
The two women, rooted to the ground, watched her as if fascinated, saw her speak to Robin on his ladder, saw how he started and dropped his nails, saw how nimbly he clambered down, and how after the shortest parley the infatuated youth rushed away at once in the direction of the Cock and Hens. The only thing they did not see from where they stood was the twinkle in his eye.
"I don't think," murmured Lady Shuttleworth, "I don't think, my dear, that I quite care to go in to Mrs. Jones to-day. I--I think I'll go home."
"So shall I," said Mrs. Morrison, biting her lips to keep them steady. "I shall go and speak to the vicar."