The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
What she meant by speaking to the vicar was a vigorous stirring of him up to wrath; but you cannot stir up vicars if they are truly good. The vicar was a pious and patient old man, practiced in forgiveness, in overlooking, in waiting, in trying again. Always slow to anger, as the years drew him more and more apart into the shadows of old age and he watched from their clear coolness with an ever larger comprehension the younger generations striving together in the heat, he grew at last unable to be angered at all. The scriptural injunction not to let the sun go down upon your wrath had no uses for him, for he possessed no wrath for the sun to go down upon. He had that lovable nature that sees the best in everything first, and then prefers to look no further. He took for granted that people were at bottom good and noble, and the assumption went a long way towards making them so. Robin, for instance, was probably saved by his father's unclouded faith in him. Mrs. Morrison, a woman who had much trouble with herself, having come into the world with the wings of the angel in her well glued down and prevented from spreading by a multitude of little defects, had been helped without her knowing it by his example out of many a pit of peevishness and passion. Who shall measure the influence of one kind and blameless life? His wife, in her gustier moments, thought it sheer weakness, this persistent turning away from evil, this refusal to investigate and dissect, to take sides, to wrestle. The evil was there, and it was making an ostrich or a vegetable of one's self to go on being calm in the face of it. With the blindness of wives, who are prevented from seeing clearly by the very closeness of the object--the same remark exactly applies to husbands--she did not see that the vicar was the candle shining in a naughty world, that he was the leaven that leaveneth the whole lump. And just as leaven leavens by its mere presence in the lump, by merely passively being there, and will go on doing it so long as there is a lump to leaven, so had the vicar, more than his hardworking wife, more than the untiring Lady Shuttleworth, more than any district visitor, parish nurse, or other holy person, influenced Symford by simply living in it in a way that would have surprised him had he known. There is a great virtue in sweeping out one's own house and trimming its lamps before starting on the house and lamps of a neighbour; and since new dust settles every day, and lamps, I believe, need constant trimming, I know not when the truly tidy soul will have attained so perfect a spotlessness as to justify its issuing forth to attack the private dust of other people. And if it ever did, lo, it would find the necessity no longer there. Its bright untiringness would unconsciously have done its work, and every dimmer soul within sight of that cheerful shining been strengthened and inspired to go and do likewise.
But Mrs. Morrison, who saw things differently, was constantly trying to stir up storms in the calm waters of the vicar's mind; and after the episode in Mrs. Jones's front garden she made a very determined effort to get him to rebuke Priscilla. Her own indignation was poured out passionately. The vicar was surprised at her heat, he who was so beautifully cool himself, and though he shook his head over Mrs. Jones's rum he also smiled as he shook it. Nor was he more reasonable about Robin. On the contrary, he declared that he would think mightily little of a young man who did not immediately fall head over ears in love with such a pretty girl.
"You don't mind our boy's heart being broken, then?" questioned his wife bitterly; of her plans for Netta she had never cared to speak.
"My dear, if it is to be broken there is no young lady I would sooner entrust with the job."
"You don't mind his marrying an adventuress, then?"
"My dear, I know of no adventuress."
"You rather like our old people to be tempted to drink, to have it thrust upon them on their very dying beds?"
"Kate, are you not bitter?"
"Psha," said his wife, drumming her foot.
"Psha, Kate?" inquired the vicar mildly; and it is not always that the saintly produce a soothing effect on their wives.
It really seemed as if the girl were to have her own way in Symford, unchecked even by Lady Shuttleworth, whose attitude was entirely incomprehensible. She was to be allowed to corrupt the little hamlet that had always been so good, to lead it astray, to lure it down paths of forbidden indulgence, to turn it topsy turvy to an extent not even reached by the Dissenting family that had given so much trouble a few years before. It was on the Sunday morning as the church bells were ringing, that Mrs. Morrison, prayer-book in hand, looked in at Mrs. Jones's on her way to service and discovered the five-pound note.
The old lady was propped up in bed with her open Bible on her lap and her spectacles lying in it, and as usual presented to her visitor the perfect realization of her ideal as to the looks and manners most appropriate to ailing Christians. There was nowhere a trace of rum, and the only glass in the room was innocently filled with the china roses that flowered so profusely in the garden at Baker's Farm. But Mrs. Morrison could not for all that dissemble the disappointment and sternness of her heart, and the old lady glanced up at her as she came in with a kind of quavering fearfulness, like that of a little child who is afraid it may be going to be whipped, or of a conscientious dog who has lapsed unaccountably from rectitude.
"I have come to read the gospel for the day to you," said Mrs. Morrison, sitting down firmly beside her.
"Thank you mum," said Mrs. Jones with meekness.
"My prayer-book has such small print--give me your Bible."
A look of great anxiety came into Mrs. Jones's eyes, but the Bible was drawn from between her trembling old hands, and Mrs. Morrison began to turn its pages. She had not turned many before she came to the five-pound note. "What is this?" she asked, in extreme surprise.
Mrs. Jones gave a little gasp, and twisted her fingers about.
"A five-pound note?" exclaimed Mrs. Morrison, holding it up. "How did it come here?"
"It's mine, mum," quavered Mrs. Jones.
"Yours? Do you mean to say you have money hidden away and yet allow Lady Shuttleworth to pay everything for you?"
"It's the first I ever 'ad, mum," faintly murmured the old lady, her eyes following every movement of Mrs. Morrison's hands with a look of almost animal anxiety.
"Where did it come from?"
"The young lady give it me yesterday, mum."
"The young lady?" Mrs. Morrison's voice grew very loud. "Do you mean the person staying at the Pearces'?"
Mrs. Jones gulped, and feebly nodded.
"Most improper. Most wrong. Most dangerous. You cannot tell how she came by it, and I must say I'm surprised at you, Mrs. Jones. It probably is not a real one. It is unlikely a chit like that should be able to give so large a sum away--" And Mrs. Morrison held up the note to the light and turned it round and round, scrutinizing it from every point of view, upside down, back to front, sideways, with one eye shut; but it refused to look like anything but a good five-pound note, and she could only repeat grimly "Most dangerous."
The old lady watched her, a terrible anxiety in her eyes. Her worst fears were fulfilled when the vicar's wife folded it up and said decidedly, "For the present I shall take care of it for you. You cannot lie here with so much money loose about the place. Why, if it got round the village you might have some one in who'd murder you. People have been murdered before now for less than this. I shall speak to the vicar about it." And she put it in her purse, shut it with a snap, and took up the Bible again.
Mrs. Jones made a little sound between a gasp and a sob. Her head rolled back on the pillow, and two tears dropped helplessly down the furrows of her face. In that moment she felt the whole crushing misery of being weak, and sick, and old,--so old that you have outlived your claims to everything but the despotic care of charitable ladies, so old that you are a mere hurdy-gurdy, expected each time any one in search of edification chooses to turn your handle to quaver out tunes of immortality. It is a bad thing to be very old. Of all the bad things life forces upon us as we pass along it is the last and worst--the bitterness at the bottom of the cup, the dregs of what for many was after all always only medicine. Mrs. Jones had just enough of the strength of fear left to keep quite still while the vicar's wife read the Gospel in a voice that anger made harsh; but when she had gone, after a parting admonition and a dreadful assurance that she would come again soon, the tears rolled unchecked and piteous, and it was a mercy that Priscilla also took it into her head to look in on her way to church, for if she had not I don't know who would have dried them for this poor baby of eighty-five. And I regret to say that Priscilla's ideas of doing good were in such a state of crudeness that she had no sooner mastered the facts brokenly sobbed out than she ran to the cupboard and gave Mrs. Jones a tablespoonful of rum for the strengthening of her body and then took out her purse and gave her another five-pound note for the comforting of her soul. And then she wiped her eyes, and patted her, and begged her not to mind. Such conduct was, I suppose, what is called indiscriminate charity and therefore blameworthy, but its effect was great. Priscilla went to church with the reflection of the old lady's wonder and joy shining in her own face. "Hide it," had been her last words at the door, her finger on her lips, her head nodding expressively in the direction of the vicarage; and by this advice she ranged herself once and for all on the opposite side to Mrs. Morrison and the followers of obedience and order. Mrs. Jones would certainly have taken her for an angel working miracles with five-pound notes and an inexhaustible pocket if it had not been for the rum; even in her rapture she did feel that a genuine angel would be incapable of any really harmonious combination with rum. But so far had she fallen from the kind of thinking that the vicar's wife thought proper in a person so near her end that she boldly told herself she preferred Priscilla.
Now this was the day of Priscilla's children's party, and though all Symford had been talking of it for twenty-four hours the news of it had not yet reached Mrs. Morrison's ears. The reason was that Symford talked in whispers, only too sure that the authorities would consider it wrong for it to send its children a-merrymaking on a Sunday, and desperately afraid lest the forbidden cup should be snatched from its longing lips. But the news did get to Mrs. Morrison's ears, and it got to them in the porch of the church as she was passing in to prayer. She had it from an overgrown girl who was waiting outside for her father, and who was really much too big for children's parties but had got an invitation by looking wistful at the right moment.
"Emma," said Mrs. Morrison in passing, "you have not returned the book I lent you. Bring it up this afternoon."
"Please mum, I'll bring it to-morrow, mum," said the girl, curtseying and turning red.
"No, Emma, you will do as I direct. One can never be too particular about returning books. You have kept it an unconscionable time. You will bring it to the vicarage at four o'clock."
"Please mum, I--I can't at four o'clock."
"And pray, Emma, what is to prevent you?"
"I--I'm going to Baker's, mum."
"Going to Baker's? Why are you going to Baker's, Emma?"
So it all came out.
The bells were just stopping, and Mrs. Morrison, who played the organ, was forced to hurry in without having told Emma her whole opinion of those who gave and those who attended Sunday parties, but the prelude she played that day expressed the tumult of her mind very well, and struck Tussie Shuttleworth, who had sensitive ears, quite cold. He was the only person in the church acutely sensitive to sound, and it was very afflicting to him, this plunging among the pedals, this angry shrieking of stops no man ever yet had heard together. The very blower seemed frightened, and blew in gasps; and the startled Tussie, comparing the sounds to the clamourings of a fiend in pain, could not possibly guess they were merely the musical expression of the state of a just woman's soul.
Mrs. Morrison's anger was perfectly proper. It had been the conscientious endeavour of twenty-five solid years of her life to make of Symford a model parish, and working under Lady Shuttleworth, whose power was great since all the cottages were her son's and were lived in by his own labourers, it had been kept in a state of order so nearly perfect as to raise it to the position of an example to the adjoining parishes. The church was full, the Sunday-school well attended, the Sabbath was kept holy, the women were one and all sober and thrifty, the men were fairly satisfactory except on Saturday nights, there was no want, little sickness, and very seldom downright sin. The expression downright sin is Mrs. Morrison's own,--heaven forbid that I should have anything to do with such an expression--and I suppose she meant by it thieving, murder, and other grossnesses that would bring the sinner, as she often told her awe-struck Dorcas class, to infallible gallows, and the sinner's parents' grey hairs to sorrowful graves. "Please mum, will the parents go too?" asked a girl one day who had listened breathlessly, an inquiring-minded girl who liked to get to the root of things.
"Go where, Bessie?"
"With the grey hairs, mum."
Mrs. Morrison paused a moment and fixed a searching gaze on Bessie's face. Then she said with much dignity, "The parents, Bessie, will naturally follow the hairs." And to a girl bred in the near neighbourhood of Exmoor it sounded very sporting.
Into this innocent, frugal, well-managed hamlet Priscilla dropped suddenly from nowhere, trailing with her thunder-clouds of impulsive and childish ideas about doing good, and holding in her hands the dangerous weapon of wealth. It is hard to stand by and see one's life-work broken up before one's eyes by an irresponsible stranger, a foreigner, a girl, a young girl, a pretty girl; especially hard if one was born with an unbending character, tough and determined, ambitious and vain. These are not reproaches being piled up on the vicar's wife; who shall dare reproach another? And how could she help being born so? We would all if we could be born good and amiable and beautiful, and remain so perpetually during our lives; and she too was one of God's children, and inside her soul, behind the crust of failings that hindered it during these years from coming out, sat her bright angel, waiting. Meanwhile she was not a person to watch the destruction of her hopes without making violent efforts to stop it; and immediately she had played the vicar into the vestry after service that Sunday she left the congregation organless and hurried away into the churchyard. There she stood and waited for the villagers to question them about this unheard of thing; and it was bad to see how they melted away in other directions,--out at unused gates, making detours over the grass, visiting the long-neglected graves of relatives, anywhere rather than along the ordinary way, which was the path where the vicar's wife stood. At last came Mrs. Vickerton the postmistress. She was deep in conversation with the innkeeper's wife, and did not see the figure on the path in time to melt away herself. If she had she certainly would have melted, for though she had no children but her grown-up son she felt very guilty; for it was her son who had been sent the afternoon before to Minehead by Priscilla with a list as long as his arm of the cakes and things to be ordered for the party. "Oh Mrs. Morrison, I didn't see you," she exclaimed, starting and smiling and turning red. She was a genteel woman who called no one mum.
The innkeeper's wife slipped deftly away among graves.
"Is it true that the children are going to Baker's Farm this afternoon?" asked Mrs. Morrison, turning and walking grimly by Mrs. Vickerton.
"I did hear something about it, Mrs. Morrison," said Mrs. Vickerton, hiding her agitation behind a series of smiles with sudden endings.
"I did hear they pretty well all thought of it," said Mrs. Vickerton, coughing. "Beautiful weather, isn't it, Mrs. Morrison."
"They are to have tea there?"
Mrs. Vickerton gazed pleasantly at the clouds and the tree-tops. "I should think there might be tea, Mrs. Morrison," she said; and the vision of that mighty list of cakes rising before her eyes made her put up her hand and cough again.
"Have the parents lost their senses?"
"I couldn't say--I really couldn't say, Mrs. Morrison."
"Have they forgotten the commandments?"
"Oh I 'ope not, Mrs. Morrison."
"And the vicar's teaching? And the good habits of years?"
"Oh, Mrs. Morrison."
"I never heard of anything more disgraceful. Disgraceful to the giver and to those who accept. Wicked, scandalous, and unscriptural."
"We all 'oped you'd see no harm in it, Mrs. Morrison. It's a fine day, and they'll just have tea, and perhaps--sing a little, and they don't get treats often this time of year."
"Why, it's disgraceful--disgraceful anywhere to have a treat on a Sunday; but in a parish like this it is scandalous. When Lady Shuttleworth hears of it I quite expect she'll give everybody notice to quit."
"Notice to quit? Oh I hope not, Mrs. Morrison. And she do know about it. She heard it last night. And Sir Augustus himself has promised the young lady to go and help."
"And we all think it so kind of him, and so kind of the young lady too," said Mrs. Vickerton, gathering courage.
"Sir Augustus?" repeated Mrs. Morrison. Then a horrid presentiment laid cold fingers on her heart. "Is any one else going to help?" she asked quickly.
"Only the young lady's uncle, and--"
Mrs. Vickerton hesitated, and looked at the vicar's wife with a slightly puzzled air.
"Of course Mr. Robin."