The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
It is the practice of Providence often to ignore the claims of poetic justice. Properly, the Symford children ought to have been choked by Priscilla's cakes; and if they had been, the parents who had sent them merrymaking on a Sunday would have been well punished by the undeniable awfulness of possessing choked children. But nobody was choked; and when in the early days of the following week there were in nearly every cottage pangs being assuaged, they were so naturally the consequence of the strange things that had been eaten that only Mrs. Morrison was able to see in them weapons being wielded by Providence in the cause of eternal right. She, however, saw it so plainly that each time during the next few days that a worried mother came and asked advice, she left her work or her meals without a murmur, and went to the castor-oil cupboard with an alacrity that was almost cheerful; and seldom, I suppose, have such big doses been supplied and administered as the ones she prescribed for suffering Symford.
But on this dark side of the picture I do not care to look; the party, anyhow, had been a great success, and Priscilla became at one stroke as popular among the poor of Symford as she had been in Lothen-Kunitz. Its success it is true was chiefly owing to the immense variety of things to eat she had provided; for the conjuror, merry-go-round, and cocoa-nuts to be shied at that she had told young Vickerton to bring with him from Minehead, had all been abandoned on Tussie's earnest advice, who instructed her innocent German mind that these amusements, undoubtedly admirable in themselves and on week days, were looked upon askance in England on Sundays.
"Why?" asked Priscilla, in great surprise.
"It's not keeping the day holy," said Tussie, blushing.
"How funny," said Priscilla.
"Oh, I don't know."
"Why," said Priscilla, "in Kun--" but she pulled herself up just as she was about to give him a description of the varied nature of Sunday afternoons in Kunitz.
"You must have noticed," said Tussie, "as you have lived so long in London, that everything's shut on Sundays. There are no theatres and things--certainly no cocoa-nuts."
"No, I don't remember any cocoa-nuts," mused Priscilla, her memory going over those past Sundays she had spent in England.
Tussie tried to make amends for having obstructed her plans by exerting himself to the utmost to entertain the children as far as decorum allowed. He encouraged them to sing, he who felt every ugliness in sound like a blow; he urged them to recite for prizes of sixpences, he on whose soul Casabianca and Excelsior had much the effect of scourges on a tender skin; he led them out into a field between tea and supper and made them run races, himself setting the example, he who caught cold so easily that he knew it probably meant a week in bed. Robin helped too, but his exertions were confined to the near neighbourhood of Priscilla. His mother had been very angry with him, and he had been very angry with his mother for being angry, and he had come away from the vicarage with a bad taste in his mouth and a great defiance in his heart. It was the first time he had said hard things to her, and it had been a shocking moment,--a moment sometimes inevitable in the lives of parents and children of strong character and opposed desires. He had found himself quite unable in his anger to clothe his hard sayings in forms of speech that would have hidden their brutal force, and he had turned his back at last on her answering bitterness and fled to Baker's, thankful to find when he got there that Priscilla's beauty and the interest of the mystery that hung about her wiped out every other remembrance.
Priscilla was in the big farm kitchen, looking on at the children having tea. That was all she did at her party, except go round every now and then saying pleasant little things to each child; but this going round was done in so accomplished a manner, she seemed so used to it, was so well provided with an apparently endless supply of appropriate remarks, was so kind, and yet so--what was the word? could it be mechanical?--that Robin for the hundredth time found himself pondering over something odd, half-remembered, elusive about the girl. Then there was the uncle; manifestly a man who had never before been required to assist at a school-treat, manifestly on this occasion an unhappy man, yet look how he worked while she sat idly watching, look how he laboured round with cakes and bread-and-butter, clumsily, strenuously, with all the heat and anxiety of one eager to please and obey. Yes, that was what he did; Robin had hit on it at last. This extraordinary uncle obeyed his niece; and Robin knew very well that Germany was the last country in the world to produce men who did that. Had he not a cousin who had married a German officer? A whilom gay and sprightly cousin, who spent her time, as she dolefully wrote, having her mind weeded of its green growth of little opinions and gravelled and rolled and stamped with the opinions of her male relations-in-law. "And I'd rather have weeds than gravel," she wrote at the beginning of this process when she was still restive under the roller, "for they at least are green." But long ago she had left off complaining, long ago she too had entered into the rest that remaineth for him who has given up, who has become what men praise as reasonable and gods deplore as dull, who is tired of bothering, tired of trying, tired of everything but sleep. Then there was the girl's maid. This was the first time Robin had seen her; and while she was helping Mrs. Pearce pour out cups of chocolate and put a heaped spoonful of whipped cream on the top of each cup in the fashion familiar to Germans and altogether lovely in the eyes of the children of Symford, Robin went to her and offered help.
Annalise looked at him with heavy eyes, and shook her head.
"She don't speak no English, sir," explained Mrs. Pearce. "This one's pure heathen."
"No English," echoed Annalise drearily, who had at least learned that much, "no English, no English."
Robin gathered up his crumbs of German and presented them to her with a smile. Immediately on hearing her own tongue she flared into life, and whipping out a little pocket-book and pencil asked him eagerly where she was.
"Where you are?" repeated Robin, astonished.
"Ja, Ja. The address. This address. What is it? Where am I?"
"What, don't you know?"
"Tell me--quick," begged Annalise.
"But why--I don't understand. You must know you are in England?"
"England! Naturally I know it is England. But this--where is it? What is its address? For letters to reach me? Quick--tell me quick!"
Robin, however, would not be quick. "Why has no one told you?" he asked, with an immense curiosity.
"Ach, I have not been told. I know nothing. I am kept in the dark like--like a prisoner." And Annalise dragged her handkerchief out of her pocket, and put it to her eyes just in time to stop her ready tears from falling into the whipped cream and spoiling it.
"There she goes again," sniffed Mrs. Pearce. "It's cry, cry, from morning till night, and nothing good enough for her. It's a mercy she goes out of this to-morrow. I never see such an image."
"Tell me," implored Annalise, "tell me quick, before my mistress--"
"I'll write it for you," said Robin, taking the note-book from her. "You know you go into a cottage next week, so I'll put your new address." And he wrote it in a large round hand and gave it to her quickly, for Mrs. Pearce was listening to all this German and watching him write with a look that made him feel cheap. So cheap did it make him feel that he resisted for the present his desire to go on questioning Annalise, and putting his hands in his pockets sauntered away to the other end of the kitchen where Priscilla sat looking on. "I'm afraid that really was cheap of me," he thought ruefully, when he came once more into Priscilla's sweet presence; but he comforted himself with the reflection that no girl ought to be mysterious, and if this one chose to be so it was fair to cross her plans occasionally. Yet he went on feeling cheap; and when Tussie who was hurrying along with a cup of chocolate in each hand ran into him and spilt some on his sleeve the sudden rage with which he said "Confound you, Tussie," had little to do with the hot stuff soaking through to his skin and a great deal with the conviction that Tussie, despised from their common childhood for his weakness, smallness and ugliness, would never have done what he had just done and betrayed what the girl had chosen to keep secret from her maid.
"But why secret? Why? Why?" asked Robin, torn with desire to find out all about Priscilla.
"I'm going to do this often," said Priscilla, looking up at him with a pleased smile. "I never saw such easily amused little creatures. Don't you think it is beautiful, to give poor people a few happy moments sometimes?"
"Very beautiful," said Robin, his eyes on her face.
"It is what I mean to do in future," she said dreamily, her chin on her hand.
"It will be expensive," remarked Robin; for there were nearly two hundred children, and Priscilla had collected the strangest things in food on the long tables as a result of her method, when inviting, of asking each mother what her child best liked to eat and then ordering it with the lavishness of ignorance from Minehead.
"Oh, we shall live so simply ourselves that there will be enough left to do all I want. And it will be the most blessed change and refreshment, living simply. Fritzi hated the fuss and luxury quite as much as I did."
"Did he?" said Robin, holding his breath. The girl was evidently off her guard. He had not heard her call her uncle baldly Fritzi before; and what fuss and luxury could a German teacher's life have known?
"He it was who first made me see that the body is more than meat and the soul than raiment," mused Priscilla.
"He pulled my soul out of the flesh-pots. I'm a sort of Israel come out of Egypt, but an Egypt that was altogether too comfortable."
"Too comfortable? Can one be too comfortable?"
"I was. I couldn't move or see or breathe for comfort. It was like a feather bed all over me."
"I wouldn't call that comfort," said Robin, for she paused, and he was afraid she was not going on. "It sounds much more like torture."
"So it was at last. And Fritzi helped me to shake it off. If he hadn't I'd have smothered slowly, and perhaps if I'd never known him I'd have done it as gracefully as my sisters did. Why, they don't know to this day that they are dead."
Robin was silent. He was afraid to speak lest anything he said should remind her of the part she ought to be playing. He had no doubt now at all that she was keeping a secret. A hundred questions were burning on his lips. He hated himself for wanting to ask them, for being so inquisitive, for taking advantage of the girl's being off her guard, but what are you to do with your inherited failings? Robin's mother was inquisitive and it had got into his blood, and I know of no moral magnesia that will purify these things away. "You said the other day," he burst out at last, quite unable to stop himself, "that you only had your uncle in the world. Are your sisters--are they in London?"
"In London?" Priscilla gazed at him a moment with a vague surprise. Then fright flashed into her eyes. "Did I not tell you they were dead? Smothered?" she said, getting up quickly, her face setting into the frown that had so chilled Tussie on the heath.
"But I took that as a parable."
"How can I help how you took it?"
And she instantly left him and went away round the tables, beginning those little pleasant observations to the children again that struck him as so strange.
Well did he know the sort of thing. He had seen Lady Shuttleworth do it fifty times to the tenants, to the cottagers, at flower-shows, bazaars, on all occasions of public hospitality or ceremony; but practised and old as Lady Shuttleworth was this girl seemed yet more practised. She was a finished artist in the work, he said to himself as he leaned against the wall, his handsome face flushed, his eyes sulky, watching her. It was enough to make any good-looking young man sulky, the mixture of mystery and aloofness about Miss Neumann-Schultz. Extraordinary as it seemed, up to this point he had found it quite impossible to indulge with her in that form of more or less illustrated dialogue known to Symford youths and maidens as billing and cooing. Very fain would Robin have billed and have cooed. It was a practice he excelled in. And yet though he had devoted himself for three whole days, stood on ladders, nailed up creepers, bought and carried rum, had a horrible scene with his mother because of her, he had not got an inch nearer things personal and cosy. Miss Neumann-Schultz thanked him quite kindly and graciously for his pains--oh, she was very gracious; gracious in the sort of way Lady Shuttleworth used to be when he came home for the holidays and she patted his head and uttered benignities--and having thanked, apparently forgot him till the next time she wanted anything.
"Fritzi," said Priscilla, when in the course of her progress down the room she met that burdened man, "I'm dreadfully afraid I've said some foolish things."
Fritzing put the plate of cake he was carrying down on a dresser and wiped his forehead. "Ma'am," he said looking worried, "I cannot watch you and administer food to these barbarians simultaneously. If your tongue is so unruly I would recommend complete silence."
"I've said something about my sisters."
"Sisters, ma'am?" said Fritzing anxiously.
"Does it matter?"
"Matter? I have carefully instructed the woman Pearce, who has certainly informed, as I intended she should inform, the entire village, that you were my brother's only child. Consequently, ma'am, you have no sisters."
Priscilla made a gesture of despair. "How fearfully difficult it is not to be straightforward," she said.
"Yes, ma'am, it is. Since we started on this adventure the whole race of rogues has become the object of my sincerest admiration. What wits, what quickness, what gifts--so varied and so deftly used--what skill in deception, what resourcefulness in danger, what self-command--"
"Yes but Fritzi what are we to do?"
"Do, ma'am? About your royal sisters? Would to heaven I had been born a rogue!"
"Yes, but as you were not--ought I to go back and say they're only half-sisters? Or step-sisters? Or sisters in law? Wouldn't that do?"
"With whom were you speaking?"
"Ma'am, let me beg you to be more prudent with that youth than with any one. Our young friend Caesar Augustus is I believe harmlessness itself compared with him. Be on your guard, ma'am. Curb that fatal feminine appendage, your tongue. I have remarked that he watches us. But a short time since I saw him eagerly conversing with your Grand Ducal Highness's maid. For me he has already laid several traps that I have only just escaped falling into by an extraordinary presence of mind and a nimbleness in dialectic almost worthy of a born rogue."
"Oh Fritzi," said the frightened Priscilla, laying her hand on his sleeve, "do go and tell him I didn't mean what I said."
Fritzing wiped his brow again. "I fail to understand," he said, looking at Priscilla with worried eyes, "what there is about us that can possibly attract any one's attention."
"Why, there isn't anything," said Priscilla, with conviction. "We've been most careful and clever. But just now--I don't know why--I began to think aloud."
"Think aloud?" exclaimed Fritzing, horrified. "Oh ma'am let me beseech you never again to do that. Better a thousand times not to think at all. What was it that your Grand Ducal Highness thought aloud?"
And Priscilla, shamefaced, told him as well as she could remember.
"I will endeavour to remedy it," said poor Fritzing, running an agitated hand through his hair.
Priscilla sighed, and stood drooping and penitent by the dresser while he went down the room to where Robin still leaned against the wall.
"Sir," said Fritzing--he never called Robin young man, as he did Tussie--"my niece tells me you are unable to distinguish truth from parable."
"What?" said Robin staring.
"You are not, sir, to suppose that when my niece described her sisters as dead that they are not really so."
"All right sir," said Robin, his eyes beginning to twinkle.
"The only portion of the story in which my niece used allegory was when she described them as having been smothered. These young ladies, sir, died in the ordinary way, in their beds."
"Feather beds, sir?" asked Robin briskly.
"Sir, I have not inquired into the nature of the beds," said Fritzing with severity.
"Is it not rather unusual," asked Robin, "for two young ladies in one family to die at once? Were they unhealthy young ladies?"
"Sir, they did not die at once, nor were they unhealthy. They were perfectly healthy until they--until they began to die."
"Indeed," said Robin, with an interest properly tinged with regret. "At least, sir," he added politely, after a pause in which he and Fritzing stared very hard at each other, "I trust I may be permitted to express my sympathy."
"Sir, you may." And bowing stiffly Fritzing returned to Priscilla, and with a sigh of relief informed her that he had made things right again.
"Dear Fritzi," said Priscilla looking at him with love and admiration, "how clever you are."