The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
It was on the Tuesday, the day Priscilla and Fritzing left Baker's and moved into Creeper Cottage, that the fickle goddess who had let them nestle for more than a week beneath her wing got tired of them and shook them out. Perhaps she was vexed by their clumsiness at pretending, perhaps she thought she had done more than enough for them, perhaps she was an epicure in words and did not like a cottage called Creeper; anyhow she shook them out. And if they had had eyes to see they would not have walked into their new home with such sighs of satisfaction and such a comfortable feeling that now at last the era of systematic serenity and self-realization, beautifully combined with the daily exercise of charity, had begun; for waiting for them in Priscilla's parlour, established indeed in her easy-chair by the fire and warming her miserable toes on the very hob, sat grey Ill Luck horribly squinting.
Creeper Cottage, it will be remembered, consisted of two cottages, each with two rooms, an attic, and a kitchen, and in the back yard the further accommodation of a coal-hole, a pig-stye, and a pump. Thanks to Tussie's efforts more furniture had been got from Minehead. Tussie had gone in himself, after a skilful questioning of Fritzing had made him realize how little had been ordered, and had, with Fritzing's permission, put the whole thing into the hands of a Minehead firm. Thus there was a bed for Annalise and sheets for everybody, and the place was as decent as it could be made in the time. It was so tiny that it got done, after a great deal of urging from Tussie, by the Tuesday at midday, and Tussie himself had superintended the storing of wood in the coal-hole and the lighting of the fire that was to warm his divine lady and that Ill Luck found so comforting to her toes. The Shuttleworth horses had a busy time on the Friday, Saturday, and Monday, trotting up and down between Symford and Minehead; and the Shuttleworth servants and tenants, not being more blind than other people, saw very well that their Augustus had lost his heart to the lady from nowhere. As for Lady Shuttleworth, she only smiled a rueful smile and stroked her poor Tussie's hair in silence when, having murmured something about the horses being tired, he reproved her by telling her that it was everybody's duty to do what they could for strangers in difficulties.
Priscilla's side of Creeper Cottage was the end abutting on the churchyard, and her parlour had one latticed window looking south down the village street, and one looking west opening directly on to the churchyard. The long grass of the churchyard, its dandelions and daisies, grew right up beneath this window to her wall, and a tall tombstone half-blocked her view of the elm-trees and the church. Over this room, with the same romantic and gloomy outlook, was her bedroom. Behind her parlour was what had been the shoemaker's kitchen, but it had been turned into a temporary bathroom. True no water was laid on as yet, but the pump was just outside, and nobody thought there would be any difficulty about filling the bath every morning by means of the pump combined with buckets. Over the bathroom was the attic. This was Annalise's bedroom. Nobody thought there would be any difficulty about that either; nobody, in fact, thought anything about anything. It was a simple place, after the manner of attics, with a window in its sloping ceiling through which stars might be studied with great comfort as one lay in bed. A frugal mind, an earnest soul, would have liked the attic, would have found a healthy enjoyment in a place so plain and fresh, so swept in windy weather by the airs of heaven. A poet, too, would certainly have flooded any parts of it that seemed dark with the splendour of his own inner light; a nature-lover, again, would have quickly discovered the spiders that dwelt in its corners, and spent profitable hours on all fours observing them. But an Annalise--what was she to make of such a place? Is it not true that the less a person has inside him of culture and imagination the more he wants outside him of the upholstery of life? I think it is true; and if it is, then the vacancy of Annalise's mind may be measured by the fact that what she demanded of life in return for the negative services of not crying and wringing her hands was nothing less filled with food and sofas and servants than a grand ducal palace.
But neither Priscilla nor Fritzing knew anything of Annalise's mind, and if they had they would instantly have forgotten it again, of such extreme unimportance would it have seemed. Nor would I dwell on it myself if it were not that its very vacancy and smallness was the cause of huge upheavals in Creeper Cottage, and the stone that the builders ignored if they did not actually reject behaved as such stones sometimes do and came down upon the builders' heads and crushed them. Annalise, you see, was unable to appreciate peace, yet on the other hand she was very able to destroy the peace of other people; and Priscilla meant her cottage to be so peaceful--a temple, a holy place, within whose quiet walls sacred years were going to be spent in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly. True she had not as yet made a nearer acquaintance with its inconveniences, but anyhow she held the theory that inconveniences were things to be laughed at and somehow circumvented, and that they do not enter into the consideration of persons whose thoughts are absorbed by the burning desire to live out their ideals. "You can be happy in any place whatever," she remarked to Tussie on the Monday, when he was expressing fears as to her future comfort; "absolutely any place will do--a tub, a dingle, the top of a pillar--any place at all, if only your soul is on fire."
"Of course you can," cried Tussie, ready to kiss her feet.
"And look how comfortable my cottage seems," said Priscilla, "directly one compares it with things like tubs."
"Yes, yes," agreed Tussie, "I do see that it's enough for free spirits to live in. I was only wondering whether--whether bodies would find it enough."
"Oh bother bodies," said Priscilla airily.
But Tussie could not bring himself to bother bodies if they included her own; on the contrary, the infatuated young man thought it would be difficult sufficiently to cherish a thing so supremely precious and sweet. And each time he went home after having been in the frugal baldness of Creeper Cottage he hated the superfluities of his own house more and more, he accused himself louder and louder of being mean-spirited, effeminate, soft, vulgar, he loathed himself for living embedded in such luxury while she, the dear and lovely one, was ready cheerfully to pack her beauty into a tub if needs be, or let it be weather-beaten on a pillar for thirty years if by so doing she could save her soul alive. Tussie at this time became unable to see a sleek servant dart to help him take off his coat without saying something sharp to him, could not sit through a meal without making bitter comparisons between what they were eating and what the poor were probably eating, could not walk up his spacious staircase and along his lofty corridors without scowling; they, indeed, roused his contemptuous wrath in quite a special degree, the reason being that Priscilla's stairs, the stairs up and down which her little feet would have to clamber daily, were like a ladder, and she possessed no passages at all. But what of that? Priscilla could not see that it mattered, when Tussie drew her attention to it.
Both Fritzing's and her front door opened straight into their sitting-rooms; both their staircases walked straight from the kitchens up into the rooms above. They had meant to have a door knocked in the dividing wall downstairs, but had been so anxious to get away from Baker's that there was no time. In order therefore to get to Fritzing Priscilla would have either to go out into the street and in again at his front door, or go out at her back door and in again at his. Any meals, too, she might choose to have served alone would have to be carried round to her from the kitchen in Fritzing's half, either through the backyard or through the street.
Tussie thought of this each time he sat at his own meals, surrounded by deft menials, lapped as he told himself in luxury,--oh, thought Tussie writhing, it was base. His much-tried mother had to listen to many a cross and cryptic remark flung across the table from the dear boy who had always been so gentle; and more than that, he put his foot down once and for all and refused with a flatness that silenced her to eat any more patent foods. "Absurd," cried Tussie. "No wonder I'm such an idiot. Who could be anything else with his stomach full of starch? Why, I believe the stuff has filled my veins with milk instead of good honest blood."
"Dearest, I'll have it thrown out of the nearest window," said Lady Shuttleworth, smiling bravely in her poor Tussie's small cross face. "But what shall I give you instead? You know you won't eat meat."
"Give me lentils," cried Tussie. "They're cheap."
"Mother, I do think it offensive to spend much on what goes into or onto one's body. Why not have fewer things, and give the rest to the poor?"
"But I do give the rest to the poor; I'm always doing it. And there's quite enough for us and for the poor too."
"Give them more, then. Why," fumed Tussie, "can't we live decently? Hasn't it struck you that we're very vulgar?"
"No, dearest, I can't say that it has."
"Well, we are. Everything we have that is beyond bare necessaries makes us vulgar. And surely, mother, you do see that that's not a nice thing to be."
"It's a horrid thing to be," said his mother, arranging his tie with an immense and lingering tenderness.
"It's a difficult thing not to be," said Tussie, "if one is rich. Hasn't it struck you that this ridiculous big house, and the masses of things in it, and the whole place and all the money will inevitably end by crushing us both out of heaven?"
"No, I can't say it has. I expect you've been thinking of things like the eyes of needles and camels having to go through them," said his mother, still patting and stroking his tie.
"Well, that's terrifically true," mused Tussie, reflecting ruefully on the size and weight of the money-bags that were dragging him down into darkness. Then he added suddenly, "Will you have a small bed--a little iron one--put in my bedroom?"
"A small bed? But there's a bed there already, dear."
"That big thing's only fit for a sick woman. I won't wallow in it any longer."
"But dearest, all your forefathers wallowed, as you call it, in it. Doesn't it seem rather--a pity not to carry on traditions?"
"Well mother be kind and dear, and let me depart in peace from them. A camp bed,--that's what I'd like. Shall I order it, or will you? And did I tell you I've given Bryce the sack?"
"Bryce? Why, what has he done?"
"Oh he hasn't done anything that I know of, except make a sort of doll or baby of me. Why should I be put into my clothes and taken out of them again as though I hadn't been weaned yet?"
Now all this was very bad, but the greatest blow for Lady Shuttleworth fell when Tussie declared that he would not come of age. The cheerful face with which his mother had managed to listen to his other defiances went very blank at that; do what she would she could not prevent its falling. "Not come of age?" she repeated stupidly. "But my darling, you can't help yourself--you must come of age."
"Oh I know I can't help being twenty-one and coming into all this"--and he waved contemptuous arms--"but I won't do it blatantly."
"I--I don't understand," faltered Lady Shuttleworth.
"There mustn't be any fuss, mother."
"Do you mean no one is to come?"
"No one at all, except the tenants and people. Of course they are to have their fun--I'll see that they have a jolly good time. But I won't have our own set and the relations."
"Tussie, they've all accepted."
"Send round circulars."
"Tussie, you are putting me in a most painful position."
"Dear mother, I'm very sorry for that. I wish I'd thought like this sooner. But really the idea is so revolting to me--it's so sickening to think of all these people coming to pretend to rejoice over a worm like myself."
"Tussle, you are not a worm."
"And then the expense and waste of entertaining them--the dreariness, the boredom--oh, I wish I only possessed a tub--one single tub--or had the pluck to live like Lavengro in a dingle."
"It's quite impossible to stop it now," interrupted Lady Shuttleworth in the greatest distress; of Lavengro she had never heard.
"Yes you can, mother. Write and put it off."
"Write? What could I write? To-day is Tuesday, and they all arrive on Friday. What excuse can I make at the last moment? And how can a birthday be put off? My dearest boy, I simply can't." And Lady Shuttleworth, the sensible, the cheery, the resourceful, the perennially brave, wrung her hands and began quite helplessly to cry.
This unusual and pitiful sight at once conquered Tussie. For a moment he stood aghast; then his arms were round his mother, and he promised everything she wanted. What he said to her besides and what she sobbed back to him I shall not tell. They never spoke of it again; but for years they both looked back to it, that precious moment of clinging together with bursting hearts, her old cheek against his young one, her tears on his face, as to one of the most acutely sweet, acutely, painfully, tender experiences of their joint lives.
It will be conceded that Priscilla had achieved a good deal in the one week that had passed since she laid aside her high estate and stepped down among ordinary people for the purpose of being and doing good. She had brought violent discord into a hitherto peaceful vicarage, thwarted the hopes of a mother, been the cause of a bitter quarrel between her and her son, brought out by her mysteriousness a prying tendency in the son that might have gone on sleeping for ever, entirely upset the amiable Tussie's life by rending him asunder with a love as strong as it was necessarily hopeless, made his mother anxious and unhappy, and, what was perhaps the greatest achievement of all, actually succeeded in making that mother cry. For of course Priscilla was the ultimate cause of these unusual tears, as Lady Shuttleworth very well knew. Lady Shuttleworth was the deceased Sir Augustus's second wife, had married him when she was over forty and well out of the crying stage, which in the busy does not last beyond childhood, had lost him soon after Tussie's birth, had cried copiously and most properly at his funeral, and had not cried since. It was then undoubtedly a great achievement on the part of the young lady from nowhere, this wringing of tears out of eyes that had been dry for one and twenty years. But the list of what Priscilla had done does not end with this havoc among mothers. Had she not interrupted the decent course of Mrs. Jones's dying, and snatched her back to a hankering after the unfit? Had she not taught the entire village to break the Sabbath? Had she not made all its children either sick or cross under the pretence of giving them a treat? On the Monday she did something else that was equally well-meaning, and yet, as I shall presently relate, of disastrous consequences: she went round the village from cottage to cottage making friends with the children's mothers and leaving behind her, wherever she went, little presents of money. She had found money so extraordinarily efficacious in the comforting of Mrs. Jones that before she started she told Fritzing to fill her purse well, and in each cottage it was made somehow so clear how badly different things were wanted that the purse was empty before she was half round the village and she had to go back for a fresh supply. She was extremely happy that afternoon, and so were the visited mothers. They, indeed, talked of nothing else for the rest of the day, discussed it over their garden hedges, looked in on each other to compare notes, hurried to meet their husbands on their return from work to tell them about it, and were made at one stroke into something very like a colony of eager beggars. And in spite of Priscilla's injunction to Mrs. Jones to hide her five-pound note all Symford knew of that as well, and also of the five-pound note Mrs. Morrison had taken away. Nothing was talked of in Symford but Priscilla. She had in one week created quite a number of disturbances of a nature fruitful for evil in that orderly village; and when on the Tuesday she and Fritzing moved into Creeper Cottage they were objects of the intensest interest to the entire country side, and the report of their riches, their recklessness, and their eccentric choice of a dwelling had rolled over the intervening hills as far as Minehead, where it was the subject of many interesting comments in the local papers.
They got into their cottage about tea time; and the first thing Priscilla did was to exclaim at the pleasant sight of the wood fire and sit down in the easy-chair to warm herself. We know who was sitting in it already; and thus she was received by Bad Luck at once into her very lap, and clutched about securely by that unpleasant lady's cold and skinny arms. She looked up at Fritzing with a shiver to remark wonderingly that the room, in spite of its big fire and its smallness, was like ice, but her lips fell apart in a frozen stare and she gazed blankly past him at the wall behind his head. "Look," she whispered, pointing with a horrified forefinger. And Fritzing, turning quickly, was just in time to snatch a row of cheap coloured portraits from the wall and fling them face downwards under the table before Tussie came in to ask if he could do anything.
The portraits were those of all the reigning princes of Germany and had been put up as a delicate compliment by the representative of the Minehead furnishers, while Priscilla and Fritzing were taking leave of Baker's Farm; and the print Priscilla's eye had lighted on was the portrait of her august parent, smiling at her. He was splendid in state robes and orders, and there was a charger, and an obviously expensive looped-up curtain, and much smoke as of nations furiously raging together in the background, and outside this magnificence meandered the unmeaning rosebuds of Priscilla's cheap wallpaper. His smile seemed very terrible under the circumstances. Fritzing felt this, and seized him and flung him with a desperate energy under the table, where he went on smiling, as Priscilla remembered with a guilty shudder, at nothing but oilcloth. "I don't believe I'll sleep if I know he--he's got nothing he'd like better than oilcloth to look at," she whispered with an awestruck face to Fritzing as Tussie came in.
"I will cause them all to be returned," Fritzing assured her.
"What, have those people sent wrong things?" asked Tussie anxiously, who felt that the entire responsibility of this menage was on his shoulders.
"Oh, only some cheap prints," said Priscilla hastily. "I think they're called oleographs or something."
"What impertinence," said Tussie hotly.
"I expect it was kindly meant, but I--I like my cottage quite plain."
"I'll have them sent back, sir," Tussie said to Fritzing, who was rubbing his hands nervously through his hair; for the sight of his grand ducal master's face smiling at him on whom he would surely never wish to smile again, and doing it, too, from the walls of Creeper Cottage, had given him a shock.
"You are ever helpful, young man," he said, bowing abstractedly and going away to put down his hat and umbrella; and Priscilla, with a cold feeling that she had had a bad omen, rang the handbell Tussie's thoughtfulness had placed on her table and ordered Annalise to bring tea.
Now Annalise had been standing on the threshold of her attic staring at it in an amazement too deep for words when the bell fetched her down. She appeared, however, before her mistress with a composed face, received the order with her customary respectfulness, and sought out Fritzing to inquire of him where the servants were to be found. "Her Grand Ducal Highness desires tea," announced Annalise, appearing in Fritzing's sitting-room, where he was standing absorbed in the bill from the furnishers that he had found lying on his table.
"Then take it in," said Fritzing impatiently, without looking up.
"To whom shall I give the order?" inquired Annalise.
"To whom shall you give the order?" repeated Fritzing, pausing in his study to stare at her, the bill in one hand and his pocket-handkerchief, with which he was mopping his forehead, in the other.
"Where," asked Annalise, "shall I find the cook?"
"Where shall you find the cook?" repeated Fritzing, staring still harder. "This house is so gigantic is it not," he said with an enormous sarcasm, "that no doubt the cook has lost himself. Have you perhaps omitted to investigate the coal-hole?"
"Herr Geheimrath, where shall I find the cook?" asked Annalise tossing her head.
"Fraeulein, is there a mirror in your bedroom?"
"The smallest I ever saw. Only one-half of my face can I see reflected in it at a time."
"Fraeulein, the half of that face you see reflected in it is the half of the face of the cook."
"I do not understand," said Annalise.
"Yet it is as clear as shining after rain. You, mein liebes Kind, are the cook."
It was now Annalise's turn to stare, and she stood for a moment doing it, her face changing from white to red while Fritzing turned his back and taking out a pencil made little sums on the margin of the bill. "Herr Geheimrath, I am not a cook," she said at last, swallowing her indignation.
"What, still there?" he exclaimed, looking up sharply. "Unworthy one, get thee quickly to the kitchen. Is it seemly to keep the Princess waiting?"
"I am not a cook," said Annalise defiantly. "I was not engaged as a cook, I never was a cook, and I will not be a cook."
Fritzing flung down the bill and came and glared close into Annalise's face. "Not a cook?" he cried. "You, a German girl, the daughter of poor parents, you are not ashamed to say it? You do not hide your head for shame? No--a being so useful, so necessary, so worthy of respect as a cook you are not and never will be. I'll tell you what you are,--I've told you once already, and I repeat it--you are a knave, my Fraeulein, a knave, I say. And in those parts of your miserable nature where you are not a knave--for I willingly concede that no man or woman is bad all through--in those parts, I say, where your knavishness is intermittent, you are an absolute, unmitigated fool."
"I will not bear this," cried Annalise.
"Will not! Cannot! Shall not! Inept Negation, get thee to thy kitchen and seek wisdom among the pots."
"I am no one's slave," cried Annalise, "I am no one's prisoner."
"Hark at her! Who said you were? Have I not told you the only two things you are?"
"But I am treated as a prisoner, I am treated as a slave," sobbed Annalise.
"Unmannerly one, how dare you linger talking follies when your royal mistress is waiting for her tea? Run--run! Or must I show you how?"
"Her Grand Ducal Highness," said Annalise, not budging, "told me also to prepare the bath for her this evening."
"Well, what of that?" cried Fritzing, snatching up the bill again and adding up furiously. "Prepare it, then."
"I see no water-taps."
"Woman, there are none."
"How can I prepare a bath without water-taps?"
"O thou Inefficiency! Ineptitude garbed as woman! Must I then teach thee the elements of thy business? Hast thou not observed the pump? Go to it, and draw water. Cause the water to flow into buckets. Carry these buckets--need I go on? Will not Nature herself teach thee what to do with buckets?"
Annalise flushed scarlet. "I will not go to the pump," she said.
"What, you will not carry out her Grand Ducal Highness's orders?"
"I will not go to the pump."
"You refuse to prepare the bath?"
"I will not go to the pump."
"You refuse to prepare the tea?"
"I will not be a cook."
"You are rankly rebellious?"
"I will not sleep in the attic."
"I will not eat the food."
"I will not do the work."
"I will go."
"Go," repeated Annalise, stamping her foot. "I demand my wages, the increased wages that were promised me, and I will go."
"And where, Impudence past believing, will you go, in a country whose tongue you most luckily do not understand?"
Annalise looked up into Fritzing's furious eyes with the challenge of him who flings down his trump card. "Go?" she cried, with a defiance that was blood-curdling in one so small and hitherto so silent, "I will first go to that young gentleman who speaks my language and I will tell him all, and then, with his assistance, I will go straight--but straight, do you hear?"--and she stamped her foot again--"to Lothen-Kunitz."