The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
The first evening in Creeper Cottage was unpleasant. There was a blazing wood fire, the curtains were drawn, the lamp shone rosily through its red shade, and when Priscilla stood up her hair dusted the oak beams of the ceiling, it was so low. The background, you see, was perfectly satisfactory; exactly what a cottage background should be on an autumn night when outside a wet mist is hanging like a grey curtain across the window panes; and Tussie arriving at nine o'clock to help consecrate the new life with Shakespeare felt, as he opened the door and walked out of the darkness into the rosy, cosy little room, that he need not after all worry himself with doubts as to the divine girl's being comfortable. Never did place appear more comfortable. It did not occur to him that a lamp with a red shade and the blaze of a wood fire will make any place appear comfortable so long as they go on shining, and he looked up at Priscilla--I am afraid he had to look up at her when they were both standing--with the broadest smile of genuine pleasure. "It does look jolly," he said heartily.
His pleasure was doomed to an immediate wiping out. Priscilla smiled, but with a reservation behind her smile that his sensitive spirit felt at once. She was alone, and there was no sign whatever either of her uncle or of preparations for the reading of Shakespeare.
"Is anything not quite right?" Tussie asked, his face falling at once to an anxious pucker.
Priscilla looked at him and smiled again, but this time the smile was real, in her eyes as well as on her lips, dancing in them together with the flickering firelight. "It's rather funny," she said. "It has never happened to me before. What do you think? I'm hungry."
Tussie stared, arrested in the unwinding of his comforter.
"Really hungry. Dreadfully hungry. So hungry that I hate Shakespeare."
"I know. You're going to say why not eat? It does seem simple. But you've no idea how difficult it really is. I'm afraid my uncle and I have rather heaps to learn. We forgot to get a cook."
"A cook? But I thought--I understood that curtseying maid of yours was going to do all that?"
"So did I. So did he. But she won't."
Priscilla flushed, for since Tussie left after tea she had had grievous surprises, of a kind that made her first indignant and then inclined to wince. Fritzing had not been able to hide from her that Annalise had rebelled and refused to cook, and Priscilla had not been able to follow her immediate impulse and dismiss her. It was at this point, when she realized this, that the wincing began. She felt perfectly sick at the thought, flashed upon her for the first time, that she was in the power of a servant.
"Do you mean to say," said Tussie in a voice hollow with consternation, "that you've had no dinner?"
"Dinner? In a cottage? Why of course there was no dinner. There never will be any dinner--at night, at least. But the tragic thing is there was no supper. We didn't think of it till we began to get hungry. Annalise began first. She got hungry at six o'clock, and said something to Fritz--my uncle about it, but he wasn't hungry himself then and so he snubbed her. Now he is hungry himself, and he's gone out to see if he can't find a cook. It's very stupid. There's nothing in the house. Annalise ate the bread and things she found. She's upstairs now, crying." And Priscilla's lips twitched as she looked at Tussie's concerned face, and she began to laugh.
He seized his hat. "I'll go and get you something," he said, dashing at the door.
"I can't think what, at this time of the night. The only shop shuts at seven."
"I'll make them open it."
"They go to bed at nine."
"I'll get them out of bed if I have to shie stones at their windows all night."
"Don't go without your coat--you'll catch a most frightful cold."
He put his arm through the door to take it, and vanished in the fog. He did not put on the coat in his agitation, but kept it over his arm. His comforter stayed in Priscilla's parlour, on the chair where he had flung it. He was in evening dress, and his throat was sore already with the cold that was coming on and that he had caught, as he expected, running races on the Sunday at Priscilla's children's party.
Priscilla went back to her seat by the fire, and thought very hard about things like bread. It would of course be impossible that she should have reached this state of famine only because one meal had been missed; but she had eaten nothing all day,--disliked the Baker's Farm breakfast too much even to look at it, forgotten the Baker's Farm dinner because she was just moving into her cottage, and at tea had been too greatly upset by the unexpected appearance of her father on the wall to care to eat the bread and butter Annalise brought in. Now she was in that state when you tremble and feel cold. She had told Annalise, about half-past seven, to bring her the bread left from tea, but Annalise had eaten it. At half-past eight she had told Annalise to bring her the sugar, for she had read somewhere that if you eat enough sugar it takes away the desire even of the hungriest for other food, but Annalise, who had eaten the sugar as well, said that the Herr Geheimrath must have eaten it. It certainly was not there, and neither was the Herr Geheimrath to defend himself; since half-past seven he had been out looking for a cook, his mind pervaded by the idea that if only he could get a cook food would follow in her wake as naturally as flowers follow after rain. Priscilla fretting in her chair that he should stay away so long saw very clearly that no cook could help them. What is the use of a cook in a house where there is nothing to cook? If only Fritzing would come back quickly with a great many loaves of bread! The door was opened a little way and somebody's knuckles knocked. She thought it was Tussie, quick and clever as ever, and in a voice full of welcome told him to come in; upon which in stepped Robin Morrison very briskly, delighted by the warmth of the invitation. "Why now this is nice," said Robin, all smiles.
Priscilla did not move and did not offer to shake hands, so he stood on the hearthrug and spread out his own to the blaze, looking down at her with bright, audacious eyes. He thought he had not yet seen her so beautiful. There was an extraordinary depth and mystery in her look, he thought, as it rested for a moment on his face, and she had never yet dropped her eyelashes as she now did when her eyes met his. We know she was very hungry, and there was no strength in her at all. Not only did her eyelashes drop, but her head as well, and her hands hung helplessly, like drooping white flowers, one over each arm of the chair.
"I came in to ask Mr. Neumann-Schultz if there's anything I can do for you," said Robin.
"Did you? He lives next door."
"I know. I knocked there first, but he didn't answer so I thought he must be here."
Priscilla said nothing. At any other time she would have snubbed Robin and got rid of him. Now she merely sat and drooped.
"Has he gone out?"
Her voice was very low, hardly more than a whisper. Those who know the faintness of hunger at this stage will also know the pathos that steals into the voice of the sufferer when he is unwillingly made to speak; it becomes plaintive, melodious with yearning, the yearning for food. But if you do not know this, if you have yourself just come from dinner, if you are half in love and want the other person to be quite in love, if you are full of faith in your own fascinations, you are apt to fall into Robin's error and mistake the nature of the yearning. Tussie in Robin's place would have doubted the evidence of his senses, but then Tussie was very modest. Robin doubted nothing. He saw, he heard, and he thrilled; and underneath his thrilling, which was real enough to make him flush to the roots of his hair, far down underneath it was the swift contemptuous comment, "They're all alike."
Priscilla shut her eyes. She was listening for the first sound of Tussie's or Fritzing's footfall, the glad sound heralding the approach of something to eat, and wishing Robin would go away. He was kind at times and obliging, but on the whole a nuisance. It was a great pity there were so many people in the world who were nuisances and did not know it. Somebody ought to tell them,--their mothers, or other useful persons of that sort. She vaguely decided that the next time she met Robin and was strengthened properly by food she would say a few things to him from which recovery would take a long while.
"Are you--not well?" Robin asked, after a silence during which his eyes never left her and hers were shut; and even to himself his voice sounded deeper, more intense than usual.
"Oh yes," murmured Priscilla with a little sigh.
Happy? Can anybody who is supperless, dinnerless, breakfastless, be happy, Priscilla wondered? But the question struck her as funny, and the vibrating tones in which it was asked struck her as rather funny too, and she opened her eyes for a moment to look up at Robin with a smile of amusement--a smile that she could not guess was turned by the hunger within her into something wistful and tremulous. "Yes," said Priscilla in that strange pathetic voice, "I--think so." And after a brief glance at him down went her weary eyelids again.
The next thing that happened was that Robin, who was trembling, kissed her hand. This she let him do with perfect placidity. Every German woman is used to having her hand kissed. It is kissed on meeting, it is kissed on parting, it is kissed at a great many odd times in between; she holds it up mechanically when she comes across a male acquaintance; she is never surprised at the ceremony; the only thing that surprises her is if it is left out. Priscilla then simply thought Robin was going. "What a mercy," she said to herself, glancing at him a moment through her eyelashes. But Robin was not used to hand-kissing and saw things in a very different light. He felt she made no attempt to draw her hand away, he heard her murmuring something inarticulate--it was merely Good-bye--he was hurled along to his doom; and stooping over her the unfortunate young man kissed her hair.
Priscilla opened her eyes suddenly and very wide. I don't know what folly he would have perpetrated next, or what sillinesses were on the tip of his tongue, or what meaning he still chose to read in her look, but an instant afterwards he was brought down for ever from the giddy heights of his illusions: Priscilla boxed his ears.
I am sorry to have to record it. It is always sweeter if a woman does not box ears. The action is shrewish, benighted, mediaeval, nay, barbarous; and this box was a very hard one indeed, extraordinarily hard for so little a hand and so fasting a girl. But we know she had twice already been on the verge of doing it; and the pent-up vigour of what the policeman had not got and what the mother in the train had not got was added I imagine to what Robin got. Anyhow it was efficacious. There was an exclamation--I think of surprise, for surely a young man would not have minded the pain?--and he put his hand up quickly to his face. Priscilla got up just as quickly out of her chair and rang the handbell furiously, her eyes on his, her face ablaze. Annalise must have thrown herself down the ladder, for they hardly seemed to have been standing there an instant face to face, their eyes on a level, he scarlet, she white, both deadly silent, before the maid was in the room.
"This person has insulted me," said Priscilla, turning to her and pointing at Robin. "He never comes here again. Don't let me find you forgetting that," she added, frowning at the girl; for she remembered they had been seen talking eagerly together at the children's treat.
"I never"--began Robin.
"Will you go?"
Annalise opened the door for him. He went out, and she shut it behind him. Then she walked sedately across the room again, looking sideways at the Princess, who took no notice of her but stood motionless by the table gazing straight before her, her lips compressed, her face set in a kind of frozen white rage, and having got into the bathroom Annalise began to run. She ran out at the back door, in again at Fritzing's back door, out at his front door into the street, and caught up Robin as he was turning down the lane to the vicarage. "What have you done?" she asked him breathlessly, in German.
"Done?" Robin threw back his head and laughed quite loud.
"Sh--sh," said Annalise, glancing back fearfully over her shoulder.
"Done?" said Robin, subduing his bitter mirth. "What do you suppose I've done? I've done what any man would have in my place--encouraged, almost asked to do it. I kissed your young lady, liebes Fraeulein, and she pretended not to like it. Now isn't that what a sensible girl like you would call absurd?"
But Annalise started back from the hand he held out to her in genuine horror. "What?" she cried, "What?"
"What? What?" mocked Robin. "Well then, what? Are you all such prudes in Germany? Even you pretending, you little hypocrite?"
"Oh," cried Annalise hysterically, pushing him away with both her hands, "what have you done? Elender Junge, what have you done?"
"I think you must all be mad," said Robin angrily. "You can't persuade me that nobody ever kisses anybody over in Germany."
"Oh yes they do--oh yes they do," cried Annalise, wringing her hands, "but neither there nor anywhere else--in England, anywhere in the world--do the sons of pastors--the sons of pastors--" She seemed to struggle for breath, and twisted and untwisted her apron round her hands in a storm of agitation while Robin, utterly astonished, stared at her--"Neither there nor anywhere else do they--the sons of pastors--kiss--kiss royal princesses."
It was now Robin's turn to say "What?"