Chapter XVI
 

He went up to Cambridge the next morning. Term had not begun, but he went; a Robin with all the briskness gone out of him, and if still with something of the bird left only of a bird that is moulting. His father was mildly surprised, but applauded the apparent desire for solitary study. His mother was violently surprised, and tried hard to get at his true reasons. She saw with the piercing eye of a relation--that eye from which hardly anything can ever be hidden--that something had happened and that the something was sobering and unpleasant. She could not imagine what it was, for she did not know he had been to Creeper Cottage the night before and all the afternoon and at dinner he had talked and behaved as usual. Now he did not talk at all, and his behaviour was limited to a hasty packing of portmanteaus. Determined to question him she called him into the study just before he started, and shut the door.

"I must go mater," he said, pulling out his watch; he had carefully avoided her since breakfast though she had laid many traps for him.

"Robin, I want to tell you that I think you splendid."

"Splendid? What on earth for? You were telling me a very different sort of thing a day or two ago."

"I am sorry now for what I said on Sunday."

"I don't think a mother ought ever to say she's sorry," said Robin gloomily.

"Not if she is?"

"She oughtn't to say so."

"Well dear let us be friends. Don't go away angry with me. I do appreciate you so much for going. You are my own dear boy." And she put her hands on his shoulders.

He took out his watch again. "I say, I must be off."

"Don't suppose a mother doesn't see and understand."

"Oh I don't suppose anything. Good-bye mater."

"I think it so splendid of you to go, to turn your back on temptation, to unwind yourself from that wretched girl's coils."

"Coils?"

"My Robin"--she stroked his cheek, the same cheek, as it happened, Priscilla had smitten--"my Robin must not throw himself away. I am ambitious where you are concerned, my darling. It would have broken my heart for you to have married a nobody--perhaps a worse than nobody."

Robin, who was staring at her with an indescribable expression on his face, took her hands off his shoulders. "Look here mater," he said--and he was seized by a desire to laugh terrifically--"there is nothing in the world quite so amusing as the way people will talk wisely of things they don't in the faintest degree understand. They seem to feel wise in proportion to their ignorance. I expect you think that's a funny speech for me to make. I can tell you I don't think it half as funny as yours was. Good-bye. I shall miss my train you know if you keep me, and then I'd be exposed again to those--what was the word? ah, yes--coils. Coils!" He burst into loud laughter. "Good-bye mater."

She was staring at him blankly. He hastily brushed her forehead with his moustache and hurried to the door, his face full of strange mirth. "I say," he said, putting in his head again, "there's just one thing I'd like to say."

She made an eager step towards him. "Do say it my darling--say all that is in your heart."

"Oh it's not much--it's only God help poor Tuss." And that was the last of him. She heard him chuckling all down the passage; but long before his fly had reached Ullerton he had left off doing that and was moulting again.

It rained that day in Somersetshire, a steady, hopeless rain that soaked many a leaf off the trees before its time and made the year look suddenly quite old. From the windows of Creeper Cottage you could see the water running in rivulets down the hill into the deserted village, and wreaths of mist hanging about the downs beyond. The dripping tombstone that blocked Priscilla's window grew danker and blacker as the day went by. The fires in the cottage burnt badly, for the wood had somehow got wet. The oilcloth and the wall-papers looked very dismal in the grey daylight. Rain came in underneath the two front doors and made puddles that nobody wiped away.

Priscilla had got up very late, after a night spent staring into the darkness, and then had sent for Fritzing and told him what Robin had done. The unhappy man's horror will be easily imagined. She was in bed the night before when he came in, quite cured of her hunger and only wanting to be alone with her wrath. Fritzing had found no one in the parlour but Tussie clasping an immense biscuit-tin in his arms, with a face so tragic that Fritzing thought something terrible must have happened. Tussie had returned joyfully, laden with biscuits and sardines, to find the girl standing straight and speechless by the table, her face rigid, her eyes ablaze. She had not so much as glanced at the biscuits; she had not said a single word; her look rested on him a moment as though she did not see him and then she went into the next room and upstairs to bed. He knew she went upstairs to bed for in Creeper Cottage you could hear everything.

Fritzing coming in a few minutes later without the cook he had hoped to find, was glad enough of Tussie's sardines and biscuits--they were ginger biscuits--and while he ate them, abstractedly and together, Tussie looked on and wondered in spite of his wretchedness what the combination could possibly taste like. Then, after a late breakfast on the Wednesday morning, Priscilla sent for Fritzing and told him what Robin had done. The burdened man, so full already of anxieties and worries, was shattered by the blow. "I have always held duelling in extreme contempt," he said when at last he could speak, "but now I shall certainly fight."

"Fight? You? Fritzi, I've only told you because I--I feel so unprotected here and you must keep him off if he ever tries to come again. But you shall not fight. What, first he is to insult me and then hurt or kill my Fritzi? Besides, nobody ever fights duels in England."

"That remains to be seen. I shall now go to his house and insult him steadily for half an hour. At the expiration of that time he will probably be himself anxious to fight. We might go to France--"

"Oh Fritzi don't be so dreadful. Don't go to him--leave him alone--nobody must ever know--"

"I shall now go and insult him," repeated Fritzing with an inflexibility that silenced her.

And she saw him a minute later pass her window under his umbrella, splashing indifferently through all the puddles, battle and destruction in his face.

Robin, however, was at Ullerton by the time Fritzing got to the vicarage. He waved the servant aside when she told him he had gone, and insisted on penetrating into the presence of the young man's father. He waved Mrs. Morrison aside too when she tried to substitute herself for the vicar, and did at last by his stony persistency get into the good man's presence. Not until the vicar himself told him that Robin had gone would Fritzing believe it. "The villain has fled," he told Priscilla, coming back drenched in body but unquenchable in spirit. "Your chastisement, ma'am, was very effectual."

"If he's gone, then don't let us think about him any more."

"Nay, ma'am, I now set out for Cambridge. If I may not meet him fairly in duel and have my chance of honourably removing him from a world that has had enough of him, I would fain in my turn box his ears."

But Priscilla caught him by both arms. "Why, Fritzi," she cried, "he might remove you and not you him--and from a world that hasn't had nearly enough of you. Fritzi, you cannot leave me. I won't let you go. I wish I had never told you. Don't let us talk of it ever again. It is hateful to me. I--I can't bear it." And she looked into his face with something very like tears in her eyes.

Of course Fritzing stayed. How could he go away even for one hour, even in search of a cook, when such dreadful things happened? He was bowed down by the burden of his responsibilities. He went into his sitting-room and spent the morning striding up and down it between the street door and the door into the kitchen,--a stride and a half one way, and a stride and a half back back again,--doing what all evildoers have to do sooner or later, cudgelling his brains for a way out of life's complications: and every now and then the terribleness of what had happened to his Princess, his guarded Princess, his unapproachable one, came over him with a fresh wave of horror and he groaned aloud.

In the kitchen sat the Shuttleworth kitchenmaid, a most accomplished young person, listening to the groans and wondering what next. Tussie had sent her, with fearful threats of what sort of character she would get if she refused to go. She had at once given notice, but had been forced all the same to go, being driven over in a dog-cart in the early morning rain by a groom who made laboured pleasantries at her expense. She could cook very well, almost as well as that great personage the Shuttleworth cook, but she could only cook if there were things to be cooked; and what she found at Creeper Cottage was the rest of the ginger biscuits and sardines. Well, I will not linger over that. Priscilla did get breakfast somehow, the girl, after trying vainly to strike sparks of helpfulness out of Annalise, going to the store and ordering what was necessary. Then she washed up, while Annalise tripped in and out for the express purpose, so it seemed, of turning up her nose; then she sat and waited and wondered what next. For a long time she supposed somebody would send for her to come and talk about luncheon; but nobody did. She heard the ceaseless stridings in the next room, and every now and then the groans. The rain on the kitchen window did not patter more ceaselessly than the footsteps strode up and down, and the groans got very much on to the girl's nerves. At last she decided that no person who was groaning like that would ever want to order luncheon, and she had better go to the young lady. She went out accordingly and knocked at Priscilla's door. Priscilla was in her chair by the fire, lost in troublous thought. She looked vaguely at the kitchenmaid for a moment, and then asked her to go away. "I'm busy," explained Priscilla, whose hands were folded in her lap.

"Please miss, what do you wish for luncheon?"

"Who are you?"

"I'm the--assistant cook at the 'All, miss. Lady Shuttleworth's assistant cook. Sir Augustus desired me to cook for you to-day."

"Then please do it."

"Yes miss. What do you wish for luncheon?"

"Nothing."

"Yes miss. And the gentleman--don't he want nothing neither?"

"He'll probably tell you when he does."

"Yes miss. It's as well to know a little beforehand, ain't it, miss. There's nothing in the--a-hem--'ouse, and I suppose I'd have to buy something."

"Please do."

"Yes miss. Perhaps if you'd tell me what the gentleman likes I could go out and get it."

"But I don't know what he likes. And wouldn't you get wet? Send somebody."

"Yes miss. Who?"

Priscilla gazed at her a moment. "Ah yes--" she said, "I forgot. I'm afraid there isn't anybody. I think you had better ask my uncle what he wants, and then if you would--I'm very sorry you should have such bad weather--but if you don't mind, would you go and buy the things?"

"Yes miss."

The girl went away, and Priscilla began for the first time to consider the probability of her having in the near future to think of and order three meals every day of her life; and not only three meals, but she dimly perceived there would be a multitude of other dreary things to think of and order,--their linen, for instance, must be washed, and how did one set about that? And would not Fritzing's buttons presently come off and have to be sewn on again? His socks, when they went into holes, could be thrown out of the window and new ones bought, but even Priscilla saw that you could not throw a whole coat out of a window because its buttons had come off. There would, then, have to be some mending done for Fritzing, and Annalise would certainly not be the one to do it. Was the simple life a sordid life as well? Did it only look simple from outside and far away? And was it, close, mere drudging? A fear came over her that her soul, her precious soul, for whose sake she had dared everything, instead of being able to spread its wings in the light of a glorious clear life was going to be choked out of existence by weeds just as completely as at Kunitz.

The Shuttleworth kitchenmaid meanwhile, who was not hindered at every turn by a regard for her soul, made her way to Fritzing as she had been told and inquired of him what she should cook for his dinner. No man likes to be interrupted in his groanings; and Fritzing, who was not hungry and was startled by the sudden appearance of a stranger in his room asking him intimate questions, a person of whose presence in the cottage he had been unaware, flew at her. "Woman, what have I to do with you?" he cried, stopping in his walk and confronting her with surprising fierceness. "Is it seemly to burst in on a man like this? Have you no decency? No respect for another's privacy? Begone, I command you--begone! Begone!" And he made the same movements with his hands that persons do when they shoo away fowls or other animals in flocks.

This was too much for the Shuttleworth kitchenmaid. The obligations, she considered, were all on the side of Creeper Cottage, and she retreated in amazement and anger to the kitchen, put on her hat and mackintosh, and at once departed, regardless of the rain and the consequences, through two miles of dripping lanes to Symford Hall. What would have happened to her there if she had been discovered by Tussie I do not know, but I imagine it would have been something bad. She was saved, however, by his being in bed, clutched by the throat by a violent cold; and there he lay helpless, burning and shivering and throbbing, the pains of his body increased a hundredfold by the distraction of his mind about Priscilla. Why, Tussie asked himself over and over again, had she looked so strange the night before? Why had she gone starving to bed? What was she doing to-day? Was the kitchenmaid taking proper care of her? Was she keeping warm and dry this shocking weather? Had she slept comfortably the first night in her little home? Poor Tussie. It is a grievous thing to love any one too much; a grievous, wasteful, paralyzing thing; a tumbling of the universe out of focus, a bringing of the whole world down to the mean level of one desire, a shutting out of wider, more beautiful feelings, a wrapping of one's self in a thick garment of selfishness, outside which all the dear, tender, modest, everyday affections and friendships, the wholesome, ordinary loves, the precious loves of use and wont, are left to shiver and grow cold. Tussie's mother sat outside growing very cold indeed. Her heart was stricken within her. She, most orderly of women, did not in the least mind, so occupied was she with deeper cares, that her household was in rebellion, her cook who had been with her practically all her life leaving because she had been commanded by Tussie, before he had to fall back on the kitchenmaid, to proceed forthwith to Creeper Cottage and stay there indefinitely; her kitchenmaid, also a valued functionary, leaving; Bryce, Tussie's servant who took such care of him and was so clever in sickness, gone suddenly in his indignation at having to go at all,--all these things no longer mattered. Nor did it matter that the coming of age festivities were thrown into hopeless confusion by Tussie's illness, that the guests must all be telegraphed to and put off, that the whole village would be aghast at such a disappointment, that all her plans and preparations had been wasted. As the first day and night of illness dragged slowly past she grew to be nothing but one great ache of yearning over her sick boy, a most soul-rending yearning to do what she knew was for ever impossible, to put her arms so close round him, so close, so carefully, so tenderly, that nothing, no evil, no pain, could get through that clasp of love to hurt him any more.

"Why don't you take better care of your only son?" said the doctor grimly after he had seen Tussie that evening, who by that time was in a very pitiable condition.

Lady Shuttleworth stared at him, wide-eyed and speechless.

"It's absurd, you know, to let him get into this state. I've often warned you. He can't be allowed to play ducks and drakes with himself like other young men. He's got no strength to fall back upon. I consider you are directly responsible for this illness. Why do you let him go out at night this time of year? Why do you let him over-exert himself? I suppose," said the doctor, who had brought Tussie into the world and was as brutal as he was clever, besides being at that moment extremely angry, "I suppose you want to lose him, eh?"

How could she explain to him what she knew to be true, that the one person responsible for Tussie's illness was Priscilla? She therefore only stared, wide-eyed and speechless; and indeed her heart was very nearly broken.