The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
About three o'clock that afternoon Priscilla saw quite clearly what she had dimly perceived in the morning, that if there was to be domestic peace in Creeper Cottage she must bestir herself. She did not like bestirring herself; at least, not in such directions. She would go out and help the poor, talk to them, cheer them, nurse their babies even and stir their porridge, but she had not up to this point realized her own needs, and how urgent they could be and how importunate. It was hunger that cleared her vision. The first time she was hungry she had been amused. Now when it happened again she was both surprised and indignant. "Can one's wretched body never keep quiet?" she thought impatiently, when the first twinges dragged her relentlessly out of her dejected dreaming by the fire. She remembered the cold tremblings of the night before, and felt that that state would certainly be reached again quite soon if she did not stop it at once. She rang for Annalise. "Tell the cook I will have some luncheon after all," she said.
"The cook is gone," said Annalise, whose eyes were more aggressively swollen than they had yet been.
"Gone away. Gone for ever."
"But why?" asked Priscilla, really dismayed.
"The Herr Geheimrath insulted her. I heard him doing it. No woman of decency can permit such a tone. She at once left. There has been no dinner to-day. There will be, I greatly fear, n--o--o--supp--pper." And Annalise gave a loud sob and covered her face with her apron.
Then Priscilla saw that if life was to roll along at all it was her shoulder that would have to be put to the wheel. Fritzing's shoulder was evidently not a popular one among the lower classes. The vision of her own doing anything with wheels was sufficiently amazing, but she did not stop to gaze upon it. "Annalise," she said, getting up quickly and giving herself a little shake, "fetch me my hat and coat. I'm going out."
Annalise let her apron drop far enough to enable her to point to the deluge going on out of doors. "Not in this weather?" she faltered, images of garments soaked in mud and needing much drying and brushing troubling her.
"Get me the things," said Priscilla.
"Your Grand Ducal Highness will be wet through."
"Get me the things. And don't cry quite so much. Crying really is the most shocking waste of time."
Annalise withdrew, and Priscilla went round to Fritzing. It was the first time she had been round to him. He was sitting at his table, his head in his hands, staring at the furnisher's bill, and he started to see her coming in unexpectedly through the kitchen, and shut the bill hastily in a drawer.
"Fritzi, have you had anything to eat to-day?"
"Certainly. I had an excellent breakfast."
"I have not yet felt the need."
"You know the cook Lady Shuttleworth sent has gone again?"
"What, that woman who burst in upon me was Lady Shuttleworth's cook?"
"Yes. And you frightened her so she ran home."
"Ma'am, she overstepped the limits of my patience."
"Dear Fritzi, I often wonder where exactly the limits of your patience are. With me they have withdrawn into infinite space--I've never been able to reach them. But every one else seems to have a knack--well, somebody must cook. You tell me Annalise won't. Perhaps she really can't. Anyhow I cannot mention it to her, because it would be too horrible to have her flatly refusing to do something I told her to do and yet not be able to send her away. But somebody must cook, and I'm going out to get the somebody. Hush"--she put up her hand as he opened his mouth to speak--"I know it's raining. I know I'll get wet. Don't let us waste time protesting. I'm going."
Fritzing was conscience-stricken. "Ma'am," he said, "you must forgive me for unwittingly bringing this bother upon you. Had I had time for reflection I would not have been so sharp. But the woman burst upon me. I knew not who she was. Sooner than offend her I would have cut out my tongue, could I have foreseen you would yourself go in search in the rain of a substitute. Permit me to seek another."
"No, no--you have no luck with cooks," said Priscilla smiling. "I'm going. Why I feel more cheerful already--just getting out of that chair makes me feel better."
"Were you not cheerful before?" inquired Fritzing anxiously.
"Not very," admitted Priscilla. "But then neither were you. Don't suppose I didn't see you with your head in your hands when I came in. Cheerful people never seize their heads in that way. Now Fritzi I know what's worrying you--it's that absurd affair last night. I've left off thinking about it. I'm going to be very happy again, and so must you be. We won't let one mad young man turn all our beautiful life sour, will we?"
He bent down and kissed her hand. "Permit me to accompany you at least," he begged. "I cannot endure--"
But she shook her head; and as she presently walked through the rain holding Fritzing's umbrella,--none had been bought to replace hers, broken on the journey--getting muddier and more draggled every minute, she felt that now indeed she had got down to elementary conditions, climbed right down out of the clouds to the place where life lies unvarnished and uncomfortable, where Necessity spends her time forcing you to do all the things you don't like, where the whole world seems hungry and muddy and wet. It was an extraordinary experience for her, this slopping through the mud with soaking shoes, no prospect of a meal, and a heart that insisted on sinking in spite of her attempts to persuade herself that the situation was amusing. It did not amuse her. It might have amused somebody else,--the Grand Duke, for instance, if he could have watched her now (from, say, a Gothic window, himself dry and fed and taken care of), being punished so naturally and inevitably by the weapons Providence never allows to rust, those weapons that save parents and guardians so much personal exertion if only they will let things take their course, those sharp, swift consequences that attend the actions of the impetuous. I might, indeed, if this were a sermon and there were a congregation unable to get away, expatiate on the habit these weapons have of smiting with equal fury the just and the unjust; how you only need to be a little foolish, quite a little foolish, under conditions that seem to force it upon you, and down they come, sure and relentless, and you are smitten with a thoroughness that leaves you lame for years; how motives are nothing, circumstances are nothing; how the motives may have been aflame with goodness, the circumstances such that any other course was impossible; how all these things don't matter in the least,--you are and shall be smitten. But this is not a sermon. I have no congregation. And why should I preach to a reader who meanwhile has skipped?
It comforted Priscilla to find that almost the whole village wanted to come and cook for her, or as the women put it "do" for her. Their cooking powers were strictly limited, and they proposed to make up for this by doing for her very completely in other ways; they would scrub, sweep, clean windows, wash,--anything and everything they would do. Would they also sew buttons on her uncle's clothes? Priscilla asked anxiously. And they were ready to sew buttons all over Fritzing if buttons would make him happy. This eagerness was very gratifying, but it was embarrassing as well. The extremely aged and the extremely young were the only ones that refrained from offering their services. Some of the girls were excluded as too weedy; some of the mothers because their babies were too new; some of the wives because their husbands were too exacting; but when Priscilla counted up the names she had written down she found there were twenty-five. For a moment she was staggered. Then she rose to the occasion and got out of the difficulty with what she thought great skill, arranging, as it was impossible to disappoint twenty-four of these, that they should take it in turn, each coming for one day until all had had a day and then beginning again with the first one. It seemed a brilliant plan. Life at Creeper Cottage promised to be very varied. She gathered them together in the village shop to talk it over. She asked them if they thought ten shillings a day and food would be enough. She asked it hesitatingly, afraid lest she were making them an impossibly frugal offer. She was relieved at the cry of assent; but it was followed after a moment by murmurs from the married women, when they had had time to reflect, that it was unfair to pay the raw young ones at the same rate as themselves. Priscilla however turned a deaf ear to their murmurings. "The girls may not," she said, raising her hand to impose silence, "be able to get through as much as you do in a day, but they'll be just as tired when evening comes. Certainly I shall give them the same wages." She made them draw lots as to who should begin, and took the winner home with her then and there; she too, though the day was far spent, was to have her ten shillings. "What, have you forgotten your New Testaments?" Priscilla cried, when more murmurs greeted this announcement. "Don't you remember the people who came at the eleventh hour to labour in the vineyard and got just the same as the others? Why should I try to improve on parables?" And there was something about Priscilla, an air, an authority, that twisted the women of Symford into any shape of agreement she chose. The twenty-four went their several ways. The twenty-fifth ran home to put on a clean apron, and got back to the shop in time to carry the eggs and butter and bread Priscilla had bought. "I forgot to bring any money," said Priscilla when the postmistress--it was she who kept the village shop--told her how much it came to. "Does it matter?"
"Oh don't mention it, Miss Neumann-Schultz," was the pleasant answer of that genteel and trustful lady; and she suggested that Priscilla should take with her a well-recommended leg of mutton she had that day for sale as well. Priscilla shuddered at the sight of it and determined never to eat legs of mutton again. The bacon, too, piled up on the counter, revolted her. The only things that looked as decent raw as when they were cooked were eggs; and on eggs she decided she and Fritzing would in future live. She broke off a piece of the crust of the bread Mrs. Vickerton was wrapping up and ate it, putting great pressure on herself to do it carelessly, with a becoming indifference.
"It's good bread," said Mrs. Vickerton, doing up her parcel.
"Where in the world do you get it from?" asked Priscilla enthusiastically. "The man must be a genius."
"The carrier brings it every day," said Mrs. Vickerton, pleased and touched by such appreciation. "It's a Minehead baker's."
"He ought to be given an order, if ever man ought."
"An order? For you regular, Miss Neumann-Schultz?"
"No, no,--the sort you pin on your breast," said Priscilla.
"Ho," smiled Mrs. Vickerton vaguely, who did not follow; she was so genteel that she could never have enough of aspirates. And Priscilla, giving the parcel to her breathless new help, hurried back to Creeper Cottage.
Now this help, or char-girl--you could not call her a charwoman she was manifestly still so very young--was that Emma who had been obliged to tell the vicar's wife about Priscilla's children's treat and who did not punctually return books. I will not go so far as to say that not to return books punctually is sinful, though deep down in my soul I think it is, but anyhow it is a symptom of moral slackness. Emma was quite good so long as she was left alone. She could walk quite straight so long as there were no stones in the way and nobody to pull her aside. If there were stones, she instantly stumbled; if somebody pulled, she instantly went. She was weak, amiable, well-intentioned. She had a widowed father who was unpleasant and who sometimes beat her on Saturday nights, and on Sunday mornings sometimes, if the fumes of the Cock and Hens still hung about him, threw things at her before she went to church. A widowed father in Emma's class is an ill being to live with. The vicar did his best to comfort her. Mrs. Morrison talked of the commandments and of honouring one's father and mother and of how the less there was to honour the greater the glory of doing it; and Emma was so amiable that she actually did manage to honour him six days out of the seven. At the same time she could not help thinking it would be nice to go away to a place where he wasn't. They were extremely poor; almost the poorest family in the village, and the vision of possessing ten shillings of her very own was a dizzy one. She had a sweetheart, and she had sent him word by a younger sister of the good fortune that had befallen her and begged him to come up to Creeper Cottage that evening and help her carry the precious wages safely home; and at nine o'clock when her work was done she presented herself all blushes and smiles before Priscilla and shyly asked her for them.
Priscilla was alone in her parlour reading. She referred her, as her habit was, to Fritzing; but Fritzing had gone out for a little air, the rain having cleared off, and when the girl told her so Priscilla bade her come round in the morning and fetch the money.
Emma's face fell so woefully at this--was not her John at that moment all expectant round the corner?--that Priscilla smiled and got up to see if she could find some money herself. In the first drawer she opened in Fritzing's sitting-room was a pocket-book, and in this pocket-book Fritzing's last five-pound note. There was nothing else except the furnisher's bill. She pushed that on one side without looking at it; what did bills matter? Bills never yet had mattered to Priscilla. She pushed it on one side and searched for silver, but found none. "Perhaps you can change this?" she said, holding out the note.
"The shop's shut now, miss," said Laura, gazing with round eyes at the mighty sum.
"Well then take it, and bring me the change in the morning."
Emma took it with trembling fingers--she had not in her life touched so much money--and ran out into the darkness to where her John was waiting. Symford never saw either of them again. Priscilla never saw her change. Emma went to perdition. Priscilla went back to her chair by the fire. She was under the distinct and comfortable impression that she had been the means of making the girl happy. "How easy it is, making people happy," thought Priscilla placidly, the sweetest smile on her charming mouth.