Chapter XVIII
 

Bad luck, it will be seen, dogged the footsteps of Priscilla. Never indeed for a single hour after she entered Creeper Cottage did the gloomy lady cease from her attentions. The place was pervaded by her thick and evil atmosphere. Fritzing could not go out for an airing without something of far-reaching consequence happening while he was away. It was of course Bad Luck that made the one girl in Symford who was easily swayed by passing winds of temptation draw the lot that put the five-pound note into her hands; if she had come to the cottage just one day later, or if the rain had gone on just half an hour longer and kept Fritzing indoors, she would, I have no doubt whatever, be still in Symford practising every feeble virtue either on her father or on her John, by this time probably her very own John. As it was she was a thief, a lost soul, a banished face for ever from the ways of grace.

Thus are we all the sport of circumstance. Thus was all Symford the sport of Priscilla. Fritzing knew nothing of his loss. He had not told Priscilla a word of his money difficulties, his idea being to keep every cloud from her life as long and as completely as possible. Besides, how idle to talk of these things to some one who could in no way help him with counsel or suggestions. He had put the money in his drawer, and the thought that it was still unchanged and safe comforted him a little in the watches of the sleepless nights.

Nothing particular happened on the Thursday morning, except that the second of the twenty-five kept on breaking things, and Priscilla who was helping Fritzing arrange the books he had ordered from London remarked at the fifth terrific smash, a smash so terrific as to cause Creeper Cottage to tremble all over, that more crockery had better be bought.

"Yes," said Fritzing, glancing swiftly at her with almost a guilty glance.

He felt very keenly his want of resourcefulness in this matter of getting the money over from Germany, but he clung to the hope that a few more wakeful nights would clear his brain and show him the way; and meanwhile there was always the five-pound note in the drawer.

"And Fritzi, I shall have to get some clothes soon," Priscilla went on, dusting the books as he handed them to her.

"Clothes, ma'am?" repeated Fritzing, straightening himself to stare at her.

"Those things you bought for me in Gerstein--they're delicious, they're curiosities, but they're not clothes. I mean always to keep them. I'll have them put in a glass case, and they shall always be near me when we're happy again."

"Happy again, ma'am?"

"Settled again, I mean," quickly amended Priscilla.

She dusted in silence for a little, and began to put the books she had dusted in the shelves. "I'd better write to Paris," she said presently.

Fritzing jumped. "Paris, ma'am?"

"They've got my measurements. This dress can't stand much more. It's the one I've worn all the time. The soaking it got yesterday was very bad for it. You don't see such things, but if you did you'd probably get a tremendous shock."

"Ma'am, if you write to Paris you must give your own name, which of course is impossible. They will send nothing to an unknown customer in England called Neumann-Schultz."

"Oh but we'd send the money with the order. That's quite easy, isn't it?"

"Perfectly easy," said Fritzing in an oddly exasperated voice; at once adding, still more snappily, "Might I request your Grand Ducal Highness to have the goodness not to put my Aeschylus--a most valuable edition--head downwards on the shelf? It is a manner of treating books often to be observed in housemaids and similar ignorants. But you, ma'am, have been trained by me I trust in other and more reverent ways of handling what is left to us of the mighty spirits of the past."

"I'm sorry," said Priscilla, hastily turning the Aeschylus right side up again; and by launching forth into a long and extremely bitter dissertation on the various ways persons of no intellectual conscience have of ill-treating books, he got rid of some of his agitation and fixed her attention for the time on questions less fraught with complications than clothes from Paris.

About half-past two they were still sitting over the eggs and bread and butter that Priscilla ordered three times a day and that Fritzing ate with unquestioning obedience, when the Shuttleworth victoria stopped in front of the cottage and Lady Shuttleworth got out. Fritzing, polite man, hastened to meet her, pushing aside the footman and offering his arm. She looked at him vaguely, and asked if his niece were at home.

"Certainly," said Fritzing, leading her into Priscilla's parlour. "Shall I inquire if she will receive you?"

"Do," said Lady Shuttleworth, taking no apparent notice of the odd wording of this question. "Tussie isn't well," she said the moment Priscilla appeared, fixing her eyes on her face but looking as though she hardly saw her, as though she saw past her, through her, to something beyond, while she said a lesson learned by rote.

"Isn't he? Oh I'm sorry," said Priscilla.

"He caught cold last Sunday at your treat. He oughtn't to have run those races with the boys. He can't--stand--much."

Priscilla looked at her questioningly. The old lady's face was quite set and calm, but there had been a queer catch in her voice at the last words.

"Why does he do such things, then?" asked Priscilla, feeling vaguely distressed.

"Ah yes, my dear--why? That is a question for you to answer, is it not?"

"For me?"

"On Tuesday night," continued Lady Shuttleworth, "he was ill when he left home to come here. He would come. It was a terrible night for a delicate boy to go out. And he didn't stay here, I understand. He went out to buy something after closing time, and stood a long while trying to wake the people up."

"Yes," said Priscilla, feeling guilty, "I--that was my fault. He went for me."

"Yes my dear. Since then he has been ill. I've come to ask you if you'll drive back with me and see if--if you cannot persuade him that you are happy. He seems to be much--troubled."

"Troubled?"

"He seems to be afraid you are not happy. You know," she added with a little quavering smile, "Tussie is very kind. He is very unselfish. He takes everybody's burdens on his shoulders. He seems to be quite haunted by the idea that your life here is unendurably uncomfortable, and it worries him dreadfully that he can't get to you to set things straight. I think if he were to see you, and you were very cheerful, and--and smiled, my dear, it might help to get him over this."

"Get him over this?" echoed Priscilla. "Is he so ill?"

Lady Shuttleworth looked at her and said nothing.

"Of course I'll come," said Priscilla, hastily ringing the bell.

"But you must not look unhappy," said Lady Shuttleworth, laying her hand on the girl's arm, "that would make matters ten times worse. You must promise to be as gay as possible."

"Yes, yes--I'll be gay," promised Priscilla, while her heart became as lead within her at the thought that she was the cause of poor Tussie's sufferings. But was she really, she asked herself during the drive? What had she done but accept help eagerly offered? Surely it was very innocent to do that? It was what she had been doing all her life, and people had been delighted when she let them be kind to her, and certainly had not got ill immediately afterwards. Were you never to let anybody do anything for you lest while they were doing it they should get wet feet and things, and then their colds would be upon your head? She was very sorry Tussie should be ill, dreadfully sorry. He was so kind and good that it was impossible not to like him. She did like him. She liked him quite as well as most young men and much better than many. "I'm afraid you are very unhappy," she said suddenly to Lady Shuttleworth, struck by the look on her face as she leaned back, silent, in her corner.

"I do feel rather at my wits' end," said Lady Shuttleworth. "For instance, I'm wondering whether what I'm doing now isn't a great mistake."

"What you are doing now?"

"Taking you to see Tussie."

"Oh but I promise to be cheerful. I'll tell him how comfortable we are. He'll see I look well taken care of."

"But for all that I'm afraid he may--he may--"

"Why, we're going to be tremendously taken care of. Even he will see that. Only think--I've engaged twenty-five cooks."

"Twenty-five cooks?" echoed Lady Shuttleworth, staring in spite of her sorrows. "But isn't my kitchenmaid--?"

"Oh she left us almost at once. She couldn't stand my uncle. He is rather difficult to stand at first. You have to know him quite a long while before you can begin to like him. And I don't think kitchenmaids ever would begin."

"But my dear, twenty-five cooks?"

And Priscilla explained how and why she had come by them; and though Lady Shuttleworth, remembering the order till now prevailing in the village and the lowness of the wages, could not help thinking that here was a girl more potent for mischief than any girl she had ever met, yet a feeble gleam of amusement did, as she listened, slant across the inky blackness of her soul.

Tussie was sitting up in bed with a great many pillows behind him, finding immense difficulty in breathing, when his mother, her bonnet off and every trace of having been out removed, came in and said Miss Neumann-Schultz was downstairs.

"Downstairs? Here? In this house?" gasped Tussie, his eyes round with wonder and joy.

"Yes. She--called. Would you like her to come up and see you?"

"Oh mother!"

Lady Shuttleworth hurried out. How could she bear this, she thought, stumbling a little as though she did not see very well. She went downstairs with the sound of that Oh mother throbbing in her ears.

Tussie's temperature, high already, went up by leaps during the few minutes of waiting. He gave feverish directions to the nurse about a comfortable chair being put exactly in the right place, about his pillows being smoothed, his medicine bottles hidden, and was very anxious that the flannel garment he was made to wear when ill, a garment his mother called a nightingale--not after the bird but the lady--and that was the bluest flannel garment ever seen, should be arranged neatly over his narrow chest.

The nurse looked disapproving. She did not like her patients to be happy. Perhaps she was right. It is always better, I believe, to be cautious and careful, to husband your strength, to be deadly prudent and deadly dull. As you would poison, so should you avoid doing what the poet calls living too much in your large hours. The truly prudent never have large hours; nor should you, if you want to be comfortable. And you get your reward, I am told, in living longer; in having, that is, a few more of those years that cluster round the end, during which you are fed and carried and washed by persons who generally grumble. Who wants to be a flame, doomed to be blown out by the same gust of wind that has first fanned it to its very brightest? If you are not a flame you cannot, of course, be blown out. Gusts no longer shake you. Tempests pass you by untouched. And if besides you have the additional advantage of being extremely smug, extremely thick-skinned, you shall go on living till ninety, and not during the whole of that time be stirred by so much as a single draught.

Priscilla came up determined to be so cheerful that she began to smile almost before she got to the door. "I've come to tell you how splendidly we're getting on at the cottage," she said taking Tussie's lean hot hand, the shell of her smile remaining but the heart and substance gone out of it, he looked so pitiful and strange.

"Really? Really?" choked Tussie, putting the other lean hot hand over hers and burning all the coolness out of it.

The nurse looked still more disapproving. She had not heard Sir Augustus had a fiancee, and even if he had this was no time for philandering. She too had noticed the voice in which he had said Oh mother, and she saw by his eyes that his temperature had gone up. Who was this shabby young lady? She felt sure that no one so shabby could be his fiancee, and she could only conclude that Lady Shuttleworth must be mad.

"Nurse, I'm going to stay here a little," said Lady Shuttleworth. "I'll call you when I want you."

"I think, madam, Sir Augustus ought not--" began the nurse.

"No, no, he shall not. Go and have forty winks, nurse."

And the nurse had to go; people generally did when Lady Shuttleworth sent them.

"Sit down--no don't--stay a moment like this," said Tussie, his breath coming in little jerks,--"unless you are tired? Did you walk?"

"I'm afraid you are very ill," said Priscilla, leaving her hand in his and looking down at him with a face that all her efforts could not induce to smile.

"Oh I'll be all right soon. How good of you to come. You've not been hungry since?"

"No, no," said Priscilla, stroking his hands with her free hand and giving them soothing pats as one would to a sick child.

"Really not? I've thought of that ever since. I've never got your face that night out of my head. What had happened? While I was away--what had happened?"

"Nothing--nothing had happened," said Priscilla hastily. "I was tired. I had a mood. I get them, you know. I get angry easily. Then I like to be alone till I'm sorry."

"But what had made you angry? Had I--?"

"No, never. You have never been anything but good and kind. You've been our protecting spirit since we came here."

Tussie laughed shrilly, and immediately was seized by a coughing fit. Lady Shuttleworth stood at the foot of the bed watching him with a face from which happiness seemed to have fled for ever. Priscilla grew more and more wretched, caught, obliged to stand there, distractedly stroking his hands in her utter inability to think of anything else to do.

"A nice protecting spirit," gasped Tussie derisively, when he could speak. "Look at me here, tied down to this bed for heaven knows how long, and not able to do a thing for you."

"But there's nothing now to do. We're quite comfortable. We are really. Do, do believe it."

"Are you only comfortable, or are you happy as well?"

"Oh, we're very happy," said Priscilla with all the emphasis she could get into her voice; and again she tried, quite unsuccessfully, to wrench her mouth into a smile.

"Then, if you're happy, why do you look so miserable?"

He was gazing up into her face with eyes whose piercing brightness would have frightened the nurse. There was no shyness now about Tussie. There never is about persons whose temperature is 102.

"Miserable?" repeated Priscilla. She tried to smile; looked helplessly at Lady Shuttleworth; looked down again at Tussie; and stammering "Because you are so ill and it's all my fault," to her horror, to her boundless indignation at herself, two tears, big and not to be hidden, rolled down her face and dropped on to Tussie's and her clasped hands.

Tussie struggled to sit up straight. "Look, mother, look--" he cried, gasping, "my beautiful one--my dear and lovely one--my darling--she's crying--I've made her cry--now never tell me I'm not a brute again--see, see what I've done!"

"Oh"--murmured Priscilla, in great distress and amazement. Was the poor dear delirious? And she tried to get her hands away.

But Tussie would not let them go. He held them in a clutch that seemed like hot iron in both his, and dragging himself nearer to them covered them with wild kisses.

Lady Shuttleworth was appalled. "Tussie," she said in a very even voice, "you must let Miss Neumann-Schultz go now. You must be quiet again now. Let her go, dear. Perhaps she'll--come again."

"Oh mother, leave me alone," cried Tussie, lying right across his pillows, his face on Priscilla's hands. "What do you know of these things? This is my darling--this is my wife--dream of my spirit--star of my soul--"

"Never in this world!" cried Lady Shuttleworth, coming round to the head of the bed as quickly as her shaking limbs would take her.

"Yes, yes, come here if you like, mother--come close--listen while I tell her how I love her. I don't care who hears. Why should I? If I weren't ill I'd care. I'd be tongue-tied--I'd have gone on being tongue-tied for ever. Oh I bless being ill, I bless being ill--I can say anything, anything--"

"Tussie, don't say it," entreated his mother. "The less you say now the more grateful you'll be later on. Let her go."

"Listen to her!" cried Tussie, interrupting his kissing of her hands to look up at Priscilla and smile with a sort of pitying wonder, "Let you go? Does one let one's life go? One's hope of salvation go? One's little precious minute of perfect happiness go? When I'm well again I shall be just as dull and stupid as ever, just such a shy fool, not able to speak--"

"But it's a gracious state"--stammered poor Priscilla.

"Loving you? Loving you?"

"No, no--not being able to speak. It's always best--"

"It isn't. It's best to be true to one's self, to show honestly what one feels, as I am now--as I am now--" And he fell to kissing her hands again.

"Tussie, this isn't being honest," said Lady Shuttleworth sternly, "it's being feverish."

"Listen to her! Was ever a man interrupted like this in the act of asking a girl to marry him?"

"Tussie!" cried Lady Shuttleworth.

"Ethel, will you marry me? Because I love you so? It's an absurd reason--the most magnificently absurd reason, but I know there's no other why you should--"

Priscilla was shaken and stricken as she had never yet been; shaken with pity, stricken with remorse. She looked down at him in dismay while he kissed her hands with desperate, overwhelming love. What was she to do? Lady Shuttleworth tried to draw her away. What was she to do? If Tussie was overwhelmed with love, she was overwhelmed with pity.

"Ethel--Ethel--" gasped Tussie, kissing her hands, looking up at her, kissing them again.

Pity overcame her, engulfed her. She bent her head down to his and laid her cheek an instant on the absurd flannel nightingale, tenderly, apologetically.

"Ethel--Ethel," choked Tussie, "will you marry me?"

"Dear Tussie," she whispered in a shaky whisper, "I promise to answer you when you are well. Not yet. Not now. Get quite well, and then if you still want an answer I promise to give you one. Now let me go."

"Ethel," implored Tussie, looking at her with a wild entreaty in his eyes, "will you kiss me? Just once--to help me to live--"

And in her desire to comfort him she stooped down again and did kiss him, soberly, almost gingerly, on the forehead.

He let her hands slide away from between his and lay back on his pillows in a state for the moment of absolute beatitude. He shut his eyes, and did not move while she crept softly out of the room.

"What have you done?" asked Lady Shuttleworth trembling, when they were safely in the passage and the door shut behind them.

"I can't think--I can't think," groaned Priscilla, wringing her hands. And, leaning against the balusters, then and there in that most public situation she began very bitterly to cry.