Chapter XIX
 

Priscilla went home dazed. All her suitors hitherto had approached her ceremoniously, timidly, through the Grand Duke; and we know they had not approached very near. But here was one, timid enough in health, who was positively reckless under circumstances that made most people meek. He had proposed to her arrayed in a blue flannel nightingale, and Priscilla felt that headlong self-effacement could go no further. "He must have a great soul," she said to herself over and over again during the drive home, "a great, great soul." And it seemed of little use wiping her tears away, so many fresh ones immediately took their place.

She ached over Tussie and Tussie's mother. What had she done? She felt she had done wrong; yet how, except by just existing? and she did feel she couldn't help doing that. Certainly she had made two kind hearts extremely miserable,--one was miserable now, and the other didn't yet know how miserable it was going to be. She ought to have known, she ought to have thought, she ought to have foreseen. She of all persons in the world ought to have been careful with young men who believed her to be of their own class. Contrition and woe took possession of Priscilla's soul. She knew it was true that she could not help existing, but she knew besides, far back in a remote and seldom investigated corner of her mind, a corner on which she did not care to turn the light of careful criticism, that she ought not to be existing in Symford. It was because she was there, out of her proper sphere, in a place she had no business to be in at all, that these strange and heart-wringing scenes with young men occurred. And Fritzing would notice her red eyes and ask what had happened; and here within two days was a second story to be told of a young man unintentionally hurried to his doom. Would Fritzing be angry? She never knew beforehand. Would he, only remembering she was grand ducal, regard it as an insult and want to fight Tussie? The vision of poor Tussie, weak, fevered, embedded in pillows, swathed in flannel, receiving bloodthirsty messages of defiance from Fritzing upset her into more tears. Fritzing, she felt at that moment, was a trial. He burdened her with his gigantic efforts to keep her from burdens. He burdened her with his inflated notions of how burdenless she ought to be. He was admirable, unselfish, devoted; but she felt it was possible to be too admirable, too unselfish, too devoted. In a word Priscilla's mind was in a state of upheaval, and the only ray of light she saw anywhere--and never was ray more watery--was that Tussie, for the moment at least, was content. The attitude of his mother, on the other hand, was distressing and disturbing. There had been no more My dears and other kind ways. She had watched her crying on the stairs in stony silence, had gone down with her to the door in stony silence, and just at the last had said in an unmistakably stony voice, "All this is very cruel."

Priscilla was overwhelmed by the difficulties of life. The world was too much with her, she felt, a very great deal too much. She sent the Shuttleworth carriage away at the entrance to the village and went in to sit with Mrs. Jones a little, so that her eyes might lose their redness before she faced Fritzing; and Mrs. Jones was so glad to see her, so full of praises of her unselfish goodness in coming in, that once again Priscilla was forced to be ashamed of herself and of everything she did.

"I'm not unselfish, and I'm not good," she said, smoothing the old lady's coverlet.

Mrs. Jones chuckled faintly. "Pretty dear," was her only comment.

"I don't think I'm pretty and I know I'm not a dear," said Priscilla, quite vexed.

"Ain't you then, deary," murmured Mrs. Jones soothingly.

Priscilla saw it was no use arguing, and taking up the Bible that always lay on the table by the bed began to read aloud. She read and read till both were quieted,--Mrs. Jones into an evidently sweet sleep, she herself into peace. Then she left off and sat for some time watching the old lady, the open Bible in-her lap, her soul filled with calm words and consolations, wondering what it could be like being so near death. Must it not be beautiful, thought Priscilla, to slip away so quietly in that sunny room, with no sound to break the peace but the ticking of the clock that marked off the last minutes, and outside the occasional footstep of a passer-by still hurrying on life's business? Wonderful to have done with everything, to have it all behind one, settled, lived through, endured. The troublous joys as well as the pains, all finished; the griefs and the stinging happinesses, all alike lived down; and now evening, and sleep. In the few days Priscilla had known her the old lady had drawn visibly nearer death. Lying there on the pillow, so little and light that she hardly pressed it down at all, she looked very near it indeed. And how kind Death was, rubbing away the traces of what must have been a sordid existence, set about years back with the usual coarse pleasures and selfish hopes,--how kind Death was, letting all there was of spirit shine out so sweetly at the end. There was an enlarged photograph of Mrs. Jones and her husband over the fireplace, a photograph taken for their silver wedding; she must have been about forty-five; how kind Death was, thought Priscilla, looking from the picture to the figure on the bed. She sighed a little, and got up. Life lay before her, an endless ladder up each of whose steep rungs she would have to clamber; in every sort of weather she would have to clamber, getting more battered, more blistered with every rung.... She looked wistfully at the figure on the bed, and sighed a little. Then she crept out, and softly shut the door.

She walked home lost in thought. As she was going up the hill to her cottage Fritzing suddenly emerged from it and indulged in movements so strange and complicated that they looked like nothing less than a desperate dancing on the doorstep. Priscilla walked faster, staring in astonishment. He made strange gestures, his face was pale, his hair rubbed up into a kind of infuriated mop.

"Why, what in the world--" began the amazed Priscilla, as soon as she was near enough.

"Ma'am, I've been robbed," shouted Fritzing; and all Symford might have heard if it had happened to be listening.

"Robbed?" repeated Priscilla. "What of?"

"Of all my money, ma'am. Of all I had--of all we had--to live on."

"Nonsense, Fritzi," said Priscilla; but she did turn a little paler. "Don't let us stand out here," she added; and she got him in and shut the street door.

He would have left it open and would have shouted his woes through it as through a trumpet down the street, oblivious of all things under heaven but his misfortune. He tore open the drawer of the writing-table. "In this drawer--in the pocket-book you see in this drawer--in this now empty pocket-book, did I leave it. It was there yesterday. It was there last night. Now it is gone. Miscreants from without have visited us. Or perhaps, viler still, miscreants from within. A miscreant, I do believe, capable of anything--Annalise--"

"Fritzi, I took a five-pound note out of that last night, if that's what you miss."

"You, ma'am?"

"To pay the girl who worked here her wages. You weren't here. I couldn't find anything smaller."

"Gott sei Dank! Gott sei Dank!" cried Fritzing, going back to German in his joy. "Oh ma'am, if you had told me earlier you would have spared me great anguish. Have you the change?"

"Didn't she bring it?"

"Bring it, ma'am?"

"I gave it to her last night to change. She was to bring it round this morning. Didn't she?"

Fritzing stared aghast. Then he disappeared into the kitchen. In a moment he was back again. "She has not been here," he said, in a voice packed once more with torment.

"Perhaps she has forgotten."

"Ma'am, how came you--"

"Now you're going to scold me."

"No, no--but how is it possible that you should have trusted--"

"Fritzi, you are going to scold me, and I'm so tired. What else has been taken? You said all your money--"

He snatched up his hat. "Nothing else, ma'am, nothing else. I will go and seek the girl." And he clapped it down over his eyes as he always did in moments of great mental stress.

"What a fuss," thought Priscilla wearily. Aloud she said, "The girl here to-day will tell you where she lives. Of course she has forgotten, or not been able to change it yet." And she left him, and went out to get into her own half of the house.

Yes, Fritzi really was a trial. Why such a fuss and such big words about five pounds? If it were lost and the girl afraid to come and say so, it didn't matter much; anyhow nothing like so much as having one's peace upset. How foolish to be so agitated and talk of having been robbed of everything. Fritzing's mind, she feared, that large, enlightened mind on whose breadth and serenity she had gazed admiringly ever since she could remember gazing at all, was shrinking to dimensions that would presently exactly match the dimensions of Creeper Cottage. She went upstairs disheartened and tired, and dropping down full length on her sofa desired Annalise to wash her face.

"Your Grand Ducal Highness has been weeping," said Annalise, whisking the sponge in and out of corners with a skill surprising in one who had only practised the process during the last ten days.

Priscilla opened her eyes to stare at her in frankest surprise, for never yet had Annalise dared make a remark unrequested. Annalise, by beginning to wash them, forced her to shut them again.

Priscilla then opened her mouth to tell her what she thought of her. Immediately Annalise's swift sponge stopped it up.

"Your Grand Ducal Highness," said Annalise, washing Priscilla's mouth with a thoroughness and an amount of water suggestive of its not having been washed for months, "told me only yesterday that weeping was a terrible--schreckliche--waste of time. Therefore, since your Grand Ducal Highness knows that and yet herself weeps, it is easy to see that there exists a reason for weeping which makes weeping inevitable."

"Will you--" began Priscilla, only to be stopped instantly by the ready sponge.

"Your Grand Ducal Highness is unhappy. 'Tis not to be wondered at. Trust a faithful servant, one whose life-blood is at your Grand Ducal Highness's disposal, and tell her if it is not then true that the Herr Geheimrath has decoyed you from your home and your Grossherzoglicher Herr Papa?"

"Will you--"

Again the pouncing sponge.

"My heart bleeds--indeed it bleeds--to think of the Herr Papa's sufferings, his fears, his anxieties. It is a picture on which I cannot calmly look. Day and night--for at night I lie sleepless on my bed--I am inquiring of myself what it can be, the spell that the Herr Geheimrath has cast over your Grand Ducal--"

"Will you--"

Again the pouncing sponge; but this time Priscilla caught the girl's hand, and holding it at arm's length sat up. "Are you mad?" she asked, looking at Annalise as though she saw her for the first time.

Annalise dropped the sponge and clasped her hands. "Not mad," she said, "only very, very devoted."

"No. Mad. Give me a towel."

Priscilla was so angry that she did not dare say more. If she had said a part even of what she wanted to say all would have been over between herself and Annalise; so she dried her face in silence, declining to allow it to be touched. "You can go," she said, glancing at the door, her face pale with suppressed wrath but also, it must be confessed, very clean; and when she was alone she dropped once again on to the sofa and buried her head in the cushion. How dared Annalise? How dared she? How dared she? Priscilla asked herself over and over again, wincing, furious. Why had she not thought of this, known that she would be in the power of any servant they chose to bring? Surely there was no limit, positively none, to what the girl might do or say? How was she going to bear her about her, endure the sight and sound of that veiled impertinence? She buried her head very deep in the cushion, vainly striving to blot out the world and Annalise in its feathers, but even there there was no peace, for suddenly a great noise of doors going and legs striding penetrated through its stuffiness and she heard Fritzing's voice very loud and near--all sounds in Creeper Cottage were loud and near--ordering Annalise to ask her Grand Ducal Highness to descend.

"I won't," thought Priscilla, burying her head deeper. "That poor Emma has lost the note and he's going to fuss. I won't descend."

Then came Annalise's tap at her door. Priscilla did not answer. Annalise tapped again. Priscilla did not answer, but turning her head face upwards composed herself to an appearance of sleep.

Annalise tapped a third time. "The Herr Geheimrath wishes to speak to your Grand Ducal Highness," she called through the door; and after a pause opened it and peeped in. "Her Grand Ducal Highness sleeps," she informed Fritzing down the stairs, her nose at the angle in the air it always took when she spoke to him.

"Then wake her! Wake her!" cried Fritzing.

"Is it possible something has happened?" thought Annalise joyfully, her eyes gleaming as she willingly flew back to Priscilla's door,--anything, anything, she thought, sooner than the life she was leading.

Priscilla heard Fritzing's order and sat up at once, surprised at such an unprecedented indifference to her comfort. Her heart began to beat faster; a swift fear that Kunitz was at her heels seized her; she jumped up and ran out.

Fritzing was standing at the foot of the stairs.

"Come down, ma'am," he said; "I must speak to you at once."

"What's the matter?" asked Priscilla, getting down the steep little stairs as quickly as was possible without tumbling.

"Hateful English tongue," thought Annalise, to whom the habit the Princess and Fritzing had got into of talking English together was a constant annoyance and disappointment.

Fritzing preceded Priscilla into her parlour, and when she was in he shut the door behind her. Then he leaned his hands on the table to steady himself and confronted her with a twitching face. Priscilla looked at him appalled. Was the Grand Duke round the corner? Lingering, perhaps, among the very tombs just outside her window? "What is it?" she asked faintly.

"Ma'am, the five pounds has disappeared for ever."

"Really Fritzi, you are too absurd about that wretched five pounds," cried Priscilla, blazing into anger.

"But it was all we had."

"All we--?"

"Ma'am, it was positively our last penny."

"I--don't understand."

He made her understand. With paper and pencil, with the bills and his own calculations, he made her understand. His hands shook, but he went through with it item by item, through everything they had spent from the moment they left Kunitz. They were in such a corner, so tightly jammed, that all efforts to hide it and pretend there was no corner seemed to him folly. He now saw that such efforts always had been folly, and that he ought to have seen to it that her mind on this important point was from the first perfectly clear; then nothing would have happened. "You have had the misfortune, ma'am, to choose a fool for your protector in this adventure," he said bitterly, pushing the papers from him as though he loathed the sight of them.

Priscilla sat dumfoundered. She was looking quite straight for the first time at certain pitiless aspects of life. For the first time she was face to face with the sternness, the hardness, the relentlessness of everything that has to do with money so soon as one has not got any. It seemed almost incredible to her that she who had given so lavishly to anybody and everybody, who had been so glad to give, who had thought of money when she thought of it at all as a thing to be passed on, as a thing that soiled one unless it was passed on, but that, passed on, became strangely glorified and powerful for good--it seemed incredible that she should be in need of it herself, and unable to think of a single person who would give her some. And what a little she needed: just to tide them over the next week or two till they had got theirs from home; yet even that little, the merest nothing compared to what she had flung about in the village, was as unattainable as though it had been a fortune. "Can we--can we not borrow?" she said at last.

"Yes ma'am, we can and we must. I will proceed this evening to Symford Hall and borrow of Augustus."

"No," said Priscilla; so suddenly and so energetically that Fritzing started.

"No, ma'am?" he repeated, astonished. "Why, he is the very person. In fact he is our only hope. He must and shall help us."

"No," repeated Priscilla, still more energetically.

"Pray ma'am," said Fritzing, shrugging his shoulders, "are these women's whims--I never comprehended them rightly and doubt if I ever shall--are they to be allowed to lead us even in dangerous crises? To lead us to certain shipwreck, ma'am? The alternatives in this case are three. Permit me to point them out. Either we return to Kunitz--"

"Oh," shivered Priscilla, shrinking as from a blow.

"Or, after a brief period of starvation and other violent discomfort, we are cast into gaol for debt--"

"Oh?" shivered Priscilla, in tones of terrified inquiry.

"Or, I borrow of Augustus."

"No," said Priscilla, just as energetically as before.

"Augustus is wealthy. Augustus is willing. Ma'am, I would stake my soul that he is willing."

"You shall not borrow of him," said Priscilla. "He--he's too ill."

"Well then, ma'am," said Fritzing with a gesture of extreme exasperation, "since you cannot be allowed to be cast into gaol there remains but Kunitz. Like the dogs of the Scriptures we will return--"

"Why not borrow of the vicar?" interrupted Priscilla. "Surely he would be glad to help any one in difficulties?"

"Of the vicar? What, of the father of the young man who insulted your Grand Ducal Highness and whom I propose to kill in duel my first leisure moment? Ma'am, there are depths of infamy to which even a desperate man will not descend."

Priscilla dug holes in the tablecloth with the point of the pencil. "I can't conceive," she said, "why you gave Annalise all that money. So much."

"Why, ma'am, she refused, unless I did, to prepare your Grand Ducal Highness's tea."

"Oh Fritzi!" Priscilla looked up at him, shaking her head and smiling through all her troubles. Was ever so much love and so much folly united in one wise old man? Was ever, for that matter, so expensive a tea?

"I admit I permitted the immediate, the passing, moment to blot out the future from my clearer vision on that occasion."

"On that occasion? Oh Fritzi. What about all the other occasions? When you gave me all I asked for--for the poor people, for my party. You must have suffered tortures of anxiety. And all by yourself. Oh Fritzi. It was dear of you--perfectly, wonderfully, dear. But you ought to have been different with me from the beginning--treated me exactly as you would have treated a real niece--"

"Ma'am," cried Fritzing, jumping up, "this is waste of time. Our case is very urgent. Money must be obtained. You must allow me to judge in this matter, however ill I have acquitted myself up to now. I shall start at once for Symford Hall and obtain a loan of Augustus."

Priscilla pushed back her chair and got up too. "My dear Fritzi, please leave that unfortunate young man out of the question," she said, flushing. "How can you worry a person who is ill in bed with such things?"

"His mother is not ill in bed and will do quite as well. I am certainly going."

"You are not going. I won't have you ask his mother. I--forbid you to do anything of the sort. Oh Fritzi," she added in despair, for he had picked up the hat and stick he had flung down on coming in and was evidently not going to take the least notice of her commands--"oh Fritzi, you can't ask Tussie for money. It would kill him to know we were in difficulties."

"Kill him, ma'am? Why should it kill him?" shouted Fritzing, exasperated by such a picture of softness.

"It wouldn't only kill him--it would be simply too dreadful besides," said Priscilla, greatly distressed. "Why, he asked me this afternoon--wasn't going to tell you, but you force me to--he asked me this very afternoon to marry him, and the dreadful part is that I'm afraid he thinks--he hopes--that I'm going to."