The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
They fled on bicycles in the dusk. The goddess Good Luck, who seems to have a predilection for sinners, helped them in a hundred ways. Without her they would certainly not have got far, for both were very ignorant of the art of running away. Once flight was decided on Fritzing planned elaborately and feverishly, got things thought out and arranged as well as he, poor harassed man, possibly could. But what in this law-bound world can sinners do without the help of Luck? She, amused and smiling dame, walked into the castle and smote the Countess Disthal with influenza, crushing her down helpless into her bed, and holding her there for days by the throat. While one hand was doing this, with the other she gaily swept the Grand Duke into East Prussia, a terrific distance, whither, all unaware of how he was being trifled with, he thought he was being swept by an irresistible desire to go, before the business of Priscilla's public betrothal should begin, and shoot the roebucks of a friend.
The Countess was thrust into her bed at noon of a Monday in October. At three the Grand Duke started for East Prussia, incognito in a motor--you know the difficulty news has in reaching persons in motors. At four one of Priscilla's maids, an obscure damsel who had been at the mercy of the others and was chosen because she hated them, tripped out of the castle with shining eyes and pockets heavy with bribes, and caused herself to be whisked away by the afternoon express to Cologne. At six, just as the castle guard was being relieved, two persons led their bicycles through the archway and down across the bridge. It was dark, and nobody recognized them. Fritzing was got up sportingly, almost waggishly--heaven knows his soul was not feeling waggish--as differently as possible from his usual sober clothes. Somehow he reminded Priscilla of a circus, and she found it extremely hard not to laugh. On his head he had a cap with ear-pieces that hid his grey hair; round his neck a gaudy handkerchief muffled well about his face; immense goggles cloaked the familiar overhanging eyebrows and deep-set eyes, goggles curiously at variance with the dapper briskness of his gaitered legs. The Princess was in ordinary blue serge, short and rather shabby, it having been subjected for hours daily during the past week to rough treatment by the maid now travelling to Cologne. As for her face and hair, they were completely hidden in the swathings of a motor-veil.
The sentinels stared rather as these two figures pushed their bicycles through the gates, and undoubtedly did for some time afterwards wonder who they could have been. The same thing happened down below on the bridge; but once over that and in the town all they had to do was to ride straight ahead. They were going to bicycle fifteen miles to Ruehl, a small town with a railway station on the main line between Kunitz and Cologne. Express trains do not stop at Ruehl, but there was a slow train at eight which would get them to Gerstein, the capital of the next duchy, by midnight. Here they would change into the Cologne express; here they would join the bribed maid; here luggage had been sent by Fritzing,--a neat bag for himself, and a neat box for his niece. The neat box was filled with neat garments suggested to him by the young lady in the shop in Gerstein where he had been two days before to buy them. She told him of many other articles which, she said, no lady's wardrobe could be considered complete without; and the distracted man, fearing the whole shop would presently be put into trunks and sent to the station to meet them, had ended by flinging down two notes for a hundred marks each and bidding her keep strictly within that limit. The young lady became very scornful. She told him that she had never heard of any one being clothed from head to foot inside and out, even to brushes, soap, and an umbrella, for two hundred marks. Fritzing, in dread of conspicuous masses of luggage, yet staggered by the girl's conviction, pulled out a third hundred mark note, but added words in his extremity of so strong and final a nature, that she, quailing, did keep within this limit, and the box was packed. Thus Priscilla's outfit cost almost exactly fifteen pounds. It will readily be imagined that it was neat.
Painfully the two fugitives rode through the cobbled streets of Kunitz. Priscilla was very shaky on a bicycle, and so was Fritzing. Some years before this, when it had been the fashion, she had bicycled every day in the grand ducal park on the other side of the town. Then, tired of it, she had given it up; and now for the last week or two, ever since Fritzing had told her that if they fled it would have to be on bicycles, she had pretended a renewed passion for it, riding every day round and round a circle of which the chilled and astonished Countess Disthal, whose duty it was to stand and watch, had been the disgusted central point. But the cobbles of Kunitz are very different from those smooth places in the park. All who bicycle round Kunitz know them as trying to the most skilful. Naturally, then, the fugitives advanced very slowly, Fritzing's heart in his mouth each time they passed a brightly-lit shop or a person who looked at them. Conceive how nearly this poor heart must have jumped right out of his mouth, leaving him dead, when a policeman who had been watching them strode suddenly into the middle of the street, put up his hand, and said, "Halt."
Fritzing, unstrung man, received a shock so awful that he obeyed by falling off. Priscilla, wholly unused to being told to halt and absorbed by the difficulties of the way, did not grasp that the order was meant for her and rode painfully on. Seeing this, the policeman very gallantly removed her from her bicycle by putting his arms round her and lifting her off. He set her quite gently on her feet, and was altogether a charming policeman, as unlike those grim and ghastly eyes of the law that glare up and down the streets of, say, Berlin, as it is possible to imagine.
But Priscilla was perfectly molten with rage, insulted as she had never been in her life. "How dare you--how dare you," she stammered, suffocating; and forgetting everything but an overwhelming desire to box the giant's ears she had actually raised her hand to do it, which would of course have been the ruin of her plan and the end of my tale, when Fritzing, recovering his presence of mind, cried out in tones of unmistakable agony, "Niece, be calm."
She calmed at once to a calm of frozen horror.
"Now, sir," said Fritzing, assuming an air of brisk bravery and guiltlessness, "what can we do for you?"
"Light your lamps," said the policeman, laconically.
They did; or rather Fritzing did, while Priscilla stood passive.
"I too have a niece," said the policeman, watching Fritzing at work; "but I light no lamps for her. One should not wait on one's niece. One's niece should wait on one."
Fritzing did not answer. He finished lighting the lamps, and then held Priscilla's bicycle and started her.
"I never did that for my niece," said the policeman.
"Confound your niece, sir," was on the tip of Fritzing's tongue; but he gulped it down, and remarking instead as pleasantly as he could that being an uncle did not necessarily prevent your being a gentleman, picked up his bicycle and followed Priscilla.
The policeman shook his head as they disappeared round the corner. "One does not light lamps for one's niece," he repeated to himself. "It's against nature. Consequently, though the peppery Fraeulein may well be somebody's niece she is not his."
"Oh," murmured Priscilla, after they had ridden some way without speaking, "I'm deteriorating already. For the first time in my life I've wanted to box people's ears."
"The provocation was great, ma'am," said Fritzing, himself shattered by the spectacle of his Princess being lifted about by a policeman.
"Do you think--" Priscilla hesitated, and looked at him. Her bicycle immediately hesitated too, and swerving across the road taught her it would have nothing looked at except its handles. "Do you think," she went on, after she had got herself straight again, "that the way I'm going to live now will make me want to do it often?"
"Heaven forbid, ma'am. You are now going to live a most noble life--the only fitting life for the thoughtful and the earnest. It will be, once you are settled, far more sheltered from contact with that which stirs ignoble impulses than anything your Grand Ducal Highness has hitherto known."
"If you mean policemen by things that stir ignoble impulses," said Priscilla, "I was sheltered enough from them before. Why, I never spoke to one. Much less"--she shuddered--"much less ever touched one."
"Ma'am, you do not repent?"
"Heavens, no," said Priscilla, pressing onward.
Outside Ruehl, about a hundred yards before its houses begin, there is a pond by the wayside. Into this, after waiting a moment peering up and down the dark road to see whether anybody was looking, Fritzing hurled the bicycles. He knew the pond was deep, for he had studied it the day he bought Priscilla's outfit; and the two bicycles one after the other were hurled remorsely into the middle of it, disappearing each in its turn with a tremendous splash and gurgle. Then they walked on quickly towards the railway station, infinitely relieved to be on their own feet again, and between them, all unsuspected, walked the radiant One with the smiling eyes, she who was half-minded to see this game through, giving the players just so many frights as would keep her amused, the fickle, laughing goddess Good Luck.
They caught the train neatly at Ruehl. They only had to wait about the station for ten minutes before it came in. Hardly any one was there, and nobody took the least notice of them. Fritzing, after a careful look round to see if it contained people he knew, put the Princess into a second-class carriage labelled Frauen, and then respectfully withdrew to another part of the train. He had decided that second-class was safest. People in that country nearly always travel second-class, especially women,--at all times in such matters more economical than men; and a woman by herself in a first-class carriage would have been an object of surmise and curiosity at every station. Therefore Priscilla was put into the carriage labelled Frauen, and found herself for the first time in her life alone with what she had hitherto only heard alluded to vaguely as the public.
She sat down in a corner with an odd feeling of surprise at being included in the category Frauen, and giving a swift timid glance through her veil at the public confronting her was relieved to find it consisted only of a comfortable mother and her child.
I know not why the adjective comfortable should so invariably be descriptive of mothers in Germany. In England and France though you may be a mother, you yet, I believe, may be so without being comfortable. In Germany, somehow, you can't. Perhaps it is the climate; perhaps it is the food; perhaps it is simply want of soul, or that your soul does not burn with a fire sufficiently consuming. Anyhow it is so. This mother had all the good-nature that goes with amplitude. Being engaged in feeding her child with belegte Broedchen--that immensely satisfying form of sandwich--she at once offered Priscilla one.
"No thank you," said Priscilla, shrinking into her corner.
"Do take one, Fraeulein," said the mother, persuasively.
"No thank you," said Priscilla, shrinking.
"On a journey it passes the time. Even if one is not hungry, thank God one can always eat. Do take one."
"No thank you," said Priscilla.
"Why does she wear that black thing over her face?" inquired the child. "Is she a witch?"
"Silence, silence, little worthless one," cried the mother, delightedly stroking his face with half a Broedchen. "You see he is clever, Fraeulein. He resembles his dear father as one egg does another."
"Does he?" said Priscilla, immediately conceiving a prejudice against the father.
"Why don't she take that black thing off?" said the child.
"Hush, hush, small impudence. The Fraeulein will take it off in a minute. The Fraeulein has only just got in."
"Mutti, is she a witch? Mutti, Mutti, is she a witch, Mutti?"
The child, his eyes fixed anxiously on Priscilla's swathed head, began to whimper.
"That child should be in bed," said Priscilla, with a severity born of her anxiety lest, to calm him, humanity should force her to put up her veil. "Persons who are as intelligent as that should never be in trains at night. Their brains cannot bear it. Would he not be happier if he lay down and went to sleep?"
"Yes, yes; that is what I have been telling him ever since we left Kunitz"--Priscilla shivered--"but he will not go. Dost thou hear what the Fraeulein says, Hans-Joachim?"
"Why don't she take that black thing off?" whimpered the child.
But how could the poor Princess, however anxious to be kind, take off her veil and show her well-known face to this probable inhabitant of Kunitz?
"Do take it off, Fraeulein," begged the mother, seeing she made no preparations to do so. "When he gets ideas into his head there is never peace till he has what he wants. He does remind me so much of his father."
"Did you ever," said Priscilla, temporizing, "try him with a little--just a little slap? Only a little one," she added hastily, for the mother looked at her oddly, "only as a sort of counter-irritant. And it needn't be really hard, you know--"
"Ach, she's a witch--Mutti, she's a witch!" shrieked the child, flinging his face, butter and all, at these portentous words, into his mother's lap.
"There, there, poor tiny one," soothed the mother, with an indignant side-glance at Priscilla. "Poor tiny man, no one shall slap thee. The Fraeulein does not allude to thee, little son. The Fraeulein is thinking of bad children such as the sons of Schultz and thy cousin Meyer. Fraeulein, if you do not remove your veil I fear he will have convulsions."
"Oh," said the unhappy Priscilla, getting as far into her corner as she could, "I'm so sorry--but I--but I really can't."
"She's a witch, Mutti!" roared the child, "I tell it to thee again--therefore is she so black, and must not show her face!"
"Hush, hush, shut thy little eyes," soothed the mother, putting her hand over them. To Priscilla she said, with an obvious dawning of distrust, "But Fraeulein, what reason can you have for hiding yourself?"
"Hiding myself?" echoed Priscilla, now very unhappy indeed, "I'm not hiding myself. I've got--I've got--I'm afraid I've got a--an affection of the skin. That's why I wear a veil."
"Ach, poor Fraeulein," said the mother, brightening at once into lively interest. "Hans-Joachim, sleep," she added sharply to her son, who tried to raise his head to interrupt with fresh doubts a conversation grown thrilling. "That is indeed a misfortune. It is a rash?"
"Oh, it's dreadful," said Priscilla, faintly.
"Ach, poor Fraeulein. When one is married, rashes no longer matter. One's husband has to love one in spite of rashes. But for a Fraeulein every spot is of importance. There is a young lady of my acquaintance whose life-happiness was shipwrecked only by spots. She came out in them at the wrong moment."
"Did she?" murmured Priscilla.
"You are going to a doctor?"
"Yes--that is, no--I've been."
"Ah, you have been to Kunitz to Dr. Kraus?"
"Y--es. I've been there."
"What does he say?"
"That I must always wear a veil."
"Because it looks so bad?"
"I suppose so."
There was a silence. Priscilla lay back in her corner exhausted, and shut her eyes. The mother stared fixedly at her, one hand mechanically stroking Hans-Joachim, the other holding him down.
"When I was a girl," said the mother, so suddenly that Priscilla started, "I had a good deal of trouble with my skin. Therefore my experience on the subject is great. Show me your face, Fraeulein--I might be able to tell you what to do to cure it."
"Oh, on no account--on no account whatever," cried Priscilla, sitting up very straight and speaking with extraordinary emphasis. "I couldn't think of it--I really positively couldn't."
"But my dear Fraeulein, why mind a woman seeing it?"
"But what do you want to see it for?"
"I wish to help you."
"I don't want to be helped. I'll show it to nobody--to nobody at all. It's much too--too dreadful."
"Well, well, do not be agitated. Girls, I know, are vain. If any one can help you it will be Dr. Kraus. He is an excellent physician, is he not?"
"Yes," said Priscilla, dropping back into her corner.
"The Grand Duke is a great admirer of his. He is going to ennoble him."
"They say--no doubt it is gossip, but still, you know, he is a very handsome man--that the Countess von Disthal will marry him."
"Gracious!" cried Priscilla, startled, "what, whether he wants to or not?"
"No doubt he will want to. It would be a brilliant match for him."
"But she's at least a hundred. Why, she looks like his mother. And he is a person of no birth at all."
"Birth? He is of course not noble yet, but his family is excellent. And since it is not possible to have as many ailments as she has and still be alive, some at least must be feigned. Why, then, should she feign if it is not in order to see the doctor? They were saying in Kunitz that she sent for him this very day."
"Yes, she did. But she's really ill this time. I'm afraid the poor thing caught cold watching--dear me, only see how sweetly your little boy sleeps. You should make Levallier paint him in that position."
"Ah, he looks truly lovely, does he not. Exactly thus does his dear father look when asleep. Sometimes I cannot sleep myself for joy over the splendid picture. What is the matter with the Countess Disthal? Did Dr. Kraus tell you?"
"No, no. I--I heard something--a rumour."
"Ah, something feigned again, no doubt. Well, it will be a great match for him. You know she is lady-in-waiting to the Princess Priscilla, the one who is so popular and has such red hair? The Countess has an easy life. The other two Princesses have given their ladies a world of trouble, but Priscilla--oh, she is a model. Kunitz is indeed proud of her. They say in all things she is exactly what a Princess should be, and may be trusted never to say or do anything not entirely fitting her station. You have seen her? She often drives through the town, and then the people all run and look as pleased as if it were a holiday. We in Gerstein are quite jealous. Our duchy has no such princess to show. Do you think she is so beautiful? I have often seen her, and I do not think she is. People exaggerate everything so about a princess. My husband does not admire her at all. He says it is not what he calls classic. Her hair, for instance--but that one might get over. And people who are really beautiful always have dark eyelashes. Then her nose--my husband often laughs, and says her nose--"
"Oh," said Priscilla, faintly, "I've got a dreadful headache. I think I'll try to sleep a little if you would not mind not talking."
"Yes, that hot thing round your face must be very trying. Now if you were not so vain--what does a rash matter when only women are present? Well, well, I will not tease you. Do you know many of the Kunitzers? Do you know the Levisohns well?"
"Oh," sighed Priscilla, laying her distracted head against the cushions and shutting her eyes, "who are they?"
"Who are they? Who are the Levisohns? But dearest Fraeulein if you know Kunitz you must know the Levisohns. Why, the Levisohns are Kunitz. They are more important far than the Grand Duke. They lend to it, and they lead it. You must know their magnificent shop at the corner of the Heiligengeiststrasse? Perhaps," she added, with a glance at the Princess's shabby serge gown, "you have not met them socially, but you must know the magnificent shop. We visit."
"Do you?" said Priscilla wearily, as the mother paused.
"And you know her story, of course?"
"Oh, oh," sighed Priscilla, turning her head from side to side on the cushions, vainly seeking peace.
"It is hardly a story for the ears of Fraeuleins."
"Please don't tell it, then."
"No, I will not. It is not for Fraeuleins. But one still sees she must have been a handsome woman. And he, Levisohn, was clever enough to see his way to Court favour. The Grand Duke--"
"I don't think I care to hear about the Levisohns," said Priscilla, sitting up suddenly and speaking with great distinctness. "Gossip is a thing I detest. None shall be talked in my presence."
"Hoity-toity," said the astonished mother; and it will easily be believed that no one had ever said hoity-toity to Priscilla before.
She turned scarlet under her veil. For a moment she sat with flashing eyes, and the hand lying in her lap twitched convulsively. Is it possible she was thinking of giving the comfortable mother that admonition which the policeman had so narrowly escaped? I know not what would have happened if the merry goddess, seeing things rushing to this dreadful climax, had not stopped the train in the nick of time at a wayside station and caused a breathless lady, pushing parcels before her, to clamber in. The mother's surprised stare was of necessity diverted to the new-comer. A parcel thrust into Priscilla's hands brought her back of necessity to her senses.
"Danke, Danke," cried the breathless lady, though no help had been offered; and hoisting herself in she wished both her fellow-passengers a boisterous good evening. The lady, evidently an able person, arranged her parcels swiftly and neatly in the racks, pulled up the windows, slammed the ventilators, stripped off her cloak, flung back her veil, and sitting down with a sigh of vast depth and length stared steadily for five minutes without wavering at the other two. At the end of that time she and the mother began, as with a common impulse, to talk. And at the end of five minutes more they had told each other where they were going, where they had been, what their husbands were, the number, age, and girth of their children, and all the adjectives that might most conveniently be used to describe their servants. The adjectives, very lurid ones, took some time. Priscilla shut her eyes while they were going on, thankful to be left quiet, feeling unstrung to the last degree; and she gradually dropped into an uneasy doze whose chief feature was the distressful repetition, like hammer-strokes on her brain, of the words, "You're deteriorating--deteriorating--deteriorating."
"Lieber Gott," she whispered at last, folding her hands in her lap, "don't let me deteriorate too much. Please keep me from wanting to box people's ears. Lieber Gott, it's so barbarous of me. I never used to want to. Please stop me wanting to now."
And after that she dropped off quite, into a placid little slumber.