The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
The only inhabitant of Creeper Cottage who slept that night was Annalise. Priscilla spent it walking up and down her bedroom, and Fritzing on the other side of the wall spent it walking up and down his. They could hear each other doing it; it was a melancholy sound. Once Priscilla was seized with laughter--a not very genial mirth, but still laughter--and had to fling herself on her bed and bury her face in the pillows lest Fritzing should hear so blood-curdling a noise. It was when their steps had fallen steadily together for several turns and the church clock, just as she was noticing this, had struck three. Not for this, to tramp up and down their rooms all night, not for this had they left Kunitz. The thought of all they had dreamed life in Creeper Cottage was going to be, of all they had never doubted it was going to be, of peaceful nights passed in wholesome slumber, of days laden with fruitful works, of evenings with the poets, came into her head and made this tormented marching suddenly seem intensely droll. She laughed into her pillow till the tears rolled down her face, and the pains she had to take to keep all sounds from reaching Fritzing only made her laugh more.
It was a windy night, and the wind sighed round the cottage and rattled the casements and rose every now and then to a howl very dreary to hear. While Priscilla was laughing a great gust shook the house, and involuntarily she raised her head to listen. It died away, and her head dropped back on to her arms again, but the laughter was gone. She lay solemn enough, listening to Fritzing's creakings, and thought of the past day and of the days to come till her soul grew cold. Surely she was a sort of poisonous weed, fatal to every one about her? Fritzing, Tussie, the poor girl Emma--oh, it could not be true about Emma. She had lost the money, and was trying to gather courage to come and say so; or she had simply not been able to change it yet. Fritzing had jumped to the conclusion, because nothing had been heard of her all day at home, that she had run away with it. Priscilla twisted herself about uneasily. It was not the loss of the five pounds that made her twist, bad though that loss was in their utter poverty; it was the thought that if Emma had really run away she, by her careless folly, had driven the girl to ruin. And then Tussie. How dreadful that was. At three in the morning, with the wailing wind rising and falling and the room black with the inky blackness of a moonless October night, the Tussie complication seemed to be gigantic, of a quite appalling size, threatening to choke her, to crush all the spring and youth out of her. If Tussie got well she was going to break his heart; if Tussie died it would be her fault. No one but herself was responsible for his illness, her own selfish, hateful self. Yes, she was a poisonous weed; a baleful, fatal thing, not fit for great undertakings, not fit for a noble life, too foolish to depart successfully from the lines laid down for her by other people; wickedly careless; shamefully shortsighted; spoiling, ruining, everything she touched. Priscilla writhed. Nobody likes being forced to recognize that they are poisonous weeds. Even to be a plain weed is grievous to one's vanity, but to be a weed and poisonous as well is a very desperate thing to be. She passed a dreadful night. It was the worst she could remember.
And the evening too--how bad it had been; though contrary to her expectations Fritzing showed no desire to fight Tussie. He was not so unreasonable as she had supposed; and besides, he was too completely beaten down by the ever-increasing weight and number of his responsibilities to do anything in regard to that unfortunate youth but be sorry for him. More than once that evening he looked at Priscilla in silent wonder at the amount of trouble one young woman could give. How necessary, he thought, and how wise was that plan at which he used in his ignorance to rail, of setting an elderly female like the Disthal to control the actions and dog the footsteps of the Priscillas of this world. He hated the Disthal and all women like her, women with mountainous bodies and minimal brains--bodies self-indulged into shapelessness, brains neglected into disappearance; but the nobler and simpler and the more generous the girl the more did she need some such mixture of fleshliness and cunning constantly with her. It seemed absurd, and it seemed all wrong; yet surely it was so. He pondered over it long in dejected musings, the fighting tendency gone out of him completely for the time, so dark was his spirit with the shadows of the future.
They had borrowed the wages--it was a dreadful moment--for that day's cook from Annalise. For their food they decided to run up a bill at the store; but every day each fresh cook would have to be paid, and every day her wages would have to be lent by Annalise. Annalise lent superbly; with an air as of giving freely, with joy. All she required was the Princess's signature to a memorandum drawn up by herself by which she was promised the money back, doubled, within three months. Priscilla read this, flushed to her hair, signed, and ordered her out of the room. Annalise, who was beginning to enjoy herself, went upstairs singing. In the parlour Priscilla broke the pen she had signed with into quite small pieces and flung them on to the fire,--a useless demonstration, but then she was a quick-tempered young lady. In the attic Annalise sat down and wrote a letter breathing lofty sentiments to the Countess Disthal in Kunitz, telling her she could no longer keep silence in the face of a royal parent's anxieties and she was willing to reveal the address of the Princess Priscilla and so staunch the bleeding of a noble heart if the Grand Duke would forward her or forward to her parents on her behalf the sum of twenty thousand marks. Gladly would she render this service, which was at the same time her duty, for nothing, if she had not the future to consider and an infirm father. Meanwhile she gave the Symford post-office as an address, assuring the Countess that it was at least fifty miles from the Princess's present hiding-place, the address of which would only be sent on the conditions named. Then, immensely proud of her cleverness, she trotted down to the post-office, bought stamps, and put the letter herself in the box.
That evening she sang in the kitchen, she sang in the bath-room, she sang in the attic and on the stairs to the attic. What she sang, persistently, over and over again, and loudest outside Fritzing's door, was a German song about how beautiful it is at evening when the bells ring one to rest, and the refrain at the end of each verse was ding-dong twice repeated. Priscilla rang her own bell, unable to endure it, but Annalise did not consider this to be one of those that are beautiful and did not answer it till it had been rung three times.
"Do not sing," said Priscilla, when she appeared.
"Your Grand Ducal Highness objects?"
Priscilla turned red. "I'll give no reasons," she said icily. "Do not sing."
"Yet it is a sign of a light heart. Your Grand Ducal Highness did not like to see me weep--she should the more like to hear me rejoice."
"You can go."
"My heart to-night is light, because I am the means of being of use to your Grand Ducal Highness, of showing my devotion, of being of service."
"Do me the service of being quiet."
Annalise curtseyed and withdrew, and spent the rest of the evening bursting into spasmodic and immediately interrupted song,--breaking off after a few bars with a cough of remembrance and apology. When this happened Fritzing and Priscilla looked at each other with grave and meditative eyes; they knew how completely they were in her power.
Fritzing wrote that night to the friend in London who had engaged the rooms for him at Baker's Farm, and asked him to lend him fifty pounds for a week,--preferably three hundred (this would cover the furnisher's bill), but if he could lend neither five would do. The friend, a teacher of German, could as easily have lent the three hundred as the five, so poor was he, so fit an object for a loan himself; but long before his letter explaining this in words eloquent of regret (for he was a loyal friend) reached Fritzing, many things had happened to that bewildered man to whom so many things had happened already, and caused him to forget both his friend and his request.
This, then, was how the afternoon and evening of Thursday were passed; and on Friday morning, quite unstrung by their sleepless night, Priscilla and Fritzing were proposing to go up together on to the moor, there to seek width and freshness, be blown upon by moist winds, and forget for a little the crushing narrowness and perplexities of Creeper Cottage, when Mrs. Morrison walked in. She opened the door first and then, when half of her was inside, knocked with her knuckles, which were the only things to knock with on Priscilla's simple door.
Priscilla was standing by the fire dressed to go out, waiting for Fritzing, and she stared at this apparition in great and unconcealed surprise. What business, said Priscilla's look more plainly than any words, what business had people to walk into other people's cottages in such a manner? She stood quite still, and scrutinized Mrs. Morrison with the questioning expression she used to find so effective in Kunitz days when confronted by a person inclined to forget which, exactly, was his proper place. But Mrs. Morrison knew nothing of Kunitz, and the look lost half its potency without its impressive background. Besides, the lady was not one to notice things so slight as looks; to keep her in her proper place you would have needed sledge-hammers. She came in without thinking it necessary to wait to be asked to, nodded something that might perhaps have represented a greeting and of which Priscilla took no notice, and her face was the face of somebody who is angry.
"How wearing for the vicar," thought Priscilla, "to have a wife who is angry at ten o'clock in the morning."
"I've come in the interests--" began Mrs. Morrison, whose voice was quite as angry as her face.
"I'm just going out," said Priscilla.
"--Of religion and morality."
"Are they distinct?" asked Priscilla, drawing on her gloves.
"You can imagine that nothing would make me pay you a visit but the strongest sense of the duty I owe to my position in the parish."
"Why should I imagine it?"
"Of course I expect impertinence."
"I'm afraid you've come here to be rude."
"I shall not be daunted by anything you may say from doing my duty."
"Will you please do it, then, and get it over?"
"The duties of a clergyman's wife are often very disagreeable."
"Probably you've got hold of a perfectly wrong idea of what yours really are."
"It is a new experience for me to be told so by a girl of your age."
"I am not telling you. I only suggest."
"I was prepared for rudeness."
"Then why did you come?"
"How long are you going to stay in this parish?"
"You don't expect me to answer that?"
"You've not been in it a fortnight, and you have done more harm than most people in a lifetime."
"I'm afraid you exaggerate."
"You have taught it to drink."
"I gave a dying old woman what she most longed for."
"You've taught it to break the Sabbath."
"I made a great many little children very happy."
"You have ruined the habits of thrift we have been at such pains to teach and encourage for twenty-five years."
"I helped the poor when they asked me to."
"And now what I want to know is, what has become of the Hancock girl?"
"Pray who, exactly, is the Hancock girl?"
"That unfortunate creature who worked here for you on Wednesday."
Priscilla's face changed. "Emma?" she asked.
"Emma. At this hour the day before yesterday she was as good a girl as any in the village. She was good, and dutiful, and honest. Now what is she and where is she?"
"Has she--isn't she in her home?"
"She never went home."
"Then she did lose the money?"
"Lose it? She has stolen it. Do you not see you have deliberately made a thief out of an honest girl?"
Priscilla gazed in dismay at the avenging vicar's wife. It was true then, and she had the fatal gift of spoiling all she touched.
"And worse than that--you have brought a good girl to ruin. He'll never marry her now."
"Do you not know the person she was engaged to has gone with her?"
"I don't know anything."
"They walked from here to Ullerton and went to London. Her father came round to us yesterday after your uncle had been to him making inquiries, and it is all as clear as day. Till your uncle told him, he did not know about the money, and had been too--not well enough that day to notice Emma's not having come home. Your uncle's visit sobered him. We telegraphed to the police. They've been traced to London. That's all. Except," and she glared at Priscilla with all the wrath of a prophet whose denunciations have been justified, "except that one more life is ruined."
"I'm very sorry--very, very sorry," said Priscilla, so earnestly, so abjectly even, that her eyes filled with tears. "I see now how thoughtless it was of me."
"It was inexcusably thoughtless."
"Thoughtless!" cried Mrs. Morrison again.
"If you like, it was criminally thoughtless."
"Thoughtless!" cried Mrs. Morrison a third time.
"But it wasn't more than thoughtless. I'd give anything to be able to set it right. I am most truly grieved. But isn't it a little hard to make me responsible?"
Mrs. Morrison stared at her as one who eyes some strange new monster. "How amazingly selfish you are," she said at last, in tones almost of awe.
"Selfish?" faltered Priscilla, who began to wonder what she was not.
"In the face of such total ruin, such utter shipwreck, to be thinking of what is hard on you. You! Why, here you are with a safe skin, free from the bitter anxieties and temptations poor people have to fight with, with so much time unoccupied that you fill it up with mischief, with more money than you know what to do with"--Priscilla pressed her hands together--"sheltered, free from every care"--Priscilla opened her lips but shut them again--"and there is that miserable Emma, hopeless, branded, for ever an outcast because of you,--only because of you, and you think of yourself and talk of its being hard."
Priscilla looked at Mrs. Morrison, opened her mouth to say something, shut it, opened it again, and remarked very lamely that the heart alone knows its own bitterness.
"Psha," said Mrs. Morrison, greatly incensed at having the Scriptures, her own speciality, quoted at her. "I'd like to know what bitterness yours has known, unless it's the bitterness of a bad conscience. Now I've come here to-day"--she raised her voice to a note of warning--"to give you a chance. To make you think, by pointing out the path you are treading. You are young, and it is my duty to let no young person go downhill without one warning word. You have brought much evil on our village--why you, a stranger, should be bent on making us all unhappy I can't imagine. You hypocritically try to pretend that what plain people call evil is really good. But your last action, forcing Emma Hancock to be a thief and worse, even you cannot possibly defend. You have much on your conscience--far, far more than I should care to have on mine. How wicked to give all that money to Mrs. Jones. Don't you see you are tempting people who know she is defenceless to steal it from her? Perhaps even murder her? I saved her from that--you did not reckon with me, you see. Take my advice--leave Symford, and go back to where you came from"--Priscilla started--"and get something to do that will keep you fully occupied. If you don't, you'll be laying up a wretched, perhaps a degraded future for yourself. Don't suppose,"--her voice grew very loud--"don't suppose we are fools here and are not all of us aware of the way you have tried to lure young men on"--Priscilla started again--"in the hope, of course, of getting one of them to marry you. But your intentions have been frustrated luckily, in the one case by Providence flinging your victim on a bed of sickness and in the other by your having altogether mistaken the sort of young fellow you were dealing with."
Mrs. Morrison paused for breath. This last part of her speech had been made with an ever accumulating rage. Priscilla stood looking at her, her eyebrows drawn down very level over her eyes.
"My son is much too steady and conscientious, besides being too much accustomed to first-rate society, to stoop to anything so vulgar--"
"As myself?" inquired Priscilla.
"As a love-affair with the first stray girl he picks up."
"Do you mean me?"
"He saw through your intentions, laughed at them, and calmly returned to his studies at Cambridge."
"I boxed his ears."
"I boxed his ears."
"I boxed his ears. That's why he went. He didn't go calmly. It wasn't his studies."
"How dare you box--oh, this is too horrible--and you stand there and tell me so to my face?"
"I'm afraid I must. The tone of your remarks positively demands it. Your son's conduct positively demanded that I should box his ears. So I did."
"Of all the shameless--"
"I'm afraid you're becoming like him--altogether impossible."
"You first lure him on, and then--oh, it is shameful!"
"Have you finished what you came for?"
"You are the most brazen--"
"Hush. Do be careful. Suppose my uncle were to hear you? If you've finished won't you go?"
"Go? I shall not go till I have said my say. I shall send the vicar to you about Robin--such conduct is so--so infamous that I can't--I can't--I can't--"
"I'm sorry if it has distressed you."
"Distressed me? You are the most--"
"Really I think we've done, haven't we?" said Priscilla hurriedly, dreadfully afraid lest Fritzing should come in and hear her being called names.
"To think that you dared--to think that my--my noble boy--"
"He wasn't very noble. Mothers don't ever really know their sons, I think."
"Shameless girl!" cried Mrs. Morrison, so loud, so completely beside herself, that Priscilla hastily rang her bell, certain that Fritzing must hear and would plunge in to her rescue; and of all things she had learned to dread Fritzing's plunging to her rescue. "Open the door for this lady," she said to Annalise, who appeared with a marvellous promptitude; and as Mrs. Morrison still stood her ground and refused to see either Annalise or the door Priscilla ended the interview by walking out herself, with great dignity, into the bathroom.