The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
Let the reader now picture Priscilla coming downstairs the next morning, a golden Sunday morning full of Sabbath calm, and a Priscilla leaden-eyed and leaden-souled, her shabby garments worn out to a symbol of her worn out zeals, her face the face of one who has forgotten peace, her eyes the eyes of one at strife with the future, of one for ever asking "What next?" and shrinking with a shuddering "Oh please not that," from the bald reply.
Out of doors Nature wore her mildest, most beneficent aspect. She very evidently cared nothing for the squalid tragedies of human fate. Her hills were bathed in gentle light. Her sunshine lay warm along the cottage fronts. In the gardens her hopeful bees, cheated into thoughts of summer, droned round the pale mauves and purples of what was left of starworts. The grass in the churchyard sparkled with the fairy film of gossamers. Sparrows chirped. Robins whistled. And humanity gave the last touch to the picture by ringing the church bells melodiously to prayer.
Without doubt it was a day of blessing, supposing any one could be found willing to be blest. Let the reader, then, imagine this outward serenity, this divine calmness, this fair and light-flooded world, and within the musty walls of Creeper Cottage Priscilla coming down to breakfast, despair in her eyes and heart.
They breakfasted late; so late that it was done to the accompaniment, strangely purified and beautified by the intervening church walls and graveyard, of Mrs. Morrison's organ playing and the chanting of the village choir. Their door stood wide open, for the street was empty. Everybody was in church. The service was, as Mrs. Morrison afterwards remarked, unusually well attended. The voluntaries she played that day were Dead Marches, and the vicar preached a conscience-shattering sermon upon the text "Lord, who is it?"
He thought that Mrs. Jones's murderer must be one of his parishioners. It was a painful thought, but it had to be faced. He had lived so long shut out from gossip, so deaf to the ever-clicking tongue of rumour, that he had forgotten how far even small scraps can travel, and that the news of Mrs. Jones's bolster being a hiding-place for her money should have spread beyond the village never occurred to him. He was moved on this occasion as much as a man who has long ago given up being moved can be, for he had had a really dreadful two days with Mrs. Morrison, dating from the moment she came in with the news of the boxing of their only son's ears. He had, as the reader will have gathered, nothing of it having been recorded, refused to visit and reprimand Priscilla for this. He had found excuses for her. He had sided with her against his son. He had been as wholly, maddeningly obstinate as the extremely good sometimes are. Then came Mrs. Jones's murder. He was greatly shaken, but still refused to call upon Priscilla in connection with it, and pooh-poohed the notion of her being responsible for the crime as definitely as an aged saint of habitually grave speech can be expected to pooh-pooh at all. He said she was not responsible. He said, when his wife with all the emphasis apparently inseparable from the conversation of those who feel strongly, told him that he owed it to himself, to his parish, to his country, to go and accuse her, that he owed no man anything but to love one another. There was nothing to be done with the vicar. Still these scenes had not left him scathless, and it was a vicar moved to the utmost limits of his capacity in that direction who went into the pulpit that day repeating the question "Who is it?" so insistently, so appealingly, with such searching glances along the rows of faces in the pews, that the congregation, shuffling and uncomfortable, looked furtively at each other with an ever growing suspicion and dislike. The vicar as he went on waxing warmer, more insistent, observed at least a dozen persons with guilt on every feature. It darted out like a toad from the hiding-place of some private ooze at the bottom of each soul into one face after the other; and there was a certain youth who grew so visibly in guilt, who had so many beads of an obviously guilty perspiration on his forehead, and eyes so guiltily starting from their sockets, that only by a violent effort of self-control could the vicar stop himself from pointing at him and shouting out then and there "Thou art the man!"
Meanwhile the real murderer had hired a waggonette and was taking his wife for a pleasant country drive.
It was to pacify Fritzing that Priscilla came down to breakfast. Left to herself she would by preference never have breakfasted again. She even drank more milk to please him; but though it might please him, no amount of milk could wash out the utter blackness of her spirit. He, seeing her droop behind the jug, seeing her gazing drearily at nothing in particular, jumped up and took a book from the shelves and without more ado began to read aloud. "It is better, ma'am," he explained briefly, glancing at her over his spectacles, "than that you should give yourself over to gloom."
Priscilla turned vague eyes on to him. "How can I help gloom?" she asked.
"Yes, yes, that may be. But nobody should be gloomy at breakfast. The entire day is very apt, in consequence, to be curdled."
"It will be curdled anyhow," said Priscilla, her head sinking on to her chest.
"Ma'am, listen to this."
And with a piece of bread and butter in one hand, from which he took occasional hurried bites, and the other raised in appropriate varying gesticulation, Fritzing read portions of the Persae of Aeschylus to her, first in Greek for the joy of his own ear and then translating it into English for the edification of hers. He, at least, was off after the first line, sailing golden seas remote and glorious, places where words were lovely and deeds heroic, places most beautiful and brave, most admirably, most restfully unlike Creeper Cottage. He rolled out the sentences, turning them on his tongue, savouring them, reluctant to let them go. She sat looking at him, wondering how he could possibly even for an instant forget the actual and the present.
"'Xerxes went forth, Xerxes perished, Xerxes mismanaged all things in the depths of the sea--'" declaimed Fritzing.
"He must have been like us," murmured Priscilla.
"'O for Darius the scatheless, the protector! No woman ever mourned for deed of his--'"
"What a nice man," sighed Priscilla. "'O for Darius!'"
"Ma'am, if you interrupt how can I read? And it is a most beautiful passage."
"But we do want a Darius badly," moaned Priscilla.
"'The ships went forth, the grey-faced ships, like to each other as bird is to bird, the ships and all they carried perished, the ships perished by the hand of the Greeks. The king, 'tis said, escapes, but hardly, by the plains of Thrace and the toilsome ways, and behind him he leaves his first-fruits--sailors unburied on the shores of Salamis. Then grieve, sting yourselves to grief, make heaven echo, howl like dogs for the horror, for they are battered together by the terrible waters, they are shredded to pieces by the voiceless children of the Pure. The house has no master--'"
"Fritzi, I wish you'd leave off," implored Priscilla. "It's quite as gloomy as anything I was thinking."
"But ma'am the difference is that it is also beautiful, whereas the gloom at present enveloping us is mere squalor. 'The voiceless children of the Pure--' how is that, ma'am, for beauty?"
"I don't even know what it means," sighed Priscilla.
"Ma'am, it is an extremely beautiful manner of alluding to fish."
"I don't care," said Priscilla.
"Ma'am, is it possible that the blight of passing and outward circumstance has penetrated to and settled upon what should always be of a sublime inaccessibility, your soul?"
"I don't care about the fish," repeated Priscilla listlessly. Then with a sudden movement she pushed back her chair and jumped up. "Oh," she cried, beating her hands together, "don't talk to me of fish when I can't see an inch--oh not a single inch into the future!"
Fritzing looked at her, his finger on the page. Half of him was still at the bottom of classic seas with the battered and shredded sailors. How much rather would he have stayed there, have gone on reading Aeschylus a little, have taken her with him for a brief space of serenity into that moist refuge from the harassed present, have forgotten at least for one morning the necessity, the dreariness of being forced to face things, to talk over, to decide. Besides, what could he decide? The unhappy man had no idea. Nor had Priscilla. To stay in Symford seemed impossible, but to leave it seemed still more so. And sooner than go back disgraced to Kunitz and fling herself at paternal feet which would in all probability immediately spurn her, Priscilla felt she would die. But how could she stay in Symford, surrounded by angry neighbours, next door to Tussie, with Robin coming back for vacations, with Mrs. Morrison hating her, with Lady Shuttleworth hating her, with Emma's father hating her, with the blood of Mrs. Jones on her head? Could one live peacefully in such an accursed place? Yet how could they go away? Even if they were able to compose their nerves sufficiently to make new plans they could not go because they were in debt.
"Fritzi," cried Priscilla with more passion than she had ever put into speech before, "life's too much for me--I tell you life's too much for me!" And with a gesture of her arms as though she would sweep it all back, keep it from surging over her, from choking her, she ran out into the street to get into her own room and be alone, pulling the door to behind her for fear he should follow and want to explain and comfort, leaving him with his Aeschylus in which, happening to glance sighing, he, enviable man, at once became again absorbed, and running blindly, headlong, as he runs who is surrounded and accompanied by a swarm of deadly insects which he vainly tries to out-distance, she ran straight into somebody coming from the opposite direction, ran full tilt, was almost knocked off her feet, and looking up with the impatient anguish of him who is asked to endure his last straw her lips fell apart in an utter and boundless amazement; for the person she had run against was that Prince--the last of the series, distinguished from the rest by his having quenched the Grand Duke's irrelevant effervescence by the simple expedient of saying Bosh--who had so earnestly desired to marry her.