Chapter XXIII
 

"Hullo," said the Prince, who spoke admirable English.

Priscilla could only stare.

His instinct was to repeat the exclamation which he felt represented his feelings very exactly, for her appearance--clothes, expression, everything--astonished him, but he doubted whether it would well bear repeating. "Is this where you are staying?" he inquired instead.

"Yes," said Priscilla.

"May I come in?"

"Yes," said Priscilla.

He followed her into her parlour. He looked at her critically as she walked slowly before him, from head to foot he looked at her critically; at every inch of the shabby serge gown, at the little head with its badly arranged hair, at the little heel that caught in an unmended bit of braid, at the little shoe with its bow of frayed ribbon, and he smiled broadly behind his moustache. But when she turned round he was perfectly solemn.

"I suppose," said the Prince, putting his hands in his pockets and gazing about the room with an appearance of cheerful interest, "this is what one calls a snug little place."

Priscilla stood silent. She felt as though she had been shaken abruptly out of sleep. Her face even now after the soul-rending time she had been having, in spite of the shadows beneath the eyes, the droop at the corners of the mouth, in spite, too, it must be said of the flagrantly cottage fashion in which Annalise had done her hair, seemed to the Prince so extremely beautiful, so absolutely the face of his dearest, best desires, so limpid, apart from all grace of colouring and happy circumstance of feature, with the light of a sweet and noble nature, so manifestly the outward expression of an indwelling lovely soul, that his eyes, after one glance round the room, fixed themselves upon it and never were able to leave it again.

For a minute or two she stood silent, trying to collect her thoughts, trying to shake off the feeling that she was being called back to life out of a dream. It had not been a dream, she kept telling herself--bad though it was it had not been a dream but the reality; and this man dropped suddenly in to the middle of it from another world, he was the dream, part of the dream she had rebelled against and run away from a fortnight before.

Then she looked at him, and she knew she was putting off her soul with nonsense. Never was anybody less like a dream than the Prince; never was anybody more squarely, more certainly real. And he was of her own kind, of her own world. He and she were equals. They could talk together plainly, baldly, a talk ungarnished and unretarded by deferences on the one side and on the other a kindness apt to become excessive in its anxiety not to appear to condescend. The feeling that once more after what seemed an eternity she was with an equal was of a singular refreshment. During those few moments in which they stood silent, facing each other, in spite of her efforts to keep it out, in spite of really conscientious efforts, a great calm came in and spread over her spirit. Yet she had no reason to feel calm she thought, struggling. Was there not rather cause for an infinity of shame? What had he come for? He of all people. The scandalously jilted, the affronted, the run away from. Was it because she had been looking so long at Fritzing that this man seemed so nicely groomed? Or at Tussie, that he seemed so well put together? Or at Robin, that he seemed so modest? Was it because people's eyes--Mrs. Morrison's, Lady Shuttleworth's--had been so angry lately whenever they rested on her that his seemed so very kind? No; she did remember thinking them that, even being struck by them, when she saw him first in Kunitz. A dull red crept into her face when she remembered that day and what followed. "It isn't very snug," she said at last, trying to hide by a careful coldness of speech all the strange things she was feeling. "When it rains there are puddles by the door. The door, you see, opens into the street."

"I see," said the Prince.

There was a silence.

"I don't suppose you really do," said Priscilla, full of strange feelings.

"My dear cousin?"

"I don't know if you've come to laugh at me?"

"Do I look as if I had?"

"I dare say you think--because you've not been through it yourself--that it--it's rather ridiculous."

"My dear cousin," protested the Prince.

Her lips quivered. She had gone through much, and she had lived for two days only on milk.

"Do you wipe the puddles up, or does old Fritzing?"

"You see you have come to laugh."

"I hope you'll believe that I've not. Must I be gloomy?"

"How do you know Fritzing's here?"

"Why everybody knows that."

"Everybody?" There was an astonished pause. "How do you know we're here--here, in Creeper Cottage?"

"Creeper Cottage is it? I didn't know it had a name. Do you have so many earwigs?"

"How did you know we were in Symford?"

"Why everybody knows that."

Priscilla was silent. Again she felt she was being awakened from a dream.

"I've met quite a lot of interesting people since I saw you last," he said. "At least, they interested me because they all knew you."

"Knew me?"

"Knew you and that old scound--the excellent Fritzing. There's an extremely pleasant policeman, for instance, in Kunitz--"

"Oh," said Priscilla, starting and turning red. She could not think of that policeman without crisping her fingers.

"He and I are intimate friends. And there's a most intelligent person--really a most helpful, obliging person--who came with you from Dover to Ullerton."

"With us?"

"I found the conversation, too, of the ostler at the Ullerton Arms of immense interest."

"But what--"

"And last night I slept at Baker's Farm, and spent a very pleasant evening with Mrs. Pearce."

"But why--"

"She's an instructive woman. Her weakest point, I should say, is her junkets."

"I wonder why you bother to talk like this--to be sarcastic."

"About the junkets? Didn't you think they were bad?"

"Do you suppose it's worth while to--to kick somebody who's down? And so low down? So completely got to the bottom?"

"Kick? On my soul I assure you that the very last thing I want to do is to kick you."

"Then why do you do it?"

"I don't do it. Do you know what I've come for?"

"Is my father round the corner?"

"Nobody's round the corner. I've muzzled your father. I've come quite by myself. And do you know why?"

"No," said Priscilla, shortly, defiantly; adding before he could speak, "I can't imagine." And adding to that, again before he could speak, "Unless it's for the fun of hunting down a defenceless quarry."

"I say, that's rather picturesque," said the Prince with every appearance of being struck.

Priscilla blushed. In spite of herself every word they said to each other made her feel more natural, farther away from self-torment and sordid fears, nearer to that healthy state of mind, swamped out of her lately, when petulance comes more easily than meekness. The mere presence of the Prince seemed to set things right, to raise her again in her own esteem. There was undoubtedly something wholesome about the man, something everyday and reassuring, something dependable and sane. The first smile for I don't know how long came and cheered the corners of her mouth. "I'm afraid I've grown magniloquent since--since--"

"Since you ran away?"

She nodded. "Fritzing, you know, is most persistently picturesque. I think it's catching. But he's wonderful," she added quickly,--"most wonderful in patience and goodness."

"Oh everybody knows he's wonderful. Where is the great man?"

"In the next room. Do you want him?"

"Good Lord, no. You've not told me what you suppose I've come for."

"I did. I told you I couldn't imagine."

"It's for a most saintly, really nice reason. Guess."

"I can't guess."

"Oh but try."

Priscilla to her extreme disgust felt herself turning very red. "I suppose to spy out the nakedness of the land," she said severely.

"Now you're picturesque again. You must have been reading a tremendous lot lately. Of course you would, with that learned old fossil about. No my dear, I've come simply to see if you are happy."

She looked at him, and her flush slowly died away.

"Simply to convince myself that you are happy."

Her eyes filling with tears she thought it more expedient to fix them on the table-cloth. She did fix them on it, and the golden fringe of eyelashes that he very rightly thought so beautiful lay in long dusky curves on her serious face. "It's extraordinarily nice of you if--if it's true," she said.

"But it is true. And if you are, if you tell me you are and I'm able to believe it, I bow myself out, dear cousin, and shall devote any energies I have left after doing that to going on muzzling your father. He shall not, I promise you, in any way disturb you. Haven't I kept him well in hand up to this?"

She raised her eyes to his. "Was it you keeping him so quiet?"

"It was, my dear. He was very restive. You've no notion of all the things he wanted to do. It wanted a pretty strong hand, and a light one too, I can tell you. But I was determined you should have your head. That woman Disthal--"

Priscilla started.

"You don't like her?" inquired the Prince sympathetically.

"No."

"I was afraid you couldn't. But I didn't know how to manage that part. She's in London."

Priscilla started again. "I thought--I thought she was in bed," she said.

"She was, but she got out again. Your--departure cured her."

"Didn't you tell me nobody was round the corner?"

"Well, you don't call London round the corner? I wouldn't let her come any nearer to you. She's waiting there quite quietly."

"What is she waiting for?" asked Priscilla quickly.

"Come now, she's your lady in waiting you know. It seems natural enough she should wait, don't it?"

"No," said Priscilla, knitting her eyebrows.

"Don't frown. She had to come too. She's brought some of your women and a whole lot"--he glanced at the blue serge suit and put his hand up to his moustache--"a whole lot of clothes."

"Clothes?" A wave of colour flooded her face. She could not help it at the moment any more than a starving man can help looking eager when food is set before him. "Oh," she said, "I hope they're the ones I was expecting from Paris?"

"I should think it very likely. There seem to be a great many. I never saw so many boxes for one little cousin."

Priscilla made a sudden movement with her hands. "You can't think," she said, "how tired I am of this dress."

"Yes I can," the Prince assured her.

"I've worn it every day."

"You must have."

"Every single day since the day I--I--"

"The day you ran away from me."

She blushed. "I didn't run away from you. At least, not exactly. You were only the last straw."

"A nice thing for a man to be."

"I ran because--because--oh, it's a long story, and I'm afraid a very foolish one."

A gleam came into the Prince's eyes. He took a step nearer her, but immediately thinking better of it took it back again. "Perhaps," he said pleasantly, "only the beginning was foolish, and you'll settle down after a bit and get quite fond of Creeper Cottage."

She looked at him startled.

"You see my dear it was rather tremendous what you did. You must have been most fearfully sick of things at Kunitz. I can well understand it. You couldn't be expected to like me all at once. And if I had to have that Disthal woman at my heels wherever I went I'd shoot myself. What you've done is much braver really than shooting one's self. But the question is do you like it as much as you thought you would?"

Priscilla gave him a swift look, and said nothing.

"If you don't, there's the Disthal waiting for you with all those charming frocks, and all you've got to do is to put them on and go home."

"But I can't go home. How can I? I am disgraced. My father would never let me in."

"Oh I'd arrange all that. I don't think you'd find him angry if you followed my advice very carefully. On the other hand, if you like this and want to stay on there's nothing more to be said. I'll say good-bye, and promise you shall be left in peace. You shall be left to be happy entirely in your own way."

Priscilla was silent.

"You don't--look happy," he said, scrutinizing her face.

She was silent.

"You've got very thin. How did you manage that in such a little while?"

"We've muddled things rather," she said with an ashamed sort of smile. "On the days when I was hungry there wasn't anything to eat, and then when there were things I wasn't hungry."

The Prince looked puzzled. "Didn't that old scamp--I mean didn't the excellent Fritzing bring enough money?"

"He thought he did, but it wasn't enough."

"Is it all gone?"

"We're in debt."

Again he put his hand up to his moustache. "Well I'll see to all that, of course," he said gravely. "And when that has been set right you're sure you'll like staying on here?"

She summoned all her courage, and looked at him for an instant straight in the face. "No," she said.

"No?"

"No."

There was another silence. He was standing on the hearthrug, she on the other side of the table; but the room was so small that by putting out his hand he could have touched her. A queer expression was in his eyes as he looked at her, an expression entirely at variance with his calm and good-natured talk, the exceedingly anxious expression of a man who knows his whole happiness is quivering in the balance. She did not see it, for she preferred to look at the table-cloth.

"Dreadful things have happened here," she said in a low voice.

"What sort?"

"Horrid sorts. Appalling sorts."

"Tell me."

"I couldn't bear to."

"But I think I know."

She looked at him astonished.

"Mrs. Pearce--"

"She told you?"

"What she knew she told me. Perhaps there's something she doesn't know."

Priscilla remembered Robin, and blushed.

"Yes, she told me about that," said the Prince nodding.

"About what?" asked Priscilla, startled.

"About the squire intending to marry you."

"Oh," said Priscilla.

"It seems hard on him, don't it? Has it struck you that such things are likely to occur pretty often to Miss Maria-Theresa Ethel Neumann-Schultz?"

"I'm afraid you really have come only to laugh," said Priscilla, her lips quivering.

"I swear it's only to see if you are happy."

"Well, see then." And throwing back her head with a great defiance she looked at him while her eyes filled with tears; and though they presently brimmed over, and began to drop down pitifully one by one, she would not flinch but went on looking.

"I see," said the Prince quietly. "And I'm convinced. Of course, then, I shall suggest your leaving this."

"I want to."

"And putting yourself in the care of the Disthal."

Priscilla winced.

"Only her temporary care. Quite temporary. And letting her take you back to Kunitz."

Priscilla winced again.

"Only temporarily," said the Prince.

"But my father would never--"

"Yes my dear, he will. He'll be delighted to see you. He'll rejoice."

"Rejoice?"

"I assure you he will. You've only got to do what I tell you."

"Shall you--come too?"

"If you'll let me."

"But then--but then--"

"Then what, my dear?"

She looked at him, and her face changed slowly from white to red and red to white again. Fritzing's words crossed her mind--"If you marry him you will be undoubtedly eternally lost," and her very soul cried out that they were folly. Why should she be eternally lost? What cobwebs were these, cobwebs of an old brain preoccupied with shadows, dusty things to be swept away at the first touch of Nature's vigorous broom? Indeed she thought it far more likely that she would be eternally found. But she was ashamed of herself, ashamed of all she had done, ashamed of the disgraceful way she had treated this man, terribly disillusioned, terribly out of conceit with herself, and she stood there changing colour, hanging her head, humbled, penitent, every shred of the dignity she had been trained to gone, simply somebody who has been very silly and is very sorry.

The Prince put out his hand.

She pretended not to see it.

The Prince came round the table. "You know," he said, "our engagement hasn't been broken off yet?"

Her instinct was to edge away, but she would not stoop to edging. "Was it ever made?" she asked, not able to induce her voice to rise above a whisper.

"Practically."

There was another silence.

"Why, then--" began Priscilla, for the silence had come to be more throbbing, more intolerably expressive than any speech.

"Yes?" encouraged the Prince, coming very close.

She turned her head slowly. "Why, then--" said Priscilla again, her face breaking into a smile, half touched, half mischievous, wholly adorable.

"I think so too," said the Prince; and he shut her mouth with a kiss.

       *       *       *       *       *

"And now," said the Prince some time afterwards, "let us go to that old sinner Fritzing."

Priscilla hung back, reluctant to deal this final blow to the heart that had endured so many. "He'll be terribly shocked," she said.

But the Prince declared it had to be done; and hand in hand they went out into the street, and opening Fritzing's door stood before him.

He was still absorbed in his Aeschylus, had been sitting absorbed in the deeds of the dead and departed, of the long dead Xerxes, the long dead Darius, the very fish, voiceless but voracious, long since as dead as the most shredded of the sailors,--he had been sitting absorbed in these various corpses all the while that in the next room, on the other side of a few inches of plaster and paper, so close you would have thought his heart must have burned within him, so close you would have thought he must be scorched, the living present had been pulsing and glowing, beating against the bright bars of the future, stirring up into alertness a whole row of little red-headed souls till then asleep, souls with golden eyelashes, souls eager to come and be princes and princesses of--I had almost revealed the mighty nation's name. A shadow fell across his book, and looking up he saw the two standing before him hand in hand.

Priscilla caught her breath: what white anguish was going to flash into his face when he grasped the situation? Judge then of her amazement, her hesitation whether to be pleased or vexed, to laugh or cry, when, grasping it, he leaped to his feet and in tones of a most limitless, a most unutterable relief, shouted three times running "Gott sei Dank!"