The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
No better place than Symford can be imagined for those in search of a spot, picturesque and with creepers, where they may spend quiet years guiding their feet along the way of peace. It is one of the prettiest of English villages. It does and has and is everything the ideal village ought to. It nestles, for instance, in the folds of hills; it is very small, and far away from other places; its cottages are old and thatched; its little inn is the inn of a story-book, with a quaint signboard and an apparently genial landlord; its church stands beautifully on rising ground among ancient trees, besides being hoary; its vicarage is so charming that to see it makes you long to marry a vicar; its vicar is venerable, with an eye so mild that to catch it is to receive a blessing; pleasant little children with happy morning faces pick butter-cups and go a-nutting at the proper seasons and curtsey to you as you pass; old women with clean caps and suitable faces read their Bibles behind latticed windows; hearths are scrubbed and snowy; appropriate kettles simmer on hobs; climbing roses and trim gardens are abundant; and it has a lady bountiful of so untiring a kindness that each of its female inhabitants gets a new flannel petticoat every Christmas and nothing is asked of her in return but that she shall, during the ensuing year, be warm and happy and good. The same thing was asked, I believe, of the male inhabitants, who get comforters, and also that they should drink seltzer-water whenever their lower natures urged them to drink rum; but comforters are so much smaller than petticoats that the men of Symford's sense of justice rebelled, and since the only time they ever felt really warm and happy and good was when they were drinking rum they decided that on the whole it would be more in accordance with their benefactress's wishes to go on doing it.
Lady Shuttleworth, the lady from whom these comforters and petticoats proceeded, was a just woman who required no more of others than she required of herself, and who was busy and kind, and, I am sure happy and good, on cold water. But then she did not like rum; and I suppose there are few things quite so easy as not to drink rum if you don't like it. She lived at Symford Hall, two miles away in another fold of the hills, and managed the estate of her son who was a minor--at this time on the very verge of ceasing to be one--with great precision and skill. All the old cottages in Symford were his, and so were the farms dotted about the hills. Any one, therefore, seeking a cottage would have to address himself to the Shuttleworth agent, Mr. Dawson, who too lived in a house so picturesque that merely to see it made you long either to poison or to marry Mr. Dawson--preferably, I think, to poison him.
These facts, stripped of the redundances with which I have garnished them, were told Fritzing on the day after his arrival at Baker's Farm by Mrs. Pearce the younger, old Mr. Pearce's daughter-in-law, a dreary woman with a rent in her apron, who brought in the bacon for Fritzing's solitary breakfast and the chop for his solitary luncheon. She also brought in a junket so liquid that the innocent Fritzing told her politely that he always drank his milk out of a glass when he did drink milk, but that, as he never did drink milk, she need not trouble to bring him any.
"Sir," said Mrs. Pearce in her slow sad voice, after a glance at his face in search of sarcasm, "'tisn't milk. 'Tis a junket that hasn't junked."
"Indeed?" said Fritzing, bland because ignorant.
Mrs. Pearce fidgeted a little, wrestling perhaps with her conscience, before she added defiantly, "It wouldn't."
"Indeed?" said Fritzing once more; and he looked at the junket through his spectacles with that air of extreme and intelligent interest with which persons who wish to please look at other people's babies.
He was desirous of being on good terms with Symford, and had been very pleasant all the morning to Mrs. Pearce. That mood in which, shaken himself to his foundations by anxiety, he had shaken his fist to Annalise, was gone as completely as yesterday's wet mist. The golden sunshine of October lay beautifully among the gentle hills and seemed to lie as well in Fritzing's heart. He had gone through so much for so many weeks that merely to be free from worries for the moment filled him with thankfulness. So may he feel who has lived through days of bodily torture in that first hour when his pain has gone: beaten, crushed, and cowed by suffering, he melts with gratitude because he is being left alone, he gasps with a relief so utter that it is almost abject praise of the Cruelty that has for a little loosened its hold. In this abjectly thankful mood was Fritzing when he found his worst agonies were done. What was to come after he really for the moment did not care. It was sufficient to exist untormented and to let his soul stretch itself in the privacy and peace of Baker's. He and his Princess had made a great and noble effort towards the realization of dreams that he felt were lofty, and the gods so far had been with them. All that first morning in Symford he had an oddly restful, unburdened feeling, as of having been born again and born aged twenty-five; and those persons who used to be twenty-five themselves will perhaps agree that this must have been rather nice. He did not stir from the parlour lest the Princess should come down and want him, and he spent the waiting hours getting information from Mrs. Pearce and informing her mind in his turn with just that amount of knowledge about himself and his niece that he wished Symford to possess. With impressive earnestness he told her his name was Neumann, repeating it three times, almost as if in defiance of contradiction; that his niece was his deceased brother's child; that her Christian name--here he was swept away by inspiration--was Maria-Theresa; that he had saved enough as a teacher of German in London to retire into the country; and that he was looking for a cottage in which to spend his few remaining years.
It all sounded very innocent. Mrs. Pearce listened with her head on one side and with something of the air of a sparrow who doesn't feel well. She complimented him sadly on the fluency of his English, and told him with a sigh that in no cottage would he ever again find the comforts with which Baker's was now surrounding him.
Fritzing was surprised to hear her say so, for his impressions had all been the other way. As far as he, inexperienced man, could tell, Baker's was a singularly draughty and unscrubbed place. He smelt that its fires smoked, he heard that its windows rattled, he knew that its mattresses had lumps in them, and he saw that its food was inextricably mixed up with objects of a black and gritty nature. But her calm face and sorrowful assurance shook the evidence of his senses, and gazing at her in silence over his spectacles a feeling crept dimly across his brain that if the future held many dealings with women like Mrs. Pearce he was going to be very helpless.
Priscilla appeared while he was gazing. She was dressed for going out and came in buttoning her gloves, and I suppose it was a long time since Baker's had seen anything quite so radiant in the way of nieces within its dusty walls. She had on the clothes she had travelled in, for a search among the garments bought by Fritzing had resulted in nothing but a sitting on the side of the bed and laughing tears, so it was clearly not the clothes that made her seem all of a sparkle with lovely youth and blitheness. Kunitz would not have recognized its ivory Princess in this bright being. She was the statue come to life, the cool perfection kissed by expectation into a bewitching living woman. I doubt whether Fritzing had ever noticed her beauty while at Kunitz. He had seen her every day from childhood on, and it is probable that his attention being always riveted on her soul he had never really known when her body left off being lanky and freckled. He saw it now, however; he would have been blind if he had not; and it set him vibrating with the throb of a new responsibility. Mrs. Pearce saw it too, and stared astonished at this oddly inappropriate niece. She stared still more when Fritzing, jumping up from his chair, bent over the hand Priscilla held out and kissed it with a devotion and respect wholly absent from the manner of Mrs. Pearce's own uncles. She, therefore, withdrew into her kitchen, and being a person of little culture crudely expressed her wonder by thinking "Lor." To which, after an interval of vague meanderings among saucepans, she added the elucidation, "Foreigners."
Half an hour later Lady Shuttleworth's agent, Mr. Dawson, was disturbed at his tea by the announcement that a gentleman wished to speak to him. Mr. Dawson was a bluff person, and something of a tyrant, for he reigned supreme in Symford after Lady Shuttleworth, and to reign supreme over anybody, even over a handful of cottagers, does bring out what a man may have in him of tyrant. Another circumstance that brings this out is the possession of a meek wife; and Mr. Dawson's wife was really so very meek that I fear when the Day of Reckoning comes much of this tyranny will be forgiven him and laid to her account. Mr. Dawson, in fact, represented an unending series of pitfalls set along his wife's path by Fate, into every one of which she fell; and since we are not supposed, on pain of punishment, to do anything but keep very upright on our feet as we trudge along the dusty road of life, no doubt all those amiable stumblings will be imputed to her in the end for sin. "This man was handed over to you quite nice and kind," one can imagine Justice saying in an awful voice; "his intentions to start with were beyond reproach. Do you not remember, on the eve of your wedding, how he swore with tears he would be good to you? Look, now, what you have made of him. You have prevented his being good to you by your own excessive goodness to him. You have spent your time nourishing his bad qualities. Though he still swears, he never does it with tears. Do you not know the enormous, the almost insurmountable difficulty there is in not bullying meekness, in not responding to the cringer with a kick? Weak and unteachable woman, away with you."
Certainly it is a great responsibility taking a man into one's life. It is also an astonishment to me that I write thus in detail of Mrs. Dawson, for she has nothing whatever to do with the story.
"Who is it?" asked Mr. Dawson; immediately adding, "Say I'm engaged."
"He gave no name, sir. He says he wishes to see you on business."
"Business! I don't do business at tea time. Send him away."
But Fritzing, for he it was, would not be sent away. Priscilla had seen the cottage of her dreams, seen it almost at once on entering the village, fallen instantly and very violently in love with it regardless of what its inside might be, and had sent him to buy it. She was waiting while he bought it in the adjoining churchyard sitting on a tombstone, and he could neither let her sit there indefinitely nor dare, so great was her eagerness to have the thing, go back without at least a hope of it. Therefore he would not be sent away. "Your master's in," he retorted, when the maid suggested he should depart, "and I must see him. Tell him my business is pressing."
"Will you give me your card, sir?" said the maid, wavering before this determination.
Fritzing, of course, had no card, so he wrote his new name in pencil on a leaf of his notebook, adding his temporary address.
"Tell Mr. Dawson," he said, tearing it out and giving it to her, "that if he is so much engaged as to be unable to see me I shall go direct to Lady Shuttleworth. My business will not wait."
"Show him in, then," growled Mr. Dawson on receiving this message; for he feared Lady Shuttleworth every bit as much as Mrs. Dawson feared him.
Fritzing was accordingly shown into the room used as an office, and was allowed to cool himself there while Mr. Dawson finished his tea. The thought of his Princess waiting on a tombstone that must be growing colder every moment, for the sun was setting, made him at last so impatient that he rang the bell.
"Tell your master," he said when the maid appeared, "that I am now going to Lady Shuttleworth." And he seized his hat and was making indignantly for the door when Mr. Dawson appeared.
Mr. Dawson was wiping his mouth. "You seem to be in a great hurry," he said; and glancing at the slip of paper in his hand added, "Mr. Newman."
"Sir," said Fritzing, bowing with a freezing dignity, "I am."
"Well, so am I. Sit down. What can I do for you? Time's money, you know, and I'm a busy man. You're German, ain't you?"
"I am, sir. My name is Neumann. I am here--"
"Oh, Noyman, is it? I thought it was Newman." And he glanced again at the paper.
"Sir," said Fritzing, with a wave of his hand, "I am here to buy a cottage, and the sooner we come to terms the better. I will not waste valuable moments considering niceties of pronunciation."
Mr. Dawson stared. Then he said, "Buy a cottage?"
"Buy a cottage, sir. I understand that practically the whole of Symford is the property of the Shuttleworth family, and that you are that family's accredited agent. I therefore address myself in the first instance to you. Now, sir, if you are unable, either through disinclination or disability, to do business with me, kindly state the fact at once, and I will straightway proceed to Lady Shuttleworth herself. I have no time to lose."
"I'm blessed if I have either, Mr."--he glanced again at the paper--"Newman."
"Neumann, sir," corrected Fritzing irritably.
"All right--Noyman. But why don't you write it then? You've written Newman as plain as a doorpost."
"Sir, I am not here to exercise you in the proper pronunciation of foreign tongues. These matters, of an immense elementariness I must add, should be and generally are acquired by all persons of any education in their childhood at school."
Mr. Dawson stared. "You're a long-winded chap," he said, "but I'm blessed if I know what you're driving at. Suppose you tell me what you've come for, Mr."--he referred as if from habit to the paper--"Newman."
"Neumann, sir," said Fritzing very loud, for he was greatly irritated by Mr. Dawson's manner and appearance.
"Noymann, then," said Mr. Dawson, equally loudly; indeed it was almost a shout. And he became possessed at the same instant of what was known to Fritzing as a red head, which is the graphic German way of describing the glow that accompanies wrath. "Look here," he said, "if you don't say what you've got to say and have done with it you'd better go. I'm not the chap for the fine-worded game, and I'm hanged if I'll be preached to in my own house. I'll be hanged if I will, do you hear?" And he brought his fist down on the table in a fashion very familiar to Mrs. Dawson and the Symford cottagers.
"Sir, your manners--" said Fritzing, rising and taking up his hat.
"Never mind my manners, Mr. Newman."
"Neumann, sir!" roared Fritzing.
"Confound you, sir," was Mr. Dawson's irrelevant reply.
"Sir, confound you," said Fritzing, clapping on his hat. "And let me tell you that I am going at once to Lady Shuttleworth and shall recommend to her most serious consideration the extreme desirability of removing you, sir."
"Removing me! Where the deuce to?"
"Sir, I care not whither so long as it is hence," cried Fritzing, passionately striding to the door.
Mr. Dawson lay back in his chair and gasped. The man was plainly mad; but still Lady Shuttleworth might--you never know with women--"Look here--hie, you! Mr. Newman!" he called, for Fritzing had torn open the door and was through it.
"Neumann, sir," Fritzing hurled back at him over his shoulder.
"Lady Shuttleworth won't see you, Mr. Noyman. She won't on principle."
"Everything goes through my hands. You'll only have your walk for nothing. Come back and tell me what it is you want."
"Sir, I will only negotiate with you," said Fritzing down the passage--and Mrs. Dawson hearing him from the drawing-room folded her hands in fear and wonder--"if you will undertake at least to imitate the manners of a gentleman."
"Come, come, you musn't misunderstand me," said Mr. Dawson getting up and going to the door. "I'm a plain man, you know--"
"Then, sir, all I can say is that I object to plain men."
"I say, who are you? One would think you were a duke or somebody, you're so peppery. Dressed up"--Mr. Dawson glanced at the suit of pedagogic black into which Fritzing had once more relapsed--"dressed up as a street preacher."
"I am not dressed up as anything, sir," said Fritzing coming in rather hurriedly. "I am a retired teacher of the German tongue, and have come down from London in search of a cottage in which to spend my remaining years. That cottage I have now found here in your village, and I have come to inquire its price. I wish to buy it as quickly as possible."
"That's all very well, Mr.--oh all right, all right, I won't say it. But why on earth don't you write it properly, then? It's this paper's set me wrong. I was going to say we've got no cottages here for sale. And look here, if that's all you are, a retired teacher, I'll trouble you not to get schoolmastering me again."
"I really think, sir," said Fritzing stretching his hand towards his hat, "that it is better I should try to obtain an interview with Lady Shuttleworth, for I fear you are constitutionally incapable of carrying on a business conversation with the requisite decent self-command."
"Pooh--you'll get nothing out of her. She'll send you back to me. Why, you'd drive her mad in five minutes with that tongue of yours. If you want anything I'm your man. Only let's get at what you do want, without all these confounded dictionary words. Which cottage is it?"
"It is the small cottage," said Fritzing mastering his anger, "adjoining the churchyard. It stands by itself, and is separated from the road by an extremely miniature garden. It is entirely covered by creeping plants which I believe to be roses."
"That's a couple."
"So much the better."
"And they're let. One to the shoemaker, and the other to old mother Shaw."
"Accommodation could no doubt be found for the present tenants in some other house, and I am prepared to indemnify them handsomely. Might I inquire the number of rooms the cottages contain?"
"Two apiece, and a kitchen and attic. Coal-hole and pig-stye in the back yard. Also a pump. But they're not for sale, so what's the use--"
"Sir, do they also contain bathrooms?"
"Bathrooms?" Mr. Dawson stared with so excessively stupid a stare that Fritzing, who heaver could stand stupidity, got angry again.
"I said bathrooms, sir," he said, raising his voice, "and I believe with perfect distinctness."
"Oh, I heard you right enough. I was only wondering if you were trying to be funny."
"Is this a business conversation or is it not?" cried Fritzing, in his turn bringing his fist down on the table.
"Look here, what do you suppose people who live in such places want?"
"I imagine cleanliness and decency as much as anybody else."
"Well, I've never been asked for one with a bathroom in my life."
"You are being asked now," said Fritzing, glaring at him, "but you wilfully refuse to reply. From your manner, however, I conclude that they contain none. If so, no doubt I could quickly have some built."
"Some? Why, how many do you want?"
"I have a niece, sir, and she must have her own."
Mr. Dawson again stared with what seemed to Fritzing so deplorably foolish a stare. "I never heard of such a thing," he said.
"What did you never hear of, sir?"
"I never heard of one niece and one uncle in a labourer's cottage wanting a bathroom apiece."
"Apparently you have never heard of very many things," retorted Fritzing angrily. "My niece desires to have her own bathroom, and it is no one's business but hers."
"She must be a queer sort of girl."
"Sir," cried Fritzing, "leave my niece out of the conversation."
"Oh all right--all right. I'm sure I don't want to talk about your niece. But as for the cottages, it's no good wanting those or any others, for you won't get 'em."
"And pray why not, if I offer a good price?"
"Lady Shuttleworth won't sell. Why should she? She'd only have to build more to replace them. Her people must live somewhere. And she'll never turn out old Shaw and the shoemaker to make room for a couple of strangers."
Fritzing was silent, for his heart was sinking. "Suppose, sir," he said after a pause, during which his eyes had been fixed thoughtfully on the carpet and Mr. Dawson had been staring at him and whistling softly but very offensively, "suppose I informed Lady Shuttleworth of my willingness to build two new cottages--excellent new cottages--for the tenants of these old ones, and pay her a good price as well for these, do you think she would listen to me?"
"I say, the schoolmastering business must be a rattling good one. I'm blessed if I know what you want to live in 'em for if money's so little object with you. They're shabby and uncomfortable, and an old chap like you--I mean, a man of your age, who's made his little pile, and wants luxuries like plenty of bathrooms--ought to buy something tight and snug. Good roof and electric light. Place for horse and trap. And settle down and be a gentleman."
"My niece," said Fritzing, brushing aside these suggestions with an angrily contemptuous wave of his hand, "has taken a fancy--I may say an exceedingly violent fancy--to these two cottages. What is all this talk of traps and horses? My niece wishes for these cottages. I shall do my utmost to secure them for her."
"Well, all I can say is she must be a--"
"Silence, sir!" cried Fritzing.
Mr. Dawson got up and opened the door very wide.
"Look here," he said, "there's no use going on talking. I've stood more from you than I've stood from any one for years. Take my advice and get back home and keep quiet for a bit. I've got no cottages, and Lady Shuttleworth would shut the door in your face when you got to the bathroom part. Where are you staying? At the Cock and Hens? Oh--ah--yes--at Baker's. Well, ask Mrs. Pearce to take great care of you. Tell her I said so. And good afternoon to you, Mr. Noyman. You see I've got the name right now--just as we're going to part."
"Before I go," said Fritzing, glaring down at Mr. Dawson, "let me tell you that I have seldom met an individual who unites in his manner so singularly offensive a combination of facetiousness and hectoring as yourself. I shall certainly describe your conduct to Lady Shuttleworth, and not, I hope, in unconvincing language. Sir, good afternoon."
"By-bye," said Mr. Dawson, grinning and waving a pleasant hand. Several bathrooms indeed! He need have no fears of Lady Shuttleworth. "Good luck to you with Lady S.!" he called after him cheerily. Then he went to his wife and bade her see to it that the servant never let Fritzing in again, explaining that he was not only a foreigner but a lunatic, and that the mixture was so bad that it hardly bore thinking of.