The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
While Fritzing was losing his temper in this manner at the agent's, Priscilla sat up in the churchyard in the sun. The Symford churchyard, its church, and the pair of coveted cottages, are on a little eminence rising like an island out of the valley. Sitting under the trees of this island Priscilla amused herself taking in the quiet scene at her feet and letting her thoughts wander down happy paths. The valley was already in shadow, but the tops of the hills on the west side of it were golden in the late afternoon sunshine. From the cottage chimneys smoke went up straight and blue into the soft sky, rooks came and settled over her head in the branches of the elms, and every now and then a yellow leaf would fall slowly at her feet. Priscilla's heart was filled with peace. She was going to be so good, she was going to lead such a clean and beautiful life, so quiet, so helpful to the poor, so hidden, so cleared of all confusions. Never again would she need to pose; never again be forced into conflict with her soul. She had chosen the better part; she had given up everything and followed after wisdom; and her life would be her justification. Who but knows the inward peace that descends upon him who makes good resolutions and abides with him till he suddenly discovers they have all been broken? And what does the breaking of them matter, since it is their making that is so wholesome, so bracing to the soul, bringing with it moments of such extreme blessedness that he misses much who gives it up for fear he will not keep them? Such blessed moments of lifting up of the heart were Priscilla's as she sat in the churchyard waiting, invisibly surrounded by the most beautiful resolutions it is possible to imagine. The Rev. Edward Morrison, the vicar of whom I have spoken as venerable, coming slowly up the path leaning on his son's arm with the intention of going into the church in search of a mislaid sermon-book, saw Priscilla's thoughtful back under the elm-tree and perceived at once that it was a back unknown to him. He knew all the Symford backs, and tourists hardly ever coming there, and never at that time of the year, it could not, he thought, be the back of a tourist. Nor could it belong to any one staying with the Shuttleworths, for he had been there that very afternoon and had found Lady Shuttleworth rejoicing over the brief period of solitude she and her son were enjoying before the stream of guests for the coming of age festivities began.
"Robin, what girl is that?" asked the vicar of his son.
"I'm sure I don't know," said Robin.
"She'll catch cold," said the vicar.
"I dare say," said Robin.
When they came out of the church ten minutes later Priscilla had not moved.
"She'll certainly catch cold," said the vicar, concerned.
"I should think it very likely," said Robin, locking the door.
"She's sitting on a stone."
"Yes, on old Dawson's slab."
"Unwise," said the vicar.
"Profane," said Robin.
The vicar took his boy's arm again--the boy, head and shoulders taller than his father, was down from Cambridge for the vacation then drawing to its close--and moved, I fear, by the same impulse of pure curiosity they walked together down the path that would take them right in front of the young woman on the slab.
Priscilla was lost in the bright dreams she was weaving, and looked up with the radiance of them still in her eyes at the two figures between her and the sunset.
"My dear young lady," said the vicar kindly, "are you not afraid of catching cold? The evenings are so damp now, and you have chosen a very cold seat."
"I don't feel cold," said Priscilla, smiling at this vision of benevolence.
"But I do think you ought not to linger here," said the vicar.
"I am waiting for my uncle. He's gone to buy a cottage, and ought to be back, really, by now."
"Buy a cottage?" repeated the vicar. "My dear young lady, you say that in the same voice you might use to tell me your uncle had gone to buy a bun."
"What is a bun?" asked Priscilla.
"A bun?" repeated the vicar bewildered, for nobody had ever asked him that before.
"Oh I know--" said Priscilla quickly, faintly flushing, "it's a thing you eat. Is there a special voice for buns?"
"There is for a thing so--well, so momentous as the buying of a cottage."
"Is it momentous? It seems to me so nice and natural."
She looked up at the vicar and his son, calmly scrutinizing first one and then the other, and they stood looking down at her; and each time her eyes rested on Robin they found his staring at her with the frankest expression of surprise and admiration.
"Pardon me," said the vicar, "if I seem inquisitive, but is it one of the Symford cottages your uncle wishes to buy? I did not know any were for sale."
"It's that one by the gate," said Priscilla, slightly turning her head in its direction.
"Is it for sale? Dear me, I never knew Lady Shuttleworth sell a cottage yet."
"I don't know yet if she wants to," said Priscilla; "but Fr--, my uncle, will give any price. And I must have it. I shall--I shall be ill if I don't."
The vicar gazed at her upturned face in perplexity. "Dear me," he said, after a slight pause.
"We must live somewhere," remarked Priscilla.
"Of course you must," said Robin, suddenly and so heartily that she examined his eager face in more detail.
"Quite so, quite so," said the vicar. "Are you staying here at present?"
"Never at the Cock and Hens?" broke in Robin.
"We're at Baker's Farm."
"Ah yes--poor Mrs. Pearce will be glad of lodgers. Poor soul, poor soul."
"She's a very dirty soul," said Robin; and Priscilla's eyes flashed over him with a sudden sparkle.
"Is she the soul with the holes in its apron?" she asked.
"I expect there are some there. There generally are," said Robin.
They both laughed; but the vicar gently shook his head. "Ah well, poor thing," he said, "she has an uphill life of it. They don't seem able--they don't seem to understand the art of making both ends meet."
"It's a great art," said Robin.
"Perhaps they could be helped," said Priscilla, already arranging in her mind to go and do it.
"They do not belong to the class one can help. And Lady Shuttleworth, I am afraid, disapproves of shiftless people too much to do anything in the way of reducing the rent."
"Lady Shuttleworth can't stand people who don't look happy and don't mend their apron," said Robin.
"But it's her own apron," objected Priscilla.
"Exactly," said Robin.
"Well, well, I hope they'll make you comfortable," said the vicar; and having nothing more that he could well say without having to confess to himself that he was inquisitive, he began to draw Robin away. "We shall see you and your uncle on Sunday in church, I hope," he said benevolently, and took off his hat and showed his snow-white hair.
Priscilla hesitated. She was, it is true, a Protestant, it having been arranged on her mother's marriage with the Catholic Grand Duke that every alternate princess born to them was to belong to the Protestant faith, and Priscilla being the alternate princess it came about that of the Grand Duke's three children she alone was not a Catholic. Therefore she could go to church in Symford as often as she chose; but it was Fritzing's going that made her hesitate, for Fritzing was what the vicar would have called a godless man, and never went to church.
"You are a member of the Church of England?" inquired the vicar, seeing her hesitate.
"Why, pater, she's not English," burst out Robin.
"Not English?" echoed the vicar.
"Is my English so bad?" asked Priscilla, smiling.
"It's frightfully good," said Robin; "but the 'r's,' you know--"
"Ah, yes. No, I'm not English. I'm German."
"Indeed?" said the vicar, with all the interest that attaches to any unusual phenomenon, and a German in Symford was of all phenomena the most unusual. "My dear young lady, how remarkable. I don't remember ever having met a German before in these parts. Your English is really surprising. I should never have noticed--my boy's ears are quicker than my old ones. Will you think me unpardonably curious if I ask what made you pitch on Symford as a place to live in?"
"My uncle passed through it years ago and thought it so pretty that he determined to spend his old age here."
"And you, I suppose, are going to take care of him."
"Yes," said Priscilla, "for we only"--she looked from one to the other and thought herself extremely clever--"we only have each other in the whole wide world."
"Ah, poor child--you are an orphan."
"I didn't say so," said Priscilla quickly, turning red; she who had always been too proud to lie, how was she going to lie now to this aged saint with the snow-white hair?
"Ah well, well," said the vicar, vaguely soothing. "We shall see you on Sunday perhaps. There is no reason that I know of why a member of the German Church should not assist at the services of the Church of England." And he took off his hat again, and tried to draw Robin away.
But Robin lingered, and Priscilla saw so much bright curiosity in his eyes that she felt she was giving an impression of mysteriousness; and this being the last thing she wanted to do she thought she had better explain a little--always a dangerous course to take--and she said, "My uncle taught languages for years, and is old now and tired, and we both long for the country and to be quiet. He taught me English--that's why it's as good as it is. His name"--She was carried away by the desire to blow out that questioning light in Robin's eyes--"his name is Schultz."
The vicar bowed slightly, and Robin asked with an air of great politeness but still with that light in his eyes if he were to address her, then, as Miss Schultz.
"I'm afraid so," said Priscilla, regretfully. It really sounded gross. Miss Schultz? She might just as well have chosen something romantic while she was about it, for Fritzing in the hurry of many cares had settled nothing yet with her about a name.
Robin stared at her very hard, her answer seemed to him so odd. He stared still more when she looked up with the air of one who has a happy thought and informed him that her Christian name was Ethel.
"Ethel?" echoed Robin.
"It's a very pretty name, I think," said Priscilla, looking pleased.
"Our housemaid's called Ethel, and so is the little girl that wheels the gardener's baby's perambulator," was Robin's impetuous comment.
"That doesn't make it less pretty," said Priscilla, frowning.
"Surely," interrupted the vicar mildly, "Ethel is not a German name?"
"I was christened after my mother," said Priscilla gently; and this was strictly true, for the deceased Grand Duchess had also been Priscilla. Then a feeling came over her that she was getting into those depths where persons with secrets begin to flounder as a preliminary to letting them out, and seized with panic she got up off the slab.
"You are half English, then," said Robin triumphantly, his bright eyes snapping. He looked very bold and masterful staring straight at her, his head thrown back, his handsome face twinkling with interest. But a person of Priscilla's training could not possibly be discomposed by the stare of any Robin, however masterful; had it not been up to now her chief function in life to endure being stared at with graceful indifference? "I did not say so," she said, glancing briefly at him; and including both father and son in a small smile composed indescribably of graciousness and chill she added, "It really is damp here--I don't think I'll wait for my uncle," and slightly bowing walked away without more ado.
She walked very slowly, her skirts gathered loosely in one hand, every line of her body speaking of the most absolute self-possession and unapproachableness. Never had the two men seen any one quite so calm. They watched her in silence as she went up the path and out at the gate; then Robin looked down at his father and drew his hand more firmly through his arm and said with a slight laugh, "Come on, pater, let's go home. We're dismissed."
"By a most charming young lady," said the vicar, smiling.
"By a very cool one," said Robin, shrugging his shoulders, for he did not like being dismissed.
"Yes--oddly self-possessed for her age," agreed the vicar.
"I wonder if all German teacher's nieces are like that," said Robin with another laugh.
"Few can be so blest by nature, I imagine."
"Oh, I don't mean faces. She is certainly prettier by a good bit than most girls."
"She is quite unusually lovely, young man. Don't quibble."
"Miss Schultz--Ethel Schultz," murmured Robin; adding under his breath, "Good Lord."
"She can't help her name. These things are thrust upon one."
"It's a beastly common name. Macgrigor, who was a year in Dresden, told me everybody in Germany is called Schultz."
"Except those who are not."
"Now, pater, you're being clever again," said Robin, smiling down at his father.
"Here comes some one in a hurry," said the vicar, his attention arrested by the rapidly approaching figure of a man; and, looking up, Robin beheld Fritzing striding through the churchyard, his hat well down over his eyes as if clapped on with unusual vigour, both hands thrust deep in his pockets, the umbrella, without which he never, even on the fairest of days, went out, pressed close to his side under his arm, and his long legs taking short and profane cuts over graves and tombstones with the indifference to decency of one immersed in unpleasant thought. It was not the custom in Symford to leap in this manner over its tombs; and Fritzing arriving at a point a few yards from the vicar, and being about to continue his headlong career across the remaining graves to the tree under which he had left Priscilla, the vicar raised his voice and exhorted him to keep to the path.
"Quaint-looking person," remarked Robin. "Another stranger. I say, it can't be--no, it can't possibly be the uncle?" For he saw he was a foreigner, yet on the other hand never was there an uncle and a niece who had less of family likeness.
Fritzing was the last man wilfully to break local rules or wound susceptibilities; and pulled out of his unpleasant abstraction by the vicar's voice he immediately desisted from continuing his short cut, and coming onto the path removed his hat and apologized with the politeness that was always his so long as nobody was annoying him.
"My name is Neumann, sir," he said, introducing himself after the German fashion, "and I sincerely beg your pardon. I was looking for a lady, and"--he gave his spectacles a little adjusting shove as though they were in fault, and gazing across to the elm where he had left Priscilla sitting added with sudden anxiety--"I fear I do not see her."
"Do you mean Miss Schultz?" asked the vicar, looking puzzled.
"No, sir, I do not mean Miss Schultz," said Fritzing, peering about him at all the other trees in evident surprise and distress.
"A lady left about five minutes ago," said Robin.
"A tall young lady in a blue costume?"
"Yes. Miss Schultz."
Fritzing looked at him with some sternness. "Sir, what have I to do with Miss Schultz?" he inquired.
"Oh come now," said the cheerful Robin, "aren't you looking for her?"
"I am in search of my niece, sir."
"Yes. Miss Schultz."
"No sir," said Fritzing, controlling himself with an effort, "not Miss Schultz. I neither know Miss Schultz nor do I care a--"
"Sir, sir," interposed the vicar, hastily.
"I do not care a pfenning for any Miss Schultz."
The vicar looked much puzzled. "There was a young lady," he said, "waiting under that tree over there for her uncle who had gone, she said, to see Lady Shuttleworth's agent about the cottage by the gate. She said her uncle's name was Schultz."
"She said she was Miss Ethel Schultz," said Robin.
"She said she was staying at Baker's Farm," said the vicar.
Fritzing stared for a moment from one to the other, then clutching his hat mechanically half an inch into the air turned on his heel without another word and went with great haste out of the churchyard and down the hill and away up the road to the farm.
"Quaint, isn't he," said Robin as they slowly followed this flying figure to the gate.
"I don't understand it," said the vicar.
"It does seem a bit mixed."
"Did he not say his name was Neumann?"
"He did. And he looked as if he'd fight any one who said it wasn't."
"It is hardly credible that there should be two sets of German uncles and nieces in Symford at one and the same time," mused the vicar. "Even one pair is a most unusual occurrence."
"If there are," said Robin very earnestly, "pray let us cultivate the Schultz set and not the other."
"I don't understand it," repeated the vicar, helplessly.