The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
Symford, innocent village, went to bed very early; but early as it went long before it had got there on this evening it contained no family that had not heard of the arrivals at Baker's Farm. From the vicarage the news had filtered that a pretty young lady called Schultz was staying there with her uncle; from the agent's house the news that a lunatic called Neumann was staying there with his niece; and about supper-time, while it was still wondering at this sudden influx of related Germans, came the postmistress and said that the boy from Baker's who fetched the letters knew nothing whatever of any one called Schultz. He had, said the postmistress, grown quite angry and forgotten the greater and by far the better part of his manners when she asked him how he could stand there and say such things after all the years he had attended Sunday-school and if he were not afraid the earth would open and swallow him up, and he had stuck to it with an obstinacy that had at length convinced her that only one uncle and niece were at Baker's, and their name was Neumann. He added that there was another young lady there whose name he couldn't catch, but who sat on the edge of her bed all day crying and refusing sustenance. Appeased by the postmistress's apologies for her first unbelief he ended by being anxious to give all the information in his power, and came back quite a long way to tell her that he had forgotten to say that his mother had said that the niece's Christian name was Maria-Theresa.
"But what, then," said the vicar's wife to the vicar when this news had filtered through the vicarage walls to the very sofa where she sat, "has become of the niece called Ethel?"
"I don't know," said the vicar, helplessly.
"Perhaps she is the one who cried all day."
"My dear, we met her in the churchyard."
"Perhaps they are forgers," suggested the vicar's wife.
The vicar's wife said no more, but silently made up her mind to go the very next day and call at Baker's. It would be terrible if a bad influence got into Symford, her parish that she had kept in such good order for so long. Besides, she had an official position as the wife of the vicar and could and ought to call on everybody. Her call would not bind her, any more than the call of a district visitor would, to invite the called-upon to her house. Perhaps they were quite decent, and she could ask the girl up to the Tuesday evenings in the parish-room; hardly to the vicarage, because of her daughter Netta. On the other hand, if they looked like what she imagined anarchists or forgers look like, she would merely leave leaflets and be out when they returned her call.
Robin, all unaware of his mother's thoughts, was longing to ask her to go to Baker's and take him with her as a first step towards the acquaintance after which his soul thirsted, but he refrained for various discreet reasons based on an intimate knowledge of his mother's character; and he spent the evening perfecting a plan that should introduce him into the interior of Baker's without her help. The plan was of a barbarous simplicity: he was going to choose an umbrella from the collection that years had brought together in the stand in the hall, and go boldly and ask the man Neumann if he had dropped it in the churchyard. The man Neumann would repudiate the umbrella, perhaps with secret indignation, but he would be forced to pretend he was grateful, and who knew what luck might not do for him after that?
While Robin was plotting, and his mother was plotting, that the next day would certainly see them inside Baker's, a third person was trying to do exactly the same thing at Symford Hall; and this third person was no other than Augustus, the hope of all the Shuttleworths. Augustus--he was known to his friends briefly as Tussie--had been riding homewards late that afternoon, very slowly, for he was an anxious young man who spent much of his time dodging things like being overheated, when he saw a female figure walking towards him along the lonely road. He was up on the heath above Symford, a solitary place of heather, and gorse bushes, and winding roads that lead with many hesitations and delays to different parts of Exmoor, and he himself with his back to that wild region and the sunset was going, as every sensible person would be going at that time of the evening, in the direction of the village and home. But where could the girl be going? For he now saw it was a girl, and in a minute or two more that it was a beautiful girl. With the golden glow of the sky the sun had just left on her face Priscilla came towards him out of the gathering dusk of approaching evening, and Tussie, who had a poetic soul, gazed at the vision openmouthed. Seeing him, she quickened her steps, and he took off his cap eagerly when she asked him to tell her where Symford was. "I've lost it," she said, looking up at him.
"I'm going through it myself," he answered. "Will you let me show you the way?"
"Thank you," said Priscilla; and he got off his horse and she turned and walked beside him with the same unruffled indifference with which she would have walked beside the Countess Disthal or in front of an attending lacquey. Nor did she speak, for she was busy thinking of Fritzing and hoping he was not being too anxious about her, and Tussie (God defend his innocence) thought she was shy. So sure was he as the minutes past that her silence was an embarrassed one that he put an end to it by remarking on the beauty of the evening, and Priscilla who had entirely forgotten Miss Schultz gave him the iciest look as a reminder that it was not his place to speak first. It was lost on Tussie as a reminder, for naturally it did not remind him of anything, and he put it down at first to the girl's being ill at ease alone up there with a strange man, and perhaps to her feeling she had better keep him at arm's length. A glance at her profile however dispelled this illusion once and for ever, for never was profile of a profounder calm. She was walking now with her face in shadow, and the glow behind her played strange and glorious tricks with her hair. He looked at her, and looked, and not by the quiver of an eyelash did she show she was aware of anybody's presence. Her eyes were fixed on the ground, and she was deep in thought tinged with remorsefulness that she should have come up here instead of going straight home to the farm, and by losing her way and staying out so long have given Fritzing's careful heart an unnecessary pang of anxiety. He had had so many, and all because of her. But then it had been the very first time in her life that she had ever walked alone, and if words cannot describe the joy and triumph of it how was it likely that she should have been able to resist the temptation to stray aside up a lovely little lane that lured her on and on from one bend to another till it left her at last high up, breathless and dazzled, on the edge of the heath, with Exmoor rolling far away in purple waves to the sunset and all the splendour of the evening sky in her face? She had gone on, fascinated by the beauty of the place, and when she wanted to turn back found she had lost herself. Then appeared Sir Augustus to set her right, and with a brief thought of him as a useful person on a nice horse she fell into sober meditations as to the probable amount of torture her poor Fritzi was going through, and Augustus ceased to exist for her as completely as a sign-post ceases to exist for him who has taken its advice and passed on.
He looked at her, and looked, and looked again. He had never seen any one quite so beautiful, and certainly never any one with such an air of extreme detachment. He was twenty-one and much inclined to poetry, and he thought as she walked beside him so tall and straight and aloof, with the nimbus of flaming hair and the noble little head and slightly stern brow that she looked like nothing less than a young saint of God.
Tussie was not bold like Robin. He was a gentle youth who loved quiet things, quiet places, placid people, kind dogs, books, canaries even, if they did not sing too loud. He was sensitive about himself, being small and weakly, and took, as I have said, great care of what he had of health, such care indeed that some of his robust friends called him Fussie. He hated the idea of coming of age and of having a great deal of money and a great many active duties and responsibilities. His dream was to be left in peace to write his verses; to get away into some sweet impossible wilderness, and sit there singing with as much of the spirit of Omar Kayyam as could reasonably be expected to descend on a youth who only drank water. He was not bold, I say; and after that one quelling glance from the young saint's eyes did not dare speak again for a long while. But they were getting near Symford; they were halfway down the hill; he could not let her slip away perhaps suddenly from his side into the shadows without at least trying to find out where she was staying. He looked at her soft kind mouth and opened his own to speak. He looked at her stern level brows and shut it again. At last, keeping his eyes on her mouth he blurted out, growing red, "I know every soul in Symford, and every soul for miles round, but I don't know--" He stopped. He was going to say "you," but he stopped.
Priscilla's thoughts were so far away that she turned her head and gazed vaguely at him for a moment while she collected them again. Then she frowned at him. I do not know why Robin should have had at least several smiles and poor Tussie only frowns, unless it was that during this walk the young person Ethel Schultz had completely faded from Priscilla's mind and the Royal Highness was well to the fore. She certainly frowned at Tussie and asked herself what could possess the man to keep on speaking to her. Keep on speaking! Poor Tussie. Aloud she said freezingly, "Did you say something?"
"Yes," said Tussie, his eyes on her mouth--surely a mouth only made for kindness and gentle words. "I was wondering whether you were staying at the vicarage."
"No," said Priscilla, "we're staying at Baker's Farm." And at the mention of that decayed lodging the friendly Schultz expression crept back, smiling into her eyes.
Tussie stopped short. "Baker's Farm?" he said. "Why, then this is the way; down here, to the right. It's only a few yards from here."
"Were you going that way too?"
"I live on the other side of Symford."
"Then good-bye and thank you."
"Please let me go with you as far as the high-road--it's almost dark."
"Oh no--I can't lose myself again if it's only a few yards."
She nodded, and was turning down the lane.
"Are you--are you comfortable there?" he asked hurriedly, blushing. "The Pearces are tenants of ours. I hope they make you comfortable?"
"Oh, we're only going to be there a few days. My uncle is buying a cottage, and we shall leave almost directly."
The girl Ethel nodded and smiled and went away quickly into the dusk; and Tussie rode home thoughtfully, planning elaborate plans for a descent the next day upon Baker's Farm that should have the necessary air of inevitableness.
Fritzing was raging up and down the road in front of the gate when Priscilla emerged, five minutes later, from the shadows of the lane. She ran up to him and put her arm through his, and looked up at him with a face of great penitence. "Dear Fritzi," she said, "I'm so sorry. I've been making you anxious, haven't I? Forgive me--it was the first taste of liberty, and it got into my feet and set them off exploring, and then I lost myself. Have you been worrying?"
He was immensely agitated, and administered something very like a scolding, and he urged the extreme desirability of taking Annalise with her in future wherever she went--("Oh nonsense, Fritzi," interjected Priscilla, drawing away her arm)--and he declared in a voice that trembled that it was a most intolerable thought for him that two strange men should have dared address her in the churchyard, that he would never forgive himself for having left her there alone--("Oh, Fritzi, how silly," interjected Priscilla)--and he begged her almost with tears to tell him exactly what she had said to them, for her Grand Ducal Highness must see that it was of the first importance they should both say the same things to people.
Priscilla declared she had said nothing at all but what was quite diplomatic, in fact quite clever; indeed, she had been surprised at the way ideas had seemed to flow.
"So please," she finished, "don't look at me with such lamentable eyes."
"Ma'am, did you not tell them our name is Schultz?"
"But so it is."
"It is not, ma'am. Our name is Neumann."
Priscilla stared astonished. "Neumann?" she said. "Nonsense, Fritzi. Why should it be Neumann? We're Schultz. I told these people we were. It's all settled."
"Settled, ma'am? I told the woman here as well as the estate agent that you are my brother's child and that we are Neumann."
Priscilla was aghast. Then she said severely, "It was your duty to ask me first. What right have you to christen me?"
"I intended to discuss it during our walk to the village this afternoon. I admit I forgot it. On the other hand I could not suppose your Grand Ducal Highness, left for a moment unprotected, would inform two strange gentlemen that our name was Schultz."
"You should certainly have asked me first," repeated Priscilla with knitted brows. "Why should I have to be Neumann?"
"I might inquire with equal reason why I should have to be Schultz," retorted Fritzing.
"But why Neumann?" persisted Priscilla, greatly upset.
"Ma'am, why not?" said Fritzing, still more upset. Then he added, "Your Grand Ducal Highness might have known that at the agent's I would be obliged to give some name."
"I didn't think any more than you did," said Priscilla stopping in front of the gate as a sign he was to open it for her. He did, and they walked through the garden and into the house in silence. Then she went into the parlour and dropped into a horsehair armchair, and leaning her head against its prickliness she sighed a doleful sigh.
"Shall I send Annalise to you, ma'am?" asked Fritzing, standing in the doorway.
"What can we do?" asked Priscilla, her eyes fixed on the tips of her shoes in earnest thought. "Come in, Fritzi, and shut the door," she added. "You don't behave a bit like an uncle." Then an idea struck her, and looking up at him with sudden gaiety she said, "Can't we have a hyphen?"
"Yes, and be Neumann-Schultz?"
"Certainly we can," said Fritzing, his face clearing; how muddled he must be getting not to have thought of it himself! "I will cause cards to be printed at once, and we will be Neumann-Schultz. Ma'am, your woman's wit--"
"Fritzi, you're deteriorating--you never flattered me at Kunitz. Let us have tea. I invite you to tea with me. If you'll order it, I'll pour it out for you and practice being a niece."
So the evening was spent in harmony; a harmony clouded at intervals, it is true, first by Priscilla's disappointment about the cottage, then by a certain restiveness she showed before the more blatant inefficiencies of the Baker housekeeping, then by a marked and ever recurring incapacity to adapt herself to her new environment, and lastly and very heavily when Fritzing in the course of conversation let drop the fact that he had said she was Maria-Theresa. This was a very black cloud and hung about for a long while; but it too passed away ultimately in a compromise reached after much discussion that Ethel should be prefixed to Maria-Theresa; and before Priscilla went to bed it had been arranged that Fritzing should go next morning directly after a very early breakfast to Lady Shuttleworth and not leave that lady's side and house till he had secured the cottage, and the Princess for her part faithfully promised to remain within the Baker boundaries during his absence.