The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
Lady Shuttleworth then, busiest and most unsuspecting of women, was whisking through her breakfast and her correspondence next morning with her customary celerity and method, when a servant appeared and offered her one of those leaves from Fritzing's note-book which we know did duty as his cards.
Tussie was sitting at the other end of the table very limp and sad after a night of tiresome tossing that was neither wholly sleep nor wholly wakefulness, and sheltered by various dishes with spirit-lamps burning beneath them worked gloomily at a sonnet inspired by the girl he had met the day before while his mother thought he was eating his patent food. The girl, it seemed, could not inspire much, for beyond the fourth line his muse refused to go; and he was beginning to be unable to stop himself from an angry railing at the restrictions the sonnet form forces upon poets who love to be vague, which would immediately have concentrated his mother's attention on himself and resulted in his having to read her what he had written--for she sturdily kept up the fiction of a lively interest in his poetic tricklings--when the servant came in with Fritzing's leaf.
"A gentleman wishes to see you on business, my lady," said the servant.
"Mr. Neumann-Schultz?" read out Lady Shuttleworth in an inquiring voice. "Never heard of him. Where's he from?"
"Baker's Farm, my lady."
At that magic name Tussie's head went up with a jerk.
"Tell him to go to Mr. Dawson," said Lady Shuttleworth.
The servant disappeared.
"Why do you send him away, mother?" asked Tussie.
"Why, you know things must go through Dawson," said Lady Shuttleworth pouncing on her letters again. "I'd be plagued to death if they didn't."
"But apparently this is the stranger within our gates. Isn't he German?"
"His name is. Dawson will be quite kind to him."
"Dawson's rather a brute I fancy, when you're not looking."
"Dearest, I always am looking."
"He must be one of Pearce's lodgers."
"Poor man, I'm sorry for him if he is. Of all the shiftless women--"
"The gentleman says, my lady," said the servant reappearing with rather an awestruck face, "that he wishes to speak to you most particular."
"James, did I not tell you to send him to Mr. Dawson?"
"I delivered the message, my lady. But the gentleman says he's seen Mr. Dawson, and that he"--the footman coughed slightly--"he don't want to see any more of him, my lady."
Lady Shuttleworth put on her glasses and stared at the servant. "Upon my word he seems to be very cool," she said; and the servant, his gaze fixed on a respectful point just above his mistress's head, reflected on the extreme inapplicability of the adjective to anything so warm as the gentleman at the door.
"Shall I see him for you, mother?" volunteered Tussie briskly.
"You?" said his mother surprised.
"I'm rather a dab at German, you know. Perhaps he can't talk much English"--the footman started--"evidently he wasn't able to say much to Dawson. Probably he wants you to protect him from the onslaughts of old Pearce's cockroaches. Anyhow as he's a foreigner I think it would be kinder to see him."
Lady Shuttleworth was astonished. Was Tussie going to turn over a new leaf after all, now that he was coming of age, and interest himself in more profitable things than verse-making?
"Dearest," she said, quite touched, "he shall be seen if you think it kinder. I'll see him--you haven't done breakfast yet. Show him into the library, James." And she gathered up her letters and went out--she never kept people waiting--and as she passed Tussie she laid her hand tenderly for a moment on his shoulder. "If I find I can't understand him I'll send for you," she said.
Tussie folded up his sonnet and put it in his pocket. Then he ate a few spoonfuls of the stuff warranted to give him pure blood, huge muscles, and a vast intelligence; then he opened a newspaper and stared vacantly at its contents; then he went to the fire and warmed his feet; then he strolled round the table aimlessly for a little; and then, when half an hour had passed and his mother had not returned, he could bear it no longer and marched straight into the library.
"I think the cigarettes must be here," said Tussie, going over to the mantelpiece and throwing a look of eager interest at Fritzing.
Fritzing rose and bowed ceremoniously. Lady Shuttleworth was sitting in a straight-backed chair, her elbows on its arms, the tips of her ten fingers nicely fitted together. She looked very angry, and yet there was a sparkle of something like amusement in her eyes. Having bowed to Tussie Fritzing sat down again with the elaboration of one who means to stay a long while. During his walk from the farm he had made up his mind to be of a most winning amiability and patience, blended with a determination that nothing should shake. At the door, it is true, he had been stirred to petulance by the foolish face and utterances of the footman James, but during the whole of the time he had been alone with Lady Shuttleworth he had behaved, he considered, with the utmost restraint and tact.
Tussie offered him a cigarette.
"My dear Tussie," said his mother quickly, "we will not keep Mr. Neumann-Schultz. I'm sure his time must be quite as valuable as mine is."
"Oh madam," said Fritzing with a vast politeness, settling himself yet more firmly in his chair, "nothing of mine can possibly be of the same value as anything of yours."
Lady Shuttleworth stared--she had stared a good deal during the last halfhour--then began to laugh, and got up. "If you see its value so clearly," she said, "I'm sure you won't care to take up any more of it."
"Nay, madam," said Fritzing, forced to get up too, "I am here, as I explained, in your own interests--or rather in those of your son, who I hear is shortly to attain his majority. This young gentleman is, I take it, your son?"
"And therefore the owner of the cottages?"
"What cottages?" asked Tussie, eagerly. He was manifestly so violently interested in Mr. Neumann-Schultz that his mother could only gaze at him in wonder. He actually seemed to hang on that odd person's lips.
"My dear Tussie, Mr. Neumann-Schultz has been trying to persuade me to sell him the pair of cottages up by the church, and I have been trying to persuade him to believe me when I tell him I won't."
"But why won't you, mother?" asked Tussie.
Lady Shuttleworth stared at him in astonishment. "Why won't I? Do I ever sell cottages?"
"Your esteemed parent's reasons for refusing," said Fritzing, "reasons which she has given me with a brevity altogether unusual in one of her sex and which I cannot sufficiently commend, do more credit, as was to be expected in a lady, to her heart than to her head. I have offered to build two new houses for the disturbed inhabitants of these. I have offered to give her any price--any price at all, within the limits of reason. Your interests, young gentleman, are what will suffer if this business is not concluded between us."
"Do you want them for yourself?" asked Tussie.
"Yes, sir, for myself and for my niece."
"Mother, why do you refuse to do a little business?"
"Tussie, are we so poor?"
"As far as I'm concerned," said Tussie airily to Fritzing, "you may have the things and welcome."
"But they are not worth more than about fifty pounds apiece, and I advise you not to give more for them than they're worth. Aren't they very small, though? Isn't there any other place here you'd rather have?"
"Do you mind telling me why you want them?"
"Young man, to live in them."
"And where are the people to live who are in them now?" asked Lady Shuttleworth, greatly incensed.
"Madam, I promised you to build."
"Oh nonsense. I won't have new red-brick horrors about the place. There's that nice good old Mrs. Shaw in one, so clean and tidy always, and the shoemaker, a very good man except for his enormous family, in the other. I will not turn them out."
"Put 'em in the empty lodge at the north gate," suggested Tussie. "They'd be delighted."
Lady Shuttleworth turned angrily on Fritzing--she was indeed greatly irritated by Tussie's unaccountable behaviour. "Why don't you build for yourself?" she asked.
"My niece has set her heart on these cottages in such a manner that I actually fear the consequences to her health if she does not get them."
"Now, mother, you really can't make Mr. Neumann-Schultz's niece ill."
"Dearest boy, have you suddenly lost your senses?"
"Not unless it's losing them to be ready to do a kindness."
"Well said, well said, young man," said Fritzing approvingly.
"Tussie, have I ever shirked doing a kindness?" asked Lady Shuttleworth, touched on her tenderest point.
"Never. And that's why I can't let you begin now," said Tussie, smiling at her.
"Well said, well said, young man," approved Fritzing. "The woman up to a certain age should lead the youth, and he should in all things follow her counsels with respect and obedience. But she for her part should know at what moment to lay down her authority, and begin, with a fitting modesty, to follow him whom she has hitherto led."
"Is that what your niece does?" asked Lady Shuttleworth quickly.
"Is she following you into these cottages, or are you following her?"
"You must pardon me, madam, if I decline to discuss my niece."
"Do have a cigarette," said Tussie, delighted.
"I never smoke, young man."
"Something to drink, then?"
"I never drink, young man."
"If I decide to let you have these cottages--if I do," said Lady Shuttleworth, divided between astonishment at everything about Fritzing and blankest amazement at her son's behaviour, "you will understand that I only do it because my son seems to wish it."
"Madam, provided I get the cottages I will understand anything you like."
"First that. Then I'd want some information about yourself. I couldn't let a stranger come and live in the very middle of my son's estate unless I knew all about him."
"Why, mother--" began Tussie.
"Is not the willingness to give you your own price sufficient?" inquired Fritzing anxiously.
"Not in the least sufficient," snapped Lady Shuttleworth.
"What do you wish to know, madam?" said Fritzing stiffly.
"I assure you a great deal."
"Come, mother," said Tussie, to whom this was painful, for was not the man, apart from his strange clothes and speeches, of a distinctly refined and intellectual appearance? And even if he wasn't, was he not still the uncle of that divine niece?--"these are things for Dawson to arrange."
Fritzing started at the hated name, and began to frown dreadfully. His frown was always very impressive because of his bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes. "Dawson, as you call him," he said, "and he certainly has no claim to any prefix of politeness, is not a person with whom I will consent to arrange anything. Dawson is the most offensive creature who ever walked this earth clad in the outer semblance of one of God's creatures."
This was too much for Lady Shuttleworth. "Really--" she said, stretching out her hand to the bell.
"Didn't I tell you so, mother?" cried Tussie triumphantly; and that Tussie, her own dear boy, should in all things second this madman completely overwhelmed her. "I knew he was a brute behind your back. Let's sack him."
"James, show this gentleman out."
"Pardon me, madam, we have not yet arranged--"
"Oh," interrupted Tussie, "the business part can be arranged between you and me without bothering my mother. I'll come part of the way with you and we'll talk it over. You're absolutely right about Dawson. He's an outrageous mixture of bully and brute." And he hurried into the hall to fetch his cap, humming O dear unknown One with the stern sweet face, which was the first line of his sonnet in praise of Priscilla, to a cheerful little tune of his own.
"Tussie, it's so damp," cried his anxious mother after him--"you're not really going out in this nasty Scotch mist? Stay in, and I'll leave you to settle anything you like."
"Oh, it's a jolly morning for a walk," called back Tussie gaily, searching about for his cap--"And eyes all beautiful with strenuous thought--Come on, sir."
But Fritzing would not skimp any part of his farewell ceremonies.
"Permit me, madam," he said, deeply bowing, "to thank you for your extremely kind reception."
"Kind?" echoed Lady Shuttleworth, unable to stop herself from smiling.
"Yes, madam, kind, and before all things patient."
"Yes, I do think I've been rather patient," agreed Lady Shuttleworth, smiling again.
"And let me," proceeded Fritzing, "join to my thanks my congratulations on your possession of so unusually amiable and promising a son."
"Come on, sir--you'll make me vain," said Tussie, in the doorway--"'Hair like a web divine wherein is caught,'"--he hummed, getting more and more shrill and happy.
Lady Shuttleworth put out her hand impulsively. Fritzing took it, bent over it, and kissed it with much respect.
"A most unusually promising young man," he repeated; "and, madam, I can tell you it is not my habit to say a thing I do not mean."
"'The last reflection of God's daily grace'"--chirped Tussie, looking on much amused.
"No, that I'm quite certain you don't," said Lady Shuttleworth with conviction.
"Don't say too many nice things about me," advised Tussie. "My mother will swallow positively anything."
But nevertheless he was delighted; for here were his mother and the uncle--the valuable and highly to be cherished uncle--looking as pleased as possible with each other, and apparently in the fairest way to becoming fast friends.