The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim
The cheerful goddess who had brought Fritzing and his Princess safely over from Kunitz was certainly standing by them well. She it was who had driven Priscilla up on to the heath and into the acquaintance of Augustus Shuttleworth, without whom a cottage in Symford would have been for ever unattainable. She it was who had sent the Morrisons, father and son, to drive Priscilla from the churchyard before Fritzing had joined her, without which driving she would never have met Augustus. She it was who had used the trifling circumstance of a mislaid sermon-book to take the vicar and Robin into the church at an unaccustomed time, without which sermon-book they would never have met Priscilla in the churchyard and driven her out of it. Thus are all our doings ruled by Chance; and it is a pleasant pastime for an idle hour to trace back big events to their original and sometimes absurd beginnings. For myself I know that the larger lines of my life were laid down once for all by--but what has this to do with Priscilla? Thus, I say, are all our doings ruled by Chance, who loves to use small means for the working of great wonders. And as for the gay goddess's ugly sister, the lady of the shifty eye and lowering brow called variously Misfortune and Ill Luck, she uses the same tools exactly in her hammering out of lives, meanly taking little follies and little weaknesses, so little and so amiable at first as hardly to be distinguished from little virtues, and with them building up a mighty mass that shall at last come down and crush our souls. Of the crushing of souls, however, my story does not yet treat, and I will not linger round subjects so awful. We who are nestling for the moment like Priscilla beneath the warm wing of Good Fortune can dare to make what the children call a face at her grey sister as she limps scowling past. Shall we not too one day in our turn feel her claws? Let us when we do at least not wince; and he who feeling them can still make a face and laugh, shall be as the prince of the fairy tales, transforming the sour hag by his courage into a bright reward, striking his very griefs into a shining shower of blessing.
From this brief excursion into the realm of barren musings, whither I love above all things to wander and whence I have continually to fetch myself back again by force, I will return to the story.
At Tussie's suggestion when the business part of their talk was over--and it took exactly five minutes for Tussie to sell and Fritzing to buy the cottages, five minutes of the frothiest business talk ever talked, so profound was the ignorance of both parties as to what most people demand of cottages--Fritzing drove to Minehead in the postmistress's son's two-wheeled cart in order to purchase suitable furniture and bring back persons who would paper and paint. Minehead lies about twenty miles to the north of Symford, so Fritzing could not be back before evening. By the time he was back, promised Tussie, the shoemaker and Mrs. Shaw should be cleared out and put into a place so much better according to their views that they would probably make it vocal with their praises.
Fritzing quite loved Tussie. Here was a young man full of the noblest spirit of helpfulness, and who had besides the invaluable gift of seeing no difficulties anywhere. Even Fritzing, airy optimist, saw more than Tussie, and whenever he expressed a doubt it was at once brushed aside by the cheerfullest "Oh, that'll be all right." He was the most practical, businesslike, unaffected, energetic young man, thought Fritzing, that he had even seen. Tussie was surprised himself at his own briskness, and putting the wonderful girl on the heath as much as possible out of his thoughts, told himself that it was the patent food beginning at last to keep its promises.
He took Fritzing to the post-office and ordered the trap for him, cautioned the postmistress's son, who was going to drive, against going too fast down the many hills, for the bare idea of the priceless uncle being brought back in bits or in any state but absolutely whole and happy turned him cold, told Fritzing which shops to go to and where to lunch, begged him to be careful what he ate, since hotel luncheons were good for neither body nor soul, ordered rugs and a mackintosh covering to be put in, and behaved generally with the forethought of a mother. "I'd go with you myself," he said,--and the postmistress, listening with both her ears, recognized that the Baker's Farm lodgers were no longer persons to be criticised--"but I can be of more use to you here. I must see Dawson about clearing out the cottages. Of course it is very important you shouldn't stay a moment longer than can be helped in uncomfortable lodgings."
Here was a young man! Sensible, practical, overflowing with kindness. Fritzing had not met any one he esteemed so much for years. They went down the village street together, for Tussie was bound for Mr. Dawson who was to be set to work at once, and Fritzing for the farm whither the trap was to follow him as soon as ready, and all Symford, curtseying to Tussie, recognized, as the postmistress had recognized, that Fritzing was now raised far above their questionings, seated firmly on the Shuttleworth rock.
They parted at Mr. Dawson's gate, Mrs. Dawson mildly watching their warmth over a wire blind. "When we are settled, young man," said Fritzing, after eloquent words of thanks and appreciation, "you must come in the evenings, and together we will roam across the splendid fields of English literature."
"Oh thanks" exclaimed Tussie, flushing with pleasure. He longed to ask if the divine niece would roam too, but even if she did not, to roam at all would be a delight, and he would besides be doing it under the very roof that sheltered that bright and beautiful head. "Oh thanks," cried Tussie, then, flushing.
His extreme joy surprised Fritzing. "Are you so great a friend of literature?" he inquired.
"I believe," said Tussie, "that without it I'd have drowned myself long ago. And as for the poets--"
He stopped. No one knew what poetry had been to him in his sickly existence--the one supreme interest, the one thing he really cared to live for.
Fritzing now loved him with all his heart. "Ach Gott, ja," he ejaculated, clapping him on the shoulder, "the poets--ja, ja--'Blessings be with them and eternal praise,' what? Young man," he added enthusiastically, "I could wish that you had been my son. I could indeed." And as he said it Robin Morrison coming down the street and seeing the two together and the expression on Tussie's face instantly knew that Tussie had met the niece.
"Hullo, Tuss," he called across, hurrying past, for it would rather upset his umbrella plan to be stopped and have to talk to the man Neumann thus prematurely. But Tussie neither saw nor heard him, and "By Jove, hasn't he just seen the niece though," said Robin to himself, his eyes dancing as he strode nimbly along on long and bird-like legs. The conviction seized him that when he and his umbrella should descend upon Baker's that afternoon Tussie would either be there already or would come in immediately afterwards. "Who would have thought old Fuss would be so enterprising?" he wondered, thinking of the extreme cordiality of Fritzing's face. "He's given them those cottages, I'll swear."
So Fritzing went to Minehead. I will not follow his painful footsteps as they ranged about that dreary place, nor will I dwell upon his purchases, which resolved themselves at last, after an infinite and soul-killing amount of walking and bewilderment, into a sofa, a revolving bookstand, and two beds. He forgot a bed for Annalise because he forgot Annalise; and he didn't buy things like sheets because he forgot that beds want them. On the other hand he spent quite two hours in a delightful second-hand bookshop on his way to the place where you buy crockery, and then forgot the crockery. He did, reminded and directed by Mr. Vickerton, the postmistress's son, get to a paperhanger's and order him and his men to come out in shoals to Symford the next morning at daybreak, making the paperhanger vow, who had never seen them, that the cottages should be done by nightfall. Then, happening to come to the seashore, he stood for a moment refreshing his nostrils with saltness, for he was desperately worn out, and what he did after that heaven knows. Anyhow young Vickerton found him hours afterwards walking up and down the shingle in the dark, waving his arms about and crying--
"O, qui me gelidis convallibus Haemi Sistat et ingenti ramorum protegat umbra!"
"Talking German out loud to himself," said young Vickerton to his mother that night; and it is possible that he had been doing it all the time.
And while he was doing these things Priscilla was having calls paid her. Nothing could exceed her astonishment when about four o'clock, as she was sitting deep in thought and bored on the arm of a horsehair chair, Mrs. Pearce opened the door and without the least warning let in Mrs. Morrison. Priscilla had promised Fritzing for that one day to stay quietly at the farm, and for the last two hours, finding the farm of an intolerable dulness, she had been engaged in reflections of an extremely complex nature on subjects such as Duty, Will, and Personality. Her morning in the Baker fields and by the banks of that part of the Sym that meanders through them had tuned her mind to meditation. The food at one o'clock and the manner of its bringing in by Annalise--Priscilla had relieved Mrs. Pearce of that office--tuned it still more. The blended slipperiness and prickliness of all the things she tried to sit on helped surprisingly; and if I knew how far it is allowable to write of linen I could explain much of her state of mind by a description of the garments in which she was clothed that day. They were new garments taken straight from the Gerstein box. They were not even linen,--how could they be for Fritzing's three hundred marks? And their newness had not yet been exposed to the softening influence of any wash-tub. Straight did they come, in all their crackling stiffness, out of the shop and on to the Princess. Annalise had been supposed to wash them or cause them to be washed the day before, but Annalise had been far too busy crying to do anything of the sort; and by four o'clock Priscilla was goaded by them into a condition of mind so unworthy that she was thinking quite hard about the Kunitz fine linen and other flesh-pots and actually finding the recollection sweet. It was a place, Priscilla mused, where her body had been exquisitely cared for. Those delicate meals, served in spotlessness, surely they had been rather of the nature of poems? Those web-like garments, soft as a kiss, how beautiful they had been to touch and wear. True her soul had starved; yes, it had cruelly starved. But was it then--she started at her own thought--was it then being fed at Baker's?
And into the middle of this question, a tremendous one to be asked on the very threshold of the new life, walked Mrs. Morrison.
"How d'y do," said Mrs. Morrison. "The vicar asked me to come and see you. I hope the Pearces make you comfortable."
"Well I never," thought Mrs. Pearce, lingering as was her custom on the door-mat, and shaking her head in sorrow rather than in anger.
Priscilla sat for a moment staring at her visitor.
"You are Miss Schultz, are you not?" asked Mrs. Morrison rather nervously.
Priscilla said she was,--her name, that is, was Neumann-Schultz--and got up. She had the vaguest notion as to how Miss Schultz would behave under these trying circumstances, but imagined she would begin by getting up. So she got up, and the sofa being a low one and her movements leisurely, Mrs. Morrison told her husband afterwards there seemed to be no end to the girl. The girl certainly was long, and when at last unfolded and quite straightened out she towered over Mrs. Morrison, who looked up uneasily at the grave young face. Why, Mrs. Morrison asked herself, didn't the girl smile? It was the duty of a Miss Schultz called upon by the vicar's wife to smile; so profound a gravity on such an occasion was surely almost rude. Priscilla offered her hand and hoped it was all right to do so, but still she did not smile. "Are you Mrs. Morrison?" she asked.
"Yes," said Mrs. Morrison with an immense reserve in her voice.
Then Priscilla suggested she should sit down. Mrs. Morrison was already doing it; and Priscilla sank on to her sofa again and wondered what she had better say next. She wondered so much that she became lost in mazes of wonder, and there was so long a silence that Mrs. Pearce outside the door deplored an inconsiderateness that could keep her there for nothing.
"I didn't know you had a double name," said Mrs. Morrison, staring at Priscilla and trying to decide whether this was not a case for the application of leaflets and instant departure. The girl was really quite offensively pretty. She herself had been pretty--she thanked heaven that she still was so--but never, never pretty--she thanked heaven again--in this glaringly conspicuous fashion.
"My name is Ethel Maria-Theresa Neumann-Schultz," said Priscilla, very clearly and slowly; and though she was, as we know, absolutely impervious to the steadiest staring, she did wonder whether this good lady could have seen her photograph anywhere in some paper, her stare was so very round and bright and piercing.
"What a long name," said Mrs. Morrison.
"Yes," said Priscilla; and as another silence seemed imminent she added, "I have two hyphens."
"Two what?" said Mrs. Morrison, startled; and so full was her head of doubt and distrust that for one dreadful moment she thought the girl had said two husbands. "Oh, hyphens. Yes. Germans have them a good deal, I believe."
"That sounds as if we were talking about diseases," said Priscilla, a faint smile dawning far away somewhere in the depths of her eyes.
"Yes," said Mrs. Morrison, fidgeting.
Odd that Robin should have said nothing about the girl's face. Anyhow she should be kept off Netta. Better keep her off the parish-room Tuesdays as well. What in the world was she doing in Symford? She was quite the sort of girl to turn the heads of silly boys. And so unfortunate, just as Augustus Shuttleworth had taken to giving Netta little volumes of Browning.
"Is your uncle out?" she asked, some of the sharpness of her thoughts getting into her voice.
"He's gone to Minehead, to see about things for my cottage."
"Your cottage? Have you got Mrs. Shaw's, then?"
"Yes. She is being moved out to-day."
"Dear me," said Mrs. Morrison, greatly struck.
"Is it surprising?"
"Most. So unlike Lady Shuttleworth."
"She has been very kind."
"Do you know her?"
"No; but my uncle was there this morning."
"And managed to persuade her?"
"He is very eloquent," said Priscilla, with a demure downward sweep of her eyelashes.
"Just a little more," thought Mrs. Morrison, watching their dusky golden curve, "and the girl would have had scarlet hair and white-eyebrows and masses of freckles and been frightful." And she sighed an impatient sigh, which, if translated into verse, would undoubtedly have come out--
"Oh the little more and how much it is, And the little less and what worlds away!"
"And poor old Mrs. Shaw--how does she like being turned out?"
"I believe she is being put into something that will seem to her a palace."
"Dear me, your uncle must really be very eloquent."
"I assure you that he is," said Priscilla earnestly.
There was a short pause, during which Mrs. Morrison staring straight into those unfathomable pools, Priscilla's eyes, was very angry with them for being so evidently lovely. "You are very young," she said, "so you will not mind my questions--"
"Don't the young mind questions?" asked Priscilla, for a moment supposing it to be a characteristic of the young of England.
"Not, surely, from experienced and--and married ladies," said Mrs. Morrison tartly.
"Please go on then."
"Oh, I haven't anything particular to go on about," said Mrs. Morrison, offended. "I assure you curiosity is not one of my faults."
"No?" said Priscilla, whose attention had begun to wander.
"Being human I have no doubt many failings, but I'm thankful to say curiosity isn't one of them."
"My uncle says that's just the difference between men and women. He says women might achieve just as much as men if only they were curious about things. But they're not. A man will ask a thousand questions, and never rest till he's found out as much as he can about anything he sees, and a woman is content hardly even to see it."
"I hope your uncle is a Churchman," was Mrs. Morrison's unexpected reply.
Priscilla's mind could not leap like this, and she hesitated a moment and smiled. ("It's the first time she's looked pleasant," thought Mrs. Morrison, "and now it's in the wrong place.")
"He was born, of course, in the Lutheran faith," said Priscilla.
"Oh, a horrid faith. Excuse me, but it really is. I hope he isn't going to upset Symford?"
"New people holding wrong tenets coming to such a small place do sometimes, you know, and you say he is eloquent. And we are such a simple and God-fearing little community. A few years ago we had a great bother with a Dissenting family that came here. The cottagers quite lost their heads."
"I think I can promise that my uncle will not try to convert anybody," said Priscilla.
"Of course you mean pervert. It would be a pity if he did. It wouldn't last, but it would give us a lot of trouble. We are very good Churchmen here. The vicar, and my son too when he's at home, set beautiful examples. My son is going into the Church himself. It has been his dearest wish from a child. He thinks of nothing else--of nothing else at all," she repeated, fixing her eyes on Priscilla with a look of defiance.
"Really?" said Priscilla, very willing to believe it.
"I assure you it's wonderful how absorbed he is in his studies for it. He reads Church history every spare moment, and he's got it so completely on his mind that I've noticed even when he whistles it's 'The Church's One Foundation.'"
"What is that?" inquired Priscilla.
"Mr. Robin Morrison," announced Mrs. Pearce.
The sitting-room at Baker's was a small, straightforward place, with no screens, no big furniture, no plants in pots, nothing that could for a moment conceal the persons already in it from the persons coming in, and Robin entering jauntily with the umbrella under his arm fell straight as it were into his mother's angry gaze. "Hullo mater, you here?" he exclaimed genially, his face broadening with apparent satisfaction.
"Yes, Robin, I am here," she said, drawing herself up.
"How do you do, Miss Schultz. I seem to have got shown into the wrong room. It's a Mr. Neumann I've come to see; doesn't he live here?"
Priscilla looked at him from her sofa seat and wondered what she had done that she should be scourged in this manner by Morrisons.
"You know my son, I believe?" said Mrs. Morrison in the stiffest voice; for the girl's face showed neither recognition nor pleasure, and though she would have been angry if she had looked unduly pleased she was still angrier that she should look indifferent.
"Yes. I met him yesterday. Did you want my uncle? His name is Neumann. Neumann-Schultz. He's out."
"I only wanted to give him this umbrella," said Robin, with a swift glance at his mother as he drew it from under his arm. Would she recognize it? He had chosen one of the most ancient; the one most appropriate, as he thought, to the general appearance of the man Neumann.
"What umbrella is that, Robin?" asked his mother suspiciously. Really, it was more than odd that Robin, whom she had left immersed in study, should have got into Baker's Farm so quickly. Could he have been expected? And had Providence, in its care for the righteous cause of mothers, brought her here just in time to save him from this girl's toils? The girl's indifference could not be real; and if it was not, her good acting only betrayed the depths of her experience and balefulness. "What umbrella is that?" asked Mrs. Morrison.
"It's his," said Robin, throwing his head back and looking at his mother as he laid it with elaborate care on the table.
"My uncle's?" said Priscilla. "Had he lost it? Oh thank you--he would have been dreadfully unhappy. Sit down." And she indicated with her head the chair she would allow him to sit on.
"The way she tells us to sit down!" thought Mrs. Morrison indignantly. "As though she were a queen." Aloud she said, "You could have sent Joyce round with it"--Joyce being that gardener whose baby's perambulator was wheeled by another Ethel--"and need not have interrupted your work."
"So I could," said Robin, as though much struck by the suggestion. "But it was a pleasure," he added to Priscilla, "to be able to return it myself. It's a frightful bore losing one's umbrella--especially if it's an old friend."
"Uncle Fritzi's looks as if it were a very old friend," said Priscilla, smiling at it.
Mrs. Morrison glanced at it too, and then glanced again. When she glanced a third time and her glance turned into a look that lingered Robin jumped up and inquired if he should not put it in the passage. "It's in the way here," he explained; though in whose way it could be was not apparent, the table being perfectly empty.
Priscilla made no objection, and he at once removed it beyond the reach of his mother's eye, propping it up in a dark corner of the passage and telling Mrs. Pearce, whom he found there that it was Mr. Neumann's umbrella.
"No it ain't," said Mrs. Pearce.
"Yes it is," said Robin.
"No it ain't. He's took his to Minehead," said Mrs. Pearce.
"It is, and he has not," said Robin.
"I see him take it," said Mrs. Pearce.
"You did not," said Robin.
This would have been the moment, Mrs. Morrison felt, for her to go and to carry off Robin with her, but she was held in her seat by the certainty that Robin would not let himself be carried off; and sooner than say good-bye and then find he was staying on alone she would sit there all night. Thus do mothers sacrifice themselves for their children, thought Mrs. Morrison, for their all too frequently thankless children. But though she would do it to any extent in order to guard her boy she need not, she said to herself, be pleasant besides,--she need not, so to speak, be the primroses on his path of dalliance. Accordingly she behaved as little like a primrose as possible, sitting in stony silence while he skirmished in the passage with Mrs. Pearce, and the instant he came in again asked him where he had found the umbrella.
"I found it--not far from the church," said Robin, desiring to be truthful as long as he could. "But mater, bother the umbrella. It isn't so very noble to bring a man back his own. Did you get your cottages?" he asked, turning quickly to Priscilla.
"Robin, are you sure it is his own?" said his mother.
"My dear mother, I'm never sure of anything. Nor are you. Nor is Miss Schultz. Nor is anybody who is really intelligent. But I found the thing, and Mr. Neumann--"
"The name to-day is Neumann-Schultz," said Mrs. Morrison, in a voice heavy with implications.
"Mr. Neumann-Schultz, then, had been that way just before, and so I felt somehow it must be his."
"Your Uncle Cox had one just like it when he stayed with us last time," remarked Mrs. Morrison.
"Had he? I say, mater, what an eye you must have for an umbrella. That must be five years ago."
"Oh, he left it behind, and I see it in the stand every time I go through the hall."
"No! Do you?" said Robin, who was hurled by this statement into the corner where his wits ended and where he probably would have stayed ignominiously, for Miss Schultz seemed hardly to be listening and really almost looked--he couldn't believe it, no girl had ever done it in his presence yet, but she did undoubtedly almost look--bored, if Mrs. Pearce had not flung open the door, and holding the torn portions of her apron bunched together in her hands, nervously announced Lady Shuttleworth.
"Oh," thought Priscilla, "what a day I'm having." But she got up and was gracious, for Fritzing had praised this lady as kind and sensible; and the moment Lady Shuttleworth set her eyes on her the mystery of her son's behaviour flashed into clearness. "Tussie's seen her!" she exclaimed inwardly; instantly adding "Upon my word I can't blame the boy."
"My dear," she said, holding Priscilla's hand, "I've come to make friends with you. See what a wise old woman I am. Frankly, I didn't want you in those cottages, but now that my son has sold them I lose no time in making friends. Isn't that true wisdom?"
"It's true niceness," said Priscilla, smiling down at the little old lady whose eyes were twinkling all over her. "I don't think you'll find us in any way a nuisance. All we want is to be quiet."
Mrs. Morrison sniffed.
"Do you really?" said Lady Shuttleworth. "Then we shall get on capitally. It's what I like best myself. And you've come too," she went on, turning to Mrs. Morrison, "to make friends with your new parishioner? Why, Robin, and you too?"
"Oh, I'm only accidental," said Robin quickly. "Only a restorer of lost property. And I'm just going," he added, beginning to make hasty adieux; for Lady Shuttleworth invariably produced a conviction in him that his clothes didn't fit and wanted brushing badly, and no young man so attentive to his appearance as Robin could be expected to enjoy that. He fled therefore, feeling that even Miss Schultz's loveliness would not make up for Lady Shuttleworth's eyes; and in the passage, from whence Mrs. Pearce had retreated, removing herself as far as might be from the awful lady to whom her father-in-law owed rent and who saw every hole, Robin pounced on his Uncle Cox's umbrella, tucked is once more beneath his arm, and bore it swiftly back to the stand where it had spent five peaceful years. "Really old women are rather terrible things," he thought as he dropped it in again. "I wonder what they're here for."
"Ah, it's there, I see," remarked his mother that night as she passed through the hall on her way to dinner.
"What is?" inquired Robin who was just behind her.
"Your Uncle Cox's umbrella."
"Dear mater, why this extreme interest in my Uncle Cox's umbrella?"
"I'm glad to see it back again, that's all. One gets so used to things."
Lady Shuttleworth and his mother--I shudder to think that it is possible Robin included his mother in the reflection about old women, but on the other hand one never can tell--had stayed on at the farm for another twenty minutes after he left. They would have stayed longer, for Lady Shuttleworth was more interested in Priscilla than she had ever been in any girl before, and Mrs. Morrison, who saw this interest and heard the kind speeches, had changed altogether from ice to amiability, crushing her leaflets in her hand and more than once expressing hopes that Miss Neumann-Schultz would soon come up to tea and learn to know and like Netta--I repeat, they would have stayed much longer, but that an extremely odd thing happened.
Priscilla had been charming; chatting with what seemed absolute frankness about her future life in the cottages, answering little questionings of Lady Shuttleworth's with a discretion and plausibility that would have warmed Fritzing's anxious heart, dwelling most, for here the ground was safest, on her uncle, his work, his gifts and character, and Lady Shuttleworth, completely fascinated, had offered her help of every sort, help in the arranging of her little home, in the planting of its garden, even in the building of those bathrooms about which Tussie had been told by Mr. Dawson. She thought the desire for many bathrooms entirely praiseworthy, and only a sign of lunacy in persons of small means. Fritzing had assured Tussie that he had money enough for the bathrooms; and if his poetic niece liked everybody about her to be nicely washed was not that a taste to be applauded? Perhaps Lady Shuttleworth expatiated on plans and probable building-costs longer than Priscilla was able to be interested; perhaps she was over-explanatory of practical details; anyhow Priscilla's attention began to wander, and she gradually became very tired of her callers. She answered in monosyllables, and her smile grew vague. Then suddenly, at the first full stop Lady Shuttleworth reached in a sentence about sanitation--the entire paragraph was never finished--she got up with her usual deliberate grace, and held out her hand.
"It has been very kind of you to come and see me," she said to the astounded lady, with a little gracious smile. "I hope you will both come again another time."
For an instant Lady Shuttleworth thought she was mad. Then to her own amazement she found her body rising obediently and letting its hand be taken.
Mrs. Morrison did the same. Both had their hands slightly pressed, both were smiled upon, and both went out at once and speechless. Priscilla stood calmly while they walked to the door, with the little smile fixed on her face.
"Is it possible we've been insulted?" burst out Mrs. Morrison when they got outside.
"I don't know," said Lady Shuttleworth, who looked extremely thoughtful.
"Do you think it can possibly be the barbarous German custom?"
"I don't know," said Lady Shuttleworth again.
And all the way to the vicarage, whither she drove Mrs. Morrison, she was very silent, and no exclamations and conjectures of that indignant lady's could get a word out of her.