Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 5

An Assembly.

Mrs Mears, whose character was of that common sort which renders delineation superfluous, received them with the customary forms of good breeding.

Mrs Harrel soon engaged herself at a card-table; and Cecilia, who declined playing, was seated next to Miss Leeson, who arose to return the courtesy she made in advancing to her, but that past, did not again even look at her.

Cecilia, though fond of conversation and formed for society, was too diffident to attempt speaking where so little encouraged; they both, therefore, continued silent, till Sir Robert Floyer, Mr Harrel, and Mr Arnott entered the room together, and all at the same time advanced to Cecilia.

“What,” cried Mr Harrel, “don’t you chuse to play, Miss Beverley?”

“I flatter myself,” cried Mr Arnott, “that Miss Beverley never plays at all, for then, in one thing, I shall have the honour to resemble her.”

“Very seldom, indeed,” answered Cecilia, “and consequently very ill.”

“O, you must take a few lessons,” said Mr Harrel, “Sir Robert Floyer, I am sure, will be proud to instruct you.”

Sir Robert, who had placed himself opposite to her, and was staring full in her face, made a slight inclination of his head, and said, “Certainly.”

“I should be a very unpromising pupil,” returned Cecilia, “for I fear I should not only want diligence to improve, but desire.”

“Oh, you will learn better things,” said Mr Harrel; “we have had you yet but three days amongst us — in three months we shall see the difference.”

“I hope not,” cried Mr Arnott, “I earnestly hope there will be none!”

Mr Harrel now joined another party; and Mr Arnott seeing no seat vacant near that of Cecilia, moved round to the back of her chair, where he patiently stood for the rest of the evening. But Sir Robert still kept his post, and still, without troubling himself to speak, kept his eyes fixed upon the same object.

Cecilia, offended by his boldness, looked a thousand ways to avoid him; but her embarrassment, by giving greater play to her features, served only to keep awake an attention which might otherwise have wearied. She was almost tempted to move her chair round and face Mr Arnott, but though she wished to shew her disapprobation of the Baronet, she had not yet been reconciled by fashion to turning her back upon the company at large, for the indulgence of conversing with some particular person: a fashion which to unaccustomed observers seems rude and repulsive, but which, when once adopted, carries with it imperceptibly its own recommendation, in the ease, convenience and freedom it promotes.

Thus disagreeably stationed, she found but little assistance from the neighbourhood of Mr Arnott, since even his own desire of conversing with her, was swallowed up by an anxious and involuntary impulse to watch the looks and motions of Sir Robert.

At length, quite tired of sitting as if merely an object to be gazed at, she determined to attempt entering into conversation with Miss Leeson.

The difficulty, however, was not inconsiderable how to make the attack; she was unacquainted with her friends and connections, uninformed of her way of thinking, or her way of life, ignorant even of the sound of her voice, and chilled by the coldness of her aspect: yet, having no other alternative, she was more willing to encounter the forbidding looks of this lady, than to continue silently abashed under the scrutinizing eyes of Sir Robert.

After much deliberation with what subject to begin, she remembered that Miss Larolles had been present the first time they had met, and thought it probable they might be acquainted with each other; and therefore, bending forward, she ventured to enquire if she had lately seen that young lady?

Miss Leeson, in a voice alike inexpressive of satisfaction or displeasure, quietly answered, “No, ma’am.”

Cecilia, discouraged by this conciseness, was a few minutes silent; but the perseverance of Sir Robert in staring at her, exciting her own in trying to avoid his eyes, she exerted herself so far as to add, “Does Mrs Mears expect Miss Larolles here this evening?”

Miss Leeson, without raising her head, gravely replied, “I don’t know, ma’am.”

All was now to be done over again, and a new subject to be started, for she could suggest nothing further to ask concerning Miss Larolles.

Cecilia had seen, little of life, but that little she had well marked, and her observation had taught her, that among fashionable people, public places seemed a never-failing source of conversation and entertainment: upon this topic, therefore, she hoped for better success; and as to those who have spent more time in the country than in London, no place of amusement is so interesting as a theatre, she opened the subject she had so happily suggested, by an enquiry whether any new play had lately come out?

Miss Leeson, with the same dryness, only answered, “Indeed, I can’t tell.”

Another pause now followed, and the spirits of Cecilia were considerably dampt; but happening accidentally to recollect the name of Almack, she presently revived, and, congratulating herself that she should now be able to speak of a place too fashionable for disdain, she asked her, in a manner somewhat more assured, if she was a subscriber to his assemblies?

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you go to them constantly?”

“No, ma’am.”

Again they were both silent. And now, tired of finding the ill-success of each particular enquiry, she thought a more general one might obtain an answer less laconic, and therefore begged she would inform her what was the most fashionable place of diversion for the present season?

This question, however, cost Miss Leeson no more trouble than any which had preceded it, for she only replied, “Indeed I don’t know.”

Cecilia now began to sicken of her attempt, and for some minutes to give it up as hopeless; but afterwards when she reflected how frivolous were the questions she had asked, she felt more inclined to pardon the answers she had received, and in a short time to fancy she had mistaken contempt for stupidity, and to grow less angry with Miss Leeson than ashamed of herself.

This supposition excited her to make yet another trial of her talents for conversation, and therefore, summoning all the courage in her power, she modestly apologised for the liberty she was taking, and then begged her permission to enquire whether there was anything new in the literary way that she thought worth recommending?

Miss Leeson now turned her eyes towards her, with a look that implied a doubt whether she had heard right; and when the attentive attitude of Cecilia confirmed her question, surprise for a few instants took place of insensibility, and with rather more spirit than she had yet shown, she answered, “Indeed, I know nothing of the matter.”

Cecilia was now utterly disconcerted; and half angry with herself, and wholly provoked with her sullen neighbour, she resolved to let nothing in future provoke her to a similar trial with so unpromising a subject.

She had not, however, much longer to endure the examination of Sir Robert, who being pretty well satisfied with staring, turned upon his heel, and was striding out of the room, when he was stopt by Mr Gosport, who for some time had been watching him.

Mr Gosport was a man of good parts, and keen satire: minute in his observations, and ironical in his expressions.

“So you don’t play, Sir Robert?” he cried.

“What, here? No, I am going to Brookes’s.”

“But how do you like Harrel’s ward? You have taken a pretty good survey of her.”

“Why, faith, I don’t know; but not much, I think; she’s a devilish fine woman, too; but she has no spirit, no life.”

“Did you try her? Have you talked to her?”

“Not I, truly!”

“Nay, then how do you mean to judge of her?”

“O, faith, that’s all over, now; one never thinks of talking to the women by way of trying them.”

“What other method, then, have you adopted?”

“None.”

“None? Why, then, how do you go on?”

“Why, they talk to us. The women take all that trouble upon themselves now.”

“And pray how long may you have commenced fade macaroni? For this is a part of your character with which I was not acquainted.”

“Oh, hang it, ’tis not from ton; no, it’s merely from laziness. Who the d —— l will fatigue himself with dancing attendance upon the women, when keeping them at a distance makes them dance attendance upon us?”

Then stalking from him to Mr Harrel, he took him by the arm, and they left the room together.

Mr Gosport now advanced to Cecilia, and addressing her so as not to be heard by Miss Leeson, said, “I have been wishing to approach you, some time, but the fear that you are already overpowered by the loquacity of your fair neighbour makes me cautious of attempting to engage you.”

“You mean,” said Cecilia, “to laugh at my loquacity, and indeed its ill success has rendered it sufficiently ridiculous.”

“Are you, then, yet to learn,” cried he, “that there are certain young ladies who make it a rule never to speak but to their own cronies? Of this class is Miss Leeson, and till you get into her particular coterie, you must never expect to hear from her a word of two syllables. The TON misses, as they are called, who now infest the town, are in two divisions, the SUPERCILIOUS, and the VOLUBLE. The SUPERCILIOUS, like Miss Leeson, are silent, scornful, languid, and affected, and disdain all converse but with those of their own set: the VOLUBLE, like Miss Larolles, are flirting, communicative, restless, and familiar, and attack without the smallest ceremony, every one they think worthy their notice. But this they have in common, that at home they think of nothing but dress, abroad, of nothing but admiration, and that every where they hold in supreme contempt all but themselves.”

“Probably, then,” said Cecilia, “I have passed tonight, for one of the VOLUBLES; however, all the advantage has been with the SUPERCILIOUS, for I have suffered a total repulse.”

“Are you sure, however, you have not talked too well for her?”

“O, a child of five years old ought to have been whipt for not talking better!”

“But it is not capacity alone you are to consult when you talk with misses of the TON; were their understandings only to be considered, they would indeed be wonderfully easy of access! in order, therefore, to render their commerce somewhat difficult, they will only be pleased by an observance of their humours: which are ever most various and most exuberant where the intellects are weakest and least cultivated. I have, however, a receipt which I have found infallible for engaging the attention of young ladies of whatsoever character or denomination.”

“O, then,” cried Cecilia, “pray favour me with it, for I have here an admirable opportunity to try its efficacy.”

“I will give it you,” he answered, “with full directions. When you meet with a young lady who seems resolutely determined not to speak, or who, if compelled by a direct question to make some answer, drily gives a brief affirmative, or coldly a laconic negative ——”

“A case in point,” interrupted Cecilia.

“Well, thus circumstanced,” he continued, “the remedy I have to propose consists of three topics of discourse.”

“Pray what are they?”

“Dress, public places, and love.”

Cecilia, half surprised and half diverted, waited a fuller explanation without giving any interruption.

“These three topics,” he continued, “are to answer three purposes, since there are no less than three causes from which the silence of young ladies may proceed: sorrow, affectation, and stupidity.”

“Do you, then,” cried Cecilia, “give nothing at all to modesty?”

“I give much to it,” he answered, “as an excuse, nay almost as an equivalent for wit; but for that sullen silence which resists all encouragement, modesty is a mere pretence, not a cause.”

“You must, however, be somewhat more explicit, if you mean that I should benefit from your instructions.”

“Well, then,” he answered, “I will briefly enumerate the three causes, with directions for the three methods of cure. To begin with sorrow. The taciturnity which really results from that is attended with an incurable absence of mind, and a total unconsciousness of the observation which it excites; upon this occasion, public places may sometimes be tried in vain, and even dress may fail; but love —”

“Are you sure, then,” said Cecilia, with a laugh, “that sorrow has but that one source?”

“By no means,” answered he, “for perhaps papa may have been angry, or mama may have been cross; a milliner may have sent a wrong pompoon, or a chaperon to an assembly may have been taken ill —”

“Bitter subjects of affliction, indeed! And are these all you allow us?”

“Nay, I speak but of young ladies of fashion, and what of greater importance can befall them? If, therefore, the grief of the fair patient proceeds from papa, mama, or the chaperon, then the mention of public places, those endless incentives of displeasure between the old and the young, will draw forth her complaints, and her complaints will bring their own cure, for those who lament find speedy consolation: if the milliner has occasioned the calamity, the discussion of dress will have the same effect; should both these medicines fail, love, as I said before, will be found infallible, for you will then have investigated every subject of uneasiness which a youthful female in high life can experience.”

“They are greatly obliged to you,” cried Cecilia, bowing, “for granting them motives of sorrow so honourable, and I thank you in the name of the whole sex.”

“You, madam,” said he, returning her bow, “are I hope an exception in the happiest way, that of having no sorrow at all. I come, now, to the silence of affectation, which is presently discernible by the roving of the eye round the room to see if it is heeded, by the sedulous care to avoid an accidental smile, and by the variety of disconsolate attitudes exhibited to the beholders. This species of silence has almost without exception its origin in that babyish vanity which is always gratified by exciting attention, without ever perceiving that it provokes contempt. In these cases, as nature is wholly out of the question, and the mind is guarded against its own feelings, dress and public places are almost certain of failing, but here again love is sure to vanquish; as soon as it is named, attention becomes involuntary, and in a short time a struggling simper discomposes the arrangement of the features, and then the business is presently over, for the young lady is either supporting some system, or opposing some proposition, before she is well aware that she has been cheated out of her sad silence at all.”

“So much,” said Cecilia, “for sorrow and for affectation. Proceed next to stupidity; for that, in all probability, I shall most frequently encounter.” “That always must be heavy work,” returned he, “yet the road is plain, though it is all up hill. Love, here, may be talked of without exciting any emotion, or provoking any reply, and dress may be dilated upon without producing any other effect than that of attracting a vacant stare; but public places are indubitably certain of success. Dull and heavy characters, incapable of animating from wit or from reason, because unable to keep pace with them, and void of all internal sources of entertainment, require the stimulation of shew, glare, noise, and bustle, to interest or awaken them. Talk to them of such subjects, and they adore you; no matter whether you paint to them joy or horror, let there but be action, and they are content; a battle has charms for them equal to a coronation, and a funeral amuses them as much as a wedding.”

“I am much obliged to you,” said Cecilia, smiling, “for these instructions; yet I must confess I know not how upon the present occasion to make use of them: public places I have already tried, but tried in vain; dress I dare not mention, as I have not yet learned its technical terms —”

“Well, but,” interrupted he, “be not desperate; you have yet the third topic unessayed.”

“O, that,” returned she, laughing, “I leave to you.”

“Pardon me,” cried he; “love is a source of loquacity only with yourselves: when it is started by men, young ladies dwindle into mere listeners. Simpering listeners, I confess; but it is only with one another that you will discuss its merits.”

At this time they were interrupted by the approach of Miss Larolles, who, tripping towards Cecilia, exclaimed, “Lord, how glad I am to see you! So you would not go to the auction! Well, you had a prodigious loss, I assure you. All the wardrobe was sold, and all Lady Belgrade’s trinkets. I never saw such a collection of sweet things in my life. I was ready to cry that I could not bid for half a hundred of them. I declare I was kept in an agony the whole morning. I would not but have been there for the world. Poor Lady Belgrade! you really can’t conceive how I was shocked for her. All her beautiful things sold for almost nothing. I assure you, if you had seen how they went, you would have lost all patience. It’s a thousand pities you were not there.”

“On the contrary,” said Cecilia, “I think I had a very fortunate escape, for the loss of patience without the acquisition of the trinkets, would have been rather mortifying.”

“Yes,” said Mr Gosport; “but when you have lived some time longer in this commercial city, you will find the exchange of patience for mortification the most common and constant traffic amongst its inhabitants.”

“Pray, have you been here long?” cried Miss Larolles, “for I have been to twenty places, wondering I did not meet with you before. But whereabouts is Mrs Mears? O, I see her now; I’m sure there’s no mistaking her; I could know her by that old red gown half a mile off. Did you ever see such a frightful thing in your life? And it’s never off her back. I believe she sleeps in it. I am sure I have seen her in nothing else all winter. It quite tires one’s eye. She’s a monstrous shocking dresser. But do you know I have met with the most provoking thing in the world this evening? I declare it has made me quite sick. I was never in such a passion in my life. You can conceive nothing like it.”

“Like what?” cried Cecilia, laughing; “your passion, or your provocation?”

“Why, I’ll tell you what it was, and then you shall judge if it was not quite past endurance. You must know I commissioned a particular friend of mine, Miss Moffat, to buy me a trimming when she went to Paris; well, she sent it me over about a month ago by Mr Meadows, and it’s the sweetest thing you ever saw in your life; but I would not make it up, because there was not a creature in town, so I thought to bring it out quite new in about a week’s time, for you know any thing does till after Christmas. Well, to-night at Lady Jane Dranet’s, who should I meet but Miss Moffat! She had been in town some days, but so monstrously engaged I could never find her at home. Well, I was quite delighted to see her, for you must know she’s a prodigious favourite with me, so I ran up to her in a great hurry to shake hands, and what do you think was the first thing that struck my eyes? Why, just such a trimming as my own, upon a nasty, odious gown, and half dirty! Can you conceive anything so distressing? I could have cried with pleasure.”

“Why so?” said Cecilia. “If her trimming is dirty, yours will look the more delicate.”

“O Lord! but it’s making it seem quite an old thing! Half the town will get something like it. And I quite ruined myself to buy it. I declare, I don’t think anything was ever half so mortifying. It distressed me so, I could hardly speak to her. If she had stayed a month or two longer, I should not have minded it, but it was the cruellest thing in the world to come over just now. I wish the Custom-house officers had kept all her cloaths till summer.”

“The wish is tender, indeed,” said Cecilia, “for a particular friend.”

Mrs Mears now rising from the card-table, Miss Larolles tript away to pay her compliments to her.

“Here, at least,” cried Cecilia, “no receipt seems requisite for the cure of silence! I would have Miss Larolles be the constant companion of Miss Leeson: they could not but agree admirably, since that SUPERCILIOUS young lady seems determined never to speak, and the VOLUBLE Miss Larolles never to be silent. Were each to borrow something of the other, how greatly would both be the better!”

“The composition would still be a sorry one,” answered Mr Gosport, “for I believe they are equally weak, and equally ignorant; the only difference is, that one, though silly, is quick, the other, though deliberate, is stupid. Upon a short acquaintance, that heaviness which leaves to others the whole weight of discourse, and whole search of entertainment, is the most fatiguing, but, upon a longer intimacy, even that is less irksome and less offensive, than the flippancy which hears nothing but itself.”

Mrs Harrel arose now to depart, and Cecilia, not more tired of the beginning of the evening than entertained with its conclusion, was handed to the carriage by Mr Arnott.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/cecilia/book1.5.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32