Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 9

A Supplication.

The next morning Cecilia, at the repeated remonstrances of Mrs Harrel, consented to call upon Miss Larolles. She felt the impracticability of beginning at present the alteration in her way of life she had projected, and therefore thought it most expedient to assume no singularity till her independency should enable her to support it with consistency; yet greater than ever was her internal eagerness to better satisfy her inclination and her conscience in the disposition of her time, and the distribution of her wealth, since she had heard the emphatic charge of her unknown Mentor.

Mrs Harrel declined accompanying her in this visit, because she had appointed a surveyor to bring a plan for the inspection of Mr Harrel and herself, of a small temporary building, to be erected at Violet–Bank, for the purpose of performing plays in private the ensuing Easter.

When the street door was opened for her to get into the carriage, she was struck with the appearance of an elderly woman who was standing at some distance, and seemed shivering with cold, and who, as she descended the steps, joined her hands in an act of supplication, and advanced nearer to the carriage.

Cecilia stopt to look at her: her dress, though parsimonious, was too neat for a beggar, and she considered a moment what she could offer her. The poor woman continued to move forward, but with a slowness of pace that indicated extreme weakness; and, as she approached and raised her head, she exhibited a countenance so wretched, and a complexion so sickly, that Cecilia was impressed with horror at the sight.

With her hands still joined, and a voice that seemed fearful of its own sound, “Oh madam,” she cried, “that you would but hear me!”

“Hear you!” repeated Cecilia, hastily feeling for her purse; “most certainly, and tell me how I shall assist you.”

“Heaven bless you for speaking so kindly, madam!” cried the woman, with a voice more assured; “I was sadly afraid you would be angry, but I saw the carriage at the door, and I thought I would try; for I could be no worse; and distress, madam, makes very bold.”

“Angry!” said Cecilia, taking a crown from her purse; “no, indeed! — who could see such wretchedness, and feel any thing but pity?”

“Oh madam,” returned the poor woman, “I could almost cry to hear you talk so, though I never thought to cry again, since I left it off for my poor Billy!”

“Have you, then, lost a son?”

“Yes, madam; but he was a great deal too good to live, so I have quite left off grieving for him now.”

“Come in, good woman,” said Cecilia, “it is too cold to stand here, and you seem half-starved already: come in, and let me have some talk with you.”

She then gave orders that the carriage should be driven round the square till she was ready, and making the woman follow her into a parlour, desired to know what she should do for her; changing, while she spoke, from a movement of encreasing compassion, the crown which she held in her hand for double that sum.

“You can do everything, madam,” she answered, “if you will but plead for us to his honour: he little thinks of our distress, because he has been afflicted with none himself, and I would not be so troublesome to him, but indeed, indeed, madam, we are quite pinched for want!”

Cecilia, struck with the words, he little thinks of our distress, because he has been afflicted with none himself, felt again ashamed of the smallness of her intended donation, and taking from her purse another half guinea, said, “Will this assist you? Will a guinea be sufficient to you for the present?”

“I humbly thank you, madam,” said the woman, curtsying low, “shall I give you a receipt?”

“A receipt?” cried Cecilia, with emotion, “for what? Alas, our accounts are by no means balanced! but I shall do more for you if I find you as deserving an object as you seem to be.”

“You are very good, madam; but I only meant a receipt in part of payment.”

“Payment for what? I don’t understand you.”

“Did his honour never tell you, madam, of our account?”

“What account?”

“Our bill, madam, for work done to the new Temple at Violet–Bank: it was the last great work my poor husband was able to do, for it was there he met with his misfortune.”

“What bill? What misfortune?” cried Cecilia; “what had your husband to do at Violet–Bank?”

“He was the carpenter, madam. I thought you might have seen poor Hill the carpenter there.”

“No, I never was there myself. Perhaps you mistake me for Mrs Harrel.”

“Why, sure, madam, a’n’t you his honour’s lady?”

“No. But tell me, what is this bill?”

“’Tis a bill, madam, for very hard work, for work, madam, which I am sure will cost my husband his life; and though I have been after his honour night and day to get it, and sent him letters and petitions with an account of our misfortunes, I have never received so much as a shilling! and now the servants won’t even let me wait in the hall to speak to him. Oh, madam! you who seem so good, plead to his honour in our behalf! tell him my poor husband cannot live! tell him my children are starving! and tell him my poor Billy, that used to help to keep us, is dead, and that all the work I can do by myself is not enough to maintain us!”

“Good heaven!” cried Cecilia, extremely moved, “is it then your own money for which you sue thus humbly?”

“Yes, madam, for my own just and honest money, as his honour knows, and will tell you himself.”

“Impossible!” cried Cecilia, “he cannot know it; but I will take care he shall soon be informed of it. How much is the bill?”

“Two-and-twenty pounds, madam.”

“What, no more?”

“Ah, madam, you gentlefolks little think how much that is to poor people! A hard working family, like mine, madam, with the help of 20 pounds will go on for a long while quite in paradise.”

“Poor worthy woman!” cried Cecilia, whose eyes were filled with tears of compassion, “if 20 pounds will place you in paradise, and that 20 pounds only your just right, it is hard, indeed, that you should be kept without it; especially when your debtors are too affluent to miss it. Stay here a few moments, and I will bring you the money immediately.”

Away she flew, and returned to the breakfast room, but found there only Mr Arnott, who told her that Mr Harrel was in the library, with his sister and some gentlemen. Cecilia briefly related her business, and begged he would inform Mr Harrel she wished to speak to him directly. Mr Arnott shook his head, but obeyed.

They returned together, and immediately.

“Miss Beverley,” cried Mr Harrel, gaily, “I am glad you are not gone, for we want much to consult with you. Will you come up stairs?”

“Presently,” answered she; “but first I must speak to you about a poor woman with whom I have accidentally been talking, who has begged me to intercede with you to pay a little debt that she thinks you have forgotten, but that probably you have never heard mentioned.”

“A debt?” cried he, with an immediate change of countenance, “to whom?”

“Her name, I think, is Hill; she is wife to the carpenter you employed about a new temple at Violet–Bank.”

“O, what — what, that woman? — Well, well, I’ll see she shall be paid. Come, let us go to the library.”

“What, with my commission so ill executed? I promised to petition for her to have the money directly.”

“Pho, pho, there’s no such hurry; I don’t know what I have done with her bill.”

“I’ll run and get another.”

“O upon no account! She may send another in two or three days. She deserves to wait a twelvemonth for her impertinence in troubling you at all about it.”

“That was entirely accidental: but indeed you must give me leave to perform my promise and plead for her. It must be almost the same to you whether you pay such a trifle as 20 pounds now or a month hence, and to this poor woman the difference seems little short of life or death, for she tells me her husband is dying, and her children are half-famished; and though she looks an object of the cruellest want and distress herself, she appears to be their only support.”

“O,” cried Mr Harrel, laughing, “what a dismal tale has she been telling you! no doubt she saw you were fresh from the country! But if you give credit to all the farragos of these trumpery impostors, you will never have a moment to yourself, nor a guinea in your purse.”

“This woman,”’ answered Cecilia, “cannot be an impostor, she carries marks but too evident and too dreadful in her countenance of the sufferings which she relates.”

“O,” returned he, “when you know the town better you will soon see through tricks of this sort; a sick husband and five small children are complaints so stale now, that they serve no other purpose in the world but to make a joke.”

“Those, however, who can laugh at them must have notions of merriment very different to mine. And this poor woman, whose cause I have ventured to undertake, had she no family at all, must still and indisputably be an object of pity herself, for she is so weak she can hardly crawl, and so pallid that she seems already half dead.”

“All imposition, depend upon it! The moment she is out of your sight her complaints will vanish.”

“Nay, sir,” cried Cecilia, a little impatiently, “there is no reason to suspect such deceit, since she does not come hither as a beggar, however well the state of beggary may accord with her poverty: she only solicits the payment of a bill, and if in that there is any fraud, nothing can be so easy as detection.”

Mr Harrel bit his lips at this speech, and for some instants looked much disturbed; but soon recovering himself, he negligently said, “Pray, how did she get at you?”

“I met her at the street door. But tell me, is not her bill a just one?”

“I cannot say; I have never had time to look at it.”

“But you know who the woman is, and that her husband worked for you, and therefore that in all probability it is right — do you not?”

“Yes, yes, I know who the woman is well enough; she has taken care of that, for she has pestered me every day these nine months.”

Cecilia was struck dumb by this speech: hitherto she had supposed that the dissipation of his life kept him ignorant of his own injustice; but when she found he was so well informed of it, yet, with such total indifference, could suffer a poor woman to claim a just debt every day for nine months together, she was shocked and astonished beyond measure. They were both some time silent, and then Mr Harrel, yawning and stretching out his arms, indolently asked, “Pray, why does not the man come himself?”

“Did I not tell you,” answered Cecilia, staring at so absent a question, “that he was very ill, and unable even to work?”

“Well, when he is better,” added he, moving towards the door, “he may call, and I will talk to him.”

Cecilia, all amazement at this unfeeling behaviour, turned involuntarily to Mr Arnott, with a countenance that appealed for his assistance; but Mr Arnott hung his head, ashamed to meet her eyes, and abruptly left the room.

Meantime Mr Harrel, half-turning back, though without looking Cecilia in the face, carelessly said, “Well, won’t you come?”

“No, sir,” answered she, coldly.

He then returned to the library, leaving her equally displeased, surprised, and disconcerted at the conversation which had just passed between them. “Good heaven,” cried she to herself, “what strange, what cruel insensibility! to suffer a wretched family to starve, from an obstinate determination to assert that they can live! to distress the poor by retaining the recompense for which alone they labour, and which at last they must have, merely from indolence, forgetfulness, or insolence! Oh how little did my uncle know, how little did I imagine to what a guardian I was entrusted!” She now felt ashamed even to return to the poor woman, though she resolved to do all in her power to soften her disappointment and relieve her distress.

But before she had quitted the room one of the servants came to tell her that his master begged the honor of her company up stairs. “Perhaps he relents!” thought she; and pleased with the hope, readily obeyed the summons.

She found him, his lady, Sir Robert Floyer, and two other gentlemen, all earnestly engaged in an argument over a large table, which was covered with plans and elevations of small buildings.

Mr Harrel immediately addressed her with an air of vivacity, and said, “You are very good for coming; we can settle nothing without your advice: pray look at these different plans for our theatre, and tell us which is the best.”

Cecilia advanced not a step: the sight of plans for new edifices when the workmen were yet unpaid for old ones; the cruel wantonness of raising fresh fabrics of expensive luxury, while those so lately built had brought their neglected labourers to ruin, excited an indignation she scarce thought right to repress: while the easy sprightliness of the director of these revels, to whom but the moment before she had represented the oppression of which they made him guilty, filled her with aversion and disgust: and, recollecting the charge given her by the stranger at the Opera rehearsal, she resolved to speed her departure to another house, internally repeating, “Yes, I will save myself from the impending destruction of unfeeling prosperity!”

Mrs Harrel, surprised at her silence and extreme gravity, enquired if she was not well, and why she had put off her visit to Miss Larolles? And Sir Robert Floyer, turning suddenly to look at her, said, “Do you begin to feel the London air already?”

Cecilia endeavoured to recover her serenity, and answer these questions in her usual manner; but she persisted in declining to give any opinion at all about the plans, and, after slightly looking at them, left the room.

Mr Harrel, who knew better how to account for her behaviour than he thought proper to declare, saw with concern that she was more seriously displeased than he had believed an occurrence which he had regarded as wholly unimportant could have made her: and, therefore, desirous that she should be appeased, he followed her out of the library, and said, “Miss Beverley, will tomorrow be soon enough for your protegee?”

“O yes, no doubt!” answered she, most agreeably surprised by the question.

“Well, then, will you take the trouble to bid her come to me in the morning?”

Delighted at this unexpected commission, she thanked him with smiles for the office; and as she hastened down stairs to chear the poor expectant with the welcome intelligence, she framed a thousand excuses for the part he had hitherto acted, and without any difficulty, persuaded herself he began to see the faults of his conduct, and to meditate a reformation.

She was received by the poor creature she so warmly wished to serve with a countenance already so much enlivened, that she fancied Mr Harrel had himself anticipated her intended information: this, however, she found was not the case, for as soon as she heard his message, she shook her head, and said, “Ah, madam, his honour always says tomorrow! but I can better bear to be disappointed now, so I’ll grumble no more; for indeed, madam, I have been blessed enough today to comfort me for every thing in the world, if I could but keep from thinking of poor Billy! I could bear all the rest, madam, but whenever my other troubles go off, that comes back to me so much the harder!”

“There, indeed, I can afford you no relief,” said Cecilia, “but you must try to think less of him, and more of your husband and children who are now alive. To-morrow you will receive your money, and that, I hope, will raise your spirits. And pray let your husband have a physician, to tell you how to nurse and manage him; I will give you one fee for him now, and if he should want further advice, don’t fear to let me know.”

Cecilia had again taken out her purse, but Mrs Hill, clasping her hands, called out, “Oh madam no! I don’t come here to fleece such goodness! but blessed be the hour that brought me here today, and if my poor Billy was alive, he should help me to thank you!”

She then told her that she was now quite rich, for while she was gone, a gentleman had come into the room, who had given her five guineas.

Cecilia, by her description, soon found this gentleman was Mr Arnott, and a charity so sympathetic with her own, failed not to raise him greatly in her favour. But as her benevolence was a stranger to that parade which is only liberal from emulation, when she found more money not immediately wanted, she put up her purse, and charging Mrs Hill to enquire for her the next morning when she came to be paid, bid her hasten back to her sick husband.

And then, again ordering the carriage to the door, she set off upon her visit to Miss Larolles, with a heart happy in the good already done, and happier still in the hope of doing more.

Miss Larolles was out, and she returned home; for she was too sanguine in her expectations from Mr Harrel, to have any desire of seeking her other guardians. The rest of the day she was more than usually civil to him, with a view to mark her approbation of his good intentions: while Mr Arnott, gratified by meeting the smiles he so much valued, thought his five guineas amply repaid, independently of the real pleasure which he took in doing good.

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