Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 4

An Affray.

The next morning, during breakfast, Cecilia was informed that a gentleman desired to speak with her. She begged permission of Mrs Harrel to have him asked upstairs, and was not a little surprized when he proved to be the same old gentleman whose singular exclamations had so much struck her at Mr Monckton’s, and at the rehearsal of Artaserse.

Abruptly and with a stern aspect advancing to her, “You are rich,” he cried; “are you therefore worthless?”

“I hope not,” answered she, in some consternation; while Mrs Harrel, believing his intention was to rob them, ran precipitately to the bell, which she rang without ceasing till two or three servants hastened into the room; by which time, being less alarmed, she only made signs to them to stay, and stood quietly herself to wait what would follow.

The old man, without attending to her, continued his dialogue with Cecilia.

“Know you then,” he said, “a blameless use of riches? such a use as not only in the broad glare of day shall shine resplendent, but in the darkness of midnight, and stillness of repose, shall give you reflections unembittered, and slumbers unbroken? tell me, know you this use?”

“Not so well, perhaps,” answered she, “as I ought; but I am very willing to learn better.”

“Begin, then, while yet youth and inexperience, new to the callousness of power and affluence, leave something good to work upon: yesterday you saw the extravagance of luxury and folly; today look deeper, and see, and learn to pity, the misery of disease and penury.”

He then put into her hand a paper which contained a most affecting account of the misery to which a poor and wretched family had been reduced, by sickness and various other misfortunes.

Cecilia, “open as day to melting charity,” having hastily perused it, took out her purse, and offering to him three guineas, said, “You must direct me, sir, what to give if this is insufficient.”

“Hast thou so much heart?” cried he, with emotion, “and has fortune, though it has cursed thee with the temptation of prosperity, not yet rooted from thy mind its native benevolence? I return in part thy liberal contribution; this,” taking one guinea, “doubles my expectations; I will not, by making thy charity distress thee, accelerate the fatal hour of hardness and degeneracy.”

He was then going; but Cecilia, following him, said “No, take it all! Who should assist the poor if I will not? Rich, without connections; powerful, without wants; upon whom have they any claim if not upon me?”

“True,” cried he, receiving the rest, “and wise as true. Give, therefore, whilst yet thou hast the heart to give, and make, in thy days of innocence and kindness, some interest with Heaven and the poor!”

And then he disappeared.

“Why, my dear, cried Mrs Harrel, “what could induce you to give the man so much money? Don’t you see he is crazy? I dare say he would have been just as well contented with sixpence.”

“I know not what he is,” said Cecilia, “but his manners are not more singular than his sentiments are affecting; and if he is actuated by charity to raise subscriptions for the indigent, he can surely apply to no one who ought so readily to contribute as myself.”

Mr Harrel then came in, and his lady most eagerly told him the transaction.

“Scandalous!” he exclaimed; “why, this is no better than being a housebreaker! Pray give orders never to admit him again. Three guineas! I never heard so impudent a thing in my life! Indeed, Miss Beverley, you must be more discreet in future, you will else be ruined before you know where you are.”

“Thus it is,” said Cecilia, half smiling, “that we can all lecture one another! today you recommend economy to me; yesterday I with difficulty forbore recommending it to you.”

“Nay,” answered he, “that was quite another matter; expence incurred in the common way of a man’s living is quite another thing to an extortion of this sort.”

“It is another thing indeed,” said she, “but I know not that it is therefore a better.”

Mr Harrel made no answer: and Cecilia, privately moralizing upon the different estimates of expence and economy made by the dissipated and the charitable, soon retired to her own apartment, determined firmly to adhere to her lately adopted plan, and hoping, by the assistance of her new and very singular monitor, to extend her practice of doing good, by enlarging her knowledge of distress.

Objects are, however, never wanting for the exercise of benevolence; report soon published her liberality, and those who wished to believe it, failed not to enquire into its truth. She was soon at the head of a little band of pensioners, and, never satisfied with the generosity of her donations, found in a very short time that the common allowance of her guardians was scarce adequate to the calls of her munificence.

And thus, in acts of goodness and charity, passed undisturbed another week of the life of Cecilia: but when the fervour of self-approbation lost its novelty, the pleasure with which her new plan was begun first subsided into tranquillity, and then sunk into languor. To a heart formed for friendship and affection the charms of solitude are very short-lived; and though she had sickened of the turbulence of perpetual company, she now wearied of passing all her time by herself, and sighed for the comfort of society and the relief of communication. But she saw with astonishment the difficulty with which this was to be obtained: the endless succession of diversions, the continual rotation of assemblies, the numerousness of splendid engagements, of which, while every one complained, every one was proud to boast, so effectually impeded private meetings and friendly intercourse, that, whichever way she turned herself, all commerce seemed impracticable, but such as either led to dissipation, or accidentally flowed from it.

Yet, finding the error into which her ardour of reformation had hurried her, and that a rigid seclusion from company was productive of a lassitude as little favourable to active virtue as dissipation itself, she resolved to soften her plan, and by mingling amusement with benevolence, to try, at least, to approach that golden mean, which, like the philosopher’s stone, always eludes our grasp, yet always invites our wishes.

For this purpose she desired to attend Mrs Harrel to the next Opera that should be represented.

The following Saturday, therefore, she accompanied that lady and Mrs Mears to the Haymarket, escorted by Mr Arnott.

They were very late; the Opera was begun, and even in the lobby the crowd was so great that their passage was obstructed. Here they were presently accosted by Miss Larolles, who, running up to Cecilia and taking her hand, said, “Lord, you can’t conceive how glad I am to see you! why, my dear creature, where have you hid yourself these twenty ages? You are quite in luck in coming to-night, I assure you; it’s the best Opera we have had this season: there’s such a monstrous crowd there’s no stirring. We shan’t get in this half hour. The coffee-room is quite full; only come and see; is it not delightful?”

This intimation was sufficient for Mrs Harrel, whose love of the Opera was merely a love of company, fashion, and shew; and therefore to the coffee-room she readily led the way.

And here Cecilia found rather the appearance of a brilliant assembly of ladies and gentlemen, collected merely to see and to entertain one another, than of distinct and casual parties, mixing solely from necessity, and waiting only for room to enter a theatre.

The first person that addressed them was Captain Aresby, who, with his usual delicate languishment, smiled upon Cecilia, and softly whispering, “How divinely you look to-night!” proceeded to pay his compliments to some other ladies.

“Do, pray, now,” cried Miss Larolles, “observe Mr Meadows! only just see where he has fixed himself! in the very best place in the room, and keeping the fire from every body! I do assure you that’s always his way, and it’s monstrous provoking, for if one’s ever so cold, he lollops so, that one’s quite starved. But you must know there’s another thing he does that is quite as bad, for if he gets a seat, he never offers to move, if he sees one sinking with fatigue. And besides, if one is waiting for one’s carriage two hours together, he makes it a rule never to stir a step to see for it. Only think how monstrous!”

“These are heavy complaints, indeed,” said Cecilia, looking at him attentively; “I should have expected from his appearance a very different account of his gallantry, for he seems dressed with more studied elegance than anybody here.”

“O yes,” cried Miss Larolles, “he is the sweetest dresser in the world; he has the most delightful taste you can conceive, nobody has half so good a fancy. I assure you it’s a great thing to be spoke to by him: we are all of us quite angry when he won’t take any notice of us.”

“Is your anger,” said Cecilia, laughing, “in honour of himself or of his coat?”

“Why, Lord, don’t you know all this time that he is an ennuye?

“I know, at least,” answered Cecilia, “that he would soon make one of me.”

“O, but one is never affronted with an ennuye, if he is ever so provoking, because one always knows what it means.”

“Is he agreeable?”

“Why, to tell you the truth — but pray now, don’t mention it — I think him most excessive disagreeable! He yawns in one’s face every time one looks at him. I assure you sometimes I expect to see him fall fast asleep while I am talking to him, for he is so immensely absent he don’t hear one half that one says; only conceive how horrid!”

“But why, then, do you encourage him? why do you take any notice of him?”

“O, every body does, I assure you, else I would not for the world; but he is so courted you have no idea. However, of all things let me advise you never to dance with him; I did once myself, and I declare I was quite distressed to death the whole time, for he was taken with such a fit of absence he knew nothing he was about, sometimes skipping and jumping with all the violence in the world, just as if he only danced for exercise, and sometimes standing quite still, or lolling against the wainscoat and gaping, and taking no more notice of me than if he had never seen me in his life!”

The Captain now, again advancing to Cecilia, said, “So you would not do us the honour to try the masquerade at the Pantheon? however, I hear you had a very brilliant spectacle at Mr Harrel’s. I was quite au desespoir that I could not get there. I did mon possible, but it was quite beyond me.”

“We should have been very happy,” said Mrs Harrel, “to have seen you; I assure you we had some excellent masks.”

“So I have heard partout, and I am reduced to despair that I could not have the honour of sliding in. But I was accable with affairs all day. Nothing could be so mortifying.”

Cecilia now, growing very impatient to hear the Opera, begged to know if they might not make a trial to get into the pit?

“I fear,” said the Captain, smiling as they passed him, without offering any assistance, “you will find it extreme petrifying; for my part, I confess I am not upon the principle of crowding.”

The ladies, however, accompanied by Mr Arnott, made the attempt, and soon found, according to the custom of report, that the difficulty, for the pleasure of talking of it, had been considerably exaggerated. They were separated, indeed, but their accommodation was tolerably good.

Cecilia was much vexed to find the first act of the Opera almost over; but she was soon still more dissatisfied when she discovered that she had no chance of hearing the little which remained: the place she had happened to find vacant was next to a party of young ladies, who were so earnestly engaged in their own discourse, that they listened not to a note of the Opera, and so infinitely diverted with their own witticisms, that their tittering and loquacity allowed no one in their vicinity to hear better than themselves. Cecilia tried in vain to confine her attention to the singers; she was distant from the stage, and to them she was near, and her fruitless attempts all ended in chagrin and impatience.

At length she resolved to make an effort for entertainment in another way, and since the expectations which brought her to the Opera were destroyed, to try by listening to her fair neighbours, whether those who occasioned her disappointment could make her any amends.

For this purpose she turned to them wholly; yet was at first in no little perplexity to understand what was going forward, since so universal was the eagerness for talking, and so insurmountable the antipathy to listening, that every one seemed to have her wishes bounded by a continual utterance of words, without waiting for any answer, or scarce even desiring to be heard.

But when, somewhat more used to their dialect and manner, she began better to comprehend their discourse, wretchedly indeed did it supply to her the loss of the Opera. She heard nothing but descriptions of trimmings, and complaints of hair-dressers, hints of conquest that teemed with vanity, and histories of engagements which were inflated with exultation.

At the end of the act, by the crowding forward of the gentlemen to see the dance, Mrs Harrel had an opportunity of making room for her by herself, and she had then some reason to expect hearing the rest of the Opera in peace, for the company before her, consisting entirely of young men, seemed, even during the dance, fearful of speaking, lest their attention should be drawn for a moment from the stage.

But to her infinite surprize, no sooner was the second act begun, than their attention ended! they turned from the performers to each other, and entered into a whispering but gay conversation, which, though not loud enough to disturb the audience in general, kept in the ears of their neighbours a buzzing which interrupted all pleasure from the representation. Of this effect of their gaiety it seemed uncertain whether they were conscious, but very evident that they were totally careless.

The desperate resource which she had tried during the first act, of seeking entertainment from the very conversation which prevented her enjoying it, was not now even in her power: for these gentlemen, though as negligent as the young ladies had been whom they disturbed, were much more cautious whom they instructed: their language was ambiguous, and their terms, to Cecilia, were unintelligible: their subjects, indeed, required some discretion, being nothing less than a ludicrous calculation of the age and duration of jointured widows, and of the chances and expectations of unmarried young ladies.

But what more even than their talking provoked her, was finding that the moment the act was over, when she cared not if their vociferation had been incessant, one of them called out, “Come, be quiet, the dance is begun;” and then they were again all silent attention!

In the third act, however, she was more fortunate; the gentlemen again changed their places, and they were succeeded by others who came to the Opera not to hear themselves but the performers: and as soon as she was permitted to listen, the voice of Pacchierotti took from her all desire to hear any thing but itself.

During the last dance she was discovered by Sir Robert Floyer, who, sauntering down fop’s alley, stationed himself by her side, and whenever the figurante relieved the principal dancers, turned his eyes from the stage to her face, as better worth his notice, and equally destined for his amusement.

Mr Monckton, too, who for some time had seen and watched her, now approached; he had observed with much satisfaction that her whole mind had been intent upon the performance, yet still the familiarity of Sir Robert Floyer’s admiration disturbed and perplexed him; he determined, therefore, to make an effort to satisfy his doubts by examining into his intentions: and, taking him apart, before the dance was quite over, “Well,” he said, “who is so handsome here as Harrel’s ward?”

“Yes,” answered he, calmly, “she is handsome, but I don’t like her expression.”

“No? why, what is the fault of it?”

“Proud, cursed proud. It is not the sort of woman I like. If one says a civil thing to her, she only wishes one at the devil for one’s pains.”

“O, you have tried her, then, have you? why, you are not, in general, much given to say civil things.”

“Yes, you know, I said something of that sort to her once about Juliet, at the rehearsal. Was not you by?”

“What, then, was that all? and did you imagine one compliment would do your business with her?”

“O, hang it, who ever dreams of complimenting the women now? that’s all at an end.”

“You won’t find she thinks so, though; for, as you well say, her pride is insufferable, and I, who have long known her, can assure you it does not diminish upon intimacy.”

“Perhaps not — but there’s very pretty picking in 3000 pounds per annum! one would not think much of a little encumbrance upon such an estate.”

“Are you quite sure the estate is so considerable? Report is mightily given to magnify.”

“O, I have pretty good intelligence: though, after all, I don’t know but I may be off; she’ll take a confounded deal of time and trouble.”

Monckton, too much a man of interest and of the world to cherish that delicacy which covets universal admiration for the object of its fondness, then artfully enlarged upon the obstacles he already apprehended, and insinuated such others as he believed would be most likely to intimidate him. But his subtlety was lost upon the impenetrable Baronet, who possessed that hard insensibility which obstinately pursues its own course, deaf to what is said, and indifferent to what is thought.

Meanwhile the ladies were now making way to the coffee-room, though very slowly on account of the crowd; and just as they got near the lobby, Cecilia perceived Mr Belfield, who, immediately making himself known to her, was offering his service to hand her out of the pit, when Sir Robert Floyer, not seeing or not heeding him, pressed forward, and said, “Will you let me have the honour, Miss Beverley, of taking care of you?”

Cecilia, to whom he grew daily more disagreeable, coldly declined his assistance, while she readily accepted that which had first been offered her by Mr Belfield.

The haughty Baronet, extremely nettled, forced his way on, and rudely stalking up to Mr Belfield, motioned with his hand for room to pass him, and said, “Make way, sir!”

“Make way for me, Sir!” cried Belfield, opposing him with one hand, while with the other he held Cecilia.

“You, Sir? and who are you, Sir?” demanded the Baronet, disdainfully.

“Of that, Sir, I shall give you an account whenever you please,” answered Belfield, with equal scorn.

“What the devil do you mean, Sir?”

“Nothing very difficult to be understood,” replied Belfield, and attempted to draw on Cecilia, who, much alarmed, was shrinking back.

Sir Robert then, swelling with rage, reproachfully turned to her, and said, “Will you suffer such an impertinent fellow as that, Miss Beverley, to have the honour of taking your hand?”

Belfield, with great indignation, demanded what he meant by the term impertinent fellow; and Sir Robert yet more insolently repeated it: Cecilia, extremely shocked, earnestly besought them both to be quiet; but Belfield, at the repetition of this insult, hastily let go her hand and put his own upon his sword, whilst Sir Robert, taking advantage of his situation in being a step higher than his antagonist, fiercely pushed him back, and descended into the lobby.

Belfield, enraged beyond endurance, instantly drew his sword, and Sir Robert was preparing to follow his example, when Cecilia, in an agony of fright, called out, “Good Heaven! will nobody interfere?” And then a young man, forcing his way through the crowd, exclaimed, “For shame, for shame, gentlemen! is this a place for such violence?”

Belfield, endeavouring to recover himself, put up his sword, and, though in a voice half choaked with passion, said, “I thank you, Sir! I was off my guard. I beg pardon of the whole company.”

Then, walking up to Sir Robert, he put into his hand a card with his name and direction, saying, “With you, Sir, I shall be happy to settle what apologies are necessary at your first leisure;” and hurried away.

Sir Robert, exclaiming aloud that he should soon teach him to whom he had been so impertinent, was immediately going to follow him, when the affrighted Cecilia again called out aloud, “Oh, stop him! — good God! will nobody stop him!”

The rapidity with which this angry scene had passed had filled her with amazement, and the evident resentment of the Baronet upon her refusing his assistance, gave her an immediate consciousness that she was herself the real cause of the quarrel; while the manner in which he was preparing to follow Mr Belfield convinced her of the desperate scene which was likely to succeed; fear, therefore, overcoming every other feeling, forced from her this exclamation before she knew what she said.

The moment she had spoken, the young man who had already interposed again rushed forward, and seizing Sir Robert by the arm, warmly remonstrated against the violence of his proceedings, and being presently seconded by other gentlemen, almost compelled him to give up his design.

Then, hastening to Cecilia, “Be not alarmed, madam,” he cried, “all is over, and every body is safe.”

Cecilia, finding herself thus addressed by a gentleman she had never before seen, felt extremely ashamed of having rendered her interest in the debate so apparent; she courtsied to him in some confusion, and taking hold of Mrs Harrel’s arm, hurried her back into the pit, in order to quit a crowd, of which she now found herself the principal object.

Curiosity, however, was universally excited, and her retreat served but to inflame it: some of the ladies, and most of the gentlemen, upon various pretences, returned into the pit merely to look at her, and in a few minutes the report was current that the young lady who had been the occasion of the quarrel, was dying with love for Sir Robert Floyer.

Mr Monckton, who had kept by her side during the whole affair, felt thunderstruck by the emotion she had shewn; Mr Arnott too, who had never quitted her, wished himself exposed to the same danger as Sir Robert, so that he might be honoured with the same concern: but they were both too much the dupes of their own apprehensions and jealousy, to perceive that what they instantly imputed to fondness, proceeded simply from general humanity, accidentally united with the consciousness of being accessary to the quarrel.

The young stranger who had officiated as mediator between the disputants, in a few moments followed her with a glass of water, which he had brought from the coffee-room, begging her to drink it and compose herself.

Cecilia, though she declined his civility with more vexation than gratitude, perceived, as she raised her eyes to thank him, that her new friend was a young man very strikingly elegant in his address and appearance.

Miss Larolles next, who, with her party, came back into the pit, ran up to Cecilia, crying, “O my dear creature, what a monstrous shocking thing! You’ve no Idea how I am frightened; do you know I happened to be quite at the further end of the coffee-room when it began, and I could not get out to see what was the matter for ten ages; only conceive what a situation!”

“Would your fright, then, have been less,” said Cecilia, “had you been nearer the danger?”

“O Lord no, for when I came within sight I was fifty times worse! I gave such a monstrous scream, that it quite made Mr Meadows start. I dare say he’ll tell me of it these hundred years: but really when I saw them draw their swords I thought I should have died; I was so amazingly surprized you’ve no notion.”

Here she was interrupted by the re-appearance of the active stranger, who again advancing to Cecilia, said, “I am in doubt whether the efforts I make to revive will please or irritate you, but though you rejected the last cordial I ventured to present you, perhaps you will look with a more favourable eye towards that of which I am now the herald.”

Cecilia then, casting her eyes around, saw that he was followed by Sir Robert Floyer. Full of displeasure both at this introduction and at his presence, she turned hastily to Mr Arnott, and entreated him to enquire if the carriage was not yet ready.

Sir Robert, looking at her with all the exultation of new-raised vanity, said, with more softness than he had ever before addressed her, “Have you been frightened?”

“Every body, I believe was frightened,” answered Cecilia, with an air of dignity intended to check his rising expectations.

“There was no sort of cause,” answered he; “the fellow did not know whom he spoke [to], that was all.”

“Lord, Sir Robert,” cried Miss Larolles, “how could you be so shocking as to draw your sword? you can’t conceive how horrid it looked.”

“Why I did not draw my sword,” cried he, “I only had my hand on the hilt.”

“Lord, did not you, indeed! well, every body said you did, and I’m sure I thought I saw five-and-twenty swords all at once. I thought one of you would be killed every moment. It was horrid disagreeable, I assure you.”

Sir Robert was now called away by some gentlemen; and Mr Monckton, earnest to be better informed of Cecilia’s real sentiments, said, with affected concern, “At present this matter is merely ridiculous; I am sorry to think in how short a time it may become more important.”

“Surely,” cried Cecilia with quickness, “some of their friends will interfere! surely upon so trifling a subject they will not be so mad, so inexcusable, as to proceed to more serious resentment!”

“Whichever of them,” said the stranger, “is most honoured by this anxiety, will be mad indeed to risk a life so valued!”

“Cannot you, Mr Monckton,” continued Cecilia, too much alarmed to regard this insinuation, “speak with Mr Belfield? You are acquainted with him, I know; is it impossible you can follow him?”

“I will with pleasure do whatever you wish; but still if Sir Robert —”

“O, as to Sir Robert, Mr Harrel, I am very sure, will undertake him; I will try to see him to-night myself, and entreat him to exert all his influence.”

“Ah, madam,” cried the stranger, archly, and lowering his voice, “those French beads and Bristol stones have not, I find, shone in vain!”

At these words Cecilia recognised her white domino acquaintance at the masquerade; she had before recollected his voice, but was too much perturbed to consider where or when she had heard it.

“If Mr Briggs,” continued he, “does not speedily come forth with his plum friend, before the glittering of swords and spears is joined to that of jewels, the glare will be so resplendent, that he will fear to come within the influence of its rays. Though, perhaps, he may only think the stronger the light, the better he shall see to count his guineas: for as

‘—— in ten thousand pounds Ten thousand charms are centred,’

in an hundred thousand, the charms may have such magic power, that he may defy the united efforts of tinsel and knight-errantry to deliver you from the golden spell.”

Here the Captain, advancing to Cecilia, said, “I have been looking for you in vain partout, but the crowd has been so accablant I was almost reduced to despair. Give me leave to hope you are now recovered from the horreur of this little fracas?”

Mr Arnott then brought intelligence that the carriage was ready. Cecilia, glad to be gone, instantly hastened to it; and, as she was conducted by Mr Monckton, most earnestly entreated him to take an active part, in endeavouring to prevent the fatal consequences with which the quarrel seemed likely to terminate.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/cecilia/book2.4.html

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