Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 3

A Confabulation.

The next morning, while the family was at breakfast, Belfield, according to his promise, made his visit.

A high colour overspread his face as he entered the room, resulting from a sensation of grief at his fallen fortune, and shame at his altered appearance, which though he endeavoured to cover under an air of gaiety and unconcern, gave an awkwardness to his manners, and a visible distress to his countenance: Mr Monckton received him with pleasure, and Cecilia, who saw the conflict of his philosophy with his pride, dressed her features once more in smiles, which however faint and heartless, shewed her desire to reassure him. Miss Bennet, as usual when not called upon by the master or lady of the house, sat as a cypher; and Lady Margaret, always disagreeable and repulsive to the friends of her husband, though she was not now more than commonly ungracious, struck the quick-feeling and irritable Belfield, to wear an air of rude superiority meant to reproach him with his disgrace.

This notion, which strongly affected him, made him, for one instant, hesitate whether he should remain another in the same room with her: but the friendliness of Mr Monckton, and the gentleness and good breeding of Cecilia, seemed so studious to make amends for her moroseness, that he checked his too ready indignation, and took his seat at the table. Yet was it some time before he could recover even the assumed vivacity which this suspected insult had robbed him of, sufficiently to enter into conversation with any appearance of ease or pleasure. But, after a while, soothed by the attentions of Cecilia and Mr Monckton, his uneasiness wore off, and the native spirit and liveliness of his character broke forth with their accustomed energy.

“This good company, I hope,” said he, addressing himself, however, only to Cecilia, “will not so much mistake the thing as to criticise my dress of this morning; since it is perfectly according to rule, and to rule established from time immemorial: but lest any of you should so much err as to fancy shabby what is only characteristic, I must endeavour to be beforehand with the malice of conjecture, and have the honour to inform you, that I am enlisted in the Grub-street regiment, of the third story, and under the tattered banner of scribbling volunteers! a race which, if it boasts not the courage of heroes, at least equals them in enmity. This coat, therefore, is merely the uniform of my corps, and you will all, I hope, respect it as emblematical of wit and erudition.”

“We must at least respect you,” said Cecilia, “who thus gaily can sport with it.”

“Ah, madam!” said he, more seriously, “it is not from you I ought to look for respect! I must appear to you the most unsteady and coward-hearted of beings. But lately I blushed to see you from poverty, though more worthily employed than when I had been seen by you in affluence; that shame vanquished, another equally narrow took its place, and yesterday I blushed again that you detected me in a new pursuit, though I had only quitted my former one from a conviction it was ill chosen. There seems in human nature a worthlessness not to be conquered! yet I will struggle with it to the last, and either die in the attempt, or dare seem that which I am, without adding to the miseries of life, the sting, the envenomed sting of dastardly false shame!”

“Your language is wonderfully altered within this twelvemonth,” said Mr Monckton; “the worthlessness of human nature! the miseries of life! this from you! so lately the champion of human nature, and the panegyrist of human life!”

“Soured by personal disappointment,” answered he, “I may perhaps speak with too much acrimony; yet, ultimately, my opinions have not much changed. Happiness is given to us with more liberality than we are willing to confess; it is judgment only that is dealt us sparingly, and of that we have so little, that when felicity is before us, we turn to the right or left, or when at the right or left, we proceed strait forward. It has been so with me; I have sought it at a distance, amidst difficulty and danger, when all that I could wish has been immediately within my grasp.”

“It must be owned,” said Mr Monckton, “after what you have suffered from this world you were wont to defend, there is little reason to wonder at some change in your opinion.”

“Yet whatever have been my sufferings,” he answered, “I have generally been involved in them by my own rashness or caprice. My last enterprise especially, from which my expectations were highest, was the most ill-judged of any. I considered not how little my way of life had fitted me for the experiment I was making, how irreparably I was enervated by long sedentary habits, and how insufficient for bodily strength was mental resolution. We may fight against partial prejudices, and by spirit and fortitude we may overcome them; but it will not do to war with the general tenor of education. We may blame, despise, regret as we please, but customs long established, and habits long indulged, assume an empire despotic, though their power is but prescriptive. Opposing them is vain; Nature herself, when forced aside, is not more elastic in her rebound.”

“Will you not then,” said Cecilia, “since your experiment has failed, return again to your family, and to the plan of life you formerly settled?”

“You speak of them together,” said he, with a smile, “as if you thought them inseparable; and indeed my own apprehension they would be deemed so, has made me thus fear to see my friends, since I love not resistance, yet cannot again attempt the plan of life they would have me pursue. I have given up my cottage, but my independence is as dear to me as ever; and all that I have gathered from experience, is to maintain it by those employments for which my education has fitted me, instead of seeking it injudiciously by the very road for which it has unqualified me.”

“And what is this independence,” cried Mr Monckton, “which has thus bewitched your imagination? a mere idle dream of romance and enthusiasm; without existence in nature, without possibility in life. In uncivilised countries, or in lawless times, independence, for a while, may perhaps stalk abroad; but in a regular government, ’tis only the vision of a heated brain; one part of a community must inevitably hang upon another, and ’tis a farce to call either independent, when to break the chain by which they are linked would prove destruction to both. The soldier wants not the officer more than the officer the soldier, nor the tenant the landlord, more than the landlord the tenant. The rich owe their distinction, their luxuries, to the poor, as much as the poor owe their rewards, their necessaries, to the rich.”

“Man treated as an Automaton,” answered Belfield, “and considered merely with respect to his bodily operations, may indeed be called dependent, since the food by which he lives, or, rather, without which he dies, cannot wholly be cultivated and prepared by his own hands: but considered in a nobler sense, he deserves not the degrading epithet; speak of him, then, as a being of feeling and understanding, with pride to alarm, with nerves to tremble, with honour to satisfy, and with a soul to be immortal! — as such, may he not claim the freedom of his own thoughts? may not that claim be extended to the liberty of speaking, and the power of being governed by them? and when thoughts, words, and actions are exempt from controul, will you brand him with dependency merely because the Grazier feeds his meat, and the Baker kneads his bread?”

“But who is there in the whole world,” said Mr Monckton, “extensive as it is, and dissimilar as are its inhabitants, that can pretend to assert, his thoughts, words, and actions, are exempt from controul? even where interest, which you so much disdain, interferes not — though where that is I confess I cannot tell! — are we not kept silent where we wish to reprove by the fear of offending? and made speak where we wish to be silent by the desire of obliging? do we not bow to the scoundrel as low as to the man of honour? are we not by mere forms kept standing when tired? made give place to those we despise? and smiles to those we hate? or if we refuse these attentions, are we not regarded as savages, and shut out of society?”

“All these,” answered Belfield, “are so merely matters of ceremony, that the concession can neither cost pain to the proud, nor give pleasure to the vain. The bow is to the coat, the attention is to the rank, and the fear of offending ought to extend to all mankind. Homage such as this infringes not our sincerity, since it is as much a matter of course as the dress that we wear, and has as little reason to flatter a man as the shadow which follows him. I no more, therefore, hold him deceitful for not opposing this pantomimical parade, than I hold him to be dependent for eating corn he has not sown.”

“Where, then, do you draw the line? and what is the boundary beyond which your independence must not step?”

“I hold that man,” cried he, with energy, “to be independent, who treats the Great as the Little, and the Little as the Great, who neither exults in riches nor blushes in poverty, who owes no man a groat, and who spends not a shilling he has not earned.”

“You will not, indeed, then, have a very numerous acquaintance, if this is the description of those with whom you purpose to associate! but is it possible you imagine you can live by such notions? why the Carthusian in his monastery, who is at least removed from temptation, is not mortified so severely as a man of spirit living in the world, who would prescribe himself such rules.”

“Not merely have I prescribed,” returned Belfield, “I have already put them in practice; and far from finding any pennance, I never before found happiness. I have now adopted, though poor, the very plan of life I should have elected if rich; my pleasure, therefore, is become my business, and my business my pleasure.”

“And is this plan,” cried Monckton, “nothing more than turning Knight-errant to the Booksellers?”

“’Tis a Knight-errantry,” answered Belfield, laughing, “which, however ludicrous it may seem to you, requires more soul and more brains than any other. Our giants may, indeed, be only windmills, but they must be attacked with as much spirit, and conquered with as much bravery, as any fort or any town, in time of war [to] be demolished; and though the siege, I must confess, may be of less national utility, the assailants of the quill have their honour as much at heart as the assailants of the sword.”

“I suppose then,” said Monckton, archly, “if a man wants a biting lampoon, or an handsome panegyric, some newspaper scandal, or a sonnet for a lady —”

“No, no,” interrupted Belfield eagerly, “if you imagine me a hireling scribbler for the purposes of defamation or of flattery, you as little know my situation as my character. My subjects shall be my own, and my satire shall be general. I would as much disdain to be personal with an anonymous pen, as to attack an unarmed man in the dark with a dagger I had kept concealed.”

A reply of rallying incredulity was rising to the lips of Mr Monckton, when reading in the looks of Cecilia an entire approbation of this sentiment, he checked his desire of ridicule, and exclaimed, “spoken like a man of honour, and one whose works may profit the world!”

“From my earliest youth to the present hour,” continued Belfield, “literature has been the favourite object of my pursuit, my recreation in leisure, and my hope in employment. My propensity to it, indeed, has been so ungovernable, that I may properly call it the source of my several miscarriages throughout life. It was the bar to my preferment, for it gave me a distaste to other studies; it was the cause of my unsteadiness in all my undertakings, because to all I preferred it. It has sunk me to distress, it has involved me in difficulties; it has brought me to the brink of ruin by making me neglect the means of living, yet never, till now, did I discern it might itself be my support.”

“I am heartily glad, Sir,” said Cecilia, “your various enterprizes and struggles have at length ended in a project which promises you so much satisfaction. But you will surely suffer your sister and your mother to partake of it? for who is there that your prosperity will make so happy?”

“You do them infinite honour, madam, by taking any interest in their affairs; but to own to you the truth, what to me appears prosperity, will to them wear another aspect. They have looked forward to my elevation with expectations the most improbable, and thought everything within my grasp, with a simplicity incredible. But though their hopes were absurd, I am pained by their disappointment, and I have not courage to meet their tears, which I am sure will not be spared when they see me.”

“’Tis from tenderness, then,” said Cecilia, half smiling, “that you are cruel, and from affection to your friends that you make them believe you have forgotten them?”

There was a delicacy in this reproach exactly suited to work upon Belfield, who feeling it with quickness, started up, and cried, “I believe I am wrong! — I will go to them this moment!”

Cecilia felt eager to second the generous impulse; but Mr Monckton, laughing at his impetuosity, insisted he should first finish his breakfast.

“Your friends,” said Cecilia, “can have no mortification so hard to bear as your voluntary absence; and if they see but that you are happy, they will soon be reconciled to whatever situation you may chuse.”

“Happy!” repeated he, with animation, “Oh I am in Paradise! I am come from a region in the first rude state of nature, to civilization and refinement! the life I led at the cottage was the life of a savage; no intercourse with society, no consolation from books; my mind locked up, every source dried of intellectual delight, and no enjoyment in my power but from sleep and from food. Weary of an existence which thus levelled me with a brute, I grew ashamed of the approximation, and listening to the remonstrance of my understanding, I gave up the precipitate plan, to pursue one more consonant to reason. I came to town, hired a room, and sent for pen, ink and paper: what I have written are trifles, but the Bookseller has not rejected them. I was settled, therefore, in a moment, and comparing my new occupation with that I had just quitted, I seemed exalted on the sudden from a mere creature of instinct, to a rational and intelligent being. But when first I opened a book, after so long an abstinence from all mental nourishment — Oh it was rapture! no half-famished beggar regaled suddenly with food, ever seized on his repast with more hungry avidity.”

“Let fortune turn which way it will,” cried Monckton, “you may defy all its malice, while possessed of a spirit of enjoyment which nothing can subdue!”

“But were you not, Sir,” said Cecilia, “as great an enthusiast the other day for your cottage, and for labour?”

“I was, madam; but there my philosophy was erroneous: in my ardour to fly from meanness and from dependence, I thought in labour and retirement I should find freedom and happiness; but I forgot that my body was not seasoned for such work, and considered not that a mind which had once been opened by knowledge, could ill endure the contraction of dark and perpetual ignorance. The approach, however, of winter, brought me acquainted with my mistake. It grew cold, it grew bleak; little guarded against the inclemency of the —— I felt its severity in every limb, and missed a thousand indulgencies which in possession I had never valued. To rise at break of day, chill, freezing, and comfortless! no sun abroad, no fire at home! to go out in all weather to work, that work rough, coarse, and laborious! — unused to such hardships, I found I could not bear them, and, however unwillingly, was compelled to relinquish the attempt.”

Breakfast now being over, he again arose to take leave.

“You are going, then, Sir,” said Cecilia, “immediately to your friends?”

“No, madam,” answered he hesitating, “not just this moment; tomorrow morning perhaps — but it is now late, and I have business for the rest of the day.”

“Ah, Mr Monckton!” cried Cecilia, “what mischief have you done by occasioning this delay!”

“This goodness, madam,” said Belfield, “my sister can never sufficiently acknowledge. But I will own, that though, just now, in a warm moment, I felt eager to present myself to her and my mother, I rather wish, now I am cooler, to be saved the pain of telling them in person my situation. I mean, therefore, first to write to them.”

“You will not fail, then, to see them tomorrow?”

“Certainly — I think not.”

“Nay, but certainly you must not, for I shall call upon them today, and assure them they may expect you. Can I soften your task of writing by giving them any message from you?”

“Ah, madam, have a care!” cried he; “this condescension to a poor author may be more dangerous than you have any suspicion! and before you have power to help yourself, you may see your name prefixed to the Dedication of some trumpery pamphlet!”

“I will run,” cried she, “all risks; remember, therefore, you will be responsible for the performance of my promise.”

“I will be sure,” answered he, “not to forget what reflects so much honour upon myself.”

Cecilia was satisfied by this assent, and he then went away.

“A strange flighty character!” cried Mr Monckton, “yet of uncommon capacity, and full of genius. Were he less imaginative, wild and eccentric, he has abilities for any station, and might fix and distinguish himself almost where-ever he pleased.”

“I knew not,” said Cecilia, “the full worth of steadiness and prudence till I knew this young man; for he has every thing else; talents the most striking, a love of virtue the most elevated, and manners the most pleasing; yet wanting steadiness and prudence, he can neither act with consistency nor prosper with continuance.”

“He is well enough,” said Lady Margaret, who had heard the whole argument in sullen taciturnity, “he is well enough, I say; and there comes no good from young women’s being so difficult.”

Cecilia, offended by a speech which implied a rude desire to dispose of her, went up stairs to her own room; and Mr Monckton, always enraged when young men and Cecilia were alluded to in the same sentence, retired to his library.

She then ordered a chair, and went to Portland-street, to fulfil what she had offered to Belfield, and to revive his mother and sister by the pleasure of the promised interview.

She found them together: and her intelligence being of equal consequence to both, she did not now repine at the presence of Mrs Belfield. She made her communication with the most cautious attention to their characters, softening the ill she had to relate with respect to Belfield’s present way of living, by endeavouring to awaken affection and joy from the prospect of the approaching meeting. She counselled them as much as possible to restrain their chagrin at his misfortunes, which he would but construe into reproach of his ill management; and she represented that when once he was restored to his family, he might almost imperceptibly be led into some less wild and more profitable scheme of business.

When she had told all she thought proper to relate, kindly interspersing her account with the best advice and best comfort she could suggest, she made an end of her visit; for the affliction of Mrs Belfield upon hearing the actual situation of her son, was so clamorous and unappeaseable, that, little wondering at Belfield’s want of courage to encounter it, and having no opportunity in such a storm to console the soft Henrietta, whose tears flowed abundantly that her brother should thus be fallen, she only promised before she left town to see her again, and beseeching Mrs Belfield to moderate her concern, was glad to leave the house, where her presence had no power to quiet their distress.

She passed the rest of the day in sad reflections upon the meeting she was herself to have the next morning with Mr Delvile. She wished ardently to know whether his son was gone abroad, and whether Mrs Delvile was recovered, whose health, in her own letter, was mentioned in terms the most melancholy: yet neither of these enquiries could she even think of making, since reasonably, without them, apprehensive of some reproach.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/cecilia/book9.3.html

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