Evelina, by Fanny Burney

Letter xxviii

Mr Villars to Lady Howard

Berry Hill, May 2.

YOUR letter, Madam, has opened a source of anxiety, to which I look forward with dread, and which, to see closed, I scarcely dare expect. I am unwilling to oppose my opinion to that of your Ladyship; nor, indeed, can I, but by arguments which I believe will rather rank me as a hermit ignorant of the world, and fit only for my cell, than as a proper guardian, in an age such as this, for an accomplished young woman. Yet, thus called upon, it behoves me to explain, and endeavour to vindicate, the reasons by which I have been hitherto guided.

The mother of this dear child — who was led to destruction by her own imprudence, the hardness of heart of Madame Duval, and the villany of Sir John Belmont — was once, what her daughter is now, the best beloved of my heart: and her memory, so long as my own holds, I shall love, mourn and honour! On the fatal day that her gentle soul left its mansion, and not many hours ere she ceased to breathe, I solemnly plighted my faith, That her child if it lived, should know no father but myself, or her acknowledged husband.

You cannot, Madam, suppose that I found much difficulty in adhering to this promise, and forbearing to make any claim upon Sir John Belmont. Could I feel an affection the most paternal for this poor sufferer, and not abominate her destroyer? Could I wish to deliver to him, who had so basely betrayed the mother, the helpless and innocent offspring, who, born in so much sorrow, seemed entitled to all the compassionate tenderness of pity?

For many years, the name alone of that man, accidentally spoken in my hearing, almost divested me of my Christianity, and scarce could I forbear to execrate him. Yet I sought not, neither did I desire, to deprive him of his child, had he with any appearance of contrition, or, indeed, of humanity, endeavoured to become less unworthy such a blessing; — but he is a stranger to all parental feelings, and has with a savage insensibility, forborne to enquire even into the existence of this sweet orphan, though the situation of his injured wife was but too well known to him.

You wish to be acquainted with my intentions. — I must acknowledge they were such as I now perceive would not be honoured with your Ladyship’s approbation; for though I have sometimes thought of presenting Evelina to her father, and demanding the justice which is her due, yet, at other times, I have both disdained and feared the application; disdained lest it should be refused; and feared, lest it should be accepted!

Lady Belmont, who was firmly persuaded of her approaching dissolution, frequently and earnestly besought me, that if her infant was a female, I would not abandon her to the direction of a man so wholly unfit to take the charge of her education: but, should she be importunately demanded, that I would retire with her abroad, and carefully conceal her from Sir John, till some apparent change in his sentiments and conduct should announce him less improper for such a trust. And often would she say, “Should the poor babe have any feelings correspondent with its mother’s, it will have no want while under your protection.” Alas! she had no sooner quitted it herself, than she was plunged into a gulph of misery, that swallowed up her peace, reputation, and life.

During the childhood of Evelina, I suggested a thousand plans for the security of her birth-right; — but I as many times rejected them. I was in a perpetual conflict, between the desire that she should have justice done her, and the apprehension that, while I improved her fortune, I should endanger her mind. However, as her character began to be formed, and her disposition to be displayed, my perplexity abated; the road before me seemed less thorny and intricate, and I thought I could perceive the right path from the wrong: for when I observed the artless openness the ingenuous simplicity of her nature; when I saw that her guileless and innocent soul fancied all the world to be pure and disinterested as herself, and that her heart was open to every impression with which love, pity, or art might assail it; — then did I flatter myself, that to follow my own inclination, and to secure her welfare, was the same thing; since, to expose her to the snares and dangers inevitably encircling a house of which the master is dissipated and unprincipled, without the guidance of a mother, or any prudent and sensible female, seemed to me no less than suffering her to stumble into some dreadful pit, when the sun is in its meridian. My plan, therefore, was not merely to educate and to cherish her as my own, but to adopt her the heiress of my small fortune, and to bestow her upon some worthy man, with whom she might spend her days in tranquility, cheerfulness, and good-humour, untainted by vice, folly, or ambition.

So much for the time past. Such have been the motives by which I have been governed; and I hope they will be allowed not merely to account for, but also to justify, the conduct which has resulted from them. It now remains to speak of the time to come.

And here, indeed, I am sensible of difficulties which I almost despair of surmounting according to my wishes. I pay the highest deference to your Ladyship’s opinion, which it is extremely painful to me not to concur with; — yet I am so well acquainted with your goodness, that I presume to hope it would not be absolutely impossible for me to offer such arguments as might lead you to think with me, that this young creature’s chance of happiness seems less doubtful in retirement, than it would be in the gay and dissipated world. But why should I perplex your Ladyship with reasoning that can turn to so little account? for, alas! what arguments, what persuasions, can I make use of, with any prospect of success, to such a woman as Madame Duval? Her character and the violence of her disposition, intimidate me from making the attempt: she is too ignorant for instruction, too obstinate for intreaty, and too weak for reason.

I will not, therefore, enter into a contest from which I have nothing to expect but altercation and impertinence. As soon would I discuss the effect of sound with the deaf, or the nature of colours with the blind, as aim at illuminating with conviction a mind so warped by prejudice, so much the slave of unruly and illiberal passions. Unused as she is to control, persuasion would but harden, and opposition incense her. I yield, therefore, to the necessity which compels my reluctant acquiescence; and shall now turn all my thoughts upon considering of such methods for the conducting this enterprise, as may be most conducive to the happiness of my child and least liable to wound her sensibility.

The law-suit, therefore, I wholly and absolutely disapprove.

Will you, my dear Madam, forgive the freedom of an old man, if I own myself greatly surprised, that you could, even for a moment, listen to a plan so violent, so public, so totally repugnant to all female delicacy? I am satisfied your Ladyship has not weighed this project. There was a time, indeed, when to assert the innocence of Lady Belmont, and to blazon to the world the wrongs, not guilt, by which she suffered, I proposed, nay attempted, a similar plan: but then all assistance and encouragement was denied. How cruel to the remembrance I bear of her woes is this tardy resentment of Madame Duval! She was deaf to the voice of Nature, though she has hearkened to that of Ambition.

Never can I consent to have this dear and timid girl brought forward to the notice of the world by such a method; a method which will subject her to all the impertinence of curiosity, the sneers of conjecture, and the stings of ridicule. And for what? — the attainment of wealth which she does not want, and the gratification of vanity which she does not feel. A child to appear against a father! — no, Madam, old and infirm as I am, I would even yet sooner convey her myself to some remote part of the world, though I were sure of dying in the expedition.

Far different had been the motives which would have stimulated her unhappy mother to such a proceeding; all her felicity in this world was irretrievably lost; her life was become a burthen to her; and her fair fame, which she had early been taught to prize above all other things, had received a mortal wound: therefore, to clear her own honour, and to secure from blemish the birth of her child, was all the good which fortune had reserved herself the power of bestowing. But even this last consolation was withheld from her!

Let milder measures be adopted: and — since it must be so — let application be made to Sir John Belmont, but as to a law-suit, I hope, upon this subject, never more to hear it mentioned.

With Madame Duval, all pleas of delicacy would be ineffectual; her scheme must be opposed by arguments better suited to her understanding. I will not, therefore, talk of its impropriety, but endeavour to prove its inutility. Have the goodness, then, to tell her, that her own intentions would be frustrated by her plan; since, should the lawsuit be commenced, and even should the cause be gained, Sir John Belmont would still have it in his power, and, if irritated, no doubt in his inclination, to cut off her grand-daughter with a shilling.

She cannot do better herself than to remain quiet and inactive in the affair: the long and mutual animosity between her and Sir John will make her interference merely productive of debates and ill-will. Neither would I have Evelina appear till summoned. And as to myself, I must wholly decline acting; though I will, with unwearied zeal, devote all my thoughts to giving counsel: but, in truth, I have neither inclination nor spirits adequate to engaging personally with this man.

My opinion is, that he would pay more respect to a letter from your Ladyship upon this subject, than from any other person. I, therefore, advise and hope, that you will yourself take the trouble of writing to him, in order to open the affair. When he shall be inclined to see Evelina, I have for him a posthumous letter, which his much injured lady left to be presented to him, if ever such a meeting should take place.

The views of the Branghtons, in suggesting this scheme, are obviously interested. They hope, by securing to Evelina the fortune of her father, to induce Madame Duval to settle her own upon themselves. In this, however, they would probably be mistaken; for little minds have ever a propensity to bestow their wealth upon those who are already in affluence; and, therefore, the less her grandchild requires her assistance, the more gladly she will give it.

I have but one thing more to add, from which, however, I can by no means recede: my word so solemnly given to Lady Belmont, that her child should never be owned but with her self, must be inviolably adhered to.

I am, dear Madam, with great respect,

Your Ladyship’s most obedient servant,

ARTHUR VILLARS.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/evelina/letter28.html

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