Evelina, by Fanny Burney

Letter xlii

Evelina to the Rev. Mr. Villars

Holborn, June 9.

YESTERDAY morning we received an invitation to dine and spend the day at Mr. Branghton’s; and M. Du Bois, who was also invited, called to conduct us to Snow Hill.

Young Branghton received us at the door; and the first words he spoke were, “Do you know, sisters a’n’t dressed yet.”

Then, hurrying us into the house, he said to me, “Come, Miss, you shall go upstairs and catch ’em — I dare say they’re at the glass.”

He would have taken my hand; but I declined this civility, and begged to follow Madame Duval.

Mr. Branghton then appeared, and led the way himself. We went, as before, up two pairs of stairs; but the moment the father opened the door, the daughters both gave a loud scream. We all stopped; and then Miss Branghton called out, “Lord, Papa, what do you bring the company up here for? why, Polly and I a’n’t half dressed.”

“More shame for you,” answered he; “here’s your aunt, and cousin, and M. Du Bois, all waiting, and ne’er a room to take them to.”

“Who’d have thought of their coming so soon?” cried she: “I am sure for my part I thought Miss was used to nothing but quality hours.”

“Why, I sha’n’t be ready this half-hour yet,” said Miss Polly; “can’t they stay in the shop till we’re dressed?”

Mr. Branghton was very angry, and scolded them violently: however, we were obliged to descend, and stools were procured for us in the shop, where we found the brother, who was highly delighted, he said, that his sisters had been catched; and he thought proper to entertain me with a long account of their tediousness, and the many quarrels they all had together.

When, at length, these ladies were equipped to their satisfaction, they made their appearance; but before any conversation was suffered to pass between them and us, they had a long and most disagreeable dialogue with their father, to whose reprimands, though so justly incurred, they replied with the utmost pertness while their brother all the time laughed aloud.

The moment they perceived this, they were so much provoked, that, instead of making any apologies to Madame Duval, they next began to quarrel with him. “Tom, what do you laugh for? I wonder what business you have to be always a laughing when Papa scolds us?”

“Then what business have you to be such a while getting on your clothes? You’re never ready, you know well enough.”

“Lord, Sir, I wonder what’s that to you! I wish you’d mind your own affairs, and not trouble yourself about ours. How should a boy like you know any thing?”

“A boy, indeed! not such a boy, neither: I’ll warrant you’ll be glad to be as young when you come to be old maids.”

This sort of dialogue we were amused with till dinner was ready, when we again mounted up two pairs of stairs.

In our way, Miss Polly told me that her sister had asked Mr. Smith for his room to dine in, but he had refused to lend it; “because,” she said, “one day it happened to be a little greased: however, we shall have it to drink tea in, and then, perhaps, you may see him; and I assure you he’s quite like one of the quality, and dresses as fine, and goes to balls and dances, and every thing, quite in taste; and besides, Miss, he keeps a foot-boy of his own too.”

The dinner was ill-served, ill-cooked, and ill-managed. The maid who waited had so often to go down stairs for something that was forgotten, that the Branghtons were perpetually obliged to rise from table themselves, to get plates, knives, and forks, bread or beer. Had they been without pretensions, all this would have seemed of no consequence; but they aimed at appearing to advantage, and even fancied they succeeded. However, the most disagreeable part of our fare was that the whole family continually disputed whose turn it was to rise, and whose to be allowed to sit still.

When this meal was over, Madame Duval, ever eager to discourse upon her travels, entered into an argument with Mr. Branghton, and, in broken English, M. Du Bois, concerning the French nation: and Miss Polly, then addressing herself to me, said “Don’t you think, Miss, it’s very dull sitting up stairs here? we’d better go down to shop, and then we shall see the people go by.”

“Lord, Poll,” said the brother, “you’re always wanting to be staring and gaping; and I’m sure you needn’t be so fond of showing yourself, for you’re ugly enough to frighten a horse.”

“Ugly, indeed! I wonder which is best, you or me. But, I tell you what, Tom, you’ve no need to give yourself such airs; for, if you do, I’ll tell Miss of — you know what —”

“Who cares if you do? you may tell what you will; I don’t mind —”

“Indeed,” cried I, “I do not desire to hear any secrets.”

“O, but I’m resolved I’ll tell you, because Tom’s so very spiteful. You must know, Miss, t’other night —”

“Poll,” cried the brother, “if you tell of that, Miss shall know all about your meeting young Brown — you know when! — So I’ll be quits with you one way or other.”

Miss Polly coloured, and again proposed our going down stairs till Mr. Smith’s room was ready for our reception.

“Aye, so we will,” said Miss Branghton; “I’ll assure you, cousin, we have some very genteel people pass by our shop sometimes. Polly and I always go and sit there when we’ve cleaned ourselves.”

“Yes, Miss,” cried the brother, “they do nothing else all day long, when father don’t scold them. But the best fun is, when they’ve got all their dirty things on, and all their hair about their ears, sometimes I send young Brown up stairs to them: and then there’s such a fuss! — There, they hide themselves, and run away, and squeal and squall, like any thing mad: and so then I puts the two cats into the room, and I gives them a good whipping, and so that sets them a squalling too; so there’s such a noise and such an uproar! — Lord, you can’t think, Miss, what fun it is!”

This occasioned a fresh quarrel with the sisters; at the end of which, it was at length decided that we should go to the shop.

In our way down stairs, Miss Branghton said aloud, “I wonder when Mr. Smith’s room will be ready.”

“So do I,” answered Polly; “I’m sure we should not do any harm to it now.”

This hint had not the desired effect; for we were suffered to proceed very quietly.

As we entered the shop, I observed a young man in deep mourning leaning against the wall, with his arms folded, and his eyes fixed on the ground, apparently in profound and melancholy meditation; but the moment he perceived us, he started, and, making a passing bow, very abruptly retired. As I found he was permitted to go quite unnoticed, I could not forbear enquiring who he was.

“Lord!” answered Miss Branghton, “he’s nothing but a poor Scotch poet.”

“For my part,” said Miss Polly, “I believe he’s just starved, for I don’t find he has anything to live upon.”

“Live upon!” cried the brother; “why, he’s a poet, you know, so he may live upon learning.”

“Aye, and good enough for him, too,” said Miss Branghton; “for he’s as proud as he’s poor.”

“Like enough,” replied the brother; “but, for all that, you won’t find he will live without meat and drink: no, no, catch a Scotchman at that if you can! why, they only come here for what they can get.”

“I’m sure,” said Miss Branghton, “I wonder Papa’ll be such a fool as to let him stay in the house, for I dare say he’ll never pay for his lodging.”

“Why, no more he would, if he could get another lodger. You know the bill has been put up this fortnight. Miss, if you should hear of a person that wants a room, I assure you it is a very good one, for all it’s up three pair of stairs.”

I answered, that as I had no acquaintance in London, I had not any chance of assisting them: but both my compassion and my curiosity were excited for this poor young man; and I asked them some further particulars concerning him.

They then acquainted me, that they had only known him three months. When he first lodged with them, he agreed to board also; but had lately told them he would eat by himself, though they all believed he had hardly ever tasted a morsel of meat since he left their table. They said, that he had always appeared very low-spirited; but for the last month he had been duller than ever; and, all of a sudden, he had put himself into mourning, though they knew not for whom, nor for what; but they supposed it was only for convenience, as no person had ever been to see or enquire for him since his residence amongst them: and they were sure he was very poor, as he had not paid for his lodgings the last three weeks: and, finally, they concluded he was a poet, or else half-crazy, because they had, at different times, found scraps of poetry in his room.

They then produced some unfinished verses, written on small pieces of paper, unconnected, and of a most melancholy cast. Among them was the fragment of an ode, which, at my request, they lent to me to copy; and as you may perhaps like to see it, I will write it now.

O LIFE! thou lingering dream of grief, of pain,

And every ill that Nature can sustain,

Strange, mutable, and wild!

Now flattering with Hope most fair,

Depressing now with fell Despair,

The nurse of Guilt, the slave of Pride,

That, like a wayward child,

Who, to himself a foe,

Sees joy alone in what’s denied,

In what is granted, woe!

O thou poor, feeble, fleeting, pow’r,

By Vice seduc’d, by Folly woo’d,

By Mis’ry, Shame, Remorse, pursu’d;

And as thy toilsome steps proceed,

Seeming to Youth the fairest flow’r,

Proving to Age the rankest weed,

A gilded but a bitter pill,

Of varied, great, and complicated ill!

These lines are harsh, but they indicate an internal wretchedness, which I own, affects me. Surely this young man must be involved in misfortunes of no common nature but I cannot imagine what can induce him to remain with this unfeeling family, where he is, most unworthily, despised for being poor, and most illiberally detested for being a Scotchman. He may, indeed, have motives, which he cannot surmount, for submitting to such a situation. Whatever they are, I most heartily pity him, and cannot but wish it were in my power to afford him some relief.

During this conversation, Mr. Smith’s foot-boy came to Miss Branghton, and informed her, that his master said she might have the room now when she liked it, for that he was presently going out.

This very genteel message, though it perfectly satisfied the Miss Branghtons, by no means added to my desire of being introduced to this gentleman; and upon their rising, with intention to accept his offer, I begged they would excuse my attending them, and said I would sit with Madame Duval till the tea was ready.

I therefore once more went up two pair of stairs with young Branghton, who insisted upon accompanying me; and there we remained till Mr. Smith’s foot-boy summoned us to tea, when I followed Madame Duval into the dining-room.

The Miss Branghtons were seated at one window, and Mr. Smith was lolling indolently out of the other. They all approached us at our entrance; and Mr. Smith, probably to show he was master of the department, most officiously handed me to a great chair at the upper end of the room, without taking any notice of Madame Duval, till I rose and offered her my own seat.

Leaving the rest of the company to entertain themselves, he very abruptly began to address himself to me, in a style of gallantry equally new and disagreeable to me. It is true, no man can possibly pay me greater compliments, or make more fine speeches, than Sir Clement Willoughby: yet his language, though too flowery, is always that of a gentleman; and his address and manners are so very superior to those of the inhabitants of this house, that, to make any comparison between him and Mr. Smith, would be extremely unjust. This latter seems very desirous of appearing a man of gaiety and spirit; but his vivacity is so low-bred, and his whole behaviour so forward and disagreeable, that I should prefer the company of dullness itself, even as that goddess is described by Pope, to that of this sprightly young man.

He made many apologies that he had not lent his room for our dinner, which he said, he should certainly have done, had he seen me first: and he assured me, that when I came again, he should be very glad to oblige me.

I told him, and with sincerity, that every part of the house was equally indifferent to me.

“Why, Ma’am, the truth is, Miss Biddy and Polly take no care of any thing; else, I’m sure, they should be always welcome to my room; for I’m never so happy as in obliging the ladies — that’s my character, Ma’am:— but, really, the last time they had it, every thing was made so greasy and so nasty, that, upon my word, to a man who wishes to have things a little genteel, it was quite cruel. Now, as to you, Ma’am, it’s quite another thing, for I should not mind if every thing I had was spoilt, for the sake of having the pleasure to oblige you; and I assure you, Ma’am, it makes me quite happy that I have a room good enough to receive you.”

This elegant speech was followed by many others so much in the same style, that to write them would be superfluous; and as he did not allow me a moment to speak to any other person, the rest of the evening was consumed in a painful attention to this irksome young man, who seemed to intend appearing before me to the utmost advantage.

Adieu, my dear Sir. I fear you will be sick of reading about this family; yet I must write of them, or not of any, since I mix with no other. Happy I shall be when I quit them all, and again return to Berry Hill.

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