Evelina, by Fanny Burney

Letter LX.

Evelina in Continuation.

Berry Hill, August 10th.

YOU complain of my silence, my dear Miss Mirvan; — but what have I to write? Narrative does not offer, nor does a lively imagination supply the deficiency. I have, however, at present, sufficient matter for a letter, in relating a conversation I had yesterday with Mr. Villars.

Our breakfast had been the most cheerful we have had since my return hither; and when it was over, he did not, as usual, retire to his study, but continued to converse with me while I worked. We might, probably, have passed all the morning thus sociably, but for the entrance of a farmer, who came to solicit advice concerning some domestic affairs. They withdrew together into the study.

The moment I was alone my spirits failed me; the exertion with which I had supported them had fatigued my mind; I flung away my work, and, leaning my arms on the table, gave way to a train of disagreeable reflections, which, bursting from the restraint that had smothered them, filled me with unusual sadness.

This was my situation, when, looking towards the door, which was open, I perceived Mr. Villars, who was earnestly regarding me. “Is Farmer Smith gone, Sir?” cried I, hastily rising, and snatching up my work.

“Don’t let me disturb you,” said he, gravely; “I will go again to my study.”

“Will you, Sir? — I was in hopes you were coming to sit here.”

“In hopes! — and why, Evelina, should you hope it?”

This question was so unexpected, that I knew not how to answer it; but, as I saw he was moving away, I followed, and begged him to return. “No, my dear, no,” said he, with a forced smile, “I only interrupt your meditations.”

Again I knew not what to say; and while I hesitated, he retired. My heart was with him, but I had not the courage to follow. The idea of an explanation, brought on in so serious a manner, frightened me. I recollected the inference you had drawn from my uneasiness, and I feared that he might make a similar interpretation.

Solitary and thoughtful, I passed the rest of the morning in my own room. At dinner I again attempted to be cheerful; but Mr. Villars himself was grave, and I had not sufficient spirits to support a conversation merely by my own efforts. As soon as dinner was over, he took a book, and I walked to the window. I believe I remained near an hour in this situation. All my thoughts were directed to considering how I might dispel the doubts which I apprehended Mr. Villars had formed, without acknowledging a circumstance which I had suffered so much pain merely to conceal. But while I was thus planning for the future, I forgot the present; and so intent was I upon the subject which occupied me, that the strange appearance of my unusual inactivity and extreme thoughtfulness never occurred to me. But when, at last, I recollected myself, and turned round, I saw that Mr. Villars, who had parted with his book, was wholly engrossed in attending to me. I started from my reverie, and, hardly knowing what I said, asked if he had been reading?

He paused a moment, and then replied, “Yes, my child; — a book that both afflicts and perplexes me.”

He means me, thought I; and therefore I made no answer.

“What if we read it together?” continued he, “will you assist me to clear its obscurity?”

I knew not what to say; but I sighed involuntarily from the bottom of my heart. He rose, and approaching me, said, with emotion, “My child, I can no longer be a silent witness of thy sorrow — is not thy sorrow my sorrow? — and ought I to be a stranger to the cause, when I so deeply sympathize in the effect?”

“Cause, Sir!” cried I, greatly alarmed, “what cause? — I don’t know — I can’t tell — I—”

“Fear not,” said he, kindly, “to unbosom thyself to me, my dearest Evelina; open to me thy whole heart — it can have no feelings for which I will not make allowance. Tell me, therefore, what it is that thus afflicts us both; and who knows but I may suggest some means of relief?”

“You are too, too good,” cried I, greatly embarrassed; “but indeed I know not what you mean.”

“I see,” said he, “it is painful to you to speak: suppose, then, I endeavour to save you by guessing?”

“Impossible! impossible!” cried I, eagerly; “no one living could ever guess, ever suppose —” I stopped abruptly; for I then recollected I was acknowledging something was to be guessed: however, he noticed not my mistake.

“At least let me try,” answered he, mildly; “perhaps I may be a better diviner than you imagine: if I guess every thing that is probable, surely I must approach near the real reason. Be honest, then, my love, and speak without reserve; — does not the country, after so much gaiety, so much variety, does it not appear insipid and tiresome?”

“No, indeed! I love it more than ever, and more than ever do I wish I had never, never quitted it!”

“Oh, my child! that I had not permitted the journey! My judgment always opposed it, but my resolution was not proof against persuasion.”

“I blush, indeed,” cried I, “to recollect my earnestness; — but I have been my own punisher!”

“It is too late now,” answered he, “to reflect upon this subject; let us endeavour to avoid repentance for the time to come, and we shall not have erred without reaping some instruction.” Then, seating himself, and making me sit by him, he continued, “I must now guess again: perhaps you regret the loss of those friends you knew in town; — perhaps you miss their society, and fear you may see them no more? — perhaps Lord Orville —”

I could not keep my seat; but, rising hastily, said, “Dear Sir, ask me nothing more! — for I have nothing to own — nothing to say; — my gravity has been merely accidental, and I can give no reason for it at all. — Shall I fetch you another book? — or will you have this again?”

For some minutes he was totally silent, and I pretended to employ myself in looking for a book. At last, with a deep sigh, “I see,” said he, “I see but too plainly, that though Evelina is returned — I have lost my child!”

“No, Sir, no,” cried I, inexpressibly shocked, “she is more your’s than ever! Without you, the world would be a desert to her, and life a burthen:— forgive her, then, and — if you can — condescend to be, once more, the confidant of all her thoughts.”

“How highly I value, how greatly I wish for her confidence,” returned he, “she cannot but know; — yet to extort, to tear it from her — my justice, my affection both revolt at the idea. I am sorry that I was so earnest with you; — leave me, my dear, leave me, and compose yourself; we will meet again at tea.”

“Do you then refuse to hear me?”

“No, but I abhor to compel you. I have long seen that your mind has been ill at ease, and mine has largely partaken of your concern: I forbore to question you; for I hoped that time and absence, from whatever excited your uneasiness, might best operate in silence: but, alas! your affliction seems only to augment — your health declines — your look alters! — Oh, Evelina, my aged heart bleeds to see the change! — bleeds to behold the darling it had cherished, the prop it had reared for its support, when bowed down by years and infirmities, sinking itself under the pressure of internal grief! — struggling to hide what it should seek to participate! — But go, my dear, go to your own room; we both want composure, and we will talk of this matter some other time.”

“Oh, Sir,” cried I, penetrated to the soul, “bid me not leave you! — think me not so lost to feeling, to gratitude —”

“Not a word of that,” interrupted he: “it pains me you should think upon that subject; pains me you should ever remember that you have not a natural, an hereditary right to every thing within my power. I meant not to affect you thus — I hoped to have soothed you! — but my anxiety betrayed me to an urgency that has distressed you. Comfort yourself, my love; and doubt not but that time will stand your friend, and all will end well.”

I burst into tears: with difficulty had I so long restrained them; for my heart, while it glowed with tenderness and gratitude, was oppressed with a sense of its own unworthiness. “You are all, all goodness!” cried I, in a voice scarce audible; “little as I deserve — unable as I am to repay, such kindness — yet my whole soul feels — thanks you for it!”

“My dearest child,” cried he, “I cannot bear to see thy tears; — for my sake dry them: such a sight is too much for me: think of that, Evelina, and take comfort, I charge thee!”

“Say then,” cried I, kneeling at his feet, “say then that you forgive me! that you pardon my reserve — that you will again suffer me to tell you my most secret thoughts, and rely upon my promise never more to forfeit your confidence! — my father! — my protector! — my ever-honoured — ever-loved — my best and only friend! — say you forgive your Evelina, and she will study better to deserve your goodness!”

He raised, he embraced me: he called me his sole joy, his only earthly hope, and the child of his bosom! He folded me to his heart; and, while I wept from the fulness of mine, with words of sweetest kindness and consolation, he soothed and tranquillised me.

Dear to my remembrance will ever be that moment when, banishing the reserve I had so foolishly planned, and so painfully supported, I was restored to the confidence of the best of men!

When at length we were again quietly and composedly seated by each other, and Mr. Villars waited for the explanation I had begged him to hear, I found myself extremely embarrassed how to introduce the subject which must lead to it. He saw my distress; and with a kind of benevolent pleasantry, asked me if I would let him guess any more? I assented in silence.

“Shall I, then, go back to where I left off?”

“If — if you please; — I believe so — ” said I, stammering.

“Well, then, my love, I think I was speaking of the regret it was natural you should feel upon quitting those from whom you had received civility and kindness, with so little certainty of ever seeing them again, or being able to return their good offices. These are circumstances that afford but melancholy reflections to young minds; and the affectionate disposition of my Evelina, open to all social feelings, must be hurt more than usual by such considerations. — You are silent, my dear. Shall I name those whom I think most worthy the regret I speak of? We shall then see if our opinions coincide.”

Still I said nothing, and he continued.

“In your London journal, nobody appears in a more amiable, a more respectable light than Lord Orville; and perhaps —”

“I knew what you would say,” cried I, hastily, “and I have long feared where your suspicions would fall; but indeed, Sir, you are mistaken: I hate Lord Orville — he is the last man in the world in whose favour I should be prejudiced.”

I stopped; for Mr. Villars looked at me with such infinite surprise, that my own warmth made me blush.

“You hate Lord Orville!” repeated he.

I could make no answer; but took from my pocket-book the letter, and giving it to him, “See, Sir,” said I, “how differently the same man can talk and write!”

He read it three times before he spoke; and then said, “I am so much astonished, that I know not what I read. When had you this letter?”

I told him. Again he read it, and, after considering its contents some time, said, “I can form but one conjecture concerning this most extraordinary performance: he must certainly have been intoxicated when he wrote it.”

“Lord Orville intoxicated!” repeated I: “once I thought him a stranger to all intemperance; — but it is very possible, for I can believe any thing now.”

“That a man who had behaved with so strict a regard to delicacy,” continued Mr. Villars, “and who, as far as occasion had allowed, manifested sentiments the most honourable, should thus insolently, thus wantonly, insult a modest young woman, in his perfect senses, I cannot think possible. But, my dear, you should have inclosed this letter in an empty cover, and have returned it to him again: such a resentment would at once have become your character, and have given him an opportunity, in some measure, of clearing his own. He could not well have read this letter the next morning without being sensible of the impropriety of having written it.”

Oh, Maria! why had I not this thought? I might then have received some apology; the mortification would then have been his, not mine. It is true, he could not have reinstated himself so highly in my opinion as I had once ignorantly placed him, since the conviction of such intemperance would have levelled him with the rest of his imperfect race; yet my humbled pride might have been consoled by his acknowledgments.

But why should I allow myself to be humbled by a man who can suffer his reason to be thus abjectly debased, when I am exalted by one who knows no vice, and scarcely a failing, but by hearsay? To think of his kindness, and reflect upon his praises, might animate and comfort me even in the midst of affliction. “Your indignation,” said he, “is the result of virtue; you fancied Lord Orville was without fault — he had the appearance of infinite worthiness, and you supposed his character accorded with appearance: guileless yourself, how could you prepare against the duplicity of another? Your disappointment has but been proportioned to your expectations, and you have chiefly owed its severity to the innocence which hid its approach.”

I will bid these words dwell ever in my memory, and they shall cheer, comfort, and enliven me! This conversation, though extremely affecting to me at the time it passed, has relieved my mind from much anxiety. Concealment, my dear Maria, is the foe of tranquillity: however I may err in future, I will never be disingenuous in acknowledging my errors. To you and to Mr. Villars I vow an unremitting confidence.

And yet, though I am more at ease, I am far from well: I have been some time writing this letter; but I hope I shall send you soon a more cheerful one.

Adieu, my sweet friend. I intreat you not to acquaint even your dear mother with this affair; Lord Orville is a favourite with her, and why should I publish that he deserves not that honour?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/evelina/letter60.html

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