Evelina, by Fanny Burney

Letter lxii.

Evelina to the Rev. Mr. Villars.

Bristol Hotwells, Sept. 12th.

THE first fortnight that I passed here was so quiet, so serene, that it gave me reason to expect a settled calm during my stay; but if I may now judge of the time to come, by the present state of my mind, the calm will be succeeded by a storm, of which I dread the violence!

This morning, in my way to the pump-room with Mrs. Selwyn, we were both very much incommoded by three gentlemen, who were sauntering by the side of the Avon, laughing and talking very loud, and lounging so disagreeably, that we knew not how to pass them. They all three fixed their eyes very boldly upon me, alternately looking under my hat, and whispering one another. Mrs. Selwyn assumed an air of uncommon sternness, and said, “You will please, gentlemen, either to proceed yourselves, or to suffer us.”

“Oh! Ma’am,” cried one of them, “we will suffer you with the greatest pleasure in life.”

“You will suffer us both,” answered she, “or I am much mistaken: you had better, therefore, make way quietly; for I should be sorry to give my servant the trouble of teaching you better manners.”

Her commanding air struck them, yet they all chose to laugh; and one of them wished the fellow would begin his lesson, that he might have the pleasure of rolling him into the Avon; while another, advancing to me with a freedom which made me start, said, “By my soul, I did not know you! — but I am sure I cannot be mistaken; — had not I the honour of seeing you once at the Pantheon?”

I then recollected the nobleman, who, at that place, had so much embarrassed me. I courtsied without speaking. They all bowed, and making, though in a very easy manner, an apology to Mrs. Selwyn, they suffered us to pass on, but chose to accompany us.

“And where,” continued this Lord, “can you so long have hid yourself? do you know I have been in search of you this age? I could neither find you out, nor hear of you: not a creature could inform me what was become of you. I cannot imagine where you could be immured. I was at two or three public places every night, in hopes of meeting you. Pray, did you leave town?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“So early in the season! — what could possibly induce you to go before the birth-day?”

“I had nothing, my Lord, to do with the birth-day.”

“By my soul, all the women who had, may rejoice you were away. Have you been here any time?”

“Not above a fortnight, my Lord.”

“A fortnight! — how unlucky that I did not meet you sooner! but I have had a run of ill luck ever since I came. How long shall you stay?”

“Indeed, my Lord, I don’t know.”

“Six weeks, I hope; for I shall wish the place at the devil when you go.”

“Do you, then, flatter yourself, my Lord,” said Mrs. Selwyn, who had hitherto listened in silent contempt, “that you shall see such a beautiful spot as this, when you visit the dominions of the devil?”

“Ha, ha, ha! Faith, my Lord,” said one of his companions, who still walked with us, though the other had taken leave, “the lady is rather hard upon you.”

“Not at all,” answered Mrs. Selwyn; “for as I cannot doubt but his Lordship’s rank and interest will secure him a place there, it would be reflecting on his understanding, to suppose he should not wish to enlarge and beautify his dwelling.”

Much as I was disgusted with this Lord, I must own Mrs. Selwyn’s severity rather surprised me: but you, who have so often observed it, will not wonder she took so fair an opportunity of indulging her humour.

“As to places,” returned he, totally unmoved, “I am so indifferent to them, that the devil take me if I care which way I go! objects, indeed, I am not so easy about; and, therefore, I expect, that those angels with whose beauty I am so much enraptured in this world, will have the goodness to afford me some little consolation in the other.”

“What, my Lord!” cried Mrs. Selwyn, “would you wish to degrade the habitation of your friend, by admitting into it the insipid company of the upper regions?”

“What do you do with yourself this evening?” said his Lordship, turning to me.

“I shall be at home, my Lord.”

“O, — e; — propos — where are you?”

“Young ladies, my Lord,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “are no where.”

“Prithee,” whispered his Lordship, “is that queer woman your mother?”

Good Heavens, Sir, what words for such a question!

“No, my Lord.”

“Your maiden aunt then?”

“No.”

“Whoever she is, I wish she would mind her own affairs: I don’t know what the devil a woman lives for after thirty: she is only in other folk’s way. Shall you be at the assembly?”

“I believe not, my Lord.”

“No! — why then, how in the world can you contrive to pass your time?”

“In a manner which your Lordship will think very extraordinary,” cried Mrs. Selwyn, “for the young lady reads.”

“Ha, ha, ha! Egad, my Lord,” cried the facetious companion, “you are got into bad hands.”

“You had better, Ma’am,” answered he, “attack Jack Coverley here, for you will make nothing of me.”

“Of you, my Lord,” cried she, “Heaven forbid I should ever entertain so idle an expectation! I only talk, like a silly woman, for the sake of talking; but I have by no means so low an opinion of your Lordship, as to suppose you vulnerable to censure.”

“Do, pray, Ma’am,” cried he, “turn to Jack Coverley; he’s the very man for you; — he’d be a wit himself if he was not too modest.”

“Prithee, my Lord, be quiet,” returned the other; “if the lady is contented to bestow all her favours upon you, why should you make such a point of my going snacks?”

“Don’t be apprehensive, gentlemen,” said Mrs. Selwyn, drily, “I am not romantic; — I have not the least design of doing good to either of you.”

“Have not you been ill since I saw you?” said his Lordship, again addressing himself to me.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I thought so; you are paler than you was, and I suppose that’s the reason I did not recollect you sooner.”

“Has not your Lordship too much gallantry,” cried Mrs. Selwyn, “to discover a young lady’s illness by her looks?”

“The devil a word can I speak for that woman,” said he, in a low voice; “do, prithee, Jack, take her in hand.”

“Excuse me, my Lord,” answered Mr. Coverley.

“When shall I see you again?” continued his Lordship; “do you go to the pump-room every morning?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Do you ride out?”

“No, my Lord.”

Just then we arrived at the pump-room, and an end was put to our conversation, if it is not an abuse of words to give such a term to a string of rude questions and free compliments.

He had not opportunity to say much more to me, as Mrs. Selwyn joined a large party, and I walked home between two ladies. He had, however, the curiosity to see us to the door.

Mrs. Selwyn was very eager to know how I had made acquaintance with this nobleman, whose manners so evidently announced the character of a confirmed libertine. I could give her very little satisfaction, as I was ignorant even of his name: but, in the afternoon, Mr. Ridgeway, the apothecary, gave us very ample information.

As his person was easily described, for he is remarkably tall, Mr. Ridgeway told us he was Lord Merton, a nobleman who is but lately come to his title, though he has already dissipated more than half his fortune; a professed admirer of beauty, but a man of most licentious character; that among men, his companions consisted chiefly of gamblers and jockeys, and among women he was rarely admitted.

“Well, Miss Anville,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “I am glad I was not more civil to him. You may depend upon me for keeping him at a distance.”

“O, Madam,” said Mr. Ridgeway, “he may now be admitted any where, for he is going to reform.”

“Has he, under that notion, persuaded any fool to marry him?”

“Not yet, Madam, but a marriage is expected to take place shortly: it has been some time in agitation; but the friends of the lady have obliged her to wait till she is of age: however, her brother, who has chiefly opposed the match, now that she is near being at her own disposal, is tolerably quiet. She is very pretty, and will have a large fortune. We expect her at the Wells every day.”

“What is her name?” said Mrs. Selwyn.

“Larpent,” answered he: “Lady Louisa Larpent, sister of Lord Orville.”

“Lord Orville!” repeated I, all amazement.

“Yes, Ma’am; his Lordship is coming with her. I have had certain information. They are to be at the Honourable Mrs. Beaumont’s. She is a relation of my Lord’s, and has a very fine house upon Clifton Hill.”

His Lordship is coming with her! — Good God, what an emotion did those words give me! How strange, my dear Sir, that, just at this time, he should visit Bristol! It will be impossible for me to avoid seeing him, as Mrs. Selwyn is very well acquainted with Mrs. Beaumont. Indeed, I have had an escape in not being under the same roof with him, for Mrs. Beaumont invited us to her house immediately upon our arrival; but the inconvenience of being so distant from the pump-room made Mrs. Selwyn decline her civility.

Oh that the first meeting were over! — or that I could quit Bristol without seeing him! — inexpressibly do I dread an interview! Should the same impertinent freedom be expressed by his looks, which dictated this cruel letter, I shall not know how to endure either him or myself. Had I but returned it, I should be easier, because my sentiments of it would then be known to him; but now, he can only gather them from my behaviour; and I tremble lest he should mistake my indignation for confusion! — lest he should misconstrue my reserve into embarrassment! — for how, my dearest Sir, how shall I be able totally to divest myself of the respect with which I have been used to think of him? — the pleasure with which I have been used to see him?

Surely he, as well as I, must recollect the letter at the moment of our meeting; and he will, probably, mean to gather my thoughts of it from my looks; — oh that they could but convey to him my real detestation of impertinence and vanity! then would he see how much he had mistaken my disposition when he imagined them my due.

There was a time when the very idea that such a man as Lord Merton should ever be connected with Lord Orville would have both surprised and shocked me; and even yet I am pleased to hear of his repugnance to the marriage.

But how strange, that a man of so abandoned a character should be the choice of a sister of Lord Orville! and how strange, that, almost at the moment of the union, he should be so importunate in gallantry to another woman! What a world is this we live in! how corrupt! how degenerate! well might I be contented to see no more of it! If I find that the eyes of Lord Orville agree with his pen — I shall then think, that of all mankind, the only virtuous individual resides at Berry Hill.

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