Evelina, by Fanny Burney

Letter lxiv.

Evelina in Continuation.

Bristol Hotwells, Sept. 19th.

YESTERDAY morning Mrs. Selwyn received a card from Mrs. Beaumont, to ask her to dine with her today: and another, to the same purpose, came to me. The invitation was accepted, and we are but just arrived from Clifton Hill.

We found Mrs. Beaumont alone in the parlour. I will write you the character of that lady, in the words of our satirical friend Mrs. Selwyn. “She is an absolute Court Calendar bigot; for, chancing herself to be born of a noble and ancient family, she thinks proper to be of opinion, that birth and virtue are one and the same thing. She has some good qualities; but they rather originate from pride than principle, as she piques herself upon being too high-born to be capable of an unworthy action, and thinks it incumbent upon her to support the dignity of her ancestry. Fortunately for the world in general, she has taken it into her head, that condescension is the most distinguishing virtue of high life; so that the same pride of family which renders others imperious, is with her the motive of affability. But her civility is too formal to be comfortable, and too mechanical to be flattering. That she does me the honour of so much notice, is merely owing to an accident, which, I am sure, is very painful to her remembrance; for it so happened, that I once did her some service, in regard to an apartment at Southampton; and I have since been informed, that, at the time she accepted my assistance, she thought I was a woman of quality; and I make no doubt but she was miserable when she discovered me to be a mere country gentlewoman: however, her nice notions of decorum have made her load me with favours ever since. But I am not much flattered by her civilities, as I am convinced I owe them neither to attachment nor gratitude; but solely to a desire of cancelling an obligation, which she cannot brook being under, to one whose name is no where to be found in the Court Calendar.”

You well know, my dear Sir, the delight this lady takes in giving way to her satirical humour.

Mrs. Beaumont received us very graciously, though she some what distressed me by the questions she asked concerning my family; — such as, Whether I was related to the Anvilles in the North? — Whether some of my name did not live in Lincolnshire? and many other inquiries, which much embarrassed me.

The conversation next turned upon the intended marriage in her family. She treated the subject with reserve; but it was evident she disapproved Lady Louisa’s choice. She spoke in terms of the highest esteem of Lord Orville, calling him, in Marmontel’s words, “Un jeune homme comme il y en a peu.”

I did not think this conversation very agreeably interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Lovel. Indeed I am heartily sorry he is now at the Hot Wells. He made his compliments with the most obsequious respect to Mrs. Beaumont, but took no sort of notice of any other person.

In a few minutes Lady Louisa Larpent made her appearance. The same manners prevailed; for, courtsying, with “I hope you are well, Ma’am,” to Mrs. Beaumont, she passed straight forward to her seat on the sofa; where, leaning her head on her hand, she cast her languishing eyes round the room, with a vacant stare, as if determined, though she looked, not to see who was in it.

Mr. Lovel, presently approaching her, with reverence the most profound, hoped her Ladyship was not indisposed.

“Mr. Lovel!” cried she, raising her head, “I declare I did not see you: have you been here long?”

“By my watch, Madam,” said he, “only five minutes — but by your Ladyship’s absence as many hours.”

“O! now I think of it,” cried she, “I am very angry with you; — so go along, do; for I sha’n’t speak to you all day.”

“Heaven forbid your La’ship’s displeasure should last so long! in such cruel circumstances, a day would seem an age. But in what have I been so unfortunate as to offend?”

“O, you half killed me the other morning, with terror! I have not yet recovered from my fright. How could you be so cruel as to drive your phaeton against my Lord Merton’s?”

“‘Pon honour, Ma’am, your La’ship does me wrong; — it was all owing to the horses — there was no curbing them. I protest I suffered more than your Ladyship, from the terror of alarming you.”

Just then entered Lord Merton; stalking up to Mrs. Beaumont, to whom alone he bowed, he hoped he had not made her wait; and then, advancing to Lady Louisa, said, in a careless manner, “How is your Ladyship this morning?”

“Not well at all,” answered she; “I have been dying with the head-ache ever since I got up.”

“Indeed!” cried he, with a countenance wholly unmoved, “I am very unhappy to hear it. But should not your Ladyship have some advice?”

“I am quite sick of advice,” answered she, “Mr. Ridgeway has but just left me — but he has done me no good. Nobody here knows what is the matter with me, yet they all see how indifferent I am.”

“Your Ladyship’s constitution,” said Mr. Lovel, “is infinitely delicate.”

“Indeed it is,” cried she, in a low voice, “I am nerve all over!”

“I am glad, however,” said Lord Merton, “that you did not take the air this morning, for Coverley has been driving against me as if he was mad: he has got two of the finest spirited horses I ever saw.”

“Pray my Lord,” cried she, “why did not you bring Mr. Coverley with you? he’s a droll creature; I like him monstrously.”

“Why, he promised to be here as soon as me. I suppose he’ll come before dinner’s over.”

In the midst of this trifling conversation Lord Orville made his appearance. O how different was his address! how superior did he look and move, to all about him! Having paid his respects to Mrs. Beaumont, and then to Mrs. Selwyn, he came up to me, and said, “I hope Miss Anville has not suffered from the fatigue of Monday morning?” Then, turning to Lady Louisa, who seemed rather surprised at his speaking to me, he added, “Give me leave, sister, to introduce Miss Anville to you.”

Lady Louisa, half-rising, said, very coldly, that she should be glad of the honour of knowing me; and then, abruptly turning to Lord Merton and Mr. Lovel, continued, in a half-whisper, her conversation.

For my part, I had risen and courtsied, and now, feeling very foolish, I seated myself again: first I blushed at the unexpected politeness of Lord Orville, and immediately afterwards at the contemptuous failure of it in his sister. How can that young lady see her brother so universally admired for his manners and deportment, and yet be so unamiably opposite to him in hers! but while his mind, enlarged and noble, rises superior to the little prejudices of rank, hers, feeble and unsteady, sinks beneath their influence.

Lord Orville, I am sure, was hurt and displeased: he bit his lips, and, turning from her, addressed himself wholly to me, till we were summoned to dinner. Do you think I was not grateful for his attention? yes, indeed, and every angry idea I had entertained was totally obliterated.

As we were seating ourselves at the table, Mr. Coverley came into the room; he made a thousand apologies in a breath for being so late, but said he had been retarded by a little accident, for that he had overturned his phaeton, and broke it all to pieces. Lady Louisa screamed at this intelligence, and, looking at Lord Merton, declared she would never go into a phaeton again.

“O,” cried he, “never mind Jack Coverley; for he does not know how to drive.”

“My Lord,” cried Mr. Coverley, “I’ll drive against you for a thousand pounds.”

“Done!” returned the other; “name your day, and we’ll each choose a judge.”

“The sooner the better,” cried Mr. Coverley; “tomorrow, if the carriage can be repaired.”

“These enterprises,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “are very proper for men of rank, since ’tis a million to one but both parties will be incapacitated for any better employment.”

“For Heaven’s sake,” cried Lady Louisa, changing colour, “don’t talk so shockingly! Pray, my Lord, pray, Mr. Coverley, don’t alarm me in this manner.”

“Compose yourself, Lady Louisa,” said Mrs. Beaumont, “the gentlemen will think better of the scheme; they are neither of them in earnest.”

“The very mention of such a scheme,” said Lady Louisa, taking out her salts, “makes me tremble all over! Indeed, my Lord, you have frightened me to death! I sha’n’t eat a morsel of dinner.”

“Permit me,” said Lord Orville, “to propose some other subject for the present, and we will discuss this matter another time.”

“Pray, brother, excuse me; my Lord must give me his word to drop the project — for I declare it has made me sick as death.”

“To compromise the matter,” said Lord Orville, “suppose, if both parties are unwilling to give up the bet, that, to make the ladies easy, we change its object to something less dangerous?”

This proposal was so strongly seconded by all the party, that both Lord Merton and Mr. Coverley were obliged to comply with it; and it was then agreed that the affair should be finally settled in the afternoon.

“I shall now be entirely out of conceit with phaetons again,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “though Lord Orville had almost reconciled me to them.”

“My Lord Orville!” cried the witty Mr. Coverley, “why, my Lord Orville is as careful — egad, as careful as an old woman! Why, I’d drive a one-horse cart against my Lord’s phaeton for a hundred guineas!”

This sally occasioned much laughter; for Mr. Coverley, I find, is regarded as a man of infinite humour.

“Perhaps, Sir,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “you have not discovered the reason my Lord Orville is so careful?”

“Why, no, Ma’am; I must own I never heard any particular reason for it.”

“Why, then, Sir, I’ll tell it you; and I believe you will confess it to be very particular; his Lordship’s friends are not yet tired of him.”

Lord Orville laughed and bowed. Mr. Coverley, a little confused, turned to Lord Merton, and said, “No foul play, my Lord! I remember your Lordship recommended me to the notice of this lady the other morning, and, egad, I believe you have been doing me the same office today.”

“Give you joy, Jack!” cried Lord Merton, with a loud laugh.

After this the conversation turned wholly upon eating, a subject which was discussed with the utmost delight; and, had I not known they were men of rank and fashion, I should have imagined that Lord Merton, Mr. Lovel, and Mr. Coverley, had all been professed cooks; for they displayed so much knowledge of sauces and made-dishes, and of the various methods of dressing the same things, that I am persuaded they must have given much time, and much study, to make themselves such adepts in this art. It would be very difficult to determine, whether they were most to be distinguished as gluttons or epicures; for they were, at once, dainty and voracious, understood the right and the wrong of every dish, and alike emptied the one and the other. I should have been quite sick of their remarks, had I not been entertained by seeing that Lord Orville, who, I am sure, was equally disgusted, not only read my sentiments, but, by his countenance, communicated to me his own.

When dinner was over, Mrs. Beaumont recommended the gentlemen to the care of Lord Orville, and then attended the ladies to the drawing-room.

The conversation, till tea-time, was extremely insipid; Mrs. Selwyn reserved herself for the gentlemen, Mrs. Beaumont was grave, and Lady Louisa languid.

But, at tea, every body revived; we were joined by the gentlemen, and gaiety took the place of dullness.

Since I, as Mr. Lovel says, am Nobody, I seated myself quietly at a window, and not very near to any body: Lord Merton, Mr. Coverley, and Mr. Lovel, severally passed me without notice, and surrounded the chair of Lady Louisa Larpent. I must own, I was rather piqued at the behaviour of Mr. Lovel, as he had formerly known me. It is true, I most sincerely despise his foppery; yet I should be grieved to meet with contempt from any body. But I was by no means sorry to find, that Lord Merton was determined not to know me before Lady Louisa, as his neglect relieved me from much embarrassment. As to Mr. Coverley, his attention or disregard were equally indifferent to me. Yet, altogether, I feel extremely uncomfortable in finding myself considered in a light very inferior to the rest of the company.

But when Lord Orville appeared, the scene changed: he came up stairs last; and, seeing me sit alone, not only spoke to me directly, but drew a chair next mine, and honoured me with his entire attention.

He enquired very particularly after my health, and hoped I had already found benefit from the Bristol air. “How little did I imagine,” added he, “when I had last the pleasure of seeing you in town, that ill health would in so short a time have brought you hither! I am ashamed of myself for the satisfaction I feel at seeing you — yet, how can I help it?”

He then enquired after the Mirvan family, and spoke of Mrs. Mirvan in terms of most just praise. “She is gentle and amiable,” said he, “a true feminine character.”

“Yes, indeed,” answered I: “and her sweet daughter, to say every thing of her at once, is just the daughter such a mother deserves.”

“I am glad of it,” said he, “for both their sakes, as such near relations must always reflect credit or disgrace on each other.”

After this he began to speak of the beauties of Clifton; but, in a few moments, he was interrupted by a call from the company, to discuss the affair of the wager. Lord Merton and Mr. Coverley, though they had been discoursing upon the subject some time, could not fix upon the thing that satisfied them both.

When they asked the assistance of Lord Orville, he proposed that every body present should vote something; and that the two gentlemen should draw lots which, from the several votes, should decide the bet.

“We must then begin with the ladies,” said Lord Orville; and applied to Mrs. Selwyn.

“With all my heart,” answered she, with her usual readiness; “and, since the gentlemen are not allowed to risk their necks, suppose we decide the bet by their heads?”

“By our heads?” cried Mr. Coverley. “Egad, I don’t understand you.”

“I will then explain myself more fully. As I doubt not but you are both excellent classics, suppose, for the good of your own memories, and the entertainment and surprise of the company, the thousand pounds should fall to the share of him who can repeat by heart the longest ode of Horace?”

Nobody could help laughing, the two gentlemen applied to excepted; who seemed, each of them, rather at a loss in what manner to receive this unexpected proposal. At length Mr. Coverley, bowing low, said, “Will your Lordship please to begin?”

“Devil take me if I do!” answered he, turning on his heel, and stalking to the window.

“Come, gentlemen,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “why do you hesitate? I am sure you cannot be afraid of a weak woman? Besides, if you should chance to be out, Mr. Lovel, I dare say, will have the goodness to assist you.”

The laugh now turned against Mr. Lovel, whose change of countenance manifested no great pleasure at the transition.

“Me, Madam!” said he, colouring; “no, really I must beg to be excused.”

“Why so, Sir?”

“Why so, Ma’am! — Why, really — as to that — ‘pon honour, Ma’am, you are rather a little severe; — for how is it possible for a man who is in the house, to study the classics? I assure you, Ma’am, (with an affected shrug) I find quite business enough for my poor head in studying politics.”

“But, did you study politics at school, and at the university?”

“At the university!” repeated he, with an embarrassed look; “why, as to that, Ma’am — no, I can’t say I did; but then, what with riding — and — and — and so forth — really, one has not much time, even at the university, for mere reading.”

“But, to be sure, Sir, you have read the classics?”

“O dear, yes, Ma’am! — very often — but not very — not very lately.”

“Which of the Odes do you recommend to these gentlemen to begin with?”

“Which of the Odes! — Really, Ma’am, as to that, I have no very particular choice; — for, to own the truth, that Horace was never a very great favourite with me.”

“In truth I believe you!” said Mrs. Selwyn, very drily.

Lord Merton, again advancing into the circle, with a nod and a laugh, said, “Give you joy, Lovel!”

Lord Orville next applied to Mrs. Beaumont for her vote.

“It would very agreeably remind me of past times,” said she, “when bowing was in fashion, if the bet was to depend upon the best made bow.”

“Egad, my Lord,” cried Mr. Coverley, “there I should beat you hollow, for your Lordship never bows at all.”

“And pray, Sir, do you?” said Mrs. Selwyn.

“Do I, Ma’am?” cried he; “why, only see!”

“I protest,” cried she, “I should have taken that for a shrug, if you had not told me ’twas a bow.”

“My lord,” cried Mr. Coverley, “let’s practise;” and then, most ridiculously, they pranced about the room, making bows.

“We must now,” said Lord Orville, turning to me, “call upon Miss Anville.”

“O no, my Lord,” cried I; “indeed I have nothing to propose.” He would not, however, be refused; but urged me so much to say something, that at last, not to make him wait any longer, I ventured to propose an extempore couplet upon some given subject. Mr. Coverley instantly made me a bow, or, according to Mrs. Selwyn, a shrug, crying, “Thank you, Ma’am; egad, that’s my forte! — why, my Lord, the Fates seem against you.”

Lady Louisa was then applied to; and every body seemed eager to hear her opinion. “I don’t know what to say, I declare,” cried she, affectedly; “can’t you pass me?”

“By no means,” said Lord Merton.

“Is it possible your Ladyship can make so cruel a request?” said Mr. Lovel.

“Egad,” cried Mr. Coverley, “if your Ladyship does not help us in this dilemma, we shall be forced to return to our phaetons.”

“Oh!” cried Lady Louisa, screaming; “you frightful creature, you, how can you be so abominable?”

I believe this trifling lasted near half an hour; when at length, every body being tired, it was given up, and she said she would consider against another time.

Lord Orville now called upon Mr. Lovel; who, after about ten minutes’ deliberation, proposed, with a most important face, to determine the wager by who should draw the longest straw!

I had much difficulty to forbear laughing at this unmeaning scheme; but saw, to my great surprise, not the least change of countenance in any other person: and, since we came home, Mrs. Selwyn has informed me, that to draw straws is a fashion of betting by no means uncommon. Good God! my dear Sir, does it not seem as if money were of no value or service, since those who possess, squander it away in a manner so infinitely absurd?

It now only remained for Lord Orville to speak; and the attention of the company showed the expectations he had raised; yet, I believe, they by no means prevented his proposal from being heard with amazement; for it was no other, than that the money should be his due, who, according to the opinion of the judges, should bring the worthiest object with whom to share it!

They all stared, without speaking. Indeed, I believe every one, for a moment at least, experienced something like shame, from having either proposed or countenanced an extravagance so useless and frivolous. For my part, I was so much struck and affected by a rebuke so noble to these spendthrifts, that I felt my eyes filled with tears.

The short silence and momentary reflection into which the company was surprised, Mr. Coverley was the first to dispel, by saying, “Egad, my Lord, your Lordship has a most remarkable odd way of taking things.”

“Faith,” said the incorrigible Lord Merton, “if this scheme takes, I shall fix upon my Swiss to share with me; for I don’t know a worthier fellow breathing.”

After a few more of these attempts at wit, the two gentlemen agreed that they would settle the affair the next morning.

The conversation then took a different turn; but I did not give it sufficient attention to write any account of it. Not long after, Lord Orville, resuming his seat near mine, said, “Why is Miss Anville so thoughtful?”

“I am sorry, my Lord,” said I, “to consider myself among those who have so justly incurred your censure.”

“My censure! — you amaze me!”

“Indeed, my Lord, you have made me quite ashamed of myself for having given my vote so foolishly, when an opportunity offered, if, like your Lordship, I had had the sense to use it, of showing some humanity.”

“You treat this too seriously,” said he, smiling; “and I hardly know if you do not now mean a rebuke to me.”

“To you, my Lord!”

“Nay, who are most deserving of it; those who adapt their conversation to the company, or those who affect to be superior to it?”

“O, my Lord, who else would do you so little justice?”

“I flatter myself,” answered he, “that, in fact, your opinion and mine, in this point, are the same, though you condescended to comply with the humour of the company. It is for me, therefore, to apologize for so unseasonable a gravity, which, but for the particular interest that I now take in the affairs of Lord Merton, I should not have been so officious to display.”

Such a compliment as this could not fail to reconcile me to myself; and with revived spirits, I entered into a conversation, which he supported with me till Mrs. Selwyn’s carriage was announced; and we returned home.

During our ride, Mrs. Selwyn very much surprised me, by asking, if I thought my health would now permit me to give up my morning walks to the pump-room, for the purpose of spending a week at Clifton? “for this poor Mrs. Beaumont,” added she, “is so eager to have a discharge in full of her debt to me, that out of mere compassion, I am induced to listen to her. Besides, she has always a house full of people; and, though they are chiefly fools and cox-combs, yet there is some pleasure in cutting them up.”

I begged I might not, by any means, prevent her following her inclination, as my health was now very well established. And so, my dear Sir, tomorrow we are to be actually the guests of Mrs. Beaumont.

I am not much delighted at this scheme; for, greatly as I am flattered by the attention of Lord Orville, it is not very comfortable to be neglected by every body else. Besides, as I am sure I owe the particularity of his civility to a generous feeling for my situation, I cannot expect him to support it so long as a week.

How often do I wish, since I am absent from you, that I was under the protection of Mrs. Mirvan! It is true, Mrs. Selwyn is very obliging, and, in every respect, treats me as an equal; but she is contented with behaving well herself, and does not, with a distinguishing politeness, raise and support me with others. Yet I mean not to blame her, for I know she is sincerely my friend; but the fact is, she is herself so much occupied in conversation, when in company, that she has neither leisure nor thought to attend to the silent.

Well, I must take my chance! But I knew not, till now, how requisite are birth and fortune to the attainment of respect and civility.

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