Evelina, by Fanny Burney

Letter lxxviii.

Evelina in Continuation.

Oct. 9th.

I COULD not write yesterday, so violent was the agitation of my mind; — but I will not, now, lose a moment till I have hastened to my best friend an account of the transactions of a day I can never recollect without emotion.

Mrs. Selwyn determined upon sending no message, “Lest,” said she, “Sir John, fatigued with the very idea of my reproaches, should endeavour to avoid a meeting. He cannot but see who you are, whether he will do you justice or not.”

We went early, and in Mrs. Beaumont’s chariot; into which Lord Orville, uttering words of the kindest encouragement, handed us both.

My uneasiness, during the ride, was excessive; but, when we stopped at the door, I was almost senseless with terror! the meeting, at last, was not so dreadful as that moment! I believe I was carried into the house; but I scarce recollect what was done with me: however, I know we remained some time in the parlour before Mrs. Selwyn could send any message up stairs.

When I was somewhat recovered, I intreated her to let me return home, assuring her I felt myself quite unequal to supporting the interview.

“No,” said she; “you must stay now: your fears will but gain strength by delay; and we must not have such a shock as this repeated.” Then, turning to the servant, she sent up her name.

An answer was brought, that he was going out in great haste, but would attend her immediately. I turned so sick, that Mrs. Selwyn was apprehensive I should have fainted; and, opening a door which led to an inner apartment, she begged me to wait there till I was somewhat composed, and till she had prepared for my reception.

Glad of every moment’s reprieve, I willingly agreed to the proposal; and Mrs. Selwyn had but just time to shut me in, before her presence was necessary.

The voice of a father — Oh, dear and revered name! — which then, for the first time, struck my ears, affected me in a manner I cannot describe, though it was only employed in giving orders to a servant as he came down stairs.

Then, entering the parlour, I heard him say, “I am sorry, Madam, I made you wait; but I have an engagement which now calls me away: however, if you have any commands for me, I shall be glad of the honour of your company some other time.”

“I am come, Sir,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “to introduce your daughter to you.”

“I am infinitely obliged to you,” answered he; “but I have just had the satisfaction of breakfasting with her. Ma’am, your most obedient.”

“You refuse, then, to see her?”

“I am much indebted to you, Madam, for this desire of increasing my family; but you must excuse me if I decline taking advantage of it. I have already a daughter, to whom I owe everything; and it is not three days since that I had the pleasure of discovering a son: how many more sons and daughters may be brought to me, I am yet to learn; but I am already perfectly satisfied with the size of my family.”

“Had you a thousand children, Sir John,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “this only one, of which Lady Belmont was the mother, ought to be most distinguished; and, far from avoiding her sight, you should thank your stars, in humble gratitude, that there yet remains in your power the smallest opportunity of doing the injured wife you have destroyed, the poor justice of acknowledging her child!”

“I am very unwilling, Madam,” answered he, “to enter into any discussion of this point; but you are determined to compel me to speak. There lives not at this time the human being, who should talk to me of the regret due to the memory of that ill-fated woman; no one can feel it so severely as myself; but let me, nevertheless, assure you, I have already done all that remained in my power to prove the respect she merited from me: her child I have educated, and owned for my lawful heiress: if, madam, you can suggest to me any other means by which I may more fully do her justice, and more clearly manifest her innocence, name them to me; and, though they should wound my character still deeper, I will perform them readily.”

“All this sounds vastly well,” returned Mrs. Selwyn; “but I must own it is rather too enigmatical for my faculties of comprehension. You can, however, have no objection to seeing this young lady.”

“None in the world.”

“Come forth, then, my dear,” cried she, opening the door; “come forth and see your father!” Then, taking my trembling hand, she led me forward. I would have withdrawn it and retreated; but, as he advanced instantly towards me, I found myself already before him.

What a moment for your Evelina — an involuntary scream escaped me, and, covering my face with my hands, I sunk on the floor.

He had, however, seen me first; for, in a voice scarce articulate, he exclaimed, “My God! does Caroline Evelyn still live!”

Mrs. Selwyn said something, but I could not listen to her; and in a few minutes he added, “Lift up thy head — if my sight has not blasted thee! — lift up thy head, thou image of my long lost Caroline!”

Affected beyond measure, I half arose, and embraced his knees, while yet on my own.

“Yes, yes,” cried he, looking earnestly in my face, “I see, I see thou art her child! she lives — she breathes — she is present to my view! — Oh, God, that she indeed lived! — Go, child, go,” added he, wildly starting, and pushing me from him: “take her away, Madam — I cannot bear to look at her!” And then, breaking hastily from me, he rushed out of the room.

Speechless, motionless myself, I attempted not to stop him; but Mrs. Selwyn, hastening after him, caught hold of his arm: “Leave me, Madam,” cried he, with quickness, “and take care of the poor child:— bid her not think me unkind; tell her, I would at this moment plunge a dagger in my heart to serve her: but she has set my brain on fire; and I can see her no more!” Then, with a violence almost frantic, he ran up stairs.

Oh, Sir, had I not indeed cause to dread this interview? — an interview so unspeakably painful and afflicting to us both! Mrs. Selwyn would have immediately returned to Clifton; but I entreated her to wait some time, in the hope that my unhappy father, when his first emotion was over, would again bear me in his sight. However, he soon after sent his servant to enquire how I did; and to tell Mrs. Selwyn he was much indisposed, but would hope for the honour of seeing her tomorrow, at any time she would please to appoint.

She fixed upon ten o’clock in the morning; and then, with a heavy heart, I got into the chariot. Those afflicting words, I can see her no more! were never a moment absent from my mind.

Yet the sight of Lord Orville, who handed us from the carriage, gave some relief to the sadness of my thoughts. I could not, however, enter upon the painful subject; but, begging Mrs. Selwyn to satisfy him, I went to my own room.

As soon as I communicated to the good Mrs. Clinton the present situation of my affairs, an idea occurred to her which seemed to clear up all the mystery of my having been so long disowned.

The woman, she says, who attended my ever-to-be-regretted mother in her last illness, and who nursed me the first four months of my life, soon after being discharged from your house, left Berry Hill entirely, with her baby, who was but six weeks older than myself. Mrs. Clinton remembers, that her quitting the place appeared, at the time, very extraordinary to the neighbours; but, as she was never heard of afterwards, she was by degrees quite forgotten.

The moment this was mentioned, it struck Mrs. Selwyn, as well as Mrs. Clinton herself, that my father had been imposed upon; and that the nurse, who said she had brought his child to him, had, in fact, carried her own.

The name by which I was known, the secrecy observed in regard to my family, and the retirement in which I lived, all conspired to render this scheme, however daring and fraudulent, by no means impracticable; and, in short, the idea was no sooner started, than conviction seemed to follow it.

Mrs. Selwyn determined immediately to discover the truth or mistake of this conjecture; therefore, the moment she had dined, she walked to the Hot Wells, attended by Mrs. Clinton.

I waited in my room till her return; and then heard the following account of her visit:

She found my poor father in great agitation. She immediately informed him of the occasion of her so speedy return, and of her suspicions of the woman who had pretended to convey to him his child. Interrupting her with quickness, he said he had just sent her from his presence; that the certainty I carried in my countenance of my real birth, made him, the moment he had recovered from a surprise which had almost deprived him of reason, suspect, himself, the imposition she mentioned. He had therefore sent for the woman, and questioned her with the utmost austerity; she turned pale, and was extremely embarrassed; but still she persisted in affirming, that she had really brought him the daughter of Lady Belmont. His perplexity, he said, almost distracted him: he had always observed, that his daughter bore no resemblance to either of her parents; but, as he had never doubted the veracity of the nurse, this circumstance did not give birth to any suspicion.

At Mrs. Selwyn’s desire, the woman was again called, and interrogated with equal art and severity; her confusion was evident, and her answers often contradictory; yet she still declared she was no impostor. “We will see that in a minute,” said Mrs. Selwyn; and then desired Mrs. Clinton might be called up stairs. The poor wretch, changing colour, would have escaped out of the room; but, being prevented, dropt on her knees, and implored forgiveness. A confession of the whole affair was then extorted from her.

Doubtless, my dear Sir, you must remember Dame Green, who was my first nurse. The deceit she has practised was suggested, she says, by a conversation she overheard; in which my unhappy mother besought you, that, if her child survived her, you would take the sole care of its education; and, in particular, if it should be a female, you would by no means part with her in early life. You not only consented, she says, but assured her you would even retire abroad with me yourself, if my father should importunately demand me. Her own child, she said, was then in her arms; and she could not forbear wishing it were possible to give her the fortune which seemed so little valued for me. This wish once raised was not easily suppressed; on the contrary, what at first appeared a mere idle desire, in a short time seemed a feasible scheme. Her husband was dead, and she had little regard for any body but her child; and, in short, having saved money for the journey, she contrived to enquire a direction to my father; and, telling her neighbours she was going to settle in Devonshire, she set out on her expedition.

When Mrs. Selwyn asked her how she dared perpetrate such a fraud, she protested she had no ill designs; but that, as Miss would be never the worse for it, she thought it pity nobody should be the better.

Her success we are already acquainted with. Indeed everything seemed to contribute towards it: my father had no correspondent at Berry Hill; the child was instantly sent to France; where, being brought up in as much retirement as myself, nothing but accident could discover the fraud.

And here let me indulge myself in observing, and rejoicing to observe, that the total neglect I thought I met with was not the effect of insensibility or unkindness, but of imposition and error; and that, at the very time we concluded I was unnaturally rejected, my deluded father meant to show me most favour and protection.

He acknowledges that Lady Howard’s letter flung him into some perplexity: he immediately communicated it to Dame Green, who confessed it was the greatest shock she had ever received in her life; yet she had the art and boldness to assert, that Lady Howard must herself have been deceived: and as she had, from the beginning of her enterprise, declared she had stolen away the child without your knowledge, he concluded that some deceit was then intended him; and this thought occasioned his abrupt answer.

Dame Green owned, that, from the moment the journey to England was settled, she gave herself up for lost. All her hope was to have had her daughter married before it took place; for which reason she had so much promoted Mr. Macartney’s addresses; for though such a match was inadequate to the pretensions of Miss Belmont, she well knew it was far superior to those her daughter could form after the discovery of her birth.

My first enquiry was, if this innocent daughter was yet acquainted with the affair? “No,” Mrs. Selwyn said; nor was any plan settled how to divulge it to her. Poor unfortunate girl! how hard is her fate! She is entitled to my kindest offices, and I shall always consider her as my sister.

I then asked whether my father would again allow me to see him!

“Why, no, my dear, not yet,” answered she; “he declares the sight of you is too much for him: however, we are to settle everything concerning you tomorrow; for this woman took up all our time today.”

This morning, therefore, she is again gone to the Hot Wells. I am waiting in all impatience for her return; but, as I know you will be anxious for the account this letter contains, I will not delay sending it.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/evelina/letter78.html

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