In the course of the morning Esther, the married daughter of the Burney family, called at the house in St. Martin’s Street. Esther, or as she was usually alluded to by her sisters, Hetty or Hettina, was handsome and accomplished. She had been married for some years to her cousin, Charles Rousseau Burney, who was a musician, and they lived and enjoyed living in an atmosphere of music. Her father took care that she was never likely to be asphyxiated; their atmosphere would never become attenuated so long as they lived, as they did, close to St. Martin’s Street. He was well aware of the fact that his Hetty’s duets with her husband—“matrimonial duets” they were called by Fanny in some of her letters—and also with her sister Charlotte, served to attract many distinguished visitors and profitable patrons to his house; he never forgot that profitable patrons and patronesses are always attracted by distinguished visitors. When one finds oneself in the company of distinguished people, one naturally feels a distinguished person also.

Moreover, Dr. Burney knew perfectly well that when ambitious patrons and patronesses were made aware of the success which he had achieved in respect of his daughters, they were all ready to implore of him to spare some of his valuable time to give lessons to themselves, seeing no reason why, with his assistance, they should not reach the level of his two musical daughters. He conducted his teaching on the principle which brings fortunes to the Parisian modiste, who takes good care that her mannequins are good-looking and of a fine figure, knowing that the visitors to the showrooms have no doubt, no matter how little Nature has done for their own features or figures, that in the robes of the mannequins they will appear equally fascinating.

The adoption of this system in the Burney household operated extremely well, and Dr. Burney had for several years enjoyed the proceeds of his cultivation of the musical tastes of the most influential clientèle in London. In addition, the greatest singers in Europe, knowing that there was always an influential assistance to be found at Dr. Burney’s little concerts in St. Martin’s Street, were greatly pleased to contribute to the entertainment, for love, what they were in the habit of receiving large sums for from an impresario. Those Italian operatic artists most notorious for the extravagance of their demands when appearing in public, were pushing each other aside, so to speak, to be allowed to sing at Dr. Burney’s, and really upon more than one occasion the contest between the generosity of a pair of the most distinguished of these singers must have been somewhat embarrassing to Dr. Burney. They were clearly singing against each other; and one of them, who invariably received fifty guineas for every contribution she made to a programme in public, insisted on singing no fewer than five songs, “all for love” (and to prove her superiority to her rival), upon a certain occasion at the Burneys’; so that really the little company ran a chance of being suffocated beneath the burden of flowers, as it were—the never-ending fioriture of these generous artists—and Dr. Burney found himself in the position of the lion-tamer who runs a chance of being overwhelmed by the caresses of the carnivora who rush to lick his hands.

The result of all this was extremely gratifying, and eminently profitable. Had Dr. Burney not been a great musician and shown by the publication of the first volume of the greatest History of Music the world had yet received, that he was worthy of being placed in the foremost ranks of scientific musicians, he would have run a chance of being placed only a little higher than the musical Cornelys of Soho Square, who gave their concerts, and entertained their friends, and made quite a reputation for some years before bankruptcy overtook them and the precincts of the Fleet became their headquarters.

And now the beautiful Esther Burney was toying with the contents of her sister Fanny’s work-basket, talking about her husband and his prospects, and inquiring what Mr. Garrick and James had to talk about in the room downstairs.

“Pray speak in French to Fanny,” said Mrs. Burney. “I cannot get Lottie and Susan to do so as frequently as I could wish. You must remember that poor Fanny has had none of your advantages, and I do not want her to be talked of as the dunce of the family. She really is not a dunce, you know; in spite of her bad sight she really has done some very pretty sewing.”

“I have seen it,” said Esther. “She works very neatly—more neatly than any of us.”

Fanny blushed and smiled her thanks to her sister for the compliment.

“What else is there left for me to do but to give all my attention to my needle?” she said. “I constantly feel that I am the dunce of the family—you are all so clever.”

“It is well for many families that they include one useful member,” said her stepmother in a way that suggested her complete agreement with the girl’s confession that she was the dunce of the family. A mother’s acknowledgment that a girl is either useful or good-natured is practically an announcement that she is neither pretty nor accomplished.

“And Fanny has many friends,” continued Mrs. Burney indulgently.

“Which shows how kind people are, even to a dunce,” said Fanny, not bitterly, but quite good-humouredly.

“But I am not sure that she should spend so much of her time writing to Mr. Crisp,” said the elder Mrs. Burney to the younger.

“Oh, poor Daddy Crisp!” cried Fanny. “Pray, mother, do not cut him off from his weekly budget of news. If I fail to send him a letter he is really disconsolate. ’Tis my letters that keep him still in touch with the life of the town.”

“Well, well, my dear Fanny, I shall not deprive you of your Daddy Crisp,” said her stepmother. “Poor Mr. Crisp must not be left to the tender mercies of Susan or Lottie. He is most hospitable, and his house at Chessington makes a pleasant change for us now and again, and he took a great fancy to you from the first.”

“Daddy Crisp was always Fanny’s special friend,” said Esther. “And I am sure that it is good practice for Fanny to write to him.”

“Oh, she has long ago given up that childish nonsense,” cried the mother. “Poor Fanny made a pretty bonfire of her scribblings, and she has shown no weakness in that way since she took my advice in regard to them.”

Fanny was blushing furiously and giving all her attention to her work.

“She has still a sense of the guilt that attaches to the writing of stories, though I am sure that no one in this house remembers it against her,” said Esther with a laugh, as Fanny’s blushes increased. “But indeed I had not in my mind Mr. Crisp’s advantage to her in this way, but only in regard to her correspondence. She has become quite an expert letter-writer since he induced her to send him her budget, and indeed I think that good letter-writing is as much of an accomplishment in these careless days as good singing—that is ordinary good singing—the good singing that we hear from some of father’s pupils—Queenie Thrale, par exemple!”

“Your father is a good teacher, but the best teacher in the world cannot endow with a good singing-voice anyone who has not been so gifted by Nature,” said the elder lady. “’Tis somewhat different, to be sure, in regard to correspondence, and I do not doubt that Fanny’s practice in writing to good Mr. Crisp will one day cause her to be regarded as one of the best letter-writers in the family, and that is something. It is a ladylike accomplishment, and one that is worth excelling in; it gives innocent pleasure to so many of her friends who live at a distance; and your father can always obtain plenty of franks, Mr. Charmier and Mr. Thrale are very obliging.”

Fanny was a little fidgety while her eldest sister and her stepmother were discussing her in a tone of indulgence which was more humiliating than open reprobation would have been. But she knew that the truth was, that from her earliest years she was looked on as the dunce of the family, and she was so morbidly self-conscious that she was quite ready to accept their estimate of her. The silent member of a musical family soon finds out how she is looked on by the others; not with unkindness—quite the contrary—but only as if she were to be slightly pitied for her deficiency. But she had a secret or two, the treasuring of which in her heart prevented her from having any feeling of humiliation in the presence of her splendid sister, whom all the world sought to attract to their houses, especially when there were guests anxious to be entertained by the sweet singing of a handsome young woman with a very presentable young husband. Fanny had her secrets and cherished them with a fearful joy, for she knew that any day might remove either or both of them, and then there would be nothing left for her in the household but to put her heart into her needlework. But one cannot do needlework without needles, and if she were to put her heart into her work, and if every needle had a point, the result would, she knew, be a good many prickings.

She trusted that she might never be condemned to put her heart into her needlework.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook