The moment the two sisters were alone, the elder said quickly in a low voice, leaning across the table:

“We had a long talk with Signor Rauzzini, my dearest Fanny. I could not, of course, tell you before mother.”

“You mentioned his name; but were you discreet?” said Fanny. “I think mother felt that you were going too far when you referred to his eyes. Mother most surely believes that the dark eyes of an Italian form a topic that should not be discussed except by our elders, and then only with bated breath and a fearful glance around lest a word should be overheard.”

“His eyes—you know his eyes, Fanny?”

“Oh!” said Fanny, with an inflection that was between a sigh and a moan.

“You should have seen them while he spoke of you,” said Esther. “Talk of flashes of lightning!—Dear child, it seemed so singular to us that a mite like you should inspire a grand passion in such a man. You are not angry with us, I know, but it was so indeed.”

“Why should I feel angry with you for feeling just what I do myself, only more intensely,” said Fanny. “’Tis one of the greatest mysteries of life—the only mystery of life that I have yet faced—why a man who is as handsome as an archangel, and who possesses a voice that an archangel might envy, should so much as glance at an insignificant young woman like myself! Oh! ’tis no wonder that the notion amused you, dear Hetty.”

“It only diverted us for a time, I assure you, my Fanny; it did not take us very long to perceive how it was no laughing matter, but, on the contrary, a very serious matter. Signor Rauzzini is, as I said, an enchanter, but do you not think that ’tis somewhat dangerous to—to—”

“To play with fire? That is what is on your mind, dear—to allow the fire of his Roman eyes to play about me? Dangerous? I admit that wherever there is fire there is danger, especially when it flashes from such eyes.”

“I am glad that you need no warning, child. As your elder sister I am pleased that—that—but no one in the house seems to think for a moment that the favour he has so distinctly shown to you can mean anything. Indeed, until last night, neither Charles nor I could believe—”

Fanny laughed, half closing her short-sighted eyes with a curious expression as she looked at her sister.

“It is only natural, my dear Hettina,” she said. “Have I ever ventured to suggest that I am other than the dunce of the family?”

“You have always been absurdly humble, Fanny, and I have never hesitated to say so,” cried Esther. “I am sure that none of us could have made up such clever little pieces to act as you did when we were children. And as for writing, could any of us have so neatly copied out the padre’s History as you did last year! Mr. Crisp, too—he never takes pleasure in any letters of the family except what you write for him.”

“All perfectly true, my Hettina,” replied Fanny. “But where am I when the house is filled with visitors? You know that I am nobody—that all I pray for with all my heart is that no one will take any notice of me, and I think I can say that my prayer is nearly always granted.”

“That is because you are so dreadfully—so absurdly shy,” said Esther. “You are the little mouse that is evermore on the look out for a hole into which you can creep and be safe from the observation of all eyes. You are ever trying to escape, unless when Mr. Garrick is here.”

“Dear Hettina, I know my place—that is all. I have weak eyes, but quick ears, and I have heard strangers ask, when they have heard you sing and Susan play, who the little short-sighted girl in the corner is and what she means to do for the entertainment of the company. When they are assured that I am one of the clever Burney family they whisper an incredulous ‘No?’ They cannot believe that so insignificant a person as myself can be one of you.”

“’Tis your morbid self-consciousness, Fanny, that suggests so much to you.”

“Oh, no; I was the dunce from the first. You know that while you could read any book with ease when you were six, I did not even know my letters when I was eight. Don’t you remember how James made a jest of my thirst for knowledge by pretending to teach me the alphabet with the page turned upside down? And when you had gone to school at Paris and it was my turn as the next eldest, the wise padre perceived in a moment that the money would be much better spent upon Susan and Lottie, and they went to be educated while I remained at home in ignorance? The dear padre was right: he knew that I should have been miserable among bright girls away from home.”

There was a pause before the elder sister said quite pathetically:

“My poor Fanny! I wonder if you have not been treated shabbily among us.”

“Not I, my Hettina. I have always been treated fairly. I have had as many treats as any of you; when you were learning so much in Paris I have been learning quite a number of things at home. And one of the most important things I learned was that so brilliant a person as Signor Rauzzini could never be happy if married to so insignificant a person as Fanny Burney.”

Esther gave a little sigh of relief.

“Indeed I think that your conclusion is a right one, dear,” she said. “We both came to the conclusion—Charles and I—that it would be a huge misfortune if you should allow yourself to be attracted by the glamour that attaches to the appearance of such a man as the Rauzzini, though, mind you, I believe that he honestly fancies himself in love with you—oh, he made no disguise of it in talking with us last night. But I hoped that you would be sensible.”

“Oh, in the matter of sense I am the equal of anyone in the family,” said Fanny, laughing. “That I mean to make my one accomplishment—good sense. That is the precious endowment of the dunce of the clever family—good sense; the one who stands next to the dunce in the lack of accomplishments should be endowed with good nature. Good sense and good nature go hand in hand in plain grey taffeta, not down the primrose paths of life, but along the King’s highway of every day, where they run no chance of jostling the simple foot-passengers or exciting the envy of any by the flaunting of feathers in their face. Good sense and good nature are best satisfied when they attract no attention, but pass on to obscurity, smiling at the struggle of others to be accounted persons of importance.”

“Then you have indeed made up your mind to marry Mr. Barlowe?” cried Esther.

Fanny laughed enigmatically.

“Does it not mean rather that I have made up my mind not to marry Mr. Barlowe?” she cried.

Esther looked puzzled: she was puzzled, and that was just what Fanny meant her to be.

But then she looked piqued, as elder sisters do when puzzled by the words or the acts of the younger. What business have younger sisters puzzling their elders? Their doing so suggests pertness when the elders are unmarried, but sheer insubordination when they are married; and Esther was by no means willing at any time to abrogate the privileges of her position as a married woman.

“I protest that I do not understand your meaning, Fanny,” she said, raising her chin in a way that gave her head a dignified poise. There was also a chill dignity in the tone of her voice.

“Dear Hettina, I ask your pardon,” cried Fanny quickly. “I fear that I replied to you with a shameful unreasonableness. But indeed I am not sure that you had reason on your side when you assumed that because I was ready to acknowledge that it would not mean happiness to our dear Signor Rauzzini to marry an insignificant person like myself, I was therefore prepared to throw myself into the arms of Mr. Barlowe.”

“I fancied that—that—but you may have another suitor in your mind whose name you have not mentioned to anyone.”

“Why should it be necessary for me to have a suitor of any kind? Is it not possible to conceive of the existence of a young woman without a row of suitors in the background? I admit that the ‘Odyssey’ of Homer—you remember how I used to listen to your reading of Mr. Broome’s translation to mother—would be shorn of much of its interest but for that background of suitors in one of the last books, but—well, my dear sister, I hold that the alternative song of life to the matrimonial duet is the spinster’s solo, and it does not seem to me to be quite devoid of interest.”

“Oh, I took it for granted—” began Esther, when Fanny broke in upon her.

“Yes, I know what all the happily wedded ones take for granted,” she cried. “You assume that the wedded life is the only one worth living; but as we are told in the Bible that there is one glory of the sun and another of the moon, so I hold that I am justified in believing that if matrimony be celestial, spinsterhood is terrestrial, but a glory all the same, and not unattractive to me. I may be wise enough to content myself with the subdued charm of moonlight if it so be that I am shut off from the midday splendour of matrimony.”

Esther did not laugh in the least as did her sister when she had spoken with an air of finality. She only made a little motion with her shoulders suggesting a shrug, while she said:

“I hope you will succeed in convincing mother that your views are the best for the household; but I think you will have some difficulty in doing so, considering what a family of girls we are.”

“I do not doubt that mother will be on the side of immediate matrimony and poor Mr. Barlowe,” said Fanny.

“Why poor Mr. Barlowe?” cried Esther. “He is a young man of excellent principles, and he has never given his parents a day’s trouble. It is understood that if he marries sensibly he will be admitted to a partnership in the business, so that—”

“Principles and a partnership make for matrimonial happiness, I doubt not,” said Fanny. “And I doubt not that Dr. Fell had both excellent principles and an excellent practice; still someone has recorded in deathless verse that she—I assume the sex—did not like that excellent man.”

“And you do not like Mr. Barlowe on the same mysterious grounds?” said Hetty.

“Nay, I am not so unreasonable, I hope,” replied Fanny. “But—but—dear sister, I remember how I thought that the song of the linnet which was in our little garden at Lynn was the loveliest strain of the grove, and such was my belief until I awoke one night at Chessington and heard the nightingale.”

“You are puzzling—singularly puzzling to-day,” said Esther frowning. “You have started two or three mystifying parables already. You told me some time ago as a great secret that you had been renewing your story-writing, in spite of your having burnt all that you had written for our edification—all that story—what was its name? The heroine was one Caroline Evelyn. You were ever an obedient child, or you would not have sacrificed your offspring at the bidding of our new mother, though the advice that she gave you was good, if you have not quite adhered to it. Novel writing is not for young ladies any more than novel reading, and certainly talking in parables is worse still. Well, I have no more time to spend over your puzzles.”

“You would not find their solution to repay you, my dear,” said Fanny.

“Still, I am pleased to learn that you take a sensible view of Signor Rauzzini and his heroics—but, indeed, I cannot see that Mr. Barlowe should not be considered, with his prospects—his father is a mercer in gold and silver lace, as you know—”

“I have heard so—it is a profitable trade, I believe.”

“None more so. It is impossible to believe that a time will ever come when gold and silver lace will cease to be worn by gentlemen.”

“That would be an evil day for England as well as for Messieurs Barlowe, père et fils. But thank heaven it is not yet in sight. Good morning, dear sister; and be assured you have my thanks for your advice. But mind you, keep my little secret about the writing. Good-bye. You can face mother boldly, knowing that you have carried out her commission to the letter, and very neatly and discreetly into the bargain.”

“I would not have done so if her views had not been mine also; as for your writing—you may depend on my keeping your secret. But you will have to get the padre’s permission to have it printed—that’s something still in the far future, I suppose;”—and the elder sister stooped to kiss the younger—Fanny was not up to the shoulder of the beautiful and stately Esther.

And so they parted.

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