Mrs. Barlowe did not seem half pleased to be brought down so from the high parallels of etiquette among which she had been soaring. But she had lost her place, and before she could recover herself, Fanny had slipped behind her stepmother.

“Ask me all about her rheumatism, madam, for ’tis me that knows more about it than her,” said Mr. Barlowe, with a jerk of his thumb and a wink in the direction of his wife. The homely enquiry of Mrs. Burney had clearly forced him to throw off all ceremony and treat the visit of Miss Burney as an ordinary domestic incident.

His wife would have none of this, however; she said in tones of stiff reproof:

“Mr. Barlowe, you forget that the young lady has not been presented to Brother Jonathan or the Alderman. Thomas, it is for you to usher the lady into the presence of your uncles and aunts. Pray be not remiss, Thomas. There is no excuse for such an omission.”

“I was only waiting until you had finished, ma’am,” said Thomas.

“I have finished,” she replied, with a stiff nod. “To be sure, ’twas my intention to express, in what I trust would be appropriate terms, our happiness in welcoming Miss Burney to our humble home; a few phrases of this sort were not thought out of place when I was young; but it appears that your father knows better what is comme il faut and haut ton than me. Bring the young lady forward, Thomas.”

The younger Thomas looked dubiously from his mother to his father. He was uncommonly like an actor who had forgotten his part, Fanny thought—he had no initiative. Fanny herself was more at home than any of the household. While the young man hesitated, she walked up the room as if she meant to present herself to the six figures that sat in a row at the farther end.

Thomas was beside her in a moment.

“I ask your pardon, Miss Burney,” he said. “But I knew that mamma had at least two more welcomes for your ear, and I feared that she had forgot them. Do not you think that mamma speaks well? Perhaps it would be unjust to judge her by what she said—she only made a beginning. You will be delighted when you are going away.”

Fanny felt that this prediction was certain to be realized.

“Yes, mamma’s good-byes are as well worded as her greetings,” he continued; “a clergyman could scarcely better them; and I hope—”

But now they were face to face with the six figures sitting in a row, and as his conversation was only designed as an accompaniment to the march of Fanny to this position, there was no reason to continue it.

The figures were of two men and four ladies. The former were middle-aged and bore an expression of gravity that a judge might have envied. Their dress was sombre, but of the finest material possible to buy, and each of them was painfully conscious of being in unusual garments. Of course, Fanny saw in a moment that they were merchants wearing the garments in which they attended church.

Of the four ladies, three were elderly and the fourth much younger. They wore their hair built up in a way that suggested that they desired to follow the fashion but had not the courage to complete the scheme with which they had started. The long and thin and highly-coloured feathers which crowned the stunted structures on their heads gave them the appearance of a picture of unfamiliar birds. Their dresses were extremely glossy and of an expensive material, but there was an eccentric note about all that made them seem not impressive as they should have been, but almost ludicrous. The youngest lady in the row showed unmistakable signs of being given to simpering. She had gone much further than the others of the party in the architecture of her hair, but that was possibly because the material at her command was more abundant. The dressing of her hair, however, was by no means in sympathy with the style of her garments, the latter being simple and indeed rather too girlish for the wearer, who looked between twenty-five and thirty.

It was an extraordinary ordeal that confronted Miss Burney, for young Mr. Barlowe began presenting her to the group, starting from his left and working slowly to the last of the row on the right. There was she with the young man standing close to her, but sideways, doing the formalities of presenting her, while his father and mother stood behind to see that he omitted nothing. Mrs. Burney, a little way apart, was alternately smiling and frowning at the ceremonial. She could see, from observing the effect that the whole business was producing upon Fanny, that the Barlowes were defeating their own ends, assuming that they desired Fanny to become a member of their family. These absurd formalities were, Mrs. Burney knew, quite out of place in a private house. But what could she do to cut them short? She had made an attempt before, and it was received in anything but a friendly spirit by their hostess, so that she did not feel inclined to interfere again: the thing must run its course, she felt, reflecting upon it as though it were a malady. There was no means of curtailing it.

And its course was a slow one for the unhappy victim.

“Miss Burney, I have the honour to present my aunt on my mother’s, side—Mrs. Alderman Kensit,” droned Thomas, and the lady on the extreme left rose at the mention of her name and made a carefully prepared curtsey, while the sky-blue feather in her hair jerked awkwardly forward until the end almost touched her nose.

“Proud to meet Miss Burney, I vow,” said she as she rose; and anyone could see from the expression on her face that she was satisfied that she had gone far in proving her claim to be looked on as a lady of fashion. She had never said “I vow” before, and she knew that it had startled her relations. She felt that she could not help that. Miss Burney would understand that she was face to face with someone who had mingled with the best.

“And this is Aunt Maria, father’s sister, Mrs. Hutchings,” came the voice of Thomas, and the second lady bobbed up with quivering feathers and made a well-practised curtsey. She did not trust herself to speak. Having heard her neighbour’s “I vow,” she knew that she could not go farther. She would not compete with such an exponent of the mysteries of haut ton.

“And this is Alderman Kensit of the Common Council; he is my uncle on my mother’s side—mother is a Kensit, you know,” resumed Thomas. “And this is Aunt Jelicoe. My mother’s sister married Mr. Jelicoe, of Tooley Street. And this is my cousin, Miss Jelicoe. I am sure that you will like Miss Jelicoe, Miss Burney, she is so young.”

The youngest lady of the group simpered with great shyness, concealing half her face with her fan and holding her head to one side, and then pretending to be terribly fluttered. Her curtsey was made in a flurry, and with a little exclamation of “Oh, la!”

Another uncle only remained to be presented; he turned out to be Mr. Jonathan Barlowe, and he was, Thomas whispered half audibly to Fanny, in trade in the Indies.

It was all over, curtsies and bows and exclamations—echoes of the world of fashion and elsewhere—she had been presented to every member of the row and they had resumed their seats, while she hastened to the side of her stepmother, hot and breathless. She had never before been subjected to such an ordeal. She had gladly agreed to accompany her stepmother to this house, for she hoped thereby to increase her observation of a class of people who repaid her study of them; but she had no notion that she should have to vacate her place as an Observer and take up that of a Participator. She was to pay dearly for her experience.

She was burning, her stepmother could see; and she believed that this was due to her mortification on noticing that the dress of the ladies was infinitely more expensive than hers. That would be enough to make any young woman with ordinary susceptibilities indignant, she felt; and she herself, having had an opportunity of giving some attention to the expensive silks—she could appraise their value to a penny—was conscious of some chagrin on this account. She was almost out of patience with her old friend, Martha Barlowe, for making all this parade. The foolish woman had done so, she knew, in order to impress Miss Burney and to give her to understand that she was becoming associated with no ordinary family. But Mrs. Burney had seen enough since she had left Lynn for London to know that Fanny would not be the least impressed except in the direction of boredom by such an excess of ceremony in the house of a tradesman. She had heard Fanny’s comment upon the gorgeous chariot which Sir Joshua Reynolds had set up, and she could not doubt what Fanny’s opinion would be regarding this simple tea to which she had consented to go at the Barlowes’ house.

Fanny had hurried to her side as soon as she had passed the row of uncles and aunts. She thought that the girl seemed overcome by the tedium of the formalities; but in a few minutes she saw that Fanny was on the verge of laughter.

Mrs. Burney could not say whether she would rather that her charge became moody or hilarious.

“Eight separate curtsies,” murmured Fanny. “If there are to be the same number going away we should begin at once.”

Mrs. Burney thought it better not to reprove her for her flippancy just at that moment. She condoned it with a smile.

Only a minute were the Burneys left to themselves. Mr. Barlowe, the elder, walked solemnly up to them.

“Going on nicely, eh?” he said in a confidential way to Mrs. Burney. “Everything being done decently and in order, madam. There has been no cause of offence up to the present, though there are three persons in that row who are as ready to see an offence where none is meant as a bunch of flax to break into flame when a spark falls on it. The young lady is discreet; if she had spoken to any one of them and not to the others, there would have been a flare-up. The touchy ones belong to my wife’s family. She was a Kensit, you know.”

He made this explanation behind his hand and in a whisper; he saw that his wife and son had been in earnest consultation together over some vexed question, and now they were hovering about, waiting to catch his eye.

“I spoke too soon,” he said. “Something has gone astray, and the blame will fall on me.”

They hovered still nearer, and when he caught his eye, Thomas, the younger, stepped up to his father, saying something in his ear. Mrs. Barlowe went on hovering a yard or two away.

“That would never do,” said her husband, evidently in reply to some remonstrance offered by young Thomas. “Never. The whole of the Kensits would take offence.” Then he turned again to Mrs. Burney, saying:

“Mrs. Burney, madam, my son has just reminded me that I have been remiss in doing my duty. It was left to me to present you to our relations at the head of the room, but I failed to do so, my mind being too full of the pretty curtsies of Miss. But I am ready to make amends now.”

But Mrs. Burney had observed a little twinkle in Fanny’s eye; she had no notion of going through the ordeal to which Fanny had been subjected, though the spectacle would doubtless have diverted Fanny hugely.

“Nay, sir,” she said quickly to the waiting gentleman, “Nay sir; you have forgotten that the presentation of a lady’s daughter is equivalent to the presentation of the lady herself.”

“What, is that so?” said he.

“Rest assured that it is,” said she, “and an excellent rule it is. It saves a repetition of a formality that is now frequently omitted in the private houses of simple folk like ourselves. Lend me your arm, sir. I shall soon make myself at home with Martha’s relations.”

She did not give him a chance of discussing the point with her; she saw that he was about to state his objections to the rule she had invented for her own saving, and she was already in advance of him in approaching the row of figures on the chairs against the wall. Fanny heard her greeting them in turn without any formality, and once again Thomas, the younger, was by her side.

His mother was still hovering, glancing suspiciously, first at the young couple, and then at the hasty proceedings of her friend, Mrs. Burney.

“It was unlike father to make so grave an omission, Miss Burney,” he said, apologetically.

“I hope that no harm will come of it,” said Fanny. “I am afraid that you found us very homely folk at our little house when you did us the honour of visiting us,” she added.

He waved his hand indulgently, smiling over her head.

“I am always ready to take my place in such a circle,” said he, “though all the time I have a pretty full knowledge of the exchange of courtesies which should mark the introduction of a stranger. Oh, yes, I do not mind meeting some people as an equal, if they do not presume upon me afterwards. Your brother has gone back to sea, I hear?” he added.

“Yes, we shall not see him again for two years,” she replied. “Did he presume upon you, sir? If so, I will take it upon me to offer you a humble apology.”

“I was considering if it might be possible that he was himself mistaken in regard to the ear-trumpet,” said Thomas.

“Sir Joshua’s ear-trumpet? What of that?”

“Lieutenant Burney told me that it was a newly invented musical instrument, blown by the ear instead of the mouth. It was not until I had spoken of it to my father that I learned that the instrument was an ear-trumpet used by the deaf. I had never seen one before. I wonder if your brother intentionally deceived me.”

“My brother is an officer in His Majesty’s Fleet, sir.”

“What does that mean, miss?”

“It means that he would resent an accusation of falsehood, sir.”

“Pray do not misunderstand me; I would shrink from accusing him of any conduct unworthy of an officer and a gentleman. But I was certainly deceived in fancying that the ear-trumpet was a musical instrument.”

Fanny made no reply. Her attention was directed to the entrance of two servants, one bearing a large urn, the other a dish on which lay an immense ham.

“I hope you have an appetite, Miss Burney,” said young Thomas. “If so, you will be able to stay it at that table, I’ll warrant. Tea and cake may be well enough for such as dine at four, but for us, who are three hours earlier, something more substantial is needed. You will find that there is no stint in this house.”

Fanny had an idea that the young man meant to suggest that she would find the tea-table at the Poultry to make a striking contrast to that of St. Martin’s Street; and she was not mistaken.

Neither was he. A greater contrast could scarcely be imagined. When Fanny was formally conducted to a seat at the table by the side of young Mr. Barlowe, she found herself confronting such a variety of eatables as was absolutely bewildering. The first glance that she had at the dishes had a stunning effect upon her. Her impression was one of repletion; she felt that that glance was by itself equivalent to a hearty meal—a heavy meal. She felt inclined to turn her head away.

But a moment afterwards she became alert. Here was food—ample food for an amusing letter to Mr. Crisp, and, later for a chapter in a possible novel. She would let nothing escape her notice.

She settled down to observe everything; and her stepmother, sitting opposite to her, knew from the twinkle in her eyes, that Thomas’s suit was hopeless. She had heard that music is the food of love. She was not sure of this; but she was convinced that butcher’s meat was not. That was where she saw that Thomas had made his mistake. He had placed too much dependence upon that great ham. He carved that ham with all the solemnity that should accompany such a rite, not knowing that he was slicing away all his chances of commending himself to Fanny.

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