Some weeks had passed since Cousin Edward had brought his exhilarating news that the book was being asked for at the libraries, and during this interval, Fanny had heard nothing of its progress. She had applied in the name of Mr. Grafton for a copy to be addressed to the Orange Coffee House, but Mr. Lowndes had paid no attention to her request, Edward found out on going to the Coffee House, so it seemed plain to Fanny that the book was not making the stir in the world that her cousin’s report from the libraries had attributed to it. But here was a distinct proof that it had at last reached their own circle, and somehow Fanny and her sisters felt that this meant fame. Somehow they had come to think of the readers of the book as being very remote from them—people whom they were never likely to meet; they had never thought of the possibility of its being named under their own roof by anyone not in the secret of its authorship. But now the strange thing had come to pass: it was not only named by their father, but named with the most extraordinary recommendation that it could receive!

What! Sir Joshua was not only reading it, but he had curtailed his stay at the club in order to get home to continue it! Sir Joshua had actually been content to forsake the society of his brilliant friends, every one of them more or less notable in the world, in order that he might read the story which Fanny Burney had written all out of her own head!

The idea was simply astounding to the girls and to Fanny herself as well. It meant fame, they were assured, and they were right. It took such a hold upon Susy and Lottie as prevented them from giving any attention to Fanny’s amusing account of the evening at the Barlowes’; and the fun she made—modelled on Mr. Garrick’s best nursery style—of the Alderman and Mrs. Alderman, with the speeches of the one and the St. Giles’s curtsies of the other, went for quite as little as did her imitation of the bobbing of the crown feathers of the aunts and the rustling of their dresses, the material of which was too expensive to be manageable: the thick silk was, Fanny said, like a valuable horse, impatient of control. She showed how it stood round them in massive folds when they curtsied, refusing to respond to the many kicks they dealt it to keep it in its place.

From the recalcitrant silks—with illustrations—Fanny had gone to the slicing of the ham, the hacking at the great sirloin, the clatter of the teacups, and the never-ending passing of plates and pickles, of mustard and pepper and salt—the things were moving round the table as the planets were shown circling round the sun in the clever invention called the Orrery, after one of the titles of the Earl of Cork—only the noise made by the perpetual handing on of the things did not suggest the music of the spheres, Fanny said.

Her descriptions, bright though they were and full of apt metaphors, went for nothing. Her sisters were too full of that wonderful thing which had happened—the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, the painter of all the most beautiful duchesses that were in the world, to say nothing of beautiful ladies of less exalted rank—this great man, who was so busy conferring immortality upon duchesses that he was compelled to keep in his painting-room on Sundays as well as every other day, and who had never been known to suspend his work except upon the occasion of the death of his dear friend Dr. Goldsmith—this man was actually at that very moment sitting in his arm-chair eagerly reading the words which their sister Fanny had written!

The thought was too wonderful for them. The effect that it had on them was to make them feel that they had two sisters in Fanny, the one a pleasant, homely, hem-stitching girl, who could dance the Nancy Dawson jig for them and take off all the people whom she met and thought worth taking off; the other a grave authoress, capable of writing books that great men forsook the society of other great men to read!

They looked on her now with something of awe in their eyes, and it was this lens of awe which, while magnifying her work as a writer where it came into their focus, made them fail to appreciate her fun, for they saw it, as it were, through the edges of the lens and not through the centre.

She quickly perceived the lack of sympathy of her audience.

“What is the matter with you both to-night?” she cried—they were now upstairs in her room, and she knew that at the same moment Mrs. Burney was giving her husband an account of the party. “What is the matter with you both? Has anything happened when I was away to put you out? Why don’t you laugh as usual? I am sure I never told you anything half so funny as this, and I was thinking all the way coming home that it would make you roar, and now you sit gravely looking at me and not taking in half I say. Pray, what is the matter?”

“Nothing is the matter, dear,” said Lottie. “Nothing—only I can’t help thinking that Sir Joshua is at this moment sitting eagerly reading the book that you wrote—you, sister Fanny, that no one who comes to us notices particularly. I can hardly bring myself to believe that there is only one Fanny.”

Fanny looked at her strangely for some moments, and then said:

“I do not blame you, dear; for I am myself of the same way of thinking: I cannot realize what the padre told us. I cannot think of myself as the Fanny Burney whose book is keeping Sir Joshua out of his bed. That is why I kept on harping like a fool on the single string of that odious party. I feel that I must keep on talking, lest my poor brain should give way when I sit down to think if I am really Fanny Burney, who was ever happiest sitting unnoticed in a corner when people came to this house, or laughing with you all up here. I cannot think how it would be possible for me to write a book that could be read by such as Sir Joshua.”

“Better think nothing more about it,” said Susy, who fancied she saw a strange look in Fanny’s eyes. “What’s the good of brooding over the matter? There’s nothing strange about Sir Joshua’s reading the book: I read it and I told you that it was so lovely everybody would want to read it. Besides, Sir Joshua may only have mentioned it for want of a better excuse to leave the club early; so you may not be so famous after all, Fanny.”

Susy’s well-meant attempt to restore her threatened equilibrium was too much for Fanny. But there was a considerable interval before her laughter came. She put an arm about Susy, saying:

“You have spoken the truth, my dear sister. I have no right to give myself airs until we find out exactly how we stand. But if Fanny Burney, the dunce, should find out to-morrow that Sir Joshua has not really been kept out of his bed in order to read ‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney, the writer, the first Fanny will feel dreadfully mortified.”

“One thing I can promise you,” said Susy, “and this is that Susannah Burney will not be kept out of her bed any longer talking to Fanny Burney about Fanny Burney’s novel, whether Fanny Burney be mortified or not. We shall know all about the matter when we go to the Reynolds’s to-morrow. In the meantime, I hope to have some hours of sleep, though I daresay that Fanny Burney will lie awake as a proper authoress should do, thinking over the exciting party in the Poultry and wondering how she will work in a description of it in her next novel. Good-night, and pleasant dreams! Come along, Lottie.”

And Fanny Burney did just what her sister had predicted she would do. She recalled some of the incidents of the tea-party in the Poultry, having before her, not as she had in the hackney coach, the possibility of describing them in a letter to Mr. Crisp, but of introducing them into a new book.

Before she slept she had made up her mind to begin a new book; for she now found it comparatively easy to believe that Sir Joshua was reading “Evelina” with great interest. At any rate, she would hear the next day when she should go to the Reynolds’s, whether Sir Joshua had read it, or whether he had only made it an excuse for getting home early in the night, so that he might arise early and refreshed to resume his painting of the duchesses.

But the next evening, when, with her sisters and their stepmother she tripped along the hundred yards or so of Leicester Fields that lay between their house and that of Sir Joshua Reynolds, all thoughts of the book which she had written and of the book which she meant to write, vanished the moment that she was close enough to Sir Joshua’s to hear, with any measure of clearness, the nature of the singing, the sound of which fell gently upon her ears.

“H’sh!” said Mrs. Burney, stopping a few feet from the door. “H’sh! some one is singing. I did not know that it was to be a musical party.”

“It is Signor Rauzzini,” said Lottie. “I would know his voice anywhere. We are lucky. There is no one who can sing like Signor Rauzzini.”

“We should have come earlier,” said Mrs. Burney. “But when Miss Reynolds asked us she did not say a word about Rauzzini. And now we cannot ring the bell, lest we should interrupt his song.”

She stood there with the three girls, under the lighted windows of the house, listening to the silvery notes of the young Roman that floated over their heads, as if an angel were hovering there, filling their ears with celestial music. (The simile was Susy’s.) The music sounded celestial to the ears of at least another of the group besides Susy; and that one thought:

“How can anyone trouble oneself with such insignificant matters as the writing of books or the reading of books, when such a voice as that is within hearing?”

And then, all at once, she was conscious of the merging of the two Fanny Burneys into one, and of the existence of a new Fanny Burney altogether—the Fanny Burney who was beloved by the celestial singer, and this was certainly the most wonderful of the three.

The thought thrilled her, and she knew that with it the truth of life had come to her: there was nothing worth anything in the world save only loving and being loved.

And this truth remained with her when the song had come to an end, soaring to a high note and dwelling on it for an enraptured space and then dying away, so gradually that a listener scarcely knew when it had ceased.

Fanny’s imagination enabled her to hear, at the close, the drawing-in of the breath of the people in the room where the song had been sung: she knew that up to this point they had been listening breathlessly to every note. She could hear the same soft inspiration—it sounded like a sigh—by her sisters and their stepmother. A dozen wayfarers through Leicester Fields had been attracted to the house by the sound of the singing, and now stood timidly about the doorway. They also had been breathless. One woman murmured “Beautiful!” Fanny could understand how the word had sprung to her lips, but what could the man mean, who, almost at the same moment, said:

“Oh, my God! how could I have been so great a fool?”

She was startled, and glanced at him. He was a young man, shabbily dressed, and on his face there were signs of dissipation. He was unconscious of her glance for some moments, then with a slight start he seemed to recover himself. He took off his hat with a respectful bow, and then hurried away. But Fanny saw him turn when he had gone about a dozen yards into the roadway, and take off his hat once more, with his eyes looking up to the lighted windows of the house. He was saluting the singer whom he had not seen, and to Fanny the act, following the words which he had unwittingly uttered, was infinitely pathetic.

It appeared that Mrs. Burney herself received the same impression. Fanny was surprised to hear her say:

“Poor fellow! he was once a gentleman!”

Then they entered Sir Joshua’s house and were shown upstairs to the great painting-room where Sir Joshua and his sister Frances were receiving their guests.

It was quite a small party—not more than a score of people altogether, and all seemed to be acquainted with one another. Fanny knew several of them; one girl, however, she had never seen before, but she knew who she was in a moment. She was standing at one end of the room chatting to Mrs. Sheridan and on the wall just above her there hung the picture of a girl in oriental costume and wearing a turban. Fanny Burney had often looked at it in admiration, and Sir Joshua had encouraged her, affirming that it was the best picture he had ever painted and that it would remain in his painting-room until the day of his death. She looked at it now with renewed interest, for the original was the girl standing beneath it—the beautiful Miss Horneck whom Oliver Goldsmith had called the Jessamy Bride. Several years had passed since Sir Joshua had painted that portrait, from which Miss Burney had recognized the original; and fifty years later another lady recognized the same face, still beautiful in old age, from having seen merely a print of the same picture.

When Fanny turned her eyes from the portrait it was to admire the features of Mrs. Sheridan. Mrs. Sheridan was gazing somewhat pensively at the picture of St. Cecilia which was hanging a little way from that of Miss Horneck, and Fanny was near enough to her to perceive how her expression grew into that of the face in the picture. At first sight, it did not appear to Fanny that the two faces were the same, and it seemed as if Mrs. Sheridan perceived this, and determined to vindicate Sir Joshua’s skill by assuming the pose of the picture. But Miss Burney knew that the beautiful lady had done it unconsciously—that it was simply because she was recalling the days when she had sat for the painter, and had obeyed his injunction to lose herself among the simple chords of the aria that was sacred to her since her sister died with the strain upon her lips—“I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Fanny gazed at the exquisite face, illuminated with what seemed to her to be a divine light, and for the first time she knew something of what it was to be a great painter. After “St. Cecilia” the other portraits on the walls seemed paltry. There was no divine light in the faces of the duchesses. There was life in them; they breathed and smiled and posed and looked gracious, but looking at them one remained on earth and among mortals. But St. Cecilia carried one into the glorious company of the immortals. “She drew an angel down,” was the line that flashed through Miss Burney’s mind at that moment. An angel? A whole celestial company.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook