So they parted; and Lady Hales hastened back to her friends to whisper in their ears that the mystery was as good as solved: Mrs. Thrale had as much as acknowledged that she was the author of “Evelina,” but she hoped that, as she had written the book without the knowledge of her husband, her friends would respect her desire to remain anonymous.

“Mr. Thrale, being a Member of Parliament, would not like to have the name of his wife bandied about among ordinary people as that of the writer of a novel,” Lady Hales explained, though really no explanation was needed of a fact that could be appreciated by every sensible person aware of the contemptible character of the novels of the day. “Only Dr. Johnson is in the secret,” she continued. “Dr. Johnson, as we all know, lives at Thrale Hall for five days out of every week, finding the table provided by Mrs. Thrale to suit his palate very much better than that controlled by poor blind Mrs. Williams at Bolt Court.”

“That may account for some of the touches in the book in the style of Dr. Johnson,” said one of the ladies. “You may be sure that no book could be written under the same roof as Dr. Johnson without his having something to say to it.”

“I never could understand how so fastidious a lady as Mrs. Thrale could tolerate the company of Dr. Johnson at her table, but now the secret is out—this secret and t’other,” said one of the gentlemen. “Dr. Johnson is not seen at his best at the dinner-table.”

“So far as that goes, neither is Mr. Thrale himself,” said another. “He has a huge appetite.”

“I had an inkling all along that Mrs. Thrale wrote the book,” said a lady with a huge hat. “I actually remarked to my sister, while I was reading it, ‘if this story is not written by Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Thrale is the one who would like to have written it.’”

“But mind, not a word must be breathed that would hint that she acknowledged it to me by direct word of mouth,” cried Lady Hales, beginning to have some qualms. “No; you must understand clearly that she did not say in so many words that she wrote it. Indeed, her last words to me were, that anyone who should name in public the author of a book published anonymously would be guilty of a great discourtesy.”

“She is perfectly right: to do so would be to exhibit very bad taste truly,” came more than one acquiescent voice.

And the result of their complete agreement on this point was the immediate dissemination of the report that Mrs. Thrale was indeed the writer of “Evelina.”

But that clever little lady, on getting rid of the questioner, found that Signor Rauzzini had slipped away from her side and was now making his adieux to Mrs. Burney and her stepdaughters. She noticed that the light had gone out of Fanny Burney’s eyes as the young singer bent over her hand, and once again she shook her head. She had given more attention to Miss Burney during the previous hour than during all the years she had visited at St. Martin’s Street. She thought that it might be her duty to say a word of warning to the young woman, who could not possibly know anything about the world or the deceitfulness of Italian vocalists.

Meantime, however, she ordered one of her three footmen to tell the coachman to drive to the shop of Lowndes, the bookseller, and there she purchased a bound copy of “Evelina,” at nine shillings.

Mrs. Thrale was, of course, well known to Mr. Lowndes, and seeing her, through the window of his office, enter his shop, he put his quill behind his ear and emerged, bowing and smiling.

“How was it that you failed to apprise me that you had printed ‘Evelina’?” she inquired.

“Is’t possible that you did not receive my advertisement, madam?” he cried. “Why, I posted it to you with my own hands even before the book had left the press, the truth being that I was anxious to get your opinion respecting it.”

“I never had any advertisement from you about it,” she replied.

“Oh, I was to blame for not underlining the announcement, madam,” said he. “I ask your pardon. How were you to know that it was not one of the usual novels of the season?—I do not venture to recommend such to the attention of ladies of superior tastes like yourself, madam. I shall not forgive myself, rest assured. But I am punished, in that I have been unable to sell a second edition by telling my customers how highly it was esteemed by Mrs. Thrale.”

“You assume that it would be highly esteemed by me, Mr. Lowndes; but I am not quite sure that you do not flatter yourself in believing that my judgment would be the same as that of the public. The poor public! How can they possibly know whether a book is good or bad?”

“They cannot, madam; that is why we poor booksellers must only trust to sell our books on the recommendation of ladies of taste and judgment. May I beg, madam, that you will favour me with your opinion respecting the merits of ‘Evelina’?”

“It has been so great a success that I fear I shall not think highly of it. Pray, who is your modest author?”

“Positively, madam, I am unable to tell you. The MS. was brought to me with a letter purporting to come from a Mr. Grafton at the Orange Coffee House, near the Haymarket, and he desired the secret of its authorship to be kept close.”

“Ah, yes; to be sure—kept close from the vulgar public; but he could never think that you were violating his confidence by telling me his name.”

“He could not be so unreasonable, madam—nay, rather would he kneel to you—for he could scarce fail to understand the value that we set on—”

“I am not convinced either that he would benefit from the exchange of confidence or that I should; but prithee, sir, what is his name?”

“’Fore heaven, madam, I have told you so much as is known by me respecting the gentleman. Never before have I been placed in so remarkable a position. My fault, Mrs. Thrale, no doubt: I should have taken precautions against being thus surprised into publishing a book without knowing the name of the author. But although my judgment enabled me to perceive that the work was out of the common, yet I never counted on its merits being recognized so speedily. May I beg of you to favour me with your opinion as to who the writer may be, madam—that is, when you have read it, unless, indeed—” he glanced at her shrewdly with a little knowing smile—“unless, indeed, you could so favour me instanter.”

“Nay, Mr. Lowndes, how would it be possible for me to give you an opinion as to the authorship of a book which I have not yet read? I am not one of those astute critics who, they say, can tell you all there is to be known about a book without cutting the leaves, or even—if you slip a guinea into their hand—without opening the covers.”

“I thought that perhaps you might be one of those who have been let into the secret, madam. I trust that Dr. Johnson’s health has not been so bad as to prevent him from doing any literary work. Ah, what does not that great man—nay, what does not the world owe to you, Mrs. Thrale?”

“If you would suggest, Mr. Lowndes, that the book about which we have been conversing was written, even in part, by Dr. Johnson, I can give you an assurance that such is not the case. He is in no way inclined to engage in any form of literary labour. He grudges his friends even a note.”

“There are some gentlemen who come hither and honour me by conversing on the subject of letters, and more than one of them has pointed out passages in ‘Evelina’ that show signs of the great Doctor’s pen; but for that matter—”

“I agree with you, sir; every scribbler in Grub Street apes the style of Dr. Johnson, but only to reveal the ape in himself. Now, Mr. Lowndes, if you really are in earnest in saying that you are unaware who is the author of your book, I have done you some service in curtailing by one the list of authors to whom it might possibly be attributed. You may strike out the name of Johnson, sir, on my authority.”

“I shall certainly do so, madam—not that I, for my own part, was ever foolish enough to fancy that he had written more of it than a page or two. I am indebted to you, Mrs. Thrale.”

“Then if you would wish to pay off the debt, you can do so by informing me of your success in discovering the writer. ’Tis quite impossible to conceive of the man’s remaining unrevealed for any length of time, and I confess that I am anxious to know if he is among my acquaintance.”

“You assume the sex, madam.”

“What, have you a doubt of it?”

“There are so many literary ladies nowadays, Mrs. Thrale.”

“But you surely saw the handwriting of the script?”

“That is just the point. My printers have examined it and say that it is a lady’s caligraphy only disguised to look like a man’s. In my own judgment they are right. It is an upright hand, neat and clear—not in the least like that of an author. Still, that counts but little, seeing that the writer of the book would be pretty certain to have a clear copy made of his script by someone else. I have had a suspicion, from the mystery insisted on by this Mr. Grafton, that he is none other than the author of the ‘Castle of Otranto.’”

“What, Mr. Walpole?”

“Even so. You recollect how delighted he was to conceal the hand he had in that book—going much farther than I thought any gentleman would in honour go, to make people believe it was what it pretended to be?”

“Mr. Lowndes, I know not what your experience has been; but mine is that when a gentleman becomes an author he lays aside whatever sense of honour he possesses as a gentleman.”

“I have had little to do with gentlemen authors, madam. Most of my writers are simply authors.”

“And Mr. Walpole very properly put himself in line with them, and so had no hesitation in carrying out his fraud in ‘Otranto.’ Well, if it be so, you may count on his revealing himself now that the book has become a success. In any case, you will not forget to keep me informed, and I shall esteem it a favour, Mr. Lowndes.”

Mr. Lowndes renewed his promise and bowed the lady to the door. The three volumes of “Evelina” had been brought out to the chariot by one of the footmen, a second following in his footsteps to see that he deposited them fairly upon one of the cushions, and a third standing by the open door in case of the breakdown of either of the others.

Mrs. Thrale got into the splendid machine, the three lackeys swung themselves up on their platform behind, and clung on to the heavy straps, looking, in their brilliant livery, as the chariot lurched away over the uneven cobble-stones, like mighty butterflies of a tropical forest swaying together on the rim of a gigantic flower.

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