The next morning was a lovely one, and Fanny was feeding the ducks in the brook before eight o’clock. When she came into the house to breakfast she found Mr. Crisp in the porch.

“You have given me a sleepless night,” he said. “I lay awake endeavouring to determine for my own satisfaction what would be the outcome of the girl’s meeting that dreadful Branghton family. I worked out the story to its proper conclusion—so I thought—on my left side; but when I turned on my right I found that I had been grossly astray in all my fancies; and forthwith I set to work to put myself right. After an hour or two I thought I had succeeded, but, lo! a turn on my back and I saw that, as I planned it, the story would never come to an end. So I kept on until the dawn. Then I fell asleep, but only to find myself surrounded by demons, in the form of Branghtons, and a master devil wearing the epaulets of a naval officer, and he made for me with a horrid leer and a cry of Mervain! I awoke in a worse state than did the Duke of Clarence in the play, and I have not slept since. Oh, that little mischief, Susy! Wherefore did she send hither that magic book to be my undoing?”

“Ah, sir, never before did I perceive the evil of novel reading,” she said. “I could not understand my mother’s banning all such books, but now I see the wisdom of it. I now see how they tend to unsettle one. But it may not yet be too late to save you from the evil influence of ‘Evelina.’ If I read no more of her story, you will soon forget her and all may be well.”

“You will read no more? Good! Carry out your threat and I will e’en take the coach to London and buy a full set at Mr. Newbery’s.”

“At Mr. Newbery’s? Ah, sir, that is a threat you could not carry out, however vindictive you might be.”

“And why not, prithee? Think you I would begrudge the seven or eight shillings it would cost?”

“Nay, sir; but if you went to Mr. Newbery you would probably find yourself treated badly by him if you accused him of publishing the book. ’Tis Mr. Lowndes who is the guilty person.”

“You will not put one to the humiliation of a journey to London all for a trumpery novel?”

“Nay, not for a trumpery novel; but we were talking of ‘Evelina.’”

“I submit to the correction, my dear; and so now we are in perfect agreement, you will continue the story, if only to allay my sleepless speculations.”

“I wonder how it will sound when read in the morning? I fear that it will be as dull as a play would seem in the garish light of day.”

“Tell not that to me. There are novels of the morn as well as of the even, and I believe that the freshness of this one will be best appreciated in the brightness of such a morning as this. At any rate, we can but make a trial of it. If we find that it does not read well, you can lay it aside till the evening.”

Fanny was delighted to find that he was as interested in her book as Susy had been; and the noon came and found her beginning the second volume to him, sitting by his side in the sunlight that bathed the little garden, and his attention never flagged. Once or twice, however, he grumbled, but her ear assured her that his grumble was not a critical one; it was only meant to censure the behaviour of the rude Captain Mervain.

They were still in the garden when, shortly after noon, a chaise was heard in the lane: it appeared to be on its way to the house.

“What! as I live ’tis mamma and my sisters come to pay us a visit,” cried Fanny, seeing a handkerchief waved to her from the window.

“They shall be made welcome, for I cannot doubt that they have brought the third volume with them,” said Mr. Crisp, rising to receive his visitors.

In this way the reading was interrupted, and indeed Fanny was rather glad of a respite. She had not risen from her chair since nine o’clock. A chance of stretching her limbs was very acceptable.

Mrs. Burney and the girls had scarcely settled down to their cakes and sweet wine, after explaining that Dr. Burney had insisted on their taking this drive into the country, the day promised to be so fine, when Mr. Crisp turned to Susy, saying:

“You wicked girl! What did you mean by sending us the two volumes of that vile novel to upset us poor country folk? And I hope you have not neglected to bring with you the third.”

Poor Susy reddened and glanced at Fanny without trying to make any reply.

“Eh, what is this?” cried the old man. “Do you mean to disclaim all responsibility for the act? Ah, ’tis too late for you to make such an attempt. The evil has been done. The poison has begun to work in our blood; and its effects can only be neutralized by the contents of the third volume. Say at once, I pray, if you have brought it.”

“Do not trouble poor Susy with your tropes, sir,” said Fanny. “She cannot grasp your meaning, and only trusts that we have not gone mad. I suppose that the road was as usual—half of it muddy and the rest dusty?”

“I insist on hearing if the third volume is in the chaise,” said Mr. Crisp, firmly. “If it be not, then you may drive straight back to St. Martin’s Street and return hither with it in time for Fannikin to read it to-night.”

“Pray what book is it that you refer to, Mr. Crisp?” inquired Mrs. Burney.

“What book, madam! As if there were more books than one printed this year! Why, Mrs. Burney, where have you been living all this time, that you have never heard of ‘Evelina’?” cried he.

“I have heard of little else save this ‘Evelina’ for some time past; but I have no time for reading novels, nor has any member of my family,” replied the lady.

“I insisted on one member of your family finding the time yesterday and to-day, and the consequence is that she has gone through the first volume and part of the second since Susy was so obliging as to send them hither. I was in hopes that you had brought the third volume; but I perceive that we shall have to wait for it now.”

Susy was examining very closely the pattern on her plate when Mrs. Burney turned to her, saying:

“Does Mr. Crisp mean that you got that novel and sent it hither to Fanny?”

“Only part of it—no more than two volumes,” said Susy quickly, as though anxious to submit extenuating circumstances to the notice of her stepmother.

“Did you get it at Hill’s library, or where?” inquired Mrs. Burney.

“I did not get it at a library,” replied Susy slowly, as a reluctant witness might answer an incriminating question.

“What, did you buy it? Did you spend your money on it?” cried Mrs. Burney, with a note of amazement not free from anxiety.

“Oh, no; I did not buy it,” said Susy.

“How did it come into your hands, then—tell me that?”

“Cousin Edward brought it for Fanny.”

“And you read the first two volumes and are now reading the third?”

“Nay, mamma, ’tis I that was led by my curiosity,” said Lottie hastily.

“Though you have often heard me protest against the vice of novel reading? I wonder at you, Lottie. I am shocked that you should so yield to a vulgar temptation,” said Mrs. Burney.

“Nay, my dear madam, you must not talk of our dear ‘Evelina’ as if she were an everyday person,” said Mr. Crisp. “On the contrary, she is a most interesting young lady, and if I do not soon learn what happens to her now that she has formed some very dubious intimacies, I shall be inconsolable. Have you read the book, Mrs. Burney?”

“Not I indeed,” replied Mrs. Burney, with more than a suggestion of indignation that such a charge should be brought against her. “I have heard enough about that book during the past month to prevent me from having any wish to read it, even if I were a novel reader, which I certainly deny. I am ashamed that any member of my household should so far forget her duty as to read such stuff.”

“Come, come, my dear lady, you must remember that there are novels and novels,” said Mr. Crisp. “I have heard you praise Mr. Richardson, have I not?”

“Mr. Richardson was a genius and a great moral writer, sir, as well.”

“The two are not invariably associated. But what if I tell you that this new book is worthy of being placed between ‘Clarissa Harlowe’ and ‘Pamela’?”

“You will not do so gross an injustice to the memory of a great man, I am sure. But, if you please, we will discuss this no longer. No matter what this ‘Evelina’ may be, the fact remains that I gave a command that our home should be free from the taint of novel reading, and my wishes have been secretly ignored. I should not wonder if Fanny had encouraged Edward to procure the book for her.”

“I cannot deny it,” said Fanny in a low voice. “’Twas my doing altogether. All the blame should rest on my shoulders—yes, from the first—the very first—from the title page on to ‘Finis.’”

“And your delinquency has given me greater pleasure than I have derived from other people’s rectitude,” said Mr. Crisp. Then he turned to Mrs. Burney.

“Dear madam, you must forgive our Fannikin for her misdemeanour. If you had but read the book for yourself you would feel as I do on the subject. ’Tis the most fascinating story—”

“That is, I hold, the worst of the matter,” said Mrs. Burney. “The more fascinating the novel, the more dangerous it is, and the greater reason there is why it should be excluded from every honest home. A dull story may do but little harm. One might reasonably tolerate it even among a household of young girls, but a clever one—a fascinating one, as you call this ‘Evelina,’ should never be allowed to cross the threshold. But, by your leave, sir, we will talk no more upon a question on which I know we shall never agree.”

“That is the most satisfactory proposal that could be made,” said Mr. Crisp, bowing. “I will only add that since you are so fully sensible of the danger of a delightful book in your house, you will take prompt measures to prevent the baleful influence of ‘Evelina’ from pervading your home, by despatching the third volume to me without delay. The third volume of such a novel may in truth be likened to the match in the barrel of gunpowder: ’tis the most dangerous part of the whole. The first two volumes are like the gunpowder—comparatively innocent, but the moment the third volume is attached—phew! So you would do well not to delay in getting rid of such an inflammatory composition, Mrs. Burney.”

“I promise you that you shall have it at once, sir,” said Mrs. Burney. “And I trust that you will not allow the first and second to return to my house. A barrel of gunpowder may be as innocent as you say, so long as the match is withheld, but still I have no intention of turning our home into a powder magazine.”

That was the last reference made to “Evelina” while Mrs. Burney and the two girls remained at Chessington. They went away so as to be back in St. Martin’s Street in time for dinner; but the moment they were together in the chaise Mrs. Burney burst out once more in her denunciation of the vice of novel reading. From her general treatment of the theme she proceeded—as the girls feared she would—to the particular instance of its practice which had just come under her notice. She administered to poor Susy a sound scolding for having received the book from her cousin Edward in secret, and another to poor Lottie for having ventured to read it without asking leave. The girls were soon reduced to tears, but not a word did they say in reply. They were loyal to their sister and her secret with which they had been entrusted. Not a word did either of them utter.

The drive home on that lovely afternoon was a dreary one, especially after Mrs. Burney had said:

“I fear that this duplicity has been going on for a long time in our house. Yes, I have noticed more than once an exchange of meaning glances between you and Fanny, and sometimes, too, when your cousin Edward was in the room. It seemed to me that you had some secret in common which you were determined to keep from me. I said nothing at that time, for though my suspicions were awakened, yet I thought it best to take the most favourable view of the matter, and I assumed that the secret—if there was a secret—was an innocent one—such as girls in a family may share among themselves about some trifling thing; but now I have no doubt that your glances and your winks and your elbowings had to do with the smuggling of books into the house for your surreptitious reading. I am ashamed of you. It hurts me deeply to find that, after all the care I have taken to preserve you in innocence of the world and its wickedness, you have been behaving with such duplicity. I shall, of course, think it my duty to let your father know what I have found out, and he may be able to suggest some means of preventing a repetition of such conduct.”

The poor girls dared not even look at each other for mutual sympathy, lest such glances should be interpreted by their mother as a further attempt to pursue the scheme of duplicity with which she had charged them. They could only sit tearful and silent until they were once again in St. Martin’s Street. They longed to rush upstairs together to their room and mingle their tears in a sisterly embrace before determining how they should meet their stepmother’s charges in the presence of their father.

But Mrs. Burney was too astute a strategist to permit them to consult together.

“Is your master within?” she inquired of William, the manservant, who opened the door for them.

“He is in the library, madam, with Mrs. Esther,” replied the man.

“So much the better,” said Mrs. Burney to the girls. “We shall go directly to him, and your sister Esther will be present.”

She made them precede her to the room that was called the library. Dr. Burney and Hetty were laughing together across the table—the sound of their merriment had been heard by the girls before the door was opened. But at the portentous gravity of the entrance of Mrs. Burney her husband became grave.

“You have returned early,” he said, “and—good heavens! you have been weeping—you do not bring bad news—Fanny has not had a relapse?”

“Fanny is quite well; but I bring you bad news,” replied Mrs. Burney. “You will, I am sure, regard it as the worst possible news when I tell you that she, as well as her sisters here, have been guilty of the grossest disobedience—a conspiracy of disobedience, I may call it.”

“I am amazed—and grieved,” said he. “But I can scarcely believe that, brought up as they have been—”

“They do not deny it,” said she. “I only discovered by chance that, in defiance of our rule against novel reading, they have been trafficking with their cousin Edward to procure novels for their secret reading, and the latest they smuggled into the house is that one called ‘Evelina’—I actually found Fanny reading the book to Mr. Crisp, and her sisters admitted—”

“But what did Fanny admit?” he cried.

“She admitted that Edward had procured the book at her request,” replied his wife. “Was not that enough?”

“Not half enough—not a quarter enough, considering that it was Fanny who wrote ‘Evelina’ with her own hand and under our very noses without our suspecting it,” said Dr. Burney quietly.

Mrs. Burney looked at him dumbly for more than a whole minute. There was silence in the room.

Then she sat slowly down on the nearest chair, still keeping her eyes fixed upon him.

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