Doctor Burney sat for a long time staring at a point high above his wife’s head. The eldest daughter, Hetty, standing at the other side of the writing-table, was radiant; her eyes were dancing. The two others were standing together—huddled together, it might be said, for they suggested a pair of lambs recently frightened—doubtful of what is going to happen next and feeling that the closer they are to each other the safer they will be.

“Did you ever hear of anything so funny?” said Hetty, glancing around and still radiant.

Her father got upon his feet.

“And she was the only one that never had any attention,” said he, as if he had not heard Hetty’s remark. “Fanny was left to make her own way as pleased her best—no one troubled about her education. She was left to pick up knowledge as best she could—the crumbs that fell from the others’ table—that was how she picked up French when the others came back from school, and now she speaks it with the best of them.... And so shy! Tell me, if you can, how she got her knowledge of things—the things in that book—the pictures red with life—the real life-blood of men and women—love—emotion—pathos—all that make up life—and don’t forget the characterization—that’s what seems to me all but miraculous. Hogarth—we all know that Hogarth drew his characters and fitted them into his pictures because he made it a point to walk among them and look at them with observant eyes; but tell me, if you can, what chance that child had of seeing anything; and yet she has filled her canvas, and every bit is made up of firm, true drawing. That is the chief wonder.”

He spoke evidently under the impulse of a great excitement at first, not looking at anyone in particular—just skimming them all with his eyes as he paced the room. But he seemed gradually to recover himself as he talked, and he appeared to address his last words to his wife. This assisted her to recover herself also—a minute or so in advance of him.

“You seem to be sure that Fanny wrote it,” she said, when he had done. “Is it fair to condemn her before you make sure?”

Everyone looked at Mrs. Burney; but only her husband laughed.

“Condemn her—condemn her for having written the finest novel since Fielding?” he said, with the laugh still on his face. There was no laugh on hers; on the contrary, its expression was more serious than ever.

“A novel is a novel,” she said. “I told Mr. Crisp—but that was only about the reading of novels—the cleverer they are the more mischievous—dangerous—even the reading—I never dreamt of her going so far as to write one, clever or otherwise. But a novel is still a novel—she must have neglected her duties in the house, though I failed to observe it ... and sending it to a bookseller without saying a word to us! Who would have believed that a young woman with her training—”

“It flashed across me when I read the verses addressed to myself at the beginning that she had asked my permission some months ago, and that I had given it—I did so laughing at the poor child’s credulousness in believing that any bookseller would print it for her and pay her for the privilege—the privilege of making a thousand pounds out of her book.”

“What! are you serious?—a thousand pounds, did you say?”

“Mr. Lowndes will make more than a thousand pounds by the sale of the book—Hetty tells me that he only paid Fanny twenty for it.”

“What is the world coming to—a fortune in a single book! And we talked about her being portionless, when all the time she was more richly endowed than all the rest of the family; for if she has written one book, she can certainly write another equally remunerative. Perhaps she has another ready for the printers.”

Mrs. Burney was blessed with the capacity to look at matters, however artistic they might be, from the standpoint of the practical housekeeper. The mention of so sonorous a sum as a thousand pounds caused the scales of prejudice to fall from the eyes through which she had regarded the act of authorship, and at that instant she perceived that it should not be thought of as a delinquency but as a merit.

And, after all, it appeared that the girl had obtained the permission of her father to print it—that put quite a different complexion upon the transaction, did it not?

And a thousand pounds—that appealed to the good sense of a practical person and swept away the last cobweb of prejudice that she had had respecting novels and their writers.

“Has she another book written, think you?” she inquired in a tone full of interest. “Of course we shall see that she gets a better share of Mr. Lowndes’ thousand pounds than she did for her first.”

“She has not written a line since ‘Evelina,’” said Esther. “To be sure, I have not been her confidante since I got married, but I know that she was so frightened at the thought of what she had done that she would not write another page.”

“Frightened! What had she to be frightened about?” cried Mrs. Burney in a tone of actual amazement.

“Goodness knows,” said Esther with a laugh.

The sound of the dinner-bell coming at that moment had about it also something of the quality of a long, loud, sonorous outburst of laughter with a cynical tinkle at the last.

The group in that room dissolved in all directions with exclamations of dismay at being overtaken by the dinner-hour so unprepared.

“It is all over now,” said Susy to Lottie, when they were alone in their room. “I was afraid when she ushered us so formally into the library that we would be forced to tell our secret.”

“I made up my mind that no torture of the rack or wild horses would unseal my lips,” said Susy, earnestly. “Do you know, Lottie, I feel quite lonely without our secret.”

“It is just the same with me, dear,” said Lottie. “I feel as if I were suddenly cut off from some great interest in life—as if I had gone downstairs one morning and found that someone had stolen the piano. I wonder if it was Hetty who told the padre.”

“Make haste and we shall soon learn all,” said Susy.

Before they had finished dinner they learned from their father how he had got to the bottom of the secret that they had so cherished.

He had gone as usual to give a music lesson to Queenie Thrale, and when partaking of some refreshment before setting out for London, Mrs. Thrale had talked to him in terms of the highest praise of “Evelina.” She had read the book twice over, she told him, and had lent it to Dr. Johnson, who could talk of nothing else. Then Mrs. Cholmondeley had arrived on a visit to Thrale Hall, and she, too, was full of praise of the book. She, too, had lent her copy to someone else—to no less important a person than Mr. Edmund Burke, and he had declared himself as greatly captivated by it as his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds had been. Everybody was talking about it, and the question of the authorship had been as widely discussed as before; Mrs. Cholmondeley had declared that she would give twenty guineas to find out for certain who it was that had written the book.

Mrs. Thrale had thereupon suggested that Dr. Burney was in a better position than most people for solving the mystery, going about as he was from one part of the town to another and being in close touch with all manner of people.

“But I had not, as you know, so much as read the book for myself—I seemed to be the only one in town who had not done so—and on getting home I sent William post haste to Mr. Lowndes to purchase a set. This done, I sat down to peruse the first volume. The page opened on the Ode; it lay beneath my eyes, and I tell you truly that I did not seem to read it: I seemed to hear Fanny’s voice reading the verses in my ear, and the truth came upon me in a flash—incredible though it appeared, I knew that it was she who had written the book. Hetty came in before my eyes were dry—she saw the volume in my hand, and she understood all. ‘You know,’ was all that she said. I think that the greatest marvel was the keeping of the secret of the book! To think of its being known to four girls and never becoming too great for them to bear!”

He was appealing to his wife, but she only nodded a cold acquiescence in his surprise. She remained silent, however, and this was something to be grateful for, the girls thought: they knew just what she was thinking, and they also knew that if they had some little trouble in keeping their secret, she had very much more in restraining herself from uttering some comment upon their reticence—their culpable reticence, she would think it. They could see that she was greatly displeased at having been excluded from their secret, since such an exclusion had forced her into a false position more than once—notably in the presence of Mr. Crisp, when she had become the assailant of novels and novel reading generally, and also when she had scolded them on their return in the chaise. But they were good girls, and they were ready to allow that they were in the wrong, even though they did not think so; that is what really good girls do in their desire for peace in their homes. And Lottie and Susy made up their minds that should their stepmother tax them with double-dealing and deceit, they would not try to defend themselves. The reflection that they had kept their sister’s secret would more than compensate them for any possible humiliation they might suffer at Mrs. Burney’s hands.

All that Mrs. Burney said at the conclusion of her husband’s further rhapsody about the marvel of Fanny’s achievement, considering how she had been generally thought the dunce of the family, was comprised in a few phrases uttered in a hurt tone:

“While no one is more pleased than myself to witness her success, I cannot but feel that she would have shown herself possessed of a higher sense of her duty as a daughter if she had consulted her father or his wife in the matter,” she said.

“That may be true enough,” said Dr. Burney; “but if she had done so, would she have achieved her purpose any more fully than she has, I ask you? No, my dear, I do not feel, with any measure of certainty, that I would have gone far in my encouragement of her efforts, nor do I think that you would have felt it consistent with your principles to do so.”

“I was only referring to the question of a simple girl’s duty in regard to her parents,” said Mrs. Burney.

“And your judgment on that point is, I am certain, unassailable,” said he. “But here we have a girl who is no simple girl, but a genius; and I think that a good deal of latitude should be allowed to a genius—a little departure from the hard and fast line of the duties expected from a simple girl may be permitted in such a one as Fanny.”

“Well, she has succeeded in her aims—so much is plain,” said Mrs. Burney. “But I hope that should any of her sisters set about a similar enterprise—”

But the ringing laughter that came from the sisters, their father joining in with great heartiness, saved the need for her to complete her sentence. At first she felt hurt, but she quickly yielded to the exuberant spirit that pervaded the atmosphere of the room, and smiled indulgently, after the manner of a staid elderly lady who is compelled to take part in the romp of her girls and boys at Christmas time.

She continued smiling, and the others continued laughing, and this spirit of good humour was maintained until bedtime.

The girls knew that they would not be scolded for their participation in Fanny’s secret; for Fanny by her success had justified any amount of double-dealing. If Fanny had made a fool of herself they would feel that they deserved to participate in her scolding; but success is easily pardoned, and so they rightly counted upon a general amnesty. What was it that their father had said about a thousand pounds?

They went to bed quite happy, in spite of being deprived of the fearful joy of having a secret to keep.

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