INDEED, I am not quite assured in my mind that the influence of Mr. Garrick upon such a family as ours is healthy,” said Mrs. Burney, when the breakfast cups had been removed and the maid had left the room in the little house in St. Martin’s Street, off Leicester Fields. Dr. Burney, the music-master, had not to hurry away this day: his first lesson did not begin until noon; it was to be given at the mansion of Mr. Thrale, the brewer, at Streatham, and the carriage was not to call for him for another hour. He was glancing at the Advertiser in unaccustomed indolence, but when his wife had spoken he glanced up from the paper and an expression of amused surprise was upon his face. His daughter Fanny glanced up from the work-basket which her mother had placed ready for her the moment that the breakfast-table had been cleared, and the expression upon little Miss Burney’s face was one that had something of fright in it. She was too short-sighted to see the wink which her brother James, lieutenant in His Majesty’s navy, gave her, for their stepmother had her back turned to him. But Mrs. Burney, without seeing him, knew that, as he himself would phrase it, he had tipped Fanny a wink. She turned quickly round upon him, and if she had previously any doubt on this point, it was at once dispelled by the solemnity of his face.
Dr. Burney gave a laugh.
“The influence of Mr. Garrick is like that of the air we breathe,” said he. “It is not to be resisted by the age we live in, leaving family matters out of the question altogether: the Burney family must inhale as much of the spirit of Mr. Garrick as the rest of the town-they cannot help themselves, ces pauvres Burneys! they cannot live without Mr. Garrick.”
Mrs. Burney shook her head solemnly; so did Lieutenant James Burney, for he had all his life been under the influence of Mr. Garrick, when the atmosphere brought by Mr. Garrick was one of comedy.
“My meaning is that Mr. Garrick is not content to allow simple people such as ourselves to live as simple people,” said Mrs. Burney. “I protest that I have felt it: the moment he enters our house we seem to be in a new world-whatsoever world it is his whim to carry us to.”
“That is the truth, my dear-he can do what he pleases with us and with all the thousands who have flocked to his playhouse since his Goodman’s Fields days—he has made a fortune as a courier; transporting people to another world for an hour or two every night—a world that is less humdrum than this in which four beats go to every bar and every crotchet goes to a beat! Dear soul! he has made our hearts beat at times beyond all computation of time and space.”
“You will herring-bone the edges neatly, Fanny: I noticed some lack of neatness in the last of the napery that left your hand, my dear,” said Mrs. Burney, bending over her stepdaughter at her work-basket; and, indeed, it seemed that the caution was not unnecessary, for Fanny’s eyes were gleaming and she was handling her work with as great indifference (for the moment) as though she esteemed plain sewing something of drudgery rather than a delight. And now, having administered her timely caution, the good lady turned to her husband, saying:
“To my mind what you have claimed for Mr. Garrick but adds emphasis to my contention that his visits have a disturbing influence upon a homely family, taking them out of themselves, so to speak, and transporting them far beyond the useful work of their daily life. I have noticed with pain for some time past that Fanny’s heart has not been in her work: her cross-stitch has been wellnigh slovenly, and her herring-boning has really been indifferent—I say it with sorrow; but dear Fanny is too good a girl to take offence at my strictures, which she knows are honest and meant for her good.”
“Madam,” said Lieutenant Burney, “I pray you to give me leave to bear you out; but at the same time to make excuses for Fan. I must do so in justice to her, for the blame rests with me so far as the herring-boning is concerned. I confess, with tears in my eyes, that ‘twas I who provided her with the last models for her herring-boning; and ‘twas surely some demon in my breast that prompted me to substitute the skeleton of one of the South Sea fishes which I hooked when becalmed with Captain Cook within sight of Otaheite, for the true herring whose backbone is a model of regularity to be followed by all workers with the needle, when deprived of the flesh, which is the staple fare of hundreds of honest families and, while nourishing them amply, prevents their thoughts from carrying them beyond the region pervaded by the smell of their cooking.”
“That were a wide enough area upon occasions for the most ambitious of thinkers,” said Dr. Burney, controlling his features, seeing that his wife took the ward-room humour of his son with dreadful seriousness. He made a sign to James to go no further—but James had gone round the world once, and he was not to be checked in a humbler excursion.
“Yes, madam, ‘tis my duty to confess that Fanny’s model was the flying-fish, and not the simple Channel herring, hence the failure to achieve the beautiful regularity of design which exists in the backbone of the latter from the figurehead to the stern, larboard sloping in one direction and starboard in the other. If anyone be culpable ‘tis myself, not Fanny; but I throw myself on your mercy, and only implore that the herring-boning of my sister will not result in a whaling for me.”
Mrs. Burney looked seriously from her brother to Fanny, and getting no cue from either, began:
“‘Tis indeed honourable for you to endeavour by your confession to excuse the fault of your sister, James——-”
“The traditions of the service, madam——” began the lieutenant, laying his hand on his heart; but he got no further, for Fanny could restrain herself no longer; she burst into a laugh and dropped her work, and her father rose, holding up his hand.
“The jest has gone far enough, James,” he said. “We sleep in beds in this house and do not swing in hammocks. Keep your deep-sea jests until you are out of soundings, if it please you.”
“I ask your pardon, sir,” said James; “but i’ faith there’s many a true word said in jest; and it seems to me that there’s a moral in the parable of the young woman who took the flying-fish of the South Seas for her model rather than the herring of the three-fathom coast-line of the Channel; and that moral touches close upon the complaint made by our good mother against Mr. Garrick.”
“Let it be so,” said Mrs. Burney, who was a clever enough woman to perceive that it would be unwise to make a grievance of the impudence of a young naval gentleman. “Let it be so; let it be that we are simple, homely, wholesome herrings, we are none the better for such a flying-fish as Mr. Garrick coming among us, giving us, it may be, the notion that our poor fins are wings, and so urging us to make fools of ourselves by emulating the eagle. The moral of your fable is that we should keep to our own element—is not that so, sir?”
“I’ faith, madam, I am not sure but that ‘tis so, and I haul down my colours to you, and feel no dishonour in the act,” cried James. “Lord, where should we all be to-day if it were not for the good women who hold fast to the old traditions of the distaff and needle? They are the women who do more for the happiness of men than all who pass their time dipping quills in ink-horns or daubing paint upon good canvas that might with luck be hung from a stunsail boom and add another knot to the log of a frigate of seventy-two! Is there anyone who dines at the table of Sir Joshua Reynolds round the corner that does not wish with all his heart that his sister would sell her palette and buy a wine-glass or two with the proceeds? Why, when we went to dinner at Sir Joshua’s yesterday there were not enough glasses to go round the table.”
“There never are—that is well known,” said Mrs. Burney.
“Nay, nay; let us take to ourselves the reproof of Dr. Johnson to Mr. Boswell when he complained, loud enough almost for Sir Joshua himself to hear him, about the scarcity of service. ‘Sir,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘some who have the privilege of sitting at this table, and you are one of them, sir, will be wiser if they keep their ears open and their mouths shut than they would if they had the means of drinking all that you are longing to drink.’”
“Mr. Boswell, in spite of the reproof, contrived to lurch from the table with more wine than wisdom ‘tween decks,” remarked James.
“He must have found a wine-glass,” said Miss Susy Burney, who had been quite silent but quite attentive to every word that had been spoken since breakfast-time.
“And so the honour of Mrs. Reynolds’s housekeeping is saved,” said Dr. Burney.
“Nay, sir, is not Mr. Boswell a Scotsman?” cried the irrepressible James.
“That is his lifelong sorrow, since he fancies it to be an insuperable barrier between his idol, Dr. Johnson, and himself,” replied his father. “But how does his Scotsmanship bear upon the wine-glass question?”
“Ah, sir, without being versed in the subtleties of theology I make bold to think that Father Adam did not suffer hunger until knives and forks were invented,” said James. “Your drouthy Scot will drink straight from the bottle if no beaker be at hand. Oh, why was not Mr. Garrick at Sir Joshua’s to rouse our spirits by his imitation of Mr. Boswell seeking for a wine-glass—and after?”
“Mr. Boswell is too trivial a subject for Davy: I have seen him take off Dr. Johnson mixing a bowl of punch until I was like to die of laughter. I protest that when he came to the squeezing of the imaginary lemon, while he cried out in the Doctor’s broadest Lichfield, ‘Who’s for poonch?’ I could smell the acid juice,” said Dr. Burney, and he laughed at the recollection of Garrick’s fooling.
The naval man gave a resounding nautical smack to his thigh.
“That is what ‘tis to be a sailor,” he cried. “I have had no chance of seeing Mr. Garrick at his best. I should dearly like to hear him take off Mr. Boswell when three sheets in the wind. Why was he not with us yesterday?”
“Mr. Garrick himself has had a drinking bout on. He has been at the Wells for the past fortnight,” said his father.
“Ecce signum!” came a doleful voice from the door, and a little man slowly put round the jamb a face bearing such an expression of piteous nausea as caused everyone in the room—not even excepting Mrs. Burney—to roar with laughter—uncontrollable laughter.
Then the expression on the little man’s face changed to one of surprised indignation. He crept into the room and looked at every person therein with a different expression on his face for each—a variation of his original expression of disgust and disappointment mingled with doleful reproof. It seemed as if it was not a single person who had entered the room, but half a dozen persons—a whole doleful and disappointed family coming upon an unsympathetic crew convulsed with hilarity.
And then he shook his head sadly.
“And these are the people who have just heard that I have been taking the nauseous waters of Tunbridge Wells for a whole fortnight,” and there was a break in his voice. “Oh, Friendship, art thou but a name? Oh, Sympathy, art thou but a mask? Is the world of sentiment nothing more than a world of shadows? Have all the sweet springs of compassion dried up, leaving us nothing but the cataracts of chalybeate to nauseate the palate?”
He looked round once more, and putting the tips of his fingers together, glanced sadly up to the ceiling, then sighed and turned as if to leave the room.
“Nay, sir,” cried Dr. Burney, “I do not believe that the chalybeate cataracts still flow: ‘tis my firm belief, from the expression of your face, that you have swallowed the whole spring—the Wells of Tunbridge must have been dried up by you before you left—your face betrays you. I vow that so chalybeate an expression could not be attained by lesser means.”
“Sir, you do me honour, and you have a larger faith in me than my own physician,” said the little man, brightening up somewhat. “Would you believe that he had the effrontery to accuse me of shirking the hourly pailful that he prescribed for me?”
“He had not seen you as we have, Mr. Garrick,” said Dr. Burney.
“He accused me of spending my days making matches and making mischief in the Assembly Rooms and only taking the waters by sips—me, sir, that have so vivid a memory of Mr. Pope’s immortal lines:
A little sipping is a dangerous tiling,
Drink deep or taste not the chalybeate spring!”
“You were traduced, my friend—but tell us of the matches and the mischief and we shall be the more firmly convinced of your integrity.”
“Nay, sir; I give you my word that ‘twas but the simplest of matches—not by any means of the sort that yonder desperado fresh from the South Seas applies to the touch-hole of one of his horrible ten-pounders when the enemy’s frigate has to be sunk—nay, a simple little match with no more powder for it to burn than may be found on the wig of a gentleman of fifty-two and on the face of a lady of forty-five—the one a gay bachelor, t’other a ripe widow—’ made for one another,’ said I; and where was the mischief in that? And if I ventured to broach the subject of the appropriateness of the union of the twain, and to boast under the inspiring influence of the chalybeate spring that I could bring it about, is there anyone that will hint that I was not acting out of pure good nature and a desire to make two worthy folk happy—as happy as marriage can make any two——-”
“Give us their names, sir, and let us judge on that basis,” said Dr. Bumey.
“I have no desire to withhold them, my dear Doctor; for I want you to back me up, and I am sure that—oh, Lord! here comes the man himself. For the love of heaven, back me up, Doctor, and all will be well.”
“Nay, I will not be dragged by the hair of the head into any of your plots, my friend,” cried Burney. “Nay, not I. I have some reputation to maintain, good friend Garrick; you must play alone the part of Puck that you have chosen for yourself this many a year. Think not that you will induce me to study the character under you, and so thus——-”
The manservant threw open the door of the room, announcing:
“Mr. Kendal to wait upon you, sir.”
But by the time a small and rather rotund gentleman had been ushered into the room, Mr. Garrick was apparently engaged in an animated conversation with Miss Burney on the subject of the table-cover at which she was working.
Categories: English Literature