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Letter LXVIII: EVELINA TO THE REV. MR. VILLARS. Clifton, Sept. 28th.
SWEETLY, most sweetly, have two days more passed since I wrote: but I have been too much engaged to be exact in my journal.
To-day has been less tranquil. It was destined for the decision of the important bet, and has been productive of general confusion throughout the house. It was settled that the race should be run at five o'clock in the afternoon. Lord Merton breakfasted here, and staid till noon. He wanted to engage the ladies to bet on his side, in the true spirit of gaming, without seeing the racers. But he could only prevail on Lady Louisa, as Mrs. Selwyn said she never laid a wager against her own wishes, and Mrs. Beaumont would not take sides. As for me, I was not applied to. It is impossible for negligence to be more pointed than that of Lord Merton to me, in the presence of Lady Louisa.
But, just before dinner, I happened to be alone in the drawing-room, when his Lordship suddenly returned; and, coming in with his usual familiarity, he was beginning, "You see, Lady Louisa,-" but stopping short, "Pray, where's every body gone?"
"Indeed I don't know, my Lord."
He then shut the door; and, with a great alteration in his face and manner, advanced eagerly towards me, and said, "How glad I am, my sweet girl, to meet you, at last, alone! By my soul I began to think there was a plot against me, for I've never been able to have you a minute to myself." And very freely he seized my hand.
I was so much surprised at this address, after having been so long totally neglected, that I could make no other answer, than staring at him with unfeigned astonishment.
"Why now," continued he, "if you was not the cruellest little angel in the world, you would have helped me to some expedient: for you see how I am watched here; Lady Louisa's eyes are never off me. She gives me a charming foretaste of the pleasures of a wife! However, it won't last long."
Disgusted to the greatest degree, I attempted to draw away my hand; but I believe I should not have succeeded if Mrs. Beaumont had not made her appearance. He turned from me with the greatest assurance, and said, "How are you, Ma'am?-how is Lady Louisa?-you see I can't live a moment out of the house."
Could you, my dearest Sir, have believed it possible for such effrontery to be in man?
Before dinner came Mr. Coverley, and, before five o'clock, Mr. Lovel and some other company. The place marked out for the race, was a gravel-walk in Mrs. Beaumont's garden, and the length of the ground twenty yards. When we were summoned to the course, the two poor old women made their appearance. Though they seemed very healthy for their time of life, they yet looked so weak, so infirm, so feeble, that I could feel no sensation but that of pity at the sight. However, this was not the general sense of the company; for they no sooner came forward, than they were greeted with a laugh from every beholder, Lord Orville excepted, who looked very grave during the whole transaction. Doubtless he must be greatly discontented at the dissipated conduct and extravagance of a man, with whom he is soon to be so nearly connected.
For some time, the scene was truly ridiculous: the agitation of the parties concerned, and the bets that were laid upon the old women, were absurd beyond measure. Who are you for? and whose side are you of? was echoed from mouth to mouth by the whole company. Lord Merton and Mr. Coverley were both so excessively gay and noisy, that I soon found they had been free in drinking to their success. They handed, with loud shouts, the old women to the race-ground, and encouraged them by liberal promises to exert themselves.
When the signal was given for them to set off, the poor creatures, feeble and frightened, ran against each other: and, neither of them able to support the shock, they both fell on the ground.
Lord Merton and Mr. Coverley flew to their assistance. Seats were brought for them; and they each drank a glass of wine. They complained of being much bruised; for, heavy and helpless, they had not been able to save themselves, but fell with their whole weight upon the gravel. However, as they seemed equal sufferers, both parties were too eager to have the affair deferred.
Again therefore they set off, and hobbled along, nearly even with each other, for some time; yet frequently, to the inexpressible diversion of the company, they stumbled and tottered; and the confused hallooing of "Now, Coverley!" "Now, Merton!" run from side to side during the whole affair.
Not long after, a foot of one of the poor women slipt, and with great force she came again to the ground. Involuntarily, I sprung forward to assist her; but Lord Merton, to whom she did not belong, stopped me, calling out, "No foul play! No foul play!"
Mr. Coverley then, repeating the same words, went himself to help her, and insisted that the other should stop. A debate ensued; but the poor creature was too much hurt to move, and declared her utter inability to make another attempt. Mr. Coverley was quite brutal: he swore at her with unmanly rage, and seemed scarce able to refrain even from striking her.
Lord Merton then, in great rapture, said it was a hollow thing; but Mr. Coverley contended, that the fall was accidental, and time should be allowed for the woman to recover. However, all the company being against him, he was pronounced the loser.
We then went to the drawing-room, to tea. After which, the evening being remarkably warm, we all walked in the garden. Lord Merton was quite riotous, and Lady Louisa in high spirits; but Mr. Coverley endeavoured, in vain, to conceal his chagrin.
As Lord Orville was thoughtful, and walked by himself, I expected that, as usual, I should pass unnoticed, and be left to my own meditations: but this was not the case; for Lord Merton, entirely off his guard, giddy equally from wine and success, was very troublesome to me; and, regardless of the presence of Lady Louisa, which hitherto has restrained him even from common civility, he attached himself to me, during the walk, with a freedom of gallantry that put me extremely out of countenance. He paid me the most high-flown compliments; and frequently and forcibly seized my hand, though I repeatedly, and with undissembled anger, drew it back. Lord Orville, I saw, watched us with earnestness; and Lady Louisa's smiles were converted into looks of disdain.
I could not bear to be thus situated; and complaining I was tired, I quickened my pace, with intention to return to the house; but Lord Merton, hastily following, caught my hand, and saying the day was his own, vowed he would not let me go.
"You must, my Lord," cried I, extremely flurried.
"You are the most charming girl in the world," said he, "and never looked better than at this moment."
"My Lord," cried Mrs. Selwyn, advancing to us, "you don't consider, that the better Miss Anville looks the more striking is the contrast with your Lordship; therefore, for your own sake, I would advise you not to hold her."
"Egad, my Lord," cried Mr. Coverley, "I don't see what right you have to the best old, and the best young woman too, in the same day."
"Best young woman!" repeated Mr. Lovel; "'pon honour, Jack, you have made a most unfortunate speech; however, if Lady Louisa can pardon you,-and her Ladyship is all goodness,-I am sure nobody else can; for you have committed an outrageous solecism in good manners."
"And pray, Sir," said Mrs. Selwyn, "under what denomination may your own speech pass?"
Mr. Lovel, turning another way, affected not to hear her: and Mr. Coverley, bowing to Lady Louisa, said, "Her Ladyship is well acquainted with my devotion;-but, egad, I don't know how it is,-I had always an unlucky turn at an epigram, and never could resist a smart play upon words in my life."
"Pray, my Lord," cried I, "let go my hand! Pray, Mrs. Selwyn, speak for me."
"My Lord," said Mrs. Selwyn, "in detaining Miss Anville any longer you only lose time; for we are already as well convinced of your valour and your strength, as if you were to hold her an age."
"My Lord," said Mrs. Beaumont, "I must beg leave to interfere: I know not if Lady Louisa can pardon you; but as this young lady is at my house, I do not choose to have her made uneasy."
"I pardon him!" cried Lady Louisa; "I declare I am monstrous glad to get rid of him."
"Egad, my Lord," cried Mr. Coverley, "while you are grasping at a shadow, you'll lose a substance; you'd best make your peace while you can."
"Pray, Mr. Coverley, be quiet," said Lady Louisa, peevishly; "for I declare I won't speak to him. Brother," taking hold of Lord Orville's arm, "will you walk in with me?"
"Would to Heaven," cried I, frightened to see how much Lord Merton was in liquor, "that I too had a brother!-and then I should not be exposed to such treatment."
Lord Orville, instantly quitting Lady Louisa, said, "Will Miss Anville allow me the honour of taking that title?" and then, without waiting for any answer, he disengaged me from Lord Merton; and, handing me to Lady Louisa, "Let me," added he, "take equal care of both my sisters;" and then, desiring her, to take hold of one arm, and begging me to make use of the other, we reached the house in a moment. Lord Merton, disordered as he was, attempted not to stop us.
As soon as we entered the house, I withdrew my arm, and courtsied my thanks, for my heart was too full for speech. Lady Louisa, evidently hurt at her brother's condescension, and piqued extremely by Lord Merton's behaviour, silently drew away hers; and biting her lips, with a look of infinite vexation, walked sullenly up the hall.
Lord Orville asked her if she would not go into the parlour?
"No," answered she, haughtily, "I leave you and your new sister together:" and then she walked up stairs.
I was quite confounded at the pride and rudeness of this speech. Lord Orville himself seemed thunderstruck: I turned from him, and went into the parlour: he followed me, saying, "Must I now apologize to Miss Anville for the liberty of my interference?-or ought I to apologize, that I did not, as I wished, interfere sooner?"
"O, my Lord," cried I, with an emotion I could not repress, "it is from you alone I meet with any respect;-all others treat me with impertinence, or contempt!"
I am sorry I had not more command of myself, as he had reason just then to suppose I particularly meant his sister; which, I am sure, must very much hurt him.
"Good Heaven," cried he, "that so much sweetness and merit can fail to excite the love and admiration so justly their due! I cannot,-I dare not express to you half the indignation I feel at this moment!"
"I am sorry, my Lord," said I, more calmly, "to have raised it; but yet,-in a situation that calls for protection, to meet only with mortifications,-indeed, but I am ill formed to bear them!"
"My dear Miss Anville," cried he, warmly, "allow me to be your friend; think of me as if I were indeed your brother; and let me intreat you to accept my best services, if there is any thing in which I can be so happy as to show my regard,-my respect for you!"
Before I had time to speak, the rest of the party entered the parlour; and, as I did not wish to see anything more of Lord Merton, at least before he had slept, I determined to leave it. Lord Orville, seeing my design, said, as I passed him, "Will you go?" "Had not I best, my Lord?" said I. "I am afraid," said he, smiling, "since I must now speak as your brother, I am afraid you had; -you see you may trust me, since I can advise against my own interest."
I then left the room, and have been writing ever since. And, methinks, I can never lament the rudeness of Lord Merton, as it has more than ever confirmed to me the esteem of Lord Orville.