The walk from Donwell through the village to Hartfield was usually a pleasure for George Knightley. Of late, however, the familiar route reminded him of walking through long grass in August - as likely to stir up irritants and stings as to rouse the senses with sweet scents and spots of colour. The village was in a continual uproar of gossip and astonishment and while this season of intrigues and piano deliveries and parties was in full swing, George could not hope for an afternoon of peace or a conversation untouched by nonsensical speculations. Worse still, anything, almost anything at all, from the knots of ladies outside the haberdashers or the ducks and drakes quacking and chasing across the mill race, to the very blossom in the trees, served as a maddening reminder that, in the preceding weeks, he had come to the realisation that Emma Woodhouse was a woman.
Of course, she had always been of the woman-sort. George had been perfectly aware of her charms, at a distance, but if he was stern with himself, then he could acknowledge that his new consciousness of her dated from the arrival of Mr Frank Churchill into their circle. That gentleman’s easy assumption off a place at Emma’s side and his greedy claim to her first attention at any social gathering was a source of discomfort which had, over the weeks, matured into active dislike. Then came the ball and in the enchanted stretch of time when he danced with her, George had seen Emma as if for the first time. To have that new light shadowed by the proof of Churchill’s influence over her, exhibited in their disgraceful display at the Box Hill picnic, had been painful.
Frank Churchill was precisely the kind of man George made pains to avoid. He was vain, impulsive, interested only in the cultivation of the appearance of good manners and not at all in the patient shovel work which resulted in their genuine accumulation. And now he was more than an irritant. He was a threat, of an insidious kind. George had no desire to upset Mr and Mrs Weston with any unpleasantness, nor to disrupt the delicate web of goodwill and mutual monitoring which maintained Highbury society. And yet, must he stand by and allow this entirely undeserving young man to maneuver his way into Emma’s heart and to trample over his own nascent wishes, so newly sprung as they were?
As he walked, he dealt the hedgerow such blows with his stick as if the poor brambles were to answer for Mr Churchill’s outgrowth into the quiet garden of Highbury. It was one of these vicious swipes against an innocent clump of cranesbill which uncovered a curious flower, one which he had never seen before in the environs of Highbury and which he did not recognise from his Flora Britannica. He bent to study it: it was a rich purple, with queer red tendrils at its centre, loaded with a pungent yellow pollen. Its scent was unusual, rather sweet, but with a hint of foxglove-like sourness beneath it. It was well-camouflaged by the deep blue of the cranesbill but his stick had found it out and with some regret he realised that he had almost severed it from the stem. He completed the vandalism his temper had caused and picked it. Looking about himself, he found a white stone which he laid by the shorn stem to mark its place. He would consult with Mrs Weston, who had an excellent knowledge of botany, and return to collect the root should it prove to be of interest.
And if it were some foreign invader, lately arrived and bullying its way into the native hedgerows and ordered natural state of his country lanes, then he would remove it and save them from ruin. He knew only too well how weeds, unchecked, could choke neglected fields and destroy hopes of a happy harvest.
George continued on his way, tucking the flower into his buttonhole, so that it would not be crushed in his pocket. He would give his neighbours the pleasure of laughing at his eccentricity. As he walked, he attempted to ignore the tangle of his thoughts regarding Emma by proving once again to himself the desirability of trialling the Flemish style of eight-course crop rotation on the newly enclosed farmland to the north of Donwell. Robert Martin had seen the advantages immediately but William Larkin, George's estate manager, was stubborn. One must guard one’s fences, but a good farmer must allow for change, thought George, in this modern world. If you knew your land and your soil then you could safely allow it to take on a different personality from year to year in service to a greater harmony.
The village gained, George had an errand at Ford’s: he had to buy new gloves because Emma had been disgusted by the state of his old pair and had charged him with improving his appearance before they met again.
Ford’s was crowded. Mrs Goddard’s boarding-pupils were there en masse in their red cloaks, exclaiming over ribbons, and he had to squeeze past them to get to the counter where the few items pertaining to gentlemen were on display, including a pretty-enough pair in brown kid, with no dandyish affectations. A swift try showed them to be both broad and long enough to accommodate his hand and thus his shopping expedition was complete. George congratulated himself on his own powers of decision and thought with grim judgement of the type of man who would fritter away any of his allotted time on earth in fuss over gloves or cravats or hair-styles.
“Uncommonly good fit, Sir.” Mr Ford took him rather by surprise, laying down his sales ledger to lean across the counter and examine the gloves.
“Add them to my account, would you, Mr Ford?” George said, folding the gloves into his pocket. He would wear them next time he saw Emma, although he knew gossip would convey the interesting information of his purchase to her before Highbury sat down to afternoon tea.
“But then you have an uncommonly good hand, Sir.” George inclined his head at the compliment, despite the nonsense of it, he did not want to offend Mr Ford, who understood how to cut a pair of britches which left a man enough room to move. “The handsomest hands in Highbury. I daresay, Sir, they are the handsomest hands in England.”
This was going a little far and George gave him a rather freezing nod and said, “Very good, Ford, that will do.”
“Such elegant, long fingers…”
George could not account for Ford’s usually bluff, respectful manner taking such a turn, or for the simpering smile creeping across his broad face. Discomfited, he turned to go and found himself confronted by the gang of Mrs Goddard’s girls, standing shoulder to shoulder, with their eyes fixed upon him as if he were a particularly desirable ribbon.
“Young ladies,” he said with a bow, and started to inch around them.
They let out a collective sigh and moved as he did, blocking his route.
“I must bid you good morning and beg you to excuse me,” he tried and edged the other way. Again they followed him and shuffled forward until the closest girl was very nearly touching him. He stepped back and found himself forced up against the counter. His hand was suddenly captured and he looked round to see Mr Ford bringing it to his lips.
“And such knuckles!” Ford said.
“Knuckles,” breathed the young ladies, as one, and surrounded him. There was an uncanny blankness to their unwavering expressions. He felt like a wolf having the tables turned on him by a group of militant Red Riding Hoods.
The closest girl, freckled and flushed, was breathing heavily, and he was uncomfortably aware of the pressure of her bosom against his arm.
“I must... Young ladies, please…” he realised there was no gentlemanly course through the obstacles before him so he took the bull’s way through a china shop and sent the ribbon rack flying as he blundered out.
As he bolted from the door, he nearly knocked over Miss Harriet Smith and found himself holding her hand to right her.
“Oh Mr Knightley!” She blushed, of course, and seemed to want to speak, so although he was eager to escape both the awkward situation of their current entanglement and the strange gaggle of her schoolmates within, politeness stayed him and he paused.
“I wished to say again…” she stammered, “very much... the service you did me… how very grateful…”
He imagined he knew what it was to which she referred and he patted her hand where it clung to his. And then that same strange, glassy expression he had noted on the girls in the shop occupied Harriet’s animated face and her limpid fingers gripped his more firmly.
“I thought I would die.” She fumbled at the ribbon of her bonnet and in one motion, she reached up and tore it from her head and then shook out her hair and a vast number of pins from their various twists and arrangements. “And then you came.”
At that moment, the door of the shop burst open in a tumble of arms and legs and red cloaks and the upper class of Mrs Goddard’s school for genteel young ladies poured into the street and stumbled towards him with outstretched hands. Harriet turned on them.
“Stand off, you cats!” she cried, “You shan’t touch him!” and flung herself at them, precipitating a general melée, with Mr Ford laying about himself with his ledger. The confusion allowed George to retreat and he did so, swiftly, feeling that he was deserting the field but realising with increasing horror that it was his presence that had, somehow, inexplicably, begun the battle.
He hurried across the bridge, casting anxious glances over his shoulder to make sure he was not followed. When he saw Miss Bates gesticulating at him from the window of her house he had never felt quite so relieved to see that good lady, and he gladly took advantage of her entreaty for him to step in. Whatever fit had so gripped the young ladies was best avoided until it had abated.
“You’ll stop for tea won’t you my dear Mr Knightley?” Miss Bates said as she led him into the parlour. “We are all ready for tea you see, only Jane is not downstairs today. She received a letter… and had a headache… she bears it well, she is always so stoical! But she is sadly out of sorts... says she will not eat a thing. And we would be so glad of the company, Mother and I, would we not Mother?” Mrs Bates, in her chair, seemed to be fast asleep.
“I hope Miss Fairfax is not too unwell? Perhaps Perry…” As Miss Bates fussed with the teapot, George raised himself an inch so he could see out of the window. He thought he could hear distant shrieks but the girls did not seem to have found him out.
“How kind! Always so kind! But Jane says the doctor is not to be thought of, although we did press her, and she seems so … but there, she would not wish me to talk of it. Tell us, how was your walk to the village? Was there much mud? But then gentlemen do not mind mud, they are so vigorous, so happy to be splashed or rolled around in the mud or to get wet from head to…”
The pot slipped from her hand and a cascade of tea spilt over the tray. She set it down with a clatter. George felt a tinge of unease.
“I have spilt the tea,” she said in a strangled tone and turning, shifted toward him on the narrow sofa. “But I know you will not mind. You have always been so good a friend, so thoughtful, so attentive…”
“Miss Bates,” he gasped, shrinking backwards, “I have taken up too much of your time, I must take my leave…”
But it was too late. Once again, his new and terrible influence was working its confounding power on his innocent neighbours and Miss Bates launched herself, a galleon in full sail, leading from her ample frontage and pinning him down beneath her.
“Oh, Mr Knightley! How well named you are! You are the very model of a man! I know I am ridiculous, just as Miss Woodhouse says, I own it, but am I not a woman, with all of a woman’s feelings?”
“Indeed Miss Bates,” he attempted, muffled though he was, “there can be no doubt that you are a woman and…”
“... and that you are certainly a man, a wicked, muddy man, and I do not even care that you tracked in the mud straight onto the carpet…”
He tried, without placing his hands directly onto any part of her to lever her away from him but she was determined, and clung, so that his attempt to free himself sent them both rolling to the floor and the tea-tray smashing on the hearth. He was able to extricate himself and made a bolt for the door but Miss Bates revealed an undreamt-of athleticism and must have leapt clear over the sofa to catch him. He saw only one possible solution and, opening the understair cupboard, allowed her considerable forward momentum to thrust her into it, slammed the door shut and turned the key which was, most fortuitously, in the lock.
He had one moment of worry that she had knocked herself out against the wall within, so was relieved when he heard the general noise of buckets and brooms and boots being loudly disarranged.
“Mr Knightley, why is my Aunt in the cupboard?”
Dear God, who put so many women on the earth to torment him thus? Jane Fairfax, pale and weary-looking, her dark hair tumbled about her face, was standing at the bottom of the narrow staircase. She wore a long white nightgown and her feet were bare.
“Miss Fairfax, I cannot explain but I do beg you for your own peace of mind to stand away from me, some perverse influence is abroad…” but his warning was in vain, he could already see the change working on her.
“You… you think I am an innocent,” she said, and a smile quite unlike Miss Fairfax's usually composed expressions slipped across her face.
“Please… Miss Fairfax…” he said, edging towards the front door, but she chasséd in front of him, barring his way.
“But I can assure you I know more of men than you might think. And we were such excellent duet partners. Only think what else we might do well together.”
He put his hands over his ears and moaned "Please...".
Horrifyingly, she moaned too and gathered up her nightgown, raising it almost to her knees. He screwed his eyes tight shut.
“You all think I am so cold and reserved but I burn, Mr Knightley, I burn and now I see I have been on fire for the wrong man, for here you are, and you must come to me.”
He opened one eye. She was scrabbling at the buttons at the neck of her nightgown.
“If I can’t marry him they will send me away as a governess, they will shut me up forever but I don’t care, I’ll do anything you want, I am very persuadable, he says, if I am kissed the right way, come upstairs, come and warm my cold bed and make me wild, make me liquid, no-one knows what I am like in secret …”
It was unendurable to hear calm, collected Jane Fairfax speaking in this shocking manner. He could not escape the house without wrestling her out of his way so he retreated back towards the parlour, slammed the door between them and dragged the sofa across to block it. He heard her body hit the wood and she began to rattle the knob so that the whole door shook in its frame.
He rested against it, trying to think how he might extricate himself from this Gothic horror, when he was startled by a low grunt from across the room. Blinking at him from her invalid chair, old Mrs Bates was awake, and her eyes, while more alert than he had seen them for some twenty years, wore the same dreadful, drugged expression as the other ladies of the house. She began to rise unsteadily from her seat.
There was only one possible route to freedom. He crossed the room in two bounds, flung open the window and clambered out, jumping to the street below, avoiding shattering his ankle or breaking his head only by the convenient placing of a cartload of hay.
He ran, pell-mell, heading for the sanctuary of the church. He would pray, and place his trust in the Almighty to lift the curse. Thankfully, the church was empty. He slid into the Knightley pew and bowed his head, but no prayer came, only thoughts of Emma and what she would say about him jumping out of windows to escape Miss Bates.
The Knightley coat of arms hung above a memorial stone dedicated to the remembrance of various Georges and Edwards and Marys and Janes, dead in neat succession from the 1600s up to the particular Jane and George who had been his own dear parents. He was not a man given to depression of spirits but at that moment he felt most grievously alone.
His melancholy reverie was broken by a rustle of silks. Looking up in alarm, he was relieved to see Mrs Elton. Surely there could be no danger from a married lady?
As he tried to escape from the church some minutes later, Mrs Elton was attached to his knee and he could not make his way to the door save by dragging her along the floor, as she panted her desire for him and traduced her own husband in the most vulgar terms.
“Mr E is a dead loss, Knightley, practically a eunuch, and I was so celebrated in Bath, so sought after! The men would not leave me be, the officers, the navy men - oh! He spoke like a man but he cannot complete his duties as one. He cannot satisfy me, I need the touch of a true gentleman! Take me! Here in the sight of God himself! In my so-called husband’s church!”
Shaking her off, he took off at a run in the direction of Donwell, but looking back was alarmed to see Mrs Elton mounting the hay-cart outside the Bates’ house and taking up the reins with all appearance of pursuing him. Doubling-back to take the other road out of the village he heard the terrible sound of Mrs Goddard’s girls sighting him and screaming his name; it was as if the very Furies had alighted in Surrey and focused their chthonic energies upon him.
He ran as he had not run since he was a boy and racked his brain as he hurtled along for somewhere he might hide. The sound of hooves was suddenly ahead and round the corner came none other than Frank Churchill: Frank Churchill on his smart horse, looking as clean and well-groomed as a lady on her morning visits. His boots shone, his blue cravat was tied perfectly and pinned with a diamond which twinkled in the sunlight. He pulled his horse up and looked down with evident amusement at George in his disarranged state.
“Mr Knightley!” He bowed. “Highbury’s very own Beau Brummell. Have you been picking potatoes? Miss Woodhouse will not be pleased with you.”
George rested a hand on the horse’s solid flank and caught his breath. “Churchill… I beseech you, do please, for the love of God, let me ride with you and take me to Donwell. But not by the village, I beg you, I must ask you to take the Lower Road and approach the estate from the west.”
“I am on a most urgent errand in Highbury, I cannot stop…” Churchill said. Then he seemed to take pity and leaned down to give George his hand, allowing him to swing up onto the horse’s back. George would have expected to ride behind but Churchill caused him to sit in front, holding the reins on either side of his body. They trotted on, George peering back over Churchill’s broad shoulder to check they were not pursued.
“I thank you, and I am sorry to have inconvenienced you," he said.
“I am glad to help. I like to have you a little in my debt.”
George did not reply to this piece of incivility but he could not argue, given his currently dependent position.
“I know you do not like me,” Churchill commented, and he sounded amused.
“You are mistaken.”
Churchill laughed, in a way that suggested he did not believe him.
“At any rate,” George went on, “my feelings are of no consequence. But -” now he had the chance to say his piece he felt he should, awkward though it was. “Should anything befall Miss Woodhouse to make her unhappy, I would make you answer for it.”
“Oh have no fears for Miss Woodhouse. I can’t imagine that anything will befall that young lady but that she entirely wishes to befall her. Of course, Hartfield is very pleasant, very hospitable. The father is a tedious piece, I grant you, but in such a large house there are plenty of rooms in which to store unwanted furniture. Or perhaps I might remove her to Enscombe and leave the old gentleman free run of the place, he can wrap the house in scarves and blankets to his heart’s content.”
George ground his teeth. He ought to issue a challenge, he knew, but today had already been rather dramatic.
“Watch your words Sir.”
Churchill laughed. “Stand down, Galahad. I have no designs on Miss W.”
This was surprising, and had he freedom to move he would have twisted round to see if Churchill’s looks answered to his statements, but Churchill was holding him around his middle and to turn would have brought them uncomfortably close.
“Indeed, I find my thoughts are currently running in quite another direction.”
Churchill’s arm tightened around George’s waist and he felt a hardness pressing into the small of his back and now, he thought, his desperate situation was complete. He felt Churchill’s breath on his ear and then lips, dear God!
“I demand that you stop, that you stop and set me down, Sir!” he expostulated. “I demand it! This is an outrage!”
“Don’t squirm so my dear, it's delicious but you’ll send us both tumbling, only wait…”
Churchill turned the horse deftly into a lane which opened into the roadside field, Robert Martin’s meadow, with its orderly edges and well-maintained fences.
As soon as the grip of Churchill’s arms loosened slightly, George slipped through them and half-jumped, half-toppled from the horse’s back, landing on his hands and knees in an undignified sprawl. He tried to set off running but staggered a few steps before falling again. Over his shoulder he saw Churchill closing the distance between them in a few strides.
The ladies had been alarming enough but Churchill was a good head taller than George and had the vigour of a young man in his prime. He flipped George onto his back and settled between his legs with a satisfied grunt.
“There now, I will make you comfortable and you will drive me to distraction. All of these clothes. Why do they button us up so?” Churchill tore off his cravat, the diamond pin flying somewhere into the long grass, and wrenched his coat off, flinging it away.
George struggled but it only seemed to inflame Churchill who bore down on him and began to rain kisses on his face and to dive in at his neck.
“Churchill, you are… gone mad… this is not your true desire, I can assure you and…”
“Oh it is, it is. And you can ignore me and slight me as much as you wish, darling, but you’ll see what I’m made of, that I’m every bit as much a gentleman as you, I’m the master of my destiny now and I can have,” he pinned George’s wrists in one large fist, “whatever I want.”
George twisted in his grasp but found himself powerless against Churchill’s will, a most humiliating position. It was not that he was insensible to the attractions of the male form; he was a man of the world in his own way and had been to public school. His experience with ladies was limited, owing to his sense of the duties of gallantry and protection due to all women, of whatever social order, so the romantic adventures of his youth had necessarily been with those of his own sex. But he was no longer young! And even if he were, a man like Churchill, though well-made enough, would never be his object.
Yet there was almost a terrible temptation to succumb to what felt like inevitability. If the fates were so determined to rob him of his chastity, then at least the evil could be wrought with no injury to a woman, and he could bear what he must, although the discernible length and girth with which Mr Churchill seemed to be blessed promised to test him to his limits.
He closed his eyes. As Churchill rolled his hips against him and, oh mercy, licked up the side of his face, George was horrified to find that he was responding. He was appalled at himself, but the events of the day had been so devoid of all proper conduct, of all measured restraint, and all this on top of emotions already heightened by his newly awakened feelings for Emma…
He managed to heave up and force Churchill off him and with a desperate effort, planted a foot against his chest and kicked him back, sending him reeling across the grass. This piece of violence bought George just enough time to reach the horse, who was grazing peacefully, entirely uninterested in the pastoral seduction occurring yards away, and hauled himself up into the saddle.
He gave a sharp kick to the horse’s side and tightening the reins, took the fence at a dead run. He could hear Churchill calling behind him as he galloped away and along the lane.
His relief was short-lived. As he rounded the corner, he nearly ran into a flock of sheep blocking the way and in swerving to avoid them, he was thrown from Churchill’s horse, who reared in panic and dashed back the way he had come, leaving George sprawled in the verge, looking in panic over the heads of the sheep at Robert Martin and two burly farmhands.
This time he did not wait, but sprinted away before further disaster struck.
Hartfield was in sight but he must, at all costs, avoid it. The thought of subjecting Emma to his dangerous condition was beyond endurance. The image of the ghastly change which would come over her, the draining of her formidable will and the resulting indignity to her person brought him to a sobering realisation. He could not live as such an outrage to his neighbours and friends. The indecency which he had already wrought, undesired thought it most sincerely was, could not be borne, and to visit it upon his - now he knew it - his dear Emma, would be unforgivable.
The incline which brought him in full sight of the house enabled him to look back towards the village: he could make out Churchill in the field, bellowing, and a gaggle of red capes streaming along the road. Behind them no doubt, would be Mrs Elton in her hay-cart. He groaned. He would never be able to rest again, he saw it now. Despair overcame him as he imagined a life harried from pillar to post, disrupting the public peace wherever he was noticed and undoing every notion of the gentlemanly behaviour and influence he prided himself on maintaining.
His only choice was clear. He must give up every secret hope for domestic contentment and happy respectability. He would steal his way to Hartfield and keeping a safe distance from Emma, hope to catch one last glimpse of her. He would leave a note with a few words of farewell and a warning against Mr Churchill. It was the last service he could do her. And then he would return to the estate which generations of Knightleys had so carefully built and tended and he would put a gun to his head. He would hope that the good Lord would forgive him the sin of self-destruction, undertaken only to avoid more widespread wrong-doing, and also hope that he would not wake in Paradise to find that the Heavenly Hosts and all saved souls were as intent on his person as the living had been.
He approached downwind of Hartfield, hoping that his troublesome atmosphere did not arouse the inhabitants. Crouching behind the garden wall, he found his notebook and pencil in his breast pocket and wrote a hasty letter. It was not easily composed. He did not wish to trouble Emma with knowledge of his own thwarted fondness or to make himself an object of her pity, even in death, but to depart the world without some recognition of her place in his heart would be the retreat of a coward:
My dear Miss Woodhouse,
Forgive the informality of my address and of its vehicle. I can see you wrinkling your nose at this crumpled note and the disordered message it contains. I write to say goodbye. Time and confusion forbid me from making any greater explanation than this: sense and proper feeling forbid a man from finding perfection in an earthly being and you are not perfect, my dear Emma, but believe me most sincerely when I say: I would have wished for a longer life if only to spend it cataloguing your faults.
Beware of Churchill. He is unworthy of you.
Believe me ever your devoted friend,
He was distressed at the poor construction of his sentences and the paucity of his expression but there was nothing more to be done. There was not time to frame a letter which would do justice to his deepest feelings without burdening their object with sentiments which may never have been returned. He folded his wretched note and wrote her name upon it: he must find a safe place to leave it and then depart to meet his Maker and hope to do so before his household staff found themselves impelled to abandon the appropriate distance between the classes.
He crept towards the house, keeping low, and made his way to the garden room. Slipping through the door and into the embrace of the scents of Emma’s flowers in their elegant arrangements, he noticed a corner table where he could leave his missive. He would go no further into the house and risk a meeting with her, or God forbid, Mr Woodhouse; he must forgo a final glimpse of her to keep in his mind’s eye as he faced his end.
“Mr Knightley! Are you here to steal my roses? I would give them to you freely, you know.”
He spun on his heel and she was there behind him, only a few feet away. He appeared to have disturbed her in her preparations for an outing. She was wearing one of her prodigiously trimmed bonnets, which would have looked ludicrous as a frame for a face any less handsome than hers, She wore one pristine white glove and held the other ready to put on.
“Emma! Stay back, I am… you must not approach…”
Of course, to say to Emma that she should not approach was a guarantee that she would do just that and she came swiftly towards him with her light step and laid her hand on his arm, studying him closely.
“Are you unwell? But you are never ill! Although you are perhaps a little heated, as far as one can tell under all this mud. Why must you always traipse about like a rambling man? You should go and join Harriet’s gypsies.”
He must go, he must wrench his arm from her grasp, push her from him if he had to. And above all, when her countenance changed and she lost herself, he must not seize the opportunity to see what it would have been like to be the man who first kissed Emma Woodhouse.
"I cannot stay, I regret... most sincerely..." He raised his arm with the intent of shaking her hold on his sleeve but she was already looking down at where she was gripping him, a look of puzzlement on her face. Her grip tightened. "Miss Woodhouse..." he groaned. Gently, with none of the dreadful proprietariness of Frank Churchill, she moved her ungloved hand down his arm, to rest naked upon his wrist. Her cool, slender fingers slid around his thumb and trailed to the centre of his palm. To be touched thus, without the excuse of the ballroom, was to be set afire and George felt as if she was encircling his very being as she held him there.
“Must you go?” she murmured, and squeezed.
He was caught in the same delicious closeness they had created at the ball as she twisted in a dancing motion and their hands settled at her waist. She turned that beguiling face up to him and her bright eyes held his for a speaking moment. Then with an intake of breath and a visible effort, she released his hand and took a step away from him.
She gave herself a little shake, tossed her head and tipped her chin into the air with her characteristic gesture - so ridiculous, so dear.
“I must... I must go Emma, to your father... my best wishes… and Emma...” he choked out, “I came only to say… to bid you farewell and to warn you... to warn you against Mr Churchill...” but what point would there be in his warning when her reason was so hopelessly compromised?
“You spend too much time with your farmer friends, Mr Knightley. You have forgotten how to get from one end of a sentence to another.”
He hardly dared hope, but she took another determined step away and picked up a little pair of scissors, with which she began to snip away mercilessly at a poor chrysanthemum plant.
“Next time you come to steal my roses, I beg that you will leave your mud behind with those same friends. Although your new coat sits well on you. It reminds me that your eyes are blue and your…” she stopped and swallowed, and looked down, making some fictional alteration to the fall of her dress. “And you need not warn me against Mr Churchill,” she continued. “I answer to my own feelings only, as you know, and my own feelings are ever to remain unmarried and safely mistress of myself, whatever the gossips may say.”
“Emma... indulge me in a strange question. I honour your determination to stay mistress of your own being, most sincerely. But do you, as we stand here, feel... quite yourself?”
“Why? Who else should I be feeling?” Her eye caught his and she laughed and blushed. “I feel just as I should, thank you. Now, here is something for you.”
She had cut a perfect pale pink chrysanthemum and she came to him and plucked the oddity from his buttonhole and replaced it with her flower. Her sudden proximity brought her face, her lips, close to him again. She laid her hands against his chest with the gentlest pressure and he felt a slight tremor pass from her hands through his whole body.
“There now, that looks well against your coat, much better than this vulgar thing you were sporting. Oh! How strange!”
For the curious purple flower had withered as soon as she had touched it, drooped and dried, and now lay like a little corpse in her hand. She poked at it but was immediately distracted by the arrival of a multitude: Harriet and the crowd of schoolgirls were shrieking away from the path of Mrs Elton in her hay-cart, skidding almost on two wheels as it rounded the corner of the drive towards the house and Churchill was there too, swinging off his horse and shouting “Knightley? George!”
”What can all those people want?” Emma said. “And without any form of invitation!”
She dropped the flower and stepped on it, grinding it to dust beneath her neat little foot, and just as she opened the door to the invaders, a change seemed to come over the crowd and they stood and looked about themselves stupidly, as if they were sleepwalkers awaking from a dream.
Mr Knightley could not let Emma face his pursuers alone and followed her cautiously, ready to carry her away from further attacks but his pursuers were all now entirely different creatures, restored once again to themselves. No-one seemed in the least cognisant of how they came to be at Hartfield. Harriet and the young ladies clung together in confused huddles and everyone was most embarrassed to find themselves disturbing Miss Woodhouse, even Mrs Elton, who was being helped down from the cart by the Hartfield footmen and declaring to all around that she had but once in her life driven a carriage, Mr Suckling’s barouche-landau of course, and then only for a joke! A most amusing joke! She could not think how such a thing had happened, there must have been some emergency, she explained, which she could not now recollect, that required her most urgent attention… her dear Mr E who was the most attentive, the most doting, of husbands, would be so concerned for her safety.
Emma gave George one look of measured consideration, as if she were weighing the benefits of pursuing the mystery and then invited everyone in for tea, declaring that the only pleasanter thing than a neighbour arriving for tea was all the neighbours arriving for tea.
He watched her, settling the young ladies and overcoming their shyness in the face of her grandeur, and briskly directing the servants so the impromptu tea would not disrupt her father’s comfort. He watched her absorb Mrs Elton’s affectedness without allowing it to impinge upon her own civility. He watched her gracious acceptance of Frank Churchill’s hasty and inadequate excuses for not staying, thrown over his shoulder as he turned his horse back in the direction of the village.
Whatever devilish intervention had seized Highbury that day, it had met its match in Emma Woodhouse.
The next day, reassured by the entirely normal and circumspect conduct of the Donwell servants, who seemed perfectly capable of rolling on his stockings and serving his breakfast while leaving him unmolested, Mr Knightley set out for the village. He took the path to the place where he had discovered the strange flower and he searched out his white stone, but when he looked for the remains of the stem, he found it was quite gone. He tried to remember its shape and characteristics and to make a sketch in his notebook but somehow its precise dimensions escaped his memory.
In Highbury, he was relieved to find that all was peaceful and that no trace of yesterday’s abominable events remained: Mrs Goddard’s pupils were taking their morning walk, their neat little crocodile wending its routine way around the village. As they passed him, their eyes remained modestly downcast and there were only one or titters in reply to his raising his hat to them.
When he stopped in at Ford’s and paid his bill, and no remarks were passed upon his knuckles, George felt he had never fully prized the comfortable correctness of Highbury life until this day. His quiet satisfaction was disturbed by the hallooing of Miss Bates who broke in upon his meditations. He wondered how she had been released from the cupboard, but as she showed no signs of ill treatment and no memory of their encounter, he endeavoured to attend to the news which was evidently all that was occupying her mind at that moment, and quite possibly, was all that would ever occupy it again.
It was extraordinary. Extraordinary and wonderful and terrible all at once. That Jane Fairfax should be secretly engaged to Frank Churchill! Miss Bates’ overwhelming happiness made it impossible to do anything but congratulate her and wish the young couple happiness. The consequences of the news were grave indeed and he escaped as soon as was polite and resumed his walk, seeking the peace of the lanes in order to interrogate his feelings.
While he congratulated himself on his lucky escapes and his powers of restraint in the face of temptation, the tumult of feeling and the desperate exertions of the day before had not left him unchanged. The field of his feelings had been, as it were, rotated, and a new seed planted within him and brought to swift fruition. That ordered feeling could arise from such chaotic transformations seemed unlikely but of one thing he was now more certain than ever: not only was Emma a woman, she was the woman. Who would have thought it? Little Emma, who had grown and blossomed under his eyes was now the difference, for him, between a life which would yield joy and one which would lie fallow.
His conviction rang anew with every step. Passion must have its place, he must risk all. There was a shout or a song or a declaration rising within his breast which must have expression. He felt mad, quite mad, as hectically possessed as his poor victims had been. He began to run. He wanted to tear off his collar and waistcoat and throw open every window in his house and appall Mr Woodhouse by allowing the drafts to blow the air of the countryside through Donwell. He wanted to let in the rain so the statues and portraits of his stiff ancestors would be drenched and the carpets and marble floors would become ponds for croaking frogs and leaping fish.
Emma: not perfection, Mr Weston, but something much better. Something real and true and growing. He would kiss her in the spring sunshine and keep her warm in the winter snow. He would beat the bounds of their land in his bare feet and sing her the songs of the birds and the bees. He would pile apples and strawberries and quinces and cabbages at her door, bring her pots of honey and all the flowers of the fields, and order the harvest to be brought to her in stacks.
He laughed aloud at the thought of how much she would hate the mess.
Perhaps she had only touched him and looked at him so under the strange temporary enchantment. Perhaps he would arrive at Hartfield to find her broken-hearted over Churchill’s deceit. But if not, then he could come to her as himself, give her himself - not his house, not his land, not his so-many-thousand a year but just himself, heart and hand, for her to command as she would.
He pushed his hair back from his face, squared his shoulders and leapt the gate which opened towards Hartfield, towards Emma.