George Knightley was highly contented to find himself no longer a bachelor at seven-and-thirty, but rather married, and happily so -- even if it had required a time longer than his dear housekeeper, Mrs. Hodges, might have deemed suitable.
This felicitous change in his life had been brought about by the person who -- for so long, and, he hoped, for the rest of his life - was most determined to frustrate, vex, tease, haunt, and amuse him. Emma Woodhouse - now Emma Knightley, a name he had discovered to be quite his favourite name - upon agreeing to his proposal of marriage had, by all appearance and reality, upended his world, and allowed a happiness to flourish within him that he might never have conceived sitting in serene acceptance of permanent bachelorhood at the Abbey not even two years prior.
They were sitting at tea one pleasant afternoon in the early autumn -- Mr. Woodhouse not with them, as he had summoned the doctor to discuss what he believed to be a recurrence of the plague -- when their lively conversation turned to the matter of their proposal, in particular, the part which Emma’s nose had played.
“I thought perhaps I had killed you,” George chuckled, only slightly horrified at the recollection.
“It was surely not how a young woman envisions her engagement beginning,” Emma said, more good-natured in her recollection of the mortifying moment than perhaps any woman in England might have been. “And after you had been so gentlemanly and wonderful in the manner of your proposal.”
He flushed, pleased at her praise and smiled. “It was easy to be wonderful when I spoke of my feelings for you.”
“Hm.” Emma cupped his whiskered cheek gently, and his eyes fluttered shut at the now-familiar touch of his wife. She returned to fixing their tea. “I have such dreadful luck with proposals, it would seem, so you musn’t believe you had anything to do with making my nose bleed so. It was fate that decided that, I am sure.”
“Proposals?” Knightely said, marking the plurality with temporary amusement. “As I recall, my second offer was much better met - partly because I understood your feelings to be what I had hoped-”
“You were not the only man in England to think to propose to me you know,” Emma said sternly, fixing him with a look of proud irritation. “And I think I prefer the nosebleed to the other-”
“Who was it that proposed to you?” He asked, astonished. “Was it Frank Churchill, as part of that dreadful game he played with his wife, that perfect, sweet creature-”
“I find it remarkable that you can still be so jealous of Frank when he and Jane have been wed these four months, and you and I the last two-”
George nodded and smiled, conceding her point, but still rankled slightly over the idea of Frank - jokingly or no - proposing to his dear Emma, until she continued speaking and his ear and attention turned, as always, to her.
“-And besides, it wasn’t Frank who made his offer. It was Mr. Elton.”
“Mr. Elton?” He blinked and stared, supremely confounded, at his wife, who merely poured a measure of cream into her tea as though she had no idea that she had given him pause.
“You are astonished?” Emma frowned slightly at him, causing her lower lip to pout in that vexing, frustrating, perfect way. George studied the curve of her mouth for a moment before remembering - perhaps faster than any other, less controlled gentleman would - the focus of their discourse. “I thought, given that you were so very cross with me over his involvement with Harriet, that you understood his true intent-”
“-I knew he intended to pursue you,” George agreed, “but not that he had brought that pursuit into concrete reality. A proposal? When did he find the time, I wonder? At Hartfield, in the gardens-” The idea taking shape in his mind was so similar to their own perfect, albeit stressful engagement, that Knightley found himself growing cross indeed.
“No, no, nothing like that.” Emma laughed as she slipped a lump of sugar into his tea and stirred while he was too perplexed to move from his current position. Her eyes did not meet his as she hummed and picked up her tea cup, settling back in her chair and continued, gaily enough, “It was after Christmas dinner at the Weston’s. You were so kind as to lend the use of your carriage to my father and sister, and you and your brother followed in our carriage. That left me and Mr. Elton in the third and final carriage-”
“But you arrived alone,” George said feeling stupid from it all. His throat spasmed uncomfortably, and he gripped the arm of his chair as he searched the memory of that night and confirmed what he knew to be true from brief recollection. “No, I recall, you arrived at this house not ten minutes after we did, alone. I had assumed Elton had sent you here rather than risk riding alone with no chaperone.”
“Well, I wish he had given the occasion the thought of a gentleman.” Emma gave a small smirk of amusement as she sat back and regarded him more closely. “Oh, but you are upset - I assure you nothing untoward happened-”
“He proposed to you,” George said, his voice flat. “At night. With the supposition of intimacy. Alone.”
“I had done nothing to lead him to such a supposition!” Emma argued, clearly vexed. Two spots of colour appeared on her cheeks as she frowned in earnest at him. “No matter what you might assume, or Mr. Elton for that matter - he was insistent that I had - had teased him into making the proposal. That I had invited it by my friendly invitations to Hartfield, although as you and I both know, I had intended his interest for Harriet.”
“I do not,” George said dazedly, “for a moment believe you led him to the - Emma, my darling Emma, I know I was cross at you then, because I was afraid that Elton considered you a prize to be won and you were too kind, as always, to see it in your hopes for Harriet. But I do not think any of your actions warranted such a leap of familiarity on his part.”
Emma sighed and stirred her tea for a moment. “It was quite frustrating. I think sometimes - oh, but it feels so silly to think - well, it was almost frightening for a moment. He was so dreadfully angry when I said no.”
“He was angry with you?” George felt a strange, peculiar emotion, one that he had felt in glimpses and in brief flashes throughout his life, but only when the occasion truly called for it. It was neither brief nor a glimpse at this juncture -- fury had taken the place of anger, and he barely restrained himself from allowing the emotion to show on his face, lest Emma fret that she was the source of it.
“How was he - when he was the one to-”
“His voice was very loud.” Emma shook her head and sipped her tea as her eyes grew distant. “Not that I am a stranger to men shouting at me - I recall you raising your voice at me many times that year -” She gave him a fond smile, and George felt his lips form the shape of a smile, even though he felt as far from smiling as were possible for a man to be, “-- But it was somehow different with Mr. Elton. No, he was - he was angry because I would not give him what he wanted, which only raised my determination to continue to do so. And when he hit the roof of the carriage-”
“Standing up?” George asked, his voice sharper than he wanted it to be. “He hit the roof standing up as he removed himself-”
“No, no, he pounded at it.” Emma rolled her eyes and half-smiled as she mimicked hitting her tiny fist in the air above her head. “Stop! The! Carriage!” She dropped her lilting voice half an octave into an affected growl, and George swallowed harshly. “It was odd - I did not fear him half as much as I should have, but I feared him less when his face was in my lap than when-”
“His what ?” George snarled.
“Oh, and I had said there was no reason to be - George, my dear, lovely George, you must know that the carriage merely started when he did not expect, and he fell forward, he meant nothing of it.” Emma looked upset now, her small hand reaching across the table to soothe him, and George covered her hand at once, picking it up with both of his large, coarse hands and kissing each of her knuckles in turn before speaking.
“I do not want you to believe for a moment,” he said, his voice strained but soft because he had vowed to be softer where Emma was concerned, “that any of my negative reaction is due to your behaviour or your participation in that evening. Any outrage you sense is on your behalf, my darling Emma, not born of any misplaced jealousy or anger towards you. I find myself rather upset that he treated you thusly, and I was unaware of the danger he put you in, no doubt due to the callous treatment you received from me in that part of the year.”
“I do appreciate your clarification, Mr. Knightley,” Emma said, smiling so sweetly he recalled with twice as much ferocity as normal why he had fallen so in love with her. “And I can assure you I was in no danger from the likes of Mr. Elton.”
He kissed her hand again and shook his head. “While I find reason to rejoice that you are so unfamiliar with the evils of this world, I also find myself regretting your lack of familiarity with men and the things they are capable of - because it seems to have placed you in potential harm on that evening.”
She drew herself up and scowled now. “I am not so ignorant as you might want to believe-”
“No, of course not.” George shook his head and smiled apologetically, his heart still pounding almost as hard as it had when he gave chase to her carriage after the ball that spring. “Oh, my dear Emma, I did not continue this conversation for you to believe I wanted to quarrel with you. However shall I make it up to you?”
“I-” Emma’s smile grew sly, and he found that he quite liked it. “I believe I can think of a few … creative ways for you to show your desire to be forgiven, husband.”
“Is that so?” He arched a brow at her, and was rewarded by a giggle before her mouth sharpened to a clever, little pucker, and she nodded. “Well then, wife, you shall find me an attentive audience. I am willing, as ever, to do your bidding.”
“Let us retire then,” Emma said, standing and pulling on his hand. “And I think you should like to hear my thoughts on the subject.” Releasing his hand with a peal of laughter, Emma lighted from the room, and George chuckled and gave chase after Emma once more, pushing aside the darker thoughts for the time being -- it was, after all, quite difficult to remain cross at anything when his wife was so bright and cheerful at the center of his life.
That Sunday, Emma shifted in the pew as Elton droned on with a sermon on the importance of young ladies knowing their place, and the virtue of a woman who held her tongue and knew where she was most useful. Studying her profile, and then the cool side-glances of the pastor, George found it to be quite certain that she was most likely a thought on Elton’s mind as he whined insufferably and used God and His word to do so.
There was, perhaps, a reason that Knightley so rarely attended services in town.
As he passed Elton on the way from the church, he, Emma, and her father leading the congregation out the door, Mr. Elton and his ill-tempered and ill-appearing wife, Augusta, simpered and cooed over the feather in Emma’s hat, a pretty thing that she had spent the previous day mending with Harriet.
George rankled at the intended slight against Emma when Augusta Elton commented, “And so like you, Mrs. Knightley, to be willing to continue on with something old. Now that you are a matron of a house, clearly you understand the drain on one’s dear husband’s resources caused by incessant and superfluous spending.”
“I believe she understands quite well, Mrs. Elton,” the pastor assured her, smiling at George with a familiarity that set his teeth on edge. “Then again, Mrs. Knightley always seems so sure of her own mind and tastes, isn’t that right, Knightley?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, sir,” George said coldly, slipping his hand around to rest lightly on Emma’s waist. “But then again, I find that we are so often of the same mind, that I would not particularly note if an opinion was shared with which I did not already agree. Let us go, my dear.”
He did not even part with a nod at Elton, and merely scowled at the ground as he and Emma strode down the lane, Mr. Woodhouse some distance behind them, assuring Ms. Bates that there would be rain that evening.
“My love, unless you wish for us to run in the middle of the village, I would ask for you to slow to a pace more sustainable,” Emma noted, and George nodded, his thoughts still cross even as his feet slowed to acquiesce to his wife’s request. “Pay no mind to the Eltons, their words are so petty that it confounds me to conceive how insipid their unspoken thoughts must be.”
George smiled down at Emma, whose answering smile was hopeful and arch. His smile broadened into a grin and a chuckle as he nodded and slipped his hand through hers for a brief moment, slipping his thumb across her knuckles. “Right you are, Mrs. Knightley.” He chuckled again. “Right you are.”
“Let’s call on Ms. Bates later today,” Emma continued, her thoughts already skipping past the slights of Elton and his wife. George shook his head in wonderment -- she was too good, she really was, and he had taken so long to admit to himself the purity of Emma’s heart, and wasted so much time.
When they returned home, George’s thoughts turned once again to Elton and the disastrous carriage ride that had left an impression on his wife -- and on the snide comments made today. Frowning, he suddenly recalled a number of cold, rude comments made by Elton and at times his wife, since last Yuletide.
How long had Emma born the consequences of her slighting that petty clergyman? How long had she suffered in silence, perhaps not even admitting to herself how it might have hurt her, not only to be treated so, but also to have to be the one to realize firsthand how wrong she was regarding the hopes of her dearest friend?
It would not be borne. As Emma retired to their chambers to dress for visiting the Bates’ residence, George went to his study -- a small, windowless room with no chance of a draft, an insistence by Mr. Woodhouse when George had come from the Abbey after the wedding -- and began to draft a letter that he later dropped at the postal office on the way to Ms. Bates and her mother.
A month on from that day, Emma was tucked into the pew next to him, her father at home with a head cold, when Elton took the pulpit to announce that he had received a new calling from the bishop, and would be moving north in the next fortnight. Emma frowned and glanced over at George, clearly seeking his thoughts on the matter, and George kept his face as blank as possible as he returned her gaze, his eyebrows high on his head.
When they walked home after services, Knightley once again refusing to shake hands with Elton, Emma, her face tilted back to watch the geese fly overhead, commented lightly, “It is rather odd, that Mr. Elton would move so quickly. He has not been here a year and six months, after all.”
“Odd indeed,” George answered just as lightly.
He could feel Emma’s curious gaze on his face for a long moment, and he restrained himself from commenting further, lest she took his meaning.
“Hm.” Emma was quiet for a moment as they crossed the little creek and moved past the last buildings of the village. Then, her hand slipped through his arm, and he placed his hand on top of hers. They walked in quiet reflection the rest of the way home, and Emma smiled at him mysteriously as she untied her bonnet when they were inside the doors.
“What is it, my darling?” George asked, amused, as he removed his outer coat.
She shook her head, without a clever comment for the moment -- and took his hand, leading him to the stairwell. He followed her as willingly as always, and as they walked up the stairs, Emma backwards and he forwards, their hands clasped, he thought perhaps, as he once confessed to her, that their love was so grand that no words, clever or not, could properly encapsulate it.
And all was well at Hartfield.