“You speak as if you envied him.”
“And I do envy Mr. Churchill, Emma,” said Miss Knightley. “In one respect he is the object of my envy.”
“Whatever can you mean? You do not wish to marry; you never have! And if you did, surely you ought to say it is Miss Fairfax who is that object.”
“I suppose you are right,” Miss Knightley said with a faint smile. “But I assure you it is only pity I feel for the lovely Miss Fairfax, and hope she finds herself more satisfied with her match than I would be—or, as I am pleased to hear you agree, than you would be, my dear Emma. No, it is not the married state I mean. Only that it is an enviable situation indeed, to find oneself in a position to reveal all one’s hopes and desires, and see them not only satisfied, but celebrated by all one’s acquaintance!”
That gave Emma pause; she had never considered Miss Knightley’s hopes and desires at any great length, and now that she did, could not think which of them might not be revealed to any of their acquaintance. She ought probably to ask. Miss Knightley would not have raised the subject except in invitation, and it was surely both perquisite and responsibility of such an old friendship to know.
Yet she was hesitant. She could not quite articulate her reasons; she was so very glad to have Miss Knightley back from London, solicitous of Emma’s feelings, and willing to forgive her failings. And she knew this ought to make her less selfish rather than more. But she had a sudden conviction that if Miss Knightley harbored unspoken ambitions, they could not but disturb the pleasant equilibrium of their lives; and Emma wanted nothing more than to go on as they were. She had not realized, until their latest argument and Miss Knightley’s subsequent departure, that it was not only her own comfortable existence at Hartfield that made the prospect of the indefinite future such a pleasant one, but Miss Knightley’s continued presence at Donwell Abbey.
Still, she had resolved to be less selfish. After the uncharacteristically effusive relief with which Miss Knightley had greeted Emma’s protestations of indifference to Frank Churchill, Emma owed her no less concern. She had just steeled herself to ask, when Miss Knightley said, “You are going in, I suppose? I should like to greet your father and give him all the news from Brunswick Square. Give me your arm, my dear Emma.” And she thought it might, just, be excusable to allow the change in subject, and defer the conversation to another time.
Somehow that time never came. Miss Knightley never referred to the conversation again, and Emma found there were always other things for them to talk about: Harriet’s engagement to Robert Martin, and the wedding that followed; Harriet’s new baby; the perfection of that child and then its younger siblings, exceeded only perhaps by Mrs. Weston’s daughter, who grew at a prodigious rate, and of course by their own nieces and nephews. Really it was extraordinary how children not only multiplied but tended to absorb so much of one’s attention, even when they were nowhere nearby!
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Churchill produced no children but a great deal of ongoing interest in the town, as must any rich and good-looking couple who disappeared and reappeared at odd intervals, between family visits and travel to more interesting locales. Often they went to watering places, to shore up Jane Churchill’s delicate health, but the long-desired visit to Ireland also transpired, and then another to Switzerland, and Emma must hear all about it from Miss Bates.
“We agreed once that we did not envy Jane Fairfax,” said Emma to Miss Knightley, referring to that long-ago conversation for the first time; she felt she might safely do so, as they were about to go in to dinner with her father and the Westons. “And in general I do not. Yet I must confess, only to you and in the privacy of my own drawing room, that at least in this I do envy her—that she has seen something of the world! I shall never go to Ireland.”
“Has that long been an ambition of yours?”
“Oh no, not as a particular destination; and I should not have said my heart was set on going abroad at all. But I had only just reconciled myself to hearing of Miss Fairfax’s accomplishments without resentment, and now I find I must hear everything about her travel. I, who have not even visited the seaside, and have never been farther from Hartfield than Box Hill.” Emma might in safety refer to that incident, and even hint at ongoing frustration with Miss Bates, these disagreements having long been settled so comfortably.
“I know your father’s feelings on the subject,” said Miss Knightley, “and perhaps Ireland is a little out of the way; but I wonder if you might make a visit to your sister in London. Nothing could be more reasonable.”
“Oh, of course I have thought of that; but any time I come near to suggesting it, I think of my father left here all alone, worrying all at once about me and Isabella and the children! No, it would not do. If I ever leave Hartfield it must be while Isabella is here with him, and who else have I to visit?”
Miss Knightley was prevented from answering by the ringing of the dinner-bell. It so happened that to-day was Mrs. Weston’s birthday, and Emma had intended to provide a small cake in her honor, or perhaps some iced biscuits, but the master of the table would not hear of it, as his daughter told Mrs. Weston with regret.
Mrs. Weston was too familiar with the ways of the house to have expected otherwise. “It is very kind of you, Emma, but Mr. Woodhouse is right not to make a fuss today. Once a lady has passed the age of forty, you cannot expect her to rejoice in adding another year to her tally.”
“But that is nonsense,” said Emma at once. “Miss Knightley is older than you, and still likes to mark the day. Did you not tell me, Miss Knightley, that you refused all ordinary business on your birthday this year, and devoted the day entirely to your own pursuits?”
“I did. They included a particularly lengthy constitutional, a novel which I later lent you and which I believe you found tiresome, and the opening of a particularly good bottle of port wine.”
“Take care—you have added port wine to the management of your brother’s estate, and are in grave danger of establishing yourself as an eccentric,” said Emma, laughing. “And I am used to thinking of you as the height of staid respectability!”
“Ah, but I have not told you the first thing that happened that day, which I felt excused the indulgence. When my maid came in, she discovered half a dozen grey hairs which she swore to me had not been there the day before.”
Emma considered these hairs, which were indeed more plentiful than they had been not long ago; they were visible signs of the passage of a time Emma remembered with great fondness. “I like your grey hairs,” she declared. “They suit you very well. I look forward to seeing many more of them, at length; and in due time you must help me count my own. And I shall take great pleasure in becoming acquainted with each and every line upon your face. No, I do not see why a lady must fear the advancement of years, when they may be spent so well.”
Miss Knightley was sitting opposite her; and while Emma spoke her smile, which indeed revealed the faint signs of crow’s feet at the corner of each eye, grew more abstracted, and began to fade. Emma paused, wondering if perhaps she had offended after all, though Miss Knightley was the last person she would accuse of envy. But at this moment Mr. Woodhouse spoke from the head of the table, reflecting on Isabella’s complexion, which he felt had been a trifle haggard the last time she was at Highbury; a little dull for a woman so young. Compare it to Mrs. Weston’s. It was the city air, no doubt, and perhaps something in the water. He had mentioned it to Isabella several times. She ought really to be more in the country.
This proved distraction enough until they returned to the drawing room; and as Mr. Woodhouse had no interest in cigars, the whole group regathered very soon over cards. Miss Knightley’s play, always solid but never brilliant, seemed more thoughtless than usual to Emma. When the first game concluded Miss Knightley begged Mr. Weston to take her place, that he might not have to sit out the whole evening, and as the players were rearranged she went quietly from the room. Emma hastily laid down her cards and excused herself.
She had expected to wait and meet Miss Knightley when she returned. She was surprised to find her instead still in the hall, standing just outside the door, with one hand pressed to the wall and the other curled against her chest.
“Miss Knightley!” Emma exclaimed. Miss Knightley straightened at once. “You are ill?”
“No—nothing of the kind. I am perfectly well.”
But Emma was peering anxiously into her face. It was true that she did not look exactly ill, but she did not look at all well, either. “You are not. Do come and sit down, and I will call for a glass of wine.”
“I pray you will not, or your father will send for Mr. Perry, and I will find all my dinners at Hartfield reduced to a bowl of gruel. No, I assure you, there is nothing whatever the matter with me. It was a passing thought that gave me pause, not an indisposition.”
“If you are quite certain.” Taking her hand, Emma was relieved to find it perfectly warm and steady; in fact, perfectly Miss Knightley. “But will you tell me what thought it was? If it distresses you so, you ought not to be alone with it.”
Miss Knightley was looking down at their joined hands. Now she looked up, and Emma finding herself the object of a far more focused scrutiny than she was used to, returned it. The face staring into hers was as familiar as any other, but when had she last examined it with intent? A good face; a straightforward face; a face one liked to look at, though it had no great pretensions to beauty; there was something so decided and confident in it as to make beauty irrelevant, though whether that was owed to any of the features in particular or simply to the expressions they habitually wore, Emma could not say.
“I would not say distress,” replied Miss Knightley at length. “It does not go so far. A little moment of melancholy, to which I find I am not entirely immune. But it has passed; it will not trouble me again tonight, so it need not trouble you. My dear Emma.” With something that was not quite her usual smile, she pressed Emma’s hand, and releasing it went back into the drawing room.
Emma found she required a moment of her own. If asked to put a name to hers, she would not have known what to call it. She was a little flushed, and her heart felt rapid in her chest. The queer turn of her stomach was not so different from that moment of fear, when she thought Miss Knightley taken ill. She put it aside as best she could, and when her father raised his tremulous voice to ask whether she preferred to partner him or Mrs. Weston, she went back to join them.
Miss Knightley, melancholy! True, there was no reason she should be immune to such feelings. Emma had seen her angry and disappointed; happy and amused; occasionally lively, and once, on being presented with their infant nephew Henry for the first time, even moved. But if she might never be said to be high in spirits, so too was she never low. Emma had not seen her tired or sick, and those were things that every body must be from time to time. Melancholy was like those, Emma felt. She classified it as a passive emotion, one that happened to a person without their consent; and this ran so counter to her view of Miss Knightley that she did not like to consider it possible. Worse yet, she could think of no cause for it. There might always be some trouble with the estate, and as Emma admitted candidly to herself she had no great understanding of what that would be, but Miss Knightley being who she was, such trouble would be incitement to activity, not discouragement. Whatever the source, it must be some private matter, too private to be discussed even with Emma, who now deeply regretted her error in allowing that first moment of opportunity to pass, in the garden several years ago.
When next she saw Miss Knightley, it was in quite a different mood: her usual mood, all pleasant self-assurance. Emma ought to have found this reassuring but could not, entirely.
“I was hoping to speak to you alone,” she said, when the pleasantries were past. “I had a letter today from my cousin in Oxfordshire.”
“I do not think I know any cousin of yours in Oxfordshire.”
“Strictly speaking, he married my cousin; he is a Mr. Baring. His wife Susan and I were very close as children, but when last they visited I suppose you were too young to remember. She died perhaps ten years ago, and because I wished to hear of her own children, Mr. Baring and I have kept up an irregular correspondence since.”
“I see,” said Emma, who in fact did not see why Miss Knightley thought it necessary to discuss this in private.
“He has for some time been asking me to visit,” Miss Knightley went on. “He is much occupied with his land, and rarely travels himself. Somehow I have never found the time, but I had begun to think of doing so this summer, and the other night you convinced me to do so. It is not Ireland, or even London, but I wondered whether you might accompany me. It is a matter of a few days in either directions, and on good roads, and the two of us together might in propriety accept Mr. Baring’s hospitality rather than putting up at an inn. I thought your father might be persuaded, if we arranged it during the month your sister will spend at Hartfield this summer.”
Her plans were thoroughly considered; Emma could not suggest any objection Mr. Woodhouse might raise, without Miss Knightley had already thought of and resolved it. They knew him too well to think her answers would reconcile him to the scheme, but they might make his fears endurable.
“Of course, if the idea does not appeal to you, there is no need to persuade Mr. Woodhouse,” Miss Knightley added.
Emma found it appealed to her a great deal, for reasons she had already communicated, and for others she struggled to articulate even to herself. To Miss Knightley she said only that she would be delighted.
That delight was tested sorely in the months that followed. Her father scarcely allowed a conversation to pass without some reference to the scheme. Did Emma really feel it safe to be driven by a strange coachman? No doubt Miss Knightley’s was very well in his way, but he was not John. And to sleep in unfamiliar beds, where there might well be a draught, and there could be no guarantee as to the state of the chimneys? It was just possible that any friend of Miss Knightley’s might keep his guest rooms in adequate condition; but the same might not be said for the inns along the way. Besides which, the food was certain to be unwholesome, and likely very rich. Emma could not hope to eat as she should while on the road.
Isabella, upon her much-anticipated arrival, scarcely knew how to reply to these concerns, to which she was subjected all at once with scarcely a pause, Mr. Woodhouse having refined and rehearsed them assiduously since the journey was first proposed. His eldest daughter could not satisfy both Emma’s desire to travel (with which she was in sympathy) and their father’s desire for an ally. Back in London Mr. Knightley, like his sister, had anticipated all Mr. Woodhouse’s reactions, but unlike his sister his reaction had been to belittle them to Mrs. Woodhouse’s daughter. Isabella’s position was pitiable indeed, for she must of necessity disappoint or contradict at least one of her nearest relations. She settled for reassuring Mr. Woodhouse as best she could, which gave him no satisfaction at all, unless it were in the pleasure of contradicting every point she raised in Emma’s favor.
In the end it did not greatly matter which points were raised or contradicted, for Miss Knightley had resolved they should go to Oxfordshire, and go to Oxfordshire they did.
Emma left Hartfield in a curious mood of mixed anticipation and apprehension. Soon every mile that fell behind them was a mile more than she had ever been from home. It was a cloudy day, with a grey mist threatening rain, but she opened the curtain wide and pressed her face to the window.
Miss Knightley did not comment, and offered no distraction to break Emma from her reverie. It was not until Emma sighed and drew the curtain that she smiled, and looked up from the letter she had been reading. “If you are having second thoughts, there is time yet to turn the carriage.”
“No, not at all,” said Emma, knowing the half-truth would be understood, but trusting it would go unchallenged. “I am perfectly eager to be away, to visit new places and move in a different sort of society.”
“I wonder whether you will find it very different. One country parish is not so unlike another. The peculiarities of any individual inhabitant may be unique; but in the aggregate, I believe they tend toward uniformity.”
“You are very hard on country parishes, for one who has chosen to make her life in one.”
“Not in the least. I find that very uniformity appealing. One knows where one stands, in the country.”
“So Donwell is much the same to you as any other parish, and might be exchanged for any of them? As, for example—but I have forgotten the name of the town near which your cousin lives.”
“Esham. And you will persist in putting words in my mouth! It is due to the peculiarities of the individuals that my affection is reserved for Highbury and Donwell, and not for any other town; but that affection, and an appreciation of the individuals, is the result of many years’ observation. It is not the same as the appeal of a temporary destination, which may be greater in intensity, and may leave the traveler feeling wistful for some time after, but would not necessarily stand up to longer acquaintance.”
“I see; you are warning me not to allow myself too much excitement. I must strive to be like you, and meet this new experience with nothing warmer than placid self-possession.”
“I will set aside that assessment of my temperament, and say only that I hope you do not, Emma; there may be less to interest you in Esham than in London, but I hope the experience is not without excitement, in its way. You are too young for middle-aged placidity, and ought to be provided with entertainments more novel than card-parties with guests you have known since you were in leading strings.”
“That is not the attitude you took toward Mr. Weston’s ball.”
“That attitude was on my own account. I never begrudged you the pleasure. You may recall the event led me to change my mind about your Miss Smith, as she was then; it had its uses. I have not spoken a word of complaint about any ball given since.”
The outward journey offered novelty, if not yet the entertainment Miss Knightley promised. In all her life Emma had eaten few meals at any table but her father’s or their nearest neighbors’, and though the fare at roadside inns was perfectly familiar, the setting lent a strangeness to every bite. Miss Knightley had selected the inns at which they would overnight with especial care, and Emma could find nothing to criticize in their cleanliness or comfort, but she could not remember the last time she had slept in another bed. On the second night she shared a room with Miss Knightley. Emma lay awake long past her accustomed hour listening to the chime of an unfamiliar clock in the hall and the scarcely audible sound of Miss Knightley’s breath.
Mr. Baring was a pleasant, friendly, sober man of perhaps forty-five or fifty. He welcomed Emma with every appearance of pleasure, and with particular attention to her comfort during their stay. His children, the eldest of whom was just thirteen, seemed entirely uninterested in her, but greeted Miss Knightley with a shy familiarity that was explained by frequent references to letters and gifts. Emma had not realized Miss Knightley's interest in her cousin's offspring had extended so far.
Mr. Baring's house was everything Mr. Woodhouse might have wished; Emma was supplied with generous fires and a well-appointed bed, and never felt anything approaching a draught. Mr. Baring's table would not have met with such approval, as it was supplied in equal proportion to the rest, but Emma and Miss Knightley had no complaints, and dined happily on the excellent fare. When Emma announced privately after dinner that she approved of Miss Knightley's cousin, this was met with a curious smile but immediate agreement. "I am glad to find you so generous in your praise, Emma; I know we do not always bestow it upon the same subjects."
"We have disagreed once or twice in the past, but I think we need not in this case. He is a perfect country gentleman, not that I should have expected otherwise of any man you were willing to call ‘cousin’, and is good-natured besides. We will not want for good conversation at his table. Does he play cards?"
"I am sure Mr. Baring will offer every thing possible for his guests. He did say he knew we were fatigued from our travels tonight, and might retire early if we preferred.”
"And solicitous to a fault! Yes, I think I must approve of him."
"You may approve his plans for the week-end as well; tomorrow he has offered to drive us about the country, as he says there are some very pretty roads on and near his land. And, if you prefer a livelier sort of entertainment, he tells me a small assembly will be held in Esham the following evening. He will be happy to escort us."
"That seems to me the best possible way to judge your assertion of the other day, that country society is much the same from one town to another. We must accept his offer, and test whether you are correct."
The assembly rooms at Esham were larger and better-used than the rooms at the Crown. They boasted an ample supper room, were capable of hosting a full sixteen couples on the dance floor, and required no trick of candlelight to hide inadequacies in the wallpaper. Emma had heard much of London ballrooms and did not allow herself to be impressed. Her experience of visitors to Highbury had led her to expect she would be treated as something of a curiosity, and indeed she received more than her share of introductions; but these were offered with a disinterested sort of friendliness, and while she never found herself wanting for partners, neither was she so sought-after as to make it difficult to steal back to Miss Knightley’s side, where she stood deep in conversation with Mr. Baring and several of his nearest neighbors.
"Do you not mean to dance, Miss Knightley?" she asked, accepting a glass of refreshment from Mr. Baring.
Miss Knightley wore tall feathers in her hair and a gown of sober hue, though the cut was excellent. Situated as she was at the perimeter of the room, she might almost have been mistaken for one of the matrons there, keeping watch over one daughter or another. “Dancing is the province of the young,” she replied.
“You danced in Highbury.”
“When Mr. Weston was so unnecessarily gallant as to offer, I did.” Emma remembered this perfectly well, for she had observed it was a word from Miss Knightley that had led him to solicit Harriet’s hand for the next set.
“Wishing all the while you could exchange our company for that of William Larkins, I suppose!”
“Who is this Mr. Larkins?” asked Mr. Baring at once. “I do not believe he features in your letters.”
“He does, frequently, though perhaps not by name,” replied Miss Knightley. “Larkins is my brother’s land steward. Emma believes I prefer drudgery over dancing.”
“And do you?” asked Mr. Baring’s neighbor.
“I do not count the oversight of my brother’s estate as drudgery. It is a false comparison.”
“But do you dance?”
“On occasion,” said Miss Knightley, who had resisted Emma’s best efforts to persuade her onto the floor in Highbury and only stood up with Mr. Weston under duress, and who now, to Emma’s astonishment, accepted the gentleman’s prompt request to make this one of those rare occasions.
Emma watched closely as they moved through the figures. She had always thought Miss Knightley an excellent dancer. She was not the sort of woman one would call graceful, but moved always with such assurance, and such deliberation, as to create her own particular sort of elegance. Emma wanted to take pleasure in the sight, and indeed thought she would have done, if she could stop thinking of the reluctance with which Miss Knightley had engaged in Mr. Weston’s ball, which Emma had so anticipated. It was a poor comparison to the readiness with which she participated now, among these strangers.
She danced with Mr. Baring, too, and went with him into supper, leaving Emma to be escorted by a young man with pleasing manners but little conversation.
“I am afraid you did not enjoy yourself tonight,” said Miss Knightley, when finally they had returned to Mr. Baring’s house.
“Why would you say that?” asked Emma as brightly as she could. She was trying not to yawn. “I danced nearly every dance, you know.”
“Yet you did not seem pleased with many of your partners.”
“I am sorry; I did not mean to be rude! I hope I know what is owed to your cousin and his acquaintance.”
“Not everything I say is meant to scold, Emma! Though I hope it is not only my relationship with Mr. Baring that makes you say that. However, I can raise no objection to your manners tonight; I spoke out of regret, not censure. I am certain no-one who does not know you as I do, and has not seen you in company, would have cause to comment. I like to see you in better spirits. I am sorry you did not find the assembly more engaging. I think that may in part be my fault.”
“I cannot see how it should be,” said Emma, suddenly afraid her attention to Miss Knightley’s dancing, and the abstraction that had followed, had been obvious.
Miss Knightley laughed, in a more self-conscious manner than was her habit. “I introduced you once or twice, if you recall, as my companion; it was quite late in the evening before I realized that had been taken to mean you were my hired companion, or perhaps some impoverished relative benefiting from my condescension and borrowed consequence; and not an eligible young lady with a fortune of thirty thousand pounds, who has offered out of patience and generosity to accompany an aging spinster on a family visit. When a chance remark told me my mistake, it seemed too late to address it, and indeed I could not see how that might be done with delicacy.”
Emma laughed as well, in pure surprise. “I would never have guessed! How extremely amusing. Well, you did mean to offer me novel entertainments. It is not an experience I ever looked to have.”
“I hope it does not vex you unduly. I will see about correcting the mistake.”
“No, there is no need; as you say it can hardly be done without indelicacy, and I would never ask you to be indelicate on my account. It does not vex me, not in the least. I did not come to Oxfordshire for a husband, and I see no other reason anyone in attendance tonight should care whether I have a fortune of any kind.”
The effects of this misunderstanding were subtle but curious. Mr. Baring asked Miss Knightley to join him on his social calls throughout their stay, and brought Emma as a matter of course. They made up several card parties, and attended two dinners. At each of these gatherings, Emma was treated with courtesy but no distinction. She led none of the conversation; when her opinion was solicited, it was out of politeness rather than deference. Yet she would not have said the others in attendance were remarkable for either eloquence or liveliness.
She said as much to Miss Knightley, hastening to add, “Not that they are not very good people, and I am grateful for the welcome they have shown me. It is only that I did not realize a fortune would make such a difference, in such a particular way. Surely good conversation is good conversation.”
“I agree their sense of your consequence has something to do with it,” Miss Knightley said, “but I have observed that your own behavior has changed with the company, Emma. You do not take the lead, when you have the opportunity to do so. Of course most of Mr. Baring’s acquaintance are of a different generation, but I have never seen you defer to Mr. Weston, or to me.”
“But I do not think of you as belonging to a different generation.”
“That is not quite my point. I have only been thinking it is as well I did not take you to London. You are so at ease in Highbury, among those you have known all your life; the addition of a Mrs. Elton or a Frank Churchill, momentous as it may seem in the moment, threatens nothing fundamental in those well-established relationships. This change in scenery is far more profound, in its way.”
Emma thought the addition of Frank Churchill had threatened a great deal at one time. Aloud she said, “You think I am intimidated by my company; that I can only show to advantage among those I already know, and who have learned to defer to me, as I will not to them.”
“Emma,” said Miss Knightley, with unexpected warmth, “you must stop thinking every observation of your behavior is a criticism. The ability to adapt to an entirely new society is an acquired skill, and you have never been given the opportunity to acquire it. I would not like to think I have brought you here, only for you not to enjoy yourself.”
“It is not that I have not enjoyed myself,” Emma said, in perfect honesty. “It is only that the parts of this visit I have most enjoyed are not the ones I would have expected. The countryside is beautiful, though if it continues to threaten rain the rest of the week and we have no opportunity for walking, I will be sorely disappointed. It is more than the scenery, however. Since I left Hartfield I have scarcely spent a waking hour out of your company. You will say we see you at Hartfield nearly as often as we see the Westons; but it is different, and far better, to take all my meals with you, and to have the pleasure of wishing you both good morning and good night.”
Emma had not meant to say so much, had not known until she said it that she felt so much, and was very nearly too self-conscious to notice that Miss Knightley was struggling to formulate her response. “I am glad to hear you say so,” was all she said, when she did speak.
The rainclouds lifted the morning before their departure, and Emma resolved with Miss Knightley to walk as far as a little summer-house Mr. Baring had pointed out on their first day. Mr. Baring himself had an appointment and could not accompany them, but made quite certain they knew the way, and enquired repeatedly about the condition of Emma’s boots. “I know Miss Knightley is an excellent walker, and has come well-prepared for the elements,” said he, smiling, “but young ladies have a different notion of practical attire for a country visit; I hope you will go to my housekeeper and borrow a good pair, Miss Woodhouse, rather than set out in inadequate boots.”
Emma would not allow her boots to be inadequate. She wanted very much not only to approve Mr. Baring, but to like him for Miss Knightley’s sake; and to preserve some hope of this, she excused herself early from breakfast, forestalling a third or fourth repetition of this conversation.
She had reached her rooms upstairs before she recollected the letter from Isabella which she had left by her plate. Returning to the breakfast-parlor, some quality in the voices from inside checked her just outside the door.
“I do not ask for your answer today,” Mr. Baring was saying. “Indeed, I know you too well to think you would give me an answer without serious consideration. I beg you will take whatever time you need.”
Emma was not in the habit of listening at doors; or so she would have said, if asked. She did not intend to listen now, and would have left if she could. It was only that her feet failed, quite unaccountably, to take her away.
“I hope I need not say I am honored to hear you express such sentiments,” said Miss Knightley.
“Let us not speak of honor or of sentiment. We are not children; we are not romantics. But I believe there exists between us a strong foundation of mutual understanding, even of affection; I know you are a woman of character and good judgment. Georgiana, there is no woman living with whom I should prefer to share the raising of my children and the management of my estate—”
It was that name, that ‘Georgiana’, which released Emma at last. In all her life she had never used that name. She recoiled from the door, remembering almost too late to do so in silence, and fled the hall in a complete confusion of spirits.
Georgiana. How dared he take such a liberty? Oh, it was very well to say, that he was Miss Knightley’s cousin—or very nearly—not so close a relation as that, only to have married a cousin. It did not excuse the intimacy. Emma herself would never have thought of it, and she was very nearly Miss Knightley’s sister. Never mind that she disliked hearing their relationship couched in such terms, would never say ‘sister’ herself, for they had been friends long before Isabella was married. And if those years of friendship, in which scarcely a week went by without a visit—or more than one!—had not granted Emma the freedom to address Miss Knightley by her Christian name, then it was absurd, very nearly offensive, for this man to imagine he might do so.
So Emma told herself, resolutely pushing aside the observation that Miss Knightley had not sounded at all offended. That she had in fact sounded as thoughtful as she did when consulting with William Larkins on some proposed improvement to her brother’s land: as though she saw value in the idea, and might accept.
By the time a knock came at her door, Miss Knightley coming to return Isabella’s letter and ask if Emma would be ready in a quarter of an hour, Emma had so far recovered herself as to say they might leave at once, if Miss Knightley would wait for her to find her gloves. She had not expected to hide her lack of composure entirely, not from Miss Knightley, who had always read Emma’s moods as easily as her own weekly accounts; nothing could have provided stronger proof of Miss Knightley’s own distraction, than the fact that she accepted Emma’s reply without question.
“You are very quiet today,” said Miss Knightley, as they passed out of view of the house.
Emma had been trying to turn her mind from that troubling conversation to the sun-drenched hills about them. In addition, she had begun to reflect, with some resentment, that she might have been wiser to accept Mr. Baring’s advice about the boots.
Answering somewhat at random, she said, “I was only considering, whether your theory of country towns, might also apply to the countryside in which they are set. How does the beauty of this walk compare with the one which you like so well, between Hartfield and Donwell Abbey?”
“It is more picturesque by far. There is nothing resembling such a hillside in the neighborhood of Donwell; a wooded bank or two, which I know you have often admired; but nothing to compare with this view. I believe the only objective point of superiority is the arrangement of our drainage-slopes.”
“Yet I have known you to find great fascination in drains.”
“I find satisfaction in their proper planning, and above all in knowing they are serving their intended purpose. Even I would not claim they give me aesthetic pleasure.”
“And you place great weight on aesthetic pleasure.”
“I place some weight on it, certainly. Otherwise I should not enjoy an evening of music, or trouble to refresh my wardrobe for any reason other than wear and tear.”
For pure aesthetics, Emma must admit, Donwell and Highbury had nothing to offer that Esham could not exceed. It seemed best not to pursue the comparison. “It is a longer walk than yours, I think,” she said instead. “We must have come nearly a mile by now, but I have seen neither tenant-farms nor other estates.”
“No more than half a mile, I would say. Otherwise you are correct. I believe the nearest house of any size is more than four miles distant.”
“That is a lonely thought.”
“A good carriage makes nothing of the distance, but even without that I believe one grows accustomed. In a certain mood I imagine the isolation might be refreshing. It gives one time and space to think.”
Emma could not, quite, read that as another invitation to ask after Miss Knightley’s thoughts. Neither could she say if she wanted such an invitation. She made the steepness of the path her excuse, and said little more for the next mile or so, until they reached the summer-house. Here they paused to admire its comfort and rustic charm. Emma’s left heel was determined to blister, but she was equally determined not to mention it.
“What is the news from home?” asked Miss Knightley.
Emma seized at once on the subject, as one disconnected entirely from Mr. Baring. “Nothing of consequence, but everything pleasant, excepting father’s conviction that we must both find this time away unpleasant and uncomfortable in the extreme. Isabella writes that the boys have climbed every tree from Donwell to Hartfield, and little Emma sits every evening at my pianoforte in a way that is charming to see if not to hear. They have picnicked with the Westons and likely shall do so at least once more before we return, if the weather allows it. Henry is begging to be allowed to stay on through the summer, as Isabella says you have suggested. I am sure my father will be delighted to see that room filled a little longer, if she will give him up.”
“If he stays on my suggestion, your father must give him up, too—at least for a good portion of that time. My idea was that he should stay with me at Donwell Abbey, and truly come to know the place.”
“He is there almost every day when Isabella comes to us. Surely he can be said to know the place already.”
“Not as one who will inherit it and be responsible for its management. He is old enough now, to begin to take an interest in the virtues and vices of the trees beyond their suitability for climbing, and understand some of the purpose behind the land in which he takes pleasure. In another ten years, or a little more or less, he may decide he has had enough of city life; he is too young yet to be certain, but I do not think he will be drawn away by a profession, as his father was. Nor do I think it likely little Emma will prove to have such an odd turn of mind as I did, not with your gentle sister as an example. No: in all probability he will want true ownership at Donwell, and must prepare for it now.”
Emma had known, of course, that little Henry Knightley was to inherit Donwell Abbey, but she realized now that she had always thought of this as an inheritance not from his father, but from Miss Knightley herself. “How glad he will be, to have you there to guide him when he does,” she said, tentative.
Miss Knightley’s eyebrows rose. She was looking out over the valley, the wind pulling her hair from its neat arrangement, and Emma was thinking how well it suited her to be out-of-doors; how she was as at home upon this hill or in a cowshed as in her own study or the sitting-room back at Hartfield. “So he may be,” she said. “My brother has been happy enough. But I wonder—it is not every young man, in expectation of a sizable inheritance, who would accept the direction of a woman of a certain age who has no claim to the estate, save that granted by his father’s generosity. Still, you may be right. At least he will be brought up to his duty, and I do not think he will turn me out-of-doors at the first opportunity.”
Emma knew not what to say to this. She might have laughed at the closing remark, which had surely been made in jest, but she could not, at the sentiments which led to it. She had as yet said nothing at all, when a chance misstep made her gasp. Then nothing would do but that Miss Knightley would have her boot off, and examine the foot underneath. Emma’s thick woolen stocking was torn and stained. There was nothing to be done about that, or about the growing blister, until they had returned to the house.
“It will be much worse by then,” warned Miss Knightley.
“You are going to say, that I should have listened to our host at breakfast.”
“I was going to say, that you must take my arm on the walk back, and try to keep some weight from this foot. As for the rest, you do not always need me to scold you; not when you can anticipate so well what I am thinking. Perhaps the admonition will influence you better if it goes unspoken.”
“He will think me very foolish.”
“Ah, well; there is no need to carry the lesson so far. I do not think we must tell Mr. Baring.”
The bare skin of her ungloved hand ought to have been cool against Emma’s ankle, exposed as they were to the wind, but it was unaccountably warm. So, too, was the arm Emma clutched the whole remainder of their walk, thinking all the while that in spite of her pain and embarrassment, she could still imagine no way she would prefer to spend an hour; except for the weight of the realization, that such hours might not be available to her much longer.
Miss Knightley said nothing of Mr. Baring’s proposal, and when they were in company there was no special consciousness between them; neither that of a question asked and still unanswered, nor of an answer in either direction. They spent the evening with the children, reading and listening to youthful fingers tripping up and down the keyboard of Mrs. Baring’s pianoforte. Emma felt a longing, sharp and sudden, to be back at Hartfield, where she was certain an evening was being spent in much the same manner, by those whose company she preferred. She refused Mr. Baring’s polite entreaties to hear her play, and was surprised when Miss Knightley accepted his rather more sincere request. Miss Knightley was no great musician, but Emma could not find her lacking in this or any other respect. Her song was always low and true, made beautiful by the rarity with which Emma had heard it as much as by any quality inherent in the voice itself.
This suited her, too, thought Emma, feeling a pang as she did. If Miss Knightley left Donwell, she wondered which image would be most fixed in her mind: that of the windswept outdoorswoman judging the best use of the land before her, or this candlelit matron seated among another woman’s children.
Try as she might, Emma could read no answers in their leave-taking the next day. She chafed at her ignorance, but she could not ask. She did think Miss Knightley would have mentioned, at some point in the three days’ journey that followed, if she had told Mr. Baring she would marry him. Surely that much was owed to their friendship. But she was terribly conscious of her own omission. However unintentionally her eavesdropping had begun, she ought to have removed herself the moment she realized the conversation was a private one. Now, she could hardly tell whether her silence on the subject diminished or compounded the error.
The return to Hartfield, therefore, came as a relief. Emma allowed herself to be swept up in the cares and concerns of her father and the children, the reassurance Mr. Woodhouse required as to her health and safety at every step of the journey, and the pleasure of recounting all the smallest events of the past fortnight in far more detail than they really required. This happiness did not last; Miss Knightley must leave them, and once again Emma wished her a good day rather than a good night.
They were not parted for long, however, as the children went daily to Donwell whenever they visited, and the next morning Emma resolved to join them. She was not expecting the strength of her reaction, at seeing Miss Knightley escort little Henry over the grounds, speaking to him not merely out of affection but in instruction. Emma found herself falling away from the group, watching from a distance as John and Bella chased one another across the lawn and Isabella plucked flowers for little Emma’s examination.
She had for some minutes been sitting alone on the bench, around the fine large tree that had once upon a time caught Mrs. Elton’s eye, when she became aware that Miss Knightley had disentangled herself from her brother and nephew, and come up beside her. “You are lost in thought; I am interrupting you.”
“I wish you would,” said Emma, so Miss Knightley sat beside her, and for a while they watched together.
“Emma, something troubles you,” Miss Knightley said at last. “I have thought so for days now, but if you did not mean to tell me I had resolved not to pry. But I am not always equal to my own resolutions.”
“I have always thought you equal to anything, if it could be achieved by resolution alone,” Emma said, but she saw Miss Knightley was not to be distracted by even this rare flattery. “Yes, there is something on my mind; something I want to say to you, but it is motivated by selfishness, and I know what you think of that.”
“With others I hope you will always be generous. With me, Emma, I hope you will be as selfish as you like; that you will never hesitate to ask for anything. God knows, I have presumed often enough to say things to you I would not say to any one else.”
“I trust you will not change your mind, when you hear what I have to say,” said Emma, wretchedly. “Do not marry Mr. Baring.”
Miss Knightley’s astonishment was evident and complete.
“I did not mean to overhear,” said Emma. “I am sorry for it; I have been sorry for it ever since I did. Probably I ought to have confessed at once. But I hardly care about that at all, next to the thought that you might accept him. I know I have no right to say so.”
“I am less concerned with your right,” said Miss Knightley, “than with your reasons.”
“You know I would hate to see you leave.”
“Emma, I will presume farther; I will ask you to tell me why. Do not tell me only that we are old friends; that you are used to me, that I am part of the common routine of your society and you would not see it interrupted. I am selfish, too; I require more than that.”
“I hardly know—but that is dishonest, and I have been dishonest enough with myself! I understood, once I knew what Mr. Baring intended, and when you reminded me of the place you hold in your brother’s home, that it is only natural you should want a place more secure than that. A place you could hold in your own right, which might not be supplanted by any one with merely a legal claim to it. I understand why you might accept him. But it came to me that you must accept such a place from no one but myself. That your life, if you choose to share it, ought to be shared with me.
“I told you it was selfishness,” she went on, when Miss Knightley paled. “I ought to add vanity; and jealousy as well! But that is what I think, that if you ever leave Donwell Abbey, it must be for Hartfield and nowhere else. You will never be supplanted there; you will need to persuade no-one to accept your authority over the estate, which you know perfectly well I am unqualified to manage as you would. And I want you there. I want—but here it is true, that I hardly know how to tell you what I want. Only I should like it much better, if I could meet you always with ‘Good morning’ and part with a ‘Good night’; and if on some nights and mornings, there was no need for a meeting or a parting at all.”
Miss Knightley was silent; into her pale cheeks had come a touch of color. At length she laid her hand over Emma’s where it sat between them on the bench. “Thank God for your selfishness, my dearest Emma, and for your courage. I do not know if I would ever have spoken. I might have, and years ago, if I were a man; I do not mean that I myself would have shown more courage, or that I could better have borne rejection. It is not rejection I feared, but disgust.”
“I could never feel anything like it, not where you are concerned!”
“I am pleased to hear it; but that is what I feared. I even thought, at one time,” said Miss Knightley, smiling a little, “you had come to regard me as a mother, or something of the kind. That, perhaps, was why you would bear from me all the lectures and harsh truths which no other woman in England might have borne, from one who had so little right to give them.”
“That is never what I wanted from you. I thought it was friendship I wanted; I might have been satisfied with that, if it meant you were always nearby. But still I can put no words to what I do want.”
“I believe I can,” said Miss Knightley quietly, her eyes resting upon Emma’s hand, now entwined in her own. “Not here, I think, and not now; and I can make no promise of eloquence. Only give me one of those nights and one of those mornings, my beloved Emma, and I will do my indifferent best.”
“You know me too well to think I will be satisfied with only one night and morning,” said Emma. “That is a yes, then? You will refuse him.”
“I have done so already; the letter was sent this morning. You need not laugh. I did it for my sake, far more than yours. He is a good man, but that life is not for me.”
“I am laughing, because you might have told me so at once, sparing me the confession and giving your own reasons instead. Selfishness upon selfishness! I never knew you were capable of it. I am glad to find that you are.” The depth of her gladness, the exquisite happiness that came near to pain, may well be imagined, and was conveyed by the pressure of her fingers upon Miss Knightley’s hand. They sat then in outward calm, watching the children at play, and thought of the future.