In a very elegantly appointed morning room somewhere on the outskirts of Bristol, Mrs. Selina Suckling received a visitor and a letter at the same time. As the letter came only from her sister, and the visitor came fresh from the haberdasher’s with no doubt equally fresh chat, Mrs. Suckling laid her correspondence by for the moment and gave her caller her fullest attention. However, sooner than expected did these good ladies exhaust their share of ill-advised dress trimmings, over-spending, and tales of who walked where with whom, and now this Mrs. Shaw’s sharp eye glimpsed the direction on her hostess’s letter, and begged that she would share it. She watched complacently as Mrs. Suckling’s eyes flew over the missive, now widening in something like surprise mixed with a hint of displeasure.
“And how is our dear Augusta?” her companion eventually asked, a respectable show of interest accompanying her question. “It’s been so long since I’ve had any news from her. I have been a shabby correspondent, I know, but somehow, one always forgets her, hidden away as she is in Surrey.”
Mrs. Suckling lifted her eyes and sighed. “Augusta is well as usual, or rather better than. She writes to announce that she’s managed to secure Signorina Abelli for a concert evening.”
Her companion’s surprise was expected, but made a poor balm for Mrs. Suckling’s disturbed nerves. “Has she really? Why, that is marvelous! But how can she have done so on her – well, my dear, only I’ve read that the Signorina goes nowhere for less than a crowd of five hundred and a fee of the same.” Mrs. Shaw’s eyes supplied the remainder of her question.
“She does not share the details of her coup, but merely begs the favor of our company at such a momentous occasion. And as there is hardly anything Mr. Suckling enjoys more than the Signorina’s soprano, I’m sure we shall have to be there to see it.” Another, heavier, sigh. “I suppose we’ve put the journey off long enough.”
“Oh! But to be so long on the road! It’s nearly a two days’ journey to – er – Highbury, yes? You’ll be miserable going so far.”
“I assure you, Susan, that to ensure Mr. Suckling’s good humor, I would go a good deal further. He is wild over the Signorina. We heard her first years ago in Bath, at one of Mrs. Church's soirees. He was enchanted with her, and ever since he’s never been able to rest peacefully if she is going through her scales within 100 miles. If I were to deny him this opportunity of hearing her in a family party, I would never hear the end of it!" She glanced upwards contemplatively and said, "There would have to be an extremely good reason, and we are completely disengaged for the near future.”
“Well, my dear, you always were imaginative, you know.”
Mrs. Suckling made no immediate reply. She was busy thinking, remembering that she had found their coachman to be rather persuadable in the past.
Mrs. Augusta Elton could well imagine the surprise, the shock that her invitations must be occasioning among her old Bath acquaintance and in the general environs of Maple Grove. Over a year gone since her marriage, and none of them had yet managed to personally witness her conquest of Highbury society, nor her modest entrée into the echelons of London. It was through some of these newer London connections – the cousin of her friend Mrs. Stone, whose upstairs maid had it from a Mrs. George’s head footman, who had it from the Signora’s own coachman – that she would now be able to display her triumphs to proper effect. Perhaps it might’ve been better still had she been able to exhibit the command of such resources in Bath, or even Bristol, but those ships had sailed, and she was now comfortable enough with reigning over Highbury’s pond. Reigning, she paused at that thought; she could not quite square the use of such a term. However, everyone needed a favor now and then, and although she might rather have been indebted to some other person, the gift was small, quite a trifle really, and the knowledge of it would not diminish her achievement once the great evening finally arrived.
In quite a different morning room, in a little notch in the Donwell Abbey estate in Surrey, Emma Knightley had no sacrifices of civility to make. Her letter from her sister had just been finished, and all its attendant news of other Knightleys had been safely stored away in the dearest part of her memory, before her visitor was announced.
“Good day, Mrs. Knightley,” Harriet said, divesting herself of cloak and bonnet in a deft motion, coming to take a seat near Emma. Her movements were smooth and sure, suffused with the confidence of one who knew well what each limb was capable of and how to use them all to the best effect. For not the first time, Emma silently marveled at the changes that this marriage into the Martins had worked on her friend, and wondered if more were to come; wondered what sort of a Harriet their teachings might produce in the long run. But she was speaking, and with enthusiasm. “Have you had this news? There is to be a concert for a famous London opera singer right here at the Crown in six weeks' time! Could you have believed a famous London singer would want to come here? I wonder how it comes about.”
Emma met this onslaught of interest with equanimity. In this room, apparently so like its counterpart at Maple Grove, Mrs. Elton’s invitation had been delivered personally, verbally, some weeks before, and thus its import had been far less of a surprise to her than was felt in Somerset or here among the card party regulars. “Yes, I had heard of it. At the moment, Highbury speaks of nothing else.”
“But of course you knew already. You always know everything,” Harriet said with a warm – a genuine – smile that convinced Emma that, yes, the dear girl had yet her bit to learn.
“Yes, and what’s more, Harriet, we are indebted to Mrs. Elton for bringing this genius into our midst.” Emma was surprised that the lady’s name hadn’t been attached to the event with bolts and wire; some part of her had suspected that Mrs. Elton would do no less than to make up handbills with her name twice as large as this soprano’s. But perhaps this was unjust. Perhaps they were all still learning. “She has engaged this woman’s indulgence and acts for the evening as Lady Patroness.”
Harriet hummed noncommittally. “Well, even so, I’m sure it shall be quite the occasion. Miss Cole is to play her harp, which I have never yet heard! And I believe Mrs. Weston has been asked to perform on pianoforte. I had wondered if you were to be part of the program, Mrs. Knightley,” she said, seeming to come to a realization as she spoke, “but now I suppose not,” she finished quietly, eyes gazing at Emma with mingled doubt and discontent.
“No, as it happens I am not to perform. But,” she said quickly, hoping to spare the dear girl any unnecessary discomfort, “Mrs. Elton did indeed ask if I wished to participate. I chose not.” She plucked a bit of non-existent lint from her sleeve and went on breezily, “I have no wish to class or to compare myself with an operatic virtuoso, or even with Mrs. Weston for that matter, for I well know how marvelous her playing is. I do not, of course, blame those who do want to exhibit, but I see no reason to put my meager talents on display next to people with real skill.”
Harriet was cheered by such a forthright reply, and could smile as she answered, “I remember how little you liked me to compare your playing to Miss Fairfax’s. Well, Mrs. Churchill’s. To be sure, she is everywhere reckoned as good as a master, and I suppose this Italian singer must be worth a great deal to hear too, but, well, perhaps I don’t know the first thing about music, but I know your playing and singing makes me smile and want to laugh and dance and jump about. I much prefer that to genius any day.”
Emma was highly gratified by such warm, such sincere praise, and she reached out to squeeze her friend’s hand as she replied. “That’s as may be, my dear Harriet, and I’m sure I shall always be happy to play for those who want to hear me. My best audience will ever be that full of people who love me too well to hear any lack.”
“It’s a shame that Mrs. Churchill won’t be here to see this Signorina. But, I suppose she can hear fine singing whenever she likes. She could probably put on a concert of her own, if she chose.”
“Well, yes,” Emma began hesitantly. “She certainly has the talent for it. But I don’t believe Mrs. Churchill has ever been interested in public performance. From a letter of hers I had some months back, I understand that she has grown tired of even private exhibitions. Mr. Frank Churchill is so exceedingly proud of her, she says, that hardly a dinner can go by without a ready-made audience waiting to be captivated.” Her remark was light, and Harriet received it with humor, but Emma’s agile mind could not help but light on the letter itself the import of it. She remembered Jane’s language precisely. I sometimes feel as though Frank is just biding his time until he can have the appropriate number of subscription tickets printed. Jane, too, had been attempting to make her remarks light. Emma briefly felt, after all, that she was well off to never have been too excellent at any one endeavor, or at all of them together. She had been right to dabble. There was something extremely satisfying in the absolute certainty that the admiration of her friends was all for her own sake and never for any jumble of excellencies that she represented.
“But enough of the concert, Harriet,” Emma eventually said, shaking off these reflections and pulling her friend from her own spot of wool-gathering. “What other news have you brought?”
“No news, Mrs. Knightley, only thanks. Mrs. Martin and Elizabeth wouldn’t rest until I came and thanked you properly for the bushel of cherries you sent this morning! You couldn’t know, but they’re a particular favorite of Mr. Martin’s, only all of the trees on the farm were blighted some years back, and no one could ever tell how. He’ll be over the moon to come home to a cherry pudding at dinner.”
“Then that must be reward enough for my actions.”
“Well, I won’t quarrel with you, but you shall also have two of our cream cheeses. I sent them by Joseph this morning. We had more than we could do with, and I know they are so particularly agreeable to your father.”
“That’s lovely of you, Harriet. Try as she might, Serle can never get a cream cheese quite right enough for table. Thank you.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, Mrs. Knightley. As generous as you always are to everyone, it is a pleasure to give something back to you on occasion.”
Emma sighed inwardly; she knew her friend meant no harm in her reflections, but the idea of generosity gave her pause. Harriet's words made Emma feel uncomfortably like the benefactor on high, dropping coins to shabby villagers. “Come now, Harriet, no ledgers are kept between friends. Hartfield’s cherries, the Abbey-Mill farm’s cream cheeses, Donwell’s strawberries, and more besides. Between us we need not want for anything.” It was a rather democratic view, and Emma surprised herself as she spoke, but she found she preferred that sentiment to the former idea. Her adventures in patronizing had netted her little good in the past, after all, and had almost cost her this present happiness.
But Harriet’s smile was bright enough to cast out shadows, thus none were there to trouble Emma as she returned the expression, and turned the conversation until Harriet declared she must get back to Abbey-Mill where she was needed in the stillroom. She took her leave and Emma watched in a glow of satisfaction, her young friend moving briskly out of the room, out of the Hartfield gates, and into the Donwell lane.
Mrs. Elton was making her way to Ford’s. The walk was not one she took often, for although she was a very vocal proponent of exercise, especially for married women, she preferred to save her walks for social calls, and to send Reynolds on errands of this sort. But now, when each stroll through Highbury’s center held the added charm of hearing her own name whispered in various bits of favorable chatter as she passed along, the journey was irresistible. She therefore stepped over the venerable shop’s threshold with ease, and immediately engaged Mrs. Ford’s notice with a bright sweep of her eyes. That good woman bustled over from the fabric counter and immediately inquired after Mrs. Elton, Mr. Elton, and all the Eltons that had ever been or were likely to be, Mrs. Elton broached the interesting subject, although in a somewhat hushed voice.
“Mrs. Ford, I have come to you with a very particular request,” she began haltingly, glancing about to ascertain whether the eyes of her fellow patrons had been drawn by their confidential postures and tones. “I am in need of several yards of blue moire.”
“Blue?” Mrs. Ford repeated searchingly.
“Yes, but it must be a sort of Capri blue, you know. Very soft and light.”
“Ah, lovely. You’ll do very well in such a shade ma’am. Just the thing for your coloring. And you’ll want it cut for long sleeves, I’m sure?”
“No, no, my good lady, it’s not for a gown. In fact, I must have it cut into curtains, yes, twelve curtains. But they must be as flat as possible in their hanging, no festoons, you understand. Such would spoil their illuminating effect.”
“Illuminating, Mrs. Elton?”
“Indeed, illuminating. You see,” she said, leaning just that bit more over the counter, “I have been informed that such faintly colored silk curtains are essential for lighting in certain situations; they give just the proper, well, Mediterranean effect. Quite essential, you know.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Ford said wonderingly. “I do see. And you’ll need twelve, you said, ma’am?"
Thus began the spirited exchange of specifications and suggestions. The two cheerfully discussed measurements and the proper placement of eyelets while Mrs. Elton kept a nonchalant eye on the comings and goings, the looks and whispers of those around her.
“And shall I send them on to the Vicarage?” Mrs. Ford asked at last, looking conspiratorial. Her tone had a just-suppressed giddiness that delighted her customer.
“No, no, not the Vicarage, ah, they are to be delivered directly to the Crown. Mrs. Hodges will know just what to do with them. Yes, directly to the Crown.”
“Indeed.” Mrs. Ford smiled widely and murmured agreement; a certain gleam in her eye showed that she grasped the lady’s full meaning, and Mrs. Elton sighed comfortably.
This errand complete, Mrs. Elton’s thoughts turned homeward. The morning was well spent, and although her caro sposo would be indisposed at the parish meeting, she felt she would do best to dally around the Vicarage thinking of how best to share the morning’s various successes with him when he returned. This business of the concert seemed to cheer him up as little else these days, and she had need of his good cheer. Mrs. Elton could not quite tell how, but her social engagements had all felt rather flat of late; her delight in dinners and parties had diminished somewhat. There was a curious sense of routine about most of her Highbury evenings now; the compliments that came her way were still highly flattering, but they seemed routine, as though her various distinctions were all catalogued and filed away. There could be only two explanations for such a change: either she had grown too subtle in displaying her superior qualities, or ... well, no, surely with all her talents and resources she had as much power to captivate and fascinate as ever. This concert would put all to rights again. There would be ample display of her skill in entertaining; she could answer for abundance of the buffet and the and the correct provision of ice for a midsummer evening. Not to mention all the credit due her for the artistic arrangement of the room itself. And of course her sparkling wit on display in the introductions! She believed Miss Nash planned to offer a piece of Auber's; that would be a fine opportunity to demonstrate that her mastery of French was equal to her Italian. If only Jane were here, she might have even been able to try her hand at German. But, no matter. No other lady, she was absolutely sure, had ever given Highbury an evening so superior as the one she was planning, and Highbury, she was also sure, would know how to esteem her as she deserved for such singular liberality. She could feel her heart gladdening at the prospect.
In this fine flow of feeling, she decided to stop in at the Bateses’. Her visits there had not decreased since Miss Fairfax became Miss Churchill and departed for Yorkshire; much the reverse, she still called often, and was still highly gratified to find herself so useful to Jane, assisting in her attempts to convince Mrs. and Miss Bates to pack up their Highbury establishment and join Jane at Enscombe. Miss Bates had not yet been moved, but Mrs. Elton was sure that her industrious efforts at persuasion joined with Jane's heartfelt suggestions would soon bear fruit. And her visits now were often enhanced by hearing Mrs. Churchill's letters, some part of which were not infrequently addressed to herself, thanking her for continuing to attend so kindly to her aunt and grandmothers needs. She rarely received a letter from Mrs. Churchill herself, but the warmth with which Jane mentioned her in her aunt's letters was a mark of family intimacy that she valued more. Miss Woodhouse - Mrs. Knightley, her mind occasionally had to supply - had never made an appearance in one of Mrs. Churchill's letters to her aunt, for all that they were supposed to be warm friends now. That thought gave her some satisfaction as she knocked on the familiar door. It was a little late just now for calling, but she knew that such an old friend as Miss Bates would always be glad to see her, and would moreover likely be full of the sort of chatter to support her own anticipatory glee for quite some time, therefore she had no compunction as she was shown into their peaceful little sitting-room. She had done nothing but start toward her usual seat before Miss Bates began speaking, and after that, there was nothing further to do but let the chat wash over her.
“Mrs. Elton! How lovely – yes, please have a seat. Do say you will take a piece of this cake, too; Mr. Knightley has sent us the most delicious plums! I can’t tell how he always knows what will be most pleasing to my mother, but somehow – and you know with Hartfield now at his disposal, his generosity is really beyond – ah! you’re looking so well, dear Mrs. Elton! And so full of energy – I should’ve thought you would have too much keeping you busy just now to stop here. I did see you pop into Fords, and I told my mother – ah, I said, there’s Mrs. Elton’s just gone into Ford’s, no doubt on some business related to this concert. – Mother is so very excited about the Signorina, by the by – she used to adore Italian singing when she was younger – we’ll have to make sure her chair is – if it will be all right?” She paused to cast a questioning glance at Mrs. Elton, who must have made some imperceptible gesture of agreement without knowing, for the lady instantly picked up and went on, “But I was so sure you would pass us by – I don’t wonder if she’s got an order to put in, I said, so much as she must have to do for – I’m sure she won’t have time – did not I say, Mother, that it was quite understandable if she should hasten on – so much to arrange, and that of course must be so much more interesting than our busy nothings. Mrs. Cole has been in this morning as well, and I said much the same to her, that she must have more important calls to make. She was good enough to disclaim, but I know we are often very dull – however, she too was full of this concert! Indeed, her Sarah is to display her harp, but of course you know all about it – she is so thrilled at the thought, but so they all are, and no wonder – a real virtuoso among us, wonderful! Only a fortnight away now. I suppose there hasn’t been anything so interesting to happen to Highbury since I was a girl, when Queen Charlotte passed through on her way to Epsom – what a day that was! – the streets were full, and all the shops and all the houses in town were festooned with flags and bunting, and everyone was everywhere, so that their caravan could hardly pass through. Such condescension her highness had, ma’am! She stopped her own carriage and leaned out, and shook hands with so many of us! I was quite out of the way, as it happens – Mother did not like for any of us to be in the center of crushes and crowds – but I’m sure I would’ve been too overcome – and it was well enough, truly, just to see her. So handsome she was then – I believe I have hardly seen a handsomer woman, although our Mrs. Knightley – well, and we had an illumination that night – so much darker our nights were then, somehow; now with our good lamps we hardly want the moon – all the candles in the windows, it was quite beautiful!”
Mrs. Elton saw her way in, and attempted to head off the torrent with a well-placed, well-modulated, “Ah!” And Miss Bates stopped speaking, and looked at Mrs. Elton with a bit of surprise, almost as though she had forgotten for a moment that she was speaking to anyone at all. Mrs. Elton continued, “I believe you are in for a treat, my dear friend, for an illumination is just what we have planned for our concert. The Signorina is decidedly mad for her homeland, naturally, and demands, well when speaking of anyone with an artistic bent, one should of course say prefers,” she smiled prettily, “to be surrounded by images reminiscent of Italia. I’ve arranged for just such scenes to take up the windows. Paired with the beautiful draping, I am sure the Crown will be transformed into quite the Mediterranean paradise. We will not know it again.”
“Wonderful! Just wonderful,” Miss Bates crooned. “And so clever of you to arrange it all. With you at the heart of things I shouldn’t wonder that everything will be lovely - you’ll be quite our little queen, yourself, won’t you? But I suppose you always take care – that is to say, of course I know how much you enjoy arranging us all. Yes! We are quite blessed to have your active nature here among us. You do all you can to wake up our sleepy little ways, do you not?”
Here again, a compliment that did not touch her as it should. Still, Mrs. Elton responded with a bright smile, and assented to it all.
Though the anticipation for this illustrious concert had been building for well over six weeks, with details trickling in and out of family circles in a most tantalizing fashion and expectations carefully, but gradually stoked to a fever pitch, it is much to Mrs. Elton’s credit that the event itself, when it did finally take place, could almost match the unearthly transports imagined by a large part of her company.
Emma certainly thought so as she walked round the Crown’s ballroom for only the second time, marveling at what candles and cloth and industrious scrubbing could do to turn one place into quite another. Emma might have quibbled with the woman’s ease in place of elegance, or with her pert pretensions to superiority, but she must own that Mrs. Elton had done an admirable job of setting the stage for her Signorina. The setting sun streaming through illuminated windows threw shadows and warm shades of vivid earth and sky around the room, and the soft candlelight reflected beautifully off the shimmering blue draperies ringing the room; the overall effect suggested softly undulating waves, sea and salt and sun. If only she didn’t already know the fact too well herself, Emma would have been far more willing to tell Mrs. Elton that she had created a lovely scene.
And Mrs. Elton did know; she herself could only be seen flitting in and out of the ballroom, looking gleeful, busy, and mysterious all at once, reveling as she picked up bits of chatter about her arrangements:
Yes, my dear, and I believe she cut them herself – licorice lozenges, Mrs. Gilbert, have you ever heard of such a thing? Nor I, but Eliza was telling me she read that licorice is very good for the coats of the throat! The very thing! – on tenterhooks to hear – Mrs. Goddard said as soon as she walked in she knew that the candles cost them a fortune – everything in the nicest style – even the Hartfield family is here, you see –
She fairly floated through the rooms, and not even the mercurial moods of an Italian prima donna could dampen her delight when she looked out into the expectant faces of her public, family members of the first performers seated attentively, but the majority milling about in wonder, taking in their surroundings and their company with impressed faces and voices. Only one aspect of the evening could possibly check her spirits at such a moment, so when she spied Miss Woodhouse - Mrs. Knightley - on the outskirts of the room lingering near the refreshments, watching the proceedings with a discerning eye, she girded her nerves and walked over, making as little of a spectacle of herself as possible. She did not want attention or witnesses for this conversation. Perhaps Mrs. Knightley had a little more right than the former Miss Woodhouse to consider herself as presiding over any company, but the thought of her diminishing Mrs. Elton's achievement was distressing.
Emma observed Mrs. Elton approaching and prepared to greet her as politely as she could. “Mrs. Elton, you seem to have done an extraordinary thing here. Congratulations are due.” She stopped there, pleased with herself for having managed a compliment without delivering it personally. But then she reconsidered; Mrs. Elton did - for once - deserve to be congratulated. They need not be the best of friends, or even companionable acquaintances - tolerant, perhaps? - but she could be gracious enough to acknowledge a real success. She added, "Your efforts have produced a remarkable event."
Mrs. Elton was startled by such a courteous opening; Mrs. Knightley, she well knew, could be as satirical a humorist as her husband when she chose, although without the esteem she knew Knightley held for her to soften any possible affronts. She was therefore hesitant as she replied, “Thank you, Mrs. Knightley. Yes, it is always gratifying to know one’s efforts have not embarrassed one.” She closed with an affected little laugh.
Emma again struggled - such obvious angling for flattery! - but it was harmless vulgarity; she could let it pass. She managed then, “Yes, after tonight I am sure all of your friends will be pleased to say that you give lovely concerts.”
Mrs. Elton was still puzzled by such ready approval, but the lady seemed sincere enough, and so she was much better prepared than before to make her next statement. “And of course I have you to thank in part. Without your generosity, allowing Hodges free reign over Hartfield’s striped beets, Signorina Abelli would never have agreed to come here.”
That word again, Emma thought. No ledgers between friends, and perhaps not between tolerant acquaintances either. “But Hartfield’s contribution was quite small, Mrs. Elton. It isn’t worth mentioning, in fact, compared with all you have done to bring this evening about.” Emma found that this admission cost her nothing, though even such trifling acclaim was clearly delighting Mrs. Elton's heart. No, she felt she had no need of the praise that would flow her way were any of the worthy Highbury ladies to know of the small role she had played in the concert’s creation. There were opinions far better worth having; she only hoped that those few who were in the secret could also sense the difference in her actions now compared with the favors and gifts she had been used to bestowing on her grateful public. She shook off these serious thoughts, and only said, “I am still quite astonished that it took so little, relatively, to secure this woman’s performance. That she would really choose to honor Highbury in exchange for a mere pudding?”
“But it is so, and no mistake. Of course I can’t reveal my confidant, but it is well known among some of London’s best circles that the Signorina will go anywhere for a supply of cassata, made with beets, as her mother used. Not even Negri will produce it for her, the one dish she loved most in her youth.”
“It is curious, but from all accounts the man is an artist, though his medium is confectionery rather than paint. Such are known to be rather temperamental and choosy.”
“I can hardly complain about his choices, since they have worked out so well for me. It is true that Gibb was quite worn out in producing enough of the sweet to appease her, but the dear soul was so very proud when her creations met with the Signora’s sweetest approval this morning. She had been grumbling a bit, to be sure, but now I believe she would not have missed the opportunity for the world.”
“Yes, her success must be a great reward to her, as well.”
"Indeed." Mrs. Elton looked askance, trying to take in the measure of the woman in front of her. She was thrown by the bent their discussion had taken. Perhaps Mrs. Knightley had at last been brought to see reason? Perhaps the glories of the evening had managed to tame even her pride? It seemed impossible that after all this time she should suddenly grasp the true measure of Mrs. Elton's worth in Highbury compared to her own - Mrs. Knightley had not even the resources to support a musical club, after all - but what other explanation could there be for the girl's change in attitude? Mrs. Elton felt as though she was being offered a concession, and she flattered herself that she was charitable enough to let it pass without gloating. The intent was easier than the action there; it had been so long since she conversed civilly with Mrs. Knightley, she was somewhat unprepared to keep up her end. However, she quickly recalled that she had always recourse to one favorite topic.
“How much we want dear Mrs. Churchill tonight, do we not, Mrs. Knightley? The performers who have graced us have each been wonderful, but Jane’s skills would surely have added a trifle more éclat to our proceedings.”
“I agree; had she chosen to exhibit, she would certainly have made a strong impression. Talent such as Mrs. Churchill’s is not often met with.”
By now Mrs. Elton was almost quite her familiar, easy self. This was a Mrs. Knightley she thought she could tolerate. She abandoned all remaining restraint and pursued the topic with vigor. "I should say not! When – well, when it turned out that Jane was not to go to the Smallridges after all, we had the most difficult time imaginable trying to fill her place with someone of comparable gifts. For a time, it was completely impossible to comfort poor Mrs. Smallridge for Jane’s loss. She had such hopes for her girls! Selina was a great help there; she is quite the diplomat, you know."
Emma, of course, did not know, but she forbore, now as always, to point out that she had yet to meet the Sucklings, or to witness the magnificent barouche-landau with her own eyes. Mrs. Elton took her silence for assent in her topic, and continued on some moments longer speaking of her sister and how she would certainly have danced attendance on this significant night had not not her horses each been unfortunately lamed at the last moment. It was the strangest thing: each had lost or damaged a shoe. The coachman and farrier were both puzzled, and Mr. Suckling was sure to have the strongest possible words with each.
Eventually, Mrs. Elton returned to Mrs. Churchill's talents, imagining how Jane's performance of certain Italian songs might even stand up to comparison with the Signorina if only she were here to be tried. Emma, thinking of an old letter, could not agree, but Mrs. Elton did not need agreement to carry her on; she dwelt quite happily on how thoroughly Mrs. Churchill was winning over her new circle in Yorkshire, with much emphasis on her ability to sympathize with anyone truly accomplished coming into a new country. After a short while, Emma felt there had been quite enough discussion in this vein, and as she was far more experienced than Mrs. Elton at ending awkward interludes, she briefly thanked the woman for giving her so much of her conversation on such a busy night, and then excused herself on the respectable pretense of delivering some news or other to Harriet. From the corner of her eye, she noticed that her vacated spot was filled in an instant, ladies eager to pour in their compliments and congratulations. She told herself firmly that she did not mind.
Once the more amateur ranks had had the chance to exhibit, the straggling spectators claimed their seats in order to take in the more polished half of the program. Emma noticed, with a little scorn that couldn't be helped, Mr. Elton guiding his wife once again to her place at the very front of the room - making a valiant effort to match his air to the self-importance of his wife's, and managing it rather neatly. It was a close question, she thought, which of the two was the more pleased with their circumstances at this moment. She herself slid smoothly into her chair next to Mr. Knightley, and at this reunion, she experienced a bit of satisfaction of her own.
“Ah, Emma. I was wondering when you would remember to attend to the concert portion of this concert evening. I have hardly seen you, and all of the Otways and Greens and Kings and such have passed without your notice.” He tsked, but his eyes shone with mirth.
Emma had no trouble at all matching his expression as she replied, “Dear, oh dear; I fear I have been sadly remiss. But it’s my good fortune to be able to rely on you to tell me all about every detail of their exhibitions. Our ride back to Hartfield will be most illuminating; I shall look forward to your recitals with the greatest anticipation.”
“It will be my pleasure to gratify you then, unless something, ah, else takes your mind off of that subject.” Her eyes widened, and she smiled archly, but he continued, “Young Miss Cole is yet to come on her harp, after all. And Mrs. Weston follows her.” His eyes dared her to laugh, and not trusting herself to reply, Emma turned her attention to the front of the room.
The few remaining performances trickled past; Emma occasionally noted that this one had taste, and that one joined a sweet voice with capital execution. And then she watched with swelling pride as her dearest friend enchanted the room. Mrs. Weston had never been able to inspirit in her that vital passion, the desire to play for playing’s sake, and so Emma was as much struck as ever by that passion exposed so demonstratively in her friend’s performance. Her flexible voice tripped over a selection of Irish Melodies before she changed seamlessly to some of Haydn’s Scots airs, and closing with a sonata of Pleyel’s. Emma knew that last to be a particular favorite of the performer, and she experienced a vicarious thrill on behalf of her friend at the pleasure she must surely have in sharing the pure joy of playing with this numerous audience.
In the interval between the local displays and the grand event to come, Emma was surprised by Mr. Knightley's inquiring into her discussion with Mrs. Elton. Apparently, he had been watching their seeming intimacy with great interest. Had the woman tried to extort any promises from Emma not to reveal the secret of the beets?
“She did not; she only thanked me. I'm sure she has no fears of that kind. Likely she believes I am far too proud to own that I would ever give her anything.” She cocked her head and quirked her mouth satirically. “Or, perhaps she trusts that I have at last bowed to her innate social superiority, and have no longer any need of spoiling her grand illusions.”
Mr. Knightley at first made no reply, but gazed at her meditatively for a short moment; when his thoughts finished, he took her hand, briefly kissed it, and released it, saying with enthusiasm, “My dearest Emma, your generosity continues to astonish me.”
Emma gasped softly, but was saved the trouble of answering him; a sudden hush fell over the room, and so she grasped his hand, squeezing it fondly as the Signorina appeared to take the makeshift stage.