Many people have claimed to be known better by their husband or wife than they know their own selves, yet I think those who can claim such intimacy truly are few. They imagine it to be a comfort, an assurance of security, and surely at times it must be that. I have often indeed thought the same.
But there is little to prepare you for the sinking feeling of looking into your husband’s eyes, into the eyes of the man who has promised to love and protect you, who has done what no other man would have in putting your aged father’s perfect happiness ahead of his own concerns, who has loved you, not blindly, but too well, since you turned a very foolish 13 years old, when you look into his eyes and see reflected there knowledge that is causing him the very deepest pain; for once again, he has realized something that you had not.
What kind of a man then is this, to hold such knowledge in his heart and yet to love you still?
Not one person in a hundred thousand could believe herself loved so, and I was sore burdened by that awareness.
It all began, as things in Highbury so often do, with a letter. Jane Churchill (née Fairfax) had written to Mrs. and Miss Bates, in which letter she had given her aunt and grandmother to understand that she had, at Enscombe, made the acquaintance of a certain young lady who would soon be travelling in the vicinity of Highbury, and surely they could, of their goodness, see to it that the lady did not want for entertainment or society during her stay? This news (most exciting indeed!) having been communicated forthwith to all inhabitants of the town, it was soon arranged that the young lady should stop at Hartfield, as being the most suitable place for a gentle visitor, for it could not be thought that she should lodge with the Bateses. No, Highbury would be quite the best place for her, if only Mr. Woodhouse could be persuaded that it would not be a fatal disruption of routine.
Emma broke the unwelcome news over breakfast one fine spring morning, hoping that the warm weather in its healthful mien might help convince her father that it would be safe for all concerned. Mr. Woodhouse naturally was of the opinion that the young lady should not be travelling such a distance in the first place, but having been assured that she intended such a risky course, he was not at all sure why this Miss Lawton should have to stop at Hartfield, as Mrs. Churchill was not a relative of theirs, after all, but was connected with the Bateses and the Westons; surely one of them might be a more suitable host?
It was Mr. Knightley who, as so often, knew the right thing to say to smooth over the difficulty, by reminding Mr. Woodhouse that the young lady would certainly be at great risk of catching a cold from her travel and to compound that by eating the over-rich food she would undoubtedly be served could only endanger her health unnecessarily. Won over by such sound argument, Mr. Woodhouse came to feel that his only choice was to safeguard the health of the as yet unknown Miss Lawton.
Miss Anne Lawton arrived some weeks later at Hartfield, dusty and rather weary from her travel, but such was her native good-spiritedness that she made no complaint, but instead quickly ingratiated herself to her hosts by complimenting Hartfield to the exact degree required – neither so little as to seem churlish or begrudging nor yet so much as to seem a mere flatterer. She professed delight with the countryside and the setting, the house and its furnishing, and the occupants themselves she seemed remarkably happy to meet. Mr. Knightley unfortunately had had to go to London on business, but Emma and Mr. Woodhouse were in residence, and Emma thought her father thoroughly charmed by the young lady’s manner.
Emma felt herself immediately drawn to Miss Lawton, finding her possessed of the sort of beauty which had always appealed to her: a small, sweet face and wide, clear eyes of a bright grey. She had an easy smile that Emma immediately wished she could cause more. It had been so long since Emma had had a good friend nearby; oh, there was Mrs. Weston, of course, still but a half-mile from Hartfield, but as there was always her small daughter to be taking her attention, their old intimacy was forever altered; and as for Harriet, well, despite Knightley’s best efforts at bringing her to see the good points of Mr. Martin – and she must concede his good character – that rupture seemed to Emma not one that could be mended. There must always be a small frisson of pain at seeing her, even if she truly could be happy with the good Mr. Martin. Nor was she entirely sure that she could ever have had the requisite easiness in Mrs. Churchill’s presence to admit of true intimacy.
No, there was little left for her in the way of female society in Highbury, and she counted herself only extremely lucky that she had found in her husband such a good companion. Knightley was everything she could have imagined in the husband she had never wanted.
And yet, she missed having a bosom friend; there was sometimes a strange longing she felt, but could not quite name. Miss Lawton’s arrival was timely, indeed.
After luncheon, Emma took Miss Lawton up to the room prepared for her herself, and she was quite overcome with happiness when Miss Lawton said, “Do come and sit by me, Mrs. Knightley. I should so like us to be friends.”
She acceded to Miss Lawton’s kind entreaty, and felt her heart rather aflutter as she joined the other woman on the bench by the window. She pointed out towards the grounds and said, “Do you see the summer-house out in the distance, Miss Lawton? It is one of my favorite places here at Hartfield.”
Miss Lawton made noises of admiration at the view, and added, “I cannot help but think the grounds here at Hartfield are only so lovely because you are here to make them so.”
Emma blushed, deeply. She supposed it was embarrassment at the flattering words and chided her own vanity that was so eager to hear praise from others—even a virtual stranger! “You are too kind, Miss Lawton,” she answered her new friend. But the heat would not leave her cheeks.
As the days of Miss Lawton’s visit went on, the people at Hartfield learned more of her origins and her people: of old Yorkshire stock, she was the only child of a prosperous country squire from whom, it seemed, she would inherit a tidy £3,000 a year, while the estate an estate (“not nearly so grand as Hartfield,” she’d explained, most satisfactorily), because of the entail, would pass to a distant cousin. She was taking the opportunity to travel a bit after the recent passing of her father, an elderly widower who had doted, it would seem, on his only child and had determined that, if God had not seen fit to grant him a son, he would share with his daughter the activities that otherwise might have been precluded by her sex. Miss Lawton could, much to Emma’s amazement, boast not only of the traditional female accomplishments: drawing, painting, a little French, a nice hand on the pianoforte; but she could also read Latin and Greek, oversee the keeping of the estate’s accounts, even, she once confided to Emma in a low whisper, go out grouse shooting with her father’s friends.
She seemed a very capable person, and Emma rather envied Miss Lawton’s confidence in her own talents; she was a very generous praiser of others’ skills and accomplishments, and she insisted on hearing Emma sing when they had supper parties in the evenings. Being the two youngest, with Mrs. and Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston present, it seemed natural for them to play as partners in the card hands, or to withdraw to the side while others chatted. Miss Lawton had read many more books than had Emma (who promptly resolved once more to undertake a course of improving reading, and she spent a frantic hour one night before falling asleep in writing out a list of all the books she had heard Miss Lawton mention, many of them in Greek or Latin), but she seemed to delight in telling Emma all about them, without a hint of condescension in her manner; and how prettily she would then ask Emma to draw something!
Indeed, one evening, after their guests had returned home (Mr. Woodhouse not feeling that anyone should stay too late, lest a chill be caught in the night air) and her father had betaken himself to bed, leaving only the two of them still awake, Emma herself began to feel an urge that she had thought long abandoned after the debacle with Harriet and Mr. Elton: she longed to do a portrait of Miss Lawton.
“Please do let me take your likeness,” she entreated her friend, and she was quite glad she had suggested it, when she saw the pleased look of surprise on her friend’s face.
“Why, I should be very honored, Mrs. Knightley, to have you do so! I am afraid I might not make the most comely of subjects, but if you can overlook that fault, I would be delighted to see what you might make of me.”
“Nonsense,” replied Emma. “I can hardly imagine a more perfect face, and I only wish that my skills were enough to truly capture your look.”
She bade Miss Lawton sit near to the fire, thinking that the shadows and light from the grate would serve to illuminate her friend’s soft colouring. “Now, do not speak, I pray you, while I draw, but by and by you may come and see the result.” Miss Lawton promised faithfully to wait for all to be revealed.
Emma took up her charcoal and began with the outlines, filling in more detail as she traced with her eyes the lines of Miss Lawton’s face and neck, deciding to do a head study first, and then maybe a full-length attempt later, if her friend would permit. She smudged the charcoal with her finger, to suggest the softness of the sandy-coloured curls, caressing the paper with each mark. She drank in the sight of the other woman and said, almost without meaning to, “You are so beautiful, Miss Lawton.”
The words hung in the air for a moment, before Miss Lawton said, “Surely you don’t expect me to say nothing to that, even if it would ruin your concentration?”
“No,” flustered Emma, “That is, I am finished with this part if you would care to come look?”
Miss Lawton stood up gracefully and crossed to where Emma sat amid her drawing materials.
“A beautiful portrait,” she said quietly. “I cannot imagine whom you were looking at to draw something so lovely.”
“You,” responded Emma. She felt once more that odd blush upon her cheek. “Miss Lawton—Anne—“
“Yes? What is it? Are you quite well?”
“I do not know. I feel… most strange. I think I should go to bed.”
Her friend nodded, and reached out to caress her cheek gently. “Good night, then, Emma.”
Emma fled, unsure why her heart was pounding so loudly, but certain that Anne must be able to hear it also.
The following morning Emma awoke to find that Knightley was returned from London, and she threw herself into his arms when she saw him standing in the morning room, crying, “Mr. Knightley! When did you come home? I didn’t hear you at all last night so you must have returned very early this morning! How are Isabella and brother John? How are the children? Was your business concluded satisfactorily?”
Knightley laughed and returned her fond embrace, then attempted to answer her many questions. “I returned first thing this morning from Donwell, having gone thither from London yesterday. John and Isabella and the children are all well, and little Emma has had a new dress; my business has turned out most satisfactorily, indeed. And you? Are all well here at Hartfield?”
“We are,” replied Emma. “Papa has been in excellent spirits, and as for Miss Lawton, oh, she is perfection itself!”
“Perfection?” asked Knightley with a surprised smile. “I have not heard you describe anyone as that, before, that I can recall.”
“Near enough to, then, if not the article itself, but you will surely find much to admire in her. I know you have not always thought me the wisest in my choice of friends, but I do think you’ll like her.”
And then the lady in question herself entered the morning room to break her fast, and Emma gladly made the introductions. On hearing of Miss Lawton’s interest in the classics, Knightley told them of a find that a nearby farmer had made on his land: an evident hoard of Roman coins, left by someone once in the ground, unclaimed. They all determined to travel that afternoon to see it, with Miss Bates, if she were agreeable, making up a fourth. The weather promised to be the perfect sort of June day, warm and sunny without being overwhelming in its heat, and Emma was determined to be delighted that her husband should approve of her new friend, and her own conduct (she had never forgotten her ill-done slight to Miss Bates that day at Box Hill, even if the amiable lady herself had never made mention of it again, nor shown the slightest hint that all was not forgiven), as well.
Miss Bates, it turned out, was not agreeable to their plan, professing a need to remain with Mrs. Bates, who, it seemed, had rather a head-ache. But undaunted, the holiday-makers proceeded on by three to Roundhill Farm, where Mr. MacGregor, a tenant of Knightley’s, seemed only to happy to bring out his discovery.
“Over 100 different coins there,” he explained, and Emma was surprised to see how small some of them were; she had almost expected anything Roman to be monumental in size, like the arches or amphitheaters she had seen pictured in a history book once. Each coin seemed to have a different design, heads of (she supposed) different Roman leaders or goddesses or ears of corn, and cryptic letters all along the outside.
Anne appeared to know what they said, and she read a few to Emma, who, finding that they were not all that much more exciting than the inscriptions on their own coins, was ready to move on to see the find site itself. Anne and Knightley, however, seemed fascinated by the coins, discussing most seriously which emperor each coin depicted and trying to arrive, Emma gathered, at a date for the whole collection.
While Anne and Knightley debated, she spoke for a while with the farmer’s wife; it was as awkward as always, since they neither had anything in common nor any need of each other, but Mrs. MacGregor was a gracious woman, with a generous air and the easy voluptuousness of the peasant. Emma felt quite warm in the farmhouse’s low main room, pressed close to her hostess to give the scholars space to examine the coins. She tried to follow Mrs. MacGregor’s remarks, but found her eyes drifting again and again to Anne, conversing animatedly.
“Surely that’s Septimius Severus,” Anne was saying, and Knightley was nodding at her in agreement, while pulling another coin from the pile to show her. She had never realised that Knightley knew so much about Roman history. Emma felt a sudden pang, wondering what it must be like to be able to converse, as Anne did, with such authority. Her grey eyes were sparkling, and she leaned forward over the table, which caused Emma to follow the line of her neck down towards her bosom, tracing with her eyes, as she had the previous night while drawing her likeness, the contours of her friend’s features. Anne was wearing a very old-fashioned style gown, wrapped in the front, but Emma found it difficult to count it as a fault in her friend that she was not terribly interested in fashion; after all, Anne had so many other, weightier interests. Still, Emma could not help wondering whether one of the newer styles might not flatter Anne more, a dress with a higher waist and more conical skirt, gathered just there, right under her bosom…
“She is a handsome woman, to be sure,” said Mrs. MacGregor suddenly, breaking into Emma’s reverie. “But Mr. Knightley, being the homebody sort, you understand, and herself what she is, well, I wouldn’t fret about that one, anyway, child.”
“I am sure I don’t know what you mean,” said Emma, coldly, perceiving some slight to her friend, or perhaps to Knightley, even if she was not quite sure what the farmer’s wife was intimating. Did she think Emma concerned that Knightley, most honourable man to ever draw breath, might betray her with Anne? Or that Anne would do such a thing to her?
“I beg your pardon, madam, no offense meant to anybody.”
But she was laughing softly, and not kindly, to herself as they left with her husband to go to see the site where he had found the coins, and Emma felt herself most disconcerted and out-of-sorts.
Owing perhaps to her mood, nothing seemed to please Emma the rest of the day: the meadow in which Mr. MacGregor had found the coins was too muddy, the trip home too long; the sudden bumps and jolts of the pony trap as they proceeded all served to make her glad when they finally reached Hartfield again, just before the dinner hour. They were dining informally, en famille, with just Emma and Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse, and Anne present, and she hesitated between several of her gowns, uncertain of which to wear. Had Anne already seen the pink silk? Was the Turkey red too formal? Which might go best with her hair?
She was still sitting indecisively in her chemise (her lady’s maid patiently awaiting her decision), when Knightley knocked. She bade Thompkins let him in, then dismissed her until she should call again.
“Are you quite well, Emma?” he asked her, concern obvious. “Did you not enjoy the coins?”
Something vicious twisted in her, and before she quite knew why, she found herself saying, “I am certain that you did! Or perhaps it was only Miss Lawton’s company? Did you find her fetching, with her hands covered in thousand-year-old dirt?”
Knightley seemed surprised. “Whatever do you mean?”
“She is remarkable-looking, is she not? Mrs. MacGregor even remarked upon it. Surely you are not immune.” She was practically shouting now, the words tumbling out of her at breakneck speed. “Why, who could not admire her? Is she not beautiful? Clever? Amusing? Even Jane Churchill cannot hold a candle to her!”
Knightley was shaking his head in bemusement. “Emma, come now, what’s all this? Surely you don’t think I could prefer any other to you? Have I not made that clear in every way?”
She sighed suddenly, letting out a huge breath of air as if from a full bladder. “Oh, Knightley, I know.” She said nothing for a minute. Knightley took hold of her hand and stroked it lightly.
He too was silent a minute, before finally saying, “Emma, my dearest, I think there is something – I know not how to speak of it – but something that must be said.”
She did not answer.
“Your friend, Miss Lawton, you admire her, do you not?”
She nodded, miserably.
“And you think her of a most attractive appearance.” She nodded again, but remained silent. She could not speak. “Much as you were fond of Harriet, or even of Mrs. Weston, when she was Miss Taylor.”
She nodded a third time, and tears began to well in her eyes.
Knightley continued, more gently still, “If you have – feelings – for Miss Lawton, if those feelings are in the vein of the passion someone might feel for a – for a sweetheart, it would not be the first time anyone ever felt thus.” He sighed. “Nor would it be the last. But you must admit what we both know.”
She did not look at him.
“Emma, I have known you since you were 13 years of age. I have loved – yes, loved you to distraction ever since. I have seen you grow into a fine woman of two-and-twenty. But I have never seen you look at anyone as you look at Anne Lawton.” He squeezed her hand gently. “Including how you have ever looked at me.”
”You are the best friend I could ever have, the best friend in all the world!” she burst out. “How could you say otherwise!”
“I have always wanted more than your friendship, Emma. But do you still not know your own heart?”
“I know that I—that I—“
“That I long to kiss Anne. And to—more than kiss her.”
Knightley squeezed her hand again and ran his thumb along the base of her palm. “Do you not know by now that all I wish is your happiness? That I would give anything to secure it? If you love her so, you should go to her.”
“And you? What of you?”
“I will always be here. I will always be your friend, Emma. And if you can offer me no more than friendship, I will still be here.”
The tears now were nearly overwhelming her, and she felt them running down her cheeks. “How can I be happy, if by being happy I make you miserable?”
“I am not miserable,” he said. “Would I lie to you, Emma? Have I ever told you anything but the truth?”
“No,” she admitted, sniffling.
“You know that we have not shared a bed as often as do many husbands and wives. You know that we have no child.”
“Has this ever bothered me? Have I ever reproached you, in word or deed, for not wishing that?”
“Believe me when I tell you that it does not matter to me. I should not like for another man to have your affections – nor certainly to have another man get a child upon you – but I do not think that will happen, do you?”
She thought of Anne. She thought of Harriet, and before her, of her beloved Miss Taylor. She thought of Knightley, her dearest friend. She was so sure that she had loved him, when she agreed to be his wife – and she did love him, like no one else in the world. Replace him with another man? Ridiculous.
But was her affection that proper to a wife? Had she not, in fact, been right all along that marriage was not the path for her?
(And what more besides kissing did she wish from Anne? Even the thought of feeling her friend’s lips upon her own – her heart seemed almost to skip.)
“It will not,” she said, finally. “But how can you not mind about…” she trailed off.
“Go to her,” Knightley said again. “Tonight, after all have retired for the evening.”
Still uncertain, Emma asked, “How do you know she would welcome me? If she sent me away, I could not bear it, I couldn’t!”
“She will not,” Knightley answered. “I am certain of that.”
He embraced her once, quickly, and kissed the very top of her head. “Dry your eyes. I’ll send Thompkins back in. And wear the pink silk. Anne did see you in it, and she told me you near took her breath away.”
Knightley was right, about everything, of course. He knew better than I did what my heart—my whole self—was yearning for. Anne welcomed me without a word that evening, shutting the door behind me and drawing me close, kissing me long and deep without a word spoken, until we were lying close together upon her bed.
I was so frantic to see her unclothed that I practically tore at the lace of her stays, stroking and caressing each inch of her body as she allowed me to see it, and she in turn felt my too hot flesh, kissing me everywhere, as if I were a feast to be devoured. (What a devouring!)
And Knightley has been as good as his word – who could doubt it? – and has never shown anything but the purest joy in my happiness, being always the perfect friend. He has welcomed Anne at Hartfield (she has no wish to return to Yorkshire, I think), and indeed, they both have begun instructing me in Latin, as kind taskmasters as ever was poor Miss Taylor. I am rather hopeless at it, I’m afraid, and I think it better for the most part that they delight in their declensions and gerundives together. But I think we all may be just getting something that, if not our heart’s desires, is close enough to be getting on with, as they say.
There are no perfect endings, but perhaps one can indeed come to know one’s own heart. Knightley knows mine, and Anne keeps it safe.