Emma could scarcely believe the humiliation and horror that was unfolding before her helpless eyes: poor Harriet disgraced as Mr. Elton— one of the only gentlemen given to dance not dancing, and she the only young lady— sauntered past her and paid her no mind, chatted with the married ladies, exchanged gloating looks with his wife. Emma’s cheeks burned in embarrassment and indignation, but there was nothing at all she could do but plan how best to console her once the set was through and Emma herself was once more at liberty.
She forced herself to look away. She could not bear to see it and do nothing— but then there came a sudden sharp gasp, and coos of dismay, and she could not help but turn her head once more. And there she found a surprising and welcome sight: Mrs. Knightley, whose preference at balls of any kind was to find the most taciturn spinster or elderly gentleman in the room and sit beside them for the duration of the evening, standing beside Harriet, a long strip of lace torn quite off the hem of her gown. Harriet, alarmed, had sprung to her feet as well.
“Won’t you help me?” Emma heard Mrs. Knightley say, and they swept off together, Harriet plucking fretfully at the hem and anxiously assuring Mrs. Knightly— who did not seem much perturbed— that they could surely repair it, no one would know the difference at all. And Mr. Elton, suddenly looking very awkward indeed, had no choice but to repair to the card-room, and to pretend that that had been his direction all along.
At supper, she found herself seated too far from Mrs. Knightley for easy conversation, and it was not until they returned to the ballroom that Emma was able to make her way to Mrs. Knightley’s side to offer her thanks on Harriet’s behalf.
“Unpardonably rude, both he and his wife,” Mrs. Knightley said. “I would tell Mrs. Elton so, but as it was her aim, the accusation would not trouble her. I would I could have asked her to dance myself.”
“You might have gotten away with it now,” Emma laughed, glancing about the room. “Look how slowly the men come in from supper! And there, you see, half of them are off to the card room. It is such a shame they are not our match in fortitude when it comes to dancing a set after supper.”
“I suspect we shall see Mr. Elton recover himself admirably from his previous fit of weakness,” Mrs. Knightley murmured. “But you do see, don’t you, that it was not only Harriet he hoped to embarrass.”
“You are in the right, of course,” Emma replied. “I think he would shame me for seeking to match him with Harriet.”
“And for his embarrassment in misunderstanding your intentions.”
Emma lowered her eyes. “Oh, why will you make me say it? Yes, you saw his character far more clearly than I. Harriet is lucky in the escape-- though I was so certain he cared for her!”
“And setting Harriet’s happiness aside, he is unfortunate in the loss,” Mrs. Knightley said. “She is a sweet, artless girl. I had never had the chance to speak to her alone before, and I enjoyed the conversation more than I expected.”
“I don’t know why you should be surprised!” Emma said. “She is my particular friend, is she not? And are not you my friend? Why should you not get along?”
A smile twitched at the corner of Mrs. Knightley’s mouth. “After all these years, you cannot have failed to notice that your conversational preferences and mine are very different.”
“Why!” Emma cried. She meant it to be mocking, but somehow it sounded instead like genuine surprise, and perhaps felt that way, too. “You do not mean to say you dislike our conversations?”
“If you are angling for a compliment, I will not indulge you,” Mrs. Knightly replied, though the faint twitch had bloomed into a full smile— though even her fullest smile was worn very small and sedate. “I claim a widow’s privilege to subject myself to no company I find distasteful.”
“You say so,” Emma said archly. “And yet, on more than one occasion, I have seen you willingly allow yourself to be seated beside Mrs. Elton.”
“There are some trials that can only be endured,” Mrs. Knightly said dryly. “But only when it cannot be avoided. You will note I do not call upon her, no matter how she hints. She thinks because I have a large house, I am a person of consequence. If you must gossip, I wish you would turn it to my benefit, and inform Mrs. Elton that nobody in Highbury cares about me one bit.”
“Oh, but she would not listen to me,” Emma replied. “Why, she would only think I was jealous of her growing friendship with such an important personage, and was seeking to drive you apart.”
Mrs. Knightly let out an irritated sigh. “Well, then I suppose there is nothing to be done, though it is a marvel to me why Mrs. Elton should have settled on an old widow—”
Emma interrupted with an involuntary laugh. “Old!”
“You are kind,” Mrs. Knightley said dryly.
“Why, you are only barely past thirty,” Emma said, though this reckoning was charitable. “I would vow to find a match for you, but it would be simply too easy. You are rich and beautiful, you would have a line of suitors if you wished them. –do you? Wish them?” She wondered why she had not asked the question before.
“I am very happy to remain as I am,” Mrs. Knightley said.
This answer gave Emma a kind of satisfaction she could not define. So she smiled and said, “I am very glad to hear you say so. It is good to have one friend who believes me when I say I do not intend to marry.”
Mrs. Knightley seemed poised to make some remark on this subject, but before this good be done, Mrs. Weston had hurried over.
“Won’t you join the dance?” she said. “They are one pair short. It seems everyone has retreated to play cards.”
“Of course,” Emma said at once, desiring nothing more than that the evening should be considered a success, Mrs. Weston a content and complimented hostess. But as she surveyed the room, she ran at once into difficulty in upholding this promise. “But Mrs. Weston, there are no gentlemen to spare. Even Mr. Weston has joined in. Unless you will permit a pair of ladies, to round out the set?”
“Oh, yes, that will do splendidly,” Mrs. Weston said with a smile. “A fine idea, Emma! I will tell them we have made up the numbers!”
She departed to do so, and Mrs. Knightley said, “Whom are you going to dance with?”
In her mind, Emma replied why, with Harriet, but as she looked up at Mrs. Knightley to do so out loud, she found herself saying instead, “With you, if you will consent.”
Mrs. Knightley hesitated, long enough that Emma thought she would refuse— then she offered her hand. “If you wish.”
“Those who think it strange may call us sisters, and be content,” Emma said. “But you know, we really are not sisters at all— though my sister’s husband was your husband’s brother.”
“Sisters! No, indeed.”
As May moved into June and the weather grew fine, a trip to Box Hill was settled upon. Though the party was rather larger and contained distinctly more Eltons than would have been Emma’s preference, she had high hopes for a fine outing— hopes that were very quickly dashed. Though the day was fair, the spirits of the party were not: Frank cross, Jane Fairfax and Harriet silent, the Eltons smug, Miss Bates prattling endlessly. Emma was left with nothing to do but flirt with Frank Churchill, which put Mrs. Knightley into the bad temper she always assumed on the subject of Frank was concerned, despite Emma’s repeated assurances that it was nothing more than amusement for both of them.
Frank eventually decided to direct this amusement towards the rest of the party, and proposed a game: “Miss Woodhouse demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all.”
“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?”
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! But there may be a difficulty. Pardon me— but you will be limited as to number— only three at once.”
Miss Bates turned red. “Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”
“I like your plan,” cried Mr. Weston. “Agreed, agreed. I will do my best. I am making a conundrum. How will a conundrum reckon? Here it is: what two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?”
“I am sure I do not know.”
“Ah! you will never guess. Emma, you, I am certain, will never guess. I will tell you. M. and A.— Em-ma.— Do you understand?”
Though it could not quite be called witty, Emma, Frank, and Harriet were very pleased to laugh. No one else seemed quite as amused, and Mr. Elton murmured to his wife, not very quietly, “This explains the sort of clever thing that is wanted.”
“Emma,” Mrs. Knightley said suddenly. “I believe I will take a walk. As it seems the heat has made us all too slow for your tastes, perhaps you will join me and take in the landscape for amusement.”
Frank laughed. “Come, Mrs. Knightley, you cannot steal her away.”
And though for a moment Emma wished to laugh too, a look at Mrs. Knightley’s face, and at Miss Bates’s, prompted her to say, “I think that a very fine idea.”
Mrs. Knightley had a wonderful way of walking very quickly without seeming at all hurried. Emma found she had to rush to keep up, hurrying at Mrs. Knightley’s side until they were some distance from the rest of the party, at which point, Mrs. Knightley stopped.
“I hope I do not need to tell you what you must do when we return.”
That all-too-familiar tone of cool reproof made Emma’s cheeks grow contrastingly hot in frustration and embarrassment.
“Oh, it was only a bit of fun,” Emma said. “Who could have possibly resisted?”
“You should have.”
“Oh, we all know she is ridiculous!” Emma cried impatiently. “She is the kindest of women, but that you cannot deny! Nor can you deny that you, too, are very happy to smile at others’ foibles from time to time. Just the other day, you were very quick to comment upon Mrs. Elton.”
“Can not see the difference?” Mrs. Knightley asked. Her tone was more in sorrow than in anger, and somehow this was worse. “Of course Miss Bates can be silly and tedious. But think, Emma, of the difference between her condition and yours. Even if you do not ever choose to marry, you need not fear a loss of status or property. Your father’s will provides the security other women must seek in a husband. Having gained and lost a husband, I stand myself on that precarious divide: on one hand, a life like yours and my own present condition; on the other, Miss Bates.”
“But your conditions are nothing alike!” Emma protested. “I know my sister and Mr. Knightley would never allow you to suffer the least pain or disgrace.”
“Oh yes, it is very easy for a man to promise his brother’s widow that she may remain in her home while his own sons are but children,” Mrs. Knightley said with a wry smile. “But do you not think they will wish to take hold of Donwell Abbey for themselves someday?” And when Emma could think of no reply, Mrs. Knightley continued, “Any woman’s place is uncertain. Miss Bates herself, as you know very well, was once a person of great wealth and esteem.”
“But she is not ridiculous because she is poor,” Emma said. “I am sure she was equally so when she was rich.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Knightley agreed patiently. “But can you truly not see the difference? Between laughing at the foibles of a wealthy women held in high regard for the sake of her position in the world, and laughing at a spinster, a woman who once was great and now is poor?”
Emma plucked unhappily at the embroidery on her skirt, concerned that any response would be accompanied by tears. She could see it— or at least, she could now that it had been pointed out to her, and was cross with herself for not coming to that conclusion on her own.
Mrs. Knightley seemed to sense this, for she said, “I know would have no need of my advice on such subjects, Emma, if only you paused to think about them. I hope— I hope you consider it a friendly office that I sometimes bid you pause when you have forgotten to.”
“Y-yes,” Emma said, but before she could go on, she had burst fully into tears. She dropped her head into her hands. “Oh, I am so ashamed! And so ashamed that it took you to— poor Miss Bates! And how badly they must all think of me! How badly you must--!”
“I do not think badly of you,” Mrs. Knightley said. Emma lifted her head and realized that in the face of her tears, Mrs. Knightley was quite at a loss. This almost made her laugh; certainly it calmed her, to see that there were moments in which Mrs. Knightley’s cool, collected manner did not serve her well after all— that it was not only she who could blunder.
“I will find some way to apologize to her alone,” Emma said, resolutely wiping the tears off of her cheeks. “I would not wish to draw further attention by doing so before everyone. –unless you think I should?” she added, her confidence faltering.
“No, I think that is just the way,” Mrs. Knightley said. She offered her arm. “Let us walk a little before we return, so your face will not be so red.”
Emma did laugh at that. “Why, Mrs. Knightley, did you have no school friends? No girls you came out with? You must leave it to me to lament how wretched I must look, how red my nose must be— and it is the friend’s part to lie and say it is not so.”
“I suppose my friends were of a different sort,” Mrs. Knightley said with a small smile. “I have never considered it a friend’s place to lie on any subject.”
“I agree with you, of course,” Emma said. “And I— thank you. For speaking to me this way. I know perfectly well you think me a very silly, very selfish little girl— and perhaps you are not wrong— but I would like you to think better of me.”
“Emma, I think the world of you.” There was such genuine surprise in Mrs. Knightley’s tone, Emma had to look up to see if this was mirrored in her expression— indeed, it was. “If I thought you merely vain and silly, I would not trouble myself with such difficult conversations. But I know you to be kind, and that your errors spring from good intentions, and so may easily be corrected, if only someone tries. I suppose it is very presumptuous of me to have elected myself for this duty— indeed you never asked for it!”
“No!” Emma cried. “No, dear Mrs. Knightley— dear Georgiana— I am so glad of your counsel. Please, you must never think of showing your friendship any other way. For a woman of your qualities, for one I so admire to— to think my silly ways worth correcting means more than I can say.”
Indeed, she could say no more. She felt near to tears once more, but supposed this to be no more than lingering embarrassment over her conduct towards Miss Bates, and perhaps gratitude that it had not irreparably lowered her in Mrs. Knightley’s eyes. And yet it seemed to her there was more to say, if only she could find the words to say it. But she could not.
Mrs. Knightley, too, looked to be wrestling with some sentiment she could not articulate. At last she said, “Let us return.”
“Do I look myself again?” Emma asked. “I fear I must be horribly flushed.”
“Not in the least,” Mrs. Knightley replied. “You are as fair as ever.”
She offered her arm, and Emma linked hers to it, and they returned at a sedate pace to the rest of the party, talking of nothing much of consequence. Emma was careful to pay special attention to Miss Bates for the remainder of the afternoon, to draw her out on any topic that could be contrived and to listen attentively to whatever she had to say. Only when they were reading to leave did she manage to draw her alone, where her apologies were received so graciously, Emma found she felt even worse than before. But the proud and pleased glance Mrs. Knightley directed towards her as Frank Churchill handed Emma into her carriage made it seem a very fair exchange.