"Ay, very true, my dear," cried Miss Bates, though Jane had not spoken a word—"I was just going to say the same thing."
Jane Austen, Emma
Mrs. Elton had sustained three blows since matrimony had brought her to Highbury the year previous. As a bride she had enjoyed the right to lead the way in company, but one cannot be a bride for ever. Three weddings had superseded hers.
Miss Emma Woodhouse's favorite, the ill-born Harriet Smith, had gained a pretense of decency as a Mrs. Martin. "At least, I may take some comfort in observing," Mrs. Elton said to her husband after he had performed the ceremony, "that Mrs. Martin, as I suppose we must call her, will not be introduced in Highbury's first circles. Even Emma Woodhouse cannot thrust a farm wife out of her natural sphere."
"You may observe it to me, Augusta," Mr. Elton replied. "But Mr. Knightley would not care to hear it said everywhere. Mr Martin is his tenant. And I believe he was fond of the former Miss Smith, in his odd way."
"I would not be so ill-bred when he is in company," she retorted, for she did not love to be checked.
Her caro sposo did not venture a response. In his experience the subsequent vituperation could far outlast his memory of the original point. He consulted his pocket watch, discovered that the hour had advanced, and shut himself into his bookroom to pen his next sermon.
No sooner had Mrs. Elton become accustomed to Harriet Smith's pretence of respectability when came the second blow, which was Jane Fairfax's change of state to Mrs. Churchill of Enscombe. Though Mrs. Elton claimed the rights of friendship--even hinting she had made the match, talking everywhere of "Mrs. Churchill, Jane Fairfax before donning Hymeneal's saffron robe"--nobody seemed to think it necessary to ask Mrs. Elton to give way for the bride, as she was very ready to do.
Finally came the worst blow of all. Mrs. Elton was obliged to see restored to all the glories of precedence the new Mrs. Knightley, once Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield. Mrs. Elton did not like pretty young Mrs. Knightley, who (despite Mrs. Elton's strenuous efforts since arriving as a new bride) was everywhere considered first in importance in Highbury's best society.
These marriages led to more irritations, beginning with the firm friendship between Mrs. Churchill and Mrs. Knightley. These were no mere calls of politeness, the strict etiquette of fifteen minutes or at most half an hour. The visits could last all day, from anything Mrs. Elton gleaned after very close questioning of servants who had connections there.
"What can the Churchills be doing so often in Highbury?" she wondered aloud. "A fine thing, to inherit such a seat as Enscombe, just to never set foot in it. Why should they crowd so often into that poky house at Randalls, to be a charge on poor Mrs. Weston?" Mrs. Weston having once been Emma Woodhouse's governess, Mrs. Elton's tone added extra meaning to the word 'poor.'
Her caro sposo, to whom these questions were inevitably addressed, had come after a year of matrimony to believe it safer to return a mild answer. "As Mr. Weston is Mr. Churchill's father, surely the claims of family must explain it." The Eltons had begun their marriage in high glee, united in the abuse of certain among their neighbors. But when the disappointment and hurt pride that had driven him to marry so swiftly had diminished, leaving him to his customary wish for ease, he had discovered that his wife's relish for strife was unlimited.
Mrs. Elton must be silenced: her own sister, Selena Suckling, obviously did not rate the claims of family high enough to make her much promised visit in her barouche-landau.
After a winter's steady stream of fine fruits and recipes for delicacies ostensibly sent to the elderly, infirm Mr. Woodhouse at Hartfield, with mendaciously friendly messages that cost the sender more to write than they cost the recipients to peruse, Mrs. Elton gained the doubtful pleasure of intelligence: all three brides were in interesting situations. In fact, Mrs. Martin was expecting her first lying-in some time during summer.
Mrs. Elton was not at all fond of children, but she did not like to be thought behindhand in any doings.
"What can they be speaking of?" she said in discontent to Mr. Elton upon receiving another report of a long visit paid Mrs. Knightley by Mrs. Churchill. "One might be led to assume they are the only two young women ever to find themselves in child."
Mr. Elton, made uncomfortable on such a topic, vanished into his bookroom.
That left her alone. Her last resort was to retire to the windows that looked out over the lane.
A day later she was rewarded by the sight of a new gig rolling down Vicarage-lane, with one of the Randalls boys tending the horse. The summer foliage, never to be sufficiently detested, obscured the gig's passenger so that Mrs. Elton, running along the front windows, could only obtain the briefest glimpse of a bonnet and summer shawl. Surely that would be Jane Fairfax going to visit with her aunt, Miss Bates.
Mrs. Elton conceived a violent desire to call on the good Bateses as well. She had been lax in that quarter since Jane's marriage to Mr. Churchill. Perhaps there might even be an opportunity to drop a hint about how a new barouche-landau at the vicarage might be as well put to use in a visit to Enscombe as in any exploring party.
But when Patty conducted Mrs. Elton up the narrow staircase to the Bates' tiny apartment, the vicar's lady was too late to discover her error. The foliage had concealed two bonnets in the gig: Mrs. Knightley sat side by side with Mrs. Churchill.
The sour surprise in Mrs. Elton's sharp face caused Emma Knightley to look down at her gloved hands until she could trust herself not to laugh.
Emma was spared speech by the gentle flow from Miss Bates, who could not utter even a simple welcome in under five hundred disjointed words.
"We did not look to see you on this showery day, Mrs. Elton, is it not a surprise, Jane? Here we are, so cozy together, but where are my wits? I shall just drop a word in Patty's ear, to bring out the rest of the tartlets, which she had set aside for grandmamma, in case she—but good Mr. Perry assures us that tartlets are recommended for our dear Jane, the fruit being well boiled—are you certain you will not take any, Mrs. Knightley?"
Emma had been about to voice her denial. "I thank you for my part, Miss Bates," she said, a little disconcerted. "But I just sat down to a meal with my father before Mrs. Churchill called."
"And how is dear Mr. Woodhouse? Always so attentive—and Mr. Knightley! We must not leave him out. Really, we have such good neighbors, do we not, dear Mrs. Elton?"
Once again Emma felt the urge to laugh. Mrs. Elton uttered the words "Very good-natured, I declare," but looked as if she were thinking something else.
Miss Bates hardly waited for Mrs. Elton to finish that much before she was heard again. Mr. George Otway and his new horse—Mrs. Goddard's young ladies planning a recital to benefit a poor family—the Miss Coles still enjoying their London season—Miss Bates scarcely paused to permit anyone else to speak as deaf old Mrs. Bates snored softly in her chair over her carpet work.
Still talking, Miss Bates went away to aid Patty in the kitchen, leaving the three ladies alone with the slumbering grandmother.
Mrs. Elton had brought along her latest letter from her sister Selena to read aloud, in order to make way for the hint about the barouche-landau. But she did not quite like to drop such hints before Mrs. Knightley. So instead Mrs. Elton addressed the former Miss Jane Fairfax. "How does our favorite, Mr. Frank Churchill?"
"He is well, thank you," Jane said.
"I trust we will all be meeting together pretty soon." Mrs. Elton gave a little laugh. "He knows he is a favorite of mine, almost an old beau. I believe I am very nice in my tastes, and so my caro sposo says, when he teases me about my beaux." After a little pause, "And so, my dear J—Mrs. Churchill-—fancy my tongue slipping into old habits—when may we expect to see him among us?"
"He is in London, Mrs. Elton." Jane's calm profile did not change as she looked toward the open window, outside of which came the patter of rain drops in the road below.
"In London!" Mrs. Elton threw up her hands. "These young men—! One never knows what they will be at next. Though I must suppose that Mr. Frank Churchill has inherited extra cares of business along with so fine an estate. Better his head than mine, I always say. When I recall how much work it was for my sister to supervise the Maple Grove servants—! And Enscombe, I hear, is even finer, with grounds that might please the most discerning eye. My own tastes are too well known—I am laughed at everywhere for being too high in my requirements."
Emma listened, halfway between laughter and indignation, as Jane politely deal with this loud hint.
Mrs. Elton made a little business of listening to the rain, then again came on the attack, this time taking Emma by surprise. "Have you not wondered what might be done with extensive grounds, Mrs. Knightley?"
This insinuation that Hartfield did not rate the term extensive made Emma smother another laugh. "No, I can't—"
Mrs. Elton did not give her the chance to finish, but hurried into speech. "Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be planning an extensive garden." Another affected laugh. "How often have I said to Mr. E, that I wished the vicarage came with a garden on the scale I've become accustomed at Maple Grove? You know what his answer was, Mrs. Churchill?"
Jane returned a polite answer.
"In his own way, he can be as witty as Mr. Frank Churchill, whom we are all agreed is a pattern for wit. Mr. E. insisted I ought to offer my services to any who might need them. 'And your being a lady precludes your being offered a guinea a day, Augusta. Which goes to the benefit of your friends,' is what he said."
She laughed alone as Mrs. Churchill was not a laugher, and Emma forbore making reply. An uncomfortable silence might have ensued had not Miss Bates' step been heard again, her voice soon after, as she attempted to reassure Patty on some homely task and in the same tangled sentence to beg pardon of her callers for being gone so long. She reappeared, her thin cheeks flushed, uttering half-finished phrases about the joint to be dressed for dinner and her having to serve the guests herself, as she carried the tea things in.
Miss Bates had once been an object of ridicule to Emma, who at the age of one-and-twenty had set up to be a savant. Emma had found herself proved thoroughly, even universally, wrong in her judgments, and lacking in the penetrations she had prided herself on.
Mr. Knightley had reproved her for carelessness toward Miss Bates, who made so much of so little, and who turned every circumstance to good. But even when she had determined to reform, Emma found it difficult to smother a sigh as Miss Bates rattled the cups, lost the jam spoon and found it again in the beaufet, then trod upon her own hem, commenting and questioning and marveling the while on these and other tiresome minutiae. "Where is that jam spoon? Oh here it is—I just set it down here—I must have been thinking of grandmamma—fancy I don't recollect at all—we must have been in want of jam at breakfast."
Jane rose to help her aunt, serving Mrs. Elton first, with her customary calm grace. Emma changed her mind and accepted a plate just for something to be doing with her hands, contributing her share of the polite nothings everyone must speak though no one listened. Emma reflected on something her husband had once observed, that Mrs. Elton spoke to Jane very differently than she spoke about her. That difference was the more observable now that the vicar's lady did not quite dare the former familiarity of 'my dear Jane' without an encouragement that Mrs. Churchill did not give.
Outside, the rain slackened to a thin mizzle. When the tartlet had been eaten and the tea drunk Emma declared that she must go. Her father would be looking out for her.
Miss Bates interrupted to exclaim over the wetness; when Jane could edge in a word she soothed her aunt with the promise that Thomas would put up the canopy, and bring an umbrella to the door, so that they might enter the gig completely dry.
Mrs. Elton did not like to see the two ladies leave together. She could not resist a comment. "You have relieved my mind considerably, with your talk of a good canopy, especially as you must be obliged to drive out of your way, my dear Mrs. Churchill."
Jane was nonplussed by so blatant an attack, but Emma always knew what to say. She shook out her skirts and smiled. "How comforting it must be to send a carriage for a friend!"
Mrs. Elton suspected satire, but did not recognize the cause; Jane sent Emma a look of disapprobation, though its severity was reduced by the betraying quirks at the sides of her mouth.
Poor Mr. Woodhouse! He had believed himself to favor the idea of grandchildren without once ever considering their coming into being, and each day brought an increase in worry about Emma, which he found he could not convince Mr. Knightley to share. He often summoned Mr. Perry on the pretext of his own unease, then tried to get the physician to convince Mr. Knightley of Emma's danger.
"No, no, Mr. Woodhouse, you are out there," the medical man insisted. "Your daughter is as healthy as can be, and she takes my advice. Plenty of fresh air, a daily walk, good food, and a glass of milk drunk before bed time. Mr. Knightley knows what I believe to be true: Emma will not suffer the same fate as poor Mrs. Woodhouse."
Mr. Woodhouse was forced to submit, but he had his own experience to think of, and there was very little peace in his mind. It did comfort Mr. Woodhouse, however, to see Mrs. Churchill among them. Her quiet good nature was just what suited his nervous habit of mind.
As Emma and Jane arrived at Hartfield under steadily increasing rain, Emma's invitation to come within and wait for a break in the weather was gratefully accepted. Emma was glad, though she must postpone her walk to Randalls, where she could exclaim over Mrs. Elton's latest doings with her favorite auditor, Mrs. Weston. Jane Churchill did not like laughing over the foibles of her fellow creature, so Emma kept her amusement to herself, the moreso as Jane seemed out of spirits, as much as one could descry despite her habitual self-containment.
At a word of invitation from Emma, Jane sat down to the pianoforte and began to play. Emma picked up her sewing as the ordered chords of Haydn measured step around them, and set a stitch in yet another baby cap. She had made several, first for Harriet, then for Jane, and now for herself. With each baby garment completed the idea of an infant-—a being separate from herself-—became easier to accept. As her needle made the future manifest, stitch by stitch, she turned her thoughts from those familiar channels, and reflected on the visit to Miss Bates.
She considered again her odd impression—twice noticed, now—that Miss Bates had not just accepted an answer Emma had not voiced, but had anticipated the question. Or was it just the fancy of a woman in child? It was said everywhere that women near to confinement took to odd fancies. Emma tried to scold and laugh herself out of her own fancy, but when Jane at last lifted her hands from the keys, she sent so long and unhappy a look at the window, and the empty path beyond, that Emma resolved upon distracting her. She would dare her question, trusting to the protection of her father's quiet breathing as he dozed in his chair.
The words were forming when her husband's familiar step was heard just outside the chamber. Emma jumped up and flew to welcome her dearest George—for after one-and-twenty years of addressing him as Mr. Knightley, a plain George had seemed impossible, but 'dearest George' had somehow been easier, and had become a very good joke between them. She drew him in, glad to leave behind what surely must be a ridiculous fancy concerning Miss Bates, of all persons about whom to conceive a mystery!
As Mr. Knightley saluted the top of her head, Emma said, "See who has consented to join us this wet day. Surely the roads are worse than usual with all this rain?" There, would that provide a happy excuse for Frank Churchill's reason for not being among them?
If Mr. Knightley was surprised to find Mrs. Churchill visiting yet again, there was no sign of it in his demeanor as he shook hands.
On hearing his daughter's voice Mr. Woodhouse woke from his doze, and for a short time he must be satisfied that there was no emergency—that Mr. Knightley felt no symptoms of cold—his feet were dry-—perhaps a basin of gruel?
Emma loved to watch her husband's calm patience in dealing with this little stream of fretful tyrannies, for that patience was never forced. He knew how kindly meant they were. She loved to contemplate the hidden felicities of matrimony. All the effusions from Lord Byron and the Germans in translation did not prepare one for the catch of the heart during quiet domestic moments: the sight of his chin when his valet wiped away the lather; his sudden laugh when nephew Henry hit out against his bowling with direful bravery; his strong hand steadying Emma's father when Mr. Woodhouse stepped uncertainly on wet flagstones.
"I chanced to pass through the dining room," Mr. Knightley said at last. "Serle has dinner waiting on our pleasure. If you will conduct your daughter in, sir, I will undertake to escort our guest."
Mr. Woodhouse abandoned his inquiries in favor of a fresh worry, that the dinner might arrive cold. Emma assisted him to rise and affectionately supported his arm as they walked in.
As the dishes were handed round, Mr. Knightley asked about Jane's relations, and led the conversation to Mrs. Goddard's school benefit, and the look of the Donwell strawberry beds: unexceptionable subjects that made replies easy, and could not disturb Mr. Woodhouse's fragile equanimity.
When the ladies withdrew, Emma linked arms with Jane, in amity with the world, or at least that portion of it within her purview. But no sooner had they reached the drawing room and she bent to fetch her workbasket when she caught the reflection of movement in the mirror over the mantel. Jane was just turning away from the window, which gave a view down the lane.
She must be looking for Frank. Emma would not trespass against Jane's natural reserve. So . . . might she approach that odd matter? Jane after all knew her aunt best of anyone.
They sat down on either side of the fire, each with her sewing. After a little conversation about ribbon versus lace, and the problems of cleaning silk, Emma ventured her topic. "You mentioned your aunt," she began. "How fine a needlewoman she is! One of my earliest memories is watching how tiny and even her plaited silk-stitch, how quick she made the needle fly."
Jane smiled. "It's true. I remember her sitting up the night before I was sent to live with the Campbells. She recovered my slippers and trimmed me a new bonnet, and it was not until long after that I realized she had cut up her rose silk gown. Just so I might not be ashamed, though we were so poor."
"I am not the least surprised. That is exactly what we have come to expect from dear Miss Bates," Emma exclaimed.
"She has a happy quality that way," Jane agreed.
"She also has the happy trick of answering questions before I've asked. Has that experience come your way?"
Out the words tripped lightly enough. Emma was about to congratulate herself on how she'd managed when she dared a glance at her friend, to discover a look of astonishment.
"Oh, pray," she began. "It was nothing—I only meant—"
"You saw it, too," Jane breathed.
Emma had only enough time to realize that Jane's exclamation was not a question but a statement when there was a noise and a bustle from without, and the drawing room door opened. It was Mr. Knightley, who ushered in Mr. Woodhouse, followed by Mr. Frank Churchill.
Tall, smiling, the capes of his greatcoat and his top boots spangled with drops of rain, Frank Churchill was here. He permitted the servant to take his hat and greatcoat then bowed to Emma, smiling in expectation of the welcome she hastened forward to give, but his gaze turned at once to Jane, who held out her hands, her features illumined by a glow of happiness.
"My dear!" Frank bypassed Emma, crossing the room in two strides, embracing his wife and kissing her soundly.
Jane's blush was vivid. She murmured a protest, but Frank only laughed. "What matter? Are these not our friends? They stood up at our wedding, they will not cavil at a kiss. Good evening, Emma. I need not ask how you do as I perceive you are in the bloom of health."
"Thank you." Emma shook hands, and then asked, "Have you eaten? Oh, you are wet!"
"Nothing to signify. And I don't mean to dampen your fine room, for I'm merely here to carry my wife back to Randalls, where she will, it seems, have to sit through a second dinner."
Jane busied herself with packing away her work. Emma hesitated, uncertain. As Mr. Knightley got Mr. Woodhouse settled in his armchair to his satisfaction the gentleman initiated an exchange about the states of the roads, under which Jane could have said something if she would. Emma began to wonder if her husband's interruption was welcome in more than one way to Jane.
But no sooner had Frank Churchill taken the shawl away from the servant in order to bestow it with his own hands when he exclaimed, "Stay! Emma, I am to understand that you also expect your confinement, then perhaps my news will be of service to you."
He cast himself down onto the sofa, his wet boots forgotten--still holding Jane's shawl in his hands. With a fond smile Jane sat beside him, and so Emma moved to the tea tray, which had been brought in behind Frank Churchill.
"Tomorrow we will return to Enscombe, where we are to meet with a London physician," Frank explained. "In fact, he is an acclaimed accoucheur, comes recommended by women of fashion and rank. He is cognizant of the very latest medical theories, and his cases are made up of ladies of fashion. He has what they call le bon ton. He is willing to make an exception for you, my dear."
He lifted Jane's hand with an air, and saluted it.
Her cheeks glowed as she rose. Emma could not determine whether Jane was embarrassed or pleased as she took the cup and saucer from Emma's hand.
Frank accepted the tea his wife offered, his dinner obviously forgotten. He sat back, and smiled at Mr. Knightley as Emma brought his little tea tray to her father. "Well, Knightley, what do you say? Shall I send him on to you when we are done? The fellow is lauded by the faculty—all the fashion—gabbles in Latin tags with the best of them. Perhaps his supreme recommendation is that he charges a guinea a visit, and gets it. But you will not mind that, not for Emma."
"I thank you," Mr. Knightley said, after he set his cup down. "You are right, I would not gainsay a guinea a visit, or fifty guineas, if I were convinced I was getting good worth for my money."
"But I tell you, this man comes with the highest testimonials. Ladies of rank insist that they are sylphs again within a week or two after their confinement, and dancing like girls again. They generally call him in at a late date. I conceived the notion of consulting him early, that Jane might gain the benefit all the sooner."
"To what does this physician attribute his extraordinary success?"
Frank laughed, setting aside his untouched tea. "Remember the Latin tags I mentioned? I couldn't comprehend the whole, but his general theory was sound. If one is blooded regularly, it keeps swelling and extra flesh from forming. That, he says, is the evil: nigh impossible to get rid of afterward. There was also the matter of physic at regular intervals, if Mrs. Knightley will forgive me for introducing such a topic into her drawing room."
"Perhaps this matter is not considered delicate within the strictest interpretation," Mr. Woodhouse spoke up from his armchair. "But on such a subject, that is, health and well-being, there cannot be too much discussion. I know Emma will forgive us."
Mr. Knightley said, "All such decisions must rest finally with Emma, as she is the person most closely concerned. If she is content with Mr. Perry, who has the advantage of familiarity with her constitution from a child as well as in the present case, then there's an end to it."
Emma was of mixed mind. "If this gentleman is favored by the faculty, then ought we to trust to his reputation?"
Mr. Knightley gave her a considering look. "If you desire me to make inquiries, my dear Emma, I shall do so."
"Perry!" Frank exclaimed, misconstruing Emma's doubt. "He's a mere country doctor. I have seen Perry at the Crown after too convivial an evening. He is a good fellow, but we all must agree, he is finally just a country doctor."
"No, no, you must not speak against Mr. Perry," Mr. Woodhouse exclaimed, his voice agitated. "Mr. Perry, who has been with Highbury so many years, who saved my Emma's life when she was so ill as a child."
Even Frank Churchill could see that he had upset Mr. Woodhouse, whose favorite subject was his own health, closely seconded by Emma's. There was no danger of Mr. Woodhouse seeing the satiric curl to Frank's lip, the brightness of his eye; though Mr. Woodhouse was correct in all matters of religious practice, it might be said in his anxious mind Mr. Perry was closer to God than Mr. Elton, a mere vicar.
"No, no, Perry is a good fellow—the best—I misspeak," Frank said, laughing a little. "I have done, Mr. Woodhouse, you are quite correct. I retire from the lists, and Mr. Perry shall reign supreme. And so, Emma, have you considered names?" Frank turned her way as she resumed her place on the sofa. "I do not expect you will follow the fashions there!"
Emma laughed, grateful he had introduced a safe topic. "No, no, we will remain old-fashioned. We have settled it that a boy must take his papa's name, as Mr. John Knightley named his first for my Papa, and his second for himself. A girl will be named after my dear Mama."
Mr. Woodhouse, restored to good humor, nodded. "The old names wear best. They wear best indeed."
"I must agree with you there. Jane, you were saying that a boy must be named for my father? I catch your sentiment, I honor it. A second son—a fifth—might be saddled with Frank. But I condition only for a little girl. If she is as beautiful as you, she must have a romantical name, she must be a Clorinda or a Clarissa." He caught his wife's hands and kissed them.
Jane smiled at his nonsense. "I am still in favor of Henrietta, for my aunt."
"Henrietta!" Frank protested.
Jane gave her firm nod. "I cannot see a Clorinda sitting obediently to her stitchery, or a Clarissa helping me to count out the linens with the housekeeper. They are names made for fantastical adventures, in short they are fine names for the heroines of a book. But a Hetty I could kiss and cuddle, and not be afraid as soon as she is sixteen she will be captured by Greek banditti and taken to the moldering castle of a mysterious German graf."
Frank laughed, darting a merry glance toward Emma. "Greek banditti! Mysterious German noblemen! Is she not enchanting? I love how her mind works!"
Then stop home and hear more of it, Emma thought, but she only smiled in return, shaking her head a little.
"Come, my dear," Jane said. "If you have finished your tea, there is still your dinner keeping in wait at Randalls. If you have forgotten, I expect dear Mrs. Weston hasn't."
"You are right, as you are always right, and that is why I adore you. Well, we must be off, and I will take the blame, and be forgiven."
They were very soon gone. As Emma saw them off, she reflected that of course he would be forgiven, though the meat would be quite dried out by this time, the rest gone cold and congealed. He must be forgiven because he was young, rich, and handsome, no, because he was Frank Churchill, he loved the world and expected it to forgive him. The world loved him back, and did what the young, the rich, the handsome, the Frank Churchills expected.
There could be no more discussion on the topic of medical men and ladies of fashion until Mr. Woodhouse had at last retired, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Knightley to themselves.
Emma asked, "Do you think I ought to consult Frank's physician?"
Mr. Knightley did not respond immediately, and Emma heard him again in memory, Your amiable young man can be amiable only in French and not in English. Mr. Knightley had long since retracted those words. He had pronounced Frank Churchill to be a very good sort of fellow, but the poignant sting, as he had said once in another context, had lingered in her mind.
"In any other situation," he said at last, "would you take what he terms le bon ton as an arbiter for your own conduct?"
Amiable in French. "No," she said. "I hope it will do for Jane."
"They must be the best judges of that. You may take comfort in the reflection that Jane Fairfax is a sensible young woman." He smiled, bent to the dying fire to light their candle, and led the way upstairs, Emma on his arm.
As it seemed to every year, summer ended far before Emma was ready for the sudden cold rains that smote the colored leaves from the trees instead of rustling through them. As she tramped dismally toward Highbury on the daily walk the doctor had ordered, the lane never seemed longer or more dirty. Had she been closer to home she would have turned back, but the rain began when she was just in sight of the post office, and so she bent her head, pointed her umbrella into the wind, and toiled on.
Highbury's shops were either closed or crowded with others escaping the rain. Emma walked on to the Bates residence.
Her disagreeable mood vanished with the last drops of rain shaken off her umbrella as little Patty, the maid of all work for the Bates ladies, opened the door to her.
Miss Bates' glad voice was heard from the apartment at the top of the stair. Walking up the stairs had become a labor of no small moment, but this, too, Mr. Perry had insisted did her good—he said that fine ladies who took to their couches for the better part of a year, too often required the better part of the next year to recover. Emma was active, she must be doing, so she heeded his advice.
She walked into the tiny apartment, neat as always, to discover that she and Miss Bates were quite alone. Mrs. Elton was not there; since Mrs. Churchill's return to Enscombe, Emma had only seen her in church. Old Mrs. Bates was stretched upon her bed, asleep.
"It's nothing, nothing, dear Mrs. Knightley, thank you for asking. Grandmamma merely feels the cold a little. You are so kind, so like your dear Papa, always thinking of others. Why, just yesterday, I was remarking to Patty about the apples good Mr. Knightley had William Larkin bring, that the Donwell apples are so good-—none better—that it is entirely the doings of our friends at Hartfield that we live better than queens. May I take your wrap?"
"No, no, I'll only stay a moment. Pray do not stir yourself, dear Miss Bates. I only stopped on my walk to inquire after you and Mrs. Bates, and to wait out the rain. I was also in hopes you might have had a letter from Jane."
There had been a time when Emma had gone out of her way to avoid that very thing. How life changes, she thought as Miss Bates searched on the table and then her work basket for her latest letter.
After her departure Jane had begun by writing frequently to Emma, but the letters had become more infrequent, and though breathing friendship in every line, curiously uncommunicative.
Trusting in Jane's strict adherence to duty, Emma had begun asking Miss Bates about Jane's letters. Jane would never be remiss in writing to her aunt. Miss Bates was always glad to share missives, whether of interest to her auditors or not.
As thunder rumbled in the distance, Miss Bates read aloud from the letter she had received only the day previous. Frank had gone to London yet again. The fourth time in six weeks, Emma thought as Miss Bates read through a long description of the late roses at Enscombe, and Jane's plans for the garden come spring.
Jane's letters to her aunt were always filled with inconsequentials. One had to listen closely to descry meaning. Emma had gotten accustomed to that. "'The consequence of my not wanting to eat is that no fashionable lady could be more slender. From the back I am even more of a sylph than I was in my single days,'" Miss Bates finished, read the closing, and then dropped her hand.
Jane had penned the words to sound playful. Miss Bates had done her best to read them that way, but Emma gripped herself inwardly. Jane is unwell.
And then, quite deliberately, she formed the thought as if speaking the words aloud: She is not in health, Miss Bates?
Miss Bates started, turned a quick, frightened look toward Emma, and then began talking as fast as she could, the letter rattling in her trembling fingers.
There could be no question of trespass now, no penetrating question about whether or not this elderly maiden, so humble and so poor, could do something deemed humanly impossible. Emma's curiosity flamed higher, but her newly born adult compassion doused it, and she agreed to everything Miss Bates said, even when she strayed onto the topic of grandmamma's stockings, and the difficulties of darning them.
Emma found an excuse to leave as soon as she decently could. Miss Bates and her extraordinary ability (even if it existed: no sooner had Emma regained the road than she was already doubting her senses) must wait upon another day.
There was another matter that she far better understood. Emma was filled with the righteous indignation that must result in action, and as soon as she reached her home, and could get her husband aside, she said, "Jane is alone in that great house. And she is ill. I think we should invite her here."
Mr. Knightley might have been forgiven for observing that Jane's husband might be expected to object—or to take whatever steps were necessary—but he was never one to belabor a point, even one long ago made. He said only, "Write your letter, and if she assents, I will see to everything."
Emma went so little into company as the autumn advanced that she did not question why she seldom encountered Mrs. Elton outside of divine service, and they sat in different parts of the church. Emma continued to call upon Miss Bates, but never again found her alone: when Patty opened the door to her, inevitably she discovered Mrs. Cox or Mrs. Perry there, and once Mrs Goddard, with two of her girls in tow, both mute and stiff as they practiced company manners. Other days Miss Bates was denied—she was out visiting, or making a purchase. Emma did not question.
The next Sunday England woke to the first frost. The ground was iron hard, the church drafty with bitter air. The world had turned gray and disagreeable; even Mr. Elton's handsome face appeared marred by the cold when he mounted to the pulpit. No, Emma realized when a watery, bleak ray of sunshine slanting down through the clerestory window shone directly on his face. One's nose and eyes did not redden like that in cold. Mr Elton's features resembled the old coachman who had an unfortunate propensity for liquor; in a voice as hard as the churchyard ground he read an old sermon which Emma remembered only for its tedium and length.
After church, Mrs. Elton's laugh seemed to break on the cold air like shards of glass. Emma leaned on Mr. Knightley's arm, her eyes lowered so that her bonnet covered her face as they joined the Westons in passing by the little group the vicar's wife had gathered about her, her voice sharp as she laid out for compliments on her new hat.
Mr. Woodhouse was deemed too infirm to risk the long carriage ride during bad weather. To spare horses and coachmen, they had settled upon riding to church with the Westons. As Mr. Weston climbed in and dropped onto his seat, the entire conveyance shook.
Mr. Weston's breath clouded as he sighed. "My thoughts might be more godly reading the Bible in the comfort of my fireside than sitting in that cold church trying to make out Elton's whisper. He might have done better to put his bands upon his wife. We heard more clearly about the lady's hat than we did about the Sadducees and Pharisees."
"You are teasing, my love." Mrs. Weston resettled her sleepy child on her lap. "You well know that Mr. Elton is not the Word, he's the messenger."
"You always have the right of it, Anne." Mr. Weston reached down to fondle his little Anna's already disordered curls peeping out from the edge of her bonnet. "But if the message were better delivered, I might think on that, eh, than on wondering how many glasses of flip Elton downed at the Crown last night?"
"Divine Word has survived far worse messengers than our Mr. Elton," Mr. Knightley said, and the subject dropped.
Mrs. Weston brought the matter up later, when Emma joined Mrs. Weston in overseeing little Anna being laid down in her bed for her afternoon rest. "You may not be wearied by Mr. Elton's old sermon book for much longer," she remarked.
Emma looked over in surprise. "What does that mean?"
"I overheard Mrs. Hughes talking while I was waiting in Ford's to buy that netting. She had heard a report of Mr. Elton going to London. There is talk of preferment, and—at least, so Mrs. Elton claims—his bishop dropped more than one hint that it might be well for Mr. Elton to attend Assizes and be seen."
"I suppose it is too much to be hoped for that she will accompany her caro sposo."
Mrs. Weston smiled. "I know your generosity of heart too well to fear that you will rejoice, but it is said more quietly that Mrs. Elton stays in Highbury, or thinks of a long visit to Maple Grove, if she can get an invitation."
Emma looked her surprise. "What can that mean?"
"What do you think? The gentleman goes, the lady stays."
"After all her caro sposo and Mr. E, and all his talk of being an old married man, I had thought them well matched, particularly in disagreeable qualities. We know they married in haste, but I thought that was a high degree of romantic flight." Like Jane and Frank, she thought. Except there, she would stake her conviction there was real love.
"Who can say what people's motives are for matrimony? Perhaps they might not know themselves. And things can change." Mrs. Weston shrugged. "As for the hint of separation, it may all just be talk. Mrs. Hughes might be mistaken. Mrs. Elton did say she had taken a violent dislike to London."
"A violent dislike to not being first, I should say." The sound of men's voices caused Emma to get up to leave. "If Jane does come to visit, I hope Mrs. Elton will not be forever calling and 'my dear Mrs. Knightley'ing me in order to get at Jane."
But when Jane arrived a few days later, Emma took one look at that strained face, and struggled to hide her shock. Jane was very ill, could not walk from the coach to the house without support. By the time Emma had seen her comfortably established in the guest bedchamber, she would have welcomed a hundred Mrs. Eltons if they would divert Jane from her wretchedness.
"I could not let Frank see me," Jane whispered to Emma, her eyes feverish. "I had to come away. Thank you for your letter. Thank you."
"But surely, if you are in want, his first concern--" Emma's voice trailed away. She felt every word a danger.
"He cannot bear to see me not in health," Jane explained, her swollen eyes filling with fresh tears. "I am certain that is why he goes away. He does not want me to see him in distress. He cannot hide it. His heart—so tender.. . ." Her voice suspended.
Emma pressed her hand. "Never mind. I will bring you something to drink."
"Oh, I am not to have water, but the merest spoonfuls at stated intervals. Dr. Thayer, the physician, warned that water goes straight to the swelling." She moved her feet under the quilts.
Emma regarded Jane's cracked lips and wrinkled palms with hidden horror, and returned no coherent answer. She made soothing noises of the sort she had comforted her little nephew with when he had fallen from the tree and twisted his ankle.
She flew downstairs to the book room, where she found Mr. Knightley. "Dearest, we must have Mr. Perry to her at once."
"Can she not wait until morning?" Mr. Knightley looked into Emma's face, and then said, "If you will just oversee the postboys' dinner in my place, then James can take them and the animals to Donwell, as there is no room in your father's stable. I will go and fetch Perry myself."
Emma did not relax until Mr. Perry's familiar figure was seen in the courtyard.
"Well, well, well," he said jovially, when he beheld his patient. "First one then t'other. Mrs. Knightley-—Mrs. Churchill-—you will both be glad to know that Mrs. Robert Martin was just now safely delivered of a little girl. Bless her, she looks just like her mother."
"I am so glad." Jane's voice was a mere thread.
"Is Harriet well?" Emma asked. "And the infant?"
"She's probably asleep. No problems there! Scarcely had time for young Martin's sisters to set up a fuss, and the baby was among us, wailing and waving her fists. Now, let's make you comfortable, Mrs. Churchill, and see what we can do. Beginning with one of my wife's own possets, and Miss Emma, if you will instruct your cook to boil a leg of chicken—"
"But I am not permitted flesh," Jane said. "I am ordered to take only a daily drink of beaten cream, with the white of egg."
"Ah, I have read of that diet." Mr. Perry patted Jane's hand. "I will consult with your man. I'm sure he's a fine fellow, but even he will admit the wisdom of one who's been intimately acquainted with your constitution from a child. He will understand me when I say that in your case-—your family having been in my care--the broth of chicken, well boiled, will do you good."
"I will try to drink it. But I confess, it is the physic," Jane said in a low voice. "It makes me so ill that—" She turned her head away.
As Mr. Perry put more intimate questions Emma ran downstairs again. She returned with a tray, and Mr. Perry remained until he had seen Jane drink down the broth and the posset both. Emma remained in case she should be needed; at last she was able to retire to bed the house was quiet, Jane was sound asleep.
The astounding news that Jane Churchill had arrived at Hartfield without so much as a note to anyone so mortified Mrs. Elton that she resolved to leave Highbury: though the contest of who was to reign over Highbury society had taken place only in her own head, she had not won it.
Mrs. Weston thus found herself the surprise recipient of a call from Mrs. Elton during which the vicar's wife let drop the news that she was going away on a long visit to friends in Bath, and while protesting a totally false confidence, proceeded to pour into Mrs. Weston's ear all the gossip she wanted retailed concerning her doings. She must take care of her health—absurdly delicate—had she ever so many resources, the constant pace of Highbury was too much for the Eltons, in their position, who must go everywhere they are invited.
Mrs. Elton departed, satisfied that by evening there would be no other topic in any household; even had Mrs. Weston intended to perform the office designed for her, the news of Mrs. Elton's departure would have been buried by the much more sensational news of Frank Churchill's dashing arrival in a post chaise driven by four steaming thoroughbreds, after a cross country race in search of his wife.
Frank Churchill found no accusation or repulsive welcome, nevertheless he was not happy until he had carried Jane away again, the Westons having given over the upper floor of Randalls for their use. It was better for Mr. Woodhouse, at least. He was rendered so unhappy over Jane's illness—so certain was he that Emma was next—that Mr. Perry must spend time after each visit to Jane in order to reassure him.
The Westons were of inestimable use. Mr. Weston stayed by his son's side, exerting an influence of steady good sense. Mrs. Weston, knowing Mr. Woodhouse of old, walked over daily, despite the uncertain weather, bringing cheerful reports: Dr. Thayer, the London physician, had arrived; he was putting up at the Crown and rode over at least once a day; Jane insisted she was well; Frank was the best of husbands, always sending out for delicacies to tempt Jane.
"The only one really unhappy is my cook," Mrs. Weston said later, when Mr. Woodhouse had gone upstairs to recruit himself with a nap against the evening. "No sooner is some exquisite dish prepared, expressly ordered by Frank, than the physician orders it thrown out again. The bodily humors—red meat contributes directly to the adding on of extra flesh—I confess all this confusing talk puts me all out of patience. But if we're to live in modern times, I suppose we must submit. The gentleman is certainly very learned. My drawing room is covered in books, most of them in Latin, with exceedingly repugnant drawings. He consults them often."
On a windy morning the following week Emma left early for her walk, suspecting rain for later. By the time she reached the outskirts of the town, she had resolved that this would be her last until she was recovered again. Every puddle seemed more impossible to negotiate, the sky lower and grayer, the wind more raw. Even the baker's bow window, hitherto so inviting, did nothing for spirits or appetite.
But as she stepped into the main street, farther up a window opened in the building where the Bateses lived. Miss Bates looked out, her cap askew. She made a tentative motion, not quite a wave, not quite a beckon.
She knew I was here.
So strange an idea! It must be pursued, though Emma remembered poor Miss Bates' rattling letter the last time. She waited for a train of high-piled haywains to roll past.
How could such a thing be possible? And Miss Bates, of all people!
True, the Bible was full of strange and miraculous doings, and though it was everywhere agreed that with the Age of Reason having come the Age of Miracles was past, no one could quite explain why. If the vicar had not been Mr. Elton, she might have brought up such a question when it first had darted into her head, but it was now unthinkable. Not just because Emma, as Miss Woodhouse, had turned down his offer of marriage—it was his pride that had been hurt, not his heart—but Emma was not so certain of his theological wisdom.
She sighed, thinking of the elderly Mr. Bates. She could just remember him, his ready smile, his kind voice, whispery as doves' wings at the end. When he died, he had been everywhere declared a saint--the same sort of threadbare compliment given to clergymen as young ladies on their introduction into society were everywhere claimed to be beautiful as angels.
Mr. Bates, however, had truly been a saint, if it was saintly to never be heard to speak an angry or unkind word—-she was not certain, as some of the saints had sounded mighty fiery. Mr. Bates' general benevolence to all, rich or poor, sinner or respectable, had made him truly beloved, a love so persistent it was inherited by his daughter. That was about all Miss Bates inherited. But for her it had been enough: anywhere else in England Miss Bates might have been generally scorned as a plain old maid scarcely fit to live, whose only accomplishment was that she could outtalk an entire party while scarcely pausing for breath.
As Emma crossed the street behind the last creaking hay wagon, she reflected on the matter of delicacy. No one talked of delicacy in theological matters; still, might she ask generally about the subject of miracles?
She was still undecided about this question when she reached the Bates' small apartment.
Miss Bates opened the door herself. "Thank you, dear Mrs. Knightley. Thank you for coming up to me." Her voice dropped to a whisper.
Now thoroughly alarmed, Emma exclaimed, "Pray, what is the matter?"
"She is . . . she is . . ." Miss Bates did not have the words. Or if she did, could not utter them. Her work-worn hands drifted over her own flat middle.
Jane is lying in, Emma thought. And no one told us.
Miss Bates jerked her chin up. "Jane is very, very unwell."
Emma dropped quite suddenly onto the sofa.
For an immeasurable time neither spoke. Emma became aware of the buzzing of a fly caught between the window and the curtain, the rumble of wagon wheels over the road below, and from the back of the building Patty talking to the laundry maid about boiling the bed sheets.
Miss Bates' gnarled hands worked away at her darning, but her eyes remained closed. Emma suspected she was listening. Not to the sounds of Highbury's busy street, or little domestic noises, but to the unspoken voices, and she blushed, feeling in a strange way almost unclothed. But she rallied, scolding inwardly: she must look past precious self, for Miss Bates could only think of Jane.
Emma was reminded of a day when she had gone to Ford's, passing by the Crown, through whose open windows could be heard the convivial voices of a great party, not one of whom could be seen. Was it like that for Miss Bates?
At last Miss Bates looked up, her eyes frightened. "Jane wants you. She was thinking, where is Emma?"
"I will go at once." Emma struggled to her feet.
"They have given her laudanum—I think she is fast falling asleep."
"When she wakens, she will find me there. If that might give her strength." Emma pulled her spencer tighter to her ears, retied her bonnet, tugged her gloves up over her wrists, and bustled to the door. But there she stayed, because she could not suppress a last question.
"How can you bear it?" Emma's own voice trembled. "No, why must you bear it?"
Miss Bates closed her eyes again, and Emma wondered if she would answer. But at last she said, "I asked Papa the same question—how he bore it—when he confessed to me not long before he died. I think he had come to suspect that I had hidden the same secret. He told me he bore it by always talking to God in his heart. Carrying on his dialogue with God shut out the voices of the people around him, except when he was needed."
"No one knew?" Emma asked, still from the doorway.
"Not even Mama. Only I knew, at the end. I did try talking to God." She gave a little jerk of her chin. The ruffle on her faded cap lifted and fell like the old leaves out in the garden, stirred by the wind. "I tried and I tried, but I could not hear the voice of God. I believe I was too frightened, too confused. Papa talked of living and waking in the sunlight of God's love. At the end, Papa said it was so bright—he could no longer see, Mrs. Knightley. Yet he talked of the light of the Holy Spirit. I always felt I was fumbling in the darkness. So I talked out loud instead." Miss Bates squeezed her hands together. "And when there are no people by, I do talk to God. It is not what dear Mr. Elton might term a prayer, precisely, though, at least, it has not the form we are taught to think is the proper way to address our notice to Providence. I just . . . say in my heart what I say out loud in company, but what I see in my mind is my Papa listening."
"You never heard others like yourself, I collect."
"Never. I did try to listen for such. I had hoped when a child, even a young woman, I would find another like myself. Even if speaking a foreign tongue." Her smile was crooked. "After Papa died. Though I was surrounded by countless voices, I felt alone. Because no one heard me."
Overhead the rapid thud of cats' paws raced across the roof to the gable. The fire on the small grate crackled, and in the other room the old lady's breath rasped steadily as she slept.
Miss Bates' head was turned toward the window, the papery folds of skin about her jaw softened in the shadows.
Emma whispered, "Does God hear you?"
Miss Bates looked her way. "How can I know that? We cannot know. We are taught that we are finite beings, which I can well believe, therefore I can believe in the infinite, and it gives me so much comfort to think of my good father smiling down from heaven, and waiting for Mama and me when we have finished our work here." She nodded toward the little bedroom where her mother lay asleep. "It gives me comfort." She pressed her hands again. "Mrs. Knightley, thank you for sitting with me. Thank you. I know you share my love for dearest Jane. I hope and trust . . ." She lifted her hands, then clasped them together, a sudden movement, almost a clap.
Emma understood then what an effort Miss Bates made, and she was very soon gone, altering between wonder and worry as she toiled her fastest toward home.
She had made her plans by the time she reached Hartfield, muddy to the knees, wet and shivering, for the rain had come early.
"Emma! Here you are at last. I nearly rode out to seek you," Mr. Knightley exclaimed in distress. "I might have, but for the chance I would take the wrong lane and miss you entirely. Your maid has a bath waiting."
"Thank you, dearest." She pressed her cold lips against his warm ones. "But I must not stay. I must go to Jane."
Mr. Knightley shook his head. "What freak is this? Emma, you have better sense than that."
"Miss Bates—that is, Jane is lying in. She—she needs me."
"Even so, your own needs must be paramount. I believe Perry would back me when I say you must remain here. You are wet through, and this rain will only worsen."
"I can take the carriage. I'm sorry for the horses, but I must go. I must."
He tried to remonstrate with her, but she was adamant.
It was he who disengaged before the argument could exacerbate them both. He had known Emma all her life. One of the things he had admired most through her girlhood was her independent spirit, tempered in young womanhood by a sense of justice and mercy: though she had made a promise to love, honor, and obey, she would never submit unless she was convinced of the rightness of the action. To demand submission as his right would be to risk losing her trust. He would not demand, but he could reason. She had always answered to reason, once she could be got to listen.
So he followed into the bedchamber after she had bathed, while she changed into her warmest clothing.
His carefully reasoned words—those with greater authority within call at Randalls—her own health—her father's worry—the weather—were all to no avail. Moreover, he sensed that there was something she was not telling him.
By then the horses had been put to, as she had ordered. He gave over, finally, and distraught as he was, he himself put the hot brick on the floor of the carriage for her feet. He said, "Carry my best wishes to Mrs. Churchill." And shut the door.
Emma saw that he was angry, and grieved a little, but she knew he would wait for her explanation. Though her eyes stung, she was also grateful: she had his trust.
The carriage lurched into motion, as rain drummed on the roof. The trip was swiftly accomplished, and on her arrival, the first one she saw was a former housemaid from Hartfield who conducted her straight upstairs.
Emma's shock when she saw Jane lying on the pillow was so great she could not speak.
Jane's hand was hot and dry as she clasped Emma's. "Thank you for coming." She could barely speak. "I have something to ask of you."
Just then a housemaid brought in a tray, not forbearing to glance toward the basket in the corner. As Jane's personal maid helped her mistress sit up a little against pillows, Emma withdrew toward the window enclosure with Mrs. Weston, and pointed toward the basket full of crimson-soaked cloth.
"Is it always this sanguinary?" she whispered.
Mrs. Weston's eyes were frightened. "No."
"Where is her physician?" Emma asked.
"He waits below, with Frank. There is nothing he can do at this moment, not until the babe is closer to coming," Mrs. Weston said.
Jane looked wearily at the tray, and then shook her head. "Take it away, Rebecca, please."
"But Master sent it, Mrs. Churchill," the little maid returned.
Jane smiled a little. "Tell him I thank him. For his thoughtfulness. I will eat later. Set it aside for now." A faint flash of humor shadowed her thin cheeks. "At least there is no more calomel to be choked down."
Rebecca obeyed, then whisked herself out at a sign from Mrs. Weston—after one more long glance sent at the basket.
Jane was about to speak, but her lips pressed into a white line. She shut her eyes. Drops beaded her pale brow as she doubled up.
Emma watched in horror as the other women in the room moved with swift and deliberate purpose, testament to how long they had been at it. More cloths were laid, and when the spasm ended they were taken away to be added to those already on the basket.
"He fights," Jane murmured at last. "He fights to get out."
Emma tried to find an unexceptionable subject. "You think the babe a he, then?"
Jane's smile was faint, but sweet. "Only because Frank so badly wants one. Sometimes I think it's a she. My Hetty."
Emma hesitated, looked up at Mrs. Weston, and then said to Jane, "I think you ought to send for Mr. Perry."
"Frank wouldn't have him."
"He oversaw little Anna's birth as well as Harriet's Betsy. And surely two physicians can do more good than one."
Jane lifted a hand—sighed—it was enough. Mrs. Weston sent an approving glance at Emma, and left to send someone to fetch Mr. Perry. The maids followed her, carrying the big basket between them, leaving Emma and Jane alone.
Jane said, "Emma, I fear I may die."
Emma shaped the words of denial, but Jane twitched restlessly. "No, no, do not argue. I haven't the strength left. In truth there is no pain right now, except these spasms when the babe tries to come forth. The rest of the time I feel as if I float on a river. There are things I must do in case I . . . drift out to sea."
Emma's throat ached. She thought of Miss Bates, so distant, so helpless and worried. Was she listening now? "Your aunt can hear you," she whispered. "She sent me to you."
Jane's hand wandered restlessly over the bed covers. "I promised never to tell. But it's the real reason I stayed with the Campbells. I was so little, but even so I began to see how she did things for me before I could speak. A child is so passionate—it was far too easy to hurt her—I could not sleep, trying to guard my thoughts day and night. When Colonel Campbell wrote, it saved us both."
Emma drew in a deep breath.
Jane said, so low her voice was scarcely a whisper. "It's why she never married. We talked only once. Just before I went off to Enscombe. She said she could not bear to have any child inherit . . . it. Whatever it is that makes it happen." She pressed her hands against the mound of her middle. "If she lives. I hope my babe will not be so afflicted. But you must promise me. Look after the babe. I—I never told Frank. It was my aunt's secret, and I feared . . ." She compressed her lips.
"I will promise you anything you wish," Emma cried, pressing the hands that gripped hers with sudden, but brief strength.
"Oh, comes another. I had not expected one so soon."
Emma turned to fly to the door, but it opened then, Jane's maid bringing in fresh linens. She took charge at once.
When Mr. Perry arrived, Emma knew there were too many people in the room. The maids were needed, Mrs. Weston had the greater claim, and so she trod wearily downstairs.
The lower floor was flooded with light: all the candles had been lit. Noise from the open drawing room drew her. She discovered Frank striding back and forth from window to wall, his hair disordered as he thrust his hands through it. At her step he whirled around. "How is she? Is she better? Is she close to her time?"
"Mr. Perry is with her."
"Perry!" Frank exclaimed, then shook his head. "If that's what she wishes. But . . ." He strode through the open door into the passage, then yanked open the door to the second drawing room. "Thayer!"
Emma glimpsed a tall gentleman seated at a table beyond, reading. The table was overspread with books.
"Will you go upstairs? They've summoned Mr. Perry—something's happening."
Dr. Thayer murmured a word of pardon as he passed by Emma; his coat smelled of tobacco smoke. He trod quietly up the stairs.
Frank turned away, flinging himself back across the passage. When Emma entered the drawing room behind him, he kicked the door shut.
"In truth, I don't know why I sent him up. He doesn't know what to do. None of them do, my uncle was right. They're all charlatans."
Emma exclaimed, "Did he do no good, then? Why would you have him?"
Frank's face was ravaged. "Because I don't know if he did good. Or harm. How can we? Something goes wrong, they say it was meant to be, whether by order of all-seeing Providence or blind Nature. Even your omnipotent Mr. Perry did not save Jane's mother."
Or mine, Emma thought.
"At first all was well. Jane had told me at the outset that she would not get fat. She did not want me to see her gross, and his medicines kept her slim. But then she was so ill. At first just days, then it was all the time, yet she would insist she was fine. And she was distressed if I showed distress, but in truth, I could not bear to see her suffer, I went to London just to get away-—I thought if I could laugh a little the time would pass faster. There was nothing I could do. I would willingly take the pain if I could, don't you see, Emma?"
"I think I do," she ventured, trying to understand how each so worried about what the other thought, he going away and thinking himself sent, when she wanted him the most but would not say it lest it discommode him.
"If only I had not flirted in London! It meant nothing—it passed the time—why should Jane be made to suffer for my sins?"
"She is not being made to suffer for your sins," Emma said.
"Then why is this happening? Surely she is not punished for her own sins! She, who is without fault!"
Frank cast himself down in a chair, hands thrust through his hair until it hung in tangles on his brow. "I am not good enough for her," he said over and over.
"Good or bad—we most of us are a mix of both—you are what she wants." Emma sat down next to him, her shoulders tight, her temples pounding. Her entire body trembled with fatigue and shared anguish.
Mr. Weston came into the room, soft of step, and stood by his son, his cheerful face unrecognizably solemn.
Emma left her chair that Mr. Weston might sit next to his son, and wandered without purpose through the doors, as servants dashed about, some on errands, others wanting to look and exclaim. Jane Fairfax, so good, so sweet, Emma could not bear to think of her music silenced. Emma groped for the banister, and then felt a hand close over hers. "Do not come upstairs. There is nothing you can do now," Mrs. Weston murmured.
A high, thin cry came from the room upstairs, and both women looked up, and breathed in relief.
"Come, let us tell Frank there is some good news." Mrs. Weston wiped her eyes, and led the way back into the drawing room. "The babe lives."
Frank started up. The doctors appeared moments later.
"Your boy is sound as a nut," Mr. Perry said. "A little blue at first, but a good cry fixed that—"
In the distance the passing bell began to toll slowly, and Frank gasped as though he had been struck. "Jane!" He cried.
Mr. Perry put out his hand. "She is asleep, dear fellow. That bell will be for old Mr. Pelham. We've been expecting it this week at least. He got his ninety years' lease, he told me—ready with a joke until the end."
Frank's ravaged face began to ease.
The London accoucheur spoke in the calm, sober voice of the medical faculty, using the language of authority. "A hot embrocation at once I trust will meet the needs of the case, to restore order to the movement of the blood, followed by the child's taking ass's milk well laced with calomel as soon as he can suck, that he might evacuate the last of the birth tissues."
Frank stared at Doctor Thayer. "You're not going to blister him? Bleed him?"
"No, no," Mr. Perry said soothingly, leading Frank out of the room toward the stairs. "Come see him. The women have him bathed and swaddled by now. We will go to the nursery, then you may kiss your wife. But you are not to wake her. She is still in a great deal of danger. There are two things you must do. Encourage her to eat. Put that French cook of yours to work, though simple foods might be best. But she must eat, and drink fresh milk. And no more tincture of mercury. It may be all the crack, as you young fellows say, but I cannot help think that women—and infants—did well without it these many centuries." When they reached the stairs he said with a smile, "My distinguished colleague is concerned with the business of birth, as one might say, but my long experience, perhaps, may be trusted for the results of the birth, if I may speak so bluntly. The babe's color is good, his lungs are in fine order . . ."
He paused and this time everyone heard the thin, high, wailing voice.
Frank stopped, transfixed, then pounded up the stairs.
Mrs. Weston and Emma still stood in the passage below the stairs. They returned to the drawing room, where Emma sank gratefully into a chair.
She was unaware of anything else until Mrs. Weston pressed her hand, rousing her. "I will summon your carriage. Go home, Emma. You do not look well."
Frank Churchill entered the drawing room with the doctor behind him. Frank's hands cherished a small bundle. There were tracks of tears on his face. He held out his son, and everyone kissed the sweet face lying in the blanket, with eyes so much like Jane's.
Emma's carriage arrived. Mr. Weston—who wept silently for joy, and worry, and release of pent-up emotion—conducted her out, and shut her in without speaking.
When she pulled out her pocket watch she was shocked to see how far the hour had advanced. At first she attributed her discomfort to the tiring events of the evening, and to the wet, cold carriage ride, for there had been no one to remember a hot brick.
Mr. Knightley was waiting for her, a lamp at hand. He ushered her to her bedchamber, and confined himself to the little questions she could easily answer.
By midnight she knew her increasing discomfort was something else. Once again Mr. Perry was fetched, but well before morning, without any danger or drama, Emma presented to her dearest George a son.
Mr. Woodhouse had the felicity of waking up to the news that Master George Knightley had arrived, and that there was no cause for alarm. Emma was well—he had seen her—and whenever he thought of a new worry, he could tiptoe in and inspect his little grandson.
Emma enjoyed a quiet day and night, waking early the next morning, just as the sun was rising. Her husband, aware of her stirring, lit a lamp and asked if she needed anything.
"Only to talk, now that we are alone," she said, and smiled at the baby who nursed, blinking up at her face in the lamp light.
He began with an apology. "You were right to go to Randalls. I was wrong, and I beg your pardon."
"You did not know. No one could know," Emma responded. "Except Miss Bates."
Then she told him her guesses, how Miss Bates had heard her thought, what she had said about Jane—and what happened. As Emma spoke, Mr. Knightley reacted in surprise, and disbelief, and puzzlement, but he did not deny the surprising intelligence, or tell her she must be mistaken. He asked several questions, desired her to repeat what Miss Bates and Jane had both said, shaking his head from time to time.
"You are right to keep it secret," he said at last. "I suspect even presented with the evidence, few would believe it. Others might make a raree show of Miss Bates, to serve their own ends. That must never be."
Emma agreed. "I think the saddest thing is what she said about being alone, and what Jane said about her never marrying. Will such an ability ever be part of human nature, or do such things die out because they are too painful to bear? Surely Mr. Bates and his daughter are not the only ones."
Mr. Knightley said wryly, "Some philosophers talk of the infinite capacity for humans to change, others talk of our limitations. I wonder if there are some strengths, let us call them, or abilities, which might exceed our capacity. Yet I might be wrong. For all I know, there are men on the other side of the world who can fly."
"I catch your meaning," she exclaimed. "I comprehend. But let us say we change our capacity. Would such a change make us other than human?"
"That is probably a question our children will answer. Or our children's children, if such changes do come upon us. What I know now is, I do not think any of us are prepared to hear our neighbors' real thoughts. Or to have them hear ours. I would not have Frank Churchill, in his worry, hear my opinion of his actions during Jane's confinement."
Emma considered that. "I know you still consider him thoroughly spoilt. Yet he could not have been, with his Aunt Churchill's temper so uncertain."
"Frank Churchill is thoroughly spoilt in the sense that he has always had everything he wants, excepting only his aunt's vagaries, and his visits here proved that even she-—even in her extremity of need—could be got round. And at a very young age he came into his estate."
"So you did as well," Emma said, trying to discern his thought.
"Yes." He frowned, not at her, but at his fingers entwined with hers. "To anyone else I would sound like a coxcomb, but I trust you will know where I am at when I observe that I was raised to a sense of duty, and Frank Churchill was raised only to a sense of obligation. With the deaths of the Churchills, and you know as well as I how the good Westons will always find an excuse for him if they can, he has been released from any obligation except that he chooses."
"You make him sound evil, dearest George!"
"No. Not evil. Selfish, though I grant him a good heart, if a volatile one. Perhaps, if she recovers—and Perry said he left her regaining some of her color in sleep. If she recovers, Jane will be a more sensible woman, who will raise little Frank to be sensible. Perhaps Frank may learn to control his flights of fancy. A little communication may not accord with Lord Byron's ideas of romance, but there is no doubt that they make for more comfortable life."
Emma chuckled. "Yet every woman may also like a little of Lord Byron's romantic flights. Is that selfish or terrible?"
"No. I speak of moderation, not dullness." Mr. Knightley leaned down to kiss his wife. "I will endeavor to remember your Byronic fancies, when you are more recovered."
Emma took his meaning, and blushed, and smiled with anticipation. Yet her thoughts ran on. "The romances of matrimony." She shook her head a little. "I'm afraid there isn't much hope that Mr. Elton has retained his Byronic ideals."
Mr. Knightley turned her ring around on her finger, around and around. "Unless the Eltons find their way toward understanding, it could be that a few weeks' angry activity, perhaps a decision made carelessly, will cause him a lifetime of regret. I hope it is not the case."
Emma struggled for the compassionate view. She could see it from time to time, and it made her feel, if only for that moment, as if she were larger than herself. Was that how Mr. Bates felt all the time, with his sunlight brighter than the orb circling the sky?
In halting words, for she had not the vocabulary for such things, she explained what Miss Bates had said about her father.
"Gnosis," Mr. Knightley said finally.
"What is that?"
"The Greeks wrote of it. I yawned over these matters as a schoolboy, scarcely comprehending anything. Consider it the divine spark. You and I can read Plato and Aristotle together, perhaps, if you've a mind. It might be we will both come to comprehend the state a little better."
"I would like that very much," she cried, and looked down at little George. She could not grasp vast alterations in modes of civilization, but she could see how individuals change, decision by decision. "Maybe it is my duty, for if George grows up friends with little Frank, will these questions arise? Or must we leave such questions to Miss Bates?"
"We will take our lead from Miss Bates. If she speaks of the matter, we will listen. If she does not, we will bide quiet."
"And if young Frank should someday show signs of this talent?"
"Then we help the Churchills as we can. Is that not the fundamental truth of civilization, that each teaches the next as he can?"
"Or as she can," Emma said, smiling as she thought of Miss Bates. She laid aside the slumbering infant, then stretched. "But now I want to get up and walk about. I must be doing. How is the weather?"
Mr. Knightley pulled aside the curtain. "A fine morning. We can take a turn in the shrubbery before breakfast, then I had better get over to Donwell, for there is a deal of work awaiting my attentions, but Master George and his mother must come first." He smiled across the room at her.
Emma smiled back and swung her feet outside the bed. A walk would do her good.
But her busy mind was not yet done. "It seems odd to me that Mr. Bates, though as near a saint as can be, could not answer these questions that insist on flying through my mind. For surely, if he could have explained, he would have to his daughter, if to no one else."
"He was a man of great faith," Mr. Knightley said from the window. "But faith does not answer questions. All it does is sustain our belief that one day we will find the answers."
He flung the casement wide to the morning air.