Chapter Fifteen – Farewell to a Dear Friend
It was indeed a sad day for Highbury. Mrs Bates would be laid to rest next to her late husband, the former vicar of the village and the church was overflowing with people, wanting to pay their respects. Many parishioners remembered the Reverend Bates and secretly nourished a fondness for the time before the present vicar, Mr Elton. That minister was not so much interested in worshipping the Lord than he was in putting himself on a pedestal, so that everyone could see how well off he was and how well he knew the wonders of the world.
His wife, the fastidious Mrs Elton, once more was striving to take centre stage in the proceedings. She was entirely dressed in lavender silk, her skirt billowing with a broad crinoline and her hat the highest Emma had ever seen. Ridiculous! This was not a celebration but a mourning! Had the woman no brains at all?
Apparently not, because she chose to pounce on poor Miss Bates as soon as the latter descended from Frank Churchill’s chaise-and-four, brushing aside Jane, to escort Miss Bates inside in her stead.
Emma scowled at the Elton couple, when the vicar took Miss Bates’ other arm, as if the poor bereaved woman was all alone and without relatives. They paid her no heed, unfortunately.
“Dearest,” George Knightley whispered in his wife’s ear, “do not cause a row over this. Today is a time for quiet modesty and respectful grieving. I loathe these two as much as you do, but we must think of Miss Bates and Jane. We must not add to their distress.”
“Pish!” Emma huffed. “We need to put those two in their rightful places, George! They ruin everything with their ridiculous behaviour.”
“I agree, my love, but not today, if you please.”
Her clever husband was right, of course, so Emma held her peace and joined the mourners’ procession behind Frank and Jane. Mr Woodhouse was not with them. He had chosen to remain at home. “Emma, my dear, you know how draughty that church can be, even on a summer day. I am sure my old friend, Mrs Bates, will understand if I do not risk to catch a cold.”
The ceremony began with Mr Elton welcoming the congregation in his most ringing tones. Thereafter, he elaborated on Mrs Bates’ life as a minister’s wife, which was actually a kind and true exposé. However, the pompous man ruined that when he proceeded to dwell on the unfortunate circumstances the ladies Bates had come to, elaborating explicitly on their reduced financial means.
That, Emma thought, was not only completely uncalled for, but also rude and callous. She heard George’s exasperated gasp and squeezed his hand to prevent him from retaliating. When she caught his gaze, he bent over and whispered, “I am going to give him a trashing for this.”
Emma nodded. “I will do the same to his scatter-brained wife.”
After the service, Emma and George accompanied Miss Bates, Frank and Jane to Randall, where the Westons had laid out refreshments for the mourners. Mr Woodhouse had been persuaded to attend but as soon as he set eyes on Emma, he was complaining about the lack of a fire in the large drawing room. “Tsk, tsk!” he muttered under his breath. “Why does Miss Taylor not order the hearth to be set alight? Does she not know how chilly these summer days can become as soon as luncheon has passed?”
“Papa, she is Mrs Weston now,” Emma said, soothing the old man by offering him a hot cup of tea.
“Well, yes, that is just another thing,” Mr Woodhouse replied, shaking his head. “How could she do this to us, Emma?”
Emma shook her head in bewilderment. Her father had never been able to endure changes and never would so, too. She directed her gaze to Miss Bates, who was sitting on a settee between Frank and Jane. The elderly spinster seemed to hold up rather well, all things considered, Emma mused. Miss Bates daintily sipped a glass of Madeira, and by the look of it, it was not the first drink she had consumed. Her cheeks were flushed a bright red and she occasionally hiccupped. Albeit discretely, behind her kerchief, Emma observed.
Anne Weston’s voice brought Emma back into reality. “My dear, how are you faring? Is your father comfortable, do you think? He seems a bit under the weather.”
“Oh, Anne, you know Papa. He is never comfortable unless he is in his own parlour. Do not fret about him. Instead, tell me how baby Anna is doing.”
“She is very well, I thank you. Oh, Emma, there was never a happier and more adorable little girl on earth! Mr Weston says so, too.”
“Well, of course, Anne! He is bound to say that about his own daughter, is he not? Is it true Mr Weston is leaving for London, on the morrow?”
“Yes, I am afraid so. Business matters claim his attention forthwith. I hear Frank and Jane will also leave for Yorkshire, in the morning. Randall will be quiet and lonely for me, unless you come and spend the day?”
“I will come, dearest. We will take little Anna for a walk in her pram, and afterwards, have ourselves a large tea. What think you of that?”
“Capital, dear Emma!”
George Knightley, on the look-out for the Eltons, quietly left the room, as soon as he spotted their gig turning onto the driveway. The couple was stepping out of the vehicle when George waylaid them.
“Vicar,” he addressed Mr Elton sternly, “ I do not think it is appropriate for you to be in Miss Bates’ presence at this moment. I am sure you will understand my meaning.”
Mr Elton drew himself up to his full height, which left him shorter by a foot of George.
“Mr Knightley, whatever do you mean?”
“I did not care much about the way your sermon sounded, during the service, vicar. You were unforgivably rude to expose Miss Bates’ reduced circumstances in front of the entire community.”
“But … but …” the stupid man sputtered. “Does not everyone in the community know about this? It is not a secret.”
“No, and that is the reason why you should have kept your mouth about it. Unless you apologize in public to Miss Bates, I cannot allow you to speak to her again.”