Between Boredom and Brilliance – Part Thirteen

Emma 2009

 

Chapter Thirteen – Frank Churchill, the prodigal son who did not return  home

 

 

 

 

After her night of vigilance, Emma was incredibly relieved when Frank Churchill suggested that they go to Randall, the Weston’s residence, for breakfast. Mrs Weston had kindly offered him and Jane  her hospitality, Frank said. Jane wanted to stay with her relatives, so that he would accompany Emma there.

“Dear Mrs Weston does take a substantial interest in me, the son of her husband,” he elaborated to Emma, while escorting her to his fathers’ house.

“Anne is such a dear, sweet woman,” Emma agreed. “Isabella and I have always regarded her as our surrogate mother, you know, even when she was merely our governess.”

“Is it not remarkable how sometimes life throws a person away from the place where he was born, only to cast him back to his origins? I thought myself safe from Highbury, when I married Jane, who had no love for the confounded place, and in doing so, we were able to move to Yorkshire. My aunt’s house is splendid and large, and Jane and I are extremely happy there. Yet now, with her aunt Mrs Bates so ill, I feel she is drawn back here, if only to tend to her aunt and cousin. That would mean we must stay here indefinitely, and in my father’s house to boot.”

Emma frowned and said, “I thought you loved staying with your father, from time to time. Mr Weston is always delighted to have you here, Frank. Surely, you must know that?”

To Emma’s astonishment, Frank suddenly drew her away from the road and into a copse of birches, where he dumped her onto a stone bench. He then knelt before her and grabbed her wrists.

“Emma, you have no inkling of how I feel, every time I am forced to set foot into my father’s house, do you? No, I can perceive that. Listen, I will explain and then, you will comprehend the predicament I am in.”

It was as if Emma experienced a scene of a past long gone, when Frank had arrived at the strawberry picking at Donwell Abbey, some years before. How very unsettled he had been, how extremely frustrated because he could not simply be with Jane and show his love for her. Only, at that time, Emma had thought that he was in love with her and considered himself to be beneath her. How foolish she had been, in those days. How blind and stupid, not to have seen that it was George whom she loved and not Frank.

Frank, his gaze on a far away point, continued, thus drawing her attention to him once more.

“Here in Highbury, I am Mr Weston’s son, because they all know and respect him. Yet to me he is only a distant relative, whom I have not seen for many years. Do you comprehend what it means to be separated from one’s parent at a tender age, Emma? I do not think so. When they came to take me to my aunt, I was so young that I barely understood what transpired. I only felt the pain of separation, without grasping why it happened to me. That pain was unbearably sharp for a seven year old, Emma.”

“Oh, Frank! I never suspected! I am so sorry! We all thought that you went off to a good life and a loving aunt, who was able to provide for you as it should be.”

“Oh, I was provided for. I lacked nothing, had the best of tutors, and went to the best of schools. My aunt and uncle doted on me, Emma, and they inundated me with their love and affection. Smothered me with it, really.”

Puzzled, all of a sudden, by the bitterness on Frank’s face, Emma intervened. “But, Frank, is that not a good thing? That way, you were able to overcome the loss of your dear mama. Everybody needs someone to overcome one’s losses, Frank. I am sure it was not so for poor Jane, who was sent to a family of complete strangers.”

Frank bitterly scoffed. “Yes, but they allowed her to keep in touch with Mrs and Miss Bates through the years. They encouraged her to write and tell everything to them, to narrate about her progress in life, to share her feelings with her distant relatives. Their letters were a constant source of joy and happiness to Jane, Emma, whereas I was left stranded without the slightest notion of how my father fared.”

“Oh, but Frank, your father was not to blame for that! You have no idea how many letters he sent you. Are you telling me that you received none?”

“Exactly, Emma. My aunt kept them from me until I had become of age. All those years, I had no news from Mr Weston and I thought he had forgotten about me. The memory of him slowly faded and the love for him died. By the time I went to Oxford, I had no desire left to communicate with my distant and indifferent father.”

Emma was appalled! She had never nourished a high opinion of Mrs Churchill but at that moment, she loathed the woman with all her heart.

“Why would she do such a ghastly thing? Surely, she must have known that a little boy would want to hear news of his father?”

“My aunt – God rest her soul – detested my father, Emma. She never approved of her sister’s marriage to him, claiming that my mother married far beneath her status.”

“I think it extremely cruel to you, to withhold these letters, Frank. I only hope that she did not manage to destroy your good opinion of Mr Weston.”

“That is just the point I wanted to clarify, Emma. I have no good opinion on my father. I do not have a bad opinion, either. I just feel indifference towards the man. He strikes me as a dumb, weak person who gave away his child when my aunt asked for it. I could never love such a man, Emma, never!”

“Oh, Frank, you must make an effort and change your image of poor Mr Weston! All of Highbury has witnessed his genuine distress throughout the years, his sorrow because your aunt refused to let him see you.”

“Nonetheless, he has done nothing to retrieve me throughout these years, Emma.”

“He has! I can recall very well that Anne told me about the multitude of letters to Mrs Churchill and her solicitors Mr Weston has sent!”

“Letters that have never arrived, Emma! Perhaps, because they were never written?”

Emma gasped in disbelief. “How can you say such a thing, Frank? Why would Anne lie about it?”

Frank shook his head, laughing. “Because Anne loves her husband, Emma, that is why! She will say anything to make him look good in the eyes of the good people of Highbury.”

In exasperation, Emma threw her hands up. “So what are you planning to do now, Frank? Ignore them for the rest of your life? That will surely destroy them! They love you, Frank!”

“Dearest Emma, do not trouble yourself on my behalf. I have no inclination to destroy anybody. It is simple. As soon as possible, Jane and I will return to Yorkshire, and stay there, never to return to this dismal little village.”

 

 

 

Between Boredom and Brilliance – Part Twelve

 

Emma 2009

 

Chapter Twelve – What happened to Franck Churchill?

 

In the grey light just before dawn, Emma stretched in the hard Chippendale armchair  beside Mrs Bates’ bed, suppressing a groan as she did so. She had just passed one of the  most uncomfortable nights in her entire life.

Mrs Bates had moaned for half the night, although she did not appear to be awake. Emma had tried to give her some cold tea, but the old woman had not responded to her attempt. Instead, she let the liquid run down her chin and did not open her parched lips one crack. Now Mrs Bates’ breathing was harsher than before and her colour even more ashen. Her eyes did never open, nor did she utter a word.

Emma touched one of the old lady’s hands, thin like that of a skeleton, and the skin like old parchment. It was damp and cold, and utterly unresponsive. The skin of Mrs Bates’ face, on the other hand, felt dry and hot. Not long now, Emma thought, while a wave of sadness welled up in her chest.

A sound in the other room made Emma rise. Quietly, she opened the bedroom door and stepped into the sitting room. The fire in the hearth had since long gone cold, and the room was icy, despite the balmy June night that reigned outside.

The room was empty and Emma, who had expected to see Miss Bates up and prepared for the day, frowned in confusion. She had heard something, of that she was sure, but what? Then a quiet knock came from the outer door of the little apartment. Emma jumped. She had not anticipated visitors that early. The little mantelpiece Ormolu clock said five in the morning.

As quietly as she could manage, with the rusty lock of the door, Emma opened it – and startled.

The pleasant face of Frank Churchill smiled at her in its usual, congenial way.

 

“I believe we are expected here, Mrs Knightley,” he whispered, his smile broadening. “However, I had never expected to find you here, in this humble abode.”

Emma stood gaping at the man whom she had considered her first love, not so long ago. She could see why, now, and easily so. He was undoubtedly handsome, dashing even.

With a flourish, he lifted his top hat, and a lock of those chestnut curls fell over his clear, smooth brow. His hazel eyes radiated with mischief, his perfect mouth flashed a smile.

“Emma …” he said, in a low, seductive voice, “how good it is to see you again. May we come in?”

The pronoun ‘we’ made Emma return to reality. Behind Frank’s broad shoulders, Jane Fairfax’ slight figure had been effectively hidden. Now, she stepped forward and curtsied.

“Dear Mrs Knightley,” she breathed shyly, “allow me to congratulate you on your recent marriage to Mr Knightley. As we were already gone to Yorkshire at the time, we had no opportunity to do so.”

“Th … erm … thank you, Mrs Churchill.” Emma felt the urgent need to clear her throat before she could go on. “How are you both faring? I do hope the journey was not overly trying. Do come in, if you please.”

“I take it my aunt and niece are still abed?” Jane asked, cocking her small head to one side, as was her wont.

“Yes,” Emma admitted. “Mrs Churchill … Jane? Are you aware that your aunt is … dying?”

Jane’s light- brown eyes instantly filled with tears that started to roll down her cheeks like pearls.

“Yes,” she whispered, “yes, my niece informed me that my aunt was on the verge of passing. Can I see her? She is not yet gone, I hope?”

“No, she lives, but barely. Come …”

Jane followed Emma to the bed where her aunt lay dying. She uttered a soft cry and went to sit down next to the bed, occupying the chair Emma had used before. Covering the withered hand with one of her own, Jane spoke softly and urgently. “Dearest Aunt, please, it is Jane. Will you not answer me?”

Emma watched in stunned surprise as the eyes of the old lady opened. Mrs Bates had not reacted to any of them, nor given in to any entreat of her daughter’s in the days before, but now she plied her cracked lips into a slight smile. Her faded grey eyes lit up with joy.

“Oh, my dearest child, at last you are here!” She exclaimed, her husky voice as loud as was possible. “I thank the Lord, our Saviour, that he has granted me your comforting presence in my last hours!”

“Oh, Auntie, do not speak thus! You will not yet pass, I am sure of it! I will nurse you back to sanity, as I did many times before!”

“No, child …” The voice grew weaker, now. “No … the Lord has prepared my place beside Him. I must go and I do so joyfully, for I had a good life and look forward to a better one, still.”

The old lady burst into a fit of coughing, her energy apparently used. Miss Bates, still in her nightgown and cap, came bustling into the room.

“Jane! My dearest girl, oh …” Miss Bates began weeping and embraced her niece fiercely.      Emma quickly retreated to the sitting room where she found Frank, sitting by the fire, which he seemed to have rekindled.

“Dear Lord, Emma! I always knew the Bates ladies to be poor but this lack of … well, everything … is simply appalling!”

“Shhh!” Emma warned. “Keep your voice down, for Heaven’s sake! Miss Bates is very sensitive about their lack of funds. Rest assured, Highbury does not leave its destitute citizens without support. All is done to help them.”

Frank, having stated what he found important, was already switching to more pleasant topics. He beamed at Emma and said, “My Jane is with child, Emma! By Christmas, I will be a father!”

“Oh!” Emma replied weakly, her spirits plummeting, “my heartfelt congratulations to you and Jane, Frank.” She was suddenly down-spirited and sad because, of all the couples that had recently married in Highbury, she and George seemed to be the only ones that were not expecting. Jane, always the best in everything, and even shy, dim-witted Harriet had taken a march on her, Emma Knightley!

 

Between Boredom and Brilliance – Part Ten

Emma 2009

 Chapter Ten – A Necessary Change of Plans

 

Emma woke when the warm breath of her husband caressed her cheek, ruffling the soft hair on her brow with its loving breeze.

“Mmmm ….” she purred, stretching luxuriously in his arms. “Not yet, George, I want to sleep a bit longer before I rise …”

“Well, my lady,” her beloved coaxed softly, “I’m afraid that is not what I have in mind for you, at the moment …”

His wicked hands began exploring her nude body with magical fingers, igniting fire where they roamed. Emma moaned with the yearning she always felt when her George presented her with his passion. “My dearest love, you must set me free for I have a million things to see to, this morning.”

She tried to break free of George’s hold but the circle of his arms only grew tighter.

“You will have plenty of time, my darling Emma, before you must go to visit Harriet.”

“How do you know I want to visit Harriet?” Emma asked in stunned surprise. “Have I told you that last night? I do not recall!”

“I know everything about you, dearest, I make it my task to do so. Now … be a good little wife and indulge me …”

When his mouth started roaming all the places his hands had mapped out before, Emma surrendered and let herself be swept away by George’s passion once again.

 

In the morning – a glorious, bright, warm July morning with the height of summer so near – Emma buttoned a pale yellow pelisse over her  cream-coloured sprigged muslin dress and fastened a white straw hat onto her golden curls. She was on the brink of setting off for Abbey Mills Farm to hear what stories Harriet might have gathered for the newspaper when she heard her maid Maud talking to Blaise, George’s valet. Or better, whispering. They had not noticed her, hidden behind the big closet in the hall, while they were carrying their baskets, full of laundry, to the servants’ quarter.

“Mademoiselle Mathilde, will you please do me ze ‘onour of goink on a stroll wiz me zis afternoon?” Blaise asked, his horrible French accent mangling the words.

“No, you dolt!” Maud scoffed in her pronounced Kentish accent. “ Why would I do that? Besides, I have to go to the village to see my aunt. She’s not well, not well at all!”

“Zen, let me go wiz you and see zat you arrive properly.”

“No, you brazen man! My cousin would have a stroke when you’d turn up at Mrs Bates’ house! My niece is an elderly spinster, as you very well know. Besides, they’re two ladies living on their own. They abhor male company, especially when they don’t know the men. They can barely suffer Mr Knightley’s company, let alone yours!”

A moment later, the green baize door fell shut behind them and Emma stood baffled for a while, dealing with what she had just heard. Mrs Bates, ill? Oh, my goodness, but she had completely forgotten that Maud was a relative of the Bates ladies! She must go and visit as soon as was possible! Drat, but she had agreed to meet with Harriet now so it would have to wait until after luncheon.

 

However, Harriet had other disturbing facts to offer. She was sitting under the apple tree in the farm’s courtyard, vigorously fanning herself in the late morning heat. Emma went to take a seat beside her on the bench.

“Good morning, my dear Harriet! How are you today?”

“I am fine, thank you, dear Emma.”

“You are looking somewhat … flushed, my dear. Have you gathered some upsetting facts for the newspaper, by any chance?”

“Oh, Emma, I have not! There seems to be not a thing worth writing about. Everything is proceeding its normal boring way in Highbury and nothing of interest occurs!”

“Yes, our dear Highbury is so completely lacking of incidents that I sometimes think the Lord God has forgotten we exist! Well, we will wait and …”

While she was still saying these words, Emma watched the most extraordinary thing happen. She abruptly stopped speaking and stared at Harriet’s pretty, young face, exquisite in its youthful roundness and the creamy velvet of its skin. She saw Harriet’s cornflower blue eyes shift to a point far beyond Emma’s shoulder, come to rest and blossom with the most wonderful smile, dreamy and overflowing with love.

Puzzled to the extreme, Emma glanced over her own shoulder … and understood. A few paces away stood Robert Martin, tall, broad-shouldered, in shirt sleeves and dirty leather trousers, the ones he used to do farm work. The same deep fond gaze mirrored Harriet’s and Emma found herself smile in total comprehension. That was how her own, dear George looked at her … with pure, unmitigated love.

Emma did not understand why she had not seen this from the start for Harriet and her Robert had always looked at each other like that. They had always loved each other deeply, only Emma had persuaded Harriet that it was not true and nearly managed to break these two lovers apart.

“Good morning, Mr Martin,” she said, smiling fondly at him. He was such a sweet, good man.

Robert Martin blinked at the sound of her voice but recovered himself quickly. “Good morning, Mrs Knightley,” he replied and bowed at Emma. Then, immediately, he shifted his gaze back to his wife and asked, in a voice brimming with concern, “Are you well, my love? Are you in need of something, anything? I will get it for you instantly.”

“I am very well, dearest, do not concern yourself. Go about your work and leave me here with my friend.”

Mr Martin nodded and turned away to enter the barn. Emma had no inkling of what had been exchanged between the two of them but it had been something very intense, for sure.

“Are you ailing, Harriet?” she asked, a bit concerned herself.

“No, dear Emma,” Harriet replied, joy in her voice, “I am very, very well. I could never be better in all my life. You see, my dearest Emma, I am with child. Around the turning of the year, a little Martin will be born.”

 

Emma walked back home through the countryside, her heart singing with joy and her mind filled with images of infants. What a wonderful news Harriet just gave her! She not only felt extremely happy for her friend but also envied Harriet for just a tiny bit. All of a sudden, Emma wished for a child of her and George. What joy would that bring to her dear husband and her darling Papa!

There was, however, an important step to be taken. When Harriet was to be a mother and Miss Bates was to take proper care of her ailing mother, neither of them would find time to spend on a newspaper. Maybe, it was better to cancel the whole project before it even started.

 

Between Boredom and Brilliance – Part Nine

Emma 2009

  Chapter Nine – Newlyweds’ Bliss

 

Emma nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw the vicar standing in the doorway, his arms    crossed over his meagre chest. What could she say that would convince him she had not been prying  when, in fact, she had!

“Mr Elton, what a lovely bathroom you have! I never saw such a pretty bathtub in my life! Not even in the grandest hotel in Brighton have I set my eyes on such a wonder!”

The vicar’s stern expression seemed to soften a bit. He reached past Emma and opened the door to the aforementioned room again.

“Please, do step inside once more, Mrs Knightley. There are some special accommodations I wish to show to you.”

Curious to a fault, Emma did as he asked. The vicar slipped in behind her and closed the door with a decisive click. He then folded his hands across his chest and began rubbing them while watching her with a slyness in his eyes that gave Emma shivers down her spine.

“Mrs Knightley … Emma …”

She stepped back a bit but soon felt the rim of the windowsill against her legs.

“Yes, Mr Elton?” Emma replied, striving for calmness in her voice, which was very hard because Mr Elton came again a little bit nearer.

“Dearest Emma, allow me to offer you my deepest feelings of respect and adoration … you are so lovely, so pure, so noble and … I have never stopped loving you, dearest. Please, allow me to worship you …”

“Mr Elton!” Emma snapped, as sternly as she could. “I must beg you to stop! We are both married, sir! It would not do to break our marriage vows.”

“Ah, but we won’t, dearest, we won’t at all! What harm is there in a secret little assignation from time to time? We would only be spending some time together in conversation and the exchanging of affectionate, brotherly kisses. Perfectly innocent kisses …”

Emma did not feel threatened by the ridiculous man before her. He was so vain that he considered himself worthy of every woman that caught his eye and affections. Her natural curiosity won out and she asked, “Mr Elton, why are you in need of affection? You have a beautiful, wealthy wife. I am sure she provides you with all the affection you want.”

“Oh, no, dear! That is just not the case! You do not know her very well, do you? She is a cold, selfish person who has no wish to act as a wife should. She …” He lowered his voice to a whisper, “She refuses me, Emma, over and over again. I am so desperate for … the physical aspects of marital life that I can barely refrain from pulling you in my embrace … oh, Emma, have mercy on me!”

When he readied himself to do as he said, Emma darted around him and fled. She rushed down the stairs as quickly as she could, her breathing harsh and her heart pounding. Before she entered the drawing room, Emma halted in order to calm herself. She managed only partially.

“George, my dear, I fear we have not the time to stay any longer. Mrs Weston is expecting me for luncheon. We must take our leave, Mrs Elton. Please, give my regards to the vicar.”

Ignoring the stunned gaze of her husband, she took George by the elbow and left the room and the house.

“Emma, what is this all about?” George asked. “First, you cannot wait to impose upon Mrs Elton’s hospitality and the minute we are inside, you are rushing to get out.”

“George, it is simply too horrible for words!” Emma replied, squeezing his arm tightly in distress. “That wretched man was trying to … oh, I cannot say it!”

“Emma!” George could not recall ever being in such a state of concern. What had the blackguard vicar done to his wife?

“What, dearest, what has he done? Emma, do not keep me in the dark!”

“He declared his love to me and tried to kiss me …”

“What!? The bastard! The villain! I am going to rip out his liver!”

He heard how loud his own voice was and saw Emma’s eyes widen.

In a panic, Emma looked about her to see if people were staring at them because they were making quite a spectacle of themselves in the middle of the street. “George …” Emma reproached him quietly, “we are in Highbury’s High Street! You must lower your voice.”

George instantly calmed down for Emma was right. He could not believe his own reaction either. Surely, a gentleman should always be able to curb his fury.

Emma was looking at him with great concern now. He needed to distract her, urgently so.

Her wicked husband smiled at her in a way that caused her cheeks to blush violently. “A pity,” he whispered near her ear, “for you are blushing quite irresistibly, my love. I could kiss you, here and now, and no one would witness it. We are all alone …”

Emma gave a little shriek when he brought his mouth nearer to hers. “George, please! What would people think?”

“I do not care the slightest thing about what people think, Emma, my love. If I choose to embrace my wife in public, so be it.” And he did … kiss her on the lips.

Emma gave in with a sigh but she did not put her arms around his neck for fear someone might indeed see.

“I want us to go home, dearest,” George breathed, his mouth touching hers. “I want us to engage in wicked things …”

“N … Now …?” Emma gasped, her heart thudding madly in her chest.

“Yes … now,” her husband said in a languid drawl.

“But … but … it is barely noon!”

“So … what of it? Is the appropriate time for marital encounters laid down by law?”

George placed his hand in the small of Emma’s back and began steering her in the direction of Hartfield. “But … what if Father hears us enter the manor? Surely, he will summon us to him?”

“Then, my little worrywart, we will have to make sure he does not hear us. Leave it all to me, sweetheart.”

They neared Hartfield from the back and slipped in by the servant’s entrance. Hand in hand, the couple crept up the servant’s stair. They would all be in the servant’s hall, having their luncheon, Emma knew. Her father would have had his gruel and was probably resting in his chair by the fire.

Without any interruption, they reached their bedchamber. George pushed Emma inside and closed the door behind them. He quickly went from door to door and locked them all. When he was done, he turned toward his wife with a wicked smile and eyes shining with mischief.

“Now you are at my beck and call, dearest spouse,” he said, and came closer so that Emma was forced to retreat until the back of her legs encountered their bed.

“Oh, am I?” she asked, warming to the gist of the game. “What will you do to me, oh Lord and Master?”

“I will start with what the vicar meant to do to you,” George whispered, taking her in his arms. “Then I will do so much more, my love. I will obliterate his image from your mind with skilful lovemaking, my dearest Emma.”

Which he did. Skilfully so.

 

 

Between Boredom and Brilliance – Part Eight

Emma 2009

Chapter Eight – The Eltons or the Vanity Worshippers

 

Emma could not decide which feeling was the most exciting; on the one hand, she was thrilled to      hear of troubles    at the vicarage while on the other hand, she heard a little voice in her head, warning her to be cautious.

“Harriet, are you in earnest? At the vicarage?” she inquired, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice.

“Yes, yes! Oh, Emma, you are not going to believe this!” Harriet squeaked in delight.

“What is it, then? I am dying to hear it, Harriet!”

Her friend surreptitiously looked around as if there were people lurking behind the draperies and eavesdropping on them. She bent over to Emma and spoke softly in her ear.

“It appears that the purse strings of the vicar’s household are entirely under his wife’s control and that she is spending funds as if they were water.”

Emma drew her brows together as she was failing to see this as something out of the ordinary.

“Mrs Elton comes from a very wealthy family and the vicar had independent and affluent means of his own. I cannot understand why you would think it so uncommon to spend your money on the improvement of comfort in the home, Harriet.”

“Ah!” Harriet continued triumphantly. “You do not know the extent of the lady’s spending, Emma! She has fixed it in her head that she will have bathing facilities that are comparable to the ones Prinny installed in his Brighton palace.”

Emma’s jaw dropped. “No! Oh, my goodness!”

“Yes,” Harriet beamed, “and that is just the beginning! Listen to this …”

 

Not long thereafter, Emma arrived at Hartfield in a veritable state of agitation. She threw her bonnet and pelisse onto the sofa in the hall and immediately went in search of her husband.

George Knightley was in his newly equipped study, which had been one of the downstairs morning rooms at the back of the house and overlooking the rose garden. When he heard Emma’s hastily approaching footsteps, he sighed and put down his pen. He was fairly sure no work would be achieved as long as Emma wanted to share gossip.

“My love!” Emma cried and let herself down into a chair at George’s desk, facing him. “Please, come with me, at this very moment! We need to go pay a visit to the vicarage.”

“Why, dearest? What religious matters would you want to discuss with our good Mr Elton?”

“Religious matters? No, no, no, George, you mistake me! I must see what alterations Mrs Elton has put into place. According to Harriet Martin, they are huge and mind-boggling. Come, George, I need you to distract the two of them so that I can retreat to the lady’s room and go sneak into the other rooms in the process.”

When Emma was in this state of mind, George knew she was not to be deterred so he gave in and accompanied her to the vicarage. As it was once again a beautiful sunny day, Mr and Mrs Knightley preferred walking to the large, elegant house, situated on a small knoll  in Highbury’s centre. They ascended the flight of stairs leading to the front door. George tapped it lightly with the silver knob that crowned his walking stick. Pretty young Bessie Dawkins, the parlour maid, opened soon and let them into a stately drawing room which – to Emma’s surprise – appeared to be newly upholstered in dark green silk for the walls and wine red velvet for the draperies. Under their feet was a thick new Aubusson carpet in rich browns and greens. This upholstery must have cost a pretty penny, Emma mused.

“George, look at the expensive niceties in this room! And this is only a drawing room for visitors! I wonder what the rest of the house will look like!”

If George had wanted to give an opinion on this, he had to swallow it because the door swung open to let their hostess in. Mrs Elton’s attire was extravagant, to say the least. She wore a bright red silk day gown with a daringly low neckline and an exaggerated amount of lace petticoats that peeped out from under the hem of the dress. On her feet were high-heeled scarlet pumps and her hair was piled up high on her head with ringlets falling in her neck and next to her small ears. On her throat, a row of diamonds shone and large diamond earrings hung from her earlobes.

How ridiculous, Emma thought. This woman would forever dress as if she was going to attend a ball!

“Dear Mr and Mrs Knightley,” Mrs Elton chirped, her wide smile not reaching her eyes. “What an unexpected pleasure, indeed! You must accompany me to the morning room and I shall ring for tea.”

She swept out of the room and preceded her guests to a room at the back, overlooking the large garden. Here too, the upholstery had been recently replaced by a more expensive one.

Emma searched for the appropriate words to broach the subject in a sufficiently innocent way so as not to stir any suspicions in her hostess.

“This is such a nice room, Mrs Elton, and you have decorated it so wonderfully! Where have you found those lovely fabrics, if I may be so bold to ask?”

Mrs Elton beamed with pride when she replied, “In London, of course! Only the best for our home, Mrs Knightley! As you well know, Bath, Bristol or even Brighton are inadequate when it comes to quality.”

Now it was George’s turn to admire the furnishings and the conversation rippled on for several minutes about fabric and tapestry, when the vicar entered the room, a thick leather-covered book in his hands.

“Ah, Mr Knightley, sir! So very good to see you! I wonder if I might impose upon your vast knowledge on first editions. I am quite sure that this one is a first for “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, written by that scoundrel Byron. One of my London book suppliers brought it to my attention and I would very much like to have your opinion on it.”

“Lord Byron? Oh, such a romantically inspired poet!” Mrs Elton exclaimed. “My dear Mr Elton, I want to see it too!”

Emma saw an opportunity to leave the room as she asked to be brought to a lady’s retiring room. Mrs Elton waved her hand toward the door and chirped, “Just ask Bessie to bring you to it, Mrs Knightley!”

Suppressing a sigh of relief, Emma slipped out of the morning room. Bessie brought her to a small room upstairs and left. After she heard Bessie’s footsteps die away, Emma tiptoed out and began to open doors in a methodical way. Every single room she inspected, was newly upholstered in expensive furnishings and fabrics. The last door revealed a bathroom, complete with a double copper bath and taps that shone like gold. Emma had never seen anything lovelier than this. She shuddered at the thought of how much all this must have cost.

She was quietly closing the bathroom door when a voice sounded next to her ear.

“What are you doing here, Mrs Knightley? It seems that you are prying shamelessly!”

Emma turned and saw the frowning face of Mr Elton only inches from hers.

 

 

Between Boredom and Brilliance – Part Seven

Emma 2009

Chapter Seven – The Martins or the Salt of the Earth

 

 

 

Abbey Mill Farm was part of the Donwell Abbey estate and, although Emma used to roam the vast expanse of George’s grounds and lands frequently before she married, she had , however, never been to the farm. Her abominable pride and vanity always kept her far from the dwellings of people like Robert Martin. The reason why this had been the case was simple; a farmer might very well know Emma Woodhouse, but why should Emma Woodhouse know a farmer.

Emma’s shame about her former attitude was very real and very deserved. As she came nearer to the establishment, Emma immediately noticed the neat, orderly state it was in. The house itself was clean and in good repair, flowers on every window sill, and the woodwork freshly painted bright red. The surrounding flower garden and adjacent herb garden were in full summer bloom, lovely scents filling the air. The farm yard was bustling with activity, farm hands running to and fro, milk maids carrying their pails to the dairy house, and dray drivers manoeuvring their heavily laden vehicles in and out. The orchestrator of all this stood in the midst of it; Robert Martin, tall and well-built, gave directions and orders to each servant under his command and seemed to overlook it all with quiet confidence.

Emma hesitated before she stepped closer. What would Mr Martin think of her sudden visit? Would she even be welcome? Did he know how reluctant she had been about his proposal to Harriet and how she convinced Harriet to refuse him? Emma sincerely hoped he had no knowledge of this, otherwise she would never be able to look him in the eye.

At that precise moment, Robert Martin’s gaze fell upon her. His face – handsome in a ruddy, healthy-looking way – remained unchanged but in his pale blue eyes something shifted. Emma felt a pang of fear when she realised he knew exactly what she had done in the past. She must apologize and do it in a humbling way if she wanted to keep his wife as a friend and be welcome at the farm in the future.

“My dear Mr Martin,” she ventured, a bright smile on her face, “I hope I find you and your family in good health?”

“Mrs Knightley, ma’am, thank you for your concern. Yes, all my family are well. What brings you here, this morning? I think you will find Harriet in the dairy shed.”

“Mr Martin, I must confess that I am in need of your forgiveness for my behaviour, and my meddling in your affairs regarding Harriet. I offer you my most humble apologies and hope you find not hold my former attitude against me. Harriet is my best and most valuable friend, and I would be deeply chagrined to lose her.”

A sudden blush in Mr Martin’s face told Emma that her words surprised but also pleased him. She offered her hand to him, and he took it and pressed it affectionately.

“Dear Mrs Knightley, please, do not think about it anymore. What is done, is done. Please, feel free to visit us at any time you deem appropriate. You are most welcome at Abbey Mill Farm.”

“Thank you, Mr Martin. I believe I shall go to the dairy house at present.”

Emma curtsied as she would have done to a gentleman and, to her delighted surprise, Mr Martin bowed deeply from the waist.

 

In the dairy house – a spotless outbuilding next to the kitchen, with white-washed walls and shining grey floor tiles – Emma found Harriet and a few young women busying themselves with the various procedures of handling milk. One of them was churning butter, another was ladling cottage cheese into small bowls and a third one was putting cheese wheels onto shelves to dry. Harriet was ticking off finished items on a list and smiled brightly when Emma entered the room.

“Darling Emma!” she exclaimed, threw down her list and flung her arms around Emma with a squeal of happiness. “Oh, Emma, I am so delighted to see you! I was afraid that you would never come to visit me at Abbey Mill Farm, knowing how much you hated farms. Do come into the house, if you please? My mother-in-law will have tea and biscuits ready. She will have heard of your arrival the minute you set foot into the yard!”

Harriet was right. The elder Mrs Martin was thrilled to have the distinguished Mrs Knightley visiting her, and she bowed Emma into her parlour with great deference. An enjoyable half hour followed, and the three women took tea and gossiped about a lot of Highbury’s villagers, drawing great satisfaction from it.

Emma inquired about Mr Martin’s sisters who were a few years younger and still unmarried. Mrs Martin hastened to explain that her daughters were presently visiting the gypsies.

“Really?” Emma asked, furrowing her brow in surprise. “I would have thought you would be afraid of these people, Mrs Martin. Harriet – poor girl – has been attacked by them, not six months ago, and she was in a state of utter misery after that.”

“Mrs Knightley is right, Mama-in-law,” Harriet confirmed. “But, dearest Emma, the gypsies that presently occupy the Donwell Abbey grounds are not the same circle of families that were here before. Your esteemed husband, Mr Knightley vouched for them in person and told us they would keep to themselves. Robert’s sisters have gone to visit on the specific request of the families’ elder. They have some sick children and their medicines did not cure them. So my sisters-in-law took some of our own medicines to help them out.”

“Yes, and they will be back soon,” Mrs Martin said, rising from her chair. “If you will excuse me, Mrs Knightley, I must go and see to the luncheon preparations.” She curtsied and left the room.

“Finally, we are alone!” Emma chuckled. “Dear Harriet, how are you getting on gathering news items for our paper?”

Harriet suddenly beamed with glee and drew closer to her friend.

“Well, an impeccable source told me that something is seriously amiss at the vicarage!”

 

 

Between Boredom and Brilliance – Part Six

Emma 2009

 

Chapter Six – Tasks Are Handed Out

 

“As you might well know, my dears, a newspaper is a difficult project to realise. I will need all of           you to pull it off successfully. I have composed a list and lined up all the tasks that need to be tackled. First and foremost, there is a great need for someone who can manage our funds.”

Emma’s gaze skimmed over the small gathering.

“Funds?” a deep voice sounded, all of a sudden.

In utter astonishment, four faces turned to George. The ladies had forgotten that he was there with them. Emma was the first to recover.

“Oh, my love, I had no notion that you were still in the room. You startled us, you know.”

George’s mouth twisted to suppress a smile and instead, he endeavoured to keep a straight face. “I am here, indeed, my love. I thought it best to offer you the vast experience I gathered as a landowner and manager of an estate. You will need some very specific skills if you want to accomplish this task.”

Emma’s brow furrowed which made it even more difficult for George to keep a serious expression on his features. She was so adorable when she was angry. Oh, and she was becoming angry very quickly, he saw.

“My dearest,” she said in a clipped tone of voice, “there is no need for you to waste your precious time with us, women, and neglect your many duties. If you insist on concerning yourself with our little project, I shall give you a full account of our actions after dinner tonight. By then, I will have outlined all the issues and dealt with them to our mutual satisfaction.”

Emma raised her chin in defiance. She needed to be in charge here but her husband – confound it! – was having difficulties hiding his mirth. Tongue in cheek, George challenged her with mocked gravity.

“You speak of funds, my sweet. Where are you planning to acquire them? Are you providing for the money, then?”

“Of course, I am!” Emma snapped and immediately regretted that she lost her temper in front of her friends. “Yes, I will provide for the funds that will create “The Highbury Chronicles” but I expect the project to gain its own profits after a time.”

The committee members of “The Highbury Chronicles” had hitherto followed the exchange between the consorts in baffled silence, but now Anne Weston could no longer contain her thoughts.

“Emma, George, I beg you, this is leading nowhere! Let us stick to the problems at hand and follow up Emma’s suggestion that we assign the various tasks to the persons most suitable for them. A treasurer is what is wanted first, is it not?”

“Quite so, dearest Anne,” George agreed in an enthused manner. “I have just the right person in mind, as a matter of fact. It must be Miss Bates, there is no doubt about it!”

Emma’s jaw dropped. She gasped so violently that she choked and coughed in order to conceal her displeasure about George’s suggestion. Fortunately, there was someone present who was even more bewildered than Emma.

Miss Bates’ plain face had gone white as a sheet with bright red blossoms of excitement colouring her thin cheekbones.

“Oh, erm … oh, my! Oh, I’m sure I’m … oh, dear, oh dear … Mr Knightley, how wonderful that you think me – of all people – little old me capable of managing the funds!”

“Yes, Miss Bates,” George acquiesced, “you are the perfect person. Have you not managed to keep you and your mother out of harm’s ways, only with your skilful management of your little household? In my opinion, the committee must be called upon to grant you a salary for the talents you will apply. I propose a monthly compensation of five shillings. That would be to begin with, mind! As soon as the newspaper begins to prosper, you should have a raise.”

At this point, poor Miss Bates swooned in her chair, and Anne and Harriet hurried to her side to assist her. Emma – still baffled – now began to ponder over George’s proposal. Miss Bates may be poor but she had indeed managed to keep her head above water for many years. Always she kept a decent tea table when Emma visited and her clothes were always pristine and not too old-fashioned, although she did not have the money to buy new ones. Instead, Miss Bates was forever altering her old clothes so that they had a more modern outlook. Emma, for the first time in her life, understood a little bit about Miss Bates’ unfortunate circumstances and she was forced to admire the woman for her courage and optimism. George was right, as always.

After she had rung for tea, Emma informed her companions that Miss Bates would indeed have the control over the Chronicle’s finances which would be a hundred pounds a year, to start with.

Harriet Martin was then assigned with the task of local news gatherer as she was the one that went into every corner of the small country town of Highbury on behalf of the farm’s business. And finally, Anne Weston would be the editor of all the stories that each member would gather when they happened upon one. Not only stories of things that passed but also of matters of daily life in Highbury, the little facts of Highbury life itself.

There would be tales of babies born, of young people marrying and of good old people dying. There would be sorrow in those tales but also joy.

Emma Knightley would see to that. There would always be joy and the blessing of living in Highbury, the best of villages.

 

“Are you pleased with the way the committee meeting went, my love?” George Knightley asked his wife when they retired after dinner.

“I am! We are in business and have you noticed how everyone is having fun with it? But, my dearest, I must thank you for your support and help. You handled everyone just the way that was needed, including me.”

“Oh, did I?” George took the brush out of Emma’s hand and began working on the long golden strands with slow strokes. Emma sighed and leaned back in her chair while George gathered her hair and draped it over the chair’s back before continuing his labour of love.

“George, I am sorry for being such a headstrong creature. I should have taken your advice from the start. Fortunately, you were there to put things right.”

“My lovely Emma,” George replied in a husky voice. “I think this Chronicle project might prove to be the thing Highbury needs to gain a bit of liveliness. You were right to think this little town of ours is a bit dreary.”

Emma stood and retrieved her hair brush from her husband. She embraced him and looked into his beautiful brown eyes.

“Dearest George … please say you are not angry with me … I was so wrong and  …”

George Knightley, Esquire of Donwell Abbey and husband to the petulant Emma, née Woodhouse, silenced his wife with a kiss.

“My sweet Emma,” he breathed, “I will not be angry with you … on one condition.”

“And what condition is that, sir?” Emma replied, tongue in cheek.

“That I will be allowed to ravish you, this instant …”

“Then, by all means, sir, do your ravishing …”