Chapter Fourteen – The Westons or the Blessings of True Friendship
Randall, the Westons’ home, was as stately a manor as was Hartfield, though not as large. The grounds were considerably smaller but the house itself had fair proportions. The easy distance of half a mile from Hartfield allowed Emma to visit her former governess twice a day, if she wished to. Now that Anne Weston, the former Miss Taylor, had given birth to little Clarissa, Emma was an even more frequent visitor. Randall had become Emma’s second home, to be sure.
After their conversation on the way to Randall, Frank Churchill and Emma were late to arrive for luncheon. They found the company impatiently waiting for them, and even slightly irritated. Emma noticed her husband’s frown, as he checked his fob watch upon her arrival. George instantly came to join her on the couch and whispered, “What took you so long, my love? I have returned from Donwell Abbey nearly an hour ago. I was about to ride to the village and see what delayed you.”
“I cannot dwell on explanations at this moment, George!” Emma hissed back. “Suffice it to say that an important revelation took place.”
George Knightley raised a surprised eyebrow at his wife – and God knew he did that frequently these days – but refrained from deepening the subject. His feisty Emma was already asking Mrs Weston about little Clarissa. Their hostess began replying eagerly when Mr Weston’s butler stepped in and announced that luncheon was served.
After the meal, which passed in companiable and shallow conversation, Emma accompanied her husband home to Hartfield. She had promised her father to return speedily with news on his old friend, Mrs Bates. Emma dreaded what she had to tell him. Mrs Bates’ condition was at her worst.
As was to be expected, Mr Woodhouse did not take this news well.
“Now we will have it, my dear Emma!” he wailed, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. The afternoon heath never sat well on Emma’s father.
“Yes, Papa,” Emma conceded, “I fear you are right but there is not much we can do but wait. Miss Bates will keep us informed, never fear. In the mean time, you should have a rest in your chamber where it is much cooler than here, in the drawing room.”
Mr Woodhouse was easily persuaded to go and lie down, and Emma helped him to his room.
“I must see to some estate matters, Emma,” George announced. “Would you care to accompany me to Donwell Abbey?”
Before Emma could answer her husband, the front door knocker interrupted her. A few moments later, Peter, their downstairs footman, brought in a message. Mrs Bates had passed away at noon, that day, without having regained consciousness.
It was a sad party that climbed into George’s chaise to go and pay their respects to poor Miss Bates, that afternoon. Mr Woodhouse was quietly weeping into his handkerchief, and Emma had to swallow back her own tears when she witnessed her father’s grief. George supported his wife by firmly holding her hand.
Miss Bates’ dwelling above the shop had been tied up and refreshments had been laid out for the mourners, wanting to offer condolences. Emma wondered where the food had come from. Surely, Miss Bates’ finances were too insignificant to pay for them. Her curiosity was immediately satisfied when Miss Bates grabbed her outstretched hand and cried, “Oh, Mrs Knightley, is it not splendid? Dear Mrs Weston provided us with the help we needed to give Mother a proper wake. Moreover, she invited me to come and stay at Randall for a while, to regain my strength.”
Anne … Dear Anne! Emma sighed in relief when she realised what a truly gentle woman her former governess was, and not for the first time.
“Dear Miss Bates,” she began, “allow me to offer you my sincere condolences. We shall miss your dear Mother greatly.”
Mr Woodhouse stepped forward, adding his respects to his daughter’s.
“My dear child,” he said in a voice husky with sorrow, “the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, takes it upon Him to bestow suffering upon us, so that we may remain humble and redeem ourselves for the sins we commit. Your Mama was a dear friend to me, as you know very well.”
He lowered his voice to a whisper, but Emma heard anyway. “It shall be my privilege to spring for the funeral costs, my child. Do not break your head on such trivialities, I beg you.”
Miss Bates’ eyes misted over once again and she pressed Mr Woodhouse’s hands in an affectionate manner.
All of a sudden, Jane Churchill came hurtling into the room, her blue eyes blazing.
“Mr Woodhouse! I cannot believe what I’m hearing! Do you think I would let my cousin take money from strangers? Mr Churchill and I will do all that is necessary to bury my aunt in a proper way.”
“Oh … erm, but Jane, … oh … Jane, dear, are you not just a tiny bit … well, rude?”
“Cousin, I do not want to hear another thing about it! We will pay and that is that!”
George Knightley had heard enough and cleared his throat in a way to turn everyone’s attention towards him. “Kindly remember, everyone, that we have the body of our beloved Mrs Bates still above earth. In a house where a deceased person is laid out, it is proper and respectful to behave quietly.”
His unmistakeable authority had everyone back into silence. Emma was beaming with pride with her intelligent husband and she smiled at him in adoration.
Mrs Weston, practical as ever, spoke into the silence.
“Dear friends, we women shall all in turn keep watch beside Mrs Bates’ death bed. Emma, darling, maybe you could start now? I shall relieve you at ten this evening and Mrs Churchill can maybe take my place at two in the morning. That way, Miss Bates can have a good night’s rest.”
Emma and Jane nodded their agreement. George then asked, “Has anybody given word to Mr Elton yet? Should he not come to make arrangements for the burial?”
“I will fetch him, this instant,” Frank Churchill said, and promptly left the room.
“Emma, my dear, shall I stay here with you?” her father asked.
Emma could see that Mr Woodhouse seemed to have a great need in staying at his former friend’s bedside and she readily agreed. They both took their places on either side of the bed, while the others left to perform other tasks.
The remaining hours passed peacefully, giving comfort to both father and daughter. Mrs Bates’ thin face, waxed in death forever, rested upon her pillow and her bony hands were clasped upon her meagre chest, where they held a little bouquet of wild flowers.
Death was in the room but Emma and her father accepted its presence in quiet resignation.