Chapter Seventeen – Emma’s Secret Concern
George Knightley was a man who, as a rule, was in control of his life.
As the master of Donwell Abbey, and the head of his family, he knew his duties well. The estate’s daily running kept him only partly occupied, since everything was organized to perfection and everything was in good order. Since his marriage to Emma, the upkeep of Mr Woodhouse’s small estate Hartley had been added to his responsibilities. George took it in his usual, brisk stride. He wished he could say the same of his task as head of their combined families, however.
Although his brother John and his family lived in London, George occasionally did worry about them. After his marriage to Emma’s sister Isabella, John had settled down in London, yet sometimes Isabella’s need to see her father and sister forced John into impetuous action. They would turn up at Hartley unexpectedly and in the most boisterous manner. They would startle Mr Woodhouse out of his placid existence, even though the elderly man was always delighted to see them.
Mr Woodhouse. Ah, he was another of George’s concerns.
Often George had asked himself how he would have put up when he experienced Mr Woodhouse’s dreadful setbacks of the past.
Losing one’s wife in childbirth had been extremely hard on Mr Woodhouse, especially since he had been left on his own to raise his two infant daughters. The poor man had never really recovered from his ordeal. A constant fear of losing other members of his family made him old before his time and was taking a toll on his health. Emma’s foolish behaviour did not contribute to easing his mind, of course.
Emma … his wife, his heart. And also, his nemesis, unfortunately.
George found himself constantly in bewildered consternation about what his Emma would concoct next. She was full of restless energy, which she used to meddle and pry in other people’s life. It was all done in innocent concern for their happiness, he knew, but nevertheless it was none of Emma’s business how other chose to organize their life. And Emma did not seem to understand that people’s privacy was sacrosanct and untouchable.
Not that she was entirely happy when she could meddle, no. She would worry that she was making the right decision, George was prepared to give her that much. Yet she failed to grasp the meaning of the word privacy and would be unhappy when she could not find an acceptable solution. Acceptable for Emma, that was. Her protégés were not always in agreement, unfortunately.
Now, all that was old news, George mused. He had known Emma’s meddling for as long as he knew her. Recently, however, he had become aware of some other bee in her bonnet. She was brooding over something, but George could not fathom what it must be, not for the life of him. He was, by Jove, going to do everything he could to know what ailed her!
Emma walked home from Randall in deep thought. Everybody seemed so happy, yet she did not. She knew where to put her finger; every one of her friends was increasing, and she was not.
Why was that? And who, if anyone, could advise her, let alone, help her?
Emma’s greatest fear was that she would not be able to conceive, due to some physical irregularity in her own body. She had heard rumours about barrenness in women from the servants.
Ah, she never missed her dear mama more than on occasions such as this one. Whom could she speak with? Who could give her some advice in this matter? All the way to Hartley, Emma brooded about it, yet she found no answer.
The house was quiet and empty. Her father, Peter the footman informed her, was taking his daily stroll in the gardens, and Mr Knightley had gone off to Donwell Abbey. Since she had taken luncheon at Randall with her friend Anne, Emma knew she would not meet with her husband until dinner time. She was at leisure to do as she pleased all afternoon, thus. So why not take a stroll into the woods, to the clearing where the gypsies camped?
Emma left her house with no inkling as to why she would want to meet with gypsies, but a little voice in her head told her just to do that. Gypsies knew much more about many things, Emma knew, especially the things a well-bred lady was not allowed talk about openly. Nevertheless she was feeling just a tad apprehensive about meeting people she did not truly know. People with very different habits and culture from her own. People who spoke a language she did not understand. People who were not always behaving according to English law and society rules. So when Emma reached the clearing, she was in a state of fearsome uproar, and she would as lief have turned around instantly, had not a clear female voice addressed her in heavy accented, but faultless English.
“Welcome, lady! You are Mrs Knightley, are you not? My name is Agnetha, and I am the granddaughter of our queen, Elsbietha. How can we serve you?”
Emma watched a girl approaching her, a girl with long, wildly curving locks, spilling down her back like water. They were so black that they formed an indigo halo around her heart-shaped face, in which her dark eyes sparkled with joy.
Emma was so tongue-tied that she could only stammer, “Oh … erm … good afternoon … erm … Miss Agnetha …” The name came hesitatingly from her lips, as if they were frozen.
The girl gave a tingle of laughter. “Oh, please! No ‘Miss’, just Agnetha. Come … my grandmother awaits you. She knew you were coming, you see. She has the eye, and she can see the future.”
“The … eye?” Emma asked in bewilderment, while she followed Agnetha into the camp. It was like a small village with the wagons set in a circle around one wagon that was painted a bright red. Agnetha led Emma up the three steps and opened the door. Emma stepped inside.
The interior was warm, and cosy, and neat as a pin. That surprised Emma, because she had always had a prejudice about gypsies being untidy, even dirty. She was humbled by her own stupid and unfounded thoughts about these people.
Near one of the windows stood a rocking chair. A very old woman occupied it, a colourful blanket thrown over her legs. She was painfully thin and looked very frail, but her voice was strong and melodious when she welcomed Emma.
“Come in, child, and sit here next to me. I know what troubles you, and I shall try to help you.”