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.”