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“When such success has blessed me in this instance, dear papa, you cannot think that I shall leave off match- making.” —Emma Wood house, Emma
Emma Wood house Knightley, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition— a happiness recently compounded by her marriage to a gentleman of noble character and steadfast heart— seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty- two years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
With two notable exceptions: the Reverend and Mrs. Philip Elton.
“I am still appalled by their conversation,” Emma said to her husband as they sat in Hart.eld’s drawing room after dinner. Her father had just retired for the night, leaving the newlyweds to enjoy an hour of peace before retiring themselves. Emma’s mind, however, was anything but quiet as she dwelled upon the discussion she had overheard that morning, and neither the familiar comforts of the room— the Chippendale sofa and side chairs, the portrait of her late mother above the great hearth— nor the novelty of her bridegroom’s now- permanent presence there, could quell her agitation.
“That is what comes of eavesdropping,” Mr. Knightley said.
“I was not eavesdropping,” Emma insisted. “I was tying my bootlace.”
The lace had come undone as she left the home of Miss Bates, a middle- aged spinster who lived with her el der ly mother in reduced circumstances on the upper .oor of a modest house. Emma had visited their rooms many times (though perhaps not so often as she ought). Never before, however, had the humble apartment felt so small. The Eltons had called so shortly after Emma’s own arrival that it was some time before she could with propriety effect an escape. “I paused at the base of the stairs to .x the lace. Could I help it that the Eltons emerged from the apartment and began their discussion on the landing before I had done?”
Mr. Knightley’s expression suggested that she might have secured the half- boot more rapidly had she wanted to. Sixteen years her se nior, he had known Emma her whole life, and was as well acquainted with her foibles as he was with her charms. His dark eyes narrowed in doubt, and for a moment she dreaded an admonition delivered in his usual forthright manner. Instead, he rose and stirred. The flickering light shadowed his countenance and silhouetted his tall frame. Though he possessed the maturity and bearing of a man eight-and- thirty, he had maintained the .rm .gure of younger days, and Emma congratulated herself on having found such a .ne- looking husband once she had .nally opened her eyes to the gentleman next door.
He returned the poker to its stand and adjusted the screen to shield them from the heat. “It is fortunate that you managed to exit without the Eltons’ seeing you in the stairwell.” He sat down beside her on the sofa. “To have been caught listening to their conversation, however involuntarily, would not have re.ected well on you.”
The last position in which Emma would want to .nd herself was that of giving Augusta Elton any room to expand her already in.ated sense of superiority. Mrs. Elton’s greatest claim to society was a brother-in- law who owned a barouche- landau and an estate near Bristol. Though the house was named Maple Grove, Mrs. Elton seemed to think it was St. James’s Palace. She also took extraordinary pride in her status as the vicar’s wife, performing her role with pretensions of elegance and a pronounced air of noblesse oblige. Sadly, Mr. Elton, though a clergyman, was nearly as vain and insufferable as she.
“It is still more fortunate that I did overhear them, for now I can rescue poor Miss Bates from their plotting.”
“Honestly, you should have heard them! Talking about how Miss Bates will surely become dependent upon parish charity after her mother dies.”
“I doubt that will happen, with her niece marrying Frank Churchill next week. A gentleman who stands to inherit an estate the size of Enscombe will not forsake his wife’s aunt.”
Emma knew that Mr. Knightley spoke not from conviction of Frank Churchill’s reliability, but from his own principles: Because Mr. Knightley would never neglect a needy relation, he expected all gentlemen to demonstrate the same sense of duty. In fact, he had forfeited his own inde pendence to act rightly by Emma’s father. Upon their marriage, Mr. Knightley had graciously moved into the house of Emma’s birth so that she need not abandon the invalid Mr. Wood-house or subject the old man to the trauma of leaving his lifelong home to live with them at Mr. Knightley’s more sizable estate, Don-well Abbey.
Though the distance was slight— Hart.eld bordered Mr. Knightley’s grounds— Mr. Wood house suffered from a nervous disposition and did not bear well change of any sort. The living arrangement left Donwell Abbey without its master in residence, and Emma appreciated the sacri.ce her husband had made on behalf of herself and her father.
The vicar and his wife, however, were entirely capable of more sel.sh conduct, and therefore anticipated it in others. “The Eltons are convinced that once Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax wed and move so far away as Yorkshire, the Bates ladies will be forgotten,” Emma said. “Mrs. Elton is determined to make certain that Miss Bates becomes someone else’s responsibility and not the parish’s.”
To be speci.c, Mrs. Elton had proposed marrying off Miss Bates to any man— gentleman or not— who would have her. Granted, .nding a husband for a woman of forty- odd years would prove a daunting enterprise, and Miss Bates’s situation was further challenged by the spinster’s propensity for endless chatter. Emma herself found Miss Bates’s trivial tidings and cheerful effusions tedious; she could scarcely imagine a husband willing to endure them day and night.
Mrs. Elton, however, had gone so far as to suggest an addlepated local farmer as the ideal candidate, and declared to Mr. Elton her intention of arranging the match. In that, the vicar’s wife had gone too far.
“She cannot be permitted to proceed,” Emma continued. “Not when I have the ability to arrange a superior establishment for Miss Bates.”
“You told me, Emma, after Harriet Smith married Robert Martin despite your interference, that you had given up matchmaking.”
“This is not matchmaking. It is—” She considered her words carefully, for there was no bluf.ng her husband. Mr. Knightley knew her better than did any other soul on earth. “It is merely taking advantage of an opportunity.”
“An opportunity to meddle.”
Now Emma found herself vexed not only at the Eltons, but at her “dear Mr. Knightley.” This latest was a slight vexation— a tri.e, really. Well, perhaps more than a tri.e. But it was her husband’s fault for willfully misinterpreting her motives for the scheme she had spent all afternoon contemplating.
“An opportunity to show kindness towards someone to whom you yourself have said I ought to demonstrate greater generosity. You should be pleased that I have taken to heart your reproofs regarding my lack of consideration for Miss Bates, and that I wish to make amends for my previous neglect. Her situation is indeed pitiable. She has sacri.ced half her life to the care of her near- deaf mother. Is she to spend her old age either alone in poverty, or with some half- wit imposed upon her by Mrs. Elton?”
“We can guard Miss Bates from any maneuverings Mrs. Elton might undertake without your trying to orchestrate a match of your own.”
“Can we? Miss Bates is so appreciative of any attention or kindness shown her that even if she had reservations about the groom, she would wed him simply out of gratitude, or in deference to Mrs. Elton for arranging the marriage. If Miss Bates ever possessed enough quickness of mind to recognize an unfavorable situation when presented with one, years of deprivation have surely worn down her ability to resist it.”
Mr. Knightley could remember Miss Bates at a more carefree period of her life— before her father, a former vicar of Highbury, had died. As a clergyman’s bene.ce made no provisions for surviving dependents, Mr. Bates’s widow and daughter had been left to shift as best they could on an income insuf.cient to support even one of them, let alone two, in moderate comfort. The pair, however, being of naturally content temperaments and possessing enough sense to live within their means, accepted their situation with grace, and made the best of it.
“Miss Bates never exhibited your cleverness, Emma, nor even an intellect as strong as her younger sister’s. Yet you will not meet a kinder- hearted soul in all Surrey. Leave her in peace.”
“Her good heart is precisely why I wish to perform a kindness for her in turn. You would merely save her from the evils of Mrs. Elton, whereas I hope to secure her a future happier than her present. Somewhere in England there must be a gentleman— a good, decent gentleman, not merely the .rst unmarried commoner Mrs. Elton can manipulate— who can appreciate Miss Bates.”
“It would not be a kindness to introduce hopes that Miss Bates must have set aside long ago, only to have them once more disappointed.”
“Why do you assume they will be disappointed? She need not captivate the entire Polite World, merely a single man.” Ideally, one in possession of a good fortune. “And the celebration of her niece’s marriage to Frank Churchill will bring more new gentlemen to High-bury than I daresay this village has ever seen at once.”
Though the wedding would take place in London, where the bride had been raised, Frank and Jane would visit the village before removing to the Churchill estate in Yorkshire. What had initially been conceived as a small dinner party to receive the postnuptial well- wishes of their Highbury friends had burgeoned into an elaborate affair once Mr. Weston, Frank’s father, began issuing invitations. Not only was every respectable family in the neighborhood to attend, but auld acquaintance must not be forgot.
Because Randalls, the Westons’ home, had but two spare bedrooms and the Crown Inn could not accommodate everybody, Donwell Abbey would host the affair and lodge many of the out- of- town guests.
The venue had been Emma’s idea, motivated by her friendship with Mrs. Weston, Frank’s stepmother. Though Mr. Knightley acquiesced, he was not without uneasiness over the thought of visitors— many of them strangers— occupying his house in his absence. He and Emma, therefore, would stay at Donwell while Emma’s visiting sister and her family stayed with Mr. Wood house. Emma credited their newlywed status for her successful application on this point, for under few other circumstances could she imagine Mr. Knightley’s being persuaded to go so out of his way regarding an event that honored Frank Churchill. Mr. Knightley thought the young man self- centered and more fortunate in his relationships— especially his betrothal to Jane Fairfax— than he deserved.
His unexpected role as a host did, however, enable Mr. Knightley to perform a service for the Bates ladies. He proposed that Mrs. and Miss Bates also consider themselves sponsors of the gathering. Through his means, they would be able to give Jane a proper send- off.
“This affair has already grown to answer more purposes than anyone originally intended,” Mr. Knightley said. “Now it is to serve as a promenade of suitors for your appraisal?”
“Is that not a tacit component of most social events? The difference is that this time, no one— including the lady herself— will know that this gathering is, of sorts, a coming- out ball. I shall be entirely discreet in my evaluations.”
“I do not think this wise. Even did I not harbor reservations about the presumption of attempting to .nd a husband for Miss Bates, one cannot learn much of use about a gentleman at a dinner party.”
“And should a man whom you judge suitable present himself, what course of action do you intend to pursue in consequence?”
Emma had not yet settled her mind as to that part of her plan. For the present, merely .nding a worthy object was challenge enough.
Excerpted from The Intrigue At Highbury by Carrie Bebris.
Copyright © 2010 by Carrie Bebris.
Published in March 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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