Perry, coming out through the rectory gate, turned at the sound of Knightley’s voice and waited while Knightley came up the lane.
“Good morning, Mr. Knightley. Anyone ill?”
“No, merely hoping to call on Dr. Hughes. He is well, I trust?”
“Certainly. He would be pleased to see you—he has some news he will like to share.”
“Yes, my brother told me that his son has been called to the bar. I was calling to offer my congratulations.”
“He will be most gratified to receive them.” Perry hesitated for a moment and then said, “Perhaps I ought not to delay you now, Mr. Knightley, but I do have a question—that is, I wished to have your opinion on a certain matter.”
“Oh? Well, I have no urgent business at the moment; if you have time to ask the question, I have time to answer.”
“It is very good of you, Mr. Knightley. I wanted to know—would you think me extremely foolish if I were to set up a carriage for myself?”
“What sort of carriage?”
“That is not yet determined, exactly. Mrs. Perry is extremely anxious that I conserve my strength and not become chilled or overheated as I visit my patients.”
“So it would only be used to visit patients? Would a donkey cart serve?”
Perry saw the twinkle in Knightley’s eye, and smiled reluctantly. “Although Mrs. Perry’s desire for a carriage is always supposed to be for my benefit, I cannot swear that that is her only reason for wanting such a thing. I do not think a donkey cart would satisfy her. Be thankful, Mr. Knightley, that your wife will not feel the need to improve her style of living.”
Your wife. Knightly just had enough time to feel a rising panic that Perry had some particular female in mind—Miss Fairfax, perhaps, or worse, Emma—and that he would have to deny or deflect the supposition, before Perry relieved him by going on with his question.
“It seems that a new carriage will cost something near three hundred pounds; is that so?”
“For a new, bespoke one, yes. You might find an older one for less.”
“True. I suppose if it were not very ancient it might be acceptable. And you only pay for it once.”
“Oh yes, the cost of the carriage itself is only paid once—but then the tax on it is due every year. And if you used it constantly, the hire of horses to draw it would be enormous.”
“I think Mrs. Perry’s idea was that we would keep horses for the carriage.”
“Ah. Well then, you need to buy the horses and pay the yearly tax on them, hire a groom and pay the tax for him, keep the horses fed and their injuries treated…”
Perry sighed. “I must go over my accounts again. I fear Mrs. Perry will be disappointed.”
“I daresay you will be able to afford one in time.”
“I hope so; it has been her desire for the last year, made more intense by the sight of Elton’s new chariot.”
“I have heard reports that it is very fine. Have you seen the new Mrs. Elton yet?”
“Only at church, although Mrs. Perry has called on her and found her very charming and agreeable.”
As this was exactly what Knightley would have expected the easily-pleased Mrs. Perry to think, it gave him no enlightenment as to her real character. Emma’s judgement would be more informative. He was hoping to get to Hartfield that evening and see if Emma had formed an opinion.
“Well, I ought to let you see Dr. Hughes,” said Perry. “And I should be visiting Old John. I thank you for your advice, Mr. Knightley.”
“Not at all, Perry.”
Dr. Hughes was in his study and stood to greet Knightley when he was shown in.
“My dear sir,” said Knightley, gripping his hand warmly, “I believe you are completely healed. On your feet to greet me and back in your study, working—I congratulate you!”
“Thank you, Mr. Knightley. I have not yet regained my full strength, but Perry has given me permission to dine at the Gilberts’ tonight—so long as I use my cane, of course.” He glanced fondly at the handsome cane his son had given him. “He had no need to issue such an order, however; I am quite sure I will use it to the end of my days, whether my leg pains me or not. It is a great pleasure to have it near me…a token of my son’s affection.”
“You have reminded me that I called to offer my congratulations on more than your health; John tells me that Richard has been called to the bar.”
“Indeed, he has. I am very sensible of your part in bringing it to pass.”
“I did nothing at all.”
“Not to bring that about, but if you had not helped Richard in his distress in January—”
“You forget,” Knightley interrupted, “that you promised never to speak of that again. I don’t suppose you would care for me to remind you of the time you assisted Mrs. Harrison…or Mr. Jessup…or Mr. Fielder…”
Dr. Hughes looked up, startled. “However did you hear about Mr. Fielder? Never mind. You have said enough to silence me. And that puts me in mind: have you seen Weston lately?”
“Not for several days.”
“He wanted your opinion on some point of law—something about a dog killing sheep, I think; but whether it was his neighbour’s dog or his own I do not know.”
“I will call at Randalls, then, after my visit here.”
It was no hardship to go to Randalls now that Churchill was gone. He had rather avoided the society of the Westons during the young man’s sojourn with them, and he missed his usual companionable talks with them both. With the interloper now back in Yorkshire, he could again see his friends without battling to keep his manners civil in the presence of one who was—he now knew—his rival for Emma’s hand.
It had been a week since he had been inspired to follow the example of the fellow in “The Lass of Killashee”:
He woo’d by stealth with sighs and smiles
And gently stole her heart away.
He wished that the writer of the song had been a little more specific about how exactly the wooing had been done. He had been mindful to smile as much as he could whenever he was in Emma’s presence, but he felt idiotic grinning at nothing in particular, and more than once she had asked him why he smiled. And as for sighing, he knew exactly what would happen if he sighed in front of her: she would enquire if he was quite well and he would have no rational answer. Of course, the song probably did not mean that sort of sigh; no doubt it meant sighs that accompanied soulful and longing looks at the young lady. He supposed he ought to try that, although how it could be classified as wooing by stealth he could not see. He was beginning to wonder if it was all nonsense.
The housemaid at Randalls answered the door to his knock and informed him that Mr. and Mrs. Weston were at home and were, in fact, in the drawing room with Mr. and Mrs. Elton.
“Will you ask Mr. Weston if he would prefer to see me now or whether I ought to come back at another time?” said Knightley.
The housemaid curtseyed and departed. Knightley presumed that Weston would choose to see him now rather than putting it off; he was the last man to stand on ceremony, and would not be able to imagine that a new bride paying a return visit to well-wishers could be at all offended in having that visit shared with another. And if that was so, he would soon meet Mrs. Elton. He had been hoping that she would be the sort of woman who would make a good companion for Emma. If she were as accomplished and intelligent as Jane Fairfax and had a warm and engaging manner, she would be exactly what Emma wanted. Moreover, as the vicar’s wife, she would be a more suitable friend for Emma than Harriet Smith. If Mrs. Elton were a pleasing but rather shy young woman, she would call forth Emma’s compassion, and Emma would take pains to draw her out and make her comfortable. He would be delighted to watch her skill in doing so.
Then again, if Emma had a perfect companion who answered all her wishes, she might be content to let his friendship fall by the way. Perhaps it would be better for her to have no pleasant companions at all, so that she would rely on him for all the comforts and joys of friendship.
He had no more time to debate within himself whether he wished Mrs. Elton to be lively or shy or not agreeable at all, for the housemaid came back to say that Mr. Weston wished him to be shown in.
“Well now, Knightley, this is quite a happy accident that you should visit just now,” said Weston, rising to greet him. He turned to a young woman, tolerably pretty and very fashionably dressed. “I told you, didn’t I, madam, that you would meet the owner of Donwell Abbey before many days had passed? Mrs. Elton, may I present Mr. Knightley?”
“How do you do?” said Knightley, bowing. “I am delighted to make your acquaintance. Elton, Mrs. Elton—allow me to wish you every happiness on your marriage.”
“So you are the Knightley that my caro sposo has been telling me of almost since the first day of our acquaintance!” said Mrs. Elton. “I am very glad to meet you at last!”
Not a shy young lady, then, thought Knightley, and not particularly well-schooled in polite conversation. He glanced at Elton to see if he would be discomfited by his wife’s ill-judged use of Italian and the incorrect use of his name. But Elton seemed oblivious to his wife’s lack of refined speech.
“Mrs. Weston,” said Knightley, smiling and making his bow to her. “I hope you are well?”
“Very well indeed, Mr. Knightley, I thank you.” She smiled back at him as she said it, and he knew she had slightly emphasized the Mr. to give Mrs. Elton a hint as to the proper form of address. “Please be seated.”
“You are often calling here, Knightley, I think,” said the unheeding Mrs. Elton. “Mr. E. tells me that you are very fond of society—always calling on one friend or another.”
“I am indeed fond of society, though I am not alone in that inclination,” said Knightley. “Most of my neighbours are the same.”
“I believe you are correct; I have quite determined that Surrey must be the friendliest place in England,” Mrs. Elton said. “We have had so many invitations to dine already, and I have not yet been here a week! But then I am accustomed to dining out frequently; in Bath we did not eat at home above three times a week. And when I am staying at Maple Grove—the seat of my sister and brother, the Sucklings—we are asked to dine with one or another of their friends once or twice a week. Of course we did not mind the journey—their barouche-landau and their chaise are equally comfortable, so there was not a moment’s inconvenience.”
She reminded him of Mrs. Whitney—the same over-confidence, the same volubility, the same desire to impress him. In a very short space of time she contrived to mention their new carriage, her great love of music and the esteem in which her musical taste was generally held, the size of the park at Maple Grove, her numerous acquaintance among the elite of Bath, and the inferiority of all the other estates in that country to her brother’s seat. Within five minutes of meeting Mrs. Elton, he was quite certain: he was in no danger of losing his friendship with Emma to that of Mrs. Elton.
“I suppose you have returned several visits already?” asked Mrs. Weston, when there was a pause in the conversation.
“Some half-dozen, I should think. We are going on to Hartfield in a few moments—can we have been here a quarter of an hour already? Mr. E, look at the time!—and then we will call on your cousins, Mr. Weston, before we return to the vicarage.”
Knightley determined to wait several hours before going to Hartfield himself; although it would be entertaining to see Emma manage Mrs. Elton’s impertinence, he did not think he had the patience to listen to her prattle for a second time that day. Moreover, he needed time to think before he went to Hartfield again; the lime walk was beckoning.
* * *
The air in the lime walk was cold enough that Knightley was thankful there was no wind. The winter was almost spent; in a week or two the daffodils would send their little spears up out of the earth and the birds would begin to build their nests in earnest. There was no sign yet of the trees beginning to bud, which disappointed him; it might have been a good omen for the fledgling hopes he could not help nursing.
The question before him was this: might he be able to look longingly at Emma—to try the “sighs” that the song mentioned—without frightening her or making her uneasy? Could he reveal just a hint of his true regard with his eyes? Not enough, of course, to provoke any sort of response from her, but enough to spark a change in her perception of him—to help her see him as a man rather than a relative.
Perhaps he ought not to take such a risk. The thought of meeting her eyes with his feelings advertised on his countenance seemed too bold. If she met his gaze with alarm on her face, he would feel wretched. He would not know how to proceed. She might avoid his eyes thereafter, or speak coldly to him. He could not bear that.
He paced the full length of the lime walk and turned back again. The longer he thought on it, the more certain he became that he had no choice. If he did too much too quickly, he risked losing her; if he did nothing, he would certainly lose her. He would have to take his chance. How long had it been since he had needed to screw up his courage and follow through with a pre-determined course of action in spite of unruly nerves? How long since he had been afraid of anyone—either of what they might do or what their opinions might be? He smiled wryly. The great Mr. Knightley, landowner and magistrate, fearing nothing from anyone…except a young woman who had the power to cast him into despair or bestow on him the greatest blessings of earthly existence.
He went to Hartfield in the late afternoon, when he judged there was the least chance of finding Harriet there. He was correct; he found Emma and her father alone in the drawing room. As they went through the familiar ritual of greetings, Knightley watched Emma closely. She did look sincerely glad to see him. He let his gaze linger on her face for a moment longer than he usually did, but she soon turned away, clearly unconscious that he was doing anything out of the ordinary. He sat in his usual chair and watched Emma resume the needlework that his coming had interrupted.
“What is that you are working on?” he asked.
“Merely embroidering the hem of a gown for our youngest niece,” said Emma. “It is a new pattern; do you see?” she held it out for his inspection.
“Very beautiful,” he murmured, daring to say it with his eyes on her face. His boldness went unnoticed. She nodded happily and went back to stitching.
“Mrs. Weston gave me the pattern. My skill is not equal to hers, of course, but I think Isabella will not be ashamed to have little Emma seen in this.”
Mr. Woodhouse, with his hands folded on his lap, was beginning to nod, and Knightley fidgeted uncomfortably. To sit motionless staring at Emma, waiting for the proper moment to give her a soulful glance, would be absurd. He took a newspaper from the table by his chair, unfolded it, and took refuge behind it.
“The Eltons called today,” said Emma. “Mrs. Elton said she met you at Randalls.”
The newspaper was lowered again.
“Yes, they were there when I arrived.” He paused before saying, “She seems to be a very sociable young lady.”
“Yes; she may be the least reticent woman I ever met.”
Knightley grinned. “How very unfortunate for the gossips of Highbury: speculation is all at an end. There will be no mysteries surrounding her; everyone will discover all there is to know about her within the week.”
“Some items of information will no doubt be repeated often enough that there will be no danger in anyone forgetting them; I suspect she found a way to tell every new acquaintance about Maple Grove and the two carriages kept by her sister and brother.”
“I concur with that suspicion. She certainly found a way to inform me.”
“And are you as eager as you were to show her all over the Abbey and let her see your poultry-yard?” Her left eyebrow was raised and the impish smile he loved was on her lips.
He lifted the newspaper again to hide his face before he answered, “I think I ought to wait for warmer weather. June—or even July, perhaps—would be a better month for such an expedition.”
He grimaced to himself; he had blundered just then by hiding behind the newspaper. It was such a confirmed impulse to conceal his regard that he had done it without thinking. He ought to have taken advantage of the opportunity. It would have been perfect: they had been smiling at each other. Well, he would do it now. He peeked over the top of the newspaper. Emma had looked back down at her sewing, still smiling at his little joke. Now then. He took a deep breath. Slowly he brought the newspaper down, keeping his eyes fixed on her face. He hoped he did not look as anxious as he felt—if only he could calm his pounding heart! He assumed what he hoped was a love-struck expression and looked at her steadily, his face a frozen mask, willing himself to remain in this extremely uncomfortable pose until she should notice him and meet his eyes. He must hold this position….hold it…
She looked up. Instantly he was on his feet, walking toward the fire. He grabbed the poker and jabbed at the fire vigorously, angry with himself for his cowardice, but knowing that it was hopeless for him to continue trying to carry out this plan. “The Lass of Killashee” was a complete failure as a guide to wooing by stealth: smiling alone would not carry the day, and he now knew that sighing was not practicable for him, either. Perhaps there was some other way of winning a fair lady covertly; surely he could think of someone, in literature or in life, who had succeeded in doing so.
“Are you cold, Mr. Knightley?” Emma’s voice sounded amused, and he realized he was still prodding the fire.
“No—yes,” he said, and put the poker back in its place. “I wonder, Emma…might I look into your library for a moment? I believe there is a book on your shelves that I wanted to read again.”
“Of course, Mr. Knightley. Shall I accompany you?”
“No, no, there is no need. I will be back very shortly.”
He needed a place to think, away from Emma’s eyes. The library was cool and silent, and he let himself sink into a chair for a moment and close his eyes. It would all be so comical if his whole happiness—and Emma’s—did not depend on it. If Emma married Churchill she would be miserable; he was certain of it. And as for himself—well, he did not want to think about what life would be like if he lost her.
Frank Churchill would not be so inept, of course. He had great charm and address, and was no doubt entirely too skilled in the art of flirtation. He, Knightley, had no such facility; it was unlikely that he had ever been considered a charming young man.
“Charm strikes the sight, but merit wins the soul.” Memory plucked the quotation out of the confusion in his mind and made him smile. One could always rely on Pope for an apt quotation. But was Pope to be trusted any more than the anonymous bard who had penned “The Lass of Killashee”? Knightley was inclined to think he was; he had always found Pope’s work to be full of good sense. For, after all, would not a reasonable young woman appreciate the thoughtfulness and consideration of a good man more than the glib flattery and empty compliments of a coxcomb?
Merit wins the soul. Knightley would become the kindest friend Emma had—the most sympathetic, the most faithful supporter in all her joys and sorrows. In return, she would recognize his merit and give him her heart. It would all be very gradual and natural, and there would be no more posturing or desperate stratagems. He got up and searched the shelves around him for a book to bring out with him. He found Sir Charles Grandison, whose hero, though a little dull, at least had the virtue of winning a wife through his merit.
* * *
On Knightley’s return to the Abbey, he was told that Larkins was waiting for him in the library. Larkin’s face was sober, and he gave his news without the usual eagerness.
“I think you should know, Mr. Knightley, that there has been a death in the parish.”
His heart sank. “Who?”
“Matthews—one of the hired men at the Bradley farm.”
“He married the kitchen maid here several years ago, didn’t he?”
“Yes, I remember. He was from a workhouse. Orphaned, I believe.”
“Quite right, Mr. Knightley. His wife was an orphan, as well. I remember you remarking on the satisfaction it gave to see two young persons so alone in the world find happiness together.”
“I wish the happiness had not been so brief. Was he ill?”
“No, Mr. Knightley. An accident with one of the horses.”
Knightley shook his head. “That is a very great pity. There were children, were there not?”
“Three—one of them a babe in arms.”
“And no family to help her.”
“Mrs. Catherwood is there, I believe.”
“Of course, she would be. That woman is a blessing to this parish.”
“To be sure, she is.”
“I will call on the widow tomorrow, Larkins. I dine at the Gilberts’ this evening.”
“Very good, Mr. Knightley.”
Knightley sat at his desk when Larkins had left, musing on the tragedy of this unexpected death, and wondering how many deaths the parish had seen in the last twelvemonth. Five, he thought. Two children, an old woman, a middle-aged man, and now Matthews. It was fewer than might be expected for a parish of this size.
He found himself staring at the filigree box that held his pencils. Emma had made it for him when she was about fourteen, and it always made him smile. It was not perfect—one side was clearly done in haste, with the paper rolls spaced too far apart and not rolled tightly enough, and another side worked so neatly that he was quite sure it had been the work of Miss Taylor. He could imagine that Emma, having become impatient with the tedious work, had grown very careless and slack and perhaps threatened to abandon the project altogether. Kind-hearted Miss Taylor would have rescued the piece by finishing it herself. He reached out and touched the box. Emma’s fingers had formed these little rolls of paper and carefully arranged and glued them…for him. He had always found the box amusing, but now it was precious. He shook his head at his sentimentality. It was only a box, an ordinary box, made and given when they had been nothing more to each other than friends. And yet it made him happy to have it near him.
The clock struck the hour and it recalled him to the business at hand. He really ought to look over those papers Larkins had left before he went to dress for his evening at the Gilberts’. There would be time enough later to labour over the problem of how to make Emma aware of his merit without boasting about himself or making his affection obvious. He had determined to show so much consideration and kindness to Emma that she would think him the best man she had ever known, but herein lay a dilemma: all the small kindnesses he could imagine doing were things that he usually did anyway, and would therefore cause no change in her ideas about him. And any benevolence more grand would not be stealthy. Perhaps he might….
No, he needed to put it out of his mind now. Unless he began at once, he would not have time to finish examining the documents. And he could not be late to the dinner, not when Dr. Hughes would once again be a guest! It would be lovely to be dining out with him again; it had been many months since the after-dinner conversation had been enriched by the good doctor’s wisdom. He would be back at the table tonight, just the same as ever…except for his beloved cane. The cane his son had given him. Yes, the cane that reminded him of his son, even when he wasn’t there. He ought to have thought of it before—especially with Emma’s filigree box sitting on his desk! He would give something to Emma; something that she would see all the time, and be reminded of him. It would have to be a gift chosen carefully: not so insignificant that it would be put out of sight and never looked at, but not so impressive that his secret would be laid bare. What could he give her?
The clock struck the quarter hour and brought back his errant mind to those documents. Reluctantly he put the first page in front of him, comforting himself that he had the key now, and it would only be a very little while before he would decide on the perfect gift.