Posted on 2010-04-15
'So long as her father's happiness in other words his life required Hartfield to continue her home, it should be his likewise.'
- "Emma", pg. 419
It had been four months now since her father had died, but the worst was only just beginning: life was starting to return to normal.
Or at least, as normal as things could be in a Hartfield without her father's presence. The funeral was over and the condolence calls had slowly trickled to a halt; John and Isabella, who had come to Highbury to support her, had returned to London (until they did so, she had harboured a half-formed, guilty suspicion that they were angling to move into Hartfield); in Highbury news, other items of gossip had gained the ascendancy of her father's death.
She was normal too. All she heard from anyone, if they even bothered to mention anything about it, was the observation that she was coping extraordinarily well. She was running Hartfield just as efficiently as she had used to do; she was tending to every want of her infant son and was a pattern of maternal excellence; and in the times when her husband was at leisure to return from his business at Donwell, she did her best to anticipate his needs so that even he, who had been so accustomed to correcting her, might not be able to fault her as a wife.
Once, some three weeks after the funeral, she had been curled up in the window-seat, hidden by the curtain, listlessly watching the sky which, filled with darkening clouds, yet refused to rain, when she had heard Isabella's voice as she spoke to Mrs. Weston. Dear Emma bears everything so well, she had said. Why, I don't believe I've even seen her shed a tear!
How that stung. The hint of accusation was so small that she might have missed it if she had not been loathing herself for precisely the same reason. But that hint from an outside source small as it was was enough to cause a sharp pang in her heart that had never really gone away; that had instead only served to support every self-reproach she heaped upon herself after.
Isabella had not been the only one to feel surprise at Emma's fortitude. Mrs. Weston, who at first seemed to fear that she would sink under the grief, had been delighted at how well she appeared to be taking it into her stride. Mrs. Elton on her condolence call had given her some insincere praise about her composure ('Although,' she had added immediately afterwards to her 'caro sposo' in an audible whisper, 'I could almost venture to call it rather unnatural and unfeeling.'), and Harriet Martin was so absorbed in her life at Abbey Mill that she hardly seemed to remember that there was any reason why her friend might not be as cheerful as usual.
She had not known what reaction to expect from Mr. Knightley, and it seemed he had harboured a similar sentiment concerning her. The first few weeks after, he had watched her rather warily, as if preparing himself for a sudden outburst of grief; but when none seemed forthcoming, he had seemed rather grave. They didn't talk about it.
She had in fact assiduously avoided the opportunity, and had averted her eyes from him whenever she had seen that grave expression, lest it develop further into what she most feared. When Isabella's accusation had wounded her so deeply, she thought her heart would break at his. She was careful to keep what conversation they had strictly about his business at Donwell, what their son had been up to that day, John and Isabella's family and the lives of their various friends in Highbury.
Sometimes, though, she thought it might do her heart good to break; if it could wring some tears out of her, if it could channel some of what she felt inside outward... in these times she regretted her determination to keep him at a distance, and she would look at him, sadly, wistfully, longingly. He either did not see her, or did not wish to, for on these occasions his eyes were always directed towards his newspaper or his ledgers.
In the past four months her happy moments had been those passed in the company of her husband and son, but even there her pleasure had alloys. While they would both marvel over their little Henry, she could not fail to notice that Mr. Knightley never referred to him by name: he was always our son or young Master Knightley or little one. It was as if he were afraid of uttering the name aloud, and it exasperated her. She wished he would say it, would start the topic; she wished anyone would say anything apart from a half-reproachful compliment on how well she was managing.
When her father had been alive, she had always submitted patiently and without complaint to his requests that she remain careful for her health and sit closer to his oppressive fire, not venture as far as she might have liked in her walk, wear a shawl even in mild weather, eat less of the food he deemed too rich, not hazard the dangers of travel. Sometimes she had even submitted happily, as it had not cost her anything to obey and the satisfaction it had afforded him had warmed her heart; but other times she had chafed under his restrictions and had obeyed with a reluctance almost as strong as the guilt it occasioned.
Many who had thought that, despite her sadness for the loss of her father, she could not but be happy at the increase of personal freedom it brought about, were astonished beyond measure to find that she still adhered to his little precautions and cares as if they were her own. Nobody ever saw the young Mrs. Knightley out walking farther than the Highbury Road, and she was certainly never without a shawl on these occasions, whatever the weather.
At home, sometimes she even ordered gruel for supper, something which would cause her husband to look at her with an expression of mingled surprise and concern. When he looked at her in that way she would meet his eyes coldly, steadily, as if daring him to ask. He never did.
To tell the truth, it drove her mad to be devotedly taking the unnecessary precautions her father had always insisted upon, but yet she knew she would feel worse for suddenly changing the way she had lived, as if she had in truth forgotten him the way everyone seemed to assume she had.
In the long, lonely afternoon hours, she would hold her little Henry and think of his namesake, the grandfather whose exit from the world had only just preceded his entrance into it. If only, she sometimes thought as she gazed at her darling, you had waited just a day longer to arrive. Then she might have been with her father in his last moments; then she might have had a chance to say goodbye.
Her memories of that day were hazy, a series of dim impressions of confusion, commotion, the physical pain as her child tore its way out of her and a still worse pain in her heart caused by the recurring thought that she would never again see her father on this side of the earth. Mr. Knightley, who along with Dr. Perry had been running back and forth between Emma's room and her father's all night, had given her the news that her father was dying. And although she knew he could not have helped it knew that her father would have felt a much-needed comfort at the presence of such a close friend as Mr. Knightley when he finally passed on she had never felt more alone in the world than at the moment when her child had finally come with no witnesses to its arrival but herself and the midwife.
Sometimes, even now, she could hardly believe that her father was dead. The last time she had seen him, he had been going up to bed complaining of indigestion. It had not seemed serious, and he had blamed it on the richness of the supper they had had that night. For once, it seemed his ailment had been worse than he had feared it to be the pain in his chest which he had attributed to heartburn had been something else entirely. That night she had gone into labour, and by the morning her child was taking his first breath just as her father had ceased his last. It had seemed only fitting to name her boy Henry.
Mr. Knightley had accepted this choice without question, wordlessly taking her hand and squeezing it; in that moment, as she had looked into his eyes and seen the understanding there, she thought her heart might burst with love for him. If only he could understand her now; if only he would not spend so long at Donwell away from her; if only he would not tiptoe around her when at Hartfield.
But then perhaps it was not so surprising that he didn't understand her she hardly understood herself. She wanted to talk about her father; she didn't want to talk about him. She wanted to honour his concerns for her health; she thought she might lose her mind if she had to keep doing so. She would give anything for a change of scenery; she never wanted to leave Hartfield.
Today, as with most other days, the same thoughts were revolving around her mind, pulling her first one way and then another, until her head was pounding. Thankfully her little Henry was settled and asleep after she had fed him, and so the only thing to add to her headache was the beginnings of worry that Mr. Knightley, who was at Donwell again, would on his way home be caught in the rains which the leaden skies currently threatened.
The rain began, slowly at first, with only a drop here and there dotting the landscape, but then it began to fall in earnest, its driving force making her almost wary of standing at the window. To her relief, her husband entered the house not two minutes later, shrugging off his sodden coat, but seemingly none the worse for his brief exposure to the elements.
Still she could not be easy until she had assessed the relative dryness of his remaining garments, run her fingers through his damp hair and settled him close to the fire so that he could keep warm. 'For,' she explained, 'you might catch cold, otherwise.'
Mr. Knightley looked as though he rather enjoyed her fussing about him, and when he smiled up at her as he did now, for the first time in what had felt like a long time the smile she returned was just as genuine. 'Emma,' he laughed, 'you're beginning to sound just like' He stopped abruptly, and looked away.
At his pause, her smile faded. 'Like who?' she said, in a voice of forced calm, willing him to say it. Her eyes bored into him, large, unblinking, and if only he would look into them! pleading.
For almost a minute there were no sounds in the room but of their breathing and the storm which was raging outside. Then Mr. Knightley spoke. 'I thought you might like to know what has been happening at Donwell today.'
Emma knew the subject of her father was over, and almost imperceptibly she sighed. Perhaps this was her punishment for avoiding the subject with him before, for forgetting in her grief for her father that her husband was also grieving for a valued and lifelong friend. She sat in the adjacent chair and smiled at him a little tiredly, taking his hand. 'Tell me,' she said, and prepared to listen.
'You know I've been spending quite a while at Donwell these days,' he began, and her curiosity was piqued. Had there then been something more specific in his activities than simply the day-to-day running of the Abbey and the adjoining farms? As it turned out, there had. 'I've been making some adjustments and fitting up the rooms for our family,' he said, and looked at her hopefully for her reaction.
'Oh,' she said, and her voice sounded rather strange to her own ears.
He nodded, seeming a little disappointed that she didn't say more. 'I've fitted out a nursery for our son,' he offered hesitantly.
Pulling her hand out of his, she stood abruptly. 'I see,' she said coldly. 'May I ask when the execution of these plans began?'
Now he was watching her warily. 'About a month ago,' he said. Then he looked up at her imploringly. 'Emma, I wanted to surprise you I thought you'd be happy; I thought a change would be good for you for all of us'
Her eyes filled with tears as she shook her head. The lump in her throat made speaking painful. 'Hartfield is my home.' It had been her father's home. Some days it might oppress her, and the prospect of leaving Hartfield would seem like a glimpse of glorious freedom (although from what she had yet to determine), but on other days, even the thought of leaving would seem like an uprooting, a destruction of everything her life had been, everything her father had been. Did her husband really know her so little as to suppose she could actually and truly wish to leave?
And yet it was so, for he had happily been planning their removal, without so much as consulting her. She ought to have known it was too good to be true when, during the period of their engagement, he had assured her he would happily live at Hartfield with her didn't his impatience to return to Donwell make it clear that the sacrifice had been greater than he had anticipated? That she had not proven worth his moving away from his life there?
Some of her pain was transformed to anger, and suddenly she wished to hurt him as much as he had hurt her at that moment. 'Perhaps, Mr. Knightley,' she cried, her voice rising without her awareness, 'we both made a mistake. If you had not married me, you would be happily living at Donwell as you clearly wish to and if I had not married you, I could have been with my father when he died.' The tears were running down her face now. 'And sometimes,' she said, determined to twist the knife further, 'I truly wish it had happened that way.'
For a moment he did not speak, and she had to choke down her sobs at the anguish in his eyes. 'Emma,' he said sadly, 'do you truly wish our Henry had not been born?'
She felt as if she'd been slapped. There had been a few times in her life Box Hill had been one of them when just a few words from Mr. Knightley had had the power to grieve her to the soul and make her feel about an inch tall, because she just knew that he was right and she was horribly, horribly wrong.
She had not meant it that way; she would never regret that they had brought little Henry into the world she had only meant she didn't know what she had meant. All she knew was that she could not bear him looking at her in that way, his eyes filled with such hurt and disappointment, one minute longer.
And so it was that, heedless of the rain, without an umbrella, without a shawl, without so much as a pelisse or a spencer, she turned on her heel and ran out of the door. She ran down the path, past the shrubbery and the surrounding hedge, across the lawn, indifferent to the droplets pelting down on her, not caring about the stitch in her side. Finally, out of breath, she half-collapsed onto the bench which afforded a view of the whole of Hartfield, but which her blurred vision meant she was not at liberty to take in.
She turned her face upwards, squinting at the sky, letting the rain mingle with her tears. When she looked towards the house again she started to perceive her husband's familiar tall figure hurrying towards her, still only in his waistcoat and shirt sleeves, carrying an unopened umbrella in his hand. As he neared her he fumbled with it until it opened and then he held it over her, shielding her from the rain.
The guilt tore at her. He was so good to her, had always been so good to her, and she had said such terrible things...
He sat down beside her, offering her a rather wry smile. 'I'm beginning to remember now why I used to disapprove of surprises.' For a moment she couldn't believe that he could find any humour in the scene, but then she looked down at their clothes, which were as soaked as if they had both jumped into the lake, and the absurdity of their situation struck her. She couldn't help it she began to laugh.
For some moments he smiled with her, but then as her laughter died away, looking at her seriously, he said, 'It was very wrong of me to take such an important step without consulting you first.' He took her hand in his. 'I'm sorry, Emma I should have talked it over with you and gotten your opinion.' He squeezed her hand. 'We will live wherever you wish to; I could not be happy at Donwell if you are not.'
She couldn't bear it. The next moment, almost knocking the umbrella out of his hand, she was hugging him so tightly that he couldn't breathe, struggling to articulate her words through her sobs. 'I'm s-so sorry, George,' she choked. She rarely called him by his Christian name, except when she was feeling particularly tender, and when in response his gentle hand came up to brush her sodden hair off her forehead she knew she was forgiven. But still she had to speak. 'I should not have said those things I didn't mean any of them'
He smiled sadly. 'Ah, but I wouldn't blame you if you did. You were right in saying that if you hadn't married me, you might have been there with your father'
She didn't let him go, and as best as she could with her face still pressed into his neck, she shook her head firmly. 'Perhaps,' she said. 'But if I hadn't married you I would have been miserable and alone; and I would have felt how I felt when Henry was born and you were not there, but a million times worse, for it would always have been so.'
He inhaled sharply, and when he next spoke his voice trembled. 'Oh my Emma,' he breathed, 'if you only knew how many times I have wished I had been there I know I should have been, and you are justified in hating me for my absence'
She drew away from him slightly to look up into his face. 'I hate you?' He nodded. Unaccountable as it was, he seemed completely serious. 'What could ever make you think that?'
For a moment he merely looked at her, and the resignation in his eyes made her want to cry. 'I could see how your father's death was breaking you up inside, but you never seemed to want to talk to me about it,' he said finally. 'We talked about how my day had progressed at Donwell; we talked about my plans for the farms and cottages; but we never talked about you. Sometimes it felt like you were simply play-acting the role of 'good wife'; you were not yourself you were not my Emma.'
Despite the fresh tears which were threatening to spill out of her eyes, she managed to raise an arch eyebrow. 'Careful, sir,' she said, smiling, 'I could almost have fancied that you said a good wife and your Emma were not synonymous.'
In spite of his seriousness his lips twitched and he allowed himself a moment to smile. But then he sighed. 'You know what I mean, Emma. I thought you didn't want to talk to me and of course,' he added quickly, 'that was no more than I deserved'
She kissed him on the mouth, hard, before he could censure himself further. 'Never,' she said firmly. And then for the first time she tried to voice her thoughts. 'I was afraid,' she admitted finally, meeting his eyes frankly. 'I know everyone thought me unfeeling for not appearing more affected by Father's death Mrs. Elton even said so'
He made a noise that was almost a growl. 'That' He stopped and took a deep breath, and then after a moment's pause he continued in a deliberate and controlled voice, 'Emma, what does it matter what Mrs. Elton of all people thinks or says?'
'Not just her Isabella.'
He looked incredulous. 'Isabella told you that?'
She shook her head. 'Well not in so many words. But it was there in her voice. She was so surprised that I didn't appear to be feeling more. I was so afraid that you would be too that you might lecture me about it.'
He smiled even through the pain in his eyes. 'Well, I certainly feel like lecturing you now, for even thinking I would have.' He focused his gaze on her once more. 'Go on.'
'I'm not even sure why it was that I couldn't show more emotion I do remember crying when Mother died.' She rested her head against his shoulder with a sigh, and he allowed for the pause, remaining quiet until she started speaking again. 'Perhaps it was because I found it hard at times to believe he was really gone. If I had not still been confined to bed when the funeral happened, then maybe...'
The arm that was not holding the umbrella over them wrapped itself around her.
'We should have talked sooner,' he said, 'but you were not solely to blame. When I saw that you didn't want to talk to me, I grew afraid that if I probed, you would make it clear that you blamed me for my absence when Henry was born.' He looked rather self-conscious. 'And so I ran away to Donwell; decided to fit it up for the three of us, in the hope that things might be different if we started afresh in a different place.'
Suddenly, Emma took his hand. 'Let's.'
She lifted her head off his shoulder to look up at him seriously. 'Start afresh let us go somewhere for a while, just you, Henry and I. Let's get away, spend time together, just the three of us; and then we'll decide where to live.'
He looked astonished. 'You'll consider living at Donwell?'
She shook her head, and inclined it towards their intertwined hands. 'We'll consider it.' She meant what she said. Mr. Knightley had pursued the idea not because he had been yearning for his independent life at Donwell and regretting the circumstances that had taken him away from it, but because he had thought a change would benefit her, would help all of them start anew. Somehow, that distinction made all the difference to her.
If Mr. Knightley, whose judgment she trusted and respected above everyone else's, had made the suggestion, then she was sure it had some merit. She was resolved to listen to him and take into consideration his opinion as well as the small but insistent voice within her which cried out for an interruption to monotony and the relentless reminders of her father which had allowed her little peace over the past four months.
She opened her mouth to vocalise some of what had led her to her decision, but then suddenly she sneezed, her expression one of astonishment.
As if by clockwork, the next second Mr. Knightley sneezed as well. For a moment they simply looked at each other and then they collapsed into laughter.
Finally, some moments later, wiping away a tear from a cause entirely new these days, Emma smiled. 'Unfortunately, Mr. Knightley,' she said, through chattering teeth, 'I believe we've both well and truly caught cold.'
The arm around her clasped her still closer in a futile attempt to keep her warm. 'Mmm,' he said. 'I think it might be too late for the shawl, but there is a large fire waiting for us inside. Shall we?'
Each with an arm around the other, they began to walk back to the house, unable to stop shivering once they had become aware of just how cold and wet they were. 'Oh dear,' Emma said, after she had just sneezed for the third time. 'What would Father say if he could see us now?'
Mr. Knightley thought for a moment. 'I believe he would chastise us severely for our remarkably reprehensible behaviour in venturing out in the rain, and without so much as a coat, pelisse or shawl between us.' He glanced at her, the corners of his lips twitching. 'But I believe that if we promised very faithfully to eat gruel every night for at least a month, he would forgive us, in time.'
Emma smiled, a full, heartfelt smile, and unconsciously tightened the arm that was around his waist. 'I do believe you're right, George,' she said softly, and then they walked through the doorway to the warm, inviting fire which had been burning brightly all the while.The End