Author's Note: Since I love the novels of Georgette Heyer, some of the characters in this story are from her books.
Mrs. Emma Knightley had never been to London. Her father's precarious health did not allow him to travel, and she was too dutiful a daughter to go visiting her sister Isabella alone. But now, two months after her blissful marriage to Mr. Knightley, she was at last to see the world. She was going to London!
She had received an invitation to attend a wedding of Miss Cressida Stavely an old friend whose great aunt used to live near Highbury. Over the years, their correspondence had been as lively as their friendship, and Emma dearly wanted to be present at the wedding. Unfortunately, she was to go alone, under the chaperonage of Isabella while in town, for Mr. Knightley had urgent business which precluded any possibility of his leaving Donwell. Not that she, as a married woman, needed any chaperonage, but it was good to be cognizant of the social norms.
On this bright April morning, her maids had packed all she needed, but good-byes had to be said. She found her father in the drawing room, gazing vacantly into the fire. It was not an easy farewell.
"And take care to always wrap well, Emma. It is so easy to take a chill. Luckily Isabella's cook knows how to prepare gruel. He was taught by our Serle himself! And don't forget to avoid infection."
"Yes father," smiled Emma
Her reply seemed to calm him a bit, but all of a sudden he was worried again.
"That wedding of poor Miss Stavely. There probably going to be a lot of people. And half of them sick, no doubt! You do not have Perry in London."
"Isabella has a good doctor. And she had recently attended a wedding of a Miss Charing in the same church and came away absolutely healthy."
But this did not soothe Mr. Woodhouse. Instead, the mention of the church galvanised him again.
"There are certain to be drafts. And those ceremonies are so long, you are liable to catch your death of cold," he complained querulously.
"No, father" soothed Emma. "Cressy promised me to personally see that I sat away from the door."
Luckily for her nerves, an interruption soon occurred which enabled her to escape from the drawing room.
"Whew! If Serle hadn't come up to enquire about the eggs, the poor dear would have gotten even more worried," she sighed and went to find Mr. Knightley.
That parting was even harder to bear. Mr. Knightley did not talk about drafts or germs, but his trying to conceal his apprehension of loneliness struck Emma to the heart.
Finally releasing her, he looked into her eyes and confessed with all the awkwardness of a naturally private man: "I will miss my Emma."
"George," she whispered shyly, still not used to his Christian name. "I will miss you as much as you will miss me."
Half an hour later she was handed into the carriage. Her trip had began.
*Cressida Stavely: heroine of Heyer's "False Colours" about to become Mrs. Christopher Fancot
Feeling every bone in her body, Emma got out of the carriage. The journey had been a jolting one and the recent rains rendered even this well-sprung carriage uncomfortable in the extreme. Feeling that she could sleep for days, she followed the maid into the hall to be engulfed into Isabella's warm embrace.
"You do look fatigued, my dear," remarked Isabelle, once Emma divested herself of her pelisse and bonnet and was led to a comfortable chair in the room prepared for her. "Was the journey rough?"
"Isabella, you have no idea. A few times I thought my teeth were going to go through the top of my skull. And to top it off, on the outskirts of town, a group of rowdy young men were trying to get a stagecoach out of the ditch. It seems one of them bribed the coachman to let him drive it, and being slightly drunk miscalculated a turn."
"Oh dear," sighed Isabella placidly. "This has become all the rage recently. But how did you finally get out of there?"
"If it wasn't that one of the men was less drunk than the others, I would still be marooned there, listening to the fascinating vocabulary used by the passengers of the stagecoach to describe both the driver and the young bloods."
"Poor Emma. You did have a most fatiguing journey," rejoined Isabella with the utmost calm. "Perhaps I shouldn't have planned on going to the Opera tomorrow, John has a wonderful box this season, and we thought you'd enjoy the treat."
"Nonsense Bella, I will recover very well by tomorrow." "But I ought to call on Cressy first, and she wanted me to help her pick patterns," Emma mentioned conscientiously, getting into bed. "I might not be free by Opera time."
"I am sure it will work out, dear," replied Isabella. She heard a faint "Mhmm," and waited for a further elaboration but there was none. When she brought her candle closer to the bed, Emma was soundly asleep.
"I am sorry Miss Stavely is not here to receive you," commented Albinia. "She and her fiancÚ, Mr. Fancot, drove off with his Lordship, Earl of Denville and his mother to meet his Lordship's betrothed who had just arrived at Denville. I am afraid she won't be back till tomorrow. I apologise for her," she added smoothly.
Emma bristled slightly. "There's no need, ma'am. Cressida thought I was to come tomorrow."
"Oh, I see," Lady Stavely's manner implied a disapprobation of the unintentional incivility nevertheless.
"What are your plans for the evening, Mrs. Knightley?" continued she after a pause.
"I am going to the Opera with my brother and sister. It will be highly entertaining, they tell me."
"Of course, how delightful. I am going too. Maybe we will meet."
At that moment she was called away by the nurse of the young future Lord Stanley, and a minute afterwards, Emma bid her Ladyship a civil farewell, and surprising a sympathetic twinkle in the eyes of the Butler she walked out to the carriage.
"Lucky for Cressy she is getting married. Imagine living with her in the house!"
The exterior seemed magnificent to her, and the interior was equal in every respect. The brightly lit foyer was full of Ladies and Gentlemen, with a scarlet coat here and there. Names, dozens of names, buzzed in Emma's head, as she was introduced by her brother and sister.
When they finally entered their Opera box, Emma was both dizzy and dazzled.
And then the singing began. Emma drank in every sound. It seemed beautiful to her.
But singing was not the only entertainment offered by the Opera. She had noticed gentlemen employ their quizzing glasses to observe the members of the audience, and Ladies bowing to each other across the boxes. In the brief lull between the acts, her attention was caught by the occupants of the adjacent box.
The man was in his mid-thirties, with a dark face. It was by no means handsome, but there was an expression of intelligence and feeling which captivated her.
However, the Lady next to him, presumably his wife, was a true fair. More than one dandy's quizzing glass was leveled at her, but she seemed to pay them little attention. The occupants seemed to be absorbed in themselves. As Emma watched, the man whispered something into his companion's ear, and the lady tried to control a laugh. Emma, not knowing anyone in the large, magnificent building except the Knightleys, and if present (though mercifully unseen) Lady Stavely, was drawn to the couple.
She prodded Isabella. "Who are they?" she asked in a whisper, half-hoping they were some friends of her sister's. But Isabella shrugged her shoulders. "I do not know. But look at her necklace. Those pearls must be worth a fortune. Maybe it is Isabella Melbourne. She's pretty enough."
But on being applied to, John vetoed the suggestion. "I've seen Bella. She was with Sheringham's wife when I bought the house. I do not know who they are." And he returned his attention to the stage. Disappointed, Emma glanced at her neighbors, and received a startling smile from the lady whose identity she was desirous of knowing. She could not help but smile in return.
After this incident, her mind went back to the stage however, and she was surprised when the intermission came. John and Isabella went for refreshments, but Emma decided to stay in the box. "If I go, you'll make me meet more people with dozens of names, and my head will explode which would be not at all the thing," she protested.
Her neighbors stayed in their box as well, conducting a whispered conversation, and all was rather quiet for a time.
Emma was beginning to get bored when she heard a voice which made her long for boredom.
"Mrs. Knightley, how charming!" Lady Stavely stood on the threshold of the box. "May I come in?" Emma could only acquiesce.
In a few minutes, Lady Stavely was occupying a seat next to Emma and relating the mighty triumphs of her son. Suddenly, her eye was caught by the movement in the next box, and she exclaimed surprisedly.
"I thought they were still abroad!"
"What is the matter, Lady Stavely?" asked Emma in seeming solicitude. At last, there was her chance to find the identities of her neighbors.
"Who are they?"
"My dear, they are Lord and Lady Damerel. I thought they were touring Europe."
This did not tell much to Emma, but she was quick to discern a concealed dislike.
"They look devoted," ventured she.
"Devoted!" If a lady could snort, Lady Stavely certainly snorted. "Do you know that he was the scandal of the Town before his marriage. He used to have high-flyers by the dozens. I've heard even of his scattering rose-petals all across Europe for one of his paramours!"
Unfortunately her voice rose on the last sentence, and the pair in the neighboring box glanced at her. Emma felt sure they heard, and her cheeks burned with embarrassment. "Rose-petals!" repeated her Ladyship emphatically, oblivious to the carrying power of her voice. Lord Damerel glanced amusedly at Emma's box, and Lady Damerel seemed to suppress a smile.
"True, he seems reformed since the marriage," conceded Lady Stavely grudgingly. "But I, for one, don't believe it, even though his aunts got him back into polite society. Not that that one would care," added she. "Like mother like daughter, I always say."
Emma's embarrassment reached agonizing proportions.
Lady Stavely, oblivious, swept on: "Her mother was actually divorced from her father and is now married to Sir Lambert. Horrible! We are only bowing acquaintances."
Emma cringed in her chair. Luckily, the warning bell sounded, and Lady Stavely went back to her box.
When the second act began, Emma was deep in thought. She was frankly curious about the Damerels. After all, in Highbury, the non-attendance of Church on one Sunday waswas the biggest sin one met with. She did not believe Lady Stavely's innuendoes, but there was no denying it, they were a fascinating pair. Well-traveled, too. Emma wished she could make their acquaintance.
After the Opera was over, John and the sisters went to find a carriage but it was impossible to do so in the crush.
To Emma's amazement, she saw Lady Damerel, who was standing nearby and probably could not help but overhear their dilemma, follow Lady Stavely who was passing by, and apparently ask her something. Lady Stavely looked hardly happy, but she and Lady Damerel made their way to the Knightleys. "Mrs.
Knightley," she bowed to Isabella. "Allow me to introduce Lady Damerel." I believe she wants to come to your assistance.
Isabella's eyes lighted up. "How marvelous. We are in your debt, madam."
The Knightleys were delivered to their doorstep in the Damerel carriage. Lord Damerel, apparently informed by his wife rode on and the carriage was very comfortable for four. Polite conversation was exchanged during the drive, and when the carriage stopped in front of the Knightley house, not only Emma, but
John and Isabella were charmed by their companion. They would not let her leave until they extracted her promise to call on the morrow.
"And surely, my dear," protested Isabella. "I cannot call you just Lady Damerel after the service you've done us!"
"You can call me Venetia," smiled Lady Damerel. "Good-bye," she smiled and went out of the room.
As she fell asleep this evening, Emma thought with pleasure that she might make a friend.
Somehow, the only things that came into her head were silly things, things one didn't put into a letter: the way he smiled, or the way he said "Emma." She sighed impatiently.
"Emma Woodhouse Knightley! If you don't get this done soon, you'll never get done. Lady Damerel is coming in half-an-hour and where will you be then?
Get on with it," she apostrophised herself.
Finally, after momentous efforts, for Emma had not the felicity of easy-letter writing of Jane Fairfax, the missive was done. It was fairly short, but at least, it will save George postage, she smiled ruefully.
Putting the letter on the tray, she went to join Isabella in the drawing room, as the footman announced Lady Damerel.
After a few minutes of preliminary civilities, Lady Damerel came to the motive for her visit: "I have come to ask you, Mrs. Isabella and Emma, to take a ride in the park with me tomorrow morning, in my phaeton. I thought it would be most amusing, especially for Mrs. Emma, who has never been in the Park before."
Regretfully, Isabella had to decline. She was not an early riser, and tomorrow was the day when she did her household accounts.
"I'm so sorry," exclaimed Lady Damerel. "I would have invited you today, for the afternoon, but that Lord Damerel," (her voice softened as she pronounced her husband's name), "and myself are riding to Blemsley, for the weather is so fine. But what about Mrs. Emma?" she continued, and Emma was able to agree to go tomorrow morning, with undisguised pleasure.
"My dear, what a charming woman," remarked Isabella, after their visitor had gone out. "And what do you want to do now, Emma, with our afternoon?"
"Cressy should have returned by today, and I'm sure she will call on us," replied Emma. "I'm anxious to renew our friendship face to face."
"Most commendable, dear," replied Isabella calmly, for she was not of an active disposition, and would have rather stayed at home than otherwise.
"Besides," pursued Emma, struck with a sudden thought: "If I went and visited her again, I'd have to meet Albinia Stavely! And I don't know if I could bear more than three minutes of that woman's company. How Cressy had been able to do it for a year, I don't know."
"Most distressing." Isabella contributed her share to the conversation.
"There would have been a murder done in that house before the year was out, if I was in her place. I wonder who would have gotten whom first," she continued meditatively, not heeding Isabella's shocked:
"My love, you are surely joking!"
After that, the conversation veered to fashions, and the ladies passed the remainder of the hour arguing over the merits of sprigged muslin, various walking dresses and such.
But on the stroke of the hour, the noise in the hall, and a minute later, the ceremonious voice of the footman announced that they had visitors.
"Miss Stavely," intoned he gravely, and Cressida Stavely, Emma's closest friend, came into the room.
A pretty, though not dazzling, girl with brown hair and grey eyes, she flew into Emma's embrace. After her introduction, Isabella withdrew discreetly. There was doubtless much the two friends wanted to talk of.
"And you," retorted her friend "were so busy eating jam, you did not see Mrs. Annsey, the governess approaching, and had to write 'I won't steal jam' 50 times on the blackboard."
"Those were the days," laughed Cressy. "I always did like coming to visit my great aunt. She had the best peach jam in the country.
"But now you are a settled, married woman," continued she, "and I'm about to be married myself. And of course, dear Emma, you'll help me pick the flowers.
Kit...Mr. Fancot," corrected she herself blushing, "thinks I ought to do daffodils, but I don't know. I need a third opinion"
"And how is the redoubtable Mr. Fancot, who is going to take an inveterate jam-stealer into his keeping?" asked Emma. "Is he all that you want in a husband?
"I can see that he is," smiled she at the other's vigorous nod. "And am I ever to meet the paragon?"
"That is why I came here," returned Cressy. "He and a few of our other friends wait at the house to be introduced to my best friend. They did not want to all troop into your sister's drawing room, like a small invasion."
"Your house?" asked Emma with foreboding, "Is Lady Stavely going to be there?"
"I see you've met my charming mother-in-law," grinned Cressy. "No, we are going to Denville's house. He's Kit's brother, you know, and that is where Kit and Lady Amabelle, their mother are staying at the present moment."
"Then I'm all for it," answered Emma, relieved.
In the comfortable carriage, as they were going toward the Denville house, something stirred in Emma's memory.
"Denville, Denville," she muttered. "Cressy, you'll think I'm off my head, but I thought I heard somewhere you were engaged to Denville! I think I must be losing my mind."
"No, Emma, you are not. I was engaged to Evelyn for a little while, a marriage of convenience on both sides, of course. He needed to pay his mother's debts, and I to get away from the house, but then of course Kit came onto the scene and pretended to be Evelyn, they are twins, you know, and that was it. We had to concoct the most amazing story to keep the gossips down."
The carriage stopped in front of a handsome residence and Cressy and Emma went in. They walked into a handsome room, charmingly decorated in blue, and Emma saw the people there.
Cressy quickly made the introductions:
"Lady Amabelle, Sir Bonamy Ripple, a charming and still beautiful lady embraced Emma warmly, and the enormously fat and dandified man made a bow.
Or at least he made a motion, but his Cumberland corset would not let him do more than incline his head.
"Captain Gideon Ware" continued Cressy, and Emma saw a tall and splendidly-built young man in a scarlet uniform. He bowed over Emma's hand with pleasing gallantry.
"And Miss Patience Askham, soon to be my sister-in-law," Cressy led Emma to a shy young woman with whom the Captain had been conversing. Patience smiled, and the women shook hands.
"But where is Kit," exclaimed Cressy. "He promised to be here to greet Mrs. Knightley. Are he and Evelyn inspecting that new curricle Kit bought?"
Lady Amabel was about to reply, when the brothers walked into the room.
No one would deny, that each brother separately was a handsome young man, but standing together in a doorway, they made a splendid sight.
"But how am I going to distinguish the two?" sighed Emma, and then noticed that they were wearing differing clothes. "Thank God," she breathed relievedly.
"But how Cressy tells Kit apart is more than I can know."
A half an hour later, in conversation with Captain Ware, Cressy and her Kit, she surveyed the room. Lady Amabel was telling something to Sir Bonamy, who, besides being one of the richest (and the fattest) men in London, was, Emma learned, engaged to her Ladyship. Evelyn, in a corner with Patience, seemed to be completely absorbed. He had the air of a man who wanted to protect his beloved from every draft. Emma was rather surprised, for he seemed to be much more reckless and devil-may-care than Kit. Seeing her observing him, Evelyn flashed her his brilliant smile and returned his eyes to his companion.
As she watched Kit and Cressy exchange glances, it struck her that everyone here was paired off, except poor Captain Ware.
True, he did not seem to feel his loneliness, just now laughing heartily at a remark of Kit's, but he must be hiding a sad heart behind the stoic facade. I really must help the poor man, decided Emma. It's a pity I do not know many people in London, but I am sure something can be done.
St James' park:
The ride with Lady Damerel proved every bit as delightful as Emma had expected. Her wit was sharp, her manner polished, but most importantly there was a warm twinkle in her eyes that made Emma warm up to her at the start.
After the ladies have been riding in the park for about half an hour the place became more lively as more equestrians, carriages and even pedestrians (mostly nannies with their high-born, high-strung charges) began to appear. Lady Damerel occasionally spotted an acquaintance but merely nodded in greeting, and the ladies rode in an agreeable solitude until a dashing military figure almost passed them by, stopped, turned his horse around and exclaimed with undisguised pleasure:
"Mrs Knightley! And Lady Damerel, I didn't know you were in town"
Gideon Ware reigned in his horse and asking their permission rode beside them.
An hour later Emma arrived at home. She had plenty to think about. She liked Gideon more and more. He was strong willed but not stubborn, and with a strong sense of the ridiculous that appealed to her. But he was lonely. He mentioned a favorite cousin that was honeymooning on the continent, and so unable to keep him company, but a man needed more than friend, he needed a wife! Her mind was made up. The poor captain certainly needed someone. Preferably quiet and retiring. Now all she had to do is try to get Lady Damerel and Isabella help her make a list of eligibles. It was hard match-making when one did not know anybody. But then she always did get her own way. Smiling she dropped off to sleep.
Had Emma but known it, another damsel who was used to getting her own way was about to interfere with her careful plans.
On the road to London
"This is monstrous exciting!" exclaimed Tiffany Wield to her harried attendant, Mary Stokes as their hired chaise lurched on the uneven cobblestones.. "London at last! Parties, routs, balls!"
"Yes Miss" was the abigail's sole contribution to this ecstatic catalogue.
"I will be staying with my Uncle and be moving in the first circles...how green with envy will all my friends be!"
"And I will get admired there as I deserve" added Tiffany with a pout, an all too fresh memory of her two most important admirers deserting her for a parson's daughter and her own governess, still rankling.
if my lady had a bit more of a kind manner to go with her looks and fortune she wouldn't have such a problem with keeping admirerers" as she used to tell Mr. Nibbs, her household's very important butler and Miss Stokes' sometime swain, time and time again. Too used to getting her own way. Too pretty and rich for her own good. And I am stuck with her for three months while she makes her come-out. Crikey, it's always me that has to do the dirty jobs"
Tiffany shot her a questioning look.
"Yes Miss," rejoined Mary Stokes.