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COD, 4

September 12, 2017 12:56AM
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The Churchills of Donwell

Chapter 4: An Unscrupulous Ruse

All Knightleys departed Hartfield for their respective homes shortly after the new year. Mrs. Churchill was certainly sad to see them go as they were quite superior to her usual society. For lack of more stimulating companionship at home, however, Emma Woodhouse was frequently with Frank again, so she was able to bear the loss with heroic equanimity.

Mr. Churchill was also affected by the loss. He had found in both brothers -- the eldest especially -- a sympathetic ear to the tales of his labours for Donwell, and occasionally, when he was listening for it, he could hear sound advice for whatever might be plaguing his estate. It was enough that Mr. Churchill even asked if he might write to Enscombe on one or two topics should matters not respond to the recommended treatment, but although the offer was accepted with grace and tolerance, Mr. Churchill realized later that he would not bother to pick up the pen.

Frank, of all the Churchills, professed to be the least saddened by the Knightleys' departure. By their age and by their status, they were ill-formed to be close friends with Frank. John Knightley, with his wife and children, his house and office, had both responsibility and independence. It was in some ways an ideal to Frank, for he could daydream of being so agreeably settled with his own Jane, but then John would spoil it by letting slip the amount of work he actually did when he was not on holiday. George was far worse, for although he had even greater portions of responsibility and independence, he chose to embrace the responsibility, spending hours every day closeted with correspondence from Enscombe.

Before Frank had taken an active interest in the abbey to scrounge up the money to afford Jane, he would have been appalled by the amount of attention lavished by George Knightley on his estate. It was a sign of the unending drudgery of Frank’s future life. He had dedicated himself to Donwell for over three months now.

Mr. Endicott had given him encouragement, his uncle had complimented him, and even Frank could see he was making a difference in the management of Donwell, but his motivation was starting to flag. Jane had been expected in November, but that month had come and gone, as well as December, and it would be longer still until he could see her. Time with Jane was meant to be the reward he earned for his hard work, but there was no reward if she never came to Highbury. What was the point to all his labors if he never saw her again?

While Frank had been silently pining for Miss Fairfax, George Knightley had advised Mr. Churchill on the Abbey, and attempted to take an active part at Hartfield. The advice to the Woodhouses was most kindly meant, but it was not received with equal kindness. Miss Woodhouse took special care that she and Mr. Avery, the steward at Hartfield, quickly and quietly settled all the business that might disturb her father. Every suggestion from Mr. Knightley had evoked a new worry from his host, and annoyance from his hostess. Here at least Frank had some amusement, for in the instances when he was visiting he had ample opportunity to observe the furrowing of her brow as George Knightley unintentionally implied that Mr. Avery was doing something wrong. Then, for the cream, her brow would smooth and she would get a soft glow in her eyes, and she would make the most innocent-sounding reply. George Knightley’s face would register the surface meaning of her words, and a few seconds later his face would cloud as a second meaning would occur to him. It was all Frank could do not to burst out laughing.

As amusing as it was, he did not despond when the Knightleys left Hartfield. He could not visit with Emma as often when she had guests, and he desperately needed to talk to Emma about Jane Fairfax. With Emma at last free to resume her regular morning calls, Frank once again joined her -- a move which thrilled his uncle and aunt who would be forced to own their disappointment that another year had come and gone without settling matters between their nephew and his intended.

Every Wednesday -- indeed even before the winter holidays -- found Frank and Emma both sitting with the Bateses, listening to Miss Bates rattle on about her niece Jane Fairfax as she read aloud excerpts from Jane’s newest letter and fed them stale lemon cake.

“And as Jane said in her letter -- where did I put it? I had it in my hand by the window. I was re-reading it to Mother just half an hour ago, because I was worried about Jane’s sore throat, and --”

“Miss Fairfax still has a sore throat?”

"Oh, yes, poor thing," breathed Miss Bates. "She picked it up in Ireland with the Dixons, and it will not let go of her. This is the most persistently ill she has ever been. I remember she always caught a cold every year in the winter, didn’t she, Mother? We’d get a letter by Christmas of some sniffles or something from her playing too long in the snow, or going on a sleigh ride with the Campbells. There was one year she actually went ice skating, can you believe it? Mother and I had a shock over that! Can you imagine skating? I cannot imagine what possessed the Campbells to let her go, but they always loved her so, and let her do whatever she wished. I suppose they do it still, and we have that in common. I know I would not have been able to say no to her if she had wanted to tour some drafty old castle. And that’s where she caught it this time. She caught it the day they went to that castle with all those ruins... Or was it runes? It was very damp that day, but Ireland is always very damp. It was certainly kind of the Dixons to invite her to stay with them, and of the Campbells to travel with her, but Ireland! I am sure Jane did not realize the danger in going. But she would have come for Christmas had not the Campbells pressed her to stay with them, it being their first without Miss Campbell -- I mean Mrs. Dixon -- and Mother and I so accustomed to it being just the two of us. And speaking of weddings, can you believe that Mr. Elton is getting married? I heard it from Mrs. Cole three days ago."

"I believe you were talking about Miss Fairfax?" reminded Emma kindly.

“Ah, so I was,” their hostess agreed absentmindedly. “Yes, she will not be coming this month as planned. The Campbells are so concerned for her that they would not hear of her travelling. In case she takes another turn for the bad, they wish her to remain with them where their apothecary Mr. Higgs can tend to her. Personally, I do not know this Mr. Higgs, but for Jane’s sake I hope he is as good as our Mr. Perry. Has Mr. Perry been to Hartfield recently? He called on Mother last Friday and said your father was worried about a cold.”

Miss Woodhouse smiled. “My father is perfectly fine. Should he not worry, he would never be ill at all.”

“And so when are you expecting your niece?” asked Frank.

Miss Bates fretted over that question, then wandered about the parlor until she found Jane’s letter and read aloud all the irrelevant passages. “I’m afraid she doesn’t say,” she concluded too late. “I will be sure to ask her when I write. Perhaps the Campbells will be willing to part with her for Easter.”

"Oh, I do hope we see her at Easter! Don't you, Frank? Isabella will most certainly take the children to Enscombe in the spring and I won't see them again until midsummer."

Frank was too morose over the news of Jane to contribute much else to the conversation, not that it was needed or noticed by the loquacious Miss Bates. It was left to Emma to find a natural exit and shepherd him down to the street when Miss Bates could at last allow them to depart.

As he escorted her back to Hartfield, he exclaimed, "This is hopeless! She will never come to Highbury."

"Give up, by all means, if it suits you," chided Emma, "but faint heart never won fair maiden. She could not come to Highbury when she was in Ireland visiting the Dixons, and she could not cross the sea unescorted at the drop of a hat. While she is with the Campbells or unwell, you must not expect her to be at liberty. You forget that no young lady may tear about the countryside on a whim. That sort of behavior is…” Her steps slowed to a stop. “That sort of behavior is the provenance of a young man of leisure.”

Frank started as the idea took form. “You want me to go to her?” All this time, he had waited for her to come to Highbury. Could it have been within his grasp to see her all along?

“And do you not?” Emma asked, the idea gaining momentum. “It would show her that you are still committed to this engagement. As much as she has been reading of your visits from her aunt, it would mean nothing compared to actually seeing you again. You could make some excuse to Miss Bates to get the Campbells’ address. Perhaps you can convince Miss Bates that Jane will recover faster with a little something from Mr. Perry, and that since you are already travelling there for your own personal errand, it would be no inconvenience for you to deliver it to Jane. Think of it, Frank!”

He thought much of it. To meet her again, and soon, was a dear wish. To see for his own eyes how she fared-- her letters only ever lightly mentioned any illness, but Miss Bates portended much from little-- would answer the riddle of why she did not come.

He grabbed Emma and whirled her about gaily. “Miss Woodhouse, you are a genius!” he laughed.

Emma was caught up in his enthusiasm and danced about with him until a passing cart recalled her manners to her.

"And of course your aunt will not be able to begrudge this trip, not until you come back spouting a glowing report of Miss Fairfax."

"Oh, must I tell her?"

"Frank Churchill! Yes, you must," ordered Emma. "That you have not told her already is a romantic crime."

"You know what she is like," Frank began. "She will be difficult."

Emma scoffed. "And how do you believe she shall be when you bring Miss Fairfax home to live with you at the abbey? She was unkind to my friend Mrs. Martin during the period of her engagement, and she has not improved since the wedding. If you cannot bring your aunt 'round to the idea now, do you honestly believe that Mrs. Bartholomew Churchill would welcome Mrs. Frank Churchill into her home?"

"But after we are married, there is nothing she can do to prevent it," he explained cowardly.

Emma laughed at his naivété. "Nothing? She may make your wife feel unwanted and beneath you. Your aunt is a dear, but there are many times I am grateful at the end of a visit that I am going home to Hartfield. Your wife will not have that option. Donwell Abbey shall be her home; she will have no other refuge."

Frank knew this although he had avoided dwelling upon it. He had avoided conflict with his uncle and aunt so far, planning on Jane's inherent goodness to carry the day. If he could fall in love with her after a short acquaintance, surely his uncle and aunt would do the same.

But from the first moment of his return from Weymouth, his aunt had seemed to anticipate and thwart him. She had greeted him amid the cushions on her bed, nervously chattering how good it was to see him again, how she had had nightmares of him being taken in by some impoverished orphan, "for you do not know how scheming people can be, Frank. You are too loving, too kind to recognise the base nature of a woman's wiles. It is my greatest fear that one day you shall come home with a ruthless fortune hunter with only a cheap veneer of class to hide her low connections, and announce her as the next mistress of Donwell. It would break my heart; it would be the death of me to see you lower your family for generations."

As a young man to whom life had always been easy, he knew not how to proceed through this difficulty. He had smiled, laughed, declared that impossible, and inwardly panicked. He did not fear that Miss Fairfax had deceived him but that he could not convince his aunt of that through his testimony alone. For that, he needed Jane Fairfax herself to stand witness to her own character. For that, he needed Jane to come to Highbury, where he could make a suitable pantomime of falling in love with her and give the Churchills of Donwell Abbey a chance to do the same.

Satisfied by her nephew’s avowals for the present, Mrs. Churchill began to list all the various ailments she had experienced in his absence, as well as others she had suffered before he left where she felt he had not given them a proper hearing.

Frank had stayed by his aunt’s bedside, or near enough, for over a week. By then, she was tolerably unconcerned about her indispositions, and had heard so little from him of his stay in Weymouth, that she felt herself at ease to leave him to his own reduced amusements. He was a changed man in company, nervous and listless. Miss Woodhouse noticed his mood but was unable to draw any explanation from him for another week or more. By the time she had found out Frank was in love and secretly engaged, it was nearly too late for her to offer any succor as she was already involved in thwarting Mrs. Churchill’s marital machinations for another couple. When she was at last able to devote her attention to Frank, he was despairing so she took him to Miss Bates. Not only was Miss Bates a wonderful example of a burden cheerfully borne, but as Jane Fairfax’s aunt, she was Frank’s best hope to hear news of his beloved.

And so he had for months endured Miss Bates' stale lemon cake in the hopes of hearing crumbs of news from Jane. And he had for months asked patient questions of the widow and spinster in the hopes of some word of his interest being included in letters from Highbury to Jane. But it was January already and still Jane did not come.

Likewise, he had attempted at home to bring the subject 'round again with his aunt, but each time she had been prescient in turning the conversation or in bringing up some morality tale of a young man who had married beneath him, to his great and bitter regret. In some stories, the new husband discovered his wife to be a murderess or an adulteress. In others, the wife heaped shame upon her husband's family due to her uncultured habits. In others still, the young man had not yet gained his independence, and his family, seeking to stem the spread of corruption and vice, had disowned him, forcing him to spend the rest of his days in diminished circumstances with a vicious harpy as his companion and helpmeet. It was a gruesome tableau, and Mrs. Churchill described it with relish.

Miss Fairfax had travelled with the Campbells and the newly married Dixons to Ireland in the Fall, and had travelled back to England with the Campbells to stay with them for Christmas. She had written of coming in December, then January, then February. Between the excessive attachment of the Campbells -- who had no qualms about abandoning their daughter in Ireland -- and a weak constitution made weaker still on Irish soil, she had to continually delay her much deferred visit to her family. All this time, Frank pined for her and held her up above all women of his acquaintance as a paragon, but kept his feelings secret from his uncle and aunt, for as much as he might love Jane Fairfax, he did not know how to love as a disinherited pauper.

Talking with Miss Woodhouse was his only relief. With her he could be open with his appreciation of Miss Fairfax, with his aunt’s unfounded but well-documented concerns, and with his own worries that Miss Fairfax would not return to Highbury at all.

As much as it was Frank's role to list his troubles, it was Emma's to describe their remedy. He took her suggestion to heart and planned his next move well.

Nearly a week later, he sat down to a quiet evening meal at the abbey and announced that he had decided to ride to town the next day for a haircut.

Mr. and Mrs. Churchill's eyes met over the fish course. This was the first return of impetuousness since Mrs. Churchill's recovery, and they were unsure how they felt about it. Bartholomew Churchill decided to speak.

"Can you not have Barton cut your hair? He has always done a fine job of it."

"Begging pardon to Barton and yourself, Uncle, but I am in the mood for something younger and more à la mode than usual," said Frank in a carefree way that could give no offense. "I will ride to town in the morning, find a respectable looking barber, and ask for a chop. And afterward, perhaps I can find a jeweler to fix my silver cufflinks." He turned to his aunt. "And, if time permits, maybe I will find a bonbonnerie before I return home. I should be back not many hours after nightfall."

His uncle and aunt reacted as designed. Frank could not be allowed to go, not at the drop of a hat! They were expecting guests for dinner the next day: four families, including Miss Woodhouse. And was that not the day Frank accompanied Miss Woodhouse on her calls? Frank simply must be home for that. It would be much better for him to go the next day.

And now that he was going to London, he could run a few errands, and deliver a few letters that his uncle had been delaying. And Mrs. Churchill would give him the direction of the very best sweet shop she had ever known, along with an order for toffee and other favorites. It was simply too much to achieve in one day given winter's hours, or two days when one added in Frank's haircut. At that rate, wouldn’t it be better to wait until Monday, and go with his uncle in the carriage?

But to this delay, Frank was adamantly opposed. One day would be fine, but nearly a week would be inexcusable. He only wanted a haircut. Let his uncle go on Monday, but he would go tomorrow. Again Mrs. Churchill suggested a small delay: just one day. That would be enough time for Mr. Churchill to send an express in the morning to their townhouse to have it ready for Frank to spend a few days there and be home again by Sunday. Surely that would be much better than racing to town and back on Wednesday, and he would still be able to run a few errands.

Frank smiled affably and could not but acquiesce. When he imagined how Emma would react upon hearing it had happened exactly as she had predicted, he was grateful he would be in town during the height of her gloating.

The next day, he accompanied Emma as usual to Highbury where he sprung upon them all that he was to town the next day, and that if Mrs. Bates or her daughter had any letter or package to deliver to Miss Fairfax, he would be pleased to be of service. Miss Bates was overcome with this condescension, that the Churchills would even think of them! She spent the next quarter hour exclaiming how wonderful everyone was to them, how they wanted for nothing. Then she recollected that it would take time to write the letter, and to have Sally bake the scones that Jane had so loved on her last visit, and to find Mr. Perry and see if he could prepare a tincture, and then to deliver the entire package to Donwell for Mr. Frank to take with him to town.

Here Frank was forced to step in, for if the Churchills knew he was including the Campbells in his errands, that would change the whole tone of his visit. No. Instead, he would visit the Bateses on his way to town as it was on the way, and no real delay if the package was ready for him.

COD, 4

NN SSeptember 12, 2017 12:56AM

Re: COD, 4

KateRSeptember 14, 2017 01:51PM


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