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COD, 15 (end)

October 19, 2017 09:49PM

The Churchills of Donwell

Chapter 15: Final Vindication

Emma Woodhouse had lived her whole life within a very small radius. Her mother, clearly the more adventurous parent, had died before Emma was old enough to be allowed much travel. Her father had never any inclination to wander farther than his daily walks around Hartfield. Her governess was entirely too resourceful in devising activities close to home. And by the time her sister was able to invent excuses for Emma to visit her in Town, Emma was too concerned about their father's failing health to abandon him to the care of their thoughtful servants.

And Emma had been content for the most part with her tiny world. But she was growing tired of it. No that was not right. She did not feel tired; she felt confined. She wanted to go and do and see more than her little life had given her. Her friends were passing her, outgrowing her, and she was too clever not to notice and feel the loss.

Isabella’s idea of a jaunt to London sounded laughable when she had first proposed it in a letter. Had they not been plotting for years for Emma to visit, only to have their plans turn to ash at the end? But after her recent distance from Frank, the trip became an irresistible desire. Emma simply had to go to London! Yet as the time drew nigh, the plans only grew more firm, the probability for actually traveling only increased, and Emma felt her courage falter. How could she leave her father, now or ever?

When Isabella mentioned to her husband during the ride back from Box Hill that they were only going for a day rather than two, it did not seem so reckless anymore. Indeed, John's reaction -- “Who goes to London for a single day? You will have no time for anything.” -- rather fixed in her mind that she did want to go.

The married couple batted ideas about of what places to visit and experiences to acquire might fit into the time allotted. As for life in Surrey, they had nothing planned for the next few days. So as long as the sisters could be back in time for the Coles’ party, no one beyond Hartfield would miss her. The Knightley brothers were ready to occupy and soothe Mr. Woodhouse. And Emma herself was ready to go; a delay could prove deadly to her resolve. She listened to her sister and John discuss the wonders of the capital with excitement wriggling beneath her skin.

She nearly lost heart when she reminded her father of their plans. He seemed bereft at the idea of her going away but Mr. and Mrs. Knightley calmly explained that the women were going for one night only, and the men and children would remain to keep him company. John and George would prove so attentive that Mr. Woodhouse would hardly notice that anyone else was missing.

These were all points that Mr. Woodhouse had heard before. He did not agree to the scheme -- it was beyond him to do so -- but he did not dissuade his daughters from their chosen course for all his concerns about coachmen and horses and dirty summer roads.

Emma barely slept that night for all the anticipation building within her, and barely ate with all the fluttering in her stomach at the breakfast table. She had packed and repacked the night before and was able to bustle her sister into one of the Knightley carriages and down the lane toward the London Road before the first messenger arrived bearing sad news from Donwell Abbey.

The exact amusements Miss Woodhouse experienced in London, along with the biographies of those she met, were immaterial. One might imagine that the sisters engaged in the mundane pleasures of tea rooms and other shops so similar to what Miss Woodhouse had in Highbury yet novel enough to amaze.

They returned home in the evening before the summer sun made the shadows stretch overlong. Emma was brimming with stories of all she had seen. The smile on her lips, however, faded away at the sight of George’s somber face as they stepped down from the carriage.

“What is wrong?” she asked, instantly on alert. “Where is Papa?”

“Mr. Woodhouse is fine,” George assured both sisters. “He is merely resting. We’ve had a bit of a shock. Mrs. Churchill has died. John has gone to Donwell Abbey to console Mr. Churchill.”

And so it was. Grief came first as a numbing disbelief to the sisters who had grown up in the orbit of that woman. Emma bore it worse than Isabella, so much closer to Mrs. Churchill for remaining her neighbor. Mr. Knightley eked out the story as it was known, how she had died in the wee hours of the morning before Isabella took her sister to London, how word was not sent until after breakfast, until it was too late to call back the carriage, how John had personally decided not to send word to his wife. They would only be gone one night, the sorrow could wait for them.

George Knightley stepped forward. “There is more news,” he started to warn them.

“I do not think I can bear more news right now,” Emma replied with a sniffle. “Pardon me.” She walked off into the garden. She needed some privacy. She wanted to cry in peace. As much as Mrs. Churchill infuriated her, Emma viewed her as a proxy aunt, and her death was too sudden to be anything like a relief. She let Isabella attend to their father while she herself paced the manicured walkways until her handkerchief was wet through and still she did not go in. George Knightley came out to speak with her eventually. She had no interest in returning to the house as John was not yet home so Mr. Knightley joined her circuit.

He offered little details that he knew, filling in gaps left by his earlier account. It comforted her to learn what she had missed through her neglect. But when he had exhausted that cache of knowledge, he said, “And now I am afraid I have more bad news to give you.”

She paled, her pace faltered, and she looked up at him in horror. Seeing her like that, all speech dried up on his tongue. When it became clear that he would not relieve the worry that suddenly oppressed her, she prompted him. Were others now ill? Had the illness that finished Mrs. Churchill spread? Was the Abbey under quarantine? Was Mr. Churchill safe? Was Frank Churchill in bed with fever?

“Frank Churchill is engaged,” Mr. Knightley blurted out. “To Miss Jane Fairfax. They apparently met in Weymouth and he had been secretly courting her these many months. There is no formal announcement at this time for obvious reasons, but they have reached an understanding and have received the blessings of their families. I'm sorry.”

Emma was confused. “Is Miss Fairfax ill?”

“Miss Fairfax is engaged,” George told her. “To Frank Churchill.”

His answer cleared up nothing. “What is the bad news, Mr. Knightley?” she asked. “Please do not trifle with me further. The suspense is excruciating.”

Now he was perplexed. “How can you not view it as bad news that Frank Churchill is engaged to marry Jane Fairfax?”

“How can I view it as bad news that a dear friend has at long last secured his future happiness?” she countered. Was George Knightley the sort of bachelor who could not stand to see others married? Did he imagine she was likewise against matrimony? “I am positive that they will be very happy together,” she said to assure him. “I have known Frank to be in love with Miss Fairfax since he met her and, for her part, I believe her to be very mutually and very sincerely attached. "

George Knightley looked at her as if he was seeing her for the first time. “How can you be so charitable to one who has used you so ill?” he said tentatively.

“You exaggerate, Mr. Knightley,” she told him. “I have grown up with Frank, and I sincerely wish him happy.”

She had told him nearly as much on previous occasions yet he had never really believed her. He had never trusted her to know her own mind and heart, and he had often disparaged her friend. “Why,” she wondered, “must I always tell you this? And why must you never listen?”

He mumbled and looked away but she would not let him dissemble. With no other calls on her time she would wait him out. She would have his answer.

“I suppose I envied him,” Mr. Knightley admitted at last. But that answer would not satisfy. How could George Knightley envy a man he held in such frequent contempt? He corrected himself. “It is not Frank Churchill but his opportunity I envy. I have known too many friends from school who married young and regretted it. They made their decision after a whirlwind courtship, based on the weakest understanding and the slimmest chances at happiness, and have been disappointed. And I look at Frank Churchill, and I see…” He stumbled into silence.

“You see a man who has found his heart's desire,” Emma supplied. That was the sort of envy she could commiserate.

“He has found it, and he has turned his back on it!” George answered. “At three-and-twenty to have come so close to drawing such a prize! What years of felicity that man, in all human calculation, had on offer before him! To be fair, I know of no wrong with his choice. Miss Fairfax strikes me as an intelligent, steady, thoughtful -- albeit quiet -- young woman, and he could certainly have chosen far worse. But why he would choose her and spurn perfection, I will never understand. And so in one respect he is the object of my envy, and by that same standard I must hold him up as an object of ridicule.”

Emma wanted to speak. She always felt called upon to be clever and witty in front of George Knightley, but she could not think of anything light enough to dispel his perplexing mood.

“You are wisely silent,” he observed when the lull overstretched itself. “Would that I had the opportunity to learn from you. But I find I have come too far and must speak my mind though I may immediately decide I have acted without sense.”

She threw him a worried look. This was not the George Knightley she knew. He saw it and fell silent once more although his agitation was plain.

He was clearly suffering under the burden of a secret. She decided to give him some relief. “Forgive me, Mr. Knightley. I believe I have stopped you when you have more to say. I am a poor friend to have done so.”

“A friend!” he scoffed. “Such a cold and fearsome word.” He paused and for a moment Emma thought he would leave her to return to the house. But then he shook his head and resumed his pace. “No, I have already gone too far for concealment. Let me say my piece, and then you may send me away wherever you like. You view me as a friend, Miss Woodhouse. Tell me, then, have I no chance of ever being more?”

He stopped in his earnestness to look the question, and the expression of his eyes overpowered her. Too many thoughts tripped over themselves in her head for her to make sense of them.

“But we never agree,” she pointed out. “We argue all the time.” Why would George Knightley -- or any man -- want a quarrelsome wife?

“I have always thought of them as spirited discussions,” he smiled at her. Her lack of immediate refusal kindled a hope in his breast.

She could not believe him. Scenes between them flashed through her memory and she was struck by how childish and petty she must have appeared to him. How could he have fallen in love with such a creature? “But I was so rude to you,” she recalled.

“When?” he challenged.

“Always.” That was how she shamefully remembered it.

But he would not admit to any imperfection and stood ready to debate her flaws into virtues. His robust defense opened her heart further to him. She had always been short-tempered and uncharitable with him, and he had borne her treatment as no other man in England would have done. And why did she feel the need to test him so often and unrelentingly except that she must secretly believe that he was different, better than the other men she knew?

Still he talked. As his words washed over her, she could not attend one in fifty but her mind with wonderful velocity was able to catch and comprehend the exact truth of the whole of his speech. The exact truth, however slowly it had stolen upon him, however much in vain he had believed his hope, was that he loved her and wished to marry her. And the echo answered within her own breast that she loved him too.

At last he stopped and looked at her beseechingly. She had been silent long enough and it was now time to answer once and forever his petition. She spoke then, on being so entreated.

What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show him there need not be despair, and to invite him to say more himself. He took the opportunity of explaining that he had approached her without any selfish intention of declaring himself. It was his aim to bring her news of Frank Churchill's situation privately so as to spare her the embarrassment of hearing the news in front of others. If it was in his power to soothe and comfort her, he would have done so gladly.

He heard her complete lack of disappointment over Frank and Miss Fairfax, the confirmation that her heart was safely disengaged, but he had blundered forward in agitation until he had come so close to an admission that he could not turn back. He had momentarily steeled himself for rejection. But the more he said, the less rejection seemed probable, until it became completely impossible.

At times with painstaking slowness, at times with scandalous quickness, they settled the matter between them and finally returned to the house. John had recently returned and they felt free to share the news with him and Isabella.

John was surprised by the announcement but Isabella was smug. “When did this happen?” he asked in astonishment. “Have you two been hiding this all along? Is this why you have been asking me when we shall settle at Hartfield?” he asked his brother. “You know Emma will not leave her father until we are living here.”

But George and Emma would admit to no premeditation. He had expected for too long that she would marry another while she had expected to marry no one at all. Isabella saw everything. She took George's and Emma's hands and declared that she could want no brother more than the one she already had.

The loss of his wife simply devastated Mr. Churchill. He had quite expected her to outlive him so to lose her so suddenly left him bereft. To make matters worse, Frank, for all his grief, refused to budge on Jane Fairfax. This reminder of the brevity of life convinced the young man more fully that he wanted to marry his Jane without unreasonable delay. He would honor his aunt’s passing, then live his own life as he saw fit.

Col. Campbell was good enough to wait on him at Donwell and to bless the engagement, expecting a delay of some months of mourning before it could be announced. It was all Frank needed to make his current situation bearable. It only made his uncle more miserable.

As Jane’s guardian had condoned the match, it was now up to Frank to prove that he would support a wife. To that end, he still planned to go to London in August and earn a living. But who would remain at Donwell with Mr. Churchill while Frank was in Town? Who would look after Donwell in Frank’s absence? And never mind Donwell Abbey and its servants, never mind the land and tenants, crops and flocks, who would look after Mr. Churchill with his wife dead and his nephew absconded? Who would greet him over breakfast, or listen to him over tea, or commiserate with him at dinner, or give him leave to top off his dram of port before retiring for the night? Who would join him in hosting his neighbors in a grander style than they would ever know at home? Who would answer the petitions he could not? Who would make him feel proud and complete? Who would keep the abbey from becoming a mausoleum? These were very pertinent questions and they repeated themselves over and again in desperation to Mr. Churchill in the hours after Frank announced his resolve.

In the face of Frank’s steadfastness, Mr. Churchill could only crumble. Witnessing his uncle’s despair, Frank felt his own resolve slipping. He confided some of his concerns to Jane, hoping her words would bolster him.

While it was Frank's nature to protect and comfort Jane, it was hers to soothe and promote those dear to her. Now that Frank had thrown off the familial ties that chafed him, now that Mr. Churchill had no power to threaten Jane’s own happiness, she could think of the old man as a figure of pity rather than dread.

Jane felt she would overstep to offer any suggestions of her own, but she questioned what might be done for Mr. Churchill when Frank left Donwell. Frank freely admitted that he had been so concerned over his own future that he had not really thought about it. She gave him a look so he stole a kiss and promised to think about it.

Indeed, he thought about it during the ride home but came up with nothing useful. Upon leaving the stables, he expected to slip quietly into his rooms and take his tea alone but his uncle caught him on the stair and insisted on speaking with him immediately.

“Of course,” Frank could only agree.

His uncle did not begin the conversation right away but instead led Frank to his office where Mr. Endicott sat waiting, apparently for some time.

They greeted each other somberly then turned to Mr. Churchill who hovered by the door. He nodded at them and cleared his throat. “Yes, I shall leave you to it,” he said and left, closing the door behind him.

Frank was momentarily overcome with the memory of his uncle walking out of an earlier meeting of the three of them. “I, I'm sorry,” he said at last to the steward.

Mr. Endicott appeared to have been expecting that reaction. “No apologies are needed, Mr. Frank,” he said soothingly. “Mr. Churchill is nigh broken with grief, I quite understand. He has lost everyone dear to him -- his entire family -- except you. Now that you are planning to go away, he does not know what to do. He cannot afford to lose you as well.”

“I must go to London,” said Frank heavily. Too many people counted on him -- his father, the Campbells, Jane, himself -- but he did not know how his uncle would recover from this defection.

“But must you stay there, never to return?” asked Endicott. “Surely you will come back every once in a while, if only for a short stay. Would it not be beneficial for everyone to plan your visits now, before you go off to London? It will give those of us that remain something to look forward to.” He subtly cast his eyes in the direction of Mr. Churchill’s chair.

Frank instantly took his meaning. Mr. Churchill would let himself sink into lassitude without some outward motivation. His wife had provided it for more than half his life; without her gentle governance, would he even have cause to get out of bed? But if he knew that Frank was coming back, he would exert himself regularly albeit not vigorously. That might be enough to allow him to outlast the depth of his grief and depression.

Frank saw the wisdom in the idea, but the practicality was a challenge. There had to be some middle ground between his uncle’s wishes and Frank’s convenience, a regular pilgrimage to Donwell Abbey - but despite his uncle’s wishes, Frank could not always be at his beck and call. A schedule would give everyone manageable expectations.

It would take some time for Frank to get established in the capital; he would need to go to town a few weeks early just to secure lodgings. He began to sketch out a timeline with an eye for when he might reasonably return. Mr. Endicott gently interrupted to protest that Mr. Churchill did not expect his nephew to leave so soon.

“I will need to find a place to stay,” Frank pointed out. “I cannot ride into town on the very day that I am to show myself to Mr. Blake. I cannot eat and sleep at the warehouse. I will go a few weeks before for a day or two, just long enough to find a room. I am sure I shall not need much. And a less expensive situation will suit admirably.”

“I think I know of the perfect situation. It will not require any advance trips to London and I believe the landlord will give you quite favorable terms. And of course your uncle will approve,” the steward said with a twinkle in his eye. “Churchill House,” he announced when Frank did not appear to comprehend.

Frank was indeed very familiar with the Churchills’ townhouse, having spent many nights there for his “London haircuts,” but he could not fathom how it was affordable for a young man like Frank to rent it from his uncle. Likewise, he did not believe his uncle would want him to stay at the house indefinitely. Mr. Churchill’s present mood might not translate into a long-term desire to help Frank establish his independence and distance himself from Donwell.

It took an earnest back-and-forth before Frank understood that the steward was offering to let Frank stay for free in the town house. Frank had to refuse the offer politely. His uncle was in the throes of grief now; Mr. Churchill might agree to the scheme at first but he could easily feel very differently later. Still Mr. Endicott pressed him to accept. The relationship was strained, the steward agreed, but not irreparably. Maintaining tenuous contact was necessary until sufficient time had passed for Mr. Churchill to forget why he was ever at odds with Frank. Besides, with Frank at Churchill House, Mr. Churchill himself might be persuaded to visit the capital on occasion and leave behind the sad memories of Mrs. Churchill which must haunt every room at the Abbey.

Whether Mr. Churchill's largess lasted ten weeks or ten years, Frank would benefit for accepting it now. If his uncle did throw him out in some future fit of pique, Frank would be better positioned to find a new place in London after having lived there. If they did completely mend the breach between them, which Endicott believed was more likely, Frank would be better positioned to marry Jane if he had a home like Churchill House into which he could welcome her.

Two hours later and they were still not in accord. Frank could not accept the offer and Mr. Endicott could not accept the refusal. They parted with plans on Endicott's side to resume the debate on the following day.

The next morning, Mr. Churchill's valet spoke to Frank before breakfast, carrying a request that Frank speak with his uncle.

Frank complied, trailing behind Barton to his uncle's closet, although he was surprised when the valet left them that Mr. Churchill did not foist this conversation onto someone else.

The purpose of the interview was obvious, even through Mr. Churchill's distraction -- he wanted to know why Frank had not yet agreed to Endicott’s offer.

Frank had spent the evening pacing in his room and the night tossing in his dreams while he had mulled over his options. His ambition was to be happy, happy with Jane and happy with his father and happy with his uncle. If he could truly achieve that, then the details of where he lived or how he spent his hours were immaterial. And yet he was committed to going to London, at least for a while.

For his part, Frank felt ready to offer some olive branch to his uncle, yet he feared that Mr. Churchill would clutch it like a lifeline now only to discard it as unworthy later. If only he could have some certainty! But his aunt’s death had taught him a sad lesson. He had withheld knowledge of Jane from his family, expecting his aunt to reject her, and Mrs. Churchill had died before Frank could amend that decision; he could not bear to repeat that mistake with his uncle.

So he relented slightly. He accepted the offer to stay at Churchill House in London. In exchange for that generosity from his uncle, Frank promised to return to Surrey every four to six weeks to attend to the business that would not lend itself to correspondence and be otherwise neglected in his absence. The length and frequency of these visits could not be decided upon until he was working at Mr. Weston’s warehouse in town. He added a sincere hope that his uncle would grow to love Jane, and that Frank would never be truly easy until that day.

“Perhaps,” Frank felt childish voicing the idea, “you may join me from time to time in London. And when you are there, perhaps you will meet with Jane and the Campbells. She is perfect in every way, as I am sure you will see. Her natural goodness will wear away any objection you may have imagined.”

That offer had every desired effect. Frank and his uncle made up their differences privately (publicly, no one had really noticed much). Mr. Churchill traveled often to Town after Frank had moved there. The Abbey was too big for an old widower living alone. These trips allowed him to get to know Jane in such a way that she had quite won him over by the time he and Mr. Weston witnessed the blessing of their union in the Campbell’s parish church in Town. Mr. and Mrs. Dixon had travelled from Ireland for the ceremony, and they were both able to stand up with their friends who viewed the Dixons as instrumental in bringing them together.

Mr. Churchill continued to arrive often and unannounced in Town after the couple was wed. He gradually moved more of his most cherished material possessions to the house on Marlon Street, returning to Donwell only with Mr. and Mrs. Frank, then staying in London while they had a short holiday by themselves at the Abbey, then eventually telling them to take up residence permanently at Donwell with their children while he remained comfortably by himself in Town. By then the loss of his wife was only a dull ache and there were a few sympathetic widows in the neighborhood who were always impressed with his gentlemanly ways.

The Frank Churchills, for their part, were as content in the country as they had been in Town. Jane was as pleased to be near the Bateses as she was to be near the Campbells, so long as she was with her husband and children. The extra space gave them more liberty to host the Dixons during their biennial trips. And by the time they retired fully to the country, she had lost enough of her youthful shyness to preside as mistress of Donwell admirably. The tenants were by then disposed to love her for any number of reasons and did their utmost to make her feel welcome.

The Churchills of Donwell had never neglected their neighbors at Hartfield, but it was especially satisfying when the young family retired from Town to reside in Surrey year-round. Then the Frank Churchills and John Knightleys could be found constantly visiting each other, for a tea or a supper or some ramble. Frank saw Emma during her annual visits to Hartfield, and her letters to Isabella kept him informed of her adventures with her husband and children, her good friend Mrs. Martin, and others he would never meet.

And it should be mentioned that a young miss from Hartfield did eventually marry the heir to Donwell. The young man's great-great-aunt would have approved.


COD, 15 (end)

NN SOctober 19, 2017 09:49PM

Re: COD, 15 (end)

KateBOctober 20, 2017 01:50PM

Re: COD, 15 (end)

TinaOctober 20, 2017 02:11AM

COD Notes

NN SOctober 20, 2017 12:45AM

Re: COD Notes

M UOctober 20, 2017 03:26PM


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