An Illness at Donwell Abbey
Emma was just becoming comfortable in her chair when the door opened with Henry announcing a visitor from Donwell. Thinking the guest to be her old family friend Mr. Knightley she asked the person to enter. It was no small surprise when Mrs. Spencer, the housekeeper of Donwell Abbey shuffled into the hall.
"I am so sorry to bother you Miss Woodhouse especially with the holiday season coming about but none of us knew who else to turn to..."
The woman's obvious distress worried Emma deeply for Mrs. Spencer raised both the Knightley boys and took care of that great manor with deft hands and hard eyes. Whatever bothered her had to be something truly worrisome. With a graceful move Emma gestured the woman to sit next to her. Her father was sitting in his chair but was deep in his sleep so Emma had no wish to wake him for this unusual gathering.
"It's Mr. Knightley Miss, the man is sick and he won't go askin' for help. No matter what we try or do he just rebuffs us and hides himself in the library. He is a healthy man to be sure, like an ox but he hasn't been eating. And he never takes care of himself and his cough oh Miss Emma it comes from his chest and it hurts to hear him! Please couldn't you visit tomorrow I know the weather forbids such things..."
"Say no more Mrs. Spencer I shall be at Donwell's door tomorrow. And let us see if we together can bring about some changes in Mr. Knightley's condition!"
The next morning signaled a clear and crisp day. The frost was hard on the ground making everything sparkle like jewels carelessly strewn about by Lady Winter. Emma arrived early at Donwell Abbey, much too early for a proper call but she didn't care for such social niceties when her friend was in trouble. And with some anxiety she entered into the hall only to be greeted with a racking cough from its owner. Emma's heart stopped for she never heard a cough as aggravated and torn as those coming from her dear friend. He was barely standing as the cough had him bent over in a most painful and awkward manner possible. Emma didn't hesitate and shed her great coat.
"Dear Mr. Knightley, I am glad I came by! How could you hide your illness from us your friends? Come; let us enter into the library. Thomas, more fire in the library and fetch Mrs. Spencer for us." With an authoritative voice she ordered the servants about and escorted her friend to the spacious room.
The man was shame-faced as he was caught unaware of her visit. "Emma, you could have at least given me a warning you were to come by. I would have..."
"What? Wear a formal jacket to cough your soul away when I came through the door? That is a very silly idea Mr. Knightley. By the time the messenger reached here I would have been hard at his heels. Sit back and let your worries go away for a while. I am here for today and I mean to see you better before I leave." Knightley smiled bravely, though it was something of a sad sight for young Emma to see such a proud man fall. She made him sit by the fire while she collected abandoned blankets from about the room to warm her friend. Emma Woodhouse reached her twentieth year not so long ago and considered to be a beauty in these parts. Though some may think her impertinent her honesty was refreshing and her wit never dull. Knightley grew up by her side, 16 years her senior he was her mentor and friend until one day they both realized she was his equal in many ways. And now she was ever outgrowing her need for a mentor and his friendship, a situation that Knightley was becoming painfully aware of.
She smiled cheerfully creating a chrysalis of blankets around his person until he was barely able to move his arms. "There, it is very strange to see you so but at least you're warm now."
"Warm?" Cried out Knightley, "Emma I can hardly breathe underneath all this!"
"That is because you have a cold and not because of the blankets. Stop fidgeting sir and let me entertain you. Sit still I say!" Knightley complied though with clear protest emanating from his person. Emma would never be so free or so bold with others but with her beloved friend she knew she could take certain liberties that society would never condone.
With some thought she chose a French novel and began reading to the man with him correcting every other pronunciation. It amused her greatly because even deep in his illness Knightley hasn't forgotten his role in her life. It was little while afterwards that Mrs. Spencer entered with a tray of food for her master. And it took Emma great coaxing and outright arguments for the man to finish the broth and the eggs. But she was successful where everybody in Donwell failed and the owner finished his first real meal in days.
Feeling the effects of a full stomach Knightley drowsed off into a nap and Emma was free to peruse the room. It definitely needed some dusting and a more cheerful atmosphere. Why Knightley was so intent on keeping the curtains closed she had no idea but the whole room suffered because of it. She reminded herself to ask Mrs. Spencer when spring-cleaning was so she could tell Knightley to get rid of these thick and old curtains for some new ones.
The unwilling patient stirred in his dreams and she turned to gaze at his peaceful face. Why she mused a bit surprised, Knightley in his youth must have indeed been a handsome man. Even now in his autumn age there were traces of the elegant lines. Smiling sadly she examined his face more intently and regretted a little that he wasn't closer to her in years for that would have made her life easier to bear. Suddenly the dark lashes fluttered and his eyes stared right into hers.
"Anything amiss Emma? Have I grown another head while I was asleep?"
"No Mr. Knightley you have not. Though your manners suffer much from your illness. I was just imagining you as a younger man that is all."
A surprised look wove itself into his brows. "Imagine me as a younger man? Whatever for?"
"For my simple curiosity Mr. Knightley that is all." But the playful smile on her lips made him wonder what she was thinking of. And his curiosity almost did succeed in overcoming his manners as his heart fluttered inside his chest at her disclosure of her thoughts. But more somber realities sank into his soul and he kept his tongue silent.
The day slowly sank into evening and the sun began to hide its face. Emma made preparations to return to Hartfield before there was no light left. Her sick friend managed to escort her to the hall and watch her go about giving final orders to the servants as if she was the lady of the house. She also informed Knightley that the village physician Mr. Dennison would drop by tomorrow to examine him so it would be best if he stayed indoors for the visit. The man gave an exasperated sigh but felt some pleasure that Emma cared enough to plan that on his behalf. With a smile and a dash Emma was gone from Donwell Abbey and Knightley returned to the cocoon that she built for him. Mrs. Spencer served supper in the warm room and silently rejoiced when she picked up the empty tray an hour later.
Emma was playing backgammon with her father when Mr. Woodhouse informed her of the latest news. "Emma, it seems that we have a new addition to the town of Highbury today."
"Oh? And who might this be? Anyone we are acquainted with?"
The man shook his head, "No, it's...what's his name? Oh yes, a Mr. Elton I believe."
© 1998 Copyright held by author