A Knightley Engagement
George Knightley had spent a most wretched hour at Hartfield. Usually he was able to combat his host's fretful nature with gentle ribbing or a distracting comment about something pleasant, to the point that Mr. Woodhouse would quite forget himself and his worries and become most agreeable company. But this afternoon, Mr. Knightley was not in his usual high spirits; indeed, he had not been himself for a fortnight, at least. Moreover, in spite of his long riding coat, his clothes were still damp from a miserable rainy horseback ride all the way from his brother's home. Unfortunately, Mr. Knightley had disclosed this to Mr. Woodhouse, who--quite alarmed--proceeded to spend a quarter of an hour chastising him for his foolishness and recounting every possible consequence of such reckless behaviour. Mr. Woodhouse then called for a fire to be lit, making the sitting room most uncomfortably warm for an early autumn afternoon.
This is ridiculous, Mr. Knightley raged to himself. I should have inquired whether or not Emma was at home before barging in here like a damned fool! Where is she--why does she not come home?
As the shadows out of doors began to lengthen, Mr. Knightley felt he could wait no longer and abruptly ended his visit with Mr. Woodhouse, who encouraged him to please wear his hat and hurry homeward, to ward off catching a dangerous chill. But Mr. Knightley was in no hurry to return to Donwell Abbey; he was miserable that he had not seen Emma, and that Mr. Woodhouse could offer no hint as to her state of mind and heart over the news of Frank Churchill's engagement. Useless!
As he strode along the meandering path, his mind raced feverishly in a dozen directions. Emma must be terribly distraught; perhaps she has been pouring out her anguish to Mrs. Weston. But then, she could be wandering the woods, heedless of the increasingly late hour while shedding bitter tears of disappointment. The thought of her feeling intense misery over a wretch like Churchill filled Mr. Knightley with waves of jealousy and anger.
He became aware that as he walked along in such a state, he was, with his walking stick, forcefully lopping the tops off the flowers unluckily situated along the path. In chagrin he stopped short.
Well, Knightley, this is what you have become, he mused wryly. Murderer of flowers! No wonder Emma cannot see you as anything but a cranky uncle figure--so fault-finding, so sure of yourself! Why would she love someone who always makes her feel so flawed? But she is not flawed--she is perfect in my eyes! Yet I have driven her from ever esteeming me more than as an old family friend.
He winced as his mind said the word "old." Blast Frank Churchill and his youthful (if wayward) spirit! A new horror suddenly presented itself: perhaps even now, Emma was finding comfort in the company of some other young man. This turn of his thoughts was too disagreeable and he shook it off. Apologetically eyeing the wildflowers, Mr. Knightley tucked his walking stick safely under his arm and continued walking, head down, shoulders slumped and his thoughts returning to their previous bitter course. So deep was he in this most uncharacteristic reverie that he did not hear the rustle of a dress as it brushed along the path ahead. And so it was that he suddenly came face to face with the one so heavy on his heart.
There she stood, backlit by the late afternoon sunlight, her golden hair indeed rivaling its brilliance, as Frank once sang so annoyingly. But there was something different about her--this was not the little Emma he once bantered with so freely. It was as if she had become a young woman in his absence. With uneasiness he realized it was the hint of sadness in her eyes that gave her that air of maturity. He did not know how to talk to this Emma; in fact, everything he had purposed in his heart and mind to say to her upon returning home flew completely out of his head. For the first time in his life, Mr. Knightley did not know what to say to Emma Woodhouse.
"Forgive me," he begged, quickly doffing his hat. "I was lost in my thoughts."
"I did not know you were back," she said, recovering from her own surprise.
"Yes, just," he fibbed, then silence.
"How are you?" she inquired, with an inexplicable little frown. "Happy?"
He stared at her guardedly: What a strange question; can she read my thoughts?
"Well, happy to see you, as always," he offered lamely in reply. More wretched silence.
"I am on my way home." She said it as if in reply to an unspoken question.
"I was just there," he said, realizing he had now contradicted himself about just arriving and, furthermore, was in danger of ending the encounter. If he had just come from Hartfield, why would he want to return now? Well, hang the look of it--he was desperate.
"May I join you?"
As they headed toward Hartfield, he was dismayed to find himself so tongue-tied and, yes, actually afraid to broach the subject that had weighed so heavily on him these past few days. He stole a glance at Emma, whose countenance revealed a soul deeply troubled herself. Oh, he must know her heart, but so dreaded her answer. Coward!
"Oh, dear!" Her unexpected, despairing little murmur snapped him to alertness.
"What?" he asked quickly. Oh, Lord, please do not let her pour out her heartbreak over Frank Churchill to me -- I could not bear it!
Instead she confused him completely with an odd remark about venison stew.
That's it, Knightley--enough of this! Ask her and be done with it before we reach her father's house and all hope of meaningful conversation is dashed completely.
"Emma," he began most definitely, "there is something I must ask you..."
"Oh, wait!" she interrupted, with forced gaiety. "Now that you are back I must tell you of some news."
He felt a foreboding: had Frank broken off his engagement to Jane? Had he declared an attachment to Emma? Get hold of yourself, man, he scolded himself. Surely Woodhouse would have mentioned this.
"What news?" he ventured cautiously.
"The very best kind," she said softly. "It is a wedding, between two people who..."
"Oh, you mean Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax!" he interjected, with relief. Realizing his rudeness, he explained more quietly, "Mrs. Weston wrote me."
"Yes," she said ruefully, "of course you are not surprised. I, however, seemed doomed to blindness."
There it was; revealed at last in the dull tone in her voice, the downcast eyes! She was indeed truly devastated by this secret engagement, and the urge to take her in his arms almost overwhelmed Mr. Knightley. No one must hurt her like this again--oh, he could thrash Frank Churchill for piercing her dear heart so wantonly! But he could not reveal such passions to her now--he might confuse or, even worse, frighten her with the intensity of his feelings. After all, he reflected morosely, she regarded him as a brother. He simply said, with deep-felt compassion:
"I cannot tell you what I feel. You must have been cruelly disappointed by his secret. He is an abominable scoundrel, but time will heal your wound."
Realizing Mr. Knightley's assumption, Emma was quick to respond.
"You're very kind, but you are mistaken. It's true I once fancied myself attached to Mr. Churchill, but I soon realized he lacked many qualities--honesty, for one--that are essential to me in a friend. He did not mean to make me fall in love with him, but rather to use me as a blind to conceal his situation. As for my own conduct, I am without excuse. I was flattered and allowed his attentions. So you see, he imposed upon me, but he did not injure me."
Mr. Knightley was dumbstruck by her confession. Then she did not love Frank Churchill after all! He had been so anxious for her feelings, certain he would find her inconsolable. But here she was, not only declaring herself uninjured, but excusing Frank's beastly behaviour as well! The mixture of relief and outrage overrode his natural reserve.
"Well, he is a most fortunate man!" he fairly shouted in exasperation. "He meets a young woman in a public place, gains her affection and she consents to an engagement! He treats her most shamefully and she forgives him! His aunt is in the way; the aunt dies! He treats everyone ill and they are most pleased to forgive him!"
He paced about in his frustration, aware that this outburst was revealing to Emma a side of himself she had never encountered. Indeed, he was just as shocked. So much for dignity and pride! In contrast to Mr. Churchill's infernally charming persona, he thought sadly, Emma must now certainly perceive George Knightley as a rather spiteful, stuffy and, yes, jealous old fellow.
"You speak as if you envied him," responded Emma in amazement.
She sees right through me!
"Yes," acknowledged Mr. Knightley, in a much more subdued manner. "There is something in his situation that I envy very much..."
Ignorant of the mistaken thoughts this comment stirred in Emma's mind, Mr. Knightley watched her turn away abruptly. No longer seeing her face emboldened him.
"You will not ask me the point of my envy, Emma. You are determined, I see, to have no curiosity!" Now, he told himself, tell her the truth!
If she could withstand Frank Churchill's brazenness, why could he not also throw caution to the wind? He rushed to face her. He realized he was close to abandoning all reason and making an utter fool of himself. Recklessness was not familiar to him, but he found its nearness so intoxicating, he almost laughed.
"Well, perhaps you are wise. But I can no longer be wise! You must allow me to tell you what you will not ask me, though I may wish it unsaid the next moment!"
"Then don't say it!" she cried, startling him. "Take a little time to consider. Don't commit yourself to something which may injure us both to be said!"
He was instantly mortified. He had only begun to reveal himself and she found the idea ridiculous--or worse, repugnant. He did not know she feared he was about to declare his attachment to another. His face was such a study in stony agony that she reached to touch his arm.
Mr. Knightley, however, stepped back and with a slight bow, said quietly, "Very well. Good day." He turned and walked away, determined to leave no doubt that this foolishness was over. She had rebuffed his awkward attempt to declare himself and he was in no humor to be pitied in the bargain. Her voice echoed in his mind: "Don't commit yourself to something that would injure us both to be said." He allowed himself one last whack at the ground with his walking stick, in an effort to assuage the sting of those words.
As he walked, he became acutely aware that in one moment, his life had gone completely adrift. He had as good as declared his intentions to Emma and she apparently was appalled by the idea -- he, her brother-in-law! Things could never be the same again; no more cozy evenings at Hartfield, no joyous family gatherings when John and Isabella visited. As he contemplated the dark days ahead, his usual cheerful nature was swallowed in the gloom.
He thought of the women in his life who had aspired to become Mrs. George Knightley, and how, for one reason or another, he had cooled the relationship. He realized only now that it was his intimate attachment to the Woodhouse family -- no, face it, Knightley -- to Emma herself, that ultimately prevented him from forming any kind of serious attachment to another. He had lied to himself about it for years, because it seemed so certain that Emma was one day to become Mrs. Frank Churchill. He convinced himself instead that the Woodhouses needed his protection and guidance and company -- especially with John and Isabella so far away. Yet he saw now it was he who needed them -- needed Emma -- to breathe life into his well-ordered, responsible soul. She exasperated him, cheered him, encouraged him, challenged him -- in short, made him feel alive.
And what now? Everyone in the neighborhood looked to Mr. Knightley for counsel -- even advice on love, he thought with wry bitterness, recalling Robert Martin's visit. Yet here he was in his late thirties, with no hope now of marrying for love, and lonely bachelorhood the only alternative.
Where is my counsel?
It was Emma -- running after him, her little shoes not up to the task. How long had she been trying to catch up with him?
He stopped immediately, and when she saw he would wait for her, she slowed her pace to better gain control of her breath. Her cheeks were flushed pink from the exertion, and tendrils of curls flew free from their pins. How beautiful she was!
Fearful he would bolt again, she spoke up quickly:
"Mr. Knightley, I stopped you ungraciously just now and gave you pain. Please forgive me. If you have any wish to speak to me openly about...about anything you might be contemplating, as your friend I cannot refuse you."
Friend! That word again!
"Emma," he replied wearily. "I have gone too far for any further concealment. I can no longer desire to remain your friend."
"But why?" she cried, stricken to the heart. "I know I have been wrong, but had you been here the past few days you would have seen how hard I have tried to change! You said we would never be enemies; please tell me I am still your friend!"
The sudden tears in her eyes and anguished look on her face shamed him. He was wounding her. But her next words stunned him.
"I have been so miserable the last few days, knowing you are attached to someone else and that I will never be more to you than your little friend Emma. I know our connection cannot remain what it was, but please don't say I cannot at least be your friend!" Tears trickled down to the corners of her trembling mouth.
"Emma, you confound me," he said, helplessly. "What are you saying? No one is attached to me; that is the point of my envy. I do not want to call you my friend any longer because I desire to call you something infinitely more dear."
No turning back now, he thought, say it all -- oh, that she would cease staring at me so incredulously!
"I have desperately tried to hide from my feelings, because I knew Frank Churchill was intended for you. But the sight of his influence over you...the thought of him being anywhere near you was unbearable. To think you would...desire him and not me..." The admission almost stopped him from saying more, but Lord! He did not know what to do with a silent Emma. He began anew.
"I finally had to go away. But staying with John and Isabella only kept you painfully fresh in my mind. Then the news of Mr. Churchill's engagement to Jane Fairfax gave me hope, though I feared your heart too crushed to possibly receive me. Yet I had to be near you again, to be assured you were all right." He paused.
Why isn't she stopping me again? he wondered, as he then confessed most sheepishly:
"I rode through the rain.." He impulsively took her hand. "I'd ride through worse than that if I could just hear your voice telling me that I might have some chance to win you."
Will she never speak again? What the devil is she thinking?
"Emma, help me, please -- I cannot make speeches. If I loved you less I could talk about it more, but you know what I am..."
He looked deeply into her eyes, searching for some answer there. He found them brimming with astonished joy and his heart nearly stopped with wild hope.
"Mr. Knightley, I have been silent because I'm afraid I will awaken from this dream! Is it really true? 'Some chance to win me'? You have my heart completely! It's my head that has got in the way! I just did not realize it until -- well, since you've been away, I guess."
"Oh, Emma!" he breathed in disbelief himself.
"But I feel so much in error--so flawed in my nature to deserve you..." she almost cried in despair. He clasped her hand to his heart, inwardly cursing this evidence of his presumptuous treatment of her.
"What of my flaws? I have lectured you, scolded you, humbled you--and you have borne it as no other would have. Oh, Emma--you have so much to teach me..."
She drew closer to him and bowed her head over their clasped hands. Her soft pile of curls brushed his lips. Now who was dreaming? He would restrain himself no more.
"Marry me?" he whispered. "Oh, please marry me, my wonderful, darling friend!"
In answer, she lifted her face, and shyly the two old friends kissed a first sweet kiss. The moment their lips touched, they felt they had found home. Mr. Knightley could scarcely grasp the complete reversal of his circumstances in such short order, but this he understood: no two people on earth could be so dearly in love!
"Come," said Mr. Knightley, in command of himself once more. "Let us go to your father."
"My father!" cried Emma, pulling away with sudden realization. "Oh dear--I cannot marry you!"
"Why ever not?" laughed Mr. Knightley, though uneasily.
"First my sister, then Miss Taylor...I cannot tell him that now I am leaving him to be married! I cannot abandon him now, I cannot!" Mr. Knightley could see she was beside herself with conflicting emotions. He would not lose her now, no!
"Emma, I could not secure your happiness at the expense of your father's. If his peace of mind requires your presence at Hartfield -- let it be my home as well."
Oh, the generous nature of this dear man! What other would so unselfishly give up his grand home for the residence of his fussy old father-in-law? Overpowered with love and gratitude, Emma turned and threw herself fully into Mr. Knightley's arms -- hats and walking stick tumbling to the ground in the process.
It took him half a beat to realize he was actually holding Emma; that she was his completely now. He closed his eyes, overwhelmed that such a precious moment could simultaneously release in him such great desire for her. Quickly he drew her to himself, feeling with joy her trembling body firmly in his embrace. How he had dreamed of this in his heart of hearts! And when he felt her respond to him -- oh, that he could show his love to her fully, right here and now! When did he first know he loved her so much? He had wasted so much time denying it, distracting himself by playing the role of elder brother. Allowing himself at last to tell her of his love, to hold her like this, to feel these wonderful feelings for her--was this not a little strange after all these years? He heard himself whisper:
"I first held you in my arms when you were three weeks old."
She knew what he meant; yes, the strangeness of it all. But she was quick to dispel the past.
"I am not little any more," she whispered in his ear, and with that, he buried his face against her neck. "And someday soon -- I think you can imagine the time -- I will no longer call you Mr. Knightley, but 'something infinitely more dear.'"
They drew back to gaze with wonder at each other, and this time the kiss that followed was passionate and deep--far beyond friendship. Brother and sister? No -- no indeed!
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.