Though now the middle of December, there had yet been no weather to preven_he young ladies from tolerably regular exercise; and on the morrow, Emma ha_ charitable visit to pay to a poor sick family, who lived a little way out o_ighbury.
Their road to this detached cottage was down Vicarage Lane, a lane leading a_ight angles from the broad, though irregular, main street of the place; and, as may be inferred, containing the blessed abode of Mr. Elton. A few inferio_wellings were first to be passed, and then, about a quarter of a mile dow_he lane rose the Vicarage, an old and not very good house, almost as close t_he road as it could be. It had no advantage of situation; but had been ver_uch smartened up by the present proprietor; and, such as it was, there coul_e no possibility of the two friends passing it without a slackened pace an_bserving eyes.—Emma's remark was—
"There it is. There go you and your riddle-book one of these days."— Harriet'_as—
"Oh, what a sweet house!—How very beautiful!—There are the yellow curtain_hat Miss Nash admires so much."
"I do not often walk this way now," said Emma, as they proceeded, "but the_here will be an inducement, and I shall gradually get intimately acquainte_ith all the hedges, gates, pools and pollards of this part of Highbury."
Harriet, she found, had never in her life been within side the Vicarage, an_er curiosity to see it was so extreme, that, considering exteriors an_robabilities, Emma could only class it, as a proof of love, with Mr. Elton'_eeing ready wit in her.
"I wish we could contrive it," said she; "but I cannot think of any tolerabl_retence for going in;—no servant that I want to inquire about of hi_ousekeeper—no message from my father."
She pondered, but could think of nothing. After a mutual silence of som_inutes, Harriet thus began again—
"I do so wonder, Miss Woodhouse, that you should not be married, or going t_e married! so charming as you are!"—
Emma laughed, and replied,
"My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I mus_ind other people charming—one other person at least. And I am not only, no_oing to be married, at present, but have very little intention of eve_arrying at all."
"Ah!—so you say; but I cannot believe it."
"I must see somebody very superior to any one I have seen yet, to be tempted; Mr. Elton, you know, (recollecting herself,) is out of the question: and I d_ot wish to see any such person. I would rather not be tempted. I canno_eally change for the better. If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it."
"Dear me!—it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!"—
"I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall i_ove, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; i_s not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, withou_ove, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortun_ do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believ_ew married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house as I a_f Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved an_mportant; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in m_ather's."
"But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!"
"That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if _hought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied— so smiling—s_rosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious— and so apt to tell every thin_elative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I a_onvinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried."
"But still, you will be an old maid! and that's so dreadful!"
"Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty onl_hich makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with _ery narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the prope_port of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is alway_espectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else. And th_istinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of th_orld as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contrac_he mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who liv_erforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well b_lliberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates; she is onl_oo good natured and too silly to suit me; but, in general, she is very muc_o the taste of every body, though single and though poor. Poverty certainl_as not contracted her mind: I really believe, if she had only a shilling i_he world, she would be very likely to give away sixpence of it; and nobody i_fraid of her: that is a great charm."
"Dear me! but what shall you do? how shall you employ yourself when you gro_ld?"
"If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great man_ndependent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want o_mployment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty. Woman's usual occupations o_and and mind will be as open to me then as they are now; or with no importan_ariation. If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall tak_o carpet-work. And as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, which is in truth the great point of inferiority, the want of which is reall_he great evil to be avoided in not marrying, I shall be very well off, wit_ll the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will b_nough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation tha_eclining life can need. There will be enough for every hope and every fear; and though my attachment to none can equal that of a parent, it suits my idea_f comfort better than what is warmer and blinder. My nephews and nieces!—_hall often have a niece with me."
"Do you know Miss Bates's niece? That is, I know you must have seen her _undred times—but are you acquainted?"
"Oh! yes; we are always forced to be acquainted whenever she comes t_ighbury. By the bye, that is almost enough to put one out of conceit with _iece. Heaven forbid! at least, that I should ever bore people half so muc_bout all the Knightleys together, as she does about Jane Fairfax. One is sic_f the very name of Jane Fairfax. Every letter from her is read forty time_ver; her compliments to all friends go round and round again; and if she doe_ut send her aunt the pattern of a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters fo_er grandmother, one hears of nothing else for a month. I wish Jane Fairfa_ery well; but she tires me to death."
They were now approaching the cottage, and all idle topics were superseded.
Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure o_elief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignoranc_nd their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtu_rom those for whom education had done so little; entered into their trouble_ith ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligenc_s good-will. In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty togethe_hich she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could giv_omfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of th_cene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away,
"These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make ever_hing else appear!—I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poo_reatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may al_anish from my mind?"
"Very true," said Harriet. "Poor creatures! one can think of nothing else."
"And really, I do not think the impression will soon be over," said Emma, a_he crossed the low hedge, and tottering footstep which ended the narrow, slippery path through the cottage garden, and brought them into the lan_gain. "I do not think it will," stopping to look once more at all the outwar_retchedness of the place, and recall the still greater within.
"Oh! dear, no," said her companion.
They walked on. The lane made a slight bend; and when that bend was passed, Mr. Elton was immediately in sight; and so near as to give Emma time only t_ay farther,
"Ah! Harriet, here comes a very sudden trial of our stability in goo_houghts. Well, (smiling,) I hope it may be allowed that if compassion ha_roduced exertion and relief to the sufferers, it has done all that is trul_mportant. If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, th_est is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves."
Harriet could just answer, "Oh! dear, yes," before the gentleman joined them.
The wants and sufferings of the poor family, however, were the first subjec_n meeting. He had been going to call on them. His visit he would now defer; but they had a very interesting parley about what could be done and should b_one. Mr. Elton then turned back to accompany them.
"To fall in with each other on such an errand as this," thought Emma; "to mee_n a charitable scheme; this will bring a great increase of love on each side.
I should not wonder if it were to bring on the declaration. It must, if I wer_ot here. I wish I were anywhere else."
Anxious to separate herself from them as far as she could, she soon afterward_ook possession of a narrow footpath, a little raised on one side of the lane, leaving them together in the main road. But she had not been there two minute_hen she found that Harriet's habits of dependence and imitation were bringin_er up too, and that, in short, they would both be soon after her. This woul_ot do; she immediately stopped, under pretence of having some alteration t_ake in the lacing of her half-boot, and stooping down in complete occupatio_f the footpath, begged them to have the goodness to walk on, and she woul_ollow in half a minute. They did as they were desired; and by the time sh_udged it reasonable to have done with her boot, she had the comfort o_arther delay in her power, being overtaken by a child from the cottage, setting out, according to orders, with her pitcher, to fetch broth fro_artfield. To walk by the side of this child, and talk to and question her, was the most natural thing in the world, or would have been the most natural, had she been acting just then without design; and by this means the other_ere still able to keep ahead, without any obligation of waiting for her. Sh_ained on them, however, involuntarily: the child's pace was quick, and their_ather slow; and she was the more concerned at it, from their being evidentl_n a conversation which interested them. Mr. Elton was speaking wit_nimation, Harriet listening with a very pleased attention; and Emma, havin_ent the child on, was beginning to think how she might draw back a littl_ore, when they both looked around, and she was obliged to join them.
Mr. Elton was still talking, still engaged in some interesting detail; an_mma experienced some disappointment when she found that he was only givin_is fair companion an account of the yesterday's party at his friend Cole's, and that she was come in herself for the Stilton cheese, the north Wiltshire, the butter, the cellery, the beet-root, and all the dessert.
"This would soon have led to something better, of course," was her consolin_eflection; "any thing interests between those who love; and any thing wil_erve as introduction to what is near the heart. If I could but have kep_onger away!"
They now walked on together quietly, till within view of the vicarage pales, when a sudden resolution, of at least getting Harriet into the house, made he_gain find something very much amiss about her boot, and fall behind t_rrange it once more. She then broke the lace off short, and dexterousl_hrowing it into a ditch, was presently obliged to entreat them to stop, an_cknowledged her inability to put herself to rights so as to be able to wal_ome in tolerable comfort.
"Part of my lace is gone," said she, "and I do not know how I am to contrive.
I really am a most troublesome companion to you both, but I hope I am no_ften so ill-equipped. Mr. Elton, I must beg leave to stop at your house, an_sk your housekeeper for a bit of ribband or string, or any thing just to kee_y boot on."
Mr. Elton looked all happiness at this proposition; and nothing could excee_is alertness and attention in conducting them into his house and endeavourin_o make every thing appear to advantage. The room they were taken into was th_ne he chiefly occupied, and looking forwards; behind it was another wit_hich it immediately communicated; the door between them was open, and Emm_assed into it with the housekeeper to receive her assistance in the mos_omfortable manner. She was obliged to leave the door ajar as she found it; but she fully intended that Mr. Elton should close it. It was not closed, however, it still remained ajar; but by engaging the housekeeper in incessan_onversation, she hoped to make it practicable for him to chuse his ow_ubject in the adjoining room. For ten minutes she could hear nothing bu_erself. It could be protracted no longer. She was then obliged to b_inished, and make her appearance.
The lovers were standing together at one of the windows. It had a mos_avourable aspect; and, for half a minute, Emma felt the glory of havin_chemed successfully. But it would not do; he had not come to the point. H_ad been most agreeable, most delightful; he had told Harriet that he had see_hem go by, and had purposely followed them; other little gallantries an_llusions had been dropt, but nothing serious.
"Cautious, very cautious," thought Emma; "he advances inch by inch, and wil_azard nothing till he believes himself secure."
Still, however, though every thing had not been accomplished by her ingeniou_evice, she could not but flatter herself that it had been the occasion o_uch present enjoyment to both, and must be leading them forward to the grea_vent.