After being long fed with hopes of a speedy visit from Mr. and Mrs. Suckling, the Highbury world were obliged to endure the mortification of hearing that they could not possibly come till the autumn. No such importation of novelties could enrich their intellectual stores at present. In the daily interchange of news, they must be again restricted to the other topics with which for a while the Sucklings' coming had been united, such as the last accounts of Mrs. Churchill, whose health seemed every day to supply a different report, and the situation of Mrs. Weston, whose happiness it was to be hoped might eventually be as much increased by the arrival of a child, as that of all her neighbours was by the approach of it.
Mrs. Elton was very much disappointed. It was the delay of a great deal of pleasure and parade. Her introductions and recommendations must all wait, and every projected party be still only talked of. So she thought at first; — but a little consideration convinced her that every thing need not be put off. Why should not they explore to Box Hill though the Sucklings did not come? They could go there again with them in the autumn. It was settled that they should go to Box Hill. That there was to be such a party had been long generally known: it had even given the idea of another. Emma had never been to Box Hill; she wished to see what every body found so well worth seeing, and she and Mr. Weston had agreed to chuse some fine morning and drive thither. Two or three more of the chosen only were to be admitted to join them, and it was to be done in a quiet, unpretending, elegant way, infinitely superior to the bustle and preparation, the regular eating and drinking, and picnic parade of the Eltons and the Sucklings.
This was so very well understood between them, that Emma could not but feel some surprise, and a little displeasure, on hearing from Mr. Weston that he had been proposing to Mrs. Elton, as her brother and sister had failed her, that the two parties should unite, and go together; and that as Mrs. Elton had very readily acceded to it, so it was to be, if she had no objection. Now, as her objection was nothing but her very great dislike of Mrs. Elton, of which Mr. Weston must already be perfectly aware, it was not worth bringing forward again: — it could not be done without a reproof to him, which would be giving pain to his wife; and she found herself therefore obliged to consent to an arrangement which she would have done a great deal to avoid; an arrangement which would probably expose her even to the degradation of being said to be of Mrs. Elton's party! Every feeling was offended; and the forbearance of her outward submission left a heavy arrear due of secret severity in her reflections on the unmanageable goodwill of Mr. Weston's temper.
"I am glad you approve of what I have done," said he very comfortably. "But I thought you would. Such schemes as these are nothing without numbers. One cannot have too large a party. A large party secures its own amusement. And she is a good-natured woman after all. One could not leave her out."
Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private.
It was now the middle of June, and the weather fine; and Mrs. Elton was growing impatient to name the day, and settle with Mr. Weston as to pigeon-pies and cold lamb, when a lame carriage-horse threw every thing into sad uncertainty. It might be weeks, it might be only a few days, before the horse were useable; but no preparations could be ventured on, and it was all melancholy stagnation. Mrs. Elton's resources were inadequate to such an attack.
"Is not this most vexations, Knightley?" she cried. — "And such weather for exploring! — These delays and disappointments are quite odious. What are we to do? — The year will wear away at this rate, and nothing done. Before this time last year I assure you we had had a delightful exploring party from Maple Grove to Kings Weston."
"You had better explore to Donwell," replied Mr. Knightley. "That may be done without horses. Come, and eat my strawberries. They are ripening fast."
If Mr. Knightley did not begin seriously, he was obliged to proceed so, for his proposal was caught at with delight; and the "Oh! I should like it of all things," was not plainer in words than manner. Donwell was famous for its strawberry-beds, which seemed a plea for the invitation: but no plea was necessary; cabbage-beds would have been enough to tempt the lady, who only wanted to be going somewhere. She promised him again and again to come — much oftener than he doubted — and was extremely gratified by such a proof of intimacy, such a distinguishing compliment as she chose to consider it.
"You may depend upon me," said she. "I certainly will come. Name your day, and I will come. You will allow me to bring Jane Fairfax?"
"I cannot name a day," said he, "till I have spoken to some others whom I would wish to meet you."
"Oh! leave all that to me. Only give me a carte-blanche. — I am Lady Patroness, you know. It is my party. I will bring friends with me."
"I hope you will bring Elton," said he: "but I will not trouble you to give any other invitations."
"Oh! now you are looking very sly. But consider — you need not be afraid of delegating power to me. I am no young lady on her preferment. Married women, you know, may be safely authorised. It is my party. Leave it all to me. I will invite your guests."
"No," — he calmly replied, — "there is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell, and that one is — "
" — Mrs. Weston, I suppose," interrupted Mrs. Elton, rather mortified.
"No — Mrs. Knightley; — and till she is in being, I will manage such matters myself."
"Ah! you are an odd creature!" she cried, satisfied to have no one preferred to herself. — "You are a humourist, and may say what you like. Quite a humourist. Well, I shall bring Jane with me — Jane and her aunt. — The rest I leave to you. I have no objections at all to meeting the Hartfield family. Don't scruple. I know you are attached to them."
"You certainly will meet them if I can prevail; and I shall call on Miss Bates in my way home."
"That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day: — but as you like. It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here, — probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade — a sort of gipsy party. We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees; — and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors — a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?"
"Not quite. My idea of the simple and the natural will be to have the table spread in the dining-room. The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors. When you are tired of eating strawberries in the garden, there shall be cold meat in the house."
"Well — as you please; only don't have a great set out. And, by the bye, can I or my housekeeper be of any use to you with our opinion? — Pray be sincere, Knightley. If you wish me to talk to Mrs. Hodges, or to inspect anything — "
"I have not the least wish for it, I thank you."
"Well — but if any difficulties should arise, my housekeeper is extremely clever."
"I will answer for it, that mine thinks herself full as clever, and would spurn any body's assistance."
"I wish we had a donkey. The thing would be for us all to come on donkeys, Jane, Miss Bates, and me — and my caro sposo walking by. I really must talk to him about purchasing a donkey. In a country life I conceive it to be a sort of necessary; for, let a woman have ever so many resources, it is not possible for her to be always shut up at home; — and very long walks, you know — in summer there is dust, and in winter there is dirt."