"When I talked of your being altered by time, by the progress of years," said John Knightley, "I meant to imply the change of situation which time usually brings. I consider one as including the other. Time will generally lessen the interest of every attachment not within the daily circle — but that is not the change I had in view for you. As an old friend, you will allow me to hope, Miss Fairfax, that ten years hence you may have as many concentrated objects as I have."
It was kindly said, and very far from giving offence. A pleasant "thank you" seemed meant to laugh it off, but a blush, a quivering lip, a tear in the eye, shewed that it was felt beyond a laugh. Her attention was now claimed by Mr. Woodhouse, who being, according to his custom on such occasions, making the circle of his guests, and paying his particular compliments to the ladies, was ending with her — and with all his mildest urbanity, said,
"I am very sorry to hear, Miss Fairfax, of your being out this morning in the rain. Young ladies should take care of themselves. — Young ladies are delicate plants. They should take care of their health and their complexion. My dear, did you change your stockings?"
"Yes, sir, I did indeed; and I am very much obliged by your kind solicitude about me."
"My dear Miss Fairfax, young ladies are very sure to be cared for. — I hope your good grand-mama and aunt are well. They are some of my very old friends. I wish my health allowed me to be a better neighbour. You do us a great deal of honour to-day, I am sure. My daughter and I are both highly sensible of your goodness, and have the greatest satisfaction in seeing you at Hartfield."
The kind-hearted, polite old man might then sit down and feel that he had done his duty, and made every fair lady welcome and easy.
By this time, the walk in the rain had reached Mrs. Elton, and her remonstrances now opened upon Jane.
"My dear Jane, what is this I hear? — Going to the post-office in the rain! — This must not be, I assure you. — You sad girl, how could you do such a thing? — It is a sign I was not there to take care of you."
Jane very patiently assured her that she had not caught any cold.
"Oh! do not tell me. You really are a very sad girl, and do not know how to take care of yourself. — To the post-office indeed! Mrs. Weston, did you ever hear the like? You and I must positively exert our authority."
"My advice," said Mrs. Weston kindly and persuasively, "I certainly do feel tempted to give. Miss Fairfax, you must not run such risks. — Liable as you have been to severe colds, indeed you ought to be particularly careful, especially at this time of year. The spring I always think requires more than common care. Better wait an hour or two, or even half a day for your letters, than run the risk of bringing on your cough again. Now do not you feel that you had? Yes, I am sure you are much too reasonable. You look as if you would not do such a thing again."
"Oh! she shall not do such a thing again," eagerly rejoined Mrs. Elton. "We will not allow her to do such a thing again:" — and nodding significantly — "there must be some arrangement made, there must indeed. I shall speak to Mr. E. The man who fetches our letters every morning (one of our men, I forget his name) shall inquire for yours too and bring them to you. That will obviate all difficulties you know; and from us I really think, my dear Jane, you can have no scruple to accept such an accommodation."
"You are extremely kind," said Jane; "but I cannot give up my early walk. I am advised to be out of doors as much as I can, I must walk somewhere, and the post-office is an object; and upon my word, I have scarcely ever had a bad morning before."
"My dear Jane, say no more about it. The thing is determined, that is (laughing affectedly) as far as I can presume to determine any thing without the concurrence of my lord and master. You know, Mrs. Weston, you and I must be cautious how we express ourselves. But I do flatter myself, my dear Jane, that my influence is not entirely worn out. If I meet with no insuperable difficulties therefore, consider that point as settled."
"Excuse me," said Jane earnestly, "I cannot by any means consent to such an arrangement, so needlessly troublesome to your servant. If the errand were not a pleasure to me, it could be done, as it always is when I am not here, by my grandmama's."
"Oh! my dear; but so much as Patty has to do! — And it is a kindness to employ our men."
Jane looked as if she did not mean to be conquered; but instead of answering, she began speaking again to Mr. John Knightley.
"The post-office is a wonderful establishment!" said she. — "The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!"
"It is certainly very well regulated."
"So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong — and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder."
"The clerks grow expert from habit. — They must begin with some quickness of sight and hand, and exercise improves them. If you want any farther explanation," continued he, smiling, "they are paid for it. That is the key to a great deal of capacity. The public pays and must be served well."
The varieties of handwriting were farther talked of, and the usual observations made.
"I have heard it asserted," said John Knightley, "that the same sort of handwriting often prevails in a family; and where the same master teaches, it is natural enough. But for that reason, I should imagine the likeness must be chiefly confined to the females, for boys have very little teaching after an early age, and scramble into any hand they can get. Isabella and Emma, I think, do write very much alike. I have not always known their writing apart."
"Yes," said his brother hesitatingly, "there is a likeness. I know what you mean — but Emma's hand is the strongest."
"Isabella and Emma both write beautifully," said Mr. Woodhouse; "and always did. And so does poor Mrs. Weston" — with half a sigh and half a smile at her.
"I never saw any gentleman's handwriting" — Emma began, looking also at Mrs. Weston; but stopped, on perceiving that Mrs. Weston was attending to some one else — and the pause gave her time to reflect, "Now, how am I going to introduce him? — Am I unequal to speaking his name at once before all these people? Is it necessary for me to use any roundabout phrase? — Your Yorkshire friend — your correspondent in Yorkshire; — that would be the way, I suppose, if I were very bad. — No, I can pronounce his name without the smallest distress. I certainly get better and better. — Now for it."
Mrs. Weston was disengaged and Emma began again — "Mr. Frank Churchill writes one of the best gentleman's hands I ever saw."
"I do not admire it," said Mr. Knightley. "It is too small — wants strength. It is like a woman's writing."
This was not submitted to by either lady. They vindicated him against the base aspersion. "No, it by no means wanted strength — it was not a large hand, but very clear and certainly strong. Had not Mrs. Weston any letter about her to produce?" No, she had heard from him very lately, but having answered the letter, had put it away.
"If we were in the other room," said Emma, "if I had my writing-desk, I am sure I could produce a specimen. I have a note of his. — Do not you remember, Mrs. Weston, employing him to write for you one day?"
"He chose to say he was employed" —
"Well, well, I have that note; and can shew it after dinner to convince Mr. Knightley."
"Oh! when a gallant young man, like Mr. Frank Churchill," said Mr. Knightley dryly, "writes to a fair lady like Miss Woodhouse, he will, of course, put forth his best."
Dinner was on table. — Mrs. Elton, before she could be spoken to, was ready; and before Mr. Woodhouse had reached her with his request to be allowed to hand her into the dining-parlour, was saying —
"Must I go first? I really am ashamed of always leading the way."
Jane's solicitude about fetching her own letters had not escaped Emma. She had heard and seen it all; and felt some curiosity to know whether the wet walk of this morning had produced any. She suspected that it had; that it would not have been so resolutely encountered but in full expectation of hearing from some one very dear, and that it had not been in vain. She thought there was an air of greater happiness than usual — a glow both of complexion and spirits.
She could have made an inquiry or two, as to the expedition and the expense of the Irish mails; — it was at her tongue's end — but she abstained. She was quite determined not to utter a word that should hurt Jane Fairfax's feelings; and they followed the other ladies out of the room, arm in arm, with an appearance of good-will highly becoming to the beauty and grace of each.