Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society in his
own way. He liked very much to have his friends come and see him;
and from various united causes, from his long residence at Hartfield,
and his good nature, from his fortune, his house, and his daughter,
he could command the visits of his own little circle, in a great
measure, as he liked. He had not much intercourse with any families
beyond that circle; his horror of late hours, and large
dinner-parties, made him unfit for any acquaintance but such as
would visit him on his own terms. Fortunately for him, Highbury,
including Randalls in the same parish, and Donwell Abbey in the
parish adjoining, the seat of Mr. Knightley, comprehended many such.
Not unfrequently, through Emma's persuasion, he had some of the
chosen and the best to dine with him: but evening parties were what
he preferred; and, unless he fancied himself at any time unequal to
company, there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma
could not make up a card-table for him.
Real, long-standing regard brought the
Westons and Mr. Knightley; and by Mr. Elton, a young man living
alone without liking it, the privilege of exchanging any vacant
evening of his own blank solitude for the elegancies and society of
Mr. Woodhouse's drawing-room, and the smiles of his lovely daughter,
was in no danger of being thrown away.
After these came a second set; among the
most come-at-able of whom were Mrs. and Miss Bates, and Mrs.
Goddard, three ladies almost always at the service of an invitation
from Hartfield, and who were fetched and carried home so often, that
Mr. Woodhouse thought it no hardship for either James or the horses.
Had it taken place only once a year, it would have been a grievance.
Mrs. Bates, the widow of a former
vicar of Highbury, was a very old lady, almost past every thing but
tea and quadrille. She lived with her
single daughter in a very small way, and was considered with all the
regard and respect which a harmless old lady, under such untoward
circumstances, can excite. Her daughter enjoyed a most uncommon
degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor
married. Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world
for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual
superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who
might hate her into outward respect. She had never boasted either
beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and
her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and
the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet
she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without
good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper
which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in
every body's happiness, quick-sighted to every body's merits;
thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with
blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours
and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and
cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were
a recommendation to every body, and a mine of felicity to herself.
She was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr.
Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip.
Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a
School - not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which
professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal
acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new
systems - and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed
out of health and into vanity - but a real, honest, old-fashioned
Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were
sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out
of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without
any danger of coming back prodigies. Mrs. Goddard's school was in
high repute - and very deservedly; for Highbury was reckoned a
particularly healthy spot: she had an ample house and garden, gave
the children plenty of wholesome food, let them run about a great
deal in the summer, and in winter dressed their chilblains with her
own hands. It was no wonder that a train of twenty young couple now
walked after her to church. She was a plain, motherly kind of woman,
who had worked hard in her youth, and now thought herself entitled
to the occasional holiday of a tea-visit; and having formerly owed
much to Mr. Woodhouse's kindness, felt his particular claim on her
to leave her neat parlour, hung round with fancy-work, whenever she
could, and win or lose a few sixpences by his fireside.
These were the ladies whom Emma found
herself very frequently able to collect; and happy was she, for her
father's sake, in the power; though, as far as she was herself
concerned, it was no remedy for the absence of Mrs. Weston. She was
delighted to see her father look comfortable, and very much pleased
with herself for contriving things so well; but the quiet prosings
of three such women made her feel that every evening so spent was
indeed one of the long evenings she had fearfully anticipated.
As she sat one morning, looking forward
to exactly such a close of the present day, a note was brought from
Mrs. Goddard, requesting, in most respectful terms, to be allowed to
bring Miss Smith with her; a most welcome request: for Miss Smith
was a girl of seventeen, whom Emma knew very well by sight, and had
long felt an interest in, on account of her beauty. A very gracious
invitation was returned, and the evening no longer dreaded by the
fair mistress of the mansion.
Harriet Smith was the natural daughter
of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs.
Goddard's school, and somebody had lately raised her from the
condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder. This was all that
was generally known of her history. She had no visible friends but
what had been acquired at Highbury, and was now just returned from a
long visit in the country to some young ladies who had been at
school there with her.
She was a very pretty girl, and her
beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She
was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light
hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before
the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as
her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
She was not struck by any thing
remarkably clever in Miss Smith's conversation, but she found her
altogether very engaging - not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to
talk - and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a
deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to
Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every
thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she
must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Encouragement
should be given. Those soft blue eyes, and all those natural graces,
should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its
connexions. The acquaintance she had already formed were unworthy of
her. The friends from whom she had just parted, though very good
sort of people, must be doing her harm. They were a family of the
name of Martin, whom Emma well knew by character, as renting a large
farm of Mr. Knightley, and residing in the parish of Donwell - very
creditably, she believed - she knew Mr. Knightley thought highly of
them - but they must be coarse and unpolished, and very unfit to be
the intimates of a girl who wanted only a little more knowledge and
elegance to be quite perfect. She would notice her; she would
improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and
introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her
manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind
undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure,
She was so busy in admiring those soft
blue eyes, in talking and listening, and forming all these schemes
in the in-betweens, that the evening flew away at a very unusual
rate; and the supper-table, which always closed such parties, and
for which she had been used to sit and watch the due time, was all
set out and ready, and moved forwards to the fire, before she was
aware. With an alacrity beyond the common impulse of a spirit
which yet was never indifferent to the credit of doing every thing
well and attentively, with the real good-will of a mind delighted
with its own ideas, did she then do all the honours of the meal, and
help and recommend the minced chicken and scalloped oysters, with an
urgency which she knew would be acceptable to the early hours and
civil scruples of their guests.
Upon such occasions poor Mr. Woodhouses
feelings were in sad warfare. He loved to have the cloth laid,
because it had been the fashion of his youth, but his conviction of
suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see any
thing put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his
visitors to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve
that they would eat.
Such another small basin of thin gruel
as his own was all that he could, with thorough self-approbation,
recommend; though he might constrain himself, while the ladies were
comfortably clearing the nicer things, to say:
'Mrs. Bates, let me propose your
venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not
unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body.
I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else; but you need
not be afraid, they are very small, you see - one of our small eggs
will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of
tart - a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be
afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard.
Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small
half-glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could
disagree with you.'
Emma allowed her father to talk - but
supplied her visitors in a much more satisfactory style, and on the
present evening had particular pleasure in sending them away happy.
The happiness of Miss Smith was quite equal to her intentions. Miss
Woodhouse was so great a personage in Highbury, that the prospect of
the introduction had given as much panic as pleasure; but the
humble, grateful little girl went off with highly gratified
feelings, delighted with the affability with which Miss Woodhouse
had treated her all the evening, and actually shaken hands with her