The Ball at the Crown Inn
Everybody in Highbury wanted to entertain Mr and Mrs Elton. Dinner parties and evening parties were arranged for them and they had so many invitations that they rarely spent an evening at home.
Emma knew they must have a dinner at Hartfield for them or, people might guess that she did not like Mrs Elton. It was easy to decide who to invite — the Westons and Mr Knightley, of course, but there must be an eighth person. This ought to be Harriet, but Emma was not surprised when she said she could not come and she understood exactly why. Poor Harriet did not yet feel comfortable with the Eltons.
So Emma was able to ask Jane Fairfax to be the eighth person at the dinner. She was glad she could do this because Mr Knightley’s words had worried her. He had said that Jane spent time with Mrs Elton only because no other person asked her.
‘This is very true,’ thought Emma. ‘And I am certainly guilty of it. I ought to have been a better friend and I will try harder now.’
Everyone replied to her invitations and said they could come, and there was one other surprise guest. Isabella’s two eldest boys were coming to stay at Hartfield and Mr John Knightley was bringing them on the day of the dinner party. So Emma had one extra guest until she lost another. Mr Weston had to go to London on business and could not be there for the dinner but he hoped to join them later in the evening.
On the day of the party everyone arrived on time. Mr John Knightley and his sons had met Miss Fairfax that morning as they were walking home from Highbury, when it had just started raining.
‘I hope you did not get too wet this morning,’ he asked Miss Fairfax as they stood together in the drawing room.
‘I only went to the Post Office,’ she replied. ‘I go every morning to fetch the letters.’
‘When you have lived to my age you will know that no letter is important enough to get wet for!’ he said.
Mrs Elton had been listening to the conversation. ‘What is this I hear? Going to the Post Office in the rain! You must not do it again,’ she said loudly, ‘I will not let you. I shall speak to Mr E and he will ask the man who fetches our letters to deliver yours too.’
Jane looked embarrassed. ‘You are very kind, but I enjoy the walk,’ she said, but Mrs Elton would not listen.
‘My dear girl, say no more about it. It is already arranged,’ she said.
‘I really cannot agree to it. There is no need to make more work for your servant,’ replied Jane.
Emma heard all this and wondered who might be writing to Jane, but she said nothing.
Dinner was ready. Emma took Jane’s arm and they walked into the dining room together as if they were the best of friends.
Later, soon after the gentlemen had joined the ladies in the drawing room, Mr Weston arrived. He had only just come home from London and then walked to Hartfield.
After he had spoken to all the guests he gave his wife a letter which had been waiting at Randalls when he arrived there.
‘It’s from Frank,’ he said, mostly to Mrs Weston, although everyone in the room was listening, ‘and he’s coming here next month! The Churchills are going to stay in Richmond for a few months — only nine miles from here! So he can be with us very often. He says we must start planning the ball again!’
Mrs Weston was very pleased and Emma was a little surprised to feel so excited by the news. Her guests said they were looking forward to seeing Frank again. Mrs Elton had never met him but she still had something to say.
‘How delightful for him to come back to Highbury now there is a new neighbour to meet,’ she said.
Emma thought about Frank after the party and hoped that he might perhaps come back to Highbury less in love with her than before. She knew she must look carefully to see if this was true, then she could decide how to behave. She did not have to wait long.
As soon as the Churchills arrived in Richmond, Frank rode to Highbury for the day. He was certainly very pleased to see Emma, but she was sure he loved her less. He was as happy to talk and laugh as always, but after only fifteen minutes at Hartfield he hurried away to see other friends in Highbury.
This was his only visit for ten days, although he wrote to Mrs Weston and said they must now decide on a date for the ball and he would certainly be there.
The day of the ball came. Emma and Harriet travelled together to the Crown Inn and arrived just after the group from Randalls. Frank was obviously happy to be with Emma again but he spent a lot of time walking to the door and back and listening for the sound of other carriages.
Soon some friends of Mr Weston’s arrived, then Mr and Mrs Elton. Somebody said it was raining and Frank immediately went to look for umbrellas.
‘We must not forget Miss Bates,’ he said. ‘I will see that she does not get wet,’ and he went to the door and waited there. He soon came back with Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax.
‘So very kind,’ said Miss Bates. ‘Not enough rain to worry about, but we must think of Jane, of course … well!’ she stopped as she saw into the ballroom. ‘Well! This is certainly brilliant!