Twelve months had passed since the day Mr Knightley led his bride down the aisle of Highbury church. To the eye of a casual observer little had changed in the village of Highbury. Mr Woodhouse still worried about everyone’s health. Miss Bates was still an inveterate talker and white soup continued to be the favourite food at every ball.
Yet the more discerning observer would note some changes. Mrs Elton’s references to her caro sposo and the magnificence of Maple Grove were less frequent. Mr Elton, still only a country vicar, went about his duties with a mien less sanguine than before. Donwell Abbey was now inhabited by a retired businessman from London and his wife, who rented the house from Mr Knightley now that he had moved to Hartfield.
It was Harriet who, between the breast of chicken with creamed parsnips and the apple tart, remarked on the arrival of a small group of gypsies, who had settled in a make-shift camp in the woods between Highbury and Box Hill.
‘So romantic,’ she gushed. ‘Those women in their colourful skirts and the men so swarthy. Especially the men are very musical, I have heard.’
Mr Weston raised his eyebrows. ‘I am surprised that you of all people should say this, after the incident with gypsies you and your friend once had.’
Harriet blushed, ‘Miss Bickerton and I were rather silly then, and misconstrued their intentions, I am sure. Recently I read the novel Guy Mannering, and the author’s description of the loyal gypsy woman Megg Merriless has put me in a different frame of mind about gypsies altogether.’
With a frown Mr Weston said, ‘I do not read novels. What I have heard, is that these Egyptians are a thieving lot.’ His host replied ‘I fear you are a bit too harsh here, Weston. Many a farmer is glad to have their labour when it comes to harvest.’ Mr Weston conceded to this view, which ended the discussion.
At Abbey-Hill Farm, a few days later, a woman in the gaudy garb associated with gypsies walked up to the front door and asked to see the mistress. Harriet was too curious to refuse the request, and invited her mother-in-law to join her. The gypsy woman showed the pair a selection of silk ribbons, of which the lavenderblue was the exact match of Harriet’s second-best gown, and inexpensive into the bargain. The purchase having been made, the woman’s eyes met Harriet’s for the first time. The gypsy woman, who had struck Harriet as being much paler of skin than the avarage gypsy, blanched. Without a word she scrambled out of the room, leaving the Mrs Martins bewildered at her unceremonious departure.
That same morning, Mr and Mrs Knightley were riding home after a visit to one of their tenants in the parish of Donwell, when Mrs Knightley discerned the bent-over figure of a woman dressed in a multicoloured skirt and shawl sitting by the roadside. Even from a distance she could see that the woman was shaking uncontrollably.
Mr Knightley having reined in the horse at her request, Emma alighted from the chaise and approached the woman.
‘Are you hurt?’ she asked solicitously. The woman shook her head, still trembling.
‘Has something happened to upset you?’
After some moments the gypsy woman, somewhat regaining her compsure, nodded.
‘I have just seen the daughter I gave up when she was an infant.’ The look of surprise and horror on Emma’s face made her wince. ‘I know what you must think of me, Madam. What mother gives up her child? I am deeply ashamed of what I did, but at the time it seemed the only solution.’ The woman was silent for a moment.
‘At the time I was servant to a wealthy tradesman. The eldest son of the family abused my innocence and I ended up having his baby. My employer, hearing about my mishap, sent me away. Without a roof over my head and without any money to speak of, what could I do but leave my baby daughter at the workhouse? I felt that on my own I had a better chance of employment, so that I could claim her back later on. As a token I put a chain with one half of a silver amulet round her neck and kept the other half myself. Look, here it is. The other half I saw just now round the neck of the fair young lady at the big farm over there.’
Emma looked at the ornament. It was the exact counterpart of the silver pendant that Harriet always wore.
‘So now I know at last that my darling daughter is well. A proper lady she has turend into, but still as sweet-natured as she was as an infant.’
‘But what happened to you?’ Emma enquired.
‘One day, looking for employment, I came across a group of gypsies, who took pity on me. I have been travelling with them ever since. Not a day passed without me thinking of the baby I abandoned. But from now on I can be at peace, having seen her and knowing she is happy.’
Emma got into the chaise again, musing. Mr Knightley cast a stern look at her and said ‘My dearest Emma, not a word of this to anybody.’ She smiled and nodded her consent.
(c) Janneke Budding