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Part 2 Chapter 16

Every body in and about Highbury who had ever visited Mr. Elton, was disposed to pay him attention on his marriage. Dinner-parties and evening-parties were made for him and his lady; and invitations flowed in so fast that she had soon the pleasure of apprehending they were never to have a disengaged day.

`I see how it is,' said she. `I see what a life I am to lead among you. Upon my word we shall be absolutely dissipated. We really seem quite the fashion. If this is living in the country, it is nothing very formidable. From Monday next to Saturday, I assure you we have not a disengaged day! - A woman with fewer resources than I have, need not have been at a loss.'

No invitation came amiss to her. Her Bath habits made evening-parties perfectly natural to her, and Maple Grove had given her a taste for dinners. She was a little shocked at the want of two drawing rooms, at the poor attempt at rout-cakes, and there being no ice in the Highbury card-parties. Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Perry, Mrs. Goddard and others, were a good deal behind-hand in knowledge of the world, but she would soon shew them how every thing ought to be arranged. In the course of the spring she must return their civilities by one very superior party - in which her card-tables should be set out with their separate candles and unbroken packs in the true style - and more waiters engaged for the evening than their own establishment could furnish, to carry round the refreshments at exactly the proper hour, and in the proper order.

Emma, in the meanwhile, could not be satisfied without a dinner at Hartfield for the Eltons. They must not do less than others, or she should be exposed to odious suspicions, and imagined capable of pitiful resentment. A dinner there must be. After Emma had talked about it for ten minutes, Mr. Woodhouse felt no unwillingness, and only made the usual stipulation of not sitting at the bottom of the table himself, with the usual regular difficulty of deciding who should do it for him.

The persons to be invited, required little thought. Besides the Eltons, it must be the Westons and Mr. Knightley; so far it was all of course - and it was hardly less inevitable that poor little Harriet must be asked to make the eighth: - but this invitation was not given with equal satisfaction, and on many accounts Emma was particularly pleased by Harriet's begging to be allowed to decline it. `She would rather not be in his company more than she could help. She was not yet quite able to see him and his charming happy wife together, without feeling uncomfortable. If Miss Woodhouse would not be displeased, she would rather stay at home.' It was precisely what Emma would have wished, had she deemed it possible enough for wishing. She was delighted with the fortitude of her little friend - for fortitude she knew it was in her to give up being in company and stay at home; and she could now invite the very person whom she really wanted to make the eighth, Jane Fairfax. - Since her last conversation with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, she was more conscience-stricken about Jane Fairfax than she had often been. - Mr. Knightley's words dwelt with her. He had said that Jane Fairfax received attentions from Mrs. Elton which nobody else paid her.

`This is very true,' said she, `at least as far as relates to me, which was all that was meant - and it is very shameful. - Of the same age - and always knowing her - I ought to have been more her friend. - She will never like me now. I have neglected her too long. But I will shew her greater attention than I have done.'

Every invitation was successful. They were all disengaged and all happy. - The preparatory interest of this dinner, however, was not yet over. A circumstance rather unlucky occurred. The two eldest little Knightleys were engaged to pay their grandpapa and aunt a visit of some weeks in the spring, and their papa now proposed bringing them, and staying one whole day at Hartfield - which one day would be the very day of this party. - His professional engagements did not allow of his being put off, but both father and daughter were disturbed by its happening so. Mr. Woodhouse considered eight persons at dinner together as the utmost that his nerves could bear - and here would be a ninth - and Emma apprehended that it would be a ninth very much out of humour at not being able to come even to Hartfield for forty-eight hours without falling in with a dinner-party.

She comforted her father better than she could comfort herself, by representing that though he certainly would make them nine, yet he always said so little, that the increase of noise would be very immaterial. She thought it in reality a sad exchange for herself, to have him with his grave looks and reluctant conversation opposed to her instead of his brother.

The event was more favourable to Mr. Woodhouse than to Emma. John Knightley came; but Mr. Weston was unexpectedly summoned to town and must be absent on the very day. He might be able to join them in the evening, but certainly not to dinner. Mr. Woodhouse was quite at ease; and the seeing him so, with the arrival of the little boys and the philosophic composure of her brother on hearing his fate, removed the chief of even Emma's vexation.

The day came, the party were punctually assembled, and Mr. John Knightley seemed early to devote himself to the business of being agreeable. Instead of drawing his brother off to a window while they waited for dinner, he was talking to Miss Fairfax. Mrs. Elton, as elegant as lace and pearls could make her, he looked at in silence - wanting only to observe enough for Isabella's information - but Miss Fairfax was an old acquaintance and a quiet girl, and he could talk to her. He had met her before breakfast as he was returning from a walk with his little boys, when it had been just beginning to rain. It was natural to have some civil hopes on the subject, and he said,

`I hope you did not venture far, Miss Fairfax, this morning, or I am sure you must have been wet. - We scarcely got home in time. I hope you turned directly.'

`I went only to the post-office,' said she, `and reached home before the rain was much. It is my daily errand. I always fetch the letters when I am here. It saves trouble, and is a something to get me out. A walk before breakfast does me good.'

`Not a walk in the rain, I should imagine.'

`No, but it did not absolutely rain when I set out.'

Mr. John Knightley smiled, and replied,

`That is to say, you chose to have your walk, for you were not six yards from your own door when I had the pleasure of meeting you; and Henry and John had seen more drops than they could count long before. The post-office has a great charm at one period of our lives. When you have lived to my age, you will begin to think letters are never worth going through the rain for.'

There was a little blush, and then this answer,

`I must not hope to be ever situated as you are, in the midst of every dearest connexion, and therefore I cannot expect that simply growing older should make me indifferent about letters.'

`Indifferent! Oh! no - I never conceived you could become indifferent. Letters are no matter of indifference; they are generally a very positive curse.'

`You are speaking of letters of business; mine are letters of friendship.'

`I have often thought them the worst of the two,' replied he coolly. `Business, you know, may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does.'

`Ah! you are not serious now. I know Mr. John Knightley too well - I am very sure he understands the value of friendship as well as any body. I can easily believe that letters are very little to you, much less than to me, but it is not your being ten years older than myself which makes the difference, it is not age, but situation. You have every body dearest to you always at hand, I, probably, never shall again; and therefore till I have outlived all my affections, a post-office, I think, must always have power to draw me out, in worse weather than to-day.'

`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.

 

海伯里及其附近一带,凡是跟埃尔顿先生有过交往的人,个个都想为他的婚事表示庆贺,为他们夫妻俩举行宴会和晚会,请帖接二连三地送来,埃尔顿太太欣喜之余又有些担心,怕天天都少不了要出去应酬。

“我知道是怎么回事了,”她说。“我知道跟你们在一起要过一种什么样的生活。我敢说,完全是花天酒地的日子。我们真像是成了社会名流了。如果乡下的生活就是这样,那倒也没有什么可怕的。我敢说,从下个星期一到星期六,我们哪一天也空不出来!即使不像我这么有钱的女人,也用不着犯愁。”

凡是有请,她没有不接受的。她在巴思养成了习惯,觉得参加晚会是自然而然的事,而在枫园住过以后,也很喜欢出席宴会。见海伯里的人家没有两间客厅,做的宴饼又可怜巴巴的很不像样,打牌时也没有冰淇淋招待,她不禁有点吃惊。贝茨太太、佩里太太、戈达德太太等人实在太落后,一点不了解外面的世面,可是她马上就会教给她们怎样来安排好一切。到了春天,她要答谢众人的好意,举行一次盛大的宴会——每张牌桌都点上蜡烛,摆上没拆封的新牌——除了原有的仆人以外,还要临时多雇几个人来伺候,在适当的时候,按适当的次序给大家上茶点。

这时候,爱玛也觉得非要在哈特菲尔德为埃尔顿夫妇举行一次宴会不可。他们可不能落在别人后面,否则就会遭到可恶的猜疑,让人觉得你会可鄙地记恨于人。一定得搞一次宴请。爱玛谈了十分钟之后,伍德豪斯先生就觉得没什么不愿意了,只是又像往常一样,提出自己不坐末席,也像往常一样,拿不准由谁代他坐末席。

要请哪些人毋须多费脑筋。除了埃尔顿夫妇以外,还得请上韦斯顿夫妇和奈特利先生。这都是理所当然的——还有一个少不了的是可怜的小哈丽特,一定要请上她凑足八个人。不过,请她时可没表现得那么心甘情愿,等哈丽特恳求别让她去的时候,爱玛出于种种考虑,反倒感到特别高兴。“如果不是万不得已,我宁可不跟他在一起。我看到他和他那可爱、快活的妻子在一起,心里不是滋味。如果伍德豪斯小姐不见怪的话,我宁可待在家里。”如果爱玛觉得有什么正中心意的事,这话就正中她的心意。眼见她的小朋友表现得如此刚毅,她心里感到非常高兴——她知道,哈丽特不愿出去做客,而宁可待在家里,这正是刚毅的表现。现在,她可以邀请她真正想请来凑齐八个人的那个人了,那就是简·费尔法克斯。自从上次跟韦斯顿太太和奈特利先生谈话以来,她比以往任何时候都更觉得对不起简·费尔法克斯。奈特利先生的话总是萦绕在她的心头。他说简·费尔法克斯得不到别人的关心,只好接受埃尔顿太太的关心。

“一点不错,”她心想,“至少对我来说是这么回事,而他指的也正是我——真不像话。我跟她同年——一向都很了解她——本该待她更好一些。她再也不会喜欢我了。我对她冷落得太久了。不过,我以后要比过去多关心她。”

每一份请帖都取得了预期的效果,被请的人全都没有约会,个个都很高兴。然而,就在这次宴会准备工作方兴未艾的时候,却出了一件不凑巧的事。本来早就说定,奈特利家的两个大孩子春天要来陪外公和姨妈住上几个星期,不想他们的爸爸这就提出要送他们来,在哈特菲尔德住上一天——而这一天偏偏就是举行宴会的那一天。他业务上的事情不容他往后推迟,那父女俩见事情这么不巧,心里很是不安。伍德豪斯先生认为,餐桌上顶多只能坐八个人,否则他的神经就受不了——而现在却冒出一个第九人来——爱玛担心,这第九个人来哈特菲尔德,甚至待不上两天就要遇上一次宴会,叫谁心里都不会高兴。

爱玛尽管难以安慰自己,安慰父亲却有办法多了。她说虽然约翰·奈特利一来就把人数增加到九个,但他总是少言寡语,不会增添多少噪音。她认为,他总板着个脸,又很少说话,让他坐她对面,而不是让他哥哥坐在她对面,这对她真是件倒霉的事。

这件事爱玛觉得倒霉,伍德豪斯先生却觉得是件好事。约翰·奈特利来了,可韦斯顿先生却出乎意料地给叫到了城里,那天就来不了了。他也许晚上能来,但肯定不能来吃饭。伍德豪斯先生松了一口气。爱玛见父亲放宽了心,加上两个小外甥也到了,姐夫听说自己赶得这么巧时又显得那么沉静,她心里的不快也就大致消逝了。

这一天来到了,客人也都准时到齐了。约翰·奈特利先生似乎从一开始就摆出一副和蔼可亲的样子。等吃饭的时候,他没把他哥哥拉到窗口,而是在跟费尔法克斯小姐说话。韦斯顿太太穿着镶花边的衣服,戴着珠宝,打扮得非常漂亮,约翰默默地瞅着她——只想好好地看几眼,回去可以讲给伊莎贝拉听——不过费尔法克斯小姐是个老相识,又是个文静姑娘,可以跟她谈一谈。吃早饭前他带着两个儿子出去散步,回来时遇见过她,恰好天下起了雨。他自然要来几句表示关心的客气话,于是便说:

“我想你今天早上没走远吧,费尔法克斯小姐,不然你一定让雨淋湿了。我们差一点没来得及赶回家。我想你马上就转回去了吧?”

“我只去了邮局,”费尔法克斯小姐说,“雨没下大就回到了家。我每天都要跑一趟。我来到这儿,总是由我去取信。这省掉了麻烦,还可以趁机出去走走。吃早饭前散散步对我有好处。”

“我想在雨里散步可没什么好处吧。”

“那当然,可我出门时根本没下雨。”

约翰·奈特利先生微微一笑,答道:

“这么说,你是想出去走走的,因为我有幸遇见你时,你离开家门还不到六码远。亨利和约翰早就看见雨点了,一会儿雨点就多得让他们数不清了。在人们的一生中,邮局一度是有很大魅力的。等你到了我这个年纪,你就会觉得根本不值得冒雨去取信。”

简脸上微微一红,然后答道:

“我可不敢指望有你这样的条件,亲人都在身边,因此以后上了年纪,也不敢对信漠不关心。”

“漠不关心!哦!不——我从没承想你会漠不关心。信不是关心不关心的事,一般说来,是招惹麻烦的事。”

“你说的是业务上的信,我说的是表示友情的信。”

“我时常觉得表示友情的信更没有意义,”约翰·奈特利先生冷冷地回道。“你知道,业务上的事还能赚到钱,而友情上的事却赚不到什么钱。”

“啊!你这是在开玩笑。我太了解约翰·奈特利先生了——我敢说,他最懂得友情的价值。信对你来说无足轻重,不像我看得那么重,这我不难相信。不过,所以有这个不同,并不是因为你比我大十岁。不是年龄问题,而是环境不一样。你的亲人总在你身边,而我可能永远不会再有这一天了。因此,除非我活到丝毫感情都没有了,否则即使遇上比今天还要坏的天气,我想我也总要往邮局里跑的。”

“我刚才说你会随着时间推移、年龄的增长而慢慢起变化,”约翰·奈特利说,“这就是说,时间往往会带来处境的变化。我认为一个因素中包含着另一个因素。一般说来,如果不是天天见面,人与人之问的感情就会淡漠下去——不过,我所说的你的变化,不是指这个方面。作为一个老朋友,费尔法克斯小姐,你总会允许我抱有这样的希望:十年以后,你也会像我一样,身边有那么多亲友。”

这话说得很亲切,丝毫没有冒犯的意思。简高兴地说了声“谢谢”,似乎想要一笑置之,但是她脸红了,嘴唇在颤抖,眼里噙着泪水,表明她心里是笑不起来的。这当口,她的注意力让伍德豪斯先生吸引去了。伍德豪斯先生按照他在这种场合的惯例,正在逐个地招呼客人,对女士们尤为客气,最后轮到了简,只见他彬彬有礼地说:

“费尔法克斯小姐,听说你今天早上出去淋了雨,我感到很不安。年轻小姐应该注意保重身体。年轻小姐都是些嫩苗,要保护自己的身体和皮肤。亲爱的,你换了袜子没有?”

“换了,先生,真的换了。非常感谢你对我的亲切关怀。”

“亲爱的费尔法克斯小姐,年轻小姐肯定会受到关怀的。我希望你那好外婆、好姨妈身体都好。她们都是我的老朋友了。我要是身体好一些,就会做一个更好的邻居。我敢说,你今天给我们大增光彩。我女儿和我深知你的好意,能在哈特菲尔德接待你,感到万分荣幸。”

这位心地善良、礼仪周全的老先生这下可以坐下了,心想自己已经尽到了责任,使每位漂亮的女宾都觉得自己受到了欢迎,心里不由得十分欢畅。

这时,简冒雨出去的事传到了埃尔顿太太的耳朵里,于是她对简劝戒开了。

“亲爱的简,我听到的是怎么回事呀?冒雨去邮局啦!跟你说,这可不行啊。你这个傻姑娘,怎么能做这样的事呢?这说明我不在,就照顾不了你。”

简很有耐心地对她说,她没有着凉。

“哼!我才不信呢。你真是个傻姑娘,都不会自己照顾自己。居然往邮局里跑!韦斯顿太太,你听说过这样的事吗?你我真得好好管管她。”

“我还真想劝说几句呢,”韦斯顿太太以亲切、规劝的口气说道。“费尔法克斯小姐,你可不能冒这样的险啊。你动不动就患重感冒,真要特别小心啊,尤其是在这个季节。我总觉得,春天需要特别小心。宁可晚一两个钟头,甚至晚半天再去取信,也不要冒险再招来咳嗽。难道你不这样觉得吗?是啊,我敢肯定你是很有理智的。看来,你是不会再做这样的事了。”

“哦!她决不会再做这样的事了,”埃尔顿太太急忙说道。“我们也不会让她再做这样的事了。”她说着意味深长地点了点头。“一定要想个办法,非这样不可。我要跟埃先生说一说。每天上午我们家的信都由一个仆人去取(那是我们家的一个仆人,我忘了他的名字),叫他顺便也问问你的信,给你捎回来。你知道,这会省掉好多麻烦。亲爱的简,我真认为你用不着顾虑,就接受我们提供的这一方便吧。”

“你真太好了,”简说。“可我不能放弃早晨的散步啊。医生嘱咐我尽可能多到户外走走,我总得去个什么地方,邮局就成了目的地。说真的,我以前还没遇见哪个早上天气这么糟呢。”

“亲爱的简,别再说了。这件事已经决定了,”埃尔顿太人装模作样地笑起来,“就是说,有的事我可以自己决定,而不必征求我那位当家人同意。你知道,韦斯顿太太,你我发表意见的时候也得小心一点不过,亲爱的简,我可以自鸣得意地说一句:我的话多多少少还是起作用的。因此,只要不是遇到无法克服的困难,那就可以认为这件事说定了。”

“对不起,”简恳切地说,“我说什么也不会同意这个办法,平白无故地麻烦你们的仆人。如果我不愿意去取信的话,那就叫我外婆的仆人去取,我不在这里的时候,都是这么办的。”

“哦!亲爱的,帕蒂要做的事太多啦!叫我们的仆人干点事,也是给我们的面子呀。”

简看上去并不打算退让,但她没有回答,而是又跟约翰·奈特利先生说起话来。

“邮局真是个了不起的机构啊!”她说。“办事又准确又迅速!你只要想想有那么多邮件要处理,而且处理得那么好,真让人吃惊啊!”

“的确是很有条理。”

“很少出现什么疏忽或差错!全国各地来来往往的信件成千上万,很少有什么信给投错地方——而真正遗失的,我想一百万封里也找不出一封!再想想各人的笔迹千差万别,有的还写得那么蹩脚,都要一封封地辨认,那就越发令人惊叹!”

“邮局里的人做惯了也就成了行家。他们一开始就得眼明手快,后来经过不断练习,便越发眼明手快了。如果你需要进一步解释的话,”约翰·奈特利笑了笑,继续说道,“他们干活是拿钱的。这是他们本领大的关键所在。大家出了钱,他们就得好好服务。”

他们又谈起了千差万别的笔迹,发表了一些平常的看法。

“我听人说,”约翰·奈特利说,“一家人的笔迹往往相类似;而由同一个老师教出来的,笔迹自然是相类似的。要不是这个原因,我倒认为这种相似主要局限于女性,因为男孩除了小时候学点书法以外,以后就很少接受训练,胡画乱写地形成了自己的笔迹。我看伊莎贝拉和爱玛的笔迹就很相似,我总是分辨不出来。”

“是的,”他哥哥有些迟疑地说,“是有些相似。我明白你的意思——可是爱玛的笔迹比较刚劲有力。”

“伊莎贝拉和爱玛的笔迹都很秀丽,”伍德豪斯先生说,“一向都很秀丽。可怜的韦斯顿太太也是如此——”说着,冲韦斯顿太太半是叹息,半是微笑。

“我从没看到哪位先生的笔迹比——”爱玛开口说道,也看看韦斯顿太太。可是一见韦斯顿太太在听别人说话,便把话打住了——而这一停顿,倒给了她思索的机会:“现在我该怎样来提起他呢?我不宜当着这些人的面一下子就说出他的名字吧?我是不是要用个拐弯抹角的说法?你在约克郡的那位朋友——约克郡跟你通信的那个人。我想,如果我心里有鬼的话,那就只能这么说。不行,我可以心安理得地把他的名字说出来。我的心情的确是越来越好了,说就说吧。”

韦斯顿太太不在听别人说话了,爱玛便又开口说道:“我所见过的男士当中,就数弗兰克·邱吉尔先生的字写得最好。”

“我可不欣赏他的字,”奈特利先生说。“太小了——没有力量,就像是女人写的。”

两位女士都不同意他那话,认为那是对弗兰克的卑劣诽谤。“不,决不是没有力量——字是写得不大,但却很清楚,而且的确很有力。韦斯顿太太身上没带信让大家看看吗?”韦斯顿太太还真没带,她最近刚收到一封信,可是已经回过了,把信收起来了。

“假如我们是在另一间屋里,”爱玛说,“假如我的写字台就在旁边,我肯定能拿出他的一份字样来。我有一封他写的短信。韦斯顿太太,有一天你雇用他给你写过一封信,难道你不记得吗?”

“是他喜欢说雇用他——”

“好了,好了,我是有那封信,吃过饭可以以拿出来,让奈特利先生看个究竟。”

“嗨!像弗兰克·邱占尔先生那样爱献殷勤的年轻人,”奈特利先生冷冷地说,“给伍德豪斯小姐这样的漂亮女士写信,当然要使出最大的本领啦。”

晚宴端上桌了。埃尔顿太太也没等别人跟她说,就做好了准备。伍德豪斯先生还没来得及走过来,请求允许他把她领进餐厅,她便说开了:

“我得先走吗?我真不好意思总走在前面。”

简非要自己去取信,这没有逃过爱玛的注意。事情让爱玛听到了,也看到了,她很想知道简上午冒雨出去是否有什么收获。她猜想有收获。如果不是满怀希望会收到一位很亲近的人的信,简不会那样矢志不移要去的,她一定没有白跑。爱玛觉得她看样子比往常高兴——容光焕发,兴高采烈。

爱玛本想问一问去邮局的情况,以及爱尔兰来的信要多少邮资,话都到了嘴边——但又咽回去了。她已下定决心,但凡能伤害简·费尔法克斯感情的话,她一句也不说。大家跟着另外两位女士走出客厅,一个个臂挽着臂,那亲亲热热的样子,跟两人的美貌和风度十分相宜。



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