Injured by the reception she had received from Miss Woodhouse, who refused to treat her either as an equal or as a friend, Mrs. Elton was mollified by the friendly effusions of Miss Bates, whose warmth did something to compensate for the elegant coldness of Miss Woodhouse’s manners.
“Very welcome – to be sure, it has quite hurt me that the dear old Vicarage had no mistress – and it is so charming to see our dear Mr. Elton so happy! It is quite a romance. I was telling Jane, that when my dear father was alive, the vicarage was always overflowing. You, my dear, perhaps cannot remember it – I am always forgetting how very young you are, Jane – but our house was so very lively! I know Mrs. Elton will restore it to what it was, and what it ought to be. A vicarage is the heart of a village, you know, quite the heart. The soup we dispensed – I have long been sorry that our circumstances are now too reduced to enable us to carry on that tradition, but when my dear father was here, we were able to be more bountiful, and I shall look out all our good old receipts for you. I believe they are stored in my mother’s chest, at least, they used to be. I do not quite like to ask Jane to open it, for she is not strong, but there is no hurry. You will be at the Vicarage a long time, dear Mrs. Elton, and we will find the receipts for you.”
Mrs. Elton assented graciously. It was her intention that the Vicarage should be a house of bounty and benevolence, and she asserted that she would by no means suffer any one in the parish to go hungry.
“Indeed,” said she, “I would be sorry if more than the poor ever had too little to eat. If you and your mother, Miss Bates, in your reduced circumstances, should ever require any addition to your diet, I should be only too glad to send over a baking of biscuits, or a chicken. I am quite concerned that Miss Fairfax is not sufficiently nourished. She is so pale and thin, though it is a becoming thinness.”
Miss Bates could hardly stop to thank her enough. “Never were such neighbors! But it’s quite unnecessary. Dear Mr. Woodhouse lately sent us such a hindquarter of pork – and Mr. Knightley is always so generous with his garden stuff. But you are right about Jane, I cannot persuade her to eat, and sometimes I suspect – I should not say this, but I cannot help suspecting – that some of her meals make their appearance more than once. She cannot always keep her food down.”
"How shocking!" exclaimed Mrs. Elton. "We must not allow that to happen. We must take care of you, Jane, indeed we must."
“I am most grateful to you for your concern,” said Jane earnestly, “but indeed, I do partake of all that I require; and I have very seldom really been ill. My dear aunt worries about me, but I beg you will not, Mrs. Elton.”
“But indeed I shall worry about you, Jane. I knew from the first moment I saw you that we should be the very best of friends; I made up my mind then, that I should visit you every day. You will help me to make my house the perfect vicarage. I can hardly succeed without some hints, for you are a clever creature, I know, and will be an invaluable aide-de-camp, now that I am transplanted and have blossomed into a vicar’s wife.”
Miss Bates smiled happily. “It will be a privilege to have an interest in the vicarage again, won’t it, Jane?” she said. “My mother will be so glad, for old times’ sake. It is such a benefit to have proper useful work again.”
Jane did not appear to know what to say. “Are you – are you pleased with the house, ma’am?” she asked. “Do you mean to make many changes?”
“It is so very small, that there is not much we can do,” replied Mrs. Elton, “other than to throw out a bow or a wing or two, but that will be the work of another year. At present I can only venture to get rid of the yellow curtains, which the housekeeper would inflict upon my poor dear Mr. E. But I do mean to entertain very often, to have card parties and sweet little dinners, in addition to my charitable duties; and you will be my right hand, will not you, Jane?”
Jane said something, which did not carry far, but it was enough encouragement for Mrs. Elton to go on in a confiding vein. “To say the truth, I am aware that my inexperience requires aid – for being the Lady Bountiful of such a parish is quite outside my knowledge – and I did hope to engage Miss Woodhouse as my assistant, as she is so very important in Highbury. But I met with no success in my application.”
“So I would imagine,” Jane could not help saying.
“Ah! I understand. You are well acquainted with Miss Woodhouse’s ways. Of course, you have known her from childhood, have you not? You are quite of an age, and have been visiting in Highbury often.”
“Yes, I have always known her.”
“Yet I see that you are not intimate. May I ask – forgive me, but is it not your opinion that Miss Woodhouse is a very haughty and proud young lady, above being friends in an ordinary way?”
“You are right, Mrs. Elton, in thinking that we are not intimate friends. I cannot pretend otherwise. We ought to be – and from time to time I have tried; but she has made it very difficult for me to like her, because, to say the truth, I do not believe that she likes me.”
“Not like you! Well, Jane, that is very bad – and most inexplicable. You are the person that I like most in Highbury, next to my caro sposo, and so I told him, as soon as ever I saw you. Not to like such an elegant young woman, with such talents, such beauty, and such modesty! I have never seen your equal, not in Bath nor in London neither, and I daresay Miss Woodhouse is jealous. That is it, depend upon it, she is positively jealous.”
“Oh! do not run away with such an idea, dear Mrs. Elton,” protested Miss Bates. “Miss Woodhouse is such an old friend – and she is so handsome and so rich herself, she could never be jealous of any one, certainly not poor Jane, who has no money you know, and as we suppose, will have to be a governess.”
“Such a fate,” declared Mrs. Elton positively, ”I certainly shall endeavor to spare you. We must find you a husband, as I found my Mr. E.; though I ordinarily despise match-making, I do indeed – I consider it quite vulgar. To be sure, I have heard that Miss Woodhouse prides herself on being an expert, and tries to marry off her friends, but it is not a thing I could ever bring myself to do. Indeed, except for introducing my sister to her Mr. Suckling, and the Bragges to one another, I never have. Still, it cannot be denied that a good husband is the very answer for you. What say you to Mr. Knightley?”
“Yes; he likes you. I am sure he does. I observed him the other night when we were at Hartfield. He is at a dangerous age, and when such a man spends so much time looking at a pretty young woman and listening to her sing, I can assure you there is mischief afoot. I have seen a great deal of the world, and understand these matters thoroughly.”
“I must beg you not to pursue that line of thinking, Mrs. Elton,” said Jane quietly, “Mr. Knightley never has had a thought of me, I am sure, and I do not think of him.”
“Oh! well, that’s a mistake; he is the only man in Highbury I could accept for you; but if you are determined not to marry, then an eligible situation you must have, and I shall seek one for you. We must not allow you to be lost entirely. If you do not chuse to remain in Highbury, then you must be transplanted to Maple Grove, or its neighborhood – I have many charming married friends there, you must know. Then I can be sure of seeing you whenever I visit Selina.”
“I thank you for your concern, but you are too precipitate, Mrs. Elton, indeed you are. I remain here until the Campbells return.”
“Do you? Well, you know your own interest best, I hope you do; but there is a readiness about me when it comes to business. When I see a thing to be done I do it, and I imagine that this executive turn will serve me well in my vicarage life. Passivity is all very charming, and all that – but not in a married woman.” She nodded vigorously. “And so I will do all the work for you, indeed I will. I could do no less for a true friend, and I am determined that I shall prove myself a true friend to you.”
“Jane will be so obliged,” interrupted Miss Bates, “she has never had a real young woman friend in Highbury before, have you, Jane? And where can she look for a more proper friend, than the vicar’s wife? We are so obliged, are not we Jane?”
“Yes, we shall be such friends, and no one will recognize Highbury when we have done our work together, will they Jane? We shall modernize it entirely. A musical society – a soup kitchen – visits to the poor – card parties – exploring expeditions – a delightful situation as a governess – oh! only think! what a summer opens before us!”