It was a very great event, that a dinner for as many as ten people should be given at Hartfield on a dark and early February evening, but all the invitations were accepted, and the Eltons, the Sucklings, and the Westons, as well as Miss Bates, joined the Knightleys and Mr. Woodhouse, in being seated around a table with sufficient abundance and variety of food placed upon it, as to make Mr. Woodhouse very uneasy.
“Upon my word,” said Miss Bates, “this is quite – I never saw a more brilliant table, Mrs. Knightley. Goose, and pheasants, and such a pudding of larks! Goodness me! Did you ever see the like, Mrs. Weston? You, Mrs. Suckling, used as you are to great spreads, may not be surprised at the sight, but I assure you, living in such a small way as I do, I am quite overcome. But no one ever had such neighbors – shall I really have some of the goose’s breast, Mr. Woodhouse? and juniper berry sauce? Do you not consider it too rich?”
“Indeed I do think goose is a meat no stomach can bear,” said Mr. Woodhouse, “and I would advise you to satisfy yourself, as I do, with plainer fare. The bread pudding, I think, could not harm you. Mrs. Suckling, we are honored by your presence in this house, and I wish you to be as comfortable as possible. But I do not recommend the goose to you either, or to any body.”
Mrs. Suckling, a little woman with a sharp face and a very large feathered headdress, looked at him with some respect.
“Thank you for your concern, sir. My sister has told me of your great solicitude for the health of your guests, Mr. Woodhouse, and what a kind gentleman you are. Quite a worthy after my own heart. Indeed, I will follow your advice, for I never eat rich food, and very little meat at all. I prefer to eat only greens, and pulse, and a little fish.”
“Is that so, Mrs. Suckling?” said Mr. Weston in wonderment, “and does this resolve proceed from a concern for your health?”
“It proceeds from a concern for every body’s health, Mr. Weston,” she replied, “it can be of no benefit to any one, to eat animals.”
“My wife is a very fine lady,” spoke up Mr. Suckling, a tall gentleman with a sarcastic expression, “ordinary food is too coarse for her, and she exists upon mere air.”
“But that is so very strange!” exclaimed Miss Bates. “You resemble Jane in that – my niece Jane – Mrs. Elton will have told you all about her. Mrs. Churchill, as she is now, I should say. The most delicate appetite that any lady ever had. While she was here, I could hardly get her to take half an ounce of meat, and six to one it would reappear again – though I should not say that – Jane would not like me to say that. But I assure you she grew so thin, I was quite terrified. I hope her husband, Mr. Frank Churchill, will have better luck in making her take her food properly. It is sad to see a young woman with no appetite. I like to see a young person with a bit of flesh about her. Mrs. Knightley likes to eat – Mrs. Weston does – so do we all – all except Jane – ”
“I hope Mrs. Suckling will take just what she likes,” exclaimed Emma, to cut Miss Bates off a little; and she attempted a change of subject. “Now that you have seen Surry, Mrs. Suckling, how do you like this part of the country? – You cannot see many of our most striking views at this time of year, to be sure, but I hope the neighborhood around Highbury pleases you.”
“I have seen it before, in more favorable seasons, Mrs. Knightley; my sister may have told you about our exploring parties, and we have traveled very widely in all parts of England. Indeed, it was our extensive journeying that has made it necessary to delay our engagements in Highbury. We have this year traveled to Dorset – to the Lakes – to Yorkshire – to Birmingham – to London, and back again, more than once.”
“She hates traveling,” put in Mr. Suckling, “and it is a misery to go any where with her.”
“Do not joke, my love; you know I always accompany my lord and master wherever you journey, and I make very little complaint, I assure you.”
“No – you do not complain; but the degree of commotion you make about having the right sheets, and not eating any animal food, and about the draughts, and the gait of the different horses, is scarcely to be conceived. It is enough to drive one mad. Did our business, and social engagements, not require it, I should never stir from home.”
“And what is your business, sir?” asked Mr. Knightley with interest. “Forgive me, but we have never heard.”
“Sugar, my good sir, sugar. My plantations in the West Indies are extensive, but business cannot look after itself, and it is necessary for me to travel the country, up and down, to all four corners, in order to assure myself of the best trade.”
“And does your business require that you visit the West Indies?” asked Mr. Weston curiously.
“No, no, I leave that part of the concern in the hands of others – a man cannot be everywhere at once, and I have people who can be trusted to look after my property in the West Indies, and deal with the plantations, and the rebellions, and the overseers, and the absurd death rate, and things of that nature. But we must not be distressing the ladies. Ladies do not have a head for business, you know, sir. They take on about every least thing.”
“Oh, my dear brother,” interjected Mrs. Elton eagerly, “I beg you should not say such a thing about ladies. Ladies are quite as capable as gentlemen: they are indeed. I always take the part of women, at every opportunity, and I am convinced that some day, women will be quite as good at business as men. I am sure I have a fine head for business, have I not, Mr. Elton? Is it not so?”
“Exactly so, my love; better than mine, truth be told. You are the business woman in our family. I do not care about it so much as you do.”
“No more do I,” put in Mr. Woodhouse. “Our family made its fortune so long ago, that I have never had to know any thing about it. It is very lucky. I am very glad of it. I should not like to be such a man of incessant action as you are obliged to be, sir. And I hope you will be very comfortable while you are here, and take some of our good broth, if nothing else – our broth is perfectly clear, you see, with not a speck of any thing in it, boiled just as Serle knows how to do. It is really not much stronger than water. It will settle your stomach after the hardships of your travels, I am sure.”
“The sugar business!” exclaimed Emma, when her father had stopped speaking. “I am sure, Mr. Suckling, that Mrs. Elton has told us that you were a friend to the abolition. Yet you seem to imply that slaves are employed in your business.”
“Certainly,” he replied calmly, “I would wish to abolish the slave trade, a degrading business; but those who are already slaves, may doubtless be used with impunity. However, ladies do not understand these things.”
“My dear brother, there is no limit to what ladies understand – ”
“That's true – very true,” said Mr. Knightley hastily, “no one wants to discuss trade at dinner. So, Mrs. Suckling, this is your first visit to Hartfield. Do you find it much like your own home, Maple Grove, of which we have heard so much? Mrs. Elton has told us that you would say so.”
“Nothing like it at all,” said Mrs. Suckling. “No resemblance. Maple Grove is much larger – and much more retired. Augusta, how could you say such a thing?”
“Why, Selina, the staircase – and the garden grouping – you know it is like Maple Grove in those respects.”
“Only as much as any great house is like any other. But your own house is so small, my dear Augusta, that you are no judge. You have grown accustomed to living in little rooms.”
Mrs. Elton was silenced.
“Oh, Mrs. Suckling, do you think the Vicarage is small?” said Miss Bates. “If I may be allowed to contradict you, I do not think it so very small. It was always adequate for our needs, when we lived there; and now that Mr. and Mrs. Elton have a family, they may enlarge it perhaps, and make improvements.”
“Another year,” said Mr. Elton, “and we shall make an addition. Do you not recommend it, Mr. Suckling?”
“Whatever you like,” he said indifferently, “you cannot expect to be able to afford to do much, with your present income. I have told you, Elton, that you ought to come into business with me. Sugar is the thing. That is where the money is.”
“It is very tempting, my dear sir – but a clergyman – the West Indies – slaves – it is perhaps not compatible with the duty I owe to my parish.”
“Such scruples are absurd. How do you suppose I can afford to give my Selina her barouche-landau, and all the luxuries of Maple Grove, were it not for sugar? We are not of an old landed family, you know, and must do the best we can for ourselves. A clergyman, in these days, is not expected to starve himself in the name of duty.”
“And you must remember, Augusta, that howsoever rich we may be, we cannot be expected to help you, should you grow impoverished; for we have a family of our own, and all our money must go to our dear children,” said Mrs. Suckling, nodding vehemently until her feathered headdress shook.
“I should not think of anything else, sister,” said Mrs. Elton, rather offended, and not knowing where to look to hide her embarrassment.
Emma, amazed by the real vulgarity and heartlessness of such a discussion at her own dinner-table, lifted her eyes expressively. Mr. Knightley seemed to feel her distress, as well as his own, and he proposed that the gentlemen should sit apart with their port, with rather more alacrity than ordinarily was his custom.