Posted on 2011-06-06
What had begun as three separate parties Emma, Harriet and Mr. Knightley, and the Westons and Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates going for an early afternoon walk melded into one party returning to Hartfield to take tea with Mr. Woodhouse.
As this was just the sort of party Mr. Woodhouse liked consisting of friends who would visit him on his terms instead of plaguing him with invitations he felt it risky to accept tea passed by in pleasant dullness and afterwards nobody seemed in a hurry to leave for home.
Frank Churchill, who had been restlessly wandering about the room and flitting from conversation to conversation, voiced a sudden idea. 'Miss Woodhouse, what do you say to a game of Sardines? This is a sort of dull-looking evening, and ought to be treated rather as winter than summer. I am sure we will all find great amusement in a game.'
Mr. Knightley's face darkened at this suggestion. In his experience, Sardines when played by any other than children was simply an excuse for gentlemen and ladies to get rather closer together than propriety would have allowed; what did Frank Churchill mean by proposing it?
These thoughts did not cross Emma's mind; she was simply glad to concur with any plan of amusement. Anything would be better than sitting with a shuttered Jane Fairfax, an unceasingly garrulous Miss Bates (indeed, she had her own rambling opinion of Frank Churchill's suggestion of a game), an abstracted Harriet, an unusually silent Mr. Knightley and yes, a Frank Churchill who seemed somewhat out of his usual spirits. 'I say it sounds diverting, and I am willing to play,' she smiled.
Frank Churchill clapped his hands. 'Excellent! That makes me, Miss Woodhouse, Miss Smith?' His look questioned Harriet, and she smiled her assent. 'Very good, Miss Smith, and Miss Fairfax? Can we persuade you to join the game?'
Jane Fairfax looked extremely reluctant, and had started to disclaim, but what with Frank Churchill's earnest entreaties and the eyes of the room on her she finally assented quietly, a slight flush betraying her discomfort.
Mr. Woodhouse, who had been observing the discussion with growing alarm interjected. 'A game of Sardines? Emma, my dear, are you sure it would not be too risky? What if the hiding place were to be behind some dreadfully dusty curtain, or in some terribly draughty closet?'
Emma smiled. 'I am sure we would all be most sensible in our choice of a hiding place, Father,' she said patiently. 'We would not put ourselves or anyone else of the party at risk.'
Mr. Woodhouse sank back into his chair, a little mollified, and Frank Churchill, who had waited for this exchange to finish with thinly-veiled impatience, pressed on. 'So far our players number four. Sir, could we persuade you to join us?' He addressed his father.
Mr. Weston laughed. 'I would have no objection but I would perhaps cut a ridiculous figure playing a game meant for young persons. I think I will keep your stepmother, Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse company today.'
Emma turned to Mr. Knightley. 'You are playing, aren't you?'
He smiled, but it seemed strained. 'I fear I agree with Mr. Weston I think I will sit this one out.'
She looked up at him indignantly. Why was he always so insistent on classing himself with the husbands and fathers and old men? Certainly he could not be called a young man, but the years had been extremely kind to him. In fact, to Emma's mind his years, giving him a certain air of experience, knowledge and wisdom, lent him a decided appeal he had probably not possessed in his youth, however handsome he might have been (and still was). 'Why?' she said, exasperated. 'You are hardly so ancient!'
Mr. Weston, who had been observing this exchange with good-natured amusement, notwithstanding the implicit categorisation of himself as being practically in his dotage, broke in. 'Indeed, Miss Woodhouse is right, Knightley and besides, the young people need to make up their numbers to play a tolerable game.'
With both Frank Churchill and Harriet adding their agreement with this statement, Mr. Knightley had no choice but to acquiesce with as much grace as he could muster at that moment.
Frank Churchill cleared his throat. 'Very good. Rules I think we all know them one person hides while everyone else looks for them; each person who finds them will have to hide with them, until all of us are present, and last to find them has to be first to hide in the next round. Shall we draw slips with our names to pick out the person who will hide? Very well. And Miss Woodhouse, what parts of the house are out of bounds?'
Emma thought for a moment. 'Shall we say no hiding in this parlour, the kitchens, the servants' quarters and the attics?'
This was agreed to, and all their names being written out on slips of paper, all that was left was for Mr. Churchill to draw out the name of the person who would be hiding first. This he did, and with a satisfied smile which made Mr. Knightley want badly to plant him a facer, he read out Emma's name.
Mr. Knightley resolved then and there that he would be the first to find Emma, and that Mr. Churchill should under no circumstances achieve the opportunity to be alone with her which he had so nefariously planned this game for. He had the advantage in being, after Emma, the most intimately familiar with Hartfield among the players, after all and when the game began with Emma leaving to hide and the rest of them counting to one hundred, he could only hope that this would be useful in finding her.
Emma tried to make her way quickly and silently through the halls, but she was unsure where to hide. She had to choose a hiding place which was not only not obvious, but also large enough to comfortably accommodate at least four people. She did not relish the idea of being crushed in a tight corner with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.
These parameters, added to her father's restrictions, made most hiding places she could think of, ineligible. She was still racking her brains when she heard the sound of footsteps, and panicked, she hurried towards the staircase and pulled open the small door set under it. Quickly she went in and pulled the door to.
Peering through the crack between door and doorframe, she heaved a sigh of relief to see that it was merely Sarah the undermaid going about her business. When she was sure she was gone, Emma went to open the door to hopefully find a more suitable hiding place before the others came looking only to find that the door was stuck; and so, indeed, was she.
After the counting was over, Jane Fairfax was the first to set off, with such a quick step that Mr. Knightley observed her go for a moment, slightly taken aback. He began to make some sense of matters when Frank Churchill followed almost immediately after in the same direction, trying his best not to look conscious.
He frowned. This was not the first occasion he had had to notice a certain something between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax; the glances they had exchanged at the Eltons' recent dinner party had seemed to speak of some mutual understanding between themselves, and their behaviour today was significant not only in that the gentleman (if he could even be called as such) appeared to have upset the lady somehow, but also in that Jane Fairfax reserved, discreet Jane Fairfax felt no compunction to hide her feelings of pique or resentment from him as she would have had he been a mere acquaintance.
There was the sound of someone clearing their throat, and he looked down to see Harriet Smith watching him, curiously. 'Hadn't we better get going?' she said.
He smiled perfunctorily, his thoughts still occupied with what he had just observed. 'I suppose so.' After opening the parlour door for her, he said, 'Well, let us split up our search to end it faster. You go left, and I'll go right, shall I?'
After a moment she nodded and went on her way, but he thought she had looked rather disappointed, though for what reason when she had joined the game willingly enough he did not know. And at this moment, he did not particularly care either; for now he must just try to find Emma before Churchill did.
Emma had given up trying the door. Whether tried gently or forcefully, it didn't seem to budge. She didn't know if it was jammed or stuck or locked, and inside the closet for that was what it was, a servants' broom closet it was almost pitch-dark, and so she couldn't even see properly to attempt to pick the lock with one of the pins in her hair.
She had been trying that for a while too, but kept dropping the pins and losing them in the darkness. Finally, with most of her hair hanging loose over her shoulders, she sat on an upturned bucket with a sigh.
She tried to think of a plan. Clearly there was no way to escape from this closet and still maintain the game's object of not being found so much as it galled her to deliberately try and lose, she resolved that when she next heard footsteps, she would pound on the door and call for help.
Mr. Knightley had been quietly working his way through rooms on the ground floor (Emma surely would not have had time to go very far she must be either on this floor, or close to the stairs on the next) when he heard Mr. Churchill's low voice coming from behind the heavy curtain in the dining room. 'I'm sorry, my love,' he was saying, 'I know I blundered by mentioning Perry's carriage.'
Mr. Knightley stood very still inside the room, ears pricked.
'And I know,' he continued softly, 'that you think I'm jeopardising our secret by engineering this, but oh, I can't help it! It's been so long since I've been alone with you, since I've had the chance to do this '
Their 'secret'? He could expect anything of that villain, that unprincipled rake, but of her? Why hadn't she at least told him? How could she have
White-faced, eyes hard, Mr. Knightley strode over and yanked back the curtain.
He didn't know whether he was more astonished or relieved to find that it revealed a startled Frank Churchill jumping away from a fiercely blushing Jane Fairfax.
Finally, some footsteps! Emma did not know how much time had passed since she had gotten trapped in the broom cupboard, but it felt like hours. She had been beginning to give up hope that any of their party or indeed, anyone at all would pass by her prison. She began pounding on the door in earnest. 'I'm in here,' she called out, 'in the cupboard under the stairs over here!'
Thankfully, within seconds the door swung open to reveal that the passerby had been Mr. Knightley. A rather odd expression came over his face as he saw her a mixture of surprise, trepidation and seemingly deliberate self-restraint among other things but Emma brushed that aside in her relief. 'Thank goodness you're here,' she said in a rush. 'Just don't' he had closed the door behind him 'close the door,' she finished lamely.
He did a double take (at least, she thought he did she couldn't actually see anything very clearly in the gloom). 'Why not?'
She let her head drop into her hands. 'The door doesn't open from the inside,' she explained wearily.
'Ah,' he said, and after giving the handle a perfunctory try, he sat down on a second upturned bucket, not seeming too bothered about it. The closet suddenly felt a lot smaller than it had before he had arrived, for, when sitting side-by-side on their buckets, their bodies were pressed together from shoulder to thigh.
After some moments, Mr. Knightley began to speak. 'Emma,' he began, and then hesitated for long enough to make her look up at him curiously.
'Have you ever had reason to think that Frank Churchill admired Jane Fairfax, or that she admired him?'
This was so unexpected, and so absurd a question that Emma laughed merrily. 'No, never what a question! Oh, Mr. Knightley, I am sorry to check you in your first attempt at matchmaking, but it will never do. You will have to think of another more likely pair.'
He did not laugh with her, and it was his unusual stillness, and the fact that his eyes were still steadily on her she could feel his gaze, even if she couldn't see it that alerted her to his utter seriousness.
'What is it?' she asked, somewhat more subdued. 'Did you hear something? Who put the idea in your head? Because if it was Mrs. Weston, I wouldn't credit it she has been wrong about these things before; at least I hope she was wrong'
'I saw them,' he said quickly, cutting across her rambling. 'I saw them kissing.'
'Who, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?' Her voice sounded shocked, even to her own ears.
And she was shocked now she knew why he had looked so odd when he had opened the cupboard door; now she knew why he had looked like he had been battling some strong emotion. He must have been devastated to find that Jane Fairfax loved another. And oh, Emma was miserable to think that it was so. He should not have loved Jane Fairfax; she was all wrong for him: he didn't need someone reserved, someone quiet, someone who was so sedate she'd no doubt agree with him always he needed someone who could make him laugh, someone who could challenge him, someone like
Suddenly, her eyes widened.
Mr. Knightley nodded in answer to Emma's question, and then realizing that she probably couldn't see him in the darkness, replied aloud. 'Yes.'
Emma sighed heavily, and his heart went out to her. He could happily have strangled Frank Churchill for hurting her. 'Oh dear,' she said in a small voice. 'I was wrong again.'
He extended a hand, intending to lay it comfortingly on her shoulder, but found it instead come into contact with her soft, loose hair which had made his fingers itch to touch it when he had first seen it framing her face upon opening the cupboard door.
Well, he had certainly got his wish: with her having her face in her hands, he had miscalculated the distance, and if he took his hand away and apologised, he was sure nobody could have faulted him.
Why he didn't do that, he had no idea. Perhaps it was that Emma, though initially stiffening in surprise at his touch, had relaxed against his hand with a small, contented sigh. After a moment, his reservations faded too. They were friends, old friends; whether patting her shoulder or stroking her hair notwithstanding the infinitely more intimate nature of the latter he was offering comfort, and he knew she would take it as such.
And oh, he didn't want to stop. His mind began to wander from the silken feel of her hair on his fingers to the comforting potential of other actions a hug, perhaps, or maybe even a perfectly platonic, friendly I'm-sorry-that-scoundrel-Frank-Churchill-deceived-you-so kiss
Her voice broke into his increasingly dangerous thoughts. 'Are you upset?' she asked suddenly.
He did not know how to answer. 'Well, I am if you are,' he settled for saying. Otherwise what was Frank Churchill to him?
He couldn't read Emma's expression in the darkness, but her head had not moved, and her eyes were still fixed on his face. 'Why would I be upset, except on your, or Harriet's behalf?'
He was utterly confused. 'What have I, or Harriet got to do with this?'
She stood abruptly, pacing agitatedly in the limited space inside the closet. 'Well, I know Harriet cares for Frank Churchill, and I thought that is to say, Mrs. Weston thought and though I can't say I agreed at the time, I couldn't help but worry and if it really is so, and you being the one to walk in on them then that would have been but I hope you're not really in love with'
Who Emma was hoping he wasn't in love with, he wasn't to know then, for at that moment she tripped over a broom handle and careened headlong into him, knocking them both to the floor.
For a moment he was breathless, not because he was winded from the fall, but because of the shock of feeling her body pressed to his. Her hands, which had flown out to break her fall, had landed on either side of his head, and his arms had instinctively come together around her waist.
'I I'm so sorry, Mr. Knightley,' she gasped, and from the warmth of her cheek against his, he could tell she was blushing fiercely. She raised her head, and made a movement as if to get up, but was prevented by his continued hold on her waist.
'What were you saying before, Emma?' he said, trying to pretend by making conversation, that he hadn't noticed the awkwardness of their present position. Maybe if she thought he hadn't noticed, she would forget, and then he'd have her in his arms that much longer and why not? This was Sardines, after all when played by adults, was this sort of thing not the sole object of the game?
'I I don't remem' she began, sounding a little flustered.
'Something about hoping I wasn't in love with someone?' he prompted, hoping with all his might that that someone wasn't herself.
'Oh! With Jane Fairfax,' she said. 'Mrs. Weston brought it to my attention, and while I didn't think it likely at first, I could never be sure '
He was astonished. 'Jane Fairfax? What on earth made you think I was in love with her?'
Now her voice sounded like an odd mixture of relief and defensiveness. 'Well, you're the one who's always praising her accomplishments, and then you sent your carriage for her on the night of the Coles' party, and then you gave her a whole barrel of apples '
He almost rolled his eyes. 'The Bates ladies and Miss Fairfax are friends you sent them a hindquarter of pork, I sent them a barrel of Donwell apples what does that signify?'
Her voice was small. 'You only sent me a basket.'
He had to smile at his silly Emma's unnecessary jealousy, and before he had realised what he was about, he had brought his hand up to caress her cheek. 'My dear Emma, the number of apples I give is not a direct correlation to the depth of my affection.'
To his delight, she did not pull away, but instead leaned into his touch. 'If it were, how many would you give me?' she asked softly.
'The whole orchard,' he said simply.
He could feel her smile against his hand. 'To draw a similar analogy,' she said, her voice slightly unsteady but still infused with her trademark note of playfulness, 'if pork were love, your kitchens would receive the slaughtered carcasses of all the Hartfield pigs.'
Was there a man alive who could have resisted kissing her after such a romantic declaration of feeling? If there was, he certainly was not Mr. Knightley.The End