Author’s Note: This story is based on the 2009 BBC mini-series. For those who have not seen it, there is a scene near the start where a teenaged Emma tells Miss Bates that she's going to ask Mr. Knightley to teach her Chinese, most probably to stop Miss Bates going on and on about Jane's accomplishments.
Posted on 2010-02-22
'Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe...'
Three lines in and Emma could already feel her eyelids drooping. Trying and failing to stifle a yawn, she welcomed the distraction afforded by the familiar firm footsteps which she could hear approaching the room.
When they stopped at the doorway she spoke without turning. 'I suppose you've come to tell me off about the Chinese?' She knew she sounded rather petulant, but honestly, after listening to Miss Bates' enumeration of Jane Fairfax's many talents and accomplishments the last thing she needed was another lecture from Mr. Knightley. The best way to avoid this, in her experience, was to head him off before he began, and accordingly she opened her mouth to begin talking, preferably about something like her new reading list which would be sure to elicit his praise instead of his censure.
However, he began speaking before she could collect her thoughts. 'Of course I'm not here to tell you off,' was his unexpected reply. So unexpected, in fact, that her head snapped around as she stared at him incredulously.
His face was quite serious except for the dancing light in his eyes which seemed at odds with his expression. Emma frowned, her brow creasing slightly in concern. 'Are you unwell, Mr. Knightley?' she asked rather worriedly.
His lips twitched momentarily. 'Not at all, Emma – why do you ask?'
This was getting stranger and stranger. She shot a glance at Miss Taylor who looked just as bewildered as Emma felt. 'Because... well, I thought you would say something to me about the Chinese,' she finally managed.
A smile broke out over his face as he stepped forward, one hand concealed behind his back. 'Yes, about that – I brought you something that might interest you.' And with a flourish he deposited a large and extremely dense-looking book on the table.
It was not in itself an unusual thing for Mr. Knightley to bring her books from the library at Donwell, but as she read the title of this one, Emma could not help exclaiming. 'The Complete Oxford English-Chinese dictionary?'
His grin widened as he took a seat beside her. 'Far be it from me, Emma,' he said, 'to discourage you when you yourself show an interest in learning a foreign language.' He patted the dictionary. 'So I decided to give you the lessons you told Miss Bates you'd ask me for.'
Emma's sudden expression of dismay was so comical that even the usually sympathetic Miss Taylor seemed as if she were suppressing a smile with some difficulty. 'But – but...'
Mr. Knightley raised his eyebrows. 'Yes?'
She looked around desperately before her gaze alighted on the page of Milton she had been unsuccessfully trying to read before. 'I'm already planning to get a lot of reading done,' she said triumphantly. 'I won't have time for Chinese.'
'Oh, I don't know about that, Emma. You're a clever girl – I'm sure you could manage both.' His smile was far too knowing.
She was torn between a desire to escape extra study of something she had flippantly and not entirely seriously expressed an interest in learning, and a glow at his praise and a comprehension of the implicit challenge it represented – a challenge she knew Mr. Knightley was perfectly aware she would never decline. She set her chin. 'Fine,' she said, her expression a picture of defiant determination. 'We can start right now.'
He would soon tire of the thankless endeavour he had undertaken, she thought. At most he would stand a few weeks of her wandering attention, slow progress and the loss of his own precious time. And then she would be free once more to do what she liked.
She underestimated either the depths of his patience or, more probably, the lengths to which he would go to vex her.
Two years, a thorough knowledge of Chinese grammar and a fluency in conversational Chinese later, Emma vowed never again to compete with Jane Fairfax's reputation for accomplishment.The End