"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me — but you will be limited as to number — only three at once."
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.
"Ah! — well — to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend."
"I like your plan," cried Mr. Weston. "Agreed, agreed. I will do my best. I am making a conundrum. How will a conundrum reckon?"
"Low, I am afraid, sir, very low," answered his son; — "but we shall be indulgent — especially to any one who leads the way."
"No, no," said Emma, "it will not reckon low. A conundrum of Mr. Weston's shall clear him and his next neighbour. Come, sir, pray let me hear it."
"I doubt its being very clever myself," said Mr. Weston. "It is too much a matter of fact, but here it is. — What two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?"
"What two letters! — express perfection! I am sure I do not know."
"Ah! you will never guess. You, (to Emma), I am certain, will never guess. — I will tell you. — M. and A. — Em-ma. — Do you understand?"
Understanding and gratification came together. It might be a very indifferent piece of wit, but Emma found a great deal to laugh at and enjoy in it — and so did Frank and Harriet. — It did not seem to touch the rest of the party equally; some looked very stupid about it, and Mr. Knightley gravely said,
"This explains the sort of clever thing that is wanted, and Mr. Weston has done very well for himself; but he must have knocked up every body else. Perfection should not have come quite so soon."
"Oh! for myself, I protest I must be excused," said Mrs. Elton; "I really cannot attempt — I am not at all fond of the sort of thing. I had an acrostic once sent to me upon my own name, which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. An abominable puppy! — You know who I mean (nodding to her husband). These kind of things are very well at Christmas, when one is sitting round the fire; but quite out of place, in my opinion, when one is exploring about the country in summer. Miss Woodhouse must excuse me. I am not one of those who have witty things at every body's service. I do not pretend to be a wit. I have a great deal of vivacity in my own way, but I really must be allowed to judge when to speak and when to hold my tongue. Pass us, if you please, Mr. Churchill. Pass Mr. E., Knightley, Jane, and myself. We have nothing clever to say — not one of us.
"Yes, yes, pray pass me," added her husband, with a sort of sneering consciousness; "I have nothing to say that can entertain Miss Woodhouse, or any other young lady. An old married man — quite good for nothing. Shall we walk, Augusta?"
"With all my heart. I am really tired of exploring so long on one spot. Come, Jane, take my other arm."
Jane declined it, however, and the husband and wife walked off. "Happy couple!" said Frank Churchill, as soon as they were out of hearing: — "How well they suit one another! — Very lucky — marrying as they did, upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place! — They only knew each other, I think, a few weeks in Bath! Peculiarly lucky! — for as to any real knowledge of a person's disposition that Bath, or any public place, can give — it is all nothing; there can be no knowledge. It is only by seeing women in their own homes, among their own set, just as they always are, that you can form any just judgment. Short of that, it is all guess and luck — and will generally be ill-luck. How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life!"
Miss Fairfax, who had seldom spoken before, except among her own confederates, spoke now.
"Such things do occur, undoubtedly." — She was stopped by a cough. Frank Churchill turned towards her to listen.
"You were speaking," said he, gravely. She recovered her voice.
"I was only going to observe, that though such unfortunate circumstances do sometimes occur both to men and women, I cannot imagine them to be very frequent. A hasty and imprudent attachment may arise — but there is generally time to recover from it afterwards. I would be understood to mean, that it can be only weak, irresolute characters, (whose happiness must be always at the mercy of chance,) who will suffer an unfortunate acquaintance to be an inconvenience, an oppression for ever."
He made no answer; merely looked, and bowed in submission; and soon afterwards said, in a lively tone,
"Well, I have so little confidence in my own judgment, that whenever I marry, I hope some body will chuse my wife for me. Will you? (turning to Emma.) Will you chuse a wife for me? — I am sure I should like any body fixed on by you. You provide for the family, you know, (with a smile at his father). Find some body for me. I am in no hurry. Adopt her, educate her."
"And make her like myself."
"By all means, if you can."
"Very well. I undertake the commission. You shall have a charming wife."
"She must be very lively, and have hazle eyes. I care for nothing else. I shall go abroad for a couple of years — and when I return, I shall come to you for my wife. Remember."
Emma was in no danger of forgetting. It was a commission to touch every favourite feeling. Would not Harriet be the very creature described? Hazle eyes excepted, two years more might make her all that he wished. He might even have Harriet in his thoughts at the moment; who could say? Referring the education to her seemed to imply it.
"Now, ma'am," said Jane to her aunt, "shall we join Mrs. Elton?"
"If you please, my dear. With all my heart. I am quite ready. I was ready to have gone with her, but this will do just as well. We shall soon overtake her. There she is — no, that's somebody else. That's one of the ladies in the Irish car party, not at all like her. — Well, I declare — "
They walked off, followed in half a minute by Mr. Knightley. Mr. Weston, his son, Emma, and Harriet, only remained; and the young man's spirits now rose to a pitch almost unpleasant. Even Emma grew tired at last of flattery and merriment, and wished herself rather walking quietly about with any of the others, or sitting almost alone, and quite unattended to, in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her. The appearance of the servants looking out for them to give notice of the carriages was a joyful sight; and even the bustle of collecting and preparing to depart, and the solicitude of Mrs. Elton to have her carriage first, were gladly endured, in the prospect of the quiet drive home which was to close the very questionable enjoyments of this day of pleasure. Such another scheme, composed of so many ill-assorted people, she hoped never to be betrayed into again.
While waiting for the carriage, she found Mr. Knightley by her side. He looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then said,
"Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? — Emma, I had not thought it possible."
Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.
"Nay, how could I help saying what I did? — Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me."