Mrs. Weston looked up, afraid to believe; but Emma's countenance was as steady as her words.
"That you may have less difficulty in believing this boast, of my present perfect indifference," she continued, "I will farther tell you, that there was a period in the early part of our acquaintance, when I did like him, when I was very much disposed to be attached to him — nay, was attached — and how it came to cease, is perhaps the wonder. Fortunately, however, it did cease. I have really for some time past, for at least these three months, cared nothing about him. You may believe me, Mrs. Weston. This is the simple truth."
Mrs. Weston kissed her with tears of joy; and when she could find utterance, assured her, that this protestation had done her more good than any thing else in the world could do.
"Mr. Weston will be almost as much relieved as myself," said she. "On this point we have been wretched. It was our darling wish that you might be attached to each other — and we were persuaded that it was so. — Imagine what we have been feeling on your account."
"I have escaped; and that I should escape, may be a matter of grateful wonder to you and myself. But this does not acquit him, Mrs. Weston; and I must say, that I think him greatly to blame. What right had he to come among us with affection and faith engaged, and with manners so very disengaged? What right had he to endeavour to please, as he certainly did — to distinguish any one young woman with persevering attention, as he certainly did — while he really belonged to another? — How could he tell what mischief he might be doing? — How could he tell that he might not be making me in love with him? — very wrong, very wrong indeed."
"From something that he said, my dear Emma, I rather imagine — "
"And how could she bear such behaviour! Composure with a witness! to look on, while repeated attentions were offering to another woman, before her face, and not resent it. — That is a degree of placidity, which I can neither comprehend nor respect."
"There were misunderstandings between them, Emma; he said so expressly. He had not time to enter into much explanation. He was here only a quarter of an hour, and in a state of agitation which did not allow the full use even of the time he could stay — but that there had been misunderstandings he decidedly said. The present crisis, indeed, seemed to be brought on by them; and those misunderstandings might very possibly arise from the impropriety of his conduct."
"Impropriety! Oh! Mrs. Weston — it is too calm a censure. Much, much beyond impropriety! — It has sunk him, I cannot say how it has sunk him in my opinion. So unlike what a man should be! — None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life."
"Nay, dear Emma, now I must take his part; for though he has been wrong in this instance, I have known him long enough to answer for his having many, very many, good qualities; and — "
"Good God!" cried Emma, not attending to her. — "Mrs. Smallridge, too! Jane actually on the point of going as governess! What could he mean by such horrible indelicacy? To suffer her to engage herself — to suffer her even to think of such a measure!"
"He knew nothing about it, Emma. On this article I can fully acquit him. It was a private resolution of hers, not communicated to him — or at least not communicated in a way to carry conviction. — Till yesterday, I know he said he was in the dark as to her plans. They burst on him, I do not know how, but by some letter or message — and it was the discovery of what she was doing, of this very project of hers, which determined him to come forward at once, own it all to his uncle, throw himself on his kindness, and, in short, put an end to the miserable state of concealment that had been carrying on so long."
Emma began to listen better.
"I am to hear from him soon," continued Mrs. Weston. "He told me at parting, that he should soon write; and he spoke in a manner which seemed to promise me many particulars that could not be given now. Let us wait, therefore, for this letter. It may bring many extenuations. It may make many things intelligible and excusable which now are not to be understood. Don't let us be severe, don't let us be in a hurry to condemn him. Let us have patience. I must love him; and now that I am satisfied on one point, the one material point, I am sincerely anxious for its all turning out well, and ready to hope that it may. They must both have suffered a great deal under such a system of secresy and concealment."
"His sufferings," replied Emma dryly, "do not appear to have done him much harm. Well, and how did Mr. Churchill take it?"
"Most favourably for his nephew — gave his consent with scarcely a difficulty. Conceive what the events of a week have done in that family! While poor Mrs. Churchill lived, I suppose there could not have been a hope, a chance, a possibility; — but scarcely are her remains at rest in the family vault, than her husband is persuaded to act exactly opposite to what she would have required. What a blessing it is, when undue influence does not survive the grave! — He gave his consent with very little persuasion."
"Ah!" thought Emma, "he would have done as much for Harriet."
"This was settled last night, and Frank was off with the light this morning. He stopped at Highbury, at the Bates's, I fancy, some time — and then came on hither; but was in such a hurry to get back to his uncle, to whom he is just now more necessary than ever, that, as I tell you, he could stay with us but a quarter of an hour. — He was very much agitated — very much, indeed — to a degree that made him appear quite a different creature from any thing I had ever seen him before. — In addition to all the rest, there had been the shock of finding her so very unwell, which he had had no previous suspicion of — and there was every appearance of his having been feeling a great deal."
"And do you really believe the affair to have been carrying on with such perfect secresy? — The Campbells, the Dixons, did none of them know of the engagement?"
Emma could not speak the name of Dixon without a little blush.
"None; not one. He positively said that it had been known to no being in the world but their two selves."
"Well," said Emma, "I suppose we shall gradually grow reconciled to the idea, and I wish them very happy. But I shall always think it a very abominable sort of proceeding. What has it been but a system of hypocrisy and deceit, — espionage, and treachery? — To come among us with professions of openness and simplicity; and such a league in secret to judge us all! — Here have we been, the whole winter and spring, completely duped, fancying ourselves all on an equal footing of truth and honour, with two people in the midst of us who may have been carrying round, comparing and sitting in judgment on sentiments and words that were never meant for both to hear. — They must take the consequence, if they have heard each other spoken of in a way not perfectly agreeable!"
"I am quite easy on that head," replied Mrs. Weston. "I am very sure that I never said any thing of either to the other, which both might not have heard."
"You are in luck. — Your only blunder was confined to my ear, when you imagined a certain friend of ours in love with the lady."