Frank Churchill returned to his station by Emma; and as soon as Miss Bates was quiet, she found herself necessarily overhearing the discourse of Mrs. Elton and Miss Fairfax, who were standing a little way behind her. — He was thoughtful. Whether he were overhearing too, she could not determine. After a good many compliments to Jane on her dress and look, compliments very quietly and properly taken, Mrs. Elton was evidently wanting to be complimented herself — and it was, "How do you like my gown? — How do you like my trimming? — How has Wright done my hair?" — with many other relative questions, all answered with patient politeness. Mrs. Elton then said, "Nobody can think less of dress in general than I do — but upon such an occasion as this, when every body's eyes are so much upon me, and in compliment to the Westons — who I have no doubt are giving this ball chiefly to do me honour — I would not wish to be inferior to others. And I see very few pearls in the room except mine. — So Frank Churchill is a capital dancer, I understand. — We shall see if our styles suit. — A fine young man certainly is Frank Churchill. I like him very well."
At this moment Frank began talking so vigorously, that Emma could not but imagine he had overheard his own praises, and did not want to hear more; — and the voices of the ladies were drowned for a while, till another suspension brought Mrs. Elton's tones again distinctly forward. — Mr. Elton had just joined them, and his wife was exclaiming,
"Oh! you have found us out at last, have you, in our seclusion? — I was this moment telling Jane, I thought you would begin to be impatient for tidings of us."
"Jane!" — repeated Frank Churchill, with a look of surprize and displeasure. — "That is easy — but Miss Fairfax does not disapprove it, I suppose."
"How do you like Mrs. Elton?" said Emma in a whisper.
"Not at all."
"You are ungrateful."
"Ungrateful! — What do you mean?" Then changing from a frown to a smile — "No, do not tell me — I do not want to know what you mean. — Where is my father? — When are we to begin dancing?"
Emma could hardly understand him; he seemed in an odd humour. He walked off to find his father, but was quickly back again with both Mr. and Mrs. Weston. He had met with them in a little perplexity, which must be laid before Emma. It had just occurred to Mrs. Weston that Mrs. Elton must be asked to begin the ball; that she would expect it; which interfered with all their wishes of giving Emma that distinction. — Emma heard the sad truth with fortitude.
"And what are we to do for a proper partner for her?" said Mr. Weston. "She will think Frank ought to ask her."
Frank turned instantly to Emma, to claim her former promise; and boasted himself an engaged man, which his father looked his most perfect approbation of — and it then appeared that Mrs. Weston was wanting him to dance with Mrs. Elton himself, and that their business was to help to persuade him into it, which was done pretty soon. — Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton led the way, Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse followed. Emma must submit to stand second to Mrs. Elton, though she had always considered the ball as peculiarly for her. It was almost enough to make her think of marrying. Mrs. Elton had undoubtedly the advantage, at this time, in vanity completely gratified; for though she had intended to begin with Frank Churchill, she could not lose by the change. Mr. Weston might be his son's superior. — In spite of this little rub, however, Emma was smiling with enjoyment, delighted to see the respectable length of the set as it was forming, and to feel that she had so many hours of unusual festivity before her. — She was more disturbed by Mr. Knightley's not dancing than by any thing else. — There he was, among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing, — not classing himself with the husbands, and fathers, and whist-players, who were pretending to feel an interest in the dance till their rubbers were made up, — so young as he looked! — He could not have appeared to greater advantage perhaps anywhere, than where he had placed himself. His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes; and, excepting her own partner, there was not one among the whole row of young men who could be compared with him. — He moved a few steps nearer, and those few steps were enough to prove in how gentlemanlike a manner, with what natural grace, he must have danced, would he but take the trouble. — Whenever she caught his eye, she forced him to smile; but in general he was looking grave. She wished he could love a ballroom better, and could like Frank Churchill better. — He seemed often observing her. She must not flatter herself that he thought of her dancing, but if he were criticising her behaviour, she did not feel afraid. There was nothing like flirtation between her and her partner. They seemed more like cheerful, easy friends, than lovers. That Frank Churchill thought less of her than he had done, was indubitable.
The ball proceeded pleasantly. The anxious cares, the incessant attentions of Mrs. Weston, were not thrown away. Every body seemed happy; and the praise of being a delightful ball, which is seldom bestowed till after a ball has ceased to be, was repeatedly given in the very beginning of the existence of this. Of very important, very recordable events, it was not more productive than such meetings usually are. There was one, however, which Emma thought something of. — The two last dances before supper were begun, and Harriet had no partner; — the only young lady sitting down; — and so equal had been hitherto the number of dancers, that how there could be any one disengaged was the wonder! — But Emma's wonder lessened soon afterwards, on seeing Mr. Elton sauntering about. He would not ask Harriet to dance if it were possible to be avoided: she was sure he would not — and she was expecting him every moment to escape into the card-room.
Escape, however, was not his plan. He came to the part of the room where the sitters-by were collected, spoke to some, and walked about in front of them, as if to shew his liberty, and his resolution of maintaining it. He did not omit being sometimes directly before Miss Smith, or speaking to those who were close to her. — Emma saw it. She was not yet dancing; she was working her way up from the bottom, and had therefore leisure to look around, and by only turning her head a little she saw it all. When she was half-way up the set, the whole group were exactly behind her, and she would no longer allow her eyes to watch; but Mr. Elton was so near, that she heard every syllable of a dialogue which just then took place between him and Mrs. Weston; and she perceived that his wife, who was standing immediately above her, was not only listening also, but even encouraging him by significant glances. — The kind-hearted, gentle Mrs. Weston had left her seat to join him and say, "Do not you dance, Mr. Elton?" to which his prompt reply was, "Most readily, Mrs. Weston, if you will dance with me."
"Me! — oh! no — I would get you a better partner than myself. I am no dancer."
"If Mrs. Gilbert wishes to dance," said he, "I shall have great pleasure, I am sure — for, though beginning to feel myself rather an old married man, and that my dancing days are over, it would give me very great pleasure at any time to stand up with an old friend like Mrs. Gilbert."
"Mrs. Gilbert does not mean to dance, but there is a young lady disengaged whom I should be very glad to see dancing — Miss Smith." "Miss Smith! — oh! — I had not observed. — You are extremely obliging — and if I were not an old married man. — But my dancing days are over, Mrs. Weston. You will excuse me. Any thing else I should be most happy to do, at your command — but my dancing days are over."
Mrs. Weston said no more; and Emma could imagine with what surprize and mortification she must be returning to her seat. This was Mr. Elton! the amiable, obliging, gentle Mr. Elton. — She looked round for a moment; he had joined Mr. Knightley at a little distance, and was arranging himself for settled conversation, while smiles of high glee passed between him and his wife.
She would not look again. Her heart was in a glow, and she feared her face might be as hot.
In another moment a happier sight caught her; — Mr. Knightley leading Harriet to the set! — Never had she been more surprized, seldom more delighted, than at that instant. She was all pleasure and gratitude, both for Harriet and herself, and longed to be thanking him; and though too distant for speech, her countenance said much, as soon as she could catch his eye again.
His dancing proved to be just what she had believed it, extremely good; and Harriet would have seemed almost too lucky, if it had not been for the cruel state of things before, and for the very complete enjoyment and very high sense of the distinction which her happy features announced. It was not thrown away on her, she bounded higher than ever, flew farther down the middle, and was in a continual course of smiles.