This letter must make its way to Emma's feelings. She was obliged, in spite of her previous determination to the contrary, to do it all the justice that Mrs. Weston foretold. As soon as she came to her own name, it was irresistible; every line relating to herself was interesting, and almost every line agreeable; and when this charm ceased, the subject could still maintain itself, by the natural return of her former regard for the writer, and the very strong attraction which any picture of love must have for her at that moment. She never stopt till she had gone through the whole; and though it was impossible not to feel that he had been wrong, yet he had been less wrong than she had supposed — and he had suffered, and was very sorry — and he was so grateful to Mrs. Weston, and so much in love with Miss Fairfax, and she was so happy herself, that there was no being severe; and could he have entered the room, she must have shaken hands with him as heartily as ever.
She thought so well of the letter, that when Mr. Knightley came again, she desired him to read it. She was sure of Mrs. Weston's wishing it to be communicated; especially to one, who, like Mr. Knightley, had seen so much to blame in his conduct.
"I shall be very glad to look it over," said he; "but it seems long. I will take it home with me at night."
But that would not do. Mr. Weston was to call in the evening, and she must return it by him.
"I would rather be talking to you," he replied; "but as it seems a matter of justice, it shall be done."
He began — stopping, however, almost directly to say, "Had I been offered the sight of one of this gentleman's letters to his mother-in-law a few months ago, Emma, it would not have been taken with such indifference."
He proceeded a little farther, reading to himself; and then, with a smile, observed, "Humph! a fine complimentary opening: But it is his way. One man's style must not be the rule of another's. We will not be severe."
"It will be natural for me," he added shortly afterwards, "to speak my opinion aloud as I read. By doing it, I shall feel that I am near you. It will not be so great a loss of time: but if you dislike it — "
"Not at all. I should wish it."
Mr. Knightley returned to his reading with greater alacrity.
"He trifles here," said he, "as to the temptation. He knows he is wrong, and has nothing rational to urge. — Bad. — He ought not to have formed the engagement. — 'His father's disposition:' — he is unjust, however, to his father. Mr. Weston's sanguine temper was a blessing on all his upright and honourable exertions; but Mr. Weston earned every present comfort before he endeavoured to gain it. — Very true; he did not come till Miss Fairfax was here."
"And I have not forgotten," said Emma, "how sure you were that he might have come sooner if he would. You pass it over very handsomely — but you were perfectly right."
"I was not quite impartial in my judgment, Emma: — but yet, I think — had you not been in the case — I should still have distrusted him."
When he came to Miss Woodhouse, he was obliged to read the whole of it aloud — all that related to her, with a smile; a look; a shake of the head; a word or two of assent, or disapprobation; or merely of love, as the subject required; concluding, however, seriously, and, after steady reflection, thus —
"Very bad — though it might have been worse. — Playing a most dangerous game. Too much indebted to the event for his acquittal. — No judge of his own manners by you. — Always deceived in fact by his own wishes, and regardless of little besides his own convenience. — Fancying you to have fathomed his secret. Natural enough! — his own mind full of intrigue, that he should suspect it in others. — Mystery; Finesse — how they pervert the understanding! My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?"
Emma agreed to it, and with a blush of sensibility on Harriet's account, which she could not give any sincere explanation of.
"You had better go on," said she.
He did so, but very soon stopt again to say, "the pianoforte! Ah! That was the act of a very, very young man, one too young to consider whether the inconvenience of it might not very much exceed the pleasure. A boyish scheme, indeed! — I cannot comprehend a man's wishing to give a woman any proof of affection which he knows she would rather dispense with; and he did know that she would have prevented the instrument's coming if she could."
After this, he made some progress without any pause. Frank Churchill's confession of having behaved shamefully was the first thing to call for more than a word in passing.
"I perfectly agree with you, sir," — was then his remark. "You did behave very shamefully. You never wrote a truer line." And having gone through what immediately followed of the basis of their disagreement, and his persisting to act in direct opposition to Jane Fairfax's sense of right, he made a fuller pause to say, "This is very bad. — He had induced her to place herself, for his sake, in a situation of extreme difficulty and uneasiness, and it should have been his first object to prevent her from suffering unnecessarily. — She must have had much more to contend with, in carrying on the correspondence, than he could. He should have respected even unreasonable scruples, had there been such; but hers were all reasonable. We must look to her one fault, and remember that she had done a wrong thing in consenting to the engagement, to bear that she should have been in such a state of punishment."
Emma knew that he was now getting to the Box Hill party, and grew uncomfortable. Her own behaviour had been so very improper! She was deeply ashamed, and a little afraid of his next look. It was all read, however, steadily, attentively, and without the smallest remark; and, excepting one momentary glance at her, instantly withdrawn, in the fear of giving pain — no remembrance of Box Hill seemed to exist.
"There is no saying much for the delicacy of our good friends, the Eltons," was his next observation. — "His feelings are natural. — What! actually resolve to break with him entirely! — She felt the engagement to be a source of repentance and misery to each — she dissolved it. — What a view this gives of her sense of his behaviour! — Well, he must be a most extraordinary — "
"Nay, nay, read on. — You will find how very much he suffers."
"I hope he does," replied Mr. Knightley coolly, and resuming the letter. "'Smallridge!' — What does this mean? What is all this?"
"She had engaged to go as governess to Mrs. Smallridge's children — a dear friend of Mrs. Elton's — a neighbour of Maple Grove; and, by the bye, I wonder how Mrs. Elton bears the disappointment?"
"Say nothing, my dear Emma, while you oblige me to read — not even of Mrs. Elton. Only one page more. I shall soon have done. What a letter the man writes!"
"I wish you would read it with a kinder spirit towards him."
"Well, there is feeling here. — He does seem to have suffered in finding her ill. — Certainly, I can have no doubt of his being fond of her. 'Dearer, much dearer than ever.' I hope he may long continue to feel all the value of such a reconciliation. — He is a very liberal thanker, with his thousands and tens of thousands. — 'Happier than I deserve.' Come, he knows himself there. 'Miss Woodhouse calls me the child of good fortune.' — Those were Miss Woodhouse's words, were they? — And a fine ending — and there is the letter. The child of good fortune! That was your name for him, was it?"