Upon returning home from the wretched Box Hill venture, Emma went straight to her room to compose herself. Her chest did not stop heaving with sobs for a good while yet, and it seemed as soon as she washed the tears from her face, they quickly sprung back into her eyes. Emma had never been so miserable in her life. Her words spoken to Miss Bates during the silly game echoed in her head. To be so cruel, so unfeeling to an old-worse yet, destitute-friend! Mr. Knightley was right, and Emma suddenly felt very doubtful of her own character.
However, Emma had to cease her crying and emerge from her room, lest Mr. Woodhouse begin to concern himself. When she entered the parlor, she enquired after her father and was informed by the servant that he was taking his walk about the garden. Emma had time then to situate herself by the window and take up a bit of embroidery, so that by the time Mr. Woodhouse returned, she should look as collected as usual. It was while Emma was fiddling about with the embroidery that she heard the knock at the window. Could it be Papa? Emma thought, but that would be most irregular, as Mr. Woodhouse would be aware of the startling capacity such a knock at the window could possess. Emma turned in her chair to look out the window directly behind her, and gave a start when she saw none other than Frank Churchill.
“Frank!” she cried, loud enough that he could hear her through the window pane. What a shocking, rather ill-mannered thing to do. Frank had given her quite a fright. On any other day, Emma would have laughed at Frank’s unorthodox antics and it would have been quite in keeping with one of their little games. Today, however, she had had quite enough of Frank and his play. At the back of her mind, Emma quite blamed Frank for encouraging her on in her spiteful teasing of Miss Bates. At least he was part of the instrument of her cruelty, if not the primary cause.
Yet Frank was motioning to her to come outside. He looked tense; rather than smiling as if he thought himself amusing, his brow was furrowed and he seemed to urgently desire her presence outside. Looking at him, Emma suddenly grew alarmed, worried that there was something amiss at Randalls, and that either Mr. or Mrs. Weston was in distress. At that prospect, Emma threw on her shawl and hurried outside to meet Frank where he waited at the window.
“My dear Emma,” Frank said, giving her a stiff little bow.
“What is it Frank? Is your father ill; is Mrs. Weston ill?”
Frank gave an expression of surprise. “Oh no. I am sorry to have alarmed you. It is nothing like that.”
“Well of course you alarmed me,” Emma replied crossly. “Coming to the window like this instead of entering through the house like a civilized person. I immediately supposed that something was wrong.”
“I am sorry. It was folly on my part. I would never have you worry on my account, due to my foolishness. Pray forgive me.”
Emma, against her will, found herself moved by Frank’s urgent entreaty and softened her countenance. “Well are you alright? You seem in distress yourself.”
“I confess I am. Emma, do you have a while to sit and talk with me? I have something to explain to you, and I must allow for it taking some time.”
“Of course, Frank. I always have time for a friend such as yourself and if you are distressed, I hope I can help to alleviate your troubles. I confess myself to be out of spirits because of some unfeeling sentiments I expressed at the picnic. Indeed, I am quite put out with myself.”
“Oh, whatever sentiments you are regretting could not be as damaging as the thoughts I expressed at the picnic. Nay, my conduct of the past several months has been wildly damaging, and you shall see what I mean in a moment.”
Intrigued, Emma suggested they sit upon a stone bench under the shade of a tree. When they were seated, Frank began.
“My story dates back to last October, before I had the pleasure of your acquaintance, before I had returned to Highbury and become reunited with my father and the whole community and begun to know our dear Mrs. Weston. I was quite a fool back then, though it was not even a year ago. Yet I am much changed now; I hope you believe me when I say that I am much altered.
“In October as you know, I was in Weymouth and ran in the same circles as Jane Fairfax. Miss Fairfax and myself have professed to being only a little acquainted but alas, this is a falsehood on both our parts. We were very much acquainted in Weymouth, at least we supposed ourselves to be, enough so that we became betrothed and planned on matrimony as soon as I could approach Mrs. Churchill on the subject, and have the hope of getting her blessing.”
Frank paused here and looked on Emma as the signs of shock began to bloom across her face. Her mouth fell agape in an unbecoming manner yet she could not close it. A pink stain flushed her cheeks and finally, her lips twisted in anger. “You have me deceived during the whole of our intercourse! You have been a false friend, a false son, a false stranger among us! We welcomed you with open arms, we welcomed Jane with open arms, and the whole time you rewarded us with falsehoods and intrigues. It was very badly done.” That last part echoed Mr. Knightley’s remonstration of Emma for her behavior towards Miss Bates; she thought it fitting to say in response to Frank’s deplorable behavior.
“I know. I know. And I hate myself for it. I just could not make my engagement known, because as soon as Mrs. Churchill got wind of it, she would have put an end to it at once. When I first arrived in Hatfield, I thought myself very much in love with Jane. I was in love with the memory of her, for truth be told I could not really know her from our brief, secret courtship in Weymouth. I thought no amount of deceit too much to protect the woman I loved and to conceal our attachment. That is, until I met you.”
“Oh don’t Frank! Please don’t!” Emma turned her face away from him; she couldn’t bear to look at him. She abruptly felt the flood of feelings she had been suppressing these past months. Her pragmatic voice that told her it was not true love she was experiencing, that selflessly set aside her admirer for her friend Harriet, was gone. She was suddenly, painfully aware of the deep affection she felt for Frank and it was terribly heartrending because it was all too late.
“May I continue?” Frank implored. As Emma could not reply, her throat was too thick with tears, Frank went on. “Our friendship was so instantaneous I felt as though I had known you all my life. I loved being in your company; I basked in the flow of your wit and beauty and vivacity. You were so full of life and so similar to me with your love of balls and merriment and mischief. And there was Jane in comparison to you. And she was so sullen and impenetrable and so not like I remembered. Do you recall what I said at Box Hill? That one could not really make a good judgement of a person’s character based on knowing them in a place that was not their natural element? I knew Jane in a place we were both strangers to and I believe now we were both playacting. She was more lively and engaging there and I more serious. I subdued myself to impress Jane and she did not truly know me for who I am, much as I did not truly know her.
“Jane and I had to be indifferent, even cold to one another in public. Yet I took pains to visit her at the Bates’ and to try to carry on our courtship. But I found her cold even in stolen moments and disapproving of my carefree ways. I began to see she was too solemn and I was too flippant for us to ever really be happy together. But I had contracted myself to her and I was the only hope she had of escaping a life of penury or servitude. So I resigned myself to my fate and left early during my first visit so that I could remove myself from the temptation of you. I was falling in love with you and I couldn’t risk spending anymore time in your company, lest I led you on too much or betrayed myself with my feelings for you. I wanted to tell you of Jane before I left you, but I couldn’t bring myself to.”
“Oh! That’s what you wanted to tell me.”
“Yes. So I left and when I returned I tried to distance myself from you, to temper our flirtation. But it was so hard. We get on so easily and I forget myself when I look into your hazel eyes.”
“My hazel eyes,” Emma repeated. “You were referring to me today at Box Hill, when you declared you would have no wife but one with hazel eyes.” Frank nodded. “Not Harriet,” Emma muttered.
Frank looked at her oddly, because of course he knew nothing of Emma’s matchmaking schemes for him and Harriet. He kept on with his story. “Yet today I turned my discourse on the idea that one should never marry one that they have only known for a few weeks in a public place. And Jane replied by saying she did not think such a contract should hold two people to ruin the rest of their lives. It was unfeeling of me to express myself so in public. So after Box Hill, I went round to the Bates’ to have a private discourse with Jane. She informed me that she has resolved to take up the governess position Mrs. Elton secured for her. Her mind was very firmly made up. I professed my love for her out of honor, for I couldn’t conceive of abandoning her to the fate she has so long dreaded just because she discovered that my feelings for her had changed. Yet Jane expressed herself to have honestly fallen out of love with me and to feel as burdened by our engagement as I did. She informed me that she could never stoop to marry me for money instead of love. She very wisely said that two people as disalike as ourselves could never be well matched and that we could never be happy together. With this I could not argue. Jane reassured to me that governessing does not seem such a hell to her now as she once imagined it to be. It is a very good situation-rather like what Mrs. Weston experienced with your family when she was still Miss Taylor. Jane even said that Miss Taylor’s happy experience as a governess and eventual good fortune had assuaged her fears as to being a governess, and she is quite excited to start upon her profession. I dare say she has the temperament, refinement, and learning that will make an excellent governess.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Emma checked her tears on her shawl. She was mortified. That she should be shedding tears over this rake, this scoundrel-
“Emma I am sorry to have grieved you,” Frank began. “I am sorry for all the damage I have caused to everybody’s lives in Highbury. You were right to say I abused you all and abused your good faith in my character. I am undeserving of the warm welcome I have received here. Yet I hope in future to make it up to you all. To repay all the kindnesses bestowed upon me. To prove myself an honorable man.”
“Honorable! Honorable indeed!”
“You are right. I have not been honorable. Yet I mean to improve myself, to atone for my sins. And dare I hope, that as my speech has moved you to some degree, that I still possess some small chance?”
“What chance?” Emma had thoroughly recovered herself and dried her tears. She was studying her hands and refusing to look up.
“A chance with you. A chance to prove my love for you. Because I do love you, Emma. I have done so for months and if you would have me, I would be the happiest man in the world.”
Quite jarringly, Emma began to laugh. She laughed for a good moment and Frank began to grow alarmed, that his sincere declaration of love should be the cause of such mirth. “I am sorry my proposal is so ridiculous to you. Of course you could not take me seriously after my conduct. I have ruined my own chances. And to think, I ruined them before I even met you, by becoming betrothed to another, never knowing that you were waiting for me in Highbury!”
“No.” Emma managed to halt her laughter and speak. “I was just thinking how this is the second proposal I’ve received in a year from a man I was intending for Harriet!”
Frank was obliged to induce Emma to explain herself, and when she explained her matchmaking, he laughed too. “Miss Smith is a delightful creature and a very nice addition to our parties. However, I have only had eyes for you and never had any romantic designs on her. I am sorry to hear you believe that she has affection for me, because I should hate to see her disappointed again. What a bad business with Mr. Elton! He behaved rather unfeelingly towards you both.”
“Indeed.” There was a pregnant pause as both Emma and Frank ruminated on unfeeling behavior. Finally, Emma spoke. “Perhaps you believe yourself to love me now. But not so long ago you supposed yourself in love with Jane. Just an hour ago you were her betrothed! Even if I did believe you, how could I depend upon you? You are a fickle lover, to be sure.”
“But I have known you longer than I knew Jane when I proposed. I have seen you among your friends and family, in your everyday life as I had never witnessed her. I feel that I truly know you and that you truly know me. Now you know everything and there are no more secrets between us. I venture to say that you and I are alike in so many ways. I am obviously deficient where you are virtuous, but we possess the same temperament, the same interests, and before today-at least I fear this has ceased on your part but never on mine-a mutual admiration for each other. I can confidently say that I love you, that I will always love you, and that I would be resolutely happy being married to you.”
“I will admit I have felt myself tied to you from our very first meeting,” Emma said. “I feel such a connection to-as you expressed it-as if I had known you my whole life. And I argue with you that you are so much more lacking in virtues than myself. I have lately become aware that I can be cruel and unfeeling and I have sins I must atone for as well. But at this time, Frank, I cannot accept your proposal.”
Frank looked crestfallen. “At this time. But perhaps in future?”
“Yes. Court me. After an appropriate amount of time has passed since the end of your engagement to Jane. Visit Highbury often, dine with the Westons here at Hartfield, help me plan another ball. Only do not rush this courtship. Let us be sure of our intent to marry before we contract ourselves to do so. I will give you hope, Frank. I have thought, many times, that I am in love with you. I did notice your distancing yourself from me, and so it cooled my ardor. Yet now that you profess your love, I am aware that my feeling ran deeper than I even knew. I could see us happily married to one another. We are very well suited to each other. Only time will tell however, if our love can bear the passage of time, and until we are certain it can, I cannot engage myself to you.”
Frank took one of Emma’s hands in his. “But you do love me?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“And you are giving me another chance.”
The two smiled upon each other, radiant with youth and unexpected joy. Frank brought Emma’s hand to his lips and held it there. When finally he let it go, Emma came to her senses.
“My father must be sick with worry! He has decidedly reentered the house by now and must be wondering where I am. I do hope the servants informed him that I did return home from Box Hill and am not missing. I must go in to see him and reassure him. I must attend to him for the rest of the day I’m afraid, and then tomorrow morning I must see Miss Bates directly, and show her some special attention, for I fear I wounded her with my biting comments this morning.”
“Then you will see Jane,” Frank remarked nervously.
“Yes. I shall wish her well on her venture and be particularly kind to her. I shall not reveal any of my knowledge of her ended engagement with you. Do not fear.”
“I won’t. I trust in your discretion.”
The young people stood up from the bench. It seemed that they had sat there for an eternity, and everything was changed from when they were first seated. Frank kissed Emma’s hand once more and took his leave of her, and Emma ambled into the house, with a smile on her face, that Mr. Woodhouse commented upon right before he began worrying that she had got sunburnt from being outside too much of the day.