Knights In Black Satin (Waistcoats)
Here is a small offering of a changed perspective on the ballroom scene in Emma, with deep apologies to Miss Austen for lifting parts of her prose and the unforgivable presumption of thinking I could add to her ideas--Laraine
Mr. Knightley surveyed the crowded room. He must give Mrs. Weston credit--she'd transformed the place utterly from the dreary chamber he and his colleagues used to discuss parish business into a venue quite suitable for a gathering of Highbury society. He doubted any room at the Crown had ever looked so well. And Mrs. Weston deserved more credit than she would probably receive, considering her husband's ever-increasing band of privy counselors. Smiling as he watched Weston move from one group to the next, he remembered teasing Mrs. Weston that her great ability to do as she were bid would be thrown away on Mr. Weston's easy manners. Time had perhaps proven him wrong. First because Weston's openheartedness was more of a trial to Mrs. Weston's properly discriminating taste than one might have foretold. And second, he had predicted that Weston's son might plague him, and the young man had apparently done little enough of that--he seemed destined to plague everyone but his father. Look at him now! Scurrying about, back and forth to the door, his eyes everywhere but on his lovely interlocutor. What was he about? Commanding all of Emma's attention and not attending to her at all. Insufferable puppy! Knightley turned his back on the whole scene as Mr. Cole greeted him, just missing the insufferable puppy's nearly running to attend Miss Fairfax and Miss Bates as they arrived.
"Do you find the surroundings to your taste, Emma?" Mr. Knightley had moved to greet Miss Woodhouse as soon as decorum would allow him.
"But of course, Mr. Knightley--one can never go astray relying upon Mrs. Weston's excellent taste." She smiled at him and he felt a warmth suffuse him.
"I cannot quarrel with you there," he replied, smiling at her.
"How nice to find you unwilling to quarrel with me, Mr. Knightley," she replied smoothly, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
"I am completely unwilling to quarrel with you, my dear Emma," he responded. "You are in such very fine looks tonight that no man in his senses would quarrel with you."
Emma's eyes widened. "Flattery from you, Mr. Knightley? You are feeling gallant this evening!" the mischief in her eyes heightened. "Thank you indeed. And if it is permissible, may I compliment you on your fine looks?"
A certain color reached his face, he was sure. "Well, I cannot claim that I have been to London to have by hair cut recently," he responded somewhat curtly. Emma was capable of embarrassing him, it would appear. "But I'm glad I can still meet with Miss Woodhouse's approval," he said rather more smoothly.
Emma laughed heartily at this, but they parted as Mrs. Weston required her presence just as Miss Bates claimed his own attention. As he only half-listened to the chatter of his old acquaintance, Mr. Knightley chided himself for the rather childish resentfulness his remark displayed. Wasn't it rather late in the day to start behaving like a jealous fool? Even if he knew in his heart that was all he was.
The room began to stir as the couples started to form for the opening of the dance. This was a moment Knightley had been waiting for--how would the small difficulty he had discerned be got over? Neither Emma nor Mrs. Weston had mentioned it, which meant it had not yet occurred to them. It had occurred to him in passing--why was a question he chose not to pursue--he thought rather too much about Emma these days. But there could be little doubt that Mrs. Elton would expect to lead the dance; there was no less doubt that the Westons had originally meant this honor for Emma. His eyes scanned the room. Yes, there they were, and they were obviously arrived at his own thought. Small problems normally would have occurred to Mrs. Weston much before a crisis actually arose--few proprieties or potential social complications escaped her notice--but in this case she had had the wishes and needs of Weston's tribe of advisors with which to contend. And although Emma certainly would have been gracious enough to concede any point of vanity for the sake of her friends' comfort, the idea of being second obviously hadn't crossed her mind. Being second didn't often cross Emma's mind, he thought, and was obliged to turn his chuckle into a slight cough.
He indulged in a secret smile. Certainly observing Emma's and Mrs. Elton's warring for superiority of position provided private entertainment. But unfortunately the amusement tended to fade quickly. As much as he applauded Emma's being made to realize the limitations of her right to rule in Highbury, Mrs. Elton was becoming extremely hard to bear. Her innate vulgarity soon washed away any merriment she afforded. He began inconspicuously to move in the direction of the discussion. Perhaps he might be of service in the present situation. As much as he generally disliked dancing, his offering to dance with Emma might perform the double service of calming the present tempest and of preventing Emma from dancing at least the first dance with Frank Churchill.
But no. He stopped. They had settled it themselves by persuading Weston himself to dance with Mrs. Elton. How suitable--the vanity of both women could be completely gratified. He firmly fought down his disappointment. He had no intention of dancing, he reminded himself. He had no taste for it. He was fine where he was, watching the set as it formed. He was gratified that Jane Fairfax had found herself a partner. Mr. Elton was likely to be an adequate dancer--he'd taken enough care in making himself an eligible match before his marriage that no social skill so fundamental would have gone unattended. And indeed, when all was done, it mattered very little how well anyone danced with a young lady. What mattered was that she was asked. With the addition of the young Coxes and Hugheses the set was formed, and without him. All for the best, to be sure.
He caught Emma's eye and clearly saw the message she wanted to convey. They'd been sharing looks over her father's head for so many years now that they spoke a secret language fluently. He smiled back at her as he thought of how she would chide him later. Here he stood, where she would say he did not belong, classing himself among the husbands, fathers, and whist-players. Her claim had some merit, he supposed. Weston was dancing--a married man older than himself, and moreover he was leading the set with a preening Mrs. Elton--but that was enough to put one off dancing altogether. But he need not dance with Mrs. Elton.
His eye strayed to Emma once again. How lovely she was. How he loved to look at her, even when she was dancing with Frank Churchill, at whom he could not say he loved to look. The man was too handsome for his own good, and although he'd managed to inherit all of his father's charm, he had little of the thoughtfulness or concern for others that marked Mr. Weston as a person worth knowing. No, his opinion of Mr. Frank Churchill had not changed for the better since he had found grave fault with the young man for neglecting to visit his father on the occasion of his marriage. The young man had hurt Mrs. Weston, although she was quite ready to forgive. And besides his neglect of his duties and the utter foppery of traveling to London for a haircut, there was something in Frank Churchill's manner that simply made Mr. Knightley uneasy. Some of the problem was his treatment of Emma--a problem not unlike the problem that Harriet Smith posed in Emma's life. Emma did not have a temperament that ought to be surrounded and cushioned by the attentions of flatterers. Perhaps Knightley himself spent too much time blaming and scolding Emma--but Churchill, Miss Smith, even Mr. Woodhouse, were rather a threat to her sensible estimation of herself. Someone had to stand up for the sensible view, or Emma might be lost to reasonable behaviour. No, it was proof of his real affection for her that he always told her the truth. Wasn't truth the basis for all real communication, all true esteem? And that was his perhaps his real problem with Frank Churchill. There was something insincere in his manner that Knightley found hard to overlook. Why couldn't Emma see this? Was his flattery so very blinding to her? Perhaps Knightley expected too much of her. She was not yet twenty-two--she had much to learn. There might come a day when she would blush to recall her own behaviour. He could but wait to see if it arrived.
Mrs. Perry recalled him from his reverie, and he moved to speak with her. His concerns could not be answered this night, and he owed the Westons a better countenance.
"Mr. Knightley, good evening," the older woman said graciously. "You do not dance, sir?"
"No, Mrs. Perry. It is not an amusement in which I can I take much pleasure, I fear," he returned with a smile as he moved along. He was not about to share with Mrs. Perry the fact that the one woman with whom he might willing have stood up was dancing happily with Frank Churchill, and might be so engaged throughout much of the evening. Whenever he looked at Emma, she forced him to smile. But in general his spirits had taken a turn towards gravity. Frank Churchill had such an effect on his humor.
The evening passed on. All were in good spirits, and the Westons could claim much success in there scheme. They were earning the good will and approbation of their neighbors with a vengeance. Mr. Knightley wished he could learn to love a ballroom better, but he was happy for his friends' success. But what held Emma's glance? Ah, Harriet Smith was alone, meaning that something had gone awry with Mrs. Weston's numbers, although they had proceeded smoothly at matching couples perfectly until this point. Knightley followed Emma's eyes as they shifted to Mr. Elton. What little drama might be unfolding here? Emma's countenance held nothing whatever of amusement. Something was at once wounding her and angering her. Elton was not heading towards the cardroom. Mrs. Weston was speaking to him. Knightley moved closer to hear as well as watch--quite unobserved by them all.
It would seem that Mr. Elton had no intention of dancing with Miss Smith, and Mrs. Weston bluntly was being informed of that fact. Mrs. Elton's looks were directing the whole. This called for action. It was one thing to have sat by sardonically observing Emma's plots concerning Elton and Miss Smith as they went awry. Knightley had warned her and she had persisted. Miss Smith had been hurt by it materially, but there was little Knightley could do about that. But here was quite another case. It could not be acceptable to see the Eltons' excessive pride and inordinate resentment mortifying the feelings of so unpretending and sweet a girl as Miss Smith. Truly insupportable. This would never do. It would seem his Emma needed a hero. He was across the intervening space and addressing Miss Smith before another moment passed.
"My dear Miss Smith," he began, sending her as winning a smile as he knew how to muster, "If you are not otherwise engaged, will you do me the honor of dancing this set with me?" He said it quite loudly enough for both the Eltons to hear and hear clearly. He would not honor either of them with so much as a look; they had proven themselves beneath contempt. His smile and his attentions were all for Emma's friend, who rewarded him in turn with a smile and an eye full of gratitude.
"Th-thank you, Mr. Knightley," she managed to stammer out. "I am not engaged, and would be much obliged." She had a lovely soft voice. He offered her his hand and she accepted it with grace and alacrity.
"You have no need to thank me, Miss Smith. I'm sure all the pleasure and honor certainly belong on my side," he responded as he led her to the bottom of the set.
What a pretty young woman she was after all. True, her eye afforded none of Emma's real intelligence or ready wit--this was not the sort of woman with whom one might indulge in unspoken conversation--but there was a warmth and sincerity in her speech and manner that was really charming. He was extremely gratified with his partner. And he was equally gratified--no, to be quite honest, he was more gratified--by the looks his action brought him from Emma's eyes. Perhaps dancing had some merits, he thought wryly. He might perhaps develop a taste for it after all, he thought as he bowed to Miss Smith as the music ended and the couples fell into applause. If Miss Smith thought his merry glance was all for her, that could do no one any harm.
How much general good will one could bring upon oneself by simply doing the right thing, Mr. Knightley thought to himself as the second dance began. Why Elton was so eager to behave in the contrary manner was simple perversity--neither logical or sensible. His flight to the cardroom after Miss Smith joined the dance only proved that he was not so hardened that he did not know the difference. From this time forward Elton would know the coolness Mr. Knightley afforded to those he thought incapable of understanding the importance of behaving properly. For with such a wife, Mr. Elton was unlikely to make amends toward any of them.
He had no opportunity of speaking with Emma through supper, but once they had assembled in the ballroom again, her eyes sent the clearest invitation for him to come and be thanked properly. As he neared her she held out her hands to him.
"Mr. Knightley," she said, her voice full of feeling. Why did he see the start of a tear in her eye?! He took her hands in his own and smiled. She really was a young woman of great kindness and sympathy. Her feelings for her friend showed her real nature. What was she not worthy of?
"My dearest Emma, do not let the unpardonable rudeness of Mr. Elton hurt you so," he told her softly. He shook his head to clear it of the haze her lovely eyes were casting about him. "What does he not deserve? The scoundrel! And his wife! They have no longer any claim to decent treatment!" He warmed to his subject. That they should make his Emma cry!
(Here I provide for you in italics Miss Austen's own dialogue, upon which I would *never* presume I could improve:)
"They aimed at wounding more than Harriet," said he. "Emma, why is it that they are your enemies?" She was silent, and embarrassed. Here was an instance in which she had learned to blush for her own behaviour, it would appear. He went on.
"She ought not to be angry with you, I suspect, whatever he may be.--To that surmise, you say nothing, of course; but confess, Emma, that you did want him to marry Harriet."
"I did," replied Emma, "and they cannot forgive me." He shook his head at her mistake, but really, she so obviously repented of her error that he could only forgive her utterly.
"I shall not scold you. I leave you to your own reflections."
"Can you trust me with such flatterers?--Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?"
"Not your vain spirit, but your serious spirit.--If one leads you wrong, I am sure the other tells you of it."
"I do own myself to have been completely mistaken in Mr. Elton. There is a littleness about him which you discovered, and which I did not: and I was fully convinced of his being in love with Harriet. It was through a series of strange blunders!"
"And, in return for your acknowledging so much, I will do you the justice to say, that you would have chosen for him better than he has chosen for himself.--Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities, which Mrs. Elton is totally without. An unpretending, single-minded, artless girl--infinitely to be preferred by any man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton. I found Harriet more conversable than I expected."
Emma looked extremely gratified, and indeed Knightley was more gratified than he cared to examine closely. The fact that they could think so exactly alike on even this matter gave him deep pleasure. Perhaps he ought to forgive Elton everything. He had no idea when he had felt closer in spirit to Emma, and in consequence been closer to perfect happiness, than he was at this moment.
But interruption came before he could accept it with any satisfaction. Here was Mr. Weston calling on every body to begin dancing again.
"Come Miss Woodhouse, Miss Otway, Miss Fairfax, what are you all doing?--Come Emma, set your companions the example. Every body is lazy! Every body is asleep!"
"I am ready," said Emma, "whenever I am wanted."
"Whom are you going to dance with?" asked Mr. Knightley, fearing that the seemingly inevitable name of Churchill was about to slap him in the face.
She hesitated a moment, and then replied, "With you, if you will ask me."
"Will you?" said he, offering his hand, trying to ensure that it betrayed nothing of the tremor that went through him.
"Indeed I will. You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper."
"Brother and sister! no, indeed." was his reply as he led her to the set. He allowed his thoughts to stray in a direction in which he seldom indulged. Someday, Emma, he thought, perhaps I can prove to you just how much we are more than relations, more than friends. But for now, I will grasp the moment at hand.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.