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Discordancy

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It’s like a broken clock she cannot set aright, somehow both too fast and too slow; or the draft from a carelessly opened door that she cannot place, sighing its sobering chill into even the gayest of parlours.

And it is at its strongest, perhaps, whenever she chances to hear Miss Fairfax play – when she is obliged to sit in quiet agitations from her vantage of the sofa, her heart’s staccato an indelicate counterpoint to the melody and her breath oddly caged at the swell of Miss Fairfax’s silver-edged voice—too delicate for her to fully comprehend in its accents and subtleties, too piercing for her to possibly ignore—and the sight of Miss Fairfax’s hands passing with innate sympathy over the keys of the pianoforte. She hardly knows what to make of it, the sudden ache she feels, the longing that might have been joyful if it didn’t bedevil her with its very intangibility, and though she cannot entirely concede to Mr Knightley that she is simply haunted by her own shortcomings, even when the only company is her own reflection, she knows not what else to think.

*

“Is she not divine?” effuses Frank Churchill, close to her ear yet with far too much exuberance for his observation to be any kind of shared confidence between them. “See how her lashes are turned down against her cheek – it is heaven when she pretends not to hear us, simply heaven!”

Jane’s lashes are indeed darkly lowered, although this apparent demurring is accompanied by no comely blush of secret delight – but then Emma feels she herself must surely be glowing red enough for a hundred modest maids, lacquered with a deep, shameful bloom of scarlet that slowly overwhelms any wholesome tint of health of merriment. She cannot say she cares for this new game between the three of them, not when it forces Jane to ensconce herself back in her chill, porcelain shell of reserve – when she would so rather feel the warmth of her friend’s happiness than fruitlessly admire all her starry, untouchable elegance – and not when she herself is mocked by these raptures, supposed to find it blithely agreeable for Jane’s graces to be their objects of sport, as though there was nothing between ivory hands and ivory letters – it is not to be borne! Yet she knows she has no right to feel slighted by his groomly ardour, knows this is not entirely the guilt of an accomplish – for when she lightly rebukes Frank Churchill for his wickedness and sets them on the path of rightfulness, she cannot laugh her blush away – and so she is left at sea with herself until she can return to Hartfield. To George.

There was no match she could wish for Miss Fairfax, and if this failure of the world to oblige her imagination ever vexed her – as indeed it had, momentarily – then that mattered little, compared to the worries that snag at her now there is no match she can wholeheartedly wish for the imminent Mrs Churchill.

*

“You’d never guess half the nonsense I heard from Frank Churchill today,” she says – less archly than she wishes – to her dear husband, whose eye she meets in the mirror.

Her hair is loose now, and as she smooths it beneath the boar-bristles of her brush, she can feel a languorous, irresistible heat starting to overtake her limbs as she basks in her husband’s quiet regard. It is this kindling warmth that she clings to while she tries to marshal her thoughts; this indolent, provocative playfulness that she uses to give levity to her account of her visit to Randalls.

Despite her best efforts, her voice still quavers with reedy brightness when she proclaims Frank Churchill to be “very much in love,” although she can think of nothing to suggest the contrary; yet while there are many ways for a man to be thus occupied, she cannot help but grow uneasy as she feels the discrepancies between the eager, restless eye of Frank Churchill and the level gaze of her own dearest George – but Frank is naturally high-spirited, of course, and willing to be pleased by everything he sees, so she can only conclude that these effluent indiscretions are simply youthful blunders. And as for Jane – yes, George was quite right; Jane had wit and virtue enough to refine all his sensibilities, should she need to, and besides, Emma must now withdraw from all her ill-starred meddling to gather up her own happiness in both hands.

And when she goes to George, pinning him down into the bedclothes and teasingly curling her knees about his waist, that is precisely what she does.

*

Frank Churchill goes often to London, though his marriage has yet to lose its dew of freshness, and he talks often to Emma of its pleasures in same redolent ecstasies that were once reserved for his new wife, never broaching the boundaries of decency and yet always remaining in want of its touch. It is not long before Emma feels something akin to dread whenever she hears the Churchills will be at Randalls, and though she talks to her father lightly of the joy in friends returning, as befits her daughterly duty, she sees the gloom of it as clearly as a gathering cloud.

She invites Jane to Hartfield often, and though her friend burdens her with no sighs of sorrow, she is still determined that her cheer must brighten the drawing room like the candlelight that gleams over the black depths of Jane’s unjewelled hair. But whenever Emma chances to see her smile reflected in the gilded eye of the mirror, its effect is far from magnifying.

“Have you thought to… to ask Mr Churchill if he might ever detain his business in the capital?” she says at last, when she can bear it no longer.

When Jane looks up at her, grey and clear and cool, Emma fears that she has overstepped her mark once more, and waits for Jane to draw herself aloft as she has so many times before. “I shouldn’t care to make it my place,” Jane tells her quietly, and Emma strains, with all her half-refined understanding of human nature, to catch the nuances which lie beneath Jane’s steady cadence.

“I couldn’t bear it,” she finds herself whispering, in an uncertain echo of Jane’s quiet conviction. “The loneliness, the disgrace of it – I should infinitely prefer to”—(just in time, she falls short of letting her thoughts return to being the solitary mistress of Hartfield)—“to assert myself, as I am certain you could,” she finishes softly, reaching to take Jane’s hand in hers.

“But I do not find my situation unequal, I assure you,” Jane soothes, her voice low and rich with the warmth that darkens her timbre when she allows herself to become animated. “I knew that Mr Churchill’s regard would be – bright and brief, once all our obstacles were cleared,” she says, her eyes chilled not by disdainful reserve, but by the steel of resolution.

“I would still wish better for you,” Emma says fiercely, her old righteousness flaring briefly, like a guttering flame. Quite overcome, she closes the slender expanse of brocade between them on the sofa, and begins to raise Jane’s hand, perhaps to her heart – but she hesitates at the last, and the unbidden memory of George once doing the same to her is stark in her mind as she looks on the white, trembling suspense of their gloved hands.

“But you mustn’t,” cried Jane. “Indeed, you cannot – I knew I could anticipate no greater happiness than this”—she nodded to their entwined fingers—“and when I had to chuse between the trade of my hand and the trade of my mind, I knew which was the lesser betrayal.” Her breath came quickly now, and her face was lit with feverish passion, such that Emma was almost afraid to look on it; yet Jane was in no want of self-possession as she concluded, “To live in independence, even in marriage, to have a friend such as you – that is all I have ever wanted, and I regret no part of it.”

Not knowing what to say, Emma leans over to kiss her, where a tear glimmers just below dark lashes; and once her lips bend to the high arch of Jane’s cheek, once she is drinking in Jane’s poignancy like a dark wine, intoxicating in all its heady complexities, she knows.

It is not the arrow-quiver that shot through her when she knew George could marry no one but herself; but it is as though the door to the unexamined chamber of her heart has been thrown open, the light of clarity giving shape to what she could only wonder at in the darkness of her ignorance.

As she draws back in a fretful rustle of muslin, she sees Jane graze her fingers over the ghost of her touch, as though in amazement, pressing at it with a delicacy of feeling which defies the tumbling ordinariness of common girlhood affection, and she holds Jane’s hand close, still, even though she does not know what else to do now she is looking on the impossible.

It is this way that Mr Knightley finds them.

Jane, who could once conceal her secret shames by going through the motions of society as though she were the perfect automaton, does not meet his eye as she excuses her sudden flight from Hartfield.

*

“She believes this to be the lesser betrayal,” says Emma, hushed and confessional, when George has blown out the very last candle.

“And would you censor her for that?” he asks, not accusatorily, but Emma is still entirely familiar with the gentle probing of her thoughts, and for once she longs for the benediction of his understanding.

“No – but I scarcely know how to feel.” To see her friend’s marriage reduced to the vulgarity of trade, to see Frank Churchill’s flagrancy met with tactic approval, to finally see her whole heart revealed to her in the light of its transgressions – it goes against her every yearning to simply take pleasure in the order of her world, to arrange it as a garden of delight, pretty pairs all in a row, and think nothing of the shadows which the sun must inevitably cast between them.

“Are you content with your understanding of the intimacy between Mrs Churchill and yourself?” George presses her warmly, with his words and with a soothing hand across her huddled shoulders, and she feels devastatingly exposed in the forgiving darkness. George sees her clearly, as always, and she cannot distance herself from this disquieting truth through any amount of her nonsensical reason or proud indignation; again, she feels the tug of affinity to Jane, and she knows that to dishonour it would be the only ignominy to equal her faithlessness.

“Now I can see my admiration for what it always was – and why I was so loathe to give it! How it maddened me, as you once did! But – oh, what good can it do? To be Frank Churchill’s equal in thoughtless avarice, even with the wisest and the best of—”

“That gentleman,” her husband cuts in, with a gravity that she dreads even in its dear familiarity, “is your equal in neither conscience nor honesty, and I’m certain you are not his in your affections.”

“I won’t be unfaithful,” she murmurs, dazedly.

Emma,” he sighs, kissing her crown of hastily unpinned hair, “dearest, most impossible of women, you could never be unfaithful. There can be no infidelity where there is your openness, your integrity.”

*

Jane is warm and unabashed before her, white and smooth as any maiden of marble, though no statue can ever hope to equal her elegance of touch; no statue has voice to equal her cries; and Emma is certain there is no sculptor that may capture Jane in all her depth and breadth of feeling. (When the heavy weight of Jane’s gown fell to the floor, Emma had been nearly terrified to think of touching her, in all her superiority; but she had George at her stays, and it was impossible for her to ever feel anything but delightfully arch and bold when she was in his arms.)

Afterwards, she laughs, and thinks to tease her husband with his distance from the mark in supposing she ever merely wished Jane’s accomplishments for herself.