The week before Frank Churchill's arrival in Highbury had been both a relief and a torment for Jane Fairfax. The handsome, witty, talented Mr. Churchill had burst upon her life in Weymouth like fresh air and sunshine through the sitting room window on a rainy day, but her relationship with him was enervating. She'd been glad of the few days with her aunt and grandmother in what would have been the quiet of their small rooms were her aunt not so often talking of nothing. Even that was restful, in its way, since she had only to nod and smile in order to keep her aunt happy, and she could dwell in her own thoughts. She missed the pianoforte at the Campbell's very much, however, and it was not many days before she missed Frank as well.
Never before had he visited Highbury, though Jane knew the entire village anticipated him and felt they knew him through his letters to his father; and then he came. He came for her, she knew, and the thought gave her a fluttery feeling. She endured his visits with his new stepmother, but was exhausted by her feelings after he departed. They could look but never touch, speak but not of their true thoughts; yet somehow Frank knew her heart. The instrument, the pianoforte, arrived for her the day after Frank left Highbury for London saying he went to get his hair cut. The gift was his; expensive, imprudent, calling all the wrong attention to her, but precisely what she needed.
Not long after she had played herself to exhaustion at the Coles', Frank and Mrs. Weston visited again. Miss Bates saw them from the window and announced their arrival in her customary pleased and excited, though unfortunately lengthy, manner. They arranged themselves for visitors, "It's Mr. Churchill and Mrs. Weston, Mother," yelled Miss Bates as she propped Jane's grandmother up on faded cushions. Mrs. Bates nodded, "How nice," and fidgeted with her broken spectacles. Jane took up her handwork — she was taking in a new pair of Miss Bates's gloves that were a bit too large at the wrist — and steeled herself for another visit from the man she'd given her heart to when she should have known better.
Voices at the downstairs and feet upon the stair, and then their small sitting room was transformed into a happy party. Jane and her aunt stood as Frank and Mrs. Weston entered, handing coats and hats to Patty, the maid, smiling and exchanging courtesies. Jane allowed herself a long moment of gazing on Frank's beloved face, ruddy from the cold and sparkling with the secret of the gift he'd given her, because it was expected that she should greet him. He returned her regard, almost too warmly. She was forced to look away and was grateful when Miss Bates bad her bring out the baked apples from the closet. Miss Bates hoped their friends would be so very obliging and take some.
Frank reached for an apple and met Jane's eyes. "Oh," he said, "there is nothing in the way of fruit half so good, and these are the finest looking home-baked apples I ever saw in my life." Jane stifled a smile, one of many smiles she'd been forced to stifle in Frank's presence, at his effusiveness and the fact that he looked upon her, not the apples, as he spoke.
As Mrs. Weston took an apple she related how they had just encountered Miss Emma Woodhouse and Miss Smith across the street at Ford's. Frank's interest was caught by the information, Jane saw, just as her elderly grandmother held out her spectacles muttering about how they'd broken. She'd been affected by the loss of her spectacles since the morning, and saw no reason to withhold the information from the assembled party. Frank turned to her at once and respectfully asked to see them. "Oh, I can fasten the rivet, my dear Mrs. Bates, only let me find a tool …" He swept aside her distracted concern that he not trouble himself. "I like a job of that sort excessively." Jane considered him closely while trying not to look upon him overmuch. Helpful and eager to please he was, but surely he saw as she did that her grandmother relished her complaint more than she desired the repair. Why had he taken this job? In the one moment when their gazes met, he flicked his eyes toward Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston and back to her. Unhappily she could not read his message.
The talkative Miss Bates held her tongue only as long as she must, to accommodate Frank's kind offer to her mother, but then took up again the thread of information imparted to her by Mrs. Weston. "Miss Woodhouse!" she exclaimed. "I must run across. I am sure Miss Woodhouse will allow me just to run across and entreat her to come in: my mother will be so very happy to see her: and now we are such a nice party, she cannot refuse."
"Aye, pray do," said Frank from where he sat with spectacles and tool in hand. "Miss Woodhouse's opinion of the instrument will be worth having." From the alacrity of his agreement, Jane suspected his plan. Her grandmother, nearly deaf and now blind since morning, already drowsed in her place by the fire. How, though, would he arrange Mrs. Weston's absence from the room?
Miss Bates stood, a little flurry of indecision as she glanced out the window. "But I will be more sure of succeeding if you will go with me," she said to Frank.
"Oh," Frank said, casting Jane a look that appealed for her intervention, "wait half a minute til I have finished my job."
"Might Miss Woodhouse be gone from Ford's soon?" Jane asked. "Mrs. Weston, might we prevail upon you to accompany my aunt? You only just spoke to Miss Woodhouse."
"Indeed," cried Miss Bates. "You are the very one, Mrs. Weston, who shall persuade her. I am so very sorry to ask you to put on your coat again, when you have only just doffed it … " Jane heard only Mrs. Weston's acquiescence, no other words reached her. In moments she should have Frank to herself, but for a blind and deaf chaperone. Her heart beat so hard her hands at their work trembled.
The door to the apartment shut behind them and voices and footsteps descended the stairwell. Frank stood from the small table where he worked with barely a glance at the drowsing Mrs. Bates. Jane moved to sit at the pianoforte, the ostensible object of his visit. It must serve as her shield.
"Miss Fairfax," cried Frank, "Jane. I may call you Jane, mayn't I?"
How she wanted to say yes. "I think it prudent that we remain formal, Mr. Churchill."
He stood at the pianoforte, his earnest eyes on her. "But we are engaged. Surely I may be allowed that liberty?"
"We have an understanding between us, but until it can be announced to the world, I cannot consider us formally engaged." At his crestfallen look she relented. "Also, it will protect us from making public blunders with our titles."
"Whatever you wish, my dearest angel. Miss Fairfax." He ran his hands over the mahogany. "Only tell me you approve of the instrument and I will be the happiest of men."
"Can you not see how such a conspicuous and mysterious gift makes me an object of speculation and improper talk?"
"Do not tell me you do not like it! My Jane – my Miss Fairfax without her instrument is like a nightingale with no voice."
"I — of course I like it. I like it very much. Thank you." To illustrate her appreciation, she set her hands upon the keys and coaxed from them a child's tune.
He beamed, leaning against the pianoforte, which shifted beneath his weight. "What's this? Is the instrument not true?" He looked now upon the mahogany as if upon a dog which had turned on him.
"It is the floor here," she said. "It dips toward the outer wall. I daresay the pianoforte is perfect."
"Like its owner," Frank said, and Jane felt heat in her face. He was silent for a moment, looking at the sloping floor. "Miss Fairfax, I cannot bear to have the perfect pianoforte balanced imperfectly. Please allow me to find some wood or paper and correct for the slope of the floor."
"Certainly. I will be grateful if you would." Miss Bates's new gloves from Ford's had come wrapped in store paper. "Here is some paper."
Frank considered the leg, the floor and Jane. With a careful glance toward Mrs. Bates, he asked, "Would you consent to lean here, lifting the leg while I place the paper?" Jane saw at once how the positions he requested would place them in an awkward and potentially improper proximity. The realisation did nothing to help the flush fade from her face.
"I —" She regarded his own beloved face, so open and adoring, his eyes wide and playful, the tawny hair trimmed neatly back from his ears. The thought went through her mind that amid the day's work he must have had in London with musical merchants and cartiers, he had remembered to have his hair cut, thereby preserving his deception.
He loved her; she did not doubt him. Her own heart — it was a traitor. She'd been stern with herself to only encourage suitable gentlemen to court her; gentlemen with means who behaved honorably in their suits. Instead she'd fallen in love with an impetuous, reckless admirer whose financial prospects were no more settled than her own. He was nothing like her and was everything she wanted. Everything rational in her quailed to realise she had no guarantee he could or would marry her and secure her situation. Until she could be sure she didn't dare endanger her prospects, no matter how much she loved Frank Churchill.
But at the moment, they were alone. "Of course," she said as her traitorous heart beat rapidly.
Frank took the paper from her, the look in his eyes intent for once, not teasing, and knelt slowly down beside her dress as she leaned against the pianoforte in order to lift the leg. From where she stood Jane could see out the window to the street below. People passed along the street; a gentleman rode by on horseback, and two children raced, laughing, across the road. Jane saw the familiar tableau with more than her usual detachment, conscious as she was of the minutest movement of Frank's where his shoulder brushed unavoidably against her skirts. He took a very long time, shifting ever nearer, his position almost against her limbs so very improper.
Jane was finding her breathing strangely difficult. "Surely it is firm now," she said.
"No, I fear the paper must be folded yet again," his voice sounded hoarse. He looked up at her. "Will you stay?"
There was no denying that Jane was cherishing some reprehensible feelings. She felt light-headed. "I will stay. How long do you think until the others return?"
Still looking up at her, his work neglected, he said, "I hope it may be many months."
Jane flushed yet again. Would he never stand? She could feel his body's warmth even through her garments. "Truly, sir, we must be circumspect when they arrive," she said, though her voice held little conviction.
Slowly Frank stood. Jane released her weight from the instrument. It did not move; Frank smiled in acknowledgement. "We shall hear them and Patty below, I daresay. Am I not right?"
She should move away from him and sit, she told herself, but she only turned her back to the window and faced him more fully. "You are in the right, I believe."
He smiled into her eyes. "I should expect we have ten minutes still. Ladies are not easily distracted when shopping, I believe, and Miss Woodhouse and Miss Smith were only just arriving at Ford's." He captured her hands in his. "Last night at the Coles', my dearest, your playing outshone that of Miss Woodhouse like the sun outshines the moon. Nay, not the moon, the palest star fading before the dawn."
Jane looked down, at their joined hands. "You must not speak so. Miss Woodhouse has not had the advantage of the masters Col. Campbell employed for me."
"Next to you she is a fumbling child, looking only for amusement. Do you know, she has a guess about your mysterious benefactor?"
"Why do I suspect you had something to do with her guess?"
"You wound me, my angel. Don't you want to know whom she suspects?"
Jane had known Miss Emma Woodhouse from childhood. She and the young woman were generally expected to be friends, given their closeness in age, but Miss Woodhouse's comfortable situation allowed her a modicum of gaiety and frivolity that Jane could ill afford. In fact, she realised with chagrin, Miss Woodhouse and Frank Churchill shared many traits. She endured a pang of fear that Frank might truly fall in love with Miss Woodhouse, who could, after all, secure his situation with her own fortune. Jane fought, not for the first time, envy of Miss Woodhouse, despite her own superior accomplishments. She should not allow Frank to gossip with her about Emma, but she longed for reassurance. "You want to tell me and I have no objection to hearing it," she said.
"Very well, then. She believes Mr. Dixon formed an attachment to you."
"Mr. Dixon! Indeed, Fra—Mr. Churchill, you must not encourage her in such damaging speculation."
Frank laughed. "So long as she does not suspect me, let her guess the Prince Regent sent it to you."
The door to the street opened and voices were heard at the stairway. Miss Bates's voice was discernible.
"Curse her," cried Frank. "Has she so little womanly passion for the stores?"
Jane glanced guiltily back at the street out her window. Had she been watching, she could have warned when the party approached the house. "I will not have you curse Miss Woodhouse, even in jest," she said. "You must take care or you shall have her in love with you before long."
His face went from frown to delighted smile in a heartbeat. "Do you think me so lovable then, Miss Fairfax? Have no fear for her heart, my only one. I think it will not be lightly touched, and I shall be no Cupid to her."
"You must release me, sir, and return to your work on the spectacles."
"Let them find us here, just as we are," Frank cried.
"Now you speak foolishness. Let go." True fear of discovery gave her the strength to reject him. She reclaimed her hands as the voices and footsteps reached the top of the stair. She spoke urgently. "You may have captured my heart, but remember, you do not yet have my hand, and if your aunt be not generous, you may have a long wait."
They had mere moments to arrange themselves, Frank at the little table near Mrs. Bates and the fire, working on her spectacles, and Jane beside the pianoforte, her back to the door, struggling to master herself. Miss Bates and the other three ladies burst through the door to the little room, ending Jane's tête-à-tête with her love, but doing little to restore her composure.
The appearance of the little sitting-room as they entered, was tranquillity itself; Mrs. Bates, deprived of her usual employment, slumbering on one side of the fire, Frank Churchill, at a table near her, most deedily occupied about her spectacles, and Jane Fairfax, standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforte.
Busy as he was, however, the young man was yet able to shew a most happy countenance on seeing Emma again.
"This is a pleasure," said he, in rather a low voice, "coming at least ten minutes earlier than I had calculated. You find me trying to be useful; tell me if you think I shall succeed."
"What!" said Mrs. Weston, "have not you finished it yet? You would not earn a very good livelihood as a working silversmith at this rate."
"I have not been working uninterruptedly," he replied, "I have been assisting Miss Fairfax in trying to make her instrument stand steadily, it was not quite firm; an unevenness in the floor, I believe. You see we have been wedging one leg with paper. This was very kind of you to be persuaded to come. I was almost afraid you would be hurrying home."
He contrived that she should be seated by him; and was sufficiently employed in looking out the best baked apple for her, and trying to make her help or advise him in his work, till Jane Fairfax was quite ready to sit down to the pianoforte again. That she was not immediately ready, Emma did suspect to arise from the state of her nerves;
At last Jane began, and though the first bars were feebly given, the powers of the instrument were gradually done full justice to. Mrs. Weston had been delighted before, and was delighted again; Emma joined her in all her praise; and the pianoforte, with every proper discrimination, was pronounced to be altogether of the highest promise.
"Whoever Colonel Campbell might employ," said Frank Churchill, with a smile at Emma, "the person has not chosen ill. I heard a good deal of Colonel Campbell's taste at Weymouth; and the softness of the upper notes I am sure is exactly what he and all that party would particularly prize. I dare say, Miss Fairfax, that he either gave his friend very minute directions, or wrote to Broadwood himself. Do not you think so?"
Jane did not look round. She was not obliged to hear. Mrs. Weston had been speaking to her at the same moment.
"It is not fair," said Emma, in a whisper; "mine was a random guess. Do not distress her."
He shook his head with a smile, and looked as if he had very little doubt and very little mercy. Soon afterwards he began again,
"How much your friends in Ireland must be enjoying your pleasure on this occasion, Miss Fairfax. I dare say they often think of you, and wonder which will be the day, the precise day of the instrument's coming to hand. Do you imagine Colonel Campbell knows the business to be going forward just at this time?—Do you imagine it to be the consequence of an immediate commission from him, or that he may have sent only a general direction, an order indefinite as to time, to depend upon contingencies and conveniences?"
He paused. She could not but hear; she could not avoid answering,
"Till I have a letter from Colonel Campbell," said she, in a voice of forced calmness, "I can imagine nothing with any confidence. It must be all conjecture."
"Conjecture—aye, sometimes one conjectures right, and sometimes one conjectures wrong. I wish I could conjecture how soon I shall make this rivet quite firm. What nonsense one talks, Miss Woodhouse, when hard at work, if one talks at all;—your real workmen, I suppose, hold their tongues; but we gentlemen labourers if we get hold of a word—Miss Fairfax said something about conjecturing. There, it is done. I have the pleasure, madam, (to Mrs. Bates,) of restoring your spectacles, healed for the present."
He was very warmly thanked both by mother and daughter; to escape a little from the latter, he went to the pianoforte, and begged Miss Fairfax, who was still sitting at it, to play something more.
"If you are very kind," said he, "it will be one of the waltzes we danced last night;—let me live them over again. You did not enjoy them as I did; you appeared tired the whole time. I believe you were glad we danced no longer; but I would have given worlds— all the worlds one ever has to give—for another half-hour."
"What felicity it is to hear a tune again which has made one happy!— If I mistake not that was danced at Weymouth."
She looked up at him for a moment, coloured deeply, and played something else. He took some music from a chair near the pianoforte, and turning to Emma, said,
"Here is something quite new to me. Do you know it?—Cramer.— And here are a new set of Irish melodies. That, from such a quarter, one might expect. This was all sent with the instrument. Very thoughtful of Colonel Campbell, was not it?—He knew Miss Fairfax could have no music here. I honour that part of the attention particularly; it shews it to have been so thoroughly from the heart. Nothing hastily done; nothing incomplete. True affection only could have prompted it."
Emma wished he would be less pointed, yet could not help being amused; and when on glancing her eye towards Jane Fairfax she caught the remains of a smile, when she saw that with all the deep blush of consciousness, there had been a smile of secret delight, she had less scruple in the amusement, and much less compunction with respect to her.—This amiable, upright, perfect Jane Fairfax was apparently cherishing very reprehensible feelings.
He brought all the music to her, and they looked it over together.— Emma took the opportunity of whispering,
"You speak too plain. She must understand you."
"I hope she does. I would have her understand me. I am not in the least ashamed of my meaning."
"But really, I am half ashamed, and wish I had never taken up the idea."
"I am very glad you did, and that you communicated it to me. I have now a key to all her odd looks and ways. Leave shame to her. If she does wrong, she ought to feel it."
"She is not entirely without it, I think."
"I do not see much sign of it. She is playing Robin Adair at this moment—his favourite."