Mrs. Elton’s kind attentions to Jane Fairfax had become habit with her, and accordingly she dispatched her carriage to fetch her friend and Miss Bates on the night of the ball at the Crown. She was in great hopes of this ball, for it would introduce her to Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill. He would be a new, and it might be, a friendly element in the society that was so sternly arrayed against her; and it had not failed to enter her mind that, with some leading from herself, a match between him and Jane might be brought about. Frank Churchill was said to be a very fine young man; and Jane had a heart unattached. She had shown no disposition to try to marry Mr. Knightley, so perhaps Frank Churchill would be the lucky man.
All Mrs. Elton’s happy hopes and schemes were doomed, however, by her very early seeing that Frank Churchill did not take to her. She wore lace and pearls, and Wright had spent hours curling her hair into an elaborate arrangement, but Mr. Churchill did not seem to notice her elegant appearance, and only joined with Miss Woodhouse in directing disapproving looks toward the vicar’s wife. It could not have been any thing she did herself; their acquaintance was not more than ten minutes old, she had only had time to exchange compliments on their dress with Jane, and yet it was plain that he did not like her. He had been told not to like her, by Miss Woodhouse. They talked like intimate friends; probably they had matrimony in mind for themselves: no hopes for Jane there. Mrs. Elton reflected on the consoling thought that the result of a match between Mr. Churchill and Miss Woodhouse would be the removal of the lady from Highbury. As the new Mrs. Churchill, living at Enscombe, she would be quite out of Mrs. Elton’s sphere. It was of all things to be desired.
Mrs. Elton was somewhat cheered by seeing how very much she was the queen of the evening, as a bride had every right to be. She had the honor of opening the ball with Mr. Weston, though it did not escape her notice that Frank Churchill was guilty of some maneuvering to avoid dancing with her. He wanted to dance with Miss Woodhouse instead. Mrs. Elton could excuse that; but she felt evidences of coldness and exclusion everywhere she turned. In the glances exchanged by Mr. Knightley and Miss Woodhouse – by Miss Woodhouse and Miss Smith. They were all her enemies, yet what had she done to any of them? Her ways, her manners were not like theirs; she knew that well enough. She was not capable of their sort of superior insolence, the exquisite politeness that only pointed up the disdain beneath: when she thought a thing, she said it. If they were so petty and exacting as to mind such a difference in her, and disapprove of the manner when the heart was right, what hope had she of ever living in harmony with any of them?
Mrs. Weston, whom Mrs. Elton had never supposed capable of a deliberate unkindness, was the originator of the evening’s most uncomfortable moment. Mrs. Elton and her husband had privately agreed that he would not dance with Miss Woodhouse or Miss Smith, if he could help it. To be sure, the question of dancing with Miss Woodhouse did not arise; he could be no more eager to avoid the encounter than she was. There came, however, a moment when Harriet was disengaged. Mr. Elton would not ask her to dance. It must be common knowledge to every one in the room that the girl was still in love with him, he, a married man – only observe how she sat in the corner, making sheep’s eyes at him, in a way that every body must understand. That was how she had goggled at him, several times each day, since long before his marriage. It was only to be expected that Mr. Elton’s asking Miss Smith to dance would feature prominently in Highbury gossip. Therefore, to show the Highbury world that he cared nothing for her, he walked about, ostentatiously disengaged. It was then that Mrs. Weston, kindly but with ill-judging interference, directly asked him to dance with Miss Smith!
Mr. Elton caught his wife’s eye. He would not pain her for the world, by dancing with a girl so obviously, so embarrassingly in love with him; and he made some fumbling excuse and backed away from Mrs. Weston. She was mortified, which he regretted, but could not help. Miss Woodhouse had heard and seen the whole thing, and was glaring daggers at them both. For her part, Augusta could not be sorry that her husband had been loyal to her, and she smiled at him, with relief. What was her astonishment, a moment later, when Mr. Knightley himself led Harriet to the set! She understood his action well enough. Mr. Knightley felt sorry for Harriet, and was another of those who disliked Mrs. Elton – influenced by Miss Woodhouse of course – and wished to spite her. She was sorry for it. She had thought better of his good nature.
The Westons, to soothe the ruffled feelings that were fluttering about the room, took special care to invite Mrs. Elton to lead the train into the chamber where the supper was laid. All eyes were upon her as she swept by, and she felt her cheeks burning, but tried to hold her head up with some dignity, and to show herself unconcerned, though she saw Miss Woodhouse’s dark, resentful looks upon her the whole time.
Whatever snobberies her neighbors practiced, Mrs. Elton was no faint spirit to be daunted by them, and would not desist in her tries to be liked and accepted by the best society in Highbury. She must live here always; she was fixed to the spot; and in her position as the vicar’s wife, it would be most becoming to forgive her enemies. In consequence of such like reflections, she determined that there should be a dinner party, arranged in the proper style; and not many days had passed since the ball at the Crown, before she graciously invited Mr. Knightley, Jane, and Mr. and Mrs. Weston to dine, with the intention of showing that she harbored no ill will to any one. She dared not go so far as to invite Miss Woodhouse, even though there had been a dinner given for her at Hartfield; for she was quite certain that Miss Woodhouse would never accept her invitation.
If Augusta had some lingering hopes of creating an opportunity for an attachment to develop between Mr. Knightley and Jane, her efforts were not met with success. Jane spent the evening sitting by Frank Churchill, who amused her with stories that seemed to be about Ireland, and the Dixon party – Mrs. Elton could not quite catch the sense of it, but Mr. Churchill’s mirth was evident, and seemed to give Mr. Knightley much pain. His eyes were often on the young pair, and she could see jealousy written plainly on his features. There could be no doubt that he was in love with Jane Fairfax, and doomed to disappointment.
The dinner carried on like most such occasions; a little flirtation, some indifferent wit, and the most remarkable feature of the evening being Augusta’s elaborate piles of exotic fruit that she had imported at great expense from London.