Priya wrinkled her nose and threw the eReader down on the sofa cushion beside her. It bounced off the throw pillow and nearly fell onto the floor before she caught it. The eReader had been a Christmas present from her favourite uncle, part of a set of the latest electronic gadgets designed to improve her life. She most certainly was enjoying the features the device had to offer, from its beautiful selection of fonts to its Internet access to a wealth of images and background information—all accessible through a connection to the voice assistant he had given the family—to its clean and simple design. But most of all, she was enjoying the expansive library of classics her uncle had pre-loaded on the reader. “You will love these, Priya! Start with Jane Austen’s Emma. Her characters are wonderful.” Enthralled, Priya had done just that.
Her uncle had been right. She was loving it! She stole every moment she could to read, eagerly absorbing every word, every turn of phrase, growing to care for the characters, to know them as well as her brother and her best friends. Jane Austen’s prose was wonderful too, her observations of humanity profound, her oh-so-polite wit sharp and lethal. Until just this moment, Priya had been completely absorbed in the story of Emma Woodhouse and her fingers in every pie in Highbury. Oh, what a great story it had been. Until now.
What on earth had Jane Austen been thinking? Emma surely could not be thinking of accepting slimy Mr. Elton. It was unthinkable! Priya picked up the novel and reread those last lines. There it was in black and white: in the carriage ride home from Randalls on that snowy Christmas eve, Mr. Elton had made his unwanted proposal, and Emma had actually promised to consider it.
It really was so. Without scruple — without apology — without much apparent diffidence, Mr. Elton, the lover of Harriet, was professing himself her lover. She tried to stop him; but vainly; he would go on, and say it all…Accordingly, with a mixture of the serious and the playful, which she hoped would best suit his half and half state, she replied —
“I am very much astonished, Mr. Elton. This to me! you forget yourself—you take me for my friend—any message to Miss Smith I shall be happy to deliver; but no more of this to me, if you please.”
“Miss Smith! Message to Miss Smith! What could she possibly mean!”—And he repeated her words with such assurance of accent, such boastful pretense of amazement, that she could not help replying with quickness,
“Mr. Elton, this is the most extraordinary conduct! and I can account for it only in one way; you are not yourself, or you could not speak either to me, or of Harriet, in such a manner. Command yourself enough to say no more, and I will endeavour to forget it.”
“But Miss Woodhouse, surely you have not mistaken me! My attentions have been towards you and you alone! Miss Smith is of consequence to me only by virtue of the fondness felt towards her by yourself. But my attachment—my heart—is yours alone!”
What could Emma make of this? Never before had she been the recipient of such devoted affection; never had any man, and especially not one as handsome as Mr. Elton, appealed to her generous nature and sought to win her love. In the enormity of it, she fell silent, which her companion welcomed as encouragement.
“Miss Woodhouse—Emma— do not mistake me! My visits to Hartfield have been for yourself only; and the encouragement I received—indeed, your very silence now—speaks of a heart willing at least to consider my suit!” He reached for her hand, which she quickly withdrew from his grasp.
“Do not refuse me now! Say you will think of my offer. Do not crush my heart like a paper valentine!”
And to this, Emma could do nothing but accept.
This just could not be. “Emma!” she groaned, “Think twice! He is not the man for you!” On the window ledge by the potted plant, Xandia the voice assistant blinked its agreement. Really, Emma was destined for someone else. Frank Churchill, perhaps, who had promised to come to visit his father and new step-mother. Yes—Frank must be the man for Emma. Surely they were the couple predestined from childhood to meet and fall in love and marry. Anyone but Elton!
“Priya? Are you home?” Her mother’s voice rang from the kitchen door. “Your brother just called. He’s coming over with Allie in a few minutes to set up the television Uncle Anant bought us. They’re bringing pizza. Can you help me clear the TV stand? I think those are all your books on there.”
She sighed. She would have to return to Emma and her disastrous ideas another time. The rest of this evening was sure to be very, very busy!
There would be no more reading that night. Dev and Allie had chosen last night to announce their engagement and any hopes of settling back down with Emma had vanished in the light of the family celebration. By the time the fancy new TV was set up and congratulatory drinks poured and plans for an engagement party discussed and rejected, the clock was hinting at midnight.
Consequently, it was not until the next morning that Priya returned to her book. At last, settled back on the sofa with a mug of steaming tea at her side and Xandia blinking benignly on the windowsill, she flipped open the case to the eReader and turned the device on. The ground outside was covered in snow and she could hear the icy wind through the double-paned windows. It was a perfect day for reading.
Hah! This was fun! Emma was snowed in as well. It was Christmas in the novel, but Emma did not have to face Mr. Elton at church because of the weather. On the page, the character Emma expressed her relief at this, and on the comfortable sofa, Priya did likewise. At least Emma would have more time to contemplate Elton’s offer and find some witty manner of rejecting it.
The morning tea was brought, and the maid sent away, and Emma sat down to think and be miserable. She had never sought Mr. Elton’s attentions, and ought to be outraged by them, and yet she could not help but feel flattered to be so singled out by so handsome a man. He wished, of course, to improve his own consequence by marrying well, and was assuredly as much enamoured with her thirty thousand pounds as with her charm, but he was a respectable man, and marrying him would allow her to remain in Highbury, near to Hartfield, wherein her father resided. She could never leave her father! This must be a point highly in Mr. Elton’s favour!
“Begging your pardon, miss,” a footman approached. “I know not how it arrived, this being Christmas Day and the ground too covered in snow to travel, but there is a message for you.” He placed the salver at her side and bowed his exit.
What a curious matter. Emma reached for the note and broke the seal.
~Emma, think twice. He is not the man for you!~
Priya blinked. She rubbed her eyes and read the line again. What a perfectly strange coincidence! Those were exactly the words she had exclaimed last night when Emma agreed to consider Elton’s proposal. “I’m thinking like Jane Austen!” she giggled.
In the book, Emma was likewise perplexed.
How came this message to be in her house? It was weather which might fairly confine everybody at home; her father so well satisfied with his being in his own house, too wise to stir out; and to hear him say to Mr. Knightley, whom no weather could keep entirely from them—“Ah! Mr. Knightley, why do not you stay at home like poor Mr. Elton?”
It must have been Mr. Knightley, then, who had been the means of delivery, but where had he received the message? For it was not his hand on the paper. Neither, she now grasped, did he nor any other person know of Elton’s offer, unless the man himself had told of it. But no, for her father just now had announced that Elton had stayed at home. How strange this all was.
“Just be sure not to accept Elton. There’s someone better for you,” Priya told the book with a smile. On the windowsill, Xandia blinked its green light as if in agreement once more.
Mr. Knightley could still be heard talking with Mr. Woodhouse when the footman entered once more. “Another message, Miss Woodhouse, sitting on the table by the door. No one has entered to bring it to us, but it is for you.”
Another message? Just appeared in so strange a manner, and in all this snow, and on Christmas as well? What strange work was this? Emma once more broke the seal.
~Just be sure not to accept Elton. There’s someone better for you.~
The reader slipped from Priya’s fingers. This must be some weird coincidence. There was absolutely no possible way her exasperated comments could make their way into a 200-year-old novel. Was there? As a joke, she asserted, “Frank Churchill has promised to visit. Perhaps he is the man for you.” Xandia blinked its inscrutable green blink, and Priya glanced back down at the book. The words shifted on the screen as she read.
Once more, the footman entered with a message mysteriously received.
~Frank Churchill has promised to visit. Perhaps he is the man for you.~
This was remarkable! Hardly believable! Somehow, Priya’s words were making their way into the novel she was reading. Was she dreaming? Had there been something off in the food that Dev and Allie had brought over last night, or in the celebratory drinks? Too much spice in Mama’s samosas? What else could explain what she was seeing? Eyeing her tea with suspicion, she turned back to the story.
Whatever the cause of her decision, Emma was now back in Priya’s good graces. Emma had taken advantage of a break in the weather to sneak out to visit her sick friend Harriet, and on her walk had left a letter at the rectory in which she politely refused Elton’s proposal. This was much better! Elton, of course, had reacted by getting into a snit and running away to Bath for a few weeks, supposedly to visit friends. Careful not to speak her thoughts aloud, Priya rejoiced that any relationship between Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Elton had been nipped in the bud.
With eager eyes, she continued reading the wonderful novel. With the new start of the new year, life in Highbury was getting interesting! In the second week of January, Jane Fairfax arrived in the village. She was an orphan whose beauty and accomplishments left Emma feeling a little more in the shadows than her ego desired. This ought to set up some fun interactions! And then, not so long afterwards, Emma got the most unexpected news: Mr. Elton was getting married! This was sudden—must be some floozy he met in Bath.
“As to who, or what Miss Hawkins is, or how long he has been acquainted with her,” said Emma, “nothing I suppose can be known. One feels that it cannot be a very long acquaintance. He has been gone only four weeks.”
Well written, Miss Austen! It seemed that the author had just been waiting to get Elton out of the way before introducing the real hero into the story. It must be time to bring on Frank Churchill. And yes indeed, there in the very next chapter, Frank’s father received a letter.
“How d’ye do? how d’ye do? We have been sitting with your father—glad to see him so well. Frank comes to-morrow—I had a letter this morning—we see him to-morrow by dinner time to a certainty—he is at Oxford to-day, and he comes for a whole fortnight; I knew it would be so. If he had come at Christmas he could not have staid three days; I was always glad he did not come at Christmas; now we are going to have just the right weather for him, fine, dry, settled weather. We shall enjoy him completely; every thing has turned out exactly as we could wish.”
Priya settled back with a wide smile on her face. Everything was now as it ought to be! She went to the kitchen to refill her tea, and cast a baleful glare at Xandia, sitting on the windowsill, not a blink in sight to indicate it was even turned on. Good!
Back in the novel, Frank arrived as he had written, and before long was sitting in Emma’s own parlour.
He was presented to her, and she did not think too much had been said in his praise; he was a very good looking young man; height, air, address, all were unexceptionable, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his father’s; he looked quick and sensible. She felt immediately that she should like him; and there was a well-bred ease of manner, and a readiness to talk, which convinced her that he came intending to be acquainted with the village, and that acquainted they soon must be.
But alas, Frank’s attention seemed not to be on Emma alone, and she felt he could not quit the house quickly enough, having arrived with his father only to make the most abbreviated courtesies before departing to attend to matters elsewhere.
“You mentioned, Father,” he stated at the first break in conversation, “that Mrs. Weston had requested you to perform for her some errands at Ford’s. I should be most pleased to discharge those in your stead should you wish to remain with your friends.” He rose to take his leave, adding, “I will also take the opportunity of paying a visit, which must be paid, to a lady residing in or near Highbury; a family of the name of Fairfax. I shall have no difficulty, I suppose, in finding the house.”
Wait! Frank was supposed to fall in love with Emma the moment he saw her. Wasn’t he? Could be really be putting shopping for his stepmother and paying an obligatory visit to Jane Fairfax ahead of flirting with the heroine of the story? At the periphery of Priya’s vision, Xandia blinked once. She scowled at it and turned back to her book. She wasn’t going to do this again. Sure, it had worked once, getting Emma out of the clutches of money-grabbing Mr. Elton, but there it had been pretty clear that this was not a good idea. Perhaps Jane Austen had some other ideas of how to get Emma and Frank together. She’d read a bit more, just to be sure. Xandia blinked, Priya scowled again, then turned her back to the electronic device and settled back into the book.
As the story progressed, Frank Churchill grew quite comfortable in Highbury’s society and professed his admiration for the village, his new friends, his father’s house, and everything he saw. It was only a matter of time before he turned that affection to Emma, right? And yet Frank seemed to give no indication that he was attracted to her at all. He spoke gushingly about Mrs. Weston, about Ford’s shop where you could buy anything and meet everyone in town, and even about his prior acquaintance with Jane Fairfax.
They had met last summer at Weymouth, which was one of those coincidences that are always found in novels, and to Emma’s chagrin, had only good things to say about her.
“And how did you think Miss Fairfax looking?”—Emma had asked as she and Mrs. Weston and Frank walked into the village the next afternoon.
“Well, very well — that is, if a young lady can ever be allowed to look anything other than well. An expression to the contrary is hardly admissible, Mrs. Weston, is it? Ladies can never look ill, but seriously, Miss Fairfax is naturally so radiant, as almost never to give the appearance of ill health. She might be half dead with fever, and still look beautiful. Her complexion fairly lights up a room.”
And Emma had stewed, since Jane Fairfax was her rival, and Priya stewed because, seriously, Frank had no business liking Jane when Emma was the heroine of the novel. But perhaps this was still Austen, merely setting up the tension so everyone would applaud when they finally got together. She kept reading, waiting for things to get turned around.
It was now the second week of February in the novel, almost Valentine’s Day. Frank seemed to spend way too much time at the small apartment where Jane Fairfax lived with her aunt and great-aunt, and not nearly enough time with Emma. Really, the novel almost seemed to be changing track, focussing on that couple as the main romantic pairing. But that couldn’t be, because it was called Emma, after all, and not Jane. Priya turned her head towards the window. Xandia blinked once. No. She would not. Well, perhaps, after one more chapter, if things were still not working out.
What’s this? Frank went to London to get a haircut? Was this guy for real? And now he was back, fixing Jane’s great-aunt’s eyeglasses. No one offered to fix Priya’s glasses, except the guy at the optician where she bought them, and he was paid to do that. Maybe it was time. After all, Emma had gotten Mr. and Mrs. Weston together, and had separated Harriet Smith and that farmer, Robert Martin, and she was the heroine of the book. And it had certainly worked out okay when Priya had somehow convinced Emma to refuse Elton with those strange messages. So maybe it would be okay for her to make a few more comments.
“Really, Frank,” she said out loud, “Stop doting on Jane and think about Emma. She would be perfect for you.” Xandia blinked once.
“Priya!” Her mother’s voice came from the kitchen. “Papa is making waffles. Dev and Allie are coming over in a few moments for breakfast. Can you make that blueberry sauce while I start the whipped cream and make some chai?”
Ooooh! Waffles with blueberries and cream for breakfast! No matter how Priya sometimes complained about her father, Sanjay was the best waffle-maker in town. Emma could wait.
It was much later, after Dev and Allie left and the sun was sitting low in the sky, when Priya finally got back to her book. Her finger hovered over the on button on the eReader. Would her words have made it into the novel? Had the weird voice assistant her uncle gave the family somehow done the impossible again? Could she still be dreaming? Papa’s waffles had seemed real enough, and the blueberry stain on her new jeans was certainly real enough. You don’t drop blueberry sauce in your dreams. Her finger touched the button, and the screen flashed on. With a deep breath, Priya began to read.
The message from London seemed unequivocal. Frank received the note from his father’s hand and read it with confusion and dismay.
~Stop doting on Jane and think about Emma. She would be perfect for you.~
Who would write such a thing? He could think of no man—or woman—in London or elsewhere who would put such concerns into thought, let alone onto paper. Could it perhaps be Mr. Dixon, the friend whom he had found in Weymouth who had, in turn, married Miss Fairfax’s friend and the daughter of her guardians? But the Dixons were now in Ireland, departed to there from Holyhead not three weeks past! Something in his heart turned towards the lady from Hartfield, but no!—his sentiments were not to be dictated by the arrival of an unsigned message. He thanked his father for delivering the sealed missive and excused it as a letter from his aunt, who had raised him from early childhood, and begged his leave of his proud parent in hopes of walking into the village.
Oh! So this didn’t work quite as Priya expected. Frank got the message, but didn’t obey it. Of course! That made sense. Emma had wanted to refuse Elton, and the messages only nudged her along and gave her the confidence and determination to do it. Did Frank then really like Jane Fairfax? Maybe he did! Or maybe it was far along in the novel now that it was harder to change the direction of the story. Priya chewed her bottom lip and thought about this. Perhaps she had to put more intention into her comments to sway the characters’ minds. Meddling in the classics wasn’t something to be done lightly. She would have to think very carefully about what she did next.
She read a few more pages. The Coles were having a big party, and everyone in town seemed to be invited. Now this was more the thing! Jane Austen loved to make things happen at parties. In Pride and Prejudice, that’s where Lizzy and Darcy first decided they hated each other (and everyone knows how that turned out!), and in Sense and Sensibility, it was at a party where Marianne discovered that the beautiful Willoughby was really a scumbag. So Jane Austen was going to use this party at the Coles to set the next bit of her plot going. Time for another cup of tea, and then back to the book.
This really was quite the bash. There was a fine dinner before the main event, which was followed by music and dancing and all sorts of Regency revelry. Harriet Smith was there, and Frank and the Westons, and Mr. Cox the lawyer and Jane and her aunts, and even Robert Martin the farmer, whom Emma had separated from Harriet. Frank was still making eyes at Jane, who was disgustingly good at playing the piano, and Mr. Knightley, Emma’s neighbour, kept making strange and obscure comments to Emma about Frank. It was clear that the older gentleman just didn’t like the newcomer. He wasn’t… jealous? Nah! Couldn’t be. Priya swiped the screen to turn another page.
“Really, man, open your eyes!” she sighed. “Look how beautiful she is, how much personality she has. You can’t spend your life listening to someone practising scales so she can be accomplished. You want a woman with sparkle, and I know she likes you!” Xandia’s green light blinked.
A livery-clad footman in a powdered white periwig pressed through the assembled guests, a single message with a red seal on the silver tray. The servant found Mrs. Cole, whose grand affair this evening’s festivity was, and with her direction, made his way across the floor to deliver the message to its intended recipient. This, Emma observed from her situation at the fireplace where she was attending to the needs of her father. “It is pleasant here,” he said to her, “for the fire is warm and there is little draught”—he brought her attention to the screen so helpfully set up by Mr. Cole for his comfort—“and I have little desire to move, although one is always more comfortable at home.” When Emma raised her head again, the footman had delivered his message, although she knew not to whom, and she pondered through the evening at the importance of such a note at an event of social entertainment.
Austen had little more to say about the party, with one notable exception. Was she setting up the possibility of a relationship between Emma’s friend Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax? Someone had given Jane a piano, and Mrs. Weston was wondering who it was.
“I have heard him speak, and so must you, so very highly of Jane Fairfax! The interest he takes in her—his anxiety about her health—his concern that she should have no happier prospect! I have heard him express himself so warmly on those points! Such an admirer of her performance on the pianoforté, and of her voice! I have heard him say that he could listen to her for ever. Oh! and I had almost forgotten one idea that occurred to me—this pianoforté that has been sent her by somebody—may it not be from Mr. Knightley? I cannot help suspect he’s just the person to do it, even without being in love.”
“You take up an idea, Mrs. Weston, and run away with it; as you have many a time reproached me with doing. I see no sign of attachment — I believe nothing of the pianoforté — and proof only shall convince me that Mr. Knightley has any thought of marrying Jane Fairfax.”
This was a bit of a relief. Jane Austen did have another direction in mind for the overly perfect Miss Fairfax. Priya puffed out a breath. Now to wait and see the results of that last message. What did Frank think of it? If he also noticed Knightley’s interest in Jane, he might be more willing to look at Emma again. Oh bother! This was getting much too confusing. She turned another page and started the next chapter.
The visit to the Coles afforded Emma many pleasant recollections the next day. The company had been more amiable than her expectations had led her to believe, and she was even inspired to spend an hour and a half at the keyboard in practice after hearing the superiority of Jane Fairfax’s skills upon the pianoforté. She was then interrupted by Harriet’s coming in; and if Harriet’s praise could have satisfied her, she might soon have been comforted. Likewise, Harriet’s heart, having been broken by the defection of the faithless Mr. Elton, was also comforted by her recollections of the evening.
Their tête-à-tête was soon interrupted once more, however, by the arrival of none other than Robert Martin, the farmer. O! How Harriet turned white, then red, and then white again! This was the man who had offered for Emma’s friend not so long ago, and whom she had counselled her friend most firmly to reject, which she had done with Emma’s own words! A farmer! Harriet, with her delicate beauty and sweetness of nature, was surely too good for a farmer! How she had worked upon her young friend to convince her of the justness of such a refusal, and yet now, in the man’s immediate presence, Harriet looked about ready to swoon—although whether from shame or continued attachment, Emma could not be certain.
But rather than addressing his words to Harriet, towards whom Emma imagined the man still held some affection, the farmer turned instead to her! “Miss Woodhouse, dearest, most beautiful Miss Woodhouse, affection compels me to speak; silence is no longer an option. You intrigue me. You capture my soul. You sparkle!”
Oh no! This was not how it was supposed to go at all! The footman had delivered the message to the wrong man, and somehow the words had influenced Martin’s affections. In the pages of the story, Emma had been struck dumb with shock and Harriet had started to weep. Priya had to do something.
“Tell Frank,” she spoke directly to Xandia for the first time, “that his heart’s desire is at Hartfield.” She thought for a moment. “Frank, true love awaits you, but if you tarry, she may well be lost to you forever.” The device blinked again, and the words shifted on the page under her eyes.
How did time work in novels? Until now, Priya had imagined the continuum within the pages of a novel or other work of fiction to be at the discretion of the author, and completely independent of the reader. If a story takes place within a single day, or an hour, if you put the book down for a week in the middle, the plot still takes an hour or a day or however long the author imagined to unfold. Likewise, if you flip to the end of the book (or fast-forward through all those electronic pages), you finish the story within minutes, even if the plot is supposed to unwind slowly over weeks or months.
But what happens when the reader is somehow involved in the actual plot and even influences it in some way? Priya had imagined that her timeline would be the one controlling the action since she was real and the story she was reading mere fiction. In that case, Frank would not get her message for another few minutes at least, while a messenger or someone delivered it, and then it would take him at least fifteen minutes or more to arrive at Hartfield, depending on where he was and how seriously he took the note.
But temporal and relativistic physics seem not to work quite the same way in the strange world of participatory fiction or whatever was going on here because no sooner had Priya spoken her words to Xandia when Serle opened the music room door and announced the arrival of Frank Churchill.
The young gentleman entered with a wild expression in his eyes. His hat was in his hand, his greatcoat flung over one shoulder, gloves hanging from the pockets. “I received a message—” he began. “I had to come; nothing could keep me away, no matter how strange the impulse. Thoughts that I had not formed into words suddenly became as clear as crystal to me; as compulsory to obey as the need to breathe and take air. All thoughts of earlier attachments, all notions of yesterday vanished into the air as a puff of smoke as the import of the words made themselves apparent to me. My heart’s desire is here, here at Hartfield, and nowhere else. I had to come at once, lest she disappear forever. I have come to declare myself!”
At last, things were starting to get straightened out! Priya would still have to work out what to do with Robert Martin, but this was setting things in the right direction at least. She smiled and turned back to the book. Then her smile faded.
Frank fell to one knee and placed his hand over his heart, but it was not towards Emma that he faced. Instead, his words of faithful adoration and devotion were directed to none other than Harriet Smith!
Frank was professing his love to Harriet!
Emma’s astonishment was beyond words! Never before had Frank so much as glanced at Harriet; he had not even, to Emma’s knowledge, been introduced to her, unless by Mrs. Weston at the Coles’ party. Gone was any thought of Jane Fairfax; gone was any suggestion that he—Frank Churchill, the son of her dear friend Mrs. Weston’s husband—might like her. A small hole appeared in Emma’s heart at that moment, and the world, once so colourful and bright, seemed to fade into shades of dreadful greys.
If matters could be made worse, at this very moment they were, for none other than Mr. Knightley now stood at the entrance to the room, his mouth agape. He had heard and seen everything! For as long as Emma had known her friend—which had been all of her life, for he had been a lad of sixteen and her neighbour even at the time of her birth—she had always thought him a model of calm consideration and regulated temper. He was no stoic, for he could be brought to anger or joy or disappointment as could any man, but these had always been emotions laid atop a moderate temperament, as a cloth is laid across a table for a meal; it dresses and ornaments the whole and can change the ambiance with the flick of a wrist, but never does it alter the essence of the able beneath it. These had been, until this very moment, Mr. Knightley’s variations of temper.
But what now Emma saw etched across that face that she knew so well was a pain that reached his soul, as if the table beneath the cloth had been scorched with fire.
Was Mr. Knightley attached to Harriet, that Frank’s ill-considered protestation of love should injure him so? He had encouraged Robert Martin in his affections for Harriet, but in the intervening months, had he himself developed a tendre for the young lady?
But no—Mr. Knightley looked not at Harriet Smith, nor at Frank Churchill, who was now clinging to the young woman’s hand as a drowning man might grasp a rope thrown to save him. Nor were Mr. Knightley’s eyes directed at Robert Martin, who as one of his tenants, had asked his counsel before offering for Harriet in the autumn.
Rather, Mr. Knightley’s eyes, and the full weight of his wounded heart, were upon Emma alone.
Could it be? Could Mr. Knightley love her?
“On no!” Priya groaned aloud. “This is all so very, very wrong. What have I done?”
The eReader lay closed on the coffee table. The sun was down and there was nothing worth watching on television, no matter how fancy Uncle Anant’s gift was. Priya didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to see it, even, but her eyes kept drifting back to the elegant case no matter how many times she commanded them not to do so.
She had ruined the story. She had destroyed everyone’s lives in Emma. She had broken hearts and quite spoiled the book for anyone else who tried to read it. Her only consolation was that she had prevented Emma from marrying Mr. Elton, but perhaps Emma would have made that rather obvious decision without her pathetic “help.”
Some help! Now all the wrong people were in love with someone else. Jane loved Frank who loved Harriet who loved Robert who loved Emma who loved…
Whom did Emma love? She rather had her heart set on Frank although she had earlier confessed to Harriet that she had no desire to get married at all. But you can’t love the idea of a person, and Frank in person was less perfect than Frank in Emma’s imagination. Could it be…? When everything was going off the rails in that last scene in the book, when everyone was somehow being coerced into falling in love with the wrong person, who did Emma look at? It was Mr. Knightley! She might not know it yet, but Emma loved Mr. Knightley! And from his heartbreak at seeing the mixed-up couples with Emma being doted over by Robert Martin, Knightley loved her too.
That, then, was the real conclusion to the novel. Frank Churchill was just a blind. It was all about Emma and Mr. Knightley! Somehow Priya had to get the story back on track. She just had to figure out how.
The doorbell rang, but before anyone could answer it, a key turned in the lock. That must be Dev. He always rang before letting himself in to let people know he was there. Allie walked in beside him.
“Hey Priya!” Allie gave her soon-to-be-sister-in-law a hug.
This was simple, at least. Allie loved Dev, Dev loved Allie, and all was good. Priya liked Allie too. She was good for her brother and made him happy.
“I know we were just here this morning, but we wanted to talk to Mama and Papa about the engagement party,” Dev grinned. “We’ve had a fun idea.”
Their parents were in the kitchen, and soon the entire group were gathered around the dining room table with hot chocolate and chai and a big plate of snacks in front of them.
“We’ve booked the party room at Allie’s parents’ condo,” Dev said through a mouth full of spiced almonds. “We thought Valentine’s Day would make a great time for our engagement party…”
“And I’m going to make invitations,” Allie added, “and I’ll send them out like Valentines! We’ll do red and pink hearts, and add lace and ribbons, and make each one unique. Maybe we’ll write a little poem or something in each one!”
From where Priya was sitting, she could just see Xandia on the window ledge in the sitting room. The lights in there were off and the compact device was silhouetted against the darkness of the winter night outside. That little green light blinked once, then twice, the small LED light clear in the unlit room.
Was it trying to tell her something? Surely it was only a conduit. It couldn’t communicate by itself. But never before had Priya seen it blink twice. What had they been talking about?
“Valentines?” she asked.
“Yes,” Allie gushed. “For an engagement party on Valentine’s Day! It will be perfect.”
Xandia blinked twice again.
Priya’s eyes opened wide. She had some thinking to do, but she thought she might, just might, be able to save the book!
“Xandia, can you hear me?”
“Good evening, Priya. How may I assist you?”
Okay. This was weird. But no weirder than having her comments appear as hand-delivered messages in the novel and changing the course of the story.
“I need to fix Emma. Can you help me?”
“If it is within my programmed capabilities, I am willing to assist you.”
“I need to send more notes, but I need them to go to the right people. Can you send them not as plain messages, but in pretty envelopes instead?”
“If it is within the pages of fiction, where I am not required to manufacture physical objects, I am capable of that.”
“Excellent! This is what we need to do!”
The rest of the day, the long hours of the night, were hardly enough for Emma’s thoughts. She was bewildered amidst the confusion of all that had rushed on her within the last few hours. How to understand it all! She had thought herself to be enamoured with Frank Churchill, but upon hearing him declare himself to Harriet, her heart had expressed no outrage other than surprise! Nor had she experienced any distress at hearing Robert Martin profess his attachment to her, although how that came about was incomprehensible! He was not a bad sort, and he had expressed himself uncommonly well!
No—her true concern had been for the feelings of Mr. Knightley. She felt at once what that must mean. He loved her, and she—foolish creature not to know it before now—loved him too!
How she dwelt on this all through the night. How, at last, she knew her own mind when it seemed that Mr. Knightley would withdraw from her life. He had not stopped to speak when he saw her with Robert at her feet, but had turned on his heels and had walked away as quickly as he could. What pain now lay rooted in her heart! At last the first rays of light tinged the horizon outside her bedroom window and she rose with the weariness born of a disappointed soul.
The day was February the fourteenth—Valentine’s Day. This was the day when lovers would exchange sweet notes or lines of poetry expressing their admiration and hopes. Alas, there would be none for her today. No rhyme could lift the burden that now lay upon her heart.
She rose from her slumber and summoned her maid to dress for the day.
She was at her morning tea when Serle bustled in from the kitchens. “I was preparing the pies, Miss Woodhouse, when this appeared on the table right where I was about to put the apples. Don’t know how it got there, but it’s for you.” She placed the square envelope beside Emma’s teacup and disappeared back through the doors from which she had emerged.
Another message? Emma despaired of what might be inside. Frank and Robert Martin had spoken of strange messages yesterday before they had been sent home—and Emma, too, had received those unsigned notes at Christmas when Mr. Elton had pressed his suit on her. She would not open it. No—that is, she ought very much not to. But the note seemed benign enough, a simple square envelope with an unsealed drop of wax sealing the flap. She ran her fingers over it. There was something inside, something flat, to be certain, but not mere paper. And the envelope was unmarked, save for her name on the front. What an extravagance, to use an entire sheet of paper merely for the enclosure, rather than for writing. It was most curious!
Before she knew what she was about, her fingers fumbled at the seal and the wax broke, revealing a lace-edged paper heart inside the paper envelope. A valentine!
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
This was not a mere note of admiration! It was an offer, a proposal of marriage! But from whom? The hand was not one she knew, for it was flowery and ornate, more drawn than written. Not from Robert, surely! He was prosperous, but the lace, the fine paper, the artistry, bespoke a man of greater means. She touched the heart-shaped card and found it opened up to reveal a message inside. This was a hand she knew. Her heart began to sing.
~If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. You know what I am—I cannot even write my own poem, but must borrow from Marlowe. But do not doubt the sentiment. That is true. Meet me at the old tree by the church if yours echoes mine.~
Could it be true? Did Mr. Knightley still wish to be known to her—to have his feelings known to her? She called for her maid and was dressed at once in her warmest clothes and set out at once for the church and the old tree there.
Upon her arrival, she saw Mr. Knightley standing with a card in his own hand, similar in shape to the enclosure she had received, and also trimmed in lace and drawn with soft flowers. His smile said what his words never could. Emma knew she had not written this letter, and with the same certainty, knew her handwriting would adorn the inside of the missive.
“Is it true, Emma?” Mr. Knightley asked. “Tell me it is true!”
What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.
From the corner of her eye, then, Emma noticed a movement at the stone arch that led to the churchyard some way distant. Tearing her eyes from Mr. Knightley, she spied two people engaged in deep conversation. Could it be?—yes! Harriet and Robert Martin! They had reconciled as well. There was something in Harriet’s hand. A valentine!
And there, on the far side of the stream, where the path turned after the bridge by the low bench, another couple sat, each staring at some small object held in each hand. Frank and Jane Fairfax, too, seemed to have received these mysterious letters, and had also been brought together by some strange hand.
Mr. Knightley took Emma’s hand. “I cannot say what unknown force wrenched us apart, or brought us back together, but I can only be pleased at this conclusion. My own, dear Emma!”
Priya let out a puff of air. Whew, that had been close! Xandia had managed to create the perfect valentines to bring the three couples back together as they should be. She closed the book, and then, at a whim, opened it again. The words were different. She swiped the pages back to the scene where Mr. Elton first proposed to Emma, and noted with alarm, but some relief, that Emma had refused him outright. At every step, now, the story seemed different from what she had originally read, but somehow, more right.
Never again would Priya mess around with a book. She had learned her lesson, and learned it well.
“But I wonder,” she mused as she stared at the eReader, “if Uncle Anant also loaded Wuthering Heights…”
Copyright Riana Everly 2019
Thanks to Appalaa Bhattacharrya, Deborah Pearson, Debra-Ann Kummoung, and Dass Swayze