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Emma was extremely confused. She could not endure to give him the true explanation; for though her suspicions were by no means removed, she was really ashamed of having ever imparted them.
"Oh!" she cried in evident embarrassment, "it all meant nothing; a mere joke among ourselves."
"The joke," he replied gravely, "seemed confined to you and Mr. Churchill."
He had hoped she would speak again, but she did not. She would rather busy herself about any thing than speak. He sat a little while in doubt. A variety of evils crossed his mind. Interference-- fruitless interference. Emma's confusion, and the acknowledged intimacy, seemed to declare her affection engaged. Yet he would speak. He owed it to her, to risk any thing that might be involved in an unwelcome interference, rather than her welfare; to encounter any thing, rather than the remembrance of neglect in such a cause.
"My dear Emma," said he at last, with earnest kindness, "do you think you perfectly understand the degree of acquaintance between the gentleman and lady we have been speaking of?"
"Between Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Fairfax? Oh! yes, perfectly.-- Why do you make a doubt of it?"
"Have you never at any time had reason to think that he admired her, or that she admired him?"
"Never, never!" she cried with a most open eagerness--"Never, for the twentieth part of a moment, did such an idea occur to me. And how could it possibly come into your head?"
"I have lately imagined that I saw symptoms of attachment between them-- certain expressive looks, which I did not believe meant to be public."
"Oh! you amuse me excessively. I am delighted to find that you can vouchsafe to let your imagination wander--but it will not do-- very sorry to check you in your first essay--but indeed it will not do. There is no admiration between them, I do assure you; and the appearances which have caught you, have arisen from some peculiar circumstances--feelings rather of a totally different nature-- it is impossible exactly to explain:--there is a good deal of nonsense in it--but the part which is capable of being communicated, which is sense, is, that they are as far from any attachment or admiration for one another, as any two beings in the world can be. That is, I _presume_ it to be so on her side, and I can _answer_ for its being so on his. I will answer for the gentleman's indifference."
She spoke with a confidence which staggered, with a satisfaction which silenced, Mr. Knightley. She was in gay spirits, and would have prolonged the conversation, wanting to hear the particulars of his suspicions, every look described, and all the wheres and hows of a circumstance which highly entertained her: but his gaiety did not meet hers. He found he could not be useful, and his feelings were too much irritated for talking. That he might not be irritated into an absolute fever, by the fire which Mr. Woodhouse's tender habits required almost every evening throughout the year, he soon afterwards took a hasty leave, and walked home to the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey.