A/N: Woefully delayed update, I know. Will try and do better in future. Please review with your thoughts on this installment!
He listened attentively to Miss Fairfax's performance with an enjoyment that stemmed both from her real proficiency and from the fact that there was no Frank Churchill ruining the performance. Presently, once Miss Fairfax had finished her first song, he made his periodic glance in Emma's direction – after all, it would be well for him always to be aware of whether or not Churchill was making up to her – and caught her eye. She smiled, and he rose to quietly seat himself in the empty chair by her (now how had Churchill missed that?).
'She sings and plays very well, does she not?' said Emma quietly, and pleased that she was praising the other young woman unprompted, Mr. Knightley agreed to it, perhaps rather more warmly than he would have done ordinarily.
Yet oddly enough, something told him Emma was not quite pleased with his answer. However the next second he thought he must have imagined it, for she was commending him perfectly naturally on his kindness towards Miss Fairfax and Miss Bates in lending them his carriage – though she was watching him quite intently, he thought, a little puzzled. 'It was no trouble,' was all he said, however.
Their conversation dwelt for some moments on Emma's wish that she could make the Hartfield carriage similarly useful (though he could see that Mr. Woodhouse would not want James put-to for such a purpose, he honoured Emma for having the desire regardless), before the topic turned to the pianoforte which had been gifted to Miss Fairfax.
'This present of the Campbells is very kindly given,' said Emma.
'Yes,' he agreed, 'but they would have done better had they given her notice of it. Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.' The pianoforte – such an extravagant gift! – and the mystery of its origin were making Jane Fairfax the object of much curiosity and some impertinent conjecture. Surely she would rather have dispensed with that?
For some reason Emma looked highly pleased with his answer, which struck him as odd, for this was just the kind of point upon which they would usually embark on one of their bantering debates. (He could see it now: 'You know that is not true, Mr. Knightley – did you not enjoy the Christmas present I gave you the better for it being a surprise? I am sure if you had known what it was, you would have spent sleepless nights worrying about how I would distort your features.' –'Ah, but Emma, remember the present I gave you? Perhaps if I had given you notice of it, you would have been able to inform me that it would be redundant, and I could have gotten you something more to the purpose.' And so on.)
They had been quietly conversing while Miss Fairfax was singing her second song, and he noticed that her voice was beginning to show strain, especially around the high parts. He was relieved for her when the song ended, for he had been afraid that her voice would give way entirely.
However, it seemed nobody else had noticed, for they were all clamouring for one more song, and Frank Churchill – thoughtless, selfish Frank Churchill – said, 'I think you could manage this one without effort; the first part is so trifling – the strength of the song falls upon the second.'
Oh, of course Churchill would enjoy that, thought Mr. Knightley angrily. What an opportunity for him, to display the 'strength of the song'! 'That fellow thinks of nothing but showing off his own voice,' he said warmly, for the moment unguarded. 'This must not be.'
He managed to alert Miss Bates, who was passing, to the facts of the matter, and thankfully, her concern for her niece helped her to override everyone's objections to prevent the third song.
Mr. Knightley could not help feeling an unholy glee in having foiled Frank Churchill's plans to show off his singing. Hopefully Emma would see the selfishness in the young man's actions, in his attempting to push Miss Fairfax too far if only it would show his talents to advantage.
Perhaps this was the way to let Emma see Frank Churchill for what he really was – instead of attempting to reason with her and telling her truths as he saw them, he could facilitate her discovering it for herself. It would not precisely be sabotage of Churchill's courtship (if courtship it even was); it would be a way of keeping Emma safe, and he would do that at all costs. After all, he was a partial old friend.