The Christmas holiday was fast approaching, and Emma’s thoughts were taken up by preparations for the early arrival of her sister and family. Mr. Woodhouse was sweetly anxious that everything should be perfect for his elder daughter. Although he had, over time, got used to the idea of her marriage and motherhood and, if he thought about it, he actually liked John Knightley, all thoughts were for Isabella. Would she be comfortable on the journey? Would the children behave, would any of them be sick? Henry Woodhouse fretted over any ailments that could potentially infect the household, and ultimately of course, himself.
Emma’s friend Harriet, who had become somewhat of a fixture at Hartfield, had been banned willy-nilly when she displayed symptoms of cold (which most probably would be flu or even pneumonia), not to return until she was completely cured. Although Emma had remonstrated over her father’s preemptive behaviour, she was quite glad to be able to concentrate her attentions on the arrival of her family. There were rooms to prepare, meals to organise, and obviously all the Christmas decorations, and present buying, and wrapping for all the little Knightleys.
Emma’s nephews and nieces were of great importance to their aunt. She had thought long and hard over each of them, and consulted with her sister regarding new interests, and particular wishes. Isabella, John and family were due to arrive the next day. They would dine at home at Hartfield with George Knightley as their only other guest. (Emma had encountered stiff opposition from her father regarding his inclusion in the party. Mr. Woodhouse was so jealous of his family time with Isabella. Emma had argued that George had invited Isabella’s whole family to Donwell Abbey and had given way, although it had been his ‘turn’, in favour of Henry’s claim). Finally her father had been placated, and George Knightley was to be included in the family party.
The night of Christmas Eve they were all to dine with the Weston’s at Randalls. Emma had treasured expectations of meeting Frank Churchill for the first time. His visit had been scheduled, broken and then rescheduled. Then Emma had received a call from Anne Weston, earlier in the day, to notify Emma that his visit had been postponed yet again, and to commiserate. Emma was upset on her old friend’s behalf, the constant promises and rearrangement of a well over due visit was unsettling for her. Each time the visit was called off Anne must reassure her husband of her indifference to the slight, and bolster his anxieties that the much longed for visit would happen in good time.
Emma was annoyed with Frank Churchill. She was therefor amused to find that she leapt to defend his behaviour that same evening. George Knightley would have it that Frank Churchill could easily have visited before now, had he really a mind to it. His aunt’s ill health was being used as a convenient excuse to skip doing a duty that he owed to his father and new wife. Although Emma largely agreed with this arguement, she sprang to Frank’s defence.
‘Honestly George Knightley I don’t know what it is about poor Frank Churchill that you should so dislike! Since the first moment his name was mentioned in Highbury you have taken to undermining him in such an unfair way’ Emma smiled archly to take the sting from her words, as she knew that George Knightley was generally scrupulously fair, yet in this one instance she believed that he was being inconsistent.
‘I’m surprised that you would defend him Emma, as it is clear to me that your great friend Anne Weston is put out by the endless changes of plan, and her husband even more so, as he takes the blame on himself for his son’s woeful manners.’
‘Anne is not upset for herself, only for Geoff’s disappointment’ Emma conceded, ‘but she told me earlier that she thinks to postpone the visit now is for the best, because of the winter weather, and Christmas season approaching which would necessarily cut his visit short. Should he come in the spring then he will be able to spend more time with his father and Anne, and come to know them properly which would not happen during a flying visit.’
‘But come Spring will there not follow another excuse not to make the visit?’ George waved away an interruption from Emma, ‘you must agree on this Emma, surely it is discourteous to keep the Weston’s on tenterhooks in this way.’
‘He is, as you know, subject to his aunt’s whims. It is different for you. You answer to no one and may come and go as you please. It is not the same for Frank Churchill, he owes his whole livelihood to his uncle and aunt and consequently must be at their beck and call.’
‘Not if he had a mind to it’ George Knightley countered, ‘he is what 23 or 24 year old, a grown man. Shame on him if he is dependent on his relatives!’
‘It is not as though he can just go off and get a job’ Emma objected stoutly, ‘he is to inherit the Enscombe estate, he must be there to learn the management of it.’
‘He has been away from home when it suits him. We hear of his visits to London and recently he has spent months in Weymouth…’
‘That is not fair’ Emma protested, ‘you heard as well as I, that Frank was near Weymouth applying his training for estate management. Geoff Weston told us all that he was staying with a relative, on a sort of work experience placement with one who owns considerable land down in Dorset.’
‘All right I grant you that, but you must admit that his trips to London, and reputation as a bit of a playboy do not stack up with the protestations of filial loyalty…’
‘I think that whatever I say in his defence you will have a counter arguement. You are determined not to like him George Knightley, and I can’t think why you would be so anti someone whom you have never met.’ Emma rolled her eyes and shrugged in a declaration of submission, ‘come lets not argue for we are brother and sister’ she slipped her arm through his and smiled beguilingly as she had used to as a child.
‘Emma, Emma!’ George shook his head and smiled despite himself, ‘you always know how to get around me, and everyone else. One day you will find that you cannot charm and smile your way out of a situation, and then what will you do?’ Emma bit her lower lip and looked almost contrite for a moment. George Knightley covertly watched the expression fleet across her lovely features to be replaced almost immediately by a mischievous sparkle. ‘Come let me help you with the tree. I suppose you want it in the usual place?’
‘Of course’ Emma sounded almost shocked, ‘over by the French window but not so close that you can’t get through’ she dimpled up at him.
‘Right, I bought a heavy drum over with me, its clean but will need a bit of sprucing up. I’ll go and bring it in, and then I’ll get the tree set up for you to decorate. I have a sack of stuff for the kids in the Land Rover as well.’ George grinned delighted to be on good terms with Emma once again. Why he felt obliged to argue endlessly with her he could not figure. He wished that he could stop, it always ate away at him when they had quarreled.
By the time George reappeared with the promised drum in which to place the Christmas tree, Emma had collected wrapping paper, scissors, string and various bits and pieces for decorating the same. Emma watched George manhandle the tree into position and secure it carefully. She noticed how strong and deftly he worked, his muscles clearly rippling beneath his aged denims. Funny she hadn’t really noticed his raw physicality before. She was used to his intelligence and wit being displayed, not his strength. Except for sometimes, she reminded with an inward smile, when he was roughhousing with his nephews who cared for nothing more than being tossed about by their uncle.
‘Oh thank you George’ Emma nodded her appreciation, ‘that’s the perfect place, and the tree is superb, the children will love it!’ Emma’s eyes sparkled as they met George’s, both thinking of the forthcoming excitement of John and Isabella’s children.
‘Can I do anything else to help?’ George enquired.
‘Would you be a dear and fetch down the box of decorations for the tree?’ Emma asked, ‘it’s in my room.’
‘Which is?’ George’s eyebrow twitched questioningly, he knew the downstairs rooms of Hartfield almost as well as he knew Donwell but he only knew the children’s rooms upstairs.
‘Oh’ it seemed odd to Emma that George needed to ask where was her room. He had been such a fixture at Hartfield all her life, ‘Turn right at the top of the stairs, along the landing and last door on the right’ she supplied with a smile, ‘and don’t fall over the box its just inside the door, you can’t miss it.’
‘Yes Mam’ George disappeared obediently. Emma was right he couldn’t miss the box, a large cardboard one, full to the brim with baubles and glitter, rolls of festive paper and streamers. He hesitated in the doorway of Emma’s bedroom feeling slightly voyeuristic. The room was spacious and airy, feminine yet not frilly. The air smelt faintly of Emma, a perfume that teased his senses with its faint waft. What it was he could not say, perfume? Soap? Shampoo? Whatever the ingredients, to him it was the essence of Emma.
George lifted the box easily; it was light yet awkward in shape for Emma to manage alone. George delivered the box to Emma who had already made a start on the old oil drum, which she had covered with red crepe paper and was busy cutting out star shapes to stick around the base.
‘Just one more thing before I go.’
‘Hm?’ Emma asked vaguely.
‘I have a bag of presents to go under the tree. Can I give them to you for safekeeping?’
‘Yes of course’ Emma smiled up at him from her position on the floor. ‘Could you take them up to my room and stash them in my closet? Sorry if I’d have thought you could have been saved a journey.’
‘No matter’ George reappeared baring a sack bulging with presents that attested to how seriously he took his position as favourite uncle. ‘Shall I call by this evening to survey your handiwork?’ George asked with a grin, Emma looked like she had used to as a child surrounded by glue and glitter, paper and scissors, ribbon and baubles.
‘Oh yes please’ Emma beamed.
‘Excellent, see you later then. Have fun’ George recommended with a friendly wave.