George Knightley was as good as his word. He arrived as usual after dinner, and accessed the house via the French window, being sure to exclaim with pleasure on Emma’s efforts of the day. Truthfully he had no need of subterfuge, for Emma had decorated the Christmas tree in just the way that he always remembered it. The tree had, over the years, become a traditional hotchpotch of decorations old and new. Each year Emma bought (usually from the school fete), or made a dozen or so new ones to replace those that had been broken, or simply disintegrated from old age. The cheerful result gladdened George’s heart. He and she, and their guests could reminisce for ages on the history of a particular bauble, many of them handmade by Emma and Isabella when they were children.
‘Perfect Emma’ George congratulated with a wide grin, ‘would you like me to organise the fairy lights?’ It was a task that he had accomplished for what seemed like forever.
‘Oh yes please. Let me get drinks for you and Papa while you do it, the electrical bits are in the bottom of the box…’ Emma wondered momentarily what she would do if George Knightley were not always around to accomplish little tasks for her, and to humour her father.
‘Thank you’ Emma rewarded with a smile and a small glass of whisky as George completed his task, and sat in his customary place near to Mr. Woodhouse.
‘I expect you are looking forward to seeing Isabella and the children Henry’ George hazarded with no risk of being incorrect.
‘Yes, yes, it will be nice to see them. But so much upheaval, and so much extra work for Emma; she never complains, but she has been busy for weeks with bedrooms, and baking, and decorating. So much fuss over Christmas and a family visit. It is a shame Isabella ever went away…’ George and Emma shared a look over the head of Henry Woodhouse, and took to their customary roles of placating, and cajoling the old man into a better frame of mind.
‘Just think Papa there would be no little Knightleys if Isabella and John had not married, and Brunswick Square is barely an hour away.’
‘That is so indeed, but we were perfectly happy just as we were. Why does everyone have to go away?’ Mr. Woodhouse asked plaintively.
‘It would be less fuss for you if the family were to stay at Donwell next year…’ George introduced the topic with some trepidation.
‘No, no they must be with us, here at Hartfield. Isabella would not like to stay at Donwell’ Henry Woodhouse responded without consideration of the idea.
‘Well them a certain amount of extra effort goes with the territory’ George explained sagely, ‘yet if Emma does not mind it, all is well.’
‘Of course I don’t mind it’ Emma scoffed at the idea, ‘I can barely wait to see the children, and the new baby. You forget I have not yet seen my niece, baby Emma.’
‘Oh you will love baby Emma, she is very cute, just like her aunt used to be’ George Knightley teased. ‘Anyway I must be off, I’ll see you all tomorrow evening for dinner. What time would you like me?’
‘Well we’ll be dining at 8.00, but come earlier so that you see the children before they go to bed.’
‘Thank you, yes I’d like to do that. Good night then Henry, goodnight Emma, you’ve made the house look very pretty and festive, I’m sure your efforts will be appreciated.’ George put his arm around Emma and bent to kiss her on the cheek. She lifted her face to his, a smile of pleasure lighting her face,
‘Thank you for all your help, I don’t know what I’d do without you.’ Emma recognised that it was true, her heart felt full and happy; she was so lucky to have such a good friend. She must try not to squabble with him; it was such a waste of time. George released Emma from his embrace with a strange sensation of déjà vu. He shrugged inwardly and put the feeling down to the magical look of the moonlight shining in through the window, illuminating the festive tree, and bathing Emma in soft light.
‘Goodnight’ Emma breathed softly to George’s retreating back.
The following day brought the much longed for disruption of the family’s arrival. The older children Henry and John were excited, yet their tendency to boisterous behaviour had been tempered by strict instructions from their father, on the journey down. Their grandfather must be treated with respect for his nerves. He was an old man and needed his rest. The younger two, both girls, were good, well behaved children, and would play happily with their aunt’s toys and dolls, and read her story books with relish. Fortunately baby Emma was of a calm disposition, slept a lot, and hardly ever cried.
By the time the London Knightleys arrived at Hartfield, towards the later end of the timescale that John had been reluctantly obliged to provide, Mr. Woodhouse had worked himself up into a state of high anxiety. They had been involved in an accident on the motorway. They were in hospital, or worse… Fortunately this proved not to be the case, and Isabella, John and family appeared in good time for afternoon tea as promised.
By the time George Knightley appeared, Emma and Isabella between them had organised the children’s sleeping arrangements, and managed the preliminary stage of getting four over excited children to bed. They had no hope, however, of achieving the whole until Uncle George had been greeted. George responded in his best avuncular manner, playing with, and teasing the children good-humouredly, at the same time as he manhandled the two boys up towards bed, despite their yells of protest.
‘Do as your aunt says’ he commanded, gently but firmly, ‘into bed, and I’ll read you a story.’ Emma grinned at him as she promised the same service to the girls. Emma and George met again on the landing outside the children’s dormitories, both in the process of tiptoeing quietly away lest they should awake newly sleeping children. Their eyes met conspiratorially as they departed the scene and crept downstairs together.
‘All asleep, at least for now’ George informed his brother John, with an affectionate smile. The brothers were fond of each other, and looked forward to catching up without the constant interruptions that the children brought. Isabella was already ensconced beside her father, with no intention on either side of their companionship being sundered. The two shared a common interest of anxiety, for one another, and for the family. Isabella had inherited her father’s tendency to fret needlessly about the health of each and everyone dear to her. Thankfully the pragmatic nature of her husband provided a perfect counterfoil to her nature. He could never worry enough; she could worry for them both.
John Knightley, the younger brother by two years, was a sensible and intelligent man. He had graduated with honours in law from Cambridge University, and had subsequently worked his way up to a partnership with a well established, respectable law firm in London. He, Isabella, and family lived in what had been the Knightley family townhouse, in Brunswick Square. They had made their home thence since their marriage, almost ten years before. The arrangement to share the family estate thus making perfect sense to both brothers, for George Knightley’s interests were in farming and the countryside, whereas John’s career necessitated being in the city.
Brunswick Square was central to all the amenities important for a young family, and to a mother with tendencies towards anxiety; that is to say they were in close proximity to good schools, to the park, and to a plethora of hospitals. John was within easy walking distance of his chambers, and was able to walk home for lunch if he a mind too. The proximity of his work also allowed him to collect one or other of the children from school should Isabella required it.
George and John were prepared to postpone their business conversations for the morrow, when John had proposed that he walk across to Donwell Abbey for breakfast. The brothers contented themselves with family matters for the here and now. Both bowed to Mr. Woodhouse’s greater need to spend some quality time with his elder daughter, for George often made a trip to town to see his brother and family.
Emma flitted to and fro from the kitchen, to ensure that all was well with the meal that she had planned and supervised, and prepared with the help of Mrs. Wright. The whole menu was of her sister’s favourite things, so Emma had been pleased to see John Knightley helping himself to the children’s fare, and had expectations that earlier George would have partaken of something substantial. Hartfield was not renowned for over catering at the best of times, and with Isabella’s tastes being catered to there would be no expectation for large helpings, or of any meat. Emma hoped that her strategy of preparing several courses would still the Knightley’s hunger pangs.
George took it upon himself to look after pre dinner drinks, and poured the wine, leaving Emma to relax and sit with her sister and father, who would monopolise his older daughter’s attention. Emma soon found that she was often mentioned in the dialogue. Her father was bent on singing her praises for undertaking all the extra work to entertain the Knightleys, and Isabella, keen to approve her sister, at the same time as to mitigate the inconvenience that their visit had caused. Emma smiled inwardly as she listened to them talk, barely aware of her presence at their elbows.
George Knightley patted the sofa invitingly for Emma to sit between the brothers, which she did for a while, although her thoughts were distracted by the food preparations, and she did feel that the brothers would be better without her, as they oft times leant forward to address something to the other across her.
John Knightley was, in Emma’s opinion, not so amiable and patient as his brother. He oft times scowled as he listened to the conversation between his wife and her father. When Isabella was away from her father’s influence she was much less inclined to worry over every minor detail. At Hartfield she was already inclined to talk solely of the children’s health, and of her worries about each of them, who, as far as John was aware, were amongst the healthiest children in the country. But Mr. Woodhouse would have it that the air in London was unhealthy, and that the children were exposed to an unwholesome environment to grow up in. People in London were not like country people, and there were far too many foreigners with their strange customs and weird food.
Once they had sat down and commenced to eat Mr. Woodhouse’s anxieties turned to another subject of some disquiet to him. In direct opposition to the advice of his favourite doctor, Mr. Perry, Isabella and John had taken the children for a summer holiday by the sea at Southend. Emma gritted her teeth as the trajectory of the conversation between her father and Isabella became more heated. Isabella attempted to defend her own Doctor (of whom she was equally enthralled as was her father to his), and her husband’s decision, conscious as she was of his clouded brow, and growing impatience. Emma was not surprised at John’s mounting irritation, for it really was not her father’s business to suggest that it was an error of judgment. Her attempts to head off the topic proved futile, and her eyes met George Knightley’s with a plea for help writ large.
‘John did I mention the new turkey shed when I saw you last? It is a project in which I’m sure you will be most interested. We are building it where the old pig stys were. If you recall, the wall is high there which will protect the house from the look of the new building…’ John’s attention swung reluctantly to his brother’s discourse, and as he listened to George his attention to the others was eclipsed. Emma breathed a sigh of relief, and smiled heartfelt at George Knightley. All she needed to do now was to distract her father from the seaside topic.
A diversion came to her aid in the recollection that the following evening they were all to dine at Randalls. The topic seemed to be a sure fire hit, and she soon had Isabella attention, reminiscing on old times with Miss Taylor, and wondering about the life and home of the new Mrs. Weston. Unfortunately for Emma, this subject was not perfect for John Knightley, who interrupted with a rhetorical surmise that a man who invited others into his home when they had just travelled, and it was winter weather, and da de da must have an uncommon conceit for his own importance.
Of course, this Emma could not allow. Mr. Weston was a great favourite of hers, and Mrs. Weston beyond reproach. She sprang to the defence of her friends at Randalls with the rationale that Isabella would want to see her old governess and friend happily established in her own home.
‘It will be nice to see her, them, at Randalls’ Isabella interceded, ‘but it is a shame to leave the comfort of home when I rarely get to be here…’
‘There, what did I tell you’ John triumphed.
‘Yet I do have a curiosity to see Randalls now Anne has made it her home, John darling’ Isabella placated, ‘and I’m sure once we make the effort it will be worthwhile. I’m assuming that the children will remain here?’
‘Oh yes’ Emma reassured with the detailed plans for childcare arrangements. Her father loyally chipped in with further praise of Emma’s hard work and organisational skills, although his nature was more prone to agree with John Knightley’s point of view. He hated to go anywhere when he could stay at home by his own fire. But Emma had persuaded him of the necessity to go, so that he would not give offence to ‘poor Miss Taylor’.
‘So there you are John dear, all is organised, and I daresay that an evening in grown-up conversation will be stimulating.’
‘I doubt it’ John muttered under his breath, though loud enough for Emma to hear.
‘As I was saying about the turkey shed…’ George Knightley stepped in again, ‘we plan to use biomass fueled boilers which will cut our heating costs by over a third, and further more we will used LED lighting inside, and the roof will be covered in solar PV panels to maximise renewable energy sources…’ George’s patent enthusiasm for his pet project soon wholly captivated John’s attention, and Emma managed to relax for the rest of the meal, which was highly praised by her father and Isabella, and politely so by the brothers.
Emma’s attention strayed to listening to George’s account of the new farm project, and, although she didn’t really understand the technical points that he raised, she liked to hear him talk so animatedly. George was so positive in his outlook, and modern in his thoughts. The elder Knightley brother felt her glance upon him, and looked up to deliver a swift grin, which seemed to say to Emma good job, what a team! Emma grinned back at him, before her sister, who wanted to know who would be the guest at Randalls, once more caught her attention.