After a full on day, attending to the needs of her nephews and nieces, Emma was glad of the dinner party at Randalls, planned for the evening. A walk to Donwell, and a day spent in company with his brother, inspecting the estate on which they had both been raised, had improved John Knightley’s frame of mind. Isabella had enjoyed the day swapping news, and imaginary symptoms of impending aliments, with her father.
Miss Bates and her mother had arrived in good time to relieve Emma of her child-minding duties, in time to prepare for the evening out, and, for once in her adult life, Emma was very pleased to see them. The children were exhausting however much one loved them. Emma was confirmed in her decision never to marry, and to have children of her own. Giving them back to the parents at the end of the day was infinitely more preferable.
Emma sped upstairs with Vera Bates’s voice still ringing in her ears. The older woman scolded the children good-humouredly, and worried her father about the possibility of snow during the evening. That was all Emma needed, her father, disinclined to leave his hearth at the best of times, would likely be very fretful about venturing forth into a snowstorm.
By the time Emma returned downstairs, dressed for the evening in a very becoming red silk dress that she had not previously worn (despite it residing in her closet for over a year), with high heeled, strappy sandals, John Knightley had added his voice to the dire prognostications on the weather. He gave one look at Emma’s lightly clad form and burst out with another recrimination against their neighbour whose only sin had been to invite them to dine.
‘We will all catch our death of cold’ he warned direly.
‘I do have a warm coat John, and the Weston’s have central heating at Randalls’ Emma responded, exasperated to have the renewed task of placating her father, who was now seriously rattled by the idea of venturing out. Isabella, torn between the pleasant expectation of the visit, and the worry of leaving her children, possibly to be snowbound, vacillated between semi-hysterical worry and pragmatic felicity. Emma closed her eyes and wished desperately that George Knightley had been with them, but he was to join them at Randalls direct from Donwell. Emma summoned her patience, and ushered the children off to bed with pleas for Vera Bates to go up and supervise their bedtime preparations. With one Cassandra removed, Emma managed to persuade John Knightley that the road between Hartfield and Randalls was already gritted, and if any foul weather should descend whilst they were out, it was but five minutes drive to get home,
‘And, I daresay, your brother will be in his Land Rover, as I can never persuade him to use a respectable vehicle, and he will be able to tow us if the worst came to the worst’ Emma smiled beatifically through gritted teeth wishing her brother-in-law far from her immediate vicinity.
A glance at her watch informed that they were already late. Emma dispatched a text message to Anne Weston and hustled everyone else out to the car. It had been decided to travel in John’s vehicle, as it was a newer model than Mr. Woodhouse’s old Bentley, better suited to bad weather conditions. John drove, and Mr. Woodhouse sat next to him in the front, with the sisters behind. As Emma had foretold, the journey took only five minutes and the roads were perfectly clear, and bore signs of earlier gritting as attested by Miss Bates.
Randalls looked perfect, Emma thought as they alighted outside, and were greeted immediately by the host and hostess, standing by the front door. The outside light shed a glow across the gravel sweep, and lit the three stone steps up to the entrance. A huge Christmas tree stood in the hall, its lights twinkling a welcome. Isabella and Anne Weston greeted each other with tears of affection, and Geoff Weston welcomed his guests with his normal bonhomie.
Emma caught sight of George Knightley standing by the fire in the drawing room. She met his smile of greeting with a roll of her eyes heavenward. His eyebrow tweaked questioningly, and she mouthed SNOW in response. Emma grinned as she detected his wry smile of understanding. George was engaged in talking to another, she noticed, it must be Philip Elton, Emma supposed, as the other guests had cried off. Harriet as she was still full of a cold, and Frank Churchill for reasons best known to himself.
It would be interesting to see more of Philip Elton, Emma considered, she would see if he was a suitable candidate for Harriet. With this thought in mind, she greeted him warmly, and bent her considerable charm to getting to know him better. It was true what people said about him, Emma reflected, he was very good looking at close quarters. He was tall, though not as tall as the Knightley brothers, and of slim, though muscular build, as though he worked out regularly. His hair was thick and dark, and his face tanned as if he had recently been away on holiday somewhere hot. His features were regular, and just the right size for his face, his eyes dark and thickly lashed, and his mouth full lipped but firm. He could be an actor, Emma believed, inwardly congratulating her choice of him and Harriet; they would make a gorgeous couple she decided smugly.
Emma continued her animated conversation with Philip Elton throughout the dinner, once she found herself to be seated next to him. She chose to ignore the pointed glances John Knightley cast in her direction, and managed to stay out of the general conversation which vacillated between farming, and the countryside in general, the workings of the rural district council (tedious), and the weather, that is until the later topic could be ignored no longer. It had definitely started to snow. Emma’s concern for her father’s apparent distress served to terminate her tête-à-tête with Mr. Elton, with whom she had enjoyed an entertaining conversation.
Emma glanced around for George Knightley’s calming presence as the voices of alarm gained traction. John Knightley’s repetitions of his earlier dire warnings did nothing to sooth Emma’s fears for her father’s nerves. She needed a voice of reason, and George’s was not to be heard. He had disappeared and left her in the lurch. Emma intervened between her sister and father, seeking to sooth his anxieties, and remove Isabella from making them worse. Emma apologised to Anne and Geoff for breaking up the party, as she begged leave to make an early departure. Her father would feel more comfortable at home, she explained, and stuck to her guns against Geoff Weston’s assurances that it was nothing, a mere flurry of snow, which would be all the more enjoyable for the children come Christmas morning.
Although Emma agreed with him there was, in her opinion, nothing to be done, other than departing early, to set her father and Isabella’s fears at rest. Just then George reentered the house, stamping his feet to shake of the snow, he came into the dinning room with a reassuring smile.
‘I’ve been along the road half way to Hartfield, its nothing much, but I’m sure you’ll be wanting to get back home before it settles, he took in Henry’s agitated state, and Isabella’s worried look. Again Emma was conscious of his good sense and calmness, and of the amount of dependence she had on him.
‘Thank you George, yes I was just making our apologies we must make a move.
‘I’ll follow you in the Land Rover in case of mishap’ George Knightley reassured aside to his brother, ‘Did you walk over Elton? I can give you a lift if you like.’ Philip Elton who had no desire to get his designer shoes wet, accepted George Knightley’s offer with alacrity. He also had it in mind to cement his acquaintanceship with George Knightley; he saw him and the Woodhouses as key to being accepted into Highbury society.
Emma cajoled her father out to John’s waiting car (ready warmed up and pulled right up to the door), and tucked a travel rug around him for extra warmth. She and Isabella snuggled up together in the back; both regretting thin dresses and open sandals. Still it had been worth it, Emma thought. It wasn’t often that she got out of the house, and her outfit had been universally admired (except by her brother-in-law, of course).
True to the older Knightley brother’s prediction, they were home safe in less than ten minutes. Miss Bates was surprised to see them home so early, but, with nothing to report, she was anxious to get her mother home. George Knightley obligingly offered them a lift if they didn’t mind travelling in his ancient Land Rover.
‘Oh thank you so much Mr. Knightley that is so kind of you, I was wondering how I would get mother home because we had a lift here with Mr. Perry, so kind as he is to ferry us here and there when really there is no need. We could walk, or at least I could and I’m used to pushing mother’s wheel chair but of course it is rather dark on the little stretch between the town and the gates of Hartfield I worry that I might trip in the dark and then what would mother do?’ George Knightley reassured kindly and loaded the two women into his vehicle, much to Philip Elton’s chagrin as he was moved unceremoniously into the back to make room for old Mrs. Bates. Vera Bates prattled happily for the entire short journey back into Highbury, to their flat above the shop. The children were growing so fast, and the boys were so like their father and their uncle whom she remembered as little boys, and the little girls were so pretty and charming and she did believe that little April looked a lot like her Aunt Emma. Emma was always such a beautiful child and didn’t she look lovely this evening. Miss Bates had rarely seen Emma look so fetching. The red dress suited her and her hair that always looked so beautifully shiny looked so chic up in a chignon Miss Bates could barely recognise her she looked so grown up and sophisticated…
George Knightley grunted in all the right places, assured of there being no necessity to respond. Philip Elton, less au fait with Miss Bates’s non-stop chatter, managed, ill-advisedly, to squeeze in a couple of unctuous words of approbation on Miss Woodhouse’s good looks and charming nature. George Knightley eyed him for a moment in his rear view mirror. What was Elton up to? George had him marked down as a man with different proclivities.