It was still dark when Emma woke. She lay with her eyes closed for a moment, wondering if she should get up, or try to catch another half hour of sleep. As she deliberated a thought entered her head and rendered more sleep impossible. Today was her 21st birthday.
Emma’s thoughts had been so taken up with her party that she had not given much thought to presents. Now her mind turned to such things. What would her father have got for her? Not that her father would have gone shopping, but Emma felt sure that he would have sought Anne Weston’s help to source something special for her 21st, or perhaps he would have enlisted her sister’s help. More likely, Emma decided, Isabella had all of the London shops on her doorstep; she would have been dispatched to get her present. But what would it be?
Emma’s mind drifted through possible items, the sorts of presents that people gave for 21sts. A watch perhaps, or a smart handbag, a silk scarf, a new fountain pen; but Emma had all of these things. She had a watch of her mother’s, and a fountain pen that she had begged for when she was but 13. She had a handbag, albeit not a smart one by some famous designer, and she had a silk scarf, which was a rather good one Emma thought. (Harriet had admired it, and deemed that it should not be sent to the charity shop at any rate). No nearer deciding what she may receive, Emma gave up the game in favour of getting up and finding out for sure.
Emma dressed with haste and sped downstairs. Her father was already dressed and sitting at the breakfast table.
‘Good morning Emma, my dear’ he smiled as she bent to kiss him affectionately, ‘many happy returns of the day’ he congratulated, ‘I can’t quite believe that my baby is 21!’ Henry Woodhouse’ eyes looked suspiciously moist.
‘Thank you Papa’ Emma returned, helping herself to coffee and toast. She could see immediately that there was a pile of colourful envelopes sitting beside her plate waiting to be opened.
‘Lots of cards’ Mr. Woodhouse smiled genially; he knew that Emma loved to open cards.
‘Goody’ Emma responded, turning each one carefully in her hands and guessing from whom they came. Some handwriting she recognised immediately, others not. The postmark afforded a clue when it was a nice clear one, otherwise her suspense was only rewarded once she had slit open the envelope and retrieved the card. Emma kept up a running commentary, and read out messages for her father’s edification; she was truly touched to receive messages from folk whom she had long since forgotten. At the bottom of the pile was a rather bulky envelope addressed in her father’s spidery handwriting.
‘Oh here’s one from you’ Emma smiled across at him, still unable to guess the surprise. She opened the envelope carefully and extracted a rather flowery birthday card, the sort that her father favoured, but that she did not care for that much. Still Emma read the card and the message out loud her eyes stinging a little with emotion at her father’s lavish praise.
‘Thank you Papa’ she jumped up to administer a hug.
‘There’s something else in the envelope…’
‘Yes’ Emma turned it up and a car ignition key landed on the table. ‘Oh!’ Emma’s eyes rounded in shock, she had not expected to get a car. Other of her friends had been given cars for their birthdays but Emma had always assumed that her father would be far to cautious on Emma’s behalf. She wondered who’s influence had been brought to bear. ‘Thank you Papa’ Emma’s eyes filled with tears, ‘I will drive very carefully I promise.’
‘Yes, yes, my dear’ Mr. Woodhouse patted her hand feeling a little choked himself. ‘It is the safest little car available, with FIVE air bags, Knightley says. He read all of the car reviews and chose this one for you.
‘Where is it?’ Emma asked, her heart thudding with anticipation.
‘In the garage, it’s been there for almost a week since George brought it round, while you were out visiting with Miss Bates and her niece.’ Emma dimpled indulgently at the scale of the subterfuge that her father and Knightley had wrought.
‘How did you manage to keep it such a secret?’ she asked, rather awed that he had succeeded. ‘Will you put on your coat and scarf and come out with me to see it?’ Emma encouraged. She fussed a little as she arranged her father’s muffler carefully and buttoned up his coat to keep him warm. Once he was ready Emma shrugged on her old Barbour and took her father’s arm. They walked around to the back of the house chattering inconsequentially and Emma unlocked and unbolted the old coach house door. She swung the heavy old door to one side to reveal her own little car. Dwarfed by the size of her father’s Bentley the Ford Fiesta looked small but rather sweet. It was a brand new model and shiny black with rather racy red leather seats and interior.
‘It’s so cute, thank you Papa I love it’ Emma declared, ‘I’m so lucky, I never guessed that you would get me a car.’ Emma had quite forgotten that she could, had she wanted, have bought herself a fleet of cars as today she came into her inheritance from her mother. John Knightley, the family lawyer naturally, had acquainted Emma of the size of her fortune some time ago. Emma became not only 21, but also a several times millionaire this very day. Emma walked around her car inspecting every detail. Unsurprisingly George Knightley had chosen an Eco model. But the interior styling was so sporty that it didn’t matter at all to Emma that it wasn’t a flashier motor. Emma pressed the remote control and laughed happily as the little car’s lights flashed. She slipped into the driver’s side and started up the engine. It had been some time since Emma had driven, though Anne had encouraged her to practice once in a while since she had passed her test a couple of years before.
‘I’m going to drive around the circle’ Emma called out to her father, ‘would you like a ride?’
Emma drove her father carefully around the gravel sweep exclaiming happily as she tried various levers, knobs and switches.
‘Emma be careful darling’ Mr. Woodhouse exclaimed in some alarm as one of these explorations of the dashboard caused a slight swerve as her concentration wavered. ‘Oh don’t run Mr. Knightley down!’ he issued in some panic. Emma grinned and made as though she were to, although George Knightley was some distance from the vehicle which was inching gingerly around the drive way. ‘Emma!’ her father exclaimed again as George Knightley raised his hand in a cheerful wave and made to dive out of Emma’s way in jest. Emma braked gently and turned off the ignition. She patted her father’s hand and smiled contritely,
‘It’s a wonderful present Papa. I must thank George for helping you choose.’ She hopped from the car and administered and excited and grateful hug.
‘I never ever dreamt of a car!’ Emma exclaimed, ‘Never, ever, not once’ she emphasised, her expression of amazement confirming the declaration. ‘How did you persuade Papa? For I know he would never have thought of it on his own’ Emma asked sotto voce.
‘Happy Birthday! You like it then?’ George responded with a laugh.
‘Like it? I love it. It is the most perfect birthday present in the world’ Emma declared fervently, ‘I’ll be able to nip to the shops, or over to see Anne, or to Goddard’s to meet Harriet. I could even visit you at Donwell and be there in a trice…’
George Knightley stooped to help Mr. Woodhouse from the little car.
‘Well, well, you were right Mr. Knightley Emma says that she likes her birthday present very much indeed. What say you to that?’
‘I say that between us we have chosen well’ George responded diplomatically. ‘Emma let me show you some of the refinements…’ Knightley demonstrated a few of the car’s features much to Emma’s delight. She had never driven anything brand new, certainly nothing with such modern technology. The bit about the small engine size compensated by the horsepower to provide astonishing performance went over her head rather, and she had to change the subject abruptly as George mentioned the satellite navigation. The thought of Emma driving anywhere beyond know terrain was in danger of bringing on one of her father’s panic attacks.
George Knightley apprehended his error and smoothly switched to a demonstration of how Emma would be able to call her father from the car, with perfect safety, using voice control technology. Emma smiled her relieved thanks and listened attentively to his instructions, she could appreciate the usefulness of such a device.
‘Will you come in for a coffee?’ Emma invited, expecting a polite negative, ‘we will be having some directly.’
‘OK thanks’ George responded after a quick glance at his watch, ‘then I have to get off, I’m on the bench this afternoon which will require a change of clothing, naturally.’
‘Poor you’ Emma screwed up her nose having heard several accounts regarding the dullness of Magistrate’s duties.
‘Indeed’ George agreed with an ironic smile, ‘not so exciting as opening cards and presents I’ll wager.’
‘Not half’ Emma agreed with a giggle, ‘especially if the day continues as well as it has started’ she demonstrated her array of birthday cards with a wave of her arm.
‘Excellent’ George browsed for a few moments, ‘I have a little something for you’ he fished in his coat pocket and produced a book sized package and an envelope, ‘I hope that you enjoy the rest of your day, and I’ll see you later at the Crown’ Mr. Knightley finished his coffee and was off before Emma had time to inspect her gift.
Emma turned the package over and surveyed it closely. Wrapped in the shop she reckoned, too neat for male wrapping. Not a book, too squashy. Emma finished her coffee and glanced out of the window to admire her new car, still parked on the driveway, as she savoured the moment of suspense.
‘What did Knightley give you Emma?’ her father interrupted Emma’s pondering.
‘I haven’t opened it yet’ she responded, proceeding to unwrap the parcel carefully, ‘Oh, lovely’ Emma’s eyes sparkled as her exploration revealed a dark red leather writing folder, complete with writing pad, and a place for her beloved fountain pen, ‘perfect!’ she exclaimed, ‘what a thoughtful present, how lucky am I?’ She showed the folder to her father who took it an examined it carefully.
‘Very good’ he approved with a nod, ‘I expect he remembered how well you like to write letters Emma, and what lovely handwriting that you have’ he smiled benignly as he handed the gift back. Emma slit open the envelope of her card and read George Knightley’s message with a smile.
‘He says that he hopes there may be enough pages for all the thank you notes that I will have to write after today…’ she handed the card for her father to read the rest of the message not quite trusting her voice to repeat the kind words.
‘Oh here are the Westons’ Emma announced with a beam of pleasure. Today was turning into a very good day. ‘Shall we offer them coffee? Or perhaps a small drink?’ Emma’s watch showed the time to be gone 12.00.
‘I expect they’d like a little sherry’ her father observed. ‘Poor’ Anne Taylor, or more correctly Weston, was always most welcome at Hartfield. ‘Did you see Emma’s new car?’ he asked unnecessarily as the Westons were discussing the same animatedly as they entered the house.
‘Happy birthday darling Emma’ Anne hugged and kissed Emma to the cheek. ‘What a lovely birthday gift!’ If Anne had any prior knowledge Emma could not detect it from her demeanour.
‘Yes, isn’t it perfect’ Emma enthused, ‘Papa got it for me, with a little help from Mr. Knightley.’ The meaningful look that the two women exchanged shared the knowledge that Mr. Knightley’s input would have been far from small.
‘How wonderful, what an excellent idea Mr. Woodhouse, ‘just what Emma needs to buzz about a little, especially when the weather is cold and wet. Why you could be at Randalls in less than five minutes’ Anne declared.
‘Would you like to see it?’ Emma took her friend’s arm in hers and escorted her back out onto the driveway to take a closer look.
‘Oh my dear its perfect’ Anne smiled, the little car would give Emma a little much needed freedom, and that her father had been cajoled into giving the gift made it even more delightful, as he could not reasonably prevent Emma from making use of it. ‘Clever Mr. Knightley’ Anne murmured feelingly.
The Weston’s were persuaded to partake in pre lunch drinks and they spent an amusing hour together as Emma showed her array of cards and accumulation of presents. For her part Anne had racked her brains for an idea for Emma’s special birthday. Knowing her as she did, Anne was aware of Emma’s likes’ hobbies and interests, but also of her possessions. Emma was difficult to buy for as she had pretty much everything that she could have possibly wanted. It was to her ex charge’s credit that she showed appreciation for what she was given. Anne had finally decided on a necklace, a rather dashing modern one that she thought would look well with Emma’s party dress, and could equally be worn with more casual clothes. The seed pearl and leather collar tied at the back with a grosgrain ribbon was an immediate hit with the recipient.
‘Oh thank you Anne, and Geoff, its wonderful! I’ll be able to wear it this evening with my dress’ Emma skipped with excitement and planted a kiss to Anne’s cheek, ‘it’s soo unusual, I love it. Don’t tell me that you bought it in Highbury!’
‘No’ Anne laughed and shook her head, ‘it necessitated a special trip up to town. Frank came and helped me chose, he has great taste.’ The Westons took their leave of Mr. Woodhouse, and with Emma in the knowledge that they would see her again in a short while,
‘I expect that you are looking forward to your birthday party young lady, I know that we all are’ were Geoff Weston’s parting words. He was of a very gregarious nature and certainly spoke the truth. Emma wondered for a moment what Frank Churchill would think of parochial birthday do at the pub. He was undoubtedly used to much grander balls and parties.