Posted on 2022-01-06
On the 5th day of January, George Knightley called at Hartfield in a hopeful mood. He handed several packages to the butler with quiet instructions that were discreetly followed, and he proceeded to the parlour, where his host and hostess were sat by the fire.
“Are you here again, Mr. Knightley?” Mr. Woodhouse said in a fretful voice. “I hope you will not catch cold.”
“I am in excellent health, sir.”
“I wonder you do not stay at home, as Mr. Elton had done. But now he has gone to Bath!”
“He left before the snow began again,” George said, stealing a glance at Emma. “I had thought to inform you myself. Clearly I am too late.”
“He wrote me a very pretty letter to take leave,” said Mr. Woodhouse less querulously. “Do show it to Mr. Knightley, Emma. It was much better to write than to walk to Hartfield in the cold.”
Emma frowned and relinquished the letter. She somehow looked ashamed, a rarity indeed! George read the note quickly and returned it to her. “Give that back to your father and then come find me,” he whispered. Aloud, he said, “Excuse me, sir, while I seek out my brother.”
John, having heard George was in the house, came downstairs to say the children, one and all, were napping after vigorous exercise on the snow-covered lawn. Assured his brother would stay through the evening, he yawned and went back to Isabella's side.
George was staring after him and wondering what made Woodhouse women so irresistible to Knightley men when Emma entered the hall. They walked together to a room where they would not be overheard.
“You wished to speak to me?” Emma said.
“Yes.” He recalled Elton's letter. “Elton paid your father excessive attention but did not mention you once. It seems a pointed omission. Are you no longer friends?”
“I think he would be satisfied never to see me again. I dare say the feeling is mutual.”
“You were unable to turn him away gently on Christmas Eve?”
“That conversation had little to do with gentleness.”
He smirked. “It could be worse. Be grateful he does not suspect you meant him for Miss Smith.”
Emma turned away.
“You told him?” George walked around to meet her eye. “I warned you Elton would not make an imprudent match. But is that really why you seem ashamed, not merely dissatisfied?”
“You know I could not be afraid of that presumptuous man!” She stared at the floor. “My shame is for Harriet. How can I face her? Harriet will break her heart over him! It is all my fault.”
George paced and watched Emma ready herself for the lecture to begin in earnest. She felt her error; she needed no lecture of his. Besides, he wanted her to feel festive tonight, not forlorn.
“Why not follow Elton's example,” he suggested, “and write to your friend? The wind is fierce. Miss Smith will not wonder at your choosing to avoid an unpleasant walk. If you write quickly, it can be delivered before the new snow becomes an impediment.” And with any luck, before Robert Martin appears at Mrs. Goddard's door with his mother's special blend of tea for Miss Smith and his heart in his eyes, he thought but did not say.
They debated the matter for half a minute before Emma took his advice. It was her idea to cast Elton in the light of a determined fortune hunter to soften the blow. In truth, George would not have been surprised to see Elton return from Bath with a wealthy bride after having been denied Emma and her thirty thousand pounds. George had argued with Emma often enough to imagine what a lively discussion that must have been. He knew he ought to have sympathy for the vicar but primarily felt amusement as he observed Emma putting the finishing touches on her letter to Harriet Smith.
Business dispatched, George said, “Now you can assist me . The children would be sorry to have no presents tomorrow morning. But why should they have to wait until they return to Brunswick Square? I searched the attics of the Abbey for a few items for the boys. Do you think you can do the same here for the girls? And have you anything pretty to wrap them in?”
Emma declared it a delightful notion. They set about it immediately, taking care not to disturb the sleepers. George could not recall when he had last had so much innocent fun.
The evening was better still. A little brandy in Mr. Woodhouse's tea tempered his prognostications of bad weather and rendered him drowsy enough to be convinced to retire shortly after his grandchildren did. Those remaining expressed pleasure at this. Isabella feared the boys had wearied her father; John was relieved not to have to argue against staying longer if the roads proved passable in the morning; Emma was glad her father would be undisturbed by wassailing if there were any intrepid singers about Highbury that night; and George would never have been forgiven for having brought, and their all having consumed, a Twelfth-cake from the Abbey, small though it was. They would feast on it tonight, for they dared not leave a crumb of it for Mr. Woodhouse to discover in the morning.
They ate their cake in peace and enjoyed some excellent wine besides. The men were jolly and the ladies all smiles and cheer. John was at his best in the small, familiar company, and he and Isabella were warm in their thanks to the others for the children's gifts. In a whimsical display, John danced Isabella out of the room as they said goodnight.
Emma rose to go, but George reached for her hand. “Stay.” He twirled her about until she laughed. Then he asked while still holding her hand, “Do you never want to have your own children to surprise on Epiphany?”
“I shall never marry,” she said.
“You shall never marry Elton, but what about someone else?”
“Who...” was as far as Emma got in her reply. George leaned in and kissed her on the mouth.
“Emma, have I offended you?” He watched her blink. “ Emma? ”
“I did not know. I never thought....I do not know what I thought.”
Perhaps she did not know, but George knew. He could see in her eyes what she was thinking. He almost always could. He saw incredulity, acceptance, joy, love, and then fear, as evidenced by her next words:
“But my father—”
“We will contrive a way,” George said, silencing her questions with kisses and feeling a great relief as she participated fully in this expression of their happiness.
George had not spoken to anyone about his understanding with Emma, but John had discerned it, which meant he had likely hinted at it to his wife. “I do not know how you will manage to remove Emma from Hartfield,” he said to George as he prepared to leave mid-morning. The snow had ceased overnight, and the sun shone.
“That is the question.” George considered it seriously. “The idea will be met with such resistance that in the end I would not be surprised to find myself doing as I did last night.” He looked up and saw such an expression on John's face as to make him exclaim under his breath, “Don't look at me like that! I stayed in my own room, and she in hers.”
John grinned before he turned away.
How dare he call his elder brother to account!
Before long, George felt himself grinning too. He glanced at Emma, who was soothing her father as he worried his way through goodbyes to Isabella and his grandchildren. He caught her eye, and his smile softened as he dwelt on their secret—secret to Mr. Woodhouse, in any case, and perhaps to the children.
He imagined Twelfth Night would be his favourite holiday for years to come.