Posted on 2010-06-21
He was home for the holidays, and he had hoped and expected to spend his short break from university doing the things he loved, riding about the countryside, swimming in the river which ran through the Abbey's grounds, reading books from his father's extensive library and yet, here he was, on his second day back, forced to be minding a bunch of children.
Mr. and Mrs. Woodhouse had gone with his mother to London, to consult with an eminent physician Mrs. Knightley knew of, about Mrs. Woodhouse's health. For some months now she had been unable to shake off her illness, and, probably more to ease her fretful husband's mind than from any other consideration, she had finally consented to leave her daughters at Hartfield and make the journey. She had smiled at him and said that "if George were there to watch over them, she felt perfectly easy in leaving them, for there was no one so capable, so responsible as George".
He had been torn between a feeling of pride and gratification at her trust in him, and vexation that he would be spending the next week in the thankless chore of looking after children who would perhaps resent his newly gained authority and seek every opportunity to thwart him.
To be fair, his little brother John and young Isabella Woodhouse required little of his attention, and were content to be chattering to each other and playing their own little games. It was the other Woodhouse girl, little Emma, who was at the root of all his troubles. To be sure he had the nursery maid to assist him and to take over the most disagreeable tasks of feeding and bathing her, but the task of amusement fell entirely on his shoulders.
Nothing seemed to hold her attention for long enough to give him any rest. After only a little while she seemed to be bored of everything save for vexing him. She would wish him to sit with her and play with her dolls, but then after ten minutes she would push them away from her in disgust. Then she would clamour for him to tell her a story only to tire of it in the middle and ask for paper and pencils to draw a picture instead. After some minutes, she would present him with a half-done chicken scrawl ('That's my house and there I am, and that' pointing to an indiscriminate blob on the page 'is you, Mr. Knightley') and ask him to sing for her.
He had refused, and after ten minutes of very persistent wheedling on her part, he had finally given in, only for her to listen for half a minute, then make a face and declare that she had had enough of music for a lifetime (he was now in no very cordial mood towards her). Her next suggestion was that they should go for a walk in the shrubbery.
Their time outside had been spent in him running himself ragged by hurrying after little Emma everywhere, terrified lest she trip and fall, or attempt to climb a tree or venture so much as a step near the lake. He was acting like Mr. Woodhouse, but he knew that he had been entrusted with her care, and if anything should happen to her, he would never be able to look her parents in the eye again.
That evening, exhausted, he had finally allowed Emma to lead him by the hand back inside the house (stooping to the side so that she could actually reach him) and handed her over to the nursery maid with an air of profound relief. He had sank into his favourite chair in the Hartfield drawing room, but hardly had his eyes been closed for five minutes before the nursery maid reappeared, looking apologetic. 'Mr. Knightley, sir, Miss Emma says she won't eat unless you feed her.'
He could have groaned in frustration. He had not envisioned himself spending his holiday running around following the whims of an insufferably spoiled four-year-old. He forced himself to think of Mr. and Mrs. Woodhouse, and how concerned they would be if Emma had not been eating properly, and then he sighed, rising. 'Very well, Hannah, I'll go to her.'
He walked up to the nursery to find little Emma sitting at her small table, her face lighting up at his entry. Almost instantly his annoyance at her weakened. 'Emma,' he said softly as he sat down beside her, his planned reproof to her becoming gentler than he had intended, 'what is all this? Why the fuss? Why will you not eat unless I am here?'
The little girl's smile faded, and her bottom lip began to tremble as she started to speak. 'Mama and Papa are always here when I'm eating, and now they're not, and Hannah says they won't be back for a whole week, and I miss them so already, and I thought if you were here, then I wouldn't feel' The rest of her words became indistinguishable through her sobs which were themselves muffled as she buried her face in his waistcoat.
He brought his arms around her, and waited until her sobs had subsided into sniffles and the occasional hiccup. However trivial he deemed the reason for her tears, it was clear that she was genuinely upset by it, having before this never been away from her parents.
All his earlier irritation with her was gone as he smoothed her hair back off her forehead and dried her tears with his handkerchief. 'Come now, Emma,' he said gently, 'your Mama and Papa will be back before you know it, and in the meantime, I am here.' She took a deep breath and then nodded, her mouth set as she gave one last swipe at her eyes. 'Now I will call Hannah,' he said, 'and I want you to finish your dinner. Can you do that, Emma?'
He started to rise, but then she grasped his hand with her own much smaller ones, looking up at him with large, beseeching hazel eyes. 'Oh Mr. Knightley, I promise to be good tomorrow, but just for today can't you please stay?'
Looking down into her pleading eyes, he found he could not say no. He sat down again, relenting. 'Very well, Emma just this once, mind.'
Her smile seemed to illuminate the whole room, and as they sat together, she kept up a continuous stream of happy chatter in between mouthfuls, most of it related to her plans for how they would spend the day tomorrow. '...and then we'll feed the ducks, and then we'll go on the swing, and then we'll play hopscotch, and then we'll...'
He sighed inwardly. He had been hoping for some time to himself on the morrow so that he could go on his usual ride through the Abbey's grounds and then around the outskirts of Donwell itself. It had been some months since he had last done it. He knew he could trust Hannah in the care of the children for a couple of hours, if only he could think of some way to keep little Emma occupied for that time. Then an idea occurred to him. 'Are you sure you don't want to play with John and Isabella for a while?' he asked hopefully. 'I'm sure they're much better at games than I am.'
She wrinkled her nose and shook her head, dismissing the idea immediately. 'They're no fun,' she said. 'They'd rather be with each other than me. And besides, you're my favourite brother, not John I'd much rather play with you.' She smiled up at him happily and he couldn't help feeling flattered at her preference, feeling more reconciled to the prospect of another day tagging along by her side.
But then she seemed to discern something of the reluctance he had been feeling, for her face fell suddenly. 'Oh,' she said softly, and then she bit her lip. 'I'm sorry, Mr. Knightley I suppose I can't keep you all to myself. Mama did say I wasn't to bother you.' She looked down at her lap and her eyes began to fill with tears.
Suddenly he felt horribly guilty and about an inch tall. 'You don't bother me, Emma,' he assured her hurriedly. Then he smiled ruefully although he knew from her more relaxed posture that she was mollified, he was amused that her eyes still held the woeful expression of a puppy which had received an unexpected and undeserved blow from its master. 'Shall I tell you a secret?'
She nodded her permission, still looking up at him sadly. She was clearly going to milk his guilt for all it was worth. Then he leaned towards her to whisper in her ear, 'You're my favourite sister too.'
She could no longer maintain her air of wounded helplessness, and it was banished with a smile that almost split her face in two. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly with a strength that belied her petite appearance, planting a sound kiss on his cheek before letting him go.
He reached up a hand to massage his bruised neck, laughing a little. 'Come along, Emma it's time you went to sleep.'
She looked up at him, and he inwardly rolled his eyes at her expression which held a hint of pleading, a hopeful smile and an endearing reliance that he would not disappoint her. He knew that she wanted something. 'Could you please tell me a bedtime story, Mr. Knightley?'
He looked at her sternly, pretending to think about it even though he knew he would end up indulging her anyway. 'I suppose I could,' he said finally, allowing his smile to show. 'But just a short one.'
As he followed her, allowing her to race ahead, half-dragging him by the hand, he vowed that after this week was over, he would never again follow along behind Emma Woodhouse, catering to her little whims and fancies and letting her always get her own way.The End