Posted on 2010-02-14
Business in London had taken him away from her during the birth of their second son. Emma had come to expect these calls upon his time, so it was not the disappointment it should have been. She appreciated the extra time she could spend with her children, and to tell the truth the house was more peaceful when he was away.
He was able to make it home three weeks after their son's birth, but Emma was disappointed at his lack of interest in the child. He held him for half a minute, tweaked his nose, declared him a fine boy and then handed him back to his mother and demanded an explanation for why dinner was not yet on the table.
She had secretly hoped for a daughter this time, a little girl to endear herself to her father and keep him oftener at home, but it was not to be. Over dinner her husband announced that he was to return to London yet again, impressing upon her the urgency with which his presence there was required, and the impossibility of his extending his visit.
His visit. There – he had actually said it aloud. Coming home was a brief call to be paid in between his pursuits in town. The sentiment itself did not surprise her, but she could not but be hurt at his openly acknowledging it, and furthermore, seeming oblivious that there was anything wrong with it being so.
Later that night he followed her into the room which she inhabited alone nine times out of ten, and as he began to caress her, she could not even bring herself to enjoy it. What was the point, she thought, her eyes listlessly following the pattern made by the flickering candlelight on the ceiling, of awakening passion for one night when he would be gone again in the morning?
The faint noise of an infant crying broke into her thoughts, and she sat up, instantly alert. She was reaching for her dressing gown when her husband began to pull her back to him. 'Don't go,' he mumbled into her hair. 'Stay with me.'
The same words she had sobbed to him the first few times he had gone to London; the same words she had mentally willed him to hear the next few times; the same words whose futility had robbed from her the desire of meaning them anymore. She extricated herself from his arms. 'I must go,' she said quietly, and without further ado she left the room.
Some time later, she had finished feeding her son and was now holding him in her arms, waiting for him to fall asleep. It was in quiet moments like these that she could not help wondering what her life would have been like if she had followed through with her youthful resolution of never marrying, or if she had married – someone else...
She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them and taking a deep, shuddering breath. She tried to check her thoughts whenever they wandered in that direction, as they had been doing far too much for some time now; it was futile and dangerous to think in that way.
The next moment she was almost glad to hear her husband's footsteps approaching the room, as they presented a distraction from her increasingly depressing thoughts. Wordlessly he came up to her and held out his arms for the child. The hope which she had thought was dead flickered briefly into life again as she gently handed the child over to him. 'We still have to name him,' she said softly, so as not to wake the baby.
'Any ideas?' he asked, matching the lowered volume of her voice.
She bit her lip for a moment, but then she decided to plough on. 'I have thought of a name,' she admitted, 'but I wanted to consult you first.'
'Very well – what is it?' His voice was almost back to normal, and he seemed to have forgotten that he held a sleeping baby in his arms. The child's eyelids flickered at the noise, but fortunately he did not wake.
She exerted all her powers to keep her voice steady and natural. 'I want to name him George,' she said.
'George?' He seemed surprised. 'You already have a nephew by that name,' he reminded her laughingly.
She nodded in acknowledgement, but did not concede her point. 'Still, I would like my son to have the name,' she said quietly.
He shrugged, trying to suppress a yawn and failing. 'If it means that much to you, go ahead,' he said as he handed the baby back to her before stumbling out of the nursery and back to bed.
She did not accept or deny his statement.
Christmas time, in Mr. Woodhouse's view, was a time for family. Year after year, without fail, John and Isabella would arrive at Hartfield to pass the holiday season with their loved ones. It was Mr. Woodhouse's favourite time of year, not only because he had both his daughters at home with him, but because the cold weather meant that he was sure of everybody's remaining safely inside by their fires during the evenings, unless someone were to do something remarkably reprehensible, like holding a Christmas party.
This year, thankfully, nobody had taken such a foolish notion into their heads except for the Eltons, who had however had the good sense and deference to superiority to leave the Hartfield family well alone and not plague them with invitations. Of all their circle, Mr. Knightley alone had received an invitation, but he had politely declined it in favour of spending his Christmas by Mr. Woodhouse's fire, a decision for whose wisdom Mr. Woodhouse could not commend his old friend enough.
It was not a decision which Mr. Knightley was in any danger of regretting, for he had never seen Hartfield looking so warm, inviting and festive. Emma and Isabella, who had arrived a few days earlier on purpose to decorate, had truly outdone themselves. He and John had on their orders remained in London to stay out of their way, and although he could not but regret the loss of time in Emma's company during the holiday season, he was now glad he had extended his stay in town. Seeing the full effect of what they had done was worth it.
Not to mention the warm reception he and John had received from Emma and Isabella when they finally did arrive. He and Emma had not been on the best of terms for some time now, but tonight all that seemed forgotten. Her smile as she greeted him was genuine, lighting up her whole face and actually seeming to brighten the room. There had always been something special about Emma's smile; it lingered in the memory and gave the recipient warmth long after it had faded.
Of course she was no longer the fresh-faced girl she once had been, and he could see the tiredness in her eyes, but he thought – as he always thought every time he saw her – that he had never seen her more beautiful.
Unfortunately they were seated too far apart to really talk at dinner, and afterwards he was too soft-hearted to resist the pleading eyes of his nieces and nephews and found himself roped into a game of bullet pudding instead of conversation with the grown-ups. The other adults watched as the children took turns to slowly cut out a measure of flour from the mound placed on some newspaper in the centre of the room, careful to avoid toppling the silver bullet balanced on top.
When his own turn came, Mr. Knightley was deliberately careless, using the knife roughly; sure enough, the bullet toppled and there was a collective intake of breath among the children. As he exclaimed in mock-dismay, they watched him, eyes shining in anticipation. Sighing in exaggerated resignation he obliged them, bending forward and retrieving the bullet with his teeth, in the process getting himself thoroughly covered in flour, much to their noisy delight.
He turned to the adults, and although Mr. Woodhouse looked worried in case Mr. Knightley inhaled the flour and choked, he was the only one who was not amused. John's grin was as wide as any of his children's, Isabella was trying very hard not to smile and was not quite succeeding, and Emma...
His breath caught in his throat as he saw her, flushed with delight, eyes luminous, laughing as freely and merrily as her elder son who was sitting next to her, too young yet to understand the rules of the game and to take part, but not young enough to fail to grasp the hilarity of seeing a grown man suddenly aged twenty years by the white of the flour in his hair, or to find amusement in watching him bemusedly blinking it out of his eyes. Even after Emma's laughter faded, Mr. Knightley could not take his eyes off her, for she was looking at him with such a tender smile, and such an expression of affection as he had not seen for a long time. It was his own fault entirely.
He made a resolution then to spend more time with Emma. He would not distance himself from her anymore. He had not the strength to keep away anymore. If he could, he would try to restore things to how they once were, would try to revert to their warm friendship of years past.
His nephews and nieces were now seated near the fire with Mr. Woodhouse, playing the quieter game of alphabet squares, which was infinitely preferable to their grandfather's anxious temper.
Mr. Knightley was himself talking to John, hearing about how John's law practice fared in London and in his turn acquainting him with the latest developments at Donwell Abbey, but through it all his gaze kept returning to Emma, who was conversing happily with Isabella on the other side of the room. He still had not found a chance to talk with her this evening, but he did not want to interrupt her conversation with the sister whose company she enjoyed the more for having it so seldom.
However, he finally saw his chance when Emma stood, barely suppressing a yawn herself, in order to put her sleepy children to bed. Excusing himself from John, in a few short strides he was at her side. Gently, he relieved her of the baby, and with his free arm picked up the older boy who settled himself easily with his head on Mr. Knightley's shoulder without the need for any coaxing from his mother. 'You are tired,' he said quietly. 'I will take them upstairs.'
Their friendship had been tried enough and true enough that there was no need for polite demurrals and repetition of entreaties. She simply smiled at him, softly, gratefully. 'Thank you.'
He made his way slowly upstairs, careful not to jar the children, aware of the warm weight of the sleepy heads on his shoulder and in the crook of his arm.
By the time he reached the doorway of their room, the feel of them both in his arms was already making him sigh for lost opportunities when the slight movement as the older boy sleepily slipped his arms around Mr. Knightley's neck made him bite his lip hard to stop himself from inhaling sharply.
He stood still in the doorway for a moment, blinking his prickling eyes rapidly, swallowing hard. If only...
He shook his head, determined to think only on what was possible. He wanted to spend more time with these boys. He wanted to watch them grow up into fine men, the pride and joy of their mother. And he wanted to be more a part of their lives than he had been formerly.
For some time longer he stood in the darkness of the room, unwilling to relinquish them, but then sighing, he deposited the older one on his bed, tucking him in so that he could sleep comfortably, fondly kissing him goodnight.
The baby, little George he held onto for longer. The child was comfortably sleeping in his arms, he reasoned, and he didn't know when he would find these precious moments again. Spending his time in tracing out the soft features of the mother in the face of the child, he was not aware how it had flown until the sound of Emma's voice behind him made him start.
'I was wondering what was keeping you,' she said softly as she came up to stand beside him.
He had no reply to make, and for a while they simply stood silently admiring the two-month-old wonder of human life in his arms.
After some time, he found himself speaking, careful to keep his voice low so as not to disturb the children. 'I've been wondering for some time, Emma. Why did you name him George?' If he had moved his gaze from the baby, he might have been able to discern the deepening colour of her cheeks, even in the darkness. 'George is a fine boy, to be sure,' he continued, 'but I would have thought that if you were to name your son after any of your nephews it would have been Henry.'
'I...' She hesitated for a moment before continuing, her voice whisper-soft. 'I named him after you.'
At her words his head snapped around so that he could meet her eyes. In the gloom they were unreadable. 'Me?' He hoped his voice sounded normal. 'Why me?'
She smiled at that as she placed a hand on his arm. 'You are – you have always been...' She closed her eyes for a moment and bit her lip, before meeting his eyes once more, her smile now a little watery. '...my best friend in the world,' she finished finally. 'What could be more natural?'
After this, by some silent mutual agreement they both deemed it to be the most sensible course of action if they were to soon proceed back to the room where the rest of the family were seated.
The rest of the Christmas holiday was passing pleasantly, and Mr. Knightley was making a good beginning of fulfilling his resolutions of restoring his friendship with Emma and spending time with her boys. He made an effort to include her older one in the games of his nieces and nephews, and found in him an avid audience for his storytelling. When the fairytales were exhausted he always had such true Highbury legends of heroism and dastardly deeds as 'The Completely True and Not At All Exaggerated Tale of Harriet and the Gypsies' to fall back on.
All the children loved hearing about poor Harriet being set upon by a hundred gypsies, all over six feet tall and most armed with pistols and daggers. They shivered with delight at the danger, and were all assured by the end of the story that Harriet lived happily ever after in a castle in the clouds with the prince who had ridden up on his white stallion and saved her from almost certain death.
Emma was always somewhere in the background as the great storyteller held his audience captive, and he was delighted to observe every smile, every stifled laugh, every roll of the eyes.
Today the children – with the exception of the baby who was sleeping – were all outside playing in the snow with John and Isabella while their grandfather sat in his favourite room with the large fire. Even though it was winter both Emma and Mr. Knightley found this fire oppressive, and so they were in the smaller parlour on the first floor of the house, where the large window afforded a good view of the exploits of those outside.
Emma indulgently observed her son as he made a snowman, his small face set in concentration as he worked. 'You know,' she said to Mr. Knightley, 'little Frank told me yesterday that he wished you were his father.'
He was silent, and her gaze remained fixed on the scene outside the window, though her eyes had stopped taking it in. She paused a moment, wondering whether or not to go further. He had not encouraged her to say more, but then nor had he admonished her to silence. She made up her mind. She had never told him anything but what she believed to be the truth, and she would not change that now. Taking a deep breath, she finally said what had been in her heart for so long now. 'I wish you were his father too.'
Out of the corner of her eye she could see his grip on the arm of the sofa they sat in tightening until his knuckles turned white, but still he said nothing.
Perhaps she was being selfish to continue, to relieve her feelings at his expense, but once she had begun she could not stop. 'I thought of you often after I had married Frank. At first I remembered your warnings to me after the scales had fallen from my eyes and my new clarity of vision proved them to be all too true. You were right, about Frank and Jane Fairfax, about everything. Frank is...' She paused. '...is not all I thought he was,' she settled for saying. 'I overrated him almost as badly as I underrated you. It was inevitable that I would realise this, and that I would begin to compare the two of you in my mind. I began to think of the life I could have had, the life you had offered me...'
Emma sighed heavily. 'The memory of that day has not stopped haunting me. When I think how I deluded myself, when I think of the terrible things I said to you...' She passed a shaking hand over her eyes. 'Almost immediately I regretted my harshness, and it was not long before I began to regret not only the manner of my answer, but also the purport of it.'
She chanced a glance at him, but his eyes were still fixed on the window, and apart from the unusual pallor of his face, there was no sign that he had heard what she had said.
Slowly, hesitantly, she brought a hand up to cradle his face, and he visibly shivered. Although he shut his eyes tightly, he could not prevent himself from leaning in to her touch. When she next spoke, her voice was more tender than he had ever heard it. 'Believe me when I say that I have learned to value you for yourself and not for some comparatively more bearable life you could have given me.' She leaned her forehead against his and he did not protest. 'After I married Frank I missed you. Not the stability or reliability of the life I could have had with you, but you yourself – your friendship, your teasing, your guidance–' she gave a choked laugh– 'I believe I even missed your scolding, although I don't think I've ever enjoyed it while it's been happening.'
Mr. Knightley's eyes remained closed as he struggled to make sense of his own feelings. Of course there was the joy of hearing that Emma loved him in return, but perhaps he had been better off without that knowledge. Had she told him this four years ago, his feelings would have been in a state so close to perfect happiness that they could be given no other name. Now, however...
For the past four years he had dealt with the grief of losing her by telling himself that things could never have been different. He could never have been with Emma because she was married to someone else and she didn't love him – in fact, she hated him (or so she had said). Now when there was nothing standing between him and Emma except for the ring on her finger, how torturous the temptation was! He could feel her warm breath on his lips, and all he had to do was lean forward a fraction and give her the response she wanted, and which he so desperately wanted to give her...
He opened his eyes to see her face, eyes closed and lips slightly parted, willing and expectant. She was close enough for him to see the few tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose. They were the remnants of a childhood spent in the sunshine; Emma had never been one to sit indoors and grow pale. His memories of Emma as a child were of a ball of energy and laughter, a charming little girl who could twist all the adults in her life around her little finger, himself hardly excluded. Emma. The one who could get so carried away by her whims and impulses that she might unintentionally stumble down the wrong path. The one who could do so in such a way that others did not stop her, but instead followed her.
All he had to do now was follow her. All he had to do was lean forward an inch, and Emma would be ruined. One moment of weakness and Emma, his Emma, would be past the point of return from a path down which he would have led her. The guilt would last him a lifetime.
He took a deep breath. Then, gathering every last ounce of his willpower, he slowly extricated himself and moved back slightly on the sofa. 'Mrs. Churchill,' he said gently, using her new name as a quiet reminder of her situation. He paused, and tried to gather his thoughts before speaking. 'I thank you for telling me this,' he said carefully. 'What you have told me will, I believe, set my mind at rest when I have had leisure to reflect upon it.'
Although he could tell from the resignation in her face that his response had not been unexpected, at the same time she looked so forlorn that his heart went out to her. 'Now let me in return set your mind at rest,' he continued. 'I forgive you – I have long forgiven you for your words that day. Indeed you were not completely without justification; I knew when I set out to warn you that I had no right to interfere. But please believe me when I say that ill-timed and badly worded as it was, it was kindly meant.'
She nodded, smiling a little tremulously. 'I know you always had my best interests at heart; I was just too foolish to see it then.'
The self-reproach in her voice cut him to the quick, and he tried to find words to reassure her. 'I will do you the justice of saying, that at your age I probably would have reacted the same way.' He found himself playing with a loose thread on one of his cuffs. 'I cannot pretend that your words did not hurt, but we were friends. I knew you well enough to know that you were angry and didn't mean half of what you said.'
For some moments there was silence, but then Emma spoke. 'And now?' She sounded almost fearful. 'Where do we stand?'
He now trusted himself enough to cover one of her hands with his, hoping to reassure her. 'I hope we can be friends again, like we were four years ago.'
She looked up at him hopefully as she next spoke. 'Little Frank and George would always love to see you, you know... do you think you might visit us all at Richmond sometime?'
He inclined his head towards her. 'If it pleases Mr. Churchill to receive me, I would be happy to.'
Emma sighed, partly in frustration and partly in resignation at this diplomatic answer. For a moment she was not sure what to say, as this seemed a logical end to the conversation, but then a thought occurred to her. She debated with herself whether or not to ask, but then she found that she needed to. Taking a deep breath, she plunged ahead. 'I must ask one more thing,' she said. She could not keep some of the unsteadiness out of her voice. 'Are your feelings still–'
Mr. Knightley squeezed her hand and smiled, a small, sad smile. 'Emma,' he said gently, 'words are very powerful things. As you once pointed out to me, something once said cannot be unsaid, no matter how much one might wish it. I think it would be best if I say nothing more than I have already.'
She smiled ruefully. 'You always did guide me in the right,' she said. 'Although I do not think my inclination to disobey you has ever been stronger.'
It was little George's third Christmas at Hartfield when the letter bringing the news of his father's death arrived. He didn't understand much except that his mother was upset, and this made the tears come into his own eyes too. It took some time in the arms of his favourite uncle, the man whose name his mother had told him he shared, before he could regain some semblance of composure.
In young Frank the news raised no more than a passing concern for the sake of the loud-voiced father whose occasional presence had always been cause for trepidation rather than rejoicing. His whole solicitude was reserved almost exclusively for his mother, whom he was doing his best to comfort as he could.
Hartfield held a legion of people whose true concerns were reserved only for the widowed Mrs. Churchill. Perhaps at Randalls this would have been seen as unfeeling, but it was so. John and Isabella had barely seen the brother-in-law they were supposed to be mourning above twice and Mr. Woodhouse, who had never thought that young man quite the thing, saw his death more as a warning to all young people never to drink above one glass of beer or be driving after sundown (that his son-in-law could have done both at the same time almost seemed to Mr. Woodhouse to be meriting the catastrophe which had occurred).
Mr. Knightley was steadfastly refusing to examine his own feelings at the news, instead focusing all his thoughts on comforting the child in his arms, leaving his mother to the consolation of others. His mind would wander, despite his efforts. Think of the Westons' loss, he told himself sternly, when it did. Think of young Frank and George. He focused all his efforts on not looking at her. His eyes wandered everywhere else in the room, and soon he had memorised the exact location of every piece of furniture, every ornament. Don't look at her, don't look at her, don't look...
Emma's tears seemed as if they would never stop. She cried for the Westons' grief. She cried for the Frank she had once thought she loved. She cried because he would now never have the opportunity to become that Frank in truth. She cried because she knew he would not have changed anyway. She cried because she was relieved. She cried because she felt guilty at feeling relieved. She cried because even now, Frank was not the first in her thoughts.
As she clutched her older son to her, her tear-filled eyes sought one object only. He had his back to her, but he suddenly stood very still before turning sharply as if feeling her gaze on him. As their eyes met over the heads of her sons, expressions of confusion, guilt and aching longing a mirror of one another, Emma felt that despite her blurred vision she had never seen so clearly.The End