A Christmas at Hartfield
"My dear child, come down from the window. You shall catch a chill," Mr. Woodhouse pleaded from his chair, pulled close to the fire.
His grand-daughter, Bella Knightley, sitting at his feet, looked up at him, "But Grandpapa, it is not open."
"The wind can get through every nook and cranny, my child, every little space, and chill us, though we do not realise it!" Mr. Woodhouse rearranged himself nearer to the fire. He had always been overcautious, but in his more elderly years it had become more pronounced. Only the most tolerant and loving of daughters could endure it.
Emma Knightley smiled over at him, and then turned to the culprit at the window, her daughter, "Grace, come down from there. Grandpapa is right." The little girl clambered down and rushed over to her mother's knee, where she was swiftly gathered up into her lap. With her face nestled in the child's dark curls, Emma said to her father, "She is eager for her papa to return."
"With the inclement weather, it is unlikely. You must explain to her, he cannot come."
"Father!" Emma cried, "She is only three! And it is Christmas night!"
"All the more reason why you should explain." Mr. Woodhouse smiled at her kindly. At this the great front door was heard creaking open and low voices drifted through to the party by the fire. Little Grace's face lit up and she began to jump upon her mother quite violently,
"Gracie, please!" laughed Emma, almost as excited as her daughter at the prospect of her husband returning.
The little girl clambered down, impatient, and ran over to the door, just in time for it opening. The smile drooped however, when not George, but John Knightley and his wife entered the room. She scurried back to her mother, tears in her eyes. She liked her aunt and uncle well enough, but they were no substitute for her father, it seemed. Emma, disappointed too, comforted the child whilst exclaiming to her sister,
"Why, Isabella, we did not expect you home so soon!"
"The Coles have such a drafty house, I was afraid I would catch a chill."
"Very wise, my dear," nodded Mr. Woodhouse, "We have been cuddled up by the fire. It is only Grace who insists on braving the drafts."
"Father." Emma firmly replied, "I shall say it once more, she is only three, and wants her papa."
John Knightley leaned into Emma and spoke quietly, "I doubt he will make it tonight, Emma, the snow has come on very heavy."
Grace was at last occupied by her elder cousins, so Emma leaned back, petulant, "I do not see why he had to go to London, anyway -- and at Christmas!"
John replied, "Business, Emma."
"Must business take precedence over family?" countered Emma.
"He did think he would be finished by Christmas." soothed Isabella.
"I know." conceded Emma, staring into the fire. She had no doubt her Mr. Knightley had a thousand honourable, and perfectly logical, reasons for not getting through tonight, but this did not lessen the pain of not seeing him. The fire crackled cheerfully, and the pine cones spread upon it gave the room a rich scent. The room was decked out with holly and ivy, and everything was warm and snug. But Emma was not happy. She wished to be a family again, and as she looked over at her little girl, she remembered the light upon her face whenever her father was near. He doted on her, and consequently, she doted on him. And she doted on them both, she thought with a sigh.
It was soon time for Grace to go to bed, and as Emma tucked her in, the little girl sniffled "Mama."
"What is it, dearest?" Emma's throat immediately tightened with tears.
"Want Papa." Grace's woeful face was causing Emma's heart to break.
"I know, my darling. He will not be long and until then Mama will tell you a story."
Grace thought about this for a moment, and then pulled the covers up around her chin, a sign for Emma to begin.
"Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess..."
And so the story went on, it contained all the usual characters of a fairy tale, dragons and goblins and a handsome prince (whom Emma described very like her Mr. Knightley). Emma made sure it was a very complicated and lengthy story, so that when she finished, little Grace was sound asleep, and would not miss her papa so.
Emma returned quietly to the drawing-room, shedding a few tears along the way. Clutching at one last hope, she wondered if Mr. Knightley had arrived whilst she was with Grace, but it was not to be. Mr. Woodhouse noticed her reddened eyes as she flung herself into a chair,
"Would you like some tea, Emma, it will make you feel better."
"No thank you, papa."
"You look tired, my dear, you should rest."
"Honestly, father, I am fine."
"You are determined to stick it out." observed John Knightley.
"What do you mean, my dear?" inquired his wife.
"George said he would be back by Christmas Eve, and Emma is determined that she will be up every last minute of that time, in case he does return."
"Emma, my child! That is not healthy!" exclaimed her father, rising from his seat to come over to her. "You must go to bed immediately!"
"Yes, you must!" joined her sister, "Mr. Wingfield recommends bed at ten sharp every night for a healthy constitution."
Her father looked astonished, "Mr. Perry believes nine o'clock to be a reasonable time, and you cannot fault his judgment. See how he has cured little Bella's throat!"
Emma interjected before Mr. Woodhouse became too excited, "I am fine for the moment, thank you, I do not intend to wait up all night."
She sighed to herself as the pair returned to their seats. Perhaps now, more than ever, she wished Mr. Knightley by her side. It was much easier to handle her father with him present.
The time came for Isabella's children to go to bed, and still Mr. Knightley had not shown. The clock ticked on, and soon it was nine o'clock, at which, as a matter of principle, Mr. Woodhouse declared he was going to bed. The waiting was extremely nerve-racking for Emma, and what little self-restraint she had was severely tested. At first she resolved to read a book, but this idea was soon discarded; she then took to embroidering a nightgown of Grace's, but this did not hold her attention either. As ten o'clock approached, Emma was pacing up and down in front of the fireplace, her impatience evident. Isabella and John often entreated her to retire, or at least to sit still, but Emma had the growing feeling that something was not right. Her stomach was in knots, and she could not settle herself, no matter how hard she tried. The clock struck ten o'clock, and Isabella, true to Mr. Wingfield's orders, declared she was off to bed. Emma decided that perhaps it was better if she also retired, her imagination was probably running away with her as she was fatigued. As she rose, the door was heard slamming open and hurried footsteps came towards the room. Emma's heart jumped to her throat. Mr. Knightley' steward came rushing into the room and approached John, his breathing laboured from his flight.
"Sir! You must come quickly! Mr. Knightley has come off his horse, just at the gates to Hartfield!
He cannot move his leg!"
Quicker than lightening Emma was out in the hallway, closely followed by her brother, she grabbed a shawl.
"Emma! Don't be ridiculous! You are not going out in such weather! You will stay here with Isabella!" ordered John.
"No!" she replied vehemently, already halfway out the door. "I must go to my husband!"
As she flew down the steps, the wind slapped her cheeks ferociously and the snow blinded her, but she took no heed. The snow had settled, and was beginning to drift, causing Emma's pace to be slowed slightly. The steward, having caught up with her, pointed out the way. They followed the drive for what seemed like an age, until Emma could her the frightened whinnying of the horses. At last through the bitter flurries of snow, she could make out their silhouettes, and at their feet a prostrate figure.
She yelled, "Mr. Knightley!" and quickened her pace once more. Soon she came upon her husband, and flung herself on the snow beside him. His face was creased in agony, his hair covered in snow and his lips were turning blue. He was shivering, and clutching his right leg, in evident pain. Emma let out a sob, and brushed the snow from his hair. He looked up at her, and immediately tried to rise to a sitting position.
"Emma! What are you doing out in this?" His voice was stern; he turned to his brother, who had just arrived, "Why did you let her come out in this?"
"I tried to stop her, George, but she would not listen."
"Emma!" Mr. Knightley remonstrated, but his voice had softened.
John sent the steward to fetch the doctor, and he and Emma attempted to help Mr. Knightley back to the house.
Emma was deeply upset by the pain cursing across her husband's face every time he took a step,
"You should not have attempted to come tonight."
"I was fulfilling my promise, my love."
"You should have waited until the morrow, and come home to me unscathed," Emma pouted.
"If I had left it until tomorrow, I would have been greeted with 'why did you not come yesterday?'"
Emma opened her mouth in retort, but closed it again, content in mumbling, "It is a good thing you are an injured man, George Knightley."
Mr. Knightley laughed, and Emma could not help but smile. It took some time, but the trio eventually reached the house. Isabella met them in the hall, all in a fluster.
"Oh brother! You look very bad! Come into the drawing-room!"
Isabella had had a mountain of blankets brought in, and Mr. Knightley was wrapped up and placed in the chair nearest to the fire. It was not until she saw her husband's extremities turning a more normal colour, that Emma noticed she was soaked through and shivering violently. She too, was wrapped up snugly, and entreated to take the other chair by the fire. But she would not leave Mr. Knightley's side and sat with him until the doctor came.
The doctor examined the leg and found there to be a broken ankle. It was set and Mr. Knightley's pain soon eased. He was helped up to bed, where Emma sat with him until he fell asleep.
Emma's eyes flew open, remembering the previous night's events. She sat up and realised she had fallen asleep beside her husband, without climbing under the blankets. She gazed at his dear face, so peaceful now, and smiled to herself.
"At least you are here." she whispered.
"What did you say, my love?" Mr. Knightley had woken.
Emma lent over and kissed him. "I love you, Mr. Knightley."
"That was not it," he smiled, "but it shall do for now."
"How is your ankle?"
Mr. Knightley swept a stray wisp of hair from Emma's face, "Oh, fine."
She coloured slightly, "Well you are not moving from this bed today. I shall go and fetch breakfast." She swung herself off the bed and left the room. She encountered a servant and asked them to bring breakfast for herself and Mr. Knightley. As she went to return to her room, she heard a childish giggle.
"Grace!" she thought with a contented smile. She went to the nursery and peeked in the door. Grace was refusing to be dressed and was running round the room, chased by the exasperated nanny.
"Gracie!" Emma spoke as sternly as she could without laughing. The little girl stopped in her tracks and guilt swept across her face, until she realised who it was.
"Mama!" she cried, delightedly, and rushed to Emma's side. Emma gathered her up and deposited her on the bed.
"Now, young lady, get this dress on, for I have a surprise for you!"
Grace giggled and quite rapidly allowed herself to be dressed, all the while entreating her mother for a clue. Emma took her by the hand and led her out the room,
"Now, I have forgotten where I put this surprise, you shall have to help me search for it." Grace clapped her hands in delight.
Her mother opened a door and they both stuck their heads in,
"No, it is not in here."
This game went on for sometime, until Emma relented and opened the door to her room,
"Oh!" she said brightly, "Here it is!"
The little girl crept into the room, in excited anticipation.
"Well look who it is!" cried Mr. Knightley from the bed. Grace squealed in delight and ran and jumped upon the bed.
"Oomph!" went her father as she began to bounce joyfully upon him, all the while singing, "Papa! My papa!"
Emma laughed, overjoyed that her family was whole again. She watched in sheer delight as Mr. Knightley and Grace played upon the bed. She crossed over and sat on the edge of the bed, catching Grace after a particularly ferocious bounce. She sat her on her knee and said to her,
"Now Gracie, papa has hurt his leg, so you must be gentle."
"Oh, it is not so bad, Emma." smiled Mr. Knightley, as he brought a hand round her waist and pulled her closer.
"Well Grace and I shall take care of you, won't we, my darling?" Emma looked tenderly down at the little figure on her lap, becoming drowsy from such excitement. Grace nodded, and snuggled closer. Emma smiled over at her husband, the picture of utter contentment.
"That is all I would want." whispered Mr. Knightley, softly laying a kiss on his daughter's forehead, and then one upon his wife.
A Very Merry Christmas!
© 2001 Copyright held by author