Posted on 2015-10-31
Emma Woodhouse, pretty, carefree and rich, was 21 years, eleven months and 25 days old on the day she made the most momentous decision of her life.
Emma, the mistress of her father's house, got up early, as was her habit, and shared a cup of coffee with the housekeeper. That worthy lady then began her daily routines and started assembling her master's breakfast and Emma set to work on her accounting books, a task that seemed inconsequential in the face of everything that was happening in the country. She had never had any formal schooling in the matter, but she possessed a certain ingenuity for numbers that was more than sufficient for the task of managing the estate's accounts. It was easy work for her and it helped delay newspaper time.
This rather confusing term was what she had named the moment when she had to peruse the morning's newspaper, to see which pages she might possibly be able to remove without her father's noticing, and to find a way how to spin the rest of the stories so they would not sound as grim as they were. It was a task that became more difficult every day as the Germans shot more and more British aircraft down. How could she tell her father that it was not as bad as it sounded when she herself was daily growing more afraid, she knew not even of what exactly.
Surely the Germans would not try to invade - or would they? Could they, even with all their bombers and aircraft, built with such mechanic precision, have the strength to conquer the greatest Naval force in the world and occupy an island that had withstood all attempts to do so for nearly a thousand years? She took another sip of her coffee; it was cold. She could not delay the inevitable any longer.
New dread filled her. The Navy had suffered further spectacular losses, the number of aircraft still able to fight the Heinkels and Messerschmidts was ever dwindling. The King and Queen, against their will, had been brought to Scotland with the Princesses; between the lines there were hints that a submarine was waiting off the coast to bring them to Canada in case they had to flee. Churchill, it appeared, had given another speech. The paper quoted the highlights and the words blurred before her eyes.
"Valiantly this country is fighting for its freedom, defending itself against an oppressor whom we know not to have right on his side - but in this, our grimmest, most dangerous hour, we must double, we must triple the effort - [...] All are still struggling on, seeming to grow more even when their number decreases. They must not, they will not fail. [...] When the day we all dread should come, we will fight them in every lane, in every pasture, by every brook and on every moor - we will defend our churches, our schools, our libraries and hospital, every hearth and home - we will never surrender this island. [...] I put all my trust into the English people, who have trusted me with this enormous task, and I will not lie to you now. I will tell you frankly that the hardest times are still ahead of us, that it will be worse, much worse, before a new age of peace and freedom can come again. [...] Onto few - maybe too few, as only history will show - the fates of all of us have been thrust and I know, no matter how many the adversaries, how great the difficulties, that they will be victorious, that they shall triumph over brute force with the help of the sheer power of their will, the help of the determination that we must and shall keep these isles, and with them, the world, free. [...] I will only add, God bless you all."
It was a good speech, all in all, Emma thought, but Churchill's grim optimism rang hollow. She wondered if it was just panic rushing through her, but her gut told her that the invasion must be close and who knew how that would end, Churchill's promises aside?
Up until this moment, Emma had lead a rather carefree life. The grief that had been in it had been gentle. Her mother had died hours after her birth and the pang of regret Emma occasionally felt for her loss was melancholic rather than traumatic. The cats and dogs of her childhood had lead long and happy lives before a veterinarian took care of a peaceful end for them and her grandparents' deaths had been distant and removed. No accidents had marred her life, no heavy losses and no threats for her future.
For the first time now, the prospect of the next day filled Emma with dread now and not with curiosity. Who knew what the next days, the next week would bring? The awareness of life's shortness almost floored her.
This was new, this was grim and she knew not what to do tomorrow, but at least she had a pretty good idea that there were some things she ought to do right now. She hid the newspaper for the moment; her father would find out soon enough. Without informing anyone about where she went - surely everyone would assume her to be still in the study with the accounts in this house where life went on as if nothing was happening - she grabbed her coat and hat and left the house through the side door. Quietly closing the door behind her, Emma did not know that she was leaving the house in which she had spent the last 21 years, eleven months and five days for ever.
Donwell Abbey was not quite so close that Emma would normally have gone there on foot, but on this day, not wishing to inform anyone of her absence, she did so. She went at a steady pace, her strides as wide as her skirts would allow. The autumn air was crisp and fresh and the sky overhead piercingly blue. Nothing in this bucolic idyll betrayed the danger that was imminent. Walking swiftly past the orchards towards Donwell Abbey, Emma thought she could almost taste the tangy November apples on her tongue.
Before she had quite finished sorting her thoughts, she reached the house. Donwell Abbey was owned by close friend of her family. Emma had known Mr Knightley all her life and could not imagine it without him. Their recent disagreement, when Mr Knightley had found he needed to criticise her behaviour, now seemed unimportant and small to Emma when compared with the prospect that war might soon separate them without a chance to properly renew their friendship. This was what she had come to tell Mr Knightley, but she was still not quite certain how to word it so as not to make it sound awkward or worse, melodramatic.
She was surprised when she found the house not at all as calm and steadfast as it normally was. The doors and several windows stood open, and when Emma, feeling there was no occasion for ceremony, stepped into the entrance, she saw that in several of the large rooms, items of furniture, paintings and knick-knacks that had always been there were missing. What remained was mostly covered in sheets. The housekeeper was going through the rooms with a list off which she was ticking items and when asked, told Emma to look for her master in the stables.
Emma found Mr Knightley in the part of those buildings that had been converted to house his car, a black Daimler onto whose backseat he was now loading two carpetbags. Emma could see that the trunk was filled wooden boxes, nailed shut and sealed, rather quaintly, with wax and twine.
Mr Knightley looked quite a few years younger than his 37 and, as Emma had to acknowledge, cut a fine figure in shirtsleeves and without a tie, a state in which she had scarcely ever seen him. Upon seeing her approach, he was startled and almost dropped the bags.
"Emma," he exclaimed, "whatever -"
Emma could hardly believe what she was seeing.
"You are fleeing," she said and noticed that an accusatory tone had crept into her voice. "You are leaving."
"I am sorry to say I am," Mr Knightley said with that honesty she admired so much in him, "at least for the moment."
"You are leaving us," Emma clarified and though the 'why' remained unsaid, it hung heavily in the air.
Mr Knightley bowed his head.
"There are few things in my life," he panted, "that have given me me more pain, but leave I must."
"But you cannot leave us now!" Emma exclaimed.
Inside of her, some part, deep within, cried, 'You cannot leave me know!' and all of a sudden, she understood that her future, which had so recently become encased in darkness, or at least, the happiness of it, depended for a large part entirely on Mr Knightley's being within it. The emotion soared within her, white-hot and urgent, surged to fill every last part of her until she felt overflowing.
"Mr Knightley -" she began, not sure exactly what she wanted to say.
It was not necessary to say anything. The next moment, he had swept her into his arms and pulled her into a tight embrace. He looked her straight into the eyes with such an intensity that her knees might have buckled had he not held her securely.
"Emma," he croaked, and Emma closed the short distance between their lips.
Her new, raw feelings where matched by him with a passion she would until quite recently never have thought him capable of, and for a moment, time and space achieved a precious, unrepeatable balance.
Slowly, reluctantly, they came apart again and only when Emma heard him say hoarsely, "we cannot -" did she open her eyes again.
His face was showing equal parts of elation and despair.
"I must go," he said. "I love you with all that there is of me, and by God! I shall treasure this moment forever, but leave I must -"
What could she say? There was nothing, but it was not necessary. Mr Knightley carefully released her from his arms and took her by the hand to show her the trunk of his car, the wooden boxes she had observed earlier.
"I have filled these with as many of the heirlooms of the house as they would hold," he said.
Emma thought of the missing objects and nodded. Mr Knightley lead her further around the car and opened the passenger door.
"All those things are merely meant to distract whoever may get his hands onto this car. They are worthless baubles compared to this," he said and indicated what to Emma looked like an ordinary, if large, picnic basket. She could see a thermos flask and several apples as well as a few paper bags containing, she supposed, sandwiches.
Mr Knightley lifted the thermos and a few of the apples and pulled out a cylindrical object that looked to be made of metal.
"The invasion will come," he said and Emma, who had almost forgotten about it, was painfully jerked back to the reality of the war. "The tide will be at an ideal high for the next days, up until the 4th of November and there is nothing to stop the Germans now."
"But Churchill said -" Emma began.
"Churchill is being flown to Belfast as we speak," Mr Knightley said. "The Royal Family is already on the way to Canada."
He caressed her hand with his thumb.
"They are coming," Mr Knightley said. "Their ships are sailing westward even now."
Emma knew that his younger brother John was involved in government work and did not ask where exactly he knew this from.
"What is in the cylinder?" she asked instead.
"Freedom," Mr Knightley said. "Democracy. England."
Seeing her confusion, he clarified, "It's one of the few remaining copies of Magna Carta. My family acquired it together with the Abbey and I cannot let it fall into their hands."
"Where are you going?" Emma asked.
"As far away as I can," Mr Knightley said, "as the Celts did when the invaders came, I will go to the fringes of the kingdom - I will find a place to hide it somewhere and then - who knows? John knows what I mean to do, and maybe in a decade or two, his children will judge the time is right and they will set out to retrieve it."
"And you?" Emma insisted.
Mr Knightley said nothing and let his gaze wander instead towards the backseat of the car, where he had been meaning to put the carpetbags when Emma disturbed him, and she saw his hunting guns and his father's service revolver.
"You are as dear as nothing else to me," Mr Knightley said suddenly. "Emma, I -"
"I am coming with you," Emma interjected. Before Mr Knightley could say anything, she added, "If all our fates are doomed, I am joining mine with yours, if you will have me."
"Have you!" Mr Knightley exclaimed. "Emma, at any other time, that proposition -"
"Can you guarantee me that I would be safer here than with you, when they come?" Emma asked. "For I do not plan to meekly surrender."
They drove all day, ending up late at night in a deserted church in an abandoned Welsh village, where they buried the cylinder deep underneath the crypt and hid the boxes of valuables before spending a night of remarkable bliss in spite of everything, in the vestry. The next morning, the first day of November brought a misty dawn with it and they made a hasty breakfast with the rest of the sandwiches, huddled in front of the wireless.
Kent was almost conquered, enemy ships were sailing up the Thames and London Bridge had succumbed to bombs. Darkness was falling.The End