Emma was peacefully dozing off a bit. Her husband and father were playing backgammon. She was startled by her father who raised his head in some urgent horror and sniffed.
– “Do I smell something burning?”
“Oh, that will be the fire.” She smelled it too, but did not want to alarm him.
– “I know that smell. This is different!”
She stood up and followed the smell. It seemed to come from the kitchen.
“Fire! Fire!” – “Stop shrieking and better do something about it! Keep that door closed, unless you want to burn down the entire house! Oh, excuse me, Ma’am! I did not see you. Don’t come in! We have a bit of a situation here!”
“You seem to be coping, Serle. I shall leave you to it, then.”
Before the cook could answer her, the small fire turned into a much larger one. This could turn out for the worse!
Serle was shouting various commands. “We must get everybody out of the building. We need all hands to fight this! Alert the community!”
Some of the words echoed in Emma’s head.
Everybody out. That also meant her father.
Ah! She remembered something. A thing she saw when she was putting together yet another list of books she should read. Now she had to present it to him as if nothing is going on. She took a deep breath. Her hand trembled when she opened the door to the drawing-room.
“Nothing to worry about, Papa! Serle tried a new recipe and made a big mess of it.”
– “Good Lord! Someday she will kill us all with her efforts!”
She choose not to respond to that remark. Action is of the essence now!
“I just received a note from Mrs Weston. Mr Weston has returned from town and has required a rare title that he wants to share with us. She hurries us to come now.”
– “I don’t want to go out.”
“This book will interest you greatly! It lists all the latest cures and treatments.”
– “A book? We will not go out in this ghastly weather just to see a book.”
“It is not that bad. Just a bit windy. It has been dry all day. I was sure you would rejoice in an invitation like this. You will have something to talk about with Mr Perry!”
– “I recall you were saying during dinner that you were glad to spend the evening at home with us. I’m of the same sentiment. Why do you want to go to the Westons all of a sudden?”
“Well, yes, I might have said that. I want to honour Mrs Weston’s request. She particularly likes our company. We shall leave at once!”
“That’s my cue to send for the carriage, I think.” Ah, finally her husband picked up on the hidden message!
Mr Woodhouse muttered: “If they were so eager to show us that book they should have invited us for dinner!”
“Oh, Papa, I explained that to you already! Mr Weston brought it with him. He only returned to Randalls in time for a late dinner.”
– “We can see it when we visit them tomorrow.”
“Oh, you must see, Mr Weston is very excited about it and whats to share the experience with us.”
– “If you put it like that! Poor Mr Weston. Surely we should not keep him in all that excitement all night! Is Mr Knightley coming too?”
She sighed when he finally had stepped in the carriage.
For a moment she crossed eyes with her husband. They smiled at each other. The carriage drove off.
She saw the chain of people as they passed the gates. Later, afterwards, she would congratulate themselves on the effectiveness of their servants.
What if they fail? What if Hartfield was no more? Stop! Thinking like that is not helpful in any way. She had to keep her countenance if she wanted her father to believe her story.
The Westons were welcoming as always.
The new book was studied in great detail. It inspired the gentlemen a discussion about the importance of proper illustrations.
Mrs Weston soothed her nerves by giving a comprehensive account of little Anna meeting her new brother, which she already heard several times, and not expecting any response of her friend or even a sign she was actually listening.
Mr Knightley arrived and was drawn in the discussion that had taken a turn. He politely requested to see the book that was the reason for their visit.
His arrival informed her that they managed to control the fire. She felt a need to see for herself and therefore shortly signalled their return.
She laid awake for some time after they all retired for the night. She listened to the familiar noises. The usual smells were somewhat mixed with a hint of burning. It made her realise this wasn’t a bad dream from which she would wake up in the morning. She stepped out of the bed and walked towards the window.
This was quite an eventful evening! She was so relieved that her father hadn’t noticed a thing. How well thought of Mr Knightley to send a man ahead. How lucky they were with the Westons nearby. They showed no surprise whatsoever!
The fire could easily have destroyed Hartfield. What should they do if that would be the case? Perhaps staying the night at Randalls and then moving to Donwell. She couldn’t think of them living elsewhere!
Get some sleep, she corrected herself. Everything will be well tomorrow.
To all people who have fought for Clandon Park, Surrey.
Inspired to help? Please donate to the National Trust appeal.
(c) Saskia Giesbers