Written for the Archives of Excellence writing challenge "New Horizons."
Thanks to Finlay and Randy for beta reading.
On the third day in the coach, Emma began to feel somewhat impatient with George. She had been very glad to visit Isabella and John in their London home, though it irked her to be whisked away again quite so quickly. The assurance that they would spend at least a fortnight with them on their way back had appeased her; still, she wished George would finally tell her where he was taking her and why it was so urgent a destination that he couldn't let her stay more than a single night at Brunswick Square. But he simply smiled and made obscure allusions and seemed very pleased with himself. It was so unlike George to be this secretive!
George indeed. Her conviction that she would never be able to call him by his first name had crumbled quickly once they were wed. The closeness of their married life made it impossible to refer to him as "Mr Knightley." All those years she had thought he was as familiar to her as the shrubbery at Hartfield, but she had not known him then the way she knew him now.
She looked at him sitting next to her with his book open on his lap. His hands, broad and solid with neatly trimmed nails and a little army of brown hairs advancing from under his cuffs, always made her want to touch them. She placed her fingers on his wrist.
"Where are we going, George?" she asked for the third time this morning. "I really think you ought to tell me!"
"You will see," he said and smiled that infuriating smile again.
"Can we not at least open the curtains again?"
"No. That would spoil the surprise."
"I thought you didn't approve of surprises."
He closed his book, put his arm around her and planted a small kiss on the side of her head. "I may well have disapproved of them at some point," he said. "But we live and change. I thought it was time for us to do something new."
"And what would that be?"
"Patience, my dearest Emma. We shall be there within the hour."
With that he sat back and returned his attention to his book. Emma sighed and stared at the swaying curtains that hid the world from her view. The sides of the carriage were so close, barely five feet apart, and she could not see out. The previous day she had enjoyed the sight of the hills and woods, the meadows strewn with acorns and chestnuts, the red and yellow tint to the trees. The sky had been so blue, like the eyes of Harriet Martin, and wherever a brook rushed down in a dazzle of foaming white, the sun had turned it into a glittering bracelet.
It was all so new to Emma. While her father had yet lived, she had never ventured far from Hartfield. Her entire life unfolded between her home and the streets of Highbury. Visits to Randalls, Donwell Abbey or Abbey Mill Farm made up the whole extent of her adventures. She had not even wished to go to Box Hill again, however much George had tried to persuade her.
The strange relief that had mingled with her sorrow when her father had died still made Emma feel guilty this half year later. They had removed from Hartfield and taken up residence in Donwell Abbey, and for all that Emma missed her father, she could not help rejoicing in seeing George once again the master of his own home. If she hadn't known it to be impossible, she would have thought that he had grown an inch since the spring. Little Edward, too, seemed to flourish in the rambling rooms and vast grounds of the Abbey. His favourite haunt was a grove of beech trees, where they would sit on a chequered cloth in the delicious shade and he would pour out the water into the little teacups and hand one to Emma, who would drink it as if it was the finest tea in England.
Oh, she missed her little boy, a feeling unlike any she had known before. But he would be happy enough for a few days in the care of his doting aunt and the company of his older cousins, whom he worshipped with the fierce love which five-year-olds sometimes bestow on the world. And it would not be long before she would hold him in her arms once more, unlike her father, who had been laid to rest in the cemetery of Highbury Parish Church, never to be seen again...
Emma took a deep breath. George wouldn't like her to indulge in such gloomy thoughts. It would be better to focus her mind on the here and now, on the jolts and bumps, on the burning question of where, oh where they were going.
The curtains were of dark green velvet, like the trimmings on her favourite winter coat. Her hand reached up. If she lifted the curtain but a little, she'd be able to get a glimpse of the –
With a guilty jerk of her hand, she let the edge of the curtain drop. George sighed and shook his head. Once again, he closed his book and turned towards her.
"Emma, dearest, don't allow your impatience to spoil the joy I've been preparing for you. I wouldn't have you catch a meagre glimpse of our destination; I want you to see it in its full glory."
How could she gainsay such a loving reproof? She leaned her head against his shoulder in silent consent and thus they remained for another half hour.
Without any particular prelude, other than a vague impression of going down a gentle slope, the carriage came to a halt. Emma stretched out her hand, she wasn't going to wait for the coachman to open the door, but George seized her wrist.
"Wait," he said. "And close your eyes."
"George, really - "
"Trust me, Emma," he said. "Have I not always been your best friend and advisor?"
"Well, you have, but - "
"Close your eyes then. Believe me; it'll be for the best."
Obedient at last, she closed her eyes. George took her hand and helped her out of the carriage. The ground was soft and gave way under her feet. Autumn sunshine fell on her face and she heard the strangest sound, a drawn out wailing followed by a series of shorter cries. Emma breathed. The air smelled strangely fresh and entirely unfamiliar.
George led her a few steps along, with his arm round her back and under her elbow as a gentle guide. Then he stopped and released her.
"Now, my dearest Emma, now you may look."
She opened her eyes. The world was all horizon. It took her a few seconds to understand what she was seeing, and then all coherence of thought seemed to leave her.
She grasped his hand and pressed it fiercely.
It was the sea.
The sea! The sea she had never seen, and if anything, she had thought that a lot of water all together in one place couldn't be that much different from a little water, like the rivers and ponds she knew around Highbury. But this was not just the same only bigger. It was something else entirely.
The colours alone were incredible. That deep, deep blue, gradually changing into grey in the distance where it rose to meet the sky. And closer to the shore, a vivid turquoise green, dappled with dark patches of rocks submerged just under the surface. Emma shaded her eyes, for even though the sun stood behind her back, she was dazzled by the glaring reflections of the water. After half a minute or so she understood that the tiny specks she saw in the distance were boats. So small! She could not recall having ever seen anything quite so far away.
Grey, grass-covered cliffs rose on either side. They didn't hem in the vista but rather framed it with a grand gesture, as if they wanted to present the vastness of the scene. And there was that sound again, the long wailing. She saw where it came from: sleek white birds dived down from the cliffs and rode the winds like the kites her nephews used to play with. "Seagulls," she whispered, and tasted the word along with the salty air, a deeply stirring sensation that made her neck tingle. Her eyes followed one of the birds as it sailed in a long curve past the expanse of blue and alighted next to a shell-crusted rock on the shore. Breakers of pure white rolled onto the beach, a steady rhythm of stretching out and pulling in, accompanied by the strangest music that soared and fell with a voice so comforting, so soothing, like something she had been waiting for all her life without knowing what it was.
"Oh George, can I go closer?"
"Of course you can."
She let go of his hand and took a few cautious steps towards the surf, awkwardly, because her feet sank into the soft, dry sand. Not long though, before she reached more solid ground, where the receding water had left the sand moist and firm.
Without further thought, she picked up her skirts and ran.