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Lizzy was thrilled to find herself with Jane again, once they arrived in town, but not pleased by Jane's trip southwest. While anything that made Jane happy was almost guaranteed her approval, she could not suppress her selfish desire for Jane's comforting presence. They were spending three nights in London, at her request, and she planned to soak up as much time with Jane as she could. She was too tired to talk properly that first night and so had to wait through an entire day of polite social chat before she could acquaint her sister with the details of Darcy's proposal and the story of Wickham.

"Oh Lizzy, how you must have felt."

"I longed to have you with me. I know not what to do! How can I make people aware of Mr Wickham's despicable nature?"

"I don't think you should."

"What?! Jane!"

"Colonel Fitzwilliam said that he would write to inform Colonel Forster. Surely that will be enough? Exposing him so unequivocally when he might be trying to re-establish himself can only cause harm."

"Oh, Jane," she smiled. After a silence, she spoke again. "You have told me little of your Miss Dashwood in your letters. I'm not sure I'm willing to let her steal you away when I most need you."

"Oh Lizzy! If I'd known I would have delayed my departure."

"I'm sure you would have, but had you suggested it I would have told you not to be so silly. It's three days to Barton and it's best you go with the escort of someone trustworthy."

"Indeed, Elinor quite sings Colonel Brandon's praises. I understand that he was a great help when her sister was so ill."

"You glossed over that in your letters, what happened?"

"Miss Marianne had her heart broken by a villain even worse than Mr Wickham seems to be."

"What could be worse?"

"He courted Miss Marianne after abandoning the Colonel's ward, who he had seduced with the expected result. He then abandoned her for a Miss Grey with £50 000, who he has now married, while disclaiming any responsibility for Miss Williams, her child, and Miss Marianne."

"Good Heavens!"

"Then, she took ill on her way home from London. A mutual acquaintance told him that she was dying, which she came very close to, and so he made the trip to the house she was staying at and importuned poor Elinor with tales of his love for her sister and desires that his wife would die now that he had her money."

"My God. You are correct. Wickham's only malicious towards Mr Darcy, this man seems to delight in treating all the world infamously."

"Miss Marianne is now recovered but she is still rather fragile. I hope that I will be able to assist Elinor in speeding her return to health."

"If anyone can, it will be you, dear Jane."

 

A couple of days later the sisters separated, for what they expected to be the rest of the summer. Elizabeth was soon home and her letter informing her sister of her safe arrival followed but a day behind Jane herself. Both she and the Colonel were warmly welcomed at Barton Cottage, though the Colonel was quick to move on to Barton Park, giving the ladies some privacy. He was assured of seeing them the next day when they would be dining at the Park. Jane was swiftly installed in the guest room and, after a brief rest, she and Elinor went for a short walk.

"I am so pleased you are here!"

"You must be, that's at least the tenth time you've said as much."

Elinor laughed. "How comforting it is to be with someone who understands my feelings."

"It is of great comfort to me as well. I found I could not broach the subject of Mr Bingley with my sister. I know she must have found something out, but I feared to hear it and so kept my feelings to myself."

"What did you fear she would say?"

"I hoped that she would say that I was right, he had never felt for me more than a friend. I think I even could have borne to hear that he was purposefully toying with my affections."

"But you feared?"

"I feared what I know she believes to be the truth. I feared that he did care for me, but not enough to overcome his own weakness in the face of his sisters' and friend's objections."

"Do you believe that's what happened?"

"I would like to believe that his behaviour towards me was unintentional, but given the way Miss Bingley behaved I cannot."

"Your sister certainly didn't like her."

"No. Lizzy warned me she was deceitful."

"But she approved of the brother?"

"Yes. Which inclines me to believe that he is weak, rather than wicked, but oh how much easier would it be to put him out of my head if he were wicked."

"I do not believe it's as easy as you think."

"No? How? Does Marianne?"

"Yes, unfortunately. She could not have been happy with him and I begin to doubt that she will be without him."

"It is still very fresh, and she is only seventeen. I'm sure that she will find her way to happiness in time."

"I must try to be more optimistic, as you are Jane, and I dare say I will in time."

"Will the Colonel be staying long in the neighbourhood?"

"I understand he'll be leaving on Monday, but Sir John hopes to persuade him to stay a bit longer. He seems to think that now that Willoughby is out of the picture Marianne will immediately move on to Colonel Brandon."

"And the Colonel's attitude towards her has altered?"

"Indeed. His regard was always rather hard to discern, but he no longer watches her as he did."

 

Jane was very pleased with Barton Cottage, and though she agreed with Elinor’s criticisms over the staircase and chimney, was quite happy to spend her summer there with her friend and her family. Her observations on the neighbourhood were similar to her friend’s, though she would never voice such things aloud. And, like Elinor, she was most concerned by Marianne. She was listless and melancholy, though she tried to exert herself. It was not long before the Middletons began their summer entertainments and they were of absolutely no help to Marianne.

They all knew she had nearly died, but Sir John and Mrs Jennings were quite sure that they could cheer her up with constant parties and plenty of talk of young men, romance, and, of course, Colonel Brandon. Marianne was most surprised to discover that she now found Lady Middleton’s company most soothing. That lady chose to be kind by not asking Miss Marianne to play cards, which she knew the girl despised, but instead requesting that she play the piano. Ordinarily that would have pleased Marianne, but all the songs reminded her of Willoughby. A week after Jane’s arrival, Lady Middleton once again requested that Marianne played.

“I have just had some new songs sent down from town, perhaps you would like to try one of them.”

Marianne had never liked Lady Middleton more than she did in that moment. She was surprised when Jane joined her in looking it over.

“Do you play, Miss Bennet? I thought Elinor said you didn’t.”

“No, I don’t, but I have two sisters who do. I thought perhaps some of this music might appeal to their taste.”

“She may not play, but she sings beautifully, Marianne. Perhaps there is something you can perform together?”

Jane was quite happy to sing with Marianne and, having once heard her, Marianne rediscovered the joy she found in music. She was still melancholy frequently, but not nearly so listless. Both Jane and Elinor recognised that there was little they could do for her mood, but keeping her busy would aid her recovery, as they could both attest. For her part, Marianne still felt that she could not rid herself of thoughts of Willoughby, no matter how hard she tried. She knew Elinor and Jane were trying to distract her by including her in their walks and talks, and she was grateful to them for their care. Making new memories of the valleys and downs helped dull her recollections of Willoughby, so she was usually happy to accompany the other two on their walks, or read to them as Elinor instructed Jane in the basics of drawing.


Life at Longbourn went slowly on and Elizabeth looked forward to July, when the regiment would remove to Brighton. She'd managed to convince Wickham to avoid her by mentioning how greatly she'd enjoyed Colonel Fitzwilliam's company, and was pleased to note that Colonel Forster or one of his adjutants kept a close eye on him. She viewed the behaviour of her family with dismay and despaired of ever managing to curb their excesses.

Surprisingly, it was Kitty who helped her there. After dinner one evening, when the ladies were gathered in the drawing room and Mr Bennet had retreated to his study she asked, "Whatever were you talking about with Colonel Forster this morning, Lizzy? It sounded quite scandalous."

"When I was in Kent visiting Charlotte I met Mr Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. After hearing that the militia were stationed here, he told me a story of how some officers in the army make a game of seducing ladies -- they try to see how far they can get and how many girls they can make love them before they leave. And they frequently leave girls and their families ruined."

"Really?"

"Oh yes. I was asking Colonel Forster if he'd had any of his officers behave in such a way."

"Had he?" She had their full attention now.

"I would not wish to pain you."

"Pain us? Nonsense Lizzy," her mother said. "How could any of this pain us?"

"Because he only spoke of it to warn me. He said Mr Wickham had been putting together such a scheme and both Kitty and Lydia's names were on it."

"What?!"

"I'm afraid so, Mama. Mr Wickham would not tell him who else was involved and he worried that their freedom might make them more vulnerable than some of the more closely-guarded girls."

It did not take long for Mrs Bennet to go shrieking into the library, insisting that Mr Bennet help her to guard her precious daughters from the evil officers.

Lizzy was surprised to hear a knock on her door after they'd all retired. She opened her door to find a nervous-looking Mary and waved her in. She seated herself and, looking at one of the bedposts, began. "I wanted to compliment you, Lizzy. What you did this evening was masterful."

"Thank you, Mary."

"I particularly liked the bit where you told Mama that even if her darling daughters were too good for such a thing, that some officers would force themselves on girls if they could." She paused and then turned to look directly at her sister. "Was any of it true?"

"Most of it, though I embellished the bit about Kitty and Lydia. Colonel Forster actually said 'some of the wilder young ladies', but I trust you'll agree my inference was likely correct."

"Quite." The silence stretched for a couple of minutes and then Mary, staring hard at the wall this time, spoke again. "I know that I can never be to you what Jane is, but I hoped that perhaps you would consent to spend more time with me before you leave for the Lakes."

"Mary!"

"I know I've not always been the best of sisters, and I admit I have frequently been jealous of you, but tonight you found a way to force Mama and Papa to do their duty. If nothing else I should like to learn from you." Her voice trailed off and Lizzy could see that she was close to tears.

"Oh Mary!" she said, moving to hug her sister. "You will never be my Jane, for you are my Mary! Indeed I'm not sure I could bear having two Janes when it is so clear to me that you share some of my more critical opinions. I will only agree to this scheme of yours if you will forgive me for neglecting you before."

"I will certainly forgive you, if you truly think it necessary."

"How could it not be necessary?" Lizzy interrupted.

"Because I'm not sure that any efforts on your part would have been welcomed earlier," Mary answered with a smile.

They spent the rest of the evening getting to know one another and determined that after breakfast they would work on duets.

  

My dear Jane,

I am certainly missing you, but I'm so pleased to hear that you're enjoying yourself with the Misses Dashwood. I suppose I am now coming to understand what you've been trying to tell me all these years about Charlotte, now that our relationship has been so altered by her marriage. I know you will say it should have no effect on our friendship, but the fact remains that her first loyalty is now to Mr Collins and I know that his first loyalty is to Lady Catherine. Which leaves me unable to confide anything in Charlotte unless I'm willing to take the chance that Lady Catherine will learn of it. I would not be surprised to learn that Mr Collins reads poor Charlotte's letters! All this to say that I finally begin to understand what you've always said about close female friends. I hope that Miss Dashwood appreciates you as much as you do her. In fact, given what you say about Miss Marianne's spirits I think she must!

It sounds as if you are having a wonderful time. I read accounts of all your parties to our sisters and it seems that Lydia is beginning to think your summer will be more fun than hers! Mrs Forster has invited her to go to Brighton when the regiment moves there at the end of the month. You can imagine my feelings on the subject! I think Papa would probably have allowed her to go, simply to avoid the noise of her tantrums, but Mama said no. It appears that there have been whispers about Mrs Forster spending more time with certain officers than her husband. I'm sure there's nothing to them, but I've managed to make Mama see that Lydia and Kitty need more supervision and, as I don't think Mrs Forster would be a better guardian than Lydia herself, all I've done is support her and tell her how much I admire her for taking such good care of her daughters.

One good thing has come from your absence, and that is that Mary and I have become quite good friends. Do you know that all the time we've all (except you) mocked her for taking endless extracts from Fordyce's Sermons , she's actually been writing a novel? I finally convinced her to let me read it and I'm extremely proud of her. I'm currently trying to convince her to let Papa know, as I am quite sure it should be published and we'd need his help for that.

The girls want to walk to Meryton, so I shall close here.

Your affectionate sister,

Lizzy


Georgiana Darcy was concerned. She did not know what had happened at Rosings, but her brother had returned almost completely changed. He had refused to see anyone, all he did was work. He'd even refused to see Richard! He did not seem to be avoiding her, at least. He came to meals, though he didn't seem to eat very much. Yesterday she had been shopping with Aunt Matlock, who had said some rather odd things. If she'd understood her Aunt properly, William had done something he was ashamed of, had been set down harshly by a lady, and needed to work on his manners. It was very odd, but Aunt Matlock must have heard what happened from Richard. And since William would not see either of them, and neither of them were willing to tell her what had happened, she would need to go straight to the source.

The source was currently at his club, but should be back for dinner, giving her a few hours in which to plan her attack. By the time she was preparing for dinner she was feeling rather panicky. The only strategy she'd come up with was one that she was not altogether comfortable with. Having no other ideas on how to go about it, she would have to prepare herself as best she could.

Fitzwilliam Darcy was busily rearranging the food on his plate when a stifled sob from across the table drew his attention. "Georgiana? What is wrong?"

"I'm sorry, Brother," she choked out. "I know I've disappointed you terribly, but please don't send me away!"

"Send you away? Why would you think such a thing?"

"You've been so angry and upset. And you won't see anyone while I'm here."

"Oh, Georgie, no. It's nothing to do with you."

"But what else could it be?" she asked, looking up at him through wide watery eyes.

He felt his reserve breaking as he looked at her. "I would not burden you with my troubles," he started to say, but she interrupted him.

"I'm already burdened. You're all I have in the world, if you're unhappy so am I."

He sighed and looked at the table. "Let's go to the library and I will try to tell you."

Once they were comfortably ensconced beside the fire, Darcy began his story. He could not have had a more attentive audience and when he finished relating his failed proposal she really was crying. "Oh, William! How awful you must feel! We must do something!"

"What would you have me do?"

"Well, for a start you need to warn Miss Bennet about Wickham! And we must show her that you're a good, honourable man, whatever your manners may be."

"I have warned her. I was angry and bitter, and I wrote her a letter telling her the entire truth of Wickham, what happened between Bingley and her sister, and, of course, explaining all the defects of her family in an attempt to show her, and myself, how much better I am than her."

"Oh. Do you know if she read it?"

"She did. I was not sure whether or not she would believe what I said of Wickham, so I had Richard go to answer any questions she might have had."

"And?"

"And he found her weeping. I love her and yet I gave no thought to her feelings and almost tried to hurt her. Richard spent the entire carriage ride to London berating me for my conduct over our entire acquaintance, told me my manners were execrable, worse than the wild vulgarity of her sisters, and comparing Mrs Bennet's entirely reasonable fears over her precarious situation with Aunt Catherine's far less justified behaviour."

"It sounds as though there's nothing left for me to say on the matter. Did he say nothing of how she thought of you?"

"He said that I was very lucky to have fallen in love with a sensible woman, as it sounded as though the letter should have confirmed my arrogance and disdain for the feelings of others."

"But?"

"But she is sensible enough to feel that she does not know me. Richard agrees with her. He would not have recognised me from her description of our acquaintance."

"Well that's better than what she thought before, isn't it?"

"Is it?"

"If she feels she does not know you at all, then you're not necessarily the last man she'd ever marry."

"Perhaps."

"Come now, Brother. Do you truly love her?"

"I do."

"Well it's certainly clear that she will not marry you for mercenary reasons."

"That's not particularly comforting."

"But if you can win her, Brother, you would be certain that she was truly marrying you for who you are, not what you have."

"And how would I win her? I'm unlikely to ever see her again."

"You know where she lives, so you can certainly see her again."

"And what do you suggest I do?"

"Whatever it takes. For a start, you need to work on your manners so that they show your character rather than obscuring it. And avoiding all social interaction will not help."

"So I should take Aunt Catherine's advice?"

"What?"

"You want me to achieve proficiency through practice." They were silent for a moment before Darcy laughed at the shocked expression on his sister's face. "I'm taking it completely out of context, you need not worry that she's begun being sensible."


Edward Ferrars, once more meditating on the question of how things with Elinor -- Miss Dashwood -- had been so badly ruined, was startled by his man bringing in the post. He was not expecting to receive anything. He’d sent a letter to Colonel Brandon only the day before, laying out all his concerns as regards the Delaford living, and there was no possibility of his having received it s yet, he could certainly not have penned a reply. Perhaps the Colonel had decided to rescind his offer. The seal looked familiar, though he could not place it. Giving in to his curiosity, he found the author to be his friend, Bertram. They had been at Oxford together and their similar natures had led them to develop a firm friendship.

 My dear friend,

Things are all set for me to head to Peterborough next month to be ordained. I shall be staying with Owens and his family, as you did. I hope that you will join me there for a night or two. You may think it odd that I am extending the invitation (though I’ve enclosed Owens’ agreement to the scheme), and for so short a duration, but the real invitation is for you to join me at Mansfield Park for the month of August, and possibly to spend some time at Thornton Lacey if you have no other engagements.

My sister Maria will be married just before I leave, and she and Mr Rushworth have invited Julia to accompany them. We shall be a most diminished group at Mansfield without them, so I beg you to join us.

There are other, more personal considerations for myself, but I should prefer to discuss those in person, rather than writing.

Yours, etc.,

Edmund Bertram

Edward wondered at his friend’s reticence -- they had never scrupled to discuss delicate matters in their letters before, but sent off his acceptance happily. Perhaps Bertram would be able to explain to him where he had gone wrong.