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Mrs Dashwood was more than willing to allow the girls to go to Derbyshire and that night saw Jane and Elinor in the former's bedchamber, talking matters over.

"I think, Elinor, that the General did not tell you all when he spoke to you."

"No?"

"No. He is too honourable to tell you of what we spoke."

"Is there more than Mr Darcy's desire for your sister's good opinion?"

"Mr Bingley and his sisters will be there."

"Oh dear. Are you certain you wish to go?"

"I am. I wish to know the truth. I confess I am more concerned about seeing Miss Bingley than her brother. He is amiable and warm-hearted, but young and weak. She, however, has shown herself to be duplicitous and untrustworthy."

"Well she will not deceive you again. You shall have both Marianne and I to give you strength. And I hear your sister Elizabeth will be nearby?"

"Indeed. I am very pleased that you will be able to meet her."

"Given what you have said about Miss Bingley, can I assume that she aspires to be Mrs Darcy?"

"She does, I believe. Why?"

Elinor explained the General's desire for better friends for Miss Darcy, and Jane acknowledged that he had spoken of it to her as well.

"He pays us a great compliment."

"Yes. I expect it helps that none of us have shown any interest in General Fitzwilliam, the younger son of an Earl."

"None of us, Elinor? Are you quite certain?"

"Jane?"

"You certainly watch him a great deal."

"I do. He has a very expressive countenance. I confess I would very much like to try my hand at some of his expressions. I would not presume to ask it of him though."

"I do not think he would mind."

"No?"

"Shall we ask the Colonel's advice? He would know if the General would be offended, or construe more than was meant."

"An excellent idea Jane. Have you noticed that while the Colonel is warm-hearted and sensible, he is neither young nor weak?"

Jane blushed. "I think he will soon be as dear a friend to me as he is to you."

"Only a friend?"

"Would I? I do not wish..."

"Remember Jane, no secrets between us. Tell me the uncharitable thoughts you are trying to suppress."

"He's so responsible. I have to say that he's one of the best men I know, the other being my Uncle Gardiner."

"And why do you hesitate to admit that?"

"Because I compare him to my father," she whispered. "Not only does it feel disloyal, but it is my father who suffers from the comparison."

"It sounds to me that you are now truly grown up and ready to make your own household and family. Do you love him?"

"No, not yet. I do not believe it will be prudent to allow myself to feel so much so soon."

"I do not believe that you can prevent yourself from falling in love."

"No, but I shall do my best. After all, he's not likely to fall in love with me -- I am very different from Marianne and hence Eliza."

 

In the library, Colonel Brandon and General Fitzwilliam were drinking port and watching the fire die down. It was Brandon who broke the silence, turning to study his friend.

"Miss Dashwood has £1000 of her own and will inherit a little more from her mother."

"And you're sharing this with me because?"

"I see the way you look at her."

"She's a beautiful woman."

"You don't flirt with her."

"What?"

"You're a flirt, you always have been. You even flirt with Mrs Jennings. And yet you do not flirt with Miss Dashwood."

"Do you suppose she's noticed?"

"I would be surprised if she hadn't. She is a very astute young woman. And she spends a great deal of time watching you."

"She does?"

"Yes."

"Oh dear."

"Would her falling in love with you be so very bad?"

"When I can't afford to marry her? Yes, it would be unfortunate."

"Well I do not say she loves you. She looks at you, but judging by the way her fingers move when she does I should say she wishes to draw you."

"And why have you been watching her so closely? Or is it only her proximity to another young lady that leads to you observing her?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"No? Sir John and Mrs Jennings would assume I meant her sister, but I see nothing in your behaviour to justify it. Miss Bennet on the other hand..."

"Miss Bennet? Who you've told me is in love with Mr Bingley?"

"Is she? She certainly does not behave like a woman with a broken heart."

"Of course not. She would never allow others to see such a thing."

"Or her heart was but lightly touched, as my idiot cousin thought. I suppose we shall learn at Pemberley."


It was not long before the party found their way to London. They were all to stay with Mr and Miss Darcy for a few days before they began the journey north. Elinor had told Marianne that Miss Darcy had suffered a betrayal of a somewhat similar nature to her own and that her spirits were much oppressed by it. Jane had said only that Miss Bingley had told her of Miss Darcy's proficiency on the pianoforte and harp. Marianne was looking forward to meeting her. The first meeting was not auspicious. Miss Darcy blushed and stammered and, for a moment, Marianne wondered at her being so shy. She was, however, determined to help and befriend the girl and was not about to let such hesitancy get in the way of intimacy.

Georgiana was also determined. Her brother was in love and it was her job to help him by impressing on Miss Bennet and her friends how good and wonderful he was. If only talking wasn't so hard! She thought she'd ease herself in by listening to their conversations first. She was not prepared for Miss Marianne. She'd merely settled herself in her chair and taken only a sip of her tea when she was attacked.

"Now, Miss Darcy," Marianne said, "Jane tells me that you're a wonderful musician."

"Jane?" she asked. Who was Jane?

"That would be me," Miss Bennet said. "I know we've never met, but I heard of it from Miss Bingley and my sister Lizzy told me that your aunt, Lady Catherine, as well as your cousin and brother quite sung your praises."

"I wasn't aware they could sing," she answered, not knowing where to look or what to say.

While the others laughed at what she belatedly realised must have sounded like a joke, Miss Marianne waved her hand impatiently. "Never mind them, you cannot imagine how I've been longing for someone to talk music with. Elinor and Jane try, but they don't really know anything about it."

Georgiana soon found herself swept away by Marianne's enthusiasm and, before she had even finished her tea, they were in the music room.

 

"Oh dear," Elinor said once they were gone. "I feel as though I've let loose a hurricane."

"Perhaps I should have warned her," the General murmured, "Miss Marianne is rather like an unstoppable force of nature. Still, I have certainly succeeded in my plans. I'm not even sure Miss Marianne noticed you were in the room, Darcy. All she could think of was music."

Noticing that Darcy looked rather uncomfortable at his cousin's allusion, Jane spoke. "It is such a pleasure to have such enthusiastic musicians in the family. I believe dear Marianne has played for us almost every day."

"Yes, and she's had you sing with her almost as often," Elinor said. "I trust General Fitzwilliam will let us know if Miss Darcy finds Marianne's enthusiasm overwhelming."

He knew orders when he heard them and assured her that he would monitor his charge.

 

Knowing that Elizabeth would have confided in her sister made Darcy feel rather awkward, but aside from a compassionate look when they arrived, she treated him as she did Colonel Brandon and his cousin. He was both relieved and unsettled. The General had assured him that she was aware that the Bingleys and Hursts would be of the party and had no concerns in that quarter. He could not be quite as easy. He knew now of Miss Bingley's deception, he knew now that Miss Bennet had cared for Bingley. He did not know if her affections had survived and he did not know how Bingley would react when faced with Miss Bennet.

He was seated near her and took the opportunity to quietly broach the subject as the others were discussing a landscape that showed part of the countryside near Pemberley. "Miss Bennet. My cousin has assured me that you are aware that there will be certain others in the party. He tells me that you are quite content, but I wish to make absolutely certain of your comfort."

"That is very kind of you," she said. General Fitzwilliam had suggested that they keep the news of Lizzy's impending arrival a secret, so as to surprise him. She quite agreed, especially now that she saw how nervous he was merely talking to her. "Mr Darcy, I am not quite as frank as Lizzy, but I think I owe it to you to put you as much at ease as I can. I doubt the meeting will be entirely comfortable for either myself or them. Mr Bingley is either weak, wicked, or without perception. Whichever it may be I can meet him with equanimity. I am quite equal to his friendly manners and open temper. Meeting him again will not bother me. What concerns me is meeting Miss Bingley. I confess that I am not easy about facing her. I was wholly taken in by her and I am not sure how I will feel or behave when faced with her."

"Well, I can assure you that Bingley is not wicked. He has no confidence in his own judgement, which I suppose you may consider weakness."

"I do. How will he head a household if he cannot trust himself?"

"He is young yet, he will learn."

"I'm sure he will."

"As for Miss Bingley. Well. I share Richard's desire for truer friends for Georgiana. If Bingley were not such a good friend we would not see her. I hope she will not cause you too much discomfort. I trust you will not think too badly of me if I enjoy whatever discomfort you may cause her."

"I shall pretend I did not hear you say that and so I will not be aware of any amusement you gain from the matter. Unless of course your expression when you do so resembles my father's or Lizzy's. I am well versed in detecting illicit amusement."

He felt himself blush at the mention of her sister. Not knowing quite what to do, he stammered an excuse about checking on his sister and left the room. He took a moment to calm himself and to prepare himself for many more moments like it over the next month. He could happily, easily ignore every allusion Miss Bingley made to her, he didn't see why Miss Bennet should be any different. And yet she was. Determining to meditate on the matter later, he headed to the music room. He did not go in, he merely stuck his head around the door long enough to observe the two heads gathered over the piano, discussing fingering in Beethoven with great seriousness.

As he was passing through the hall, Bingley was admitted. "Hello Darcy! I hope you don't mind me dropping in like this, I know your cousin and his party arrived today, but I simply couldn't stomach my sisters' arguing any more."

"Not at all, Bingley. I'll introduce you in a moment, but first I think we should talk in my study."

"That sounds ominous."

"It may be."

He wasn't quite sure where to start once he had Bingley seated before him. "I'm afraid this is going to be rather muddled, Bingley. And no doubt you'll wonder why I said nothing for so long. The simple answer to that is that I didn't know what to do."

"But you know now?"

"Yes. No. Well, I don't really have a choice. If this was not now forced on me I suspect I would still be dithering back and forth."

"But you're going to tell me whatever it is, so you might as well just get it over with."

"Quite. Miss Elizabeth Bennet was in Kent while I was there visiting my aunt."

"Really? What was she doing there?"

"She was visiting her friend, Miss Lucas, who has lately married my aunt's vicar, Mr Collins."

"Isn't that a coincidence!"

"Quite. While there I discovered that her older sister was here in town, visiting relations. She had visited your sister who had very decisively broken the acquaintance."

"What?!"

"It appears that your sister claimed we were aware she was here but were uninterested in meeting with her as you were very busy making yourself agreeable to my sister."

"Georgiana? But she's just a child!"

"Indeed."

"Oh, what must she think of me! And of course she will have long left town. What should I do?"

"She did leave town. She went to spend the summer with friends. She has now returned to town, however, as she is one of my cousin's party and will be joining us at Pemberley."

"You mean she's here now?"

"I do."

"Well, what are you waiting for? Take me to her."

Darcy obliged his friend, though he felt it might have been better to delay the meeting by a day. He introduced him to the others and was not surprised to see him greet them happily and then essentially dismiss them in favour of Miss Bennet. He found Miss Dashwood was watching their conversation with an air of sympathy, compassion, and impatience. What surprised him was to see how his cousin's attention was all on Miss Dashwood, while Colonel Brandon was watching Miss Bennet with concern and Bingley with suspicion.

 

Jane was taken completely by surprise when Mr Bingley bounced through the door slightly ahead of Mr Darcy. Judging by the concerned way he was looking at her, and the slight hint of disapproval that crossed his face when he turned to his friend, she was fairly sure that this meeting had been neither planned nor anticipated by him. And then her attention was wholly on Mr Bingley, seating himself near her and expressing his great joy at seeing her again.

"Your memory is quite exact, sir," she said when he paused for breath.

He was off again before she could say more. "Darcy tells me that you were actually in town earlier this year and that your sister spent a few days as well! So we could have met more recently than the ball if only we'd known. Though Darcy did say you'd seen my sister. I can't imagine why she never mentioned it to me. Perhaps she misunderstood the length of your visit."

"Considering she took almost a month to return my call I must say that I find that unlikely." Jane trembled at saying something so unkind, but she said it. Candour, optimism, seeing the best in people, and giving them innumerable second chances was her preferred way of conducting her life, but she had hopes of a husband and children one day and she had to learn to see people as they truly were if she were to successfully run a household.

Mr Bingley seemed rather taken aback at her response and Elinor took the chance to join the conversation. "I understand that your sisters will be joining the party at Pemberley. If there was any misunderstanding I'm sure it will be cleared up quickly." It was clear from her tone that she did not believe that there had been anything resembling a misunderstanding and Bingley was once more left not quite knowing how to respond.

The General was next to jump into the breach, "I've heard that there will be still others joining us." Jane's eyes widened as she saw Mr Darcy was startled. She looked at the General enquiringly, he'd been so adamant that Lizzy's arrival in Lambton should be a surprise. The General grinned mischievously. "You'd best send an express to warn Mrs Reynolds, Mama appears to be planning to descend upon us on the 10th."

"Your mother is always welcome at Pemberley, as you both know perfectly well. And I'll not insult Mrs Reynolds by implying she is not always prepared."

"Caroline will be very pleased to meet the Countess. Will the rest of your family be coming as well?"

"No. My brother and father need to come back to town. She's inviting herself to avoid rattling around Matlock by herself."

"Well, the more the merrier, I always say. Don't you think so, Darce? I don't think Caroline's met you yet, has she General? I'm sure she'll find you very pleasant company."

"I have not had the pleasure, no," was all the General said before Colonel Brandon spoke gravely to Elinor.

"Are you aware of the time, Miss Dashwood?"

"Oh, thank you, Colonel. I had best rescue poor Miss Darcy."

"I'd best come with you, Elinor. We can make a little party of it."

"I'm sure Marianne would appreciate that."

It was not until they stepped out the door that they realised they did not know where to go. Richard breathed a sigh of relief when Miss Dashwood returned to the room and asked him to guide them to the music room.

 

Marianne was not pleased to have her sonata interrupted in order to rest, but her sister was firm. "Indeed you will, Marianne. You will simply have to humour my belief in your continued fragility. And you will not be alone. Jane and I also intend to rest for a few hours and we are hoping to persuade Miss Darcy to join our party, if she can bear to continue discussing music."

Georgiana was pleased to be invited along and said as much. "Perhaps we could read? I've a new novel, but William is not often interested in reading them with me."

Elinor and Jane shepherded the younger girls upstairs as Marianne began to talk of literature and poetry with as much passion as she'd earlier devoted to music. Georgiana was enjoying herself immensely. Not even at school had there been anyone who cared so little for who she was and what she had. She wasn't sure she could cope with all the intensity that Marianne focused on her interests all the time, but there were other ladies in the party. For a brief moment she imagined the look on Miss Bingley's face if she were stuck in the carriage with Marianne. Only the knowledge that she would have to bear her company as well prevented Georgiana from contriving it.