The next day Bingley was rather subdued, but spent the day amongst them all. He tried to watch his sister's behaviour critically, as Darcy had suggested to him. It was not easy. He caught himself making excuses for her all day. The only ladies she made any effort to spend time with were Lady Matlock, Miss Darcy, and Miss de Bourgh. He noticed that she tried to direct the conversation to topics she wished to discuss, rather than what was of interest to the other ladies. He heard Lady Matlock comment on her disrespect in adhering to town hours, he heard Miss de Bourgh liken her to Lady Catherine -- which Caroline took as a compliment, but Bingley could not given what Darcy had said of that aunt. He heard her trying to show herself as superior to the other ladies by putting them down.
He watched the way she behaved with the gentlemen and he paid attention to how they responded to her. It dawned on him that the gentlemen would not choose to associate themselves with her, and only did so when they were forced to notice her. The General treated her with derision and none of the others defended her. They seemed to agree with him and found humour in his remarks. He watched her single out both Darcy and the Viscount, how overt and unwelcome her advances were, and how carefully calculated everything she did was. He also noticed that while everyone else spoke to him and asked after his health -- even Miss Bennet! -- his sister ignored him unless she wanted something from him. As far as Caroline was concerned he might as well not be there.
He did not notice that he was being watched.
The following morning he went into Caroline's room as soon as he was dressed and woke her up.
"Charles? What are you doing in here?"
"I've come to escort you to breakfast. Lady Matlock is perfectly correct that your behaviour is extremely rude and disrespectful."
"My behaviour? Nonsense! She has old-fashioned notions. No one else objects."
"No one else objects for the simple reason that they do not wish for more of your company."
"Charles! How can you say such a thing?"
"Because I've watched them, as I have you. As Darcy says, it is very easy to say things, it is your actions that show who you truly are."
"There is nothing wrong with my behaviour!"
"There is a great deal wrong with it. My eyes have been opened, Caroline. I will no longer listen to your pretty words. I will pay attention only to what you do. And you will learn to behave properly. I expect this will be a long and difficult path for us both, but it's important."
"Don't you love me, Charles?"
"I do, very much. That's why I wish to see you become the woman I have always believed you to be. I expect you at breakfast every day for the rest of your stay. I have instructed your maid to that effect and she will be reporting to me."
"She is my maid."
"And I pay her wages. She is in my employ, despite the fact that she is assigned to assist you. Now, up you get."
He left his sister and her maid alone, making his way to breakfast. He did not know what to do if she defied him. He would have to ask Darcy's advice on that matter. And he clearly owed Louisa and Hurst an apology. They had tried to show him, but he'd allowed Caroline to sway his opinion.
Caroline did appear at breakfast, though she arrived late and even the fashionably challenged could tell she was extremely over dressed. Miss de Bourgh made another comment likening Miss Bingley to her mother, which greatly amused the wider audience. The atmosphere was strained by Caroline's petulant attitude and the party was quick to split up afterwards. Bingley felt that he had achieved something and so decided to leave Caroline to her own devices for the moment. Darcy was with his steward, preparing for the upcoming harvest, so he took the opportunity to speak with his brother and sister.
"I must apologise for not believing you."
"There's no need for that, Charles. Your eyes have now been opened. I only hope that you can have some effect."
"I've told her to be at breakfast every day while we're here. Eloise will be reporting to me if Caroline should actually be indisposed."
"I'm sure that didn't please her!"
"No, Hurst, she was quite put out. But, as I told her, I pay Eloise's wages, so have the final say in her duties."
"Well done, Charles!"
"She gave in with surprising ease. I do not know whether to be pleased that she's obviously not so far gone as I had thought, or to fear that this is merely the calm before the storm."
"I suspect the latter."
"I rather thought you would. I suspect Darcy will as well."
"He is a clear-sighted man."
"Yes, but what do I do? I can tell her to behave properly, and even what I mean when I say that, but what do I do if she decides to defy me?"
"Well, Lady Matlock did suggest that she may be in need of a governess."
"A governess? She's almost twenty-one!"
"And yet she does not know how to behave," Hurst said quietly.
"Quite," his wife answered. "While you need not go to that extreme, if she behaves like a child then you should treat her as one. You are in control of her allowance. Perhaps you should keep an account and dock her a shilling for each infraction."
Hurst laughed. "A brilliant idea, my love, but what happens when she comes of age?"
Bingley had an answer for that. "If she dislikes living with me, and you will not have her, then she will have to set up her own establishment."
"Of course! How obvious a solution."
"And only four months away!"
"I think, brother, that you and I should visit a number of the shops in London and tell them that we will not be accepting her accounts. They must settle them with her."
"Oh dear, I suppose we must."
"Yes, Charles. We must. She always exceeds her allowance and leaves you to make up the rest. If you're going to be docking her allowance then you cannot allow her to spend freely."
"You are right, of course. This is going to be very uncomfortable."
"Yes, it is. But you must be firm, Bingley. We will support you and I do not doubt that Darcy will as well."
"Shall we send for her and explain how things will be in the future? I expect it's best to get it said as soon as possible so that she has time to adjust."
"Of course, Louisa. And some tea, I think."
The tea came well before their sister who swept into the room haughtily.
"What do you mean by sending for me like an errant servant, Charles? I was with Lady Matlock."
They explained the agreement they had come to. Only Bingley was surprised by the reaction. She screamed, she cried, she blamed, she threw things.
"Enough!" he bellowed eventually. "Throwing a temper tantrum like a badly behaved toddler only shows how far gone you truly are. Since you are clearly not fit for company you will return to your room and remain there until breakfast tomorrow. Use the time to reflect on your conduct. I expect to see an improvement tomorrow."
He asked Hurst to see that she reached her room and instruct the staff on her confinement. He was in need of rest.
The General had had a far more pleasing time over the past few days. He spent his time with his friends and family, and Elinor. She had his attention whenever she was near, frequently when she wasn't, and he had no patience for those who would seek to divert him. He had even less tolerance for Miss Bingley's need to be at the centre of attention than usual, restraining himself only when he saw a hint of censure in Elinor's eyes. He thought he was making himself appear ridiculous. His brother, father, and cousin agreed. Able to take their raillery no longer, he had decided that today was the day. He had not planned his campaign, but decided to take the first opportunity that presented itself. Luckily the ladies in his family fully agreed that it was high time he got on with it and had been engineering situations to get him alone with Elinor.
They finally succeeded and the General found himself unaccountably nervous. "Will you walk with me, Miss Dashwood?"
"Certainly, General. Is there a particular path you wish to take or shall we merely ramble about?"
"I think I should like to ramble, if you have no objections."
She did not, and they set out. They ambled through the rose garden until Elinor could take it no longer and directed them onto one of the river walks.
"You are uneasy, General."
"Am I?" he knew he was, but had thought he hid it better.
"You are. Something is clearly bothering you. I must assume that the point of this walk is for you to unburden yourself, and so I ask you to do so now. You will be much relieved when you have spoken what's on your mind, I am sure."
"That is the usual way of things."
"I have no doubt that you are right. I find, however, that all my thought has been on what to say and now I find I do not know how to say it."
"I think you'll find plain English quite serviceable."
"I may, but will you?"
She smiled. "I always prefer clear, unambiguous language where possible."
"Very well then. As plainly as I can, I love you and wish to marry you."
She stopped dead and stared at him agape.
"I was not expecting that."
"No? I fear you're the only one."
"I don't know what to say."
"Might I suggest 'yes' as a place to start?"
"You may, but I cannot start there."
"No. I've known you for less than two months."
"You fear I'm too hasty."
"I do. For such a permanent step as marriage -- the rest of our lives! -- I would think a longer acquaintance necessary."
"Certainly. It is very easy to fall in love when you're much thrown together. You must be sure that the affection and esteem will not fade with either distance or time."
"I see. Well then, Miss Dashwood, will you allow me to court you?"
"Yes, I will."
"I am very pleased to hear it, I know not what I would have done had you said no."
"Perhaps I should change my mind so that you can discover your reaction?"
"Ah, no! If you do that I fear I shall have to compromise you at dinner and then write of it to all the gossips I know."
She laughed. "I shall hope you are not serious, but as I do not wish to change my answer, I'm afraid I shall have to learn to live with the uncertainty."
They walked in happy silence for a while. He finally broke it to tell her about Owlsbury Hall.
"How romantic of your great aunt! I must remember to tell Marianne, it will please her greatly."
"Does it please you?"
"Indeed it does. I cannot see any other way for us to marry, should it come to that."
" When it comes to that, my dear Elinor."
"You are very confident."
"I have every reason to be. If you did not care for me, you would have refused me."
"That is certainly true."
"You shall be in town for the season, and I shall ask you again then, and we will have proven that our love will last."
"I have no plans to be in town this winter."
"You do, you just don't know of them. Georgiana plans to invite both yourself and your sister to join her. You would not wish to disappoint her, would you?"
"Marianne would never forgive me if I did. I shall have to resign myself to seeing you sooner than I had hoped."
They walked along, grinning at each other, before a thought intruded on the General's good humour.
"What is the matter?"
"I shall have to go see your mother. By the time I return it will be time for you to leave Pemberley."
"That will not do, and Mama would not ask it of us. We can send a messenger, if you do not wish to wait and escort us back to Barton."
"I will certainly be escorting you home, but I do think your mother should be applied to beforehand. I'll speak to my father about sending one of his men."
They returned to the house very pleased with themselves and all the world. Marianne and Georgiana were disappointed that they were not engaged, but still delighted with the outcome.
Bingley wondered if he should risk speaking to Miss Bennet again, and asking to court her. He was unsure, but when he suggested such a thing to Darcy, he received a decided negative.
"You can't commit yourself to that while you're still dealing with your sister. Once that situation is under control and you are able to show that you're attending to her concerns, then you can revisit the subject."
Taking his friend's advice as gospel once again, he dwelt no more on it.
Much of the day was spent in planning the ladies' season in town. The Earl was sending a messenger to town the next day, and agreed that the man could make the trip to Devon, while the lawyers arranged the matters necessary for dealing with Lady Catherine. He was also to stop briefly in Meryton to deliver letters as it was on the way to London. They spent the time before dinner hurriedly writing letters for their family and friends.
Anne de Bourgh was an intelligent, observant woman. Had she not been so naturally, she would have had to develop the latter quality. There was little else she could do, after all. She was rather looking forward to finally taking her place as mistress of Rosings. She did wonder, though, if she could really do it. She tried not to think too hard on that. Darcy would help ensure her staff were honest and competent, and would certainly help her learn how to manage the estate properly. And Mrs Collins would always be there to help. He would be a burden, but she was sensible and a great favourite in the parish. She was also friends with Miss Elizabeth, which was a point in her favour.
Unlike her mother, Anne had seen quite clearly why Darcy had kept putting off his departure from Rosings at Easter. Having never wished to marry her serious cousin, Anne was quite happy to see him mooning over another lady. No, Cousin Richard suited her far better, though she thought someone more gentle, less boisterous would suit her. And now, she rather thought she'd found the man for her. She thought it wrong, but could not help feeling grateful to George Wickham. He was responsible for convincing the family to do something about her mother. It was thanks to him that she'd been dragged to Pemberley, that she'd met the man for her.
She was a very observant woman. She could see that he cared for another. She could also see, far more clearly than he himself could, that the woman he loved was attached to a different man. He would get over it and, with just a little luck, he would come to care for her. If nothing else, they could bond over their unfortunate relatives. She was not quite ready to speak to him directly, but Miss Bennet and Mrs Hurst would be good to start with. It was much easier for her to speak to the ladies, especially as they were all eager to help her gain accomplishments.
She doubted she would ever be truly skilled at any of the occupations, starting so late as she was, but she enjoyed doing them regardless. She'd decided to stick with sewing, drawing, and dancing for the foreseeable future. She enjoyed music, but felt that it would be beyond her at this stage. She took great pleasure in being able to read what she wished openly, rather than hiding the really interesting tomes with a novel or poetry that her mother had deemed acceptable. The ladies were such a help to her that she sometimes found it quite difficult to rein in her emotions as she knew she should.
And that brought about her first conversation with Mr Bingley. He came upon her in a little used parlour.
"Miss de Bourgh? Whatever is wrong?"
"Nothing is wrong."
"You will forgive me, but weeping generally indicates that there is something the matter."
"Nothing is wrong. Everything is right! You're all so kind to me, and think I can do things, and want to know what I think, and what I want. I'm just... I don't... It's a little overwhelming."
"Well, I'm pleased that these are happy tears. I'm afraid I don't understand though. Why should people being kind to you be the cause of so much joy?"
"It is very different from what I am used to."
"Ah," he nodded. "Darcy has occasionally mentioned your mother to me over the years. I had not realised your situation was so dire as to cause simple human kindness to have such an effect. I'm sure he did not either, or he would have taken steps to do something sooner."
"Oh no, he cannot have known, for I did not know it myself. You will not tell him, will you?"
"Not if you do not wish me to. It can be our secret."
"Thank you." She wanted to continue the conversation, to ask after his sister, but she knew not how. Mr Bingley, however, was a gregarious chap and chatted away quite happily about everything and nothing. By the time dinner came, he could not remember what all he had found to say to her, but he did remember that she was an intelligent listener who paid attention to both what he said and what he meant, an important point as those were not always the same thing. The other ladies were pleased to see that he was regaining his usual cheer.