The music was soothing, almost like the tinkle of a brook as it flowed from her fingertips. There was little Georgiana Darcy loved more than spending hours at the pianoforte, coaxing sweet melodies from its keys. Sometimes she thought the sensation she felt as she played must be what it would be like to be able to fly, so weightless and happy. She vastly preferred playing the music to those rare occasions when her governess played and asked Georgiana to dance—dancing left Georgiana feeling exposed and confused, and she longed to sink back into the background. No one noticed the player seated on the bench of the pianoforte. Or so she fondly imagined; she was not officially "out" yet, and her experience with society had of necessity been limited.
Resolutely, she drew her thoughts away from the small amount of society she had tasted. Thrilled as she had been by Mr. Wickham's attentions the previous summer, she'd found the fluttery feelings he awoke in her unsettling. She had wept from the loss and betrayal, but over time, and with the help of her brother, she had come to feel that she was far better off as Georgiana Darcy than she could have been as the Georgiana Wickham she had dreamed of becoming.
The music had slowed and darkened with the course of her thoughts, and Georgiana's fingers stilled on the keys. As she was trying to decide what to play next, the door opened before her.
"Miss Georgiana, your brother's carriage is arriving!"
Fitzwilliam! She jumped immediately up from the bench, hurrying at what was no doubt a most unladylike speed to meet her beloved brother. The carriage pulled up at the front of the house while Georgiana fairly flew down the steps. The carriage door popped open and Fitzwilliam climbed out. There was a gloom in his expression and a reserve in answer to her smile that puzzled her, until he turned to offer his hand to a lady inside the carriage. Georgiana recognized Miss Caroline Bingley with a sinking heart. There went any chance of free and easy conversation with her brother—Miss Bingley was an eavesdropper of great skill—and it meant that no doubt Georgiana would be plagued by the twin irritants of Miss Bingley attempting to convince her of the stellar qualities owned by her brother Charles and of Miss Bingley dangling her lures for Fitzwilliam.
Mr. Charles Bingley exited the carriage behind the other two, his usually bright and genuine smile seeming forced. Only Miss Bingley seemed pleased, Georgiana noticed. What had gone wrong that had Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley so down and Miss Bingley so … satisfied?
Her curiosity would have to wait, however. After she had made her curtsey to the others, Miss Bingley caught her by the arm. "Miss Darcy, it has been such a long time. Do take a turn with me in the gardens and tell me everything that has happened here. Oh, how I envy you this simple, bucolic lifestyle!"
Georgiana pressed her lips together. Did Miss Bingley truly imagine that Georgiana couldn't see through her thinly veiled insult? She submitted to being drawn toward the side gardens, but not without casting a glance over her shoulder at Fitzwilliam, who seemed—altered, somehow. Distracted, certainly. How dearly Georgiana would have loved to have asked Miss Bingley, but any questions submitted to that lady were likely to garner only arch witticisms and obscure hints meant to confuse more than to edify. Georgiana set herself to endure Miss Bingley's company, and to simultaneously devise a scheme that would give her time alone with her brother. She hadn't liked that pinched look on his face or the faraway expression in his eyes.
The dinner conversation was stilted. Mr. Bingley exerted himself to be amusing, but his attempts at humor fell flat until eventually he subsided into his soup. Fitzwilliam spoke in monosyllables, and Miss Bingley, after comments about Hertfordshire that were clearly intended to needle one—or possibly both—of the men, allowed the talk to die out. Georgiana felt keenly the necessity of being a good hostess, but with three people so determined to be lost in their own thoughts, what was there in her quiet life to bring them out?
By the time the dessert dishes were cleared away and she could rise from the table, she was suffering from a mild headache and heartily tired of the set of them. Pleading the headache and ignoring the mulish look on Miss Bingley's face, Georgiana went to bed early. Her fingers itched for the smooth keys of her pianoforte, but she could not play as she would want to with this houseful of people. Perhaps they wouldn't stay long, she thought as she drifted at last into a troubled sleep.
The next morning gave no indication of a short stay, however, as Miss Bingley lay abed late and Mr. Bingley went out shooting on his own. But Georgiana was just as happy, because that meant she had Fitzwilliam to herself, and she prevailed upon him to walk with her, far into the grounds where their whereabouts could not be discovered from the house. They spoke of light things, mostly—of how much she liked her pianoforte, of plans to improve the house, of the sights he had seen in his travels.
At last he fell silent, staring ahead of them, lost in his own thoughts. Georgiana was used to her brother's silences, but there was something different about this one. He seemed troubled.
"Fitzwilliam, what is it?"
"I am convinced something happened in Hertfordshire to upset you—and poor Mr. Bingley, as well."
"Ah." His mouth twisted a little, as if he was recalling something unpleasant. "It is nothing you need concern yourself with."
"Well, yes, so I assumed—had it been something of import to myself, I know you would have told me at once." She tucked her hand in the crook of his arm.
"Your faith in my good sense is gratifying."
"Fitzwilliam! Have you gone and done something impulsive and rash?" There was no response to Georgiana's teasing question, and she shook his arm. "Silence is to be understood as consent, you know."
"'He who is silent is understood to consent,'" he corrected her. "Qui tacet consentire videtur."
"Yes, yes, we all know you were a formidable student." But she smiled at him for all that; she was immensely proud of his intelligence. "Changing the subject will not keep me from asking questions. Must I inquire of Miss Bingley what occurred?"
Fitzwilliam looked alarmed. "No, I beg you, do not do such a thing. I believe her comments would cause … Mr. Bingley great pain."
"In that case, you must tell me, so that I do not inadvertently bring up a related topic."
"Very well. I should have known you would see the general agitation of the party. I had hoped not to have to discuss this with you, for reasons which will become clear." He led her to a small stone bench under a large tree. "There was a public ball the night after we arrived in Meryton."
"And were there many young ladies there?" She watched him with unconcealed interest. Georgiana could never decide whether she hoped her brother would find happiness or feared that the woman he eventually married would come between them.
"Yes. Most of them from the same family." He said it in a tone of disapproval. "Five daughters, all—most—of them quite disgraceful. As was the mother, indeed."
"And the father?"
"He was tolerable, but clearly had no influence over the behavior of the women of his family."
"Did you dance with any of these young ladies?"
"No," he replied curtly.
"Did Mr. Bingley?" Georgiana was beginning to see which way the wind was blowing. "He danced with several, I am sure."
"Only with the one. The eldest, Miss Bennet, who largely escapes the impropriety of the rest of her family. He danced with her, and then his sister unluckily asked her to dine."
"Did she do something shocking at the dinner table?"
"She did not." Fitzwilliam spared her a brief smile. "Your taste for inappropriateness is a bit unseemly, you know."
Georgiana shrugged. "I see so little of it here, you must forgive me for wanting to hear some tales of rather more interest than merely spilling the soup." Her brother's smile widened, and she was glad to see the genuine humor that was such a part of him returning. "Now, tell me what this unfortunate Miss Bennet did at dinner that was so offensive."
"In truth," he said, the smile fading, "it was not her doing. It was her mother's. You see, the two establishments were set far apart, and rather than send Miss Bennet in the family carriage to dine, the mother sent her on horseback. In the rain. Naturally, and no doubt according to plan, Miss Bennet took ill."
"Oh, the poor thing! I hope she recovered."
"She did. Although she was quite ill for some time."
"So she stayed at Mr. Bingley's home? She was too sick to remove?"
"Yes. Her sister, Miss … Elizabeth Bennet, came to stay as well, to care for Miss Bennet."
"And what was Miss Elizabeth like? As disgraceful as the rest of her family?"
Fitzwilliam stood up, walking away from Georgiana. With his back still presented to her, he said, shortly, "No."
Ah. Did the wind sit in that corner, then? Perhaps that would explain Fitzwilliam's dour mood. Georgiana watched him a moment, deciding which conversational path to take to get the most information from her stubborn brother.
"So am I to deduce that Mr. Bingley found Miss Bennet to his taste, then?"
"He did. Most unfortunately. For she appeared to feel no such regard in return. She is a quiet creature, most reserved unless in the presence of … her sister."
"Could it be perhaps that she is shy?" Georgiana spoke from experience. Although she knew her brother didn't see her—or himself, if it came to that—as cold, or proud, or reserved, she was a keen enough observer to know that others mistook their innate shyness in just that way.
He shook his head. "I am convinced that no young lady brought up in such a family could have retained shyness of that severity."
"And so you persuaded Mr. Bingley to give up the attachment?"
"The house and the country, yes. The lady herself, yes. As you have no doubt seen, the attachment lingers. I fear he will be a long time recovering from it." Fitzwilliam was staring off into the distance, across the fields, his voice so low she could hardly hear him.
"Why should he recover from it, if the lady made him happy?" Georgiana had a feeling they were no longer speaking of Mr. Bingley; she had never heard quite this depth of feeling from her brother when speaking of women. Most typically they laughed together over the women their relations threw at his head, or pitied the ladies for being subject to the matrimonial market. But there was no laughter in his voice today, and no pity. "Perhaps it would have been as well to allow the attachment, even if it is one-sided?"
"Allow the attachment? When she has no fortune, no family connections to boast of, and her own family is shamefully ill-behaved? No."
"Tell me about her, then."
Fitzwilliam turned to look at her. "About Miss Bennet?"
"About Miss Elizabeth Bennet." At his frown, Georgiana smiled. "Did you think I could not tell? Mr. Bingley is plainly not the only one who formed an attachment in Hertfordshire."
"I had not realized it was so obvious. Georgiana … Georgiana." He sighed heavily, sitting down next to her. "I feel I should apologize to you. This is not—not what I owe to you."
"Your happiness is what you owe to me. Can this Elizabeth Bennet make you happy?" She poked him in the arm.
"I … How do I know? She has a mischievous face, not unlike that of someone else I know," he said, returning the poke, "and a quick wit. She said she loves to laugh, although I never was fortunate enough to hear her do so. And when I—" He broke off, swallowing visibly, and his right hand spread out and then relaxed on his leg. "But her family is insufferable, her fortune nonexistent, she thinks me cold and unpleasant, and—" Fitzwilliam glanced at Georgiana and then shook his head. "There may be another man who holds her interest." He held up a hand before Georgiana could ask for further details. "No. There is no more future for me with Miss Elizabeth Bennet than there is for my friend Charles Bingley with her sister."
Georgiana hated to see her beloved brother so unhappy. She looped her arm through his, shifting closer on the bench to offer her wordless support, knowing well that no words of hers would sway him when his mind was so thoroughly made up.
"You would have liked her," he said softly. "Yes, you would have liked her very much."
She was filled with curiosity about this woman who had Fitzwilliam so conflicted. Imagine, having four sisters! Such richness of family. But none of them were worth as much as such a brother as Fitzwilliam, she thought, thinking of the pianoforte he had surprised her with and all the hours he had spent patiently listening to her as she wept over Mr. Wickham and the laughs he had teased out of her when she had thought herself emptied of laughter. She wished nothing so much for Fitzwilliam as a woman who would do all those things for him in return.