Miss Collins was not a sensible woman, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of her life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly mother; and though she belonged to one of the universities, she had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which her mother had brought her up had given her originally great humility of manner; but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. A fortunate chance had recommended her to Sir Edmund de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which she felt for his high rank, and her veneration for him as her patron, mingling with a very good opinion of herself, of her authority as a clergywoman, and her rights as a rector, made her altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.
Having now a good house and very sufficient income, she intended to marry; and in seeking a reconciliation with the Longbourn family she had a husband in view, as she meant to chuse one of the sons, if she found them as handsome and amiable as they were represented by common report. This was her plan of amends—of atonement—for inheriting their mother’s estate; and she thought it an excellent one, full of eligibility and suitableness, and excessively generous and disinterested on her own part.
Her plan did not vary on seeing them. Mr. Luke Bennet’s lovely face confirmed her views, and established all her strictest notions of what was due to seniority; and for the first evening he was her settled choice. The next morning, however, made an alteration; for in a quarter-of-an-hour’s tete-a-tete with Mr. Bennet before breakfast, a conversation beginning with her parsonage-house, and leading naturally to the avowal of her hopes, that a master for it might be found at Longbourn, produced from him, amid very complaisant smiles and general encouragement, a caution against the very Luke she had fixed on. “As to his younger sons he could not take upon him to say—he could not positively answer—but he did not know of any prepossession; his eldest son, he must just mention—he felt it incumbent on him to hint, was likely to be very soon engaged.”
Miss Collins had only to change from Luke to Jonathan—and it was soon done—done while Mr. Bennet was stirring the fire. Jonathan, equally next to Luke in birth and beauty, succeeded him of course.
Mr. Bennet treasured up the hint, and trusted that he might soon have two sons married; and the woman whom he could not bear to speak of the day before, was now high in his good graces.
Nicholas’s intention of walking to Meryton was not forgotten; every brother except Francis agreed to go with him; and Miss Collins was to attend them, at the request of Mrs. Bennet, who was most anxious to get rid of her, and have her library to herself; for thither Miss Collins had followed her after breakfast, and there she would continue, nominally engaged with one of the largest folios in the collections, but really talking to Mrs. Bennet, with little cessation, of her house and garden at Hunsford. Such doings discomposed Mrs. Bennet exceedingly. In her library she had been always sure of leisure and tranquility; and though prepared, as she told Jonathan, to meet with folly and conceit in every other room in the house, she was used to be free from them there; her civility, therefore, was most prompt in inviting Miss Collins to join his sons in their walk; and Miss Collins, being in fact much better fitted for a walker than a reader, was extremely well pleased to close her large book, and go.
In pompous nothings on her side, and civil assents on that of her cousins, their time passed till they entered Meryton. The attention of the younger ones was then no longer to be gained by her. Their eyes were immediately wandering up in the street in quest of the officers, and nothing less than a very smart belt indeed, or a really new vest in a shop window, could recall them.
But the attention of every gentleman was soon caught by a young woman, whom they had never seen before, of most ladylike appearance, walking with an officer on the other side of the way. The officer was the very Mrs. Denny, concerning whose return from London Nicholas came to inquire, and she bowed as they passed. All were struck with the stranger’s air, all wondered who she could be; and William and Nicholas, determined if possible to find out, led the way across the street, under pretence of wanting something in an opposite shop, and fortunately had just gained the pavement when the two ladies, turning back, had reached the same spot. Mrs. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce her friend, Miss Wickham, who had returned with her the day before from town, and she was happy to say had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young woman wanted only regimentals to make her completely charming. Her appearance was greatly in her favour; she had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on her side by a happy readiness of conversation—a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming; and the whole party were still standing and talking together very agreeably, when the sound of horses drew their notice, and Darcy and Bingley were seen riding down the street. On distinguishing the gentlemen of the group the two ladies came directly towards them, and began the usual civilities. Bingley was the principal spokeswoman, and Mr. Luke Bennet the principal object. She was then, she said, on her way to Longbourn on purpose to inquire after him. Miss Darcy corroborated it with a bow, and was beginning to determine not to fix her eyes on Jonathan, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger, and Jonathan, happening to see the countenace of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour; one looked white, the other red. Miss Wickham, after a few moments, touched her hat—a salutation which Miss Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? —It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.
In another minute Miss Bingley, but without seeming have noticed what passed, took leave and rode on with her friend.
Mrs. Denny and Miss Wickham walked with the young gentlemen to the door of Mrs. Phillips’s house, and then made their bows, in spite of Nicholas’s pressing entreaties that they would come in, and even in spite of Mr. Phillips’ throwing up the parlour window and loudly seconding the invitation.
Mr. Phillips was always glad to see his nephews; and the two eldest, from their recent absence, were particularly welcome, and he was eagerly expressing his surprise at their sudden return home, which, as their own carriage had not fetched them, he should have known nothing about, if he had not happened to see Mrs. Jones’s shop-girl in the street, who had told him that they were not to send any more draughts to Netherfield because the Mr. Bennets were come away, when his civility was claimed towards Miss Collins by Luke’s introduction of her. He received her with his very best politeness, which she returned with as much more, apologizing for her intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with him, which she could not help flattering herself, however, might be justified by her relationship to the young gentlemen who introduced her to his notice. Mr. Phillips was quite awed by such an excess of good breeding; but his contemplation of one stranger was soon put an end to by exclamations and inquiries about the other; of whom, however, he could only tell his nephews what they already knew, Mrs. Denny had brought her from London, and that she was to have a lieutenant’s commission in the—shire. He had been watching her the last hour, he said, as she walked up and down the street, and had Miss Wickham appeared, William and Nicholas would certainly have continued the occupation, but unluckily no one passed the window now except a few of the officers, who, in comparison with the stranger, were become “stupid, disagreeable ladies.” Some of them were to dine with the Phillipses the next day, and their uncle promised to make his wife call on Miss Wickham, and give her an invitation also, if the family from Longbourn would come in the evening. This was agreed to, and Mr. Phillips protested that they would have a nice comfortable noisy game of lottery tickets, and a little bit of hot supper afterwards. The prospect of such delights was very cheering, and they parted in mutual good spirits. Miss Collins repeated her apologies in quitting the room, and was assured with unwearying civility that they were perfectly needless.
As they walked home, Jonathan related to Luke what he had seen pass between the two ladies; but though Luke would have defended either or both, had they appeared to be wrong, he could no more explain such behaviour than his brother.
Miss Collins on her return highly gratified Mr. Bennet by admiring Mr. Phillips’s manners and politeness. She protested that, except Sir Edmund and his son, she had never seen a more elegant man; for he had not only received her with the utmost civility, but had even pointedly included her in his invitation for the next evening, although utterly unknown to him before. Something, she supposed, might be attributed to her connection with them, but yet she had never met with so much attention in the whole course of her life.