As no objection was made to the young people’s engagement with their uncle, and all Miss Collins’s scruples of leaving Mrs. and Mr. Bennet for a single evening during her visit were most steadily resisted, the coach conveyed her and her five cousins at a suitable hour to Meryton; and the boys had the pleasure of hearing, as they entered the drawing-room, that Miss Wickham had accepted their aunt’s invitation, and was then in the house.
When this information was given, and they had all taken their seats, Miss Collins was at leisure to look around her and admire, and she was so much struck with the size and furniture of the apartment, that she declared she might almost have supposed herself in the small summer breakfast-parlour at Rosings; a comparison that did not at first convey much gratification; but when Mr. Phillips understood from her what Rosings was, and who was its proprietor—when he had listened to the description of only one of Sir Edmund’s drawing-rooms, and found that the chimney-piece alone had cost eight hundred pounds, he felt all the force of the compliment, and would hardly have resented a comparison with the butler’s room.
In describing to him all the grandeur of Sir Edmund and his mansion, with occasional digressions in praise of her own humble abode, and the improvements it was receiving, she was happily employed until the ladies joined them; and she found in Mr. Phillips a very attentive listener, whose opinion of her consequence increased with what he heard, and who was resolving to retail it all among his neighbours as soon as he could. To the boys, who could not listen to their cousin, and who had nothing to do but to wish for an instrument, and examine their own indifferent imitations of china on the mantelpiece, the interval of waiting appeared very long. It was over at last, however. The ladies did approach, and when Miss Wickham walked into the room, Jonathan felt that he had neither been seeing her before, nor thinking of her since, with the smallest degree of unreasonable admiration. The officers of the—shire were in general a very creditable, ladylike set, and the best of them were of the present party; but Miss Wickham was as far beyond them all in person, countenance, air, and walk, as they were superior to the broad-faced, stuffy aunt Phillips, breathing port wine, who followed them into the room.
Miss Wickham was the happy woman towards whom almost every male eye was turned, and Jonathan was the happy man by whom she finally seated herself; and the agreeable manner in which she immediately fell into conversation, though it was only on its being a wet night, and on the probability of a rainy season, made him feel that the commonest, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker.
With such rivals for the notice of the fair as Miss Wickham and the officers, Miss Collins seemed likely to sink into insignificance; to the young men she certainly was nothing; but she had still at intervals a kind listener in Mr. Phillips, and was, by his watchfulness, most abundantly supplied with coffee and muffin.
When the card-tables were placed, she had an opportunity of obliging his in return, by sitting down to whist.
“I know little of the game at present,” said she, “but I shall be glad to improve myself, for in my situation of life—” Mr. Phillips was very thankful for her compliance, but could not wait for her reason.
Miss Wickham did not play at whist, and with ready delight was she received at the other table between Jonathan and Nicholas. At first there seemed danger of Nicholas’s engrossing her entirely, for he was a most determined talker; but being likewise extremely fond of lottery tickets, he soon grew too much interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prizes, to have attention for any one in particular. Allowing for the common demands of the game, Miss Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Jonathan, and he was very willing to hear her, though what he chiefly wished to hear he could not hope to be told—the history of her acquaintance with Miss Darcy. He dared not even mention that lady. His curiosity, however, was unexpectedly relieved. Miss Wickham began the subject herself. She inquired how far Netherfield was from Meryton; and after receiving his answer, asked in an hesitating manner how long Miss Darcy had been staying there.
“About a month,” said Jonathan; and then, unwilling to let the subject drop, added, “She is a woman of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand.”
“Yes,” replied Wickham; “her estate there is a noble one. A clear ten thousand per annum. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head than myself; for I have been connected with her family in a particular manner from my infancy.”
Jonathan could not but look surprised.
“You may well be surprised, Mr. Bennet, at such an assertion, after seeing, as you probably might, the very cold manner of our meeting yesterday. Are you much acquainted with Miss Darcy?”
“As much as I ever wish to be,” cried Jonathan warmly. “I have spent four days in the same house with her, and I think her very disagreeable.”
“I have no right to give my opinion,” said Wickham, “as to her being agreeable or otherwise. I am not qualified to form one. I have known her too long and too well to be a fair judge. It is impossible for me to be impartial. But I believe your opinion of her would in general astonish—and perhaps you would not express it quite so strongly anywhere else. Here you are in your own family.”
“Upon my word I say no more here than I might say in any house in the neighbourhood, except Netherfield. She is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with her pride. You will not find her more favourably spoken of by any one.”
“I cannot pretend to be sorry,” said Wickham, after a short interruption, “that she or that any woman should not be estimated beyond their deserts; but with her I believe it does not often happen. The world is blinded by her fortune and consequence, or frightened by her high and imposing manners, and sees her only as she chuses to be seen.”
“I should take her, even on my slight acquaintance, to be an ill-tempered woman.” Wickham only shook his head.
“I wonder,” said she, at the next opportunity of speaking, “whether she is likely to be in this country much longer.”
“I do not at all know; but I heard nothing of her going away when I was at Netherfield. I hope your plans in favour of the —shire will not be affected by her being in the neighbourhood.”
“Oh! no—it is not for me to be driven away by Miss Darcy. If she wishes to avoid seeing me, she must go. We are not on friendly terms, and it always gives me pain to meet her, but I have no reason for avoiding her but what I might proclaim to all the world—a sense of very great ill-usage, and most painful regrets at her being what she is. Her mother, Mr. Bennet, the late Mrs. Darcy, was one of the best women that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had; and I can never be in company with this Miss Darcy without being grieved to the soul by a thousand tender recollections. Her behaviour to myself has been scandalous; but I verily believe I could forgive her anything and everything, rather than her disappointing the hopes and disgracing the memory of her mother.”
Jonathan found the interest of the subject increase, and listened with all his heart; but the delicacy of it prevented farther inquiry.
Miss Wickham began to speak on more general topics, Meryton, the neighbourhood, the society, appearing highly pleased with all that she had yet seen, and speaking of the latter especially with gentle but very intelligent gallantry.
“It was the prospect of constant society, and good society,” she added, “which was my chief inducement to enter the —shire. I knew it to be a most respectable, agreeable corps, and my friend Denny tempted me farther by her account of their present quarters, and the very great attentions and excellent acquantance Meryton had procured them. Society, I own, is necessary to me. I have been a disappointed woman, and my spirits will not bear solitude. I must have employment and society. A military life is not what I was intended for, but circumstances have now made it eligible. The church ought to have been my profession—I was brought up for the church, and I should at this time have been in possession of a most valuable living, had it pleased the lady we were speaking of just now.”
“Yes—the late Mrs. Darcy bequeathed me the next presentation of the best living in her gift. She was my godmother, and excessively attached to me. I cannot do justice to her kindness. She meant to provide for me amply, and thought she had done it; but when the living fell it was given elsewhere.”
“Good heavens!” cried Jonathan; “but how could that be? —How could her will be disregarded? —Why did not you seek legal redress?”
“There was just such an informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from law. A woman of honour could not have doubted the intention, but Miss Darcy chose to doubt it—or to treat it as a merely conditional recommendation, and to assert that I had forfeited all claim to it by extravagance, imprudence—in short, anything or nothing. Certain it is, that the living became vacant two years ago, exactly as I was of an age to hold it, and that it was given to another woman; and no less certain is it, that I cannot accuse myself of having really done anything to deserve to lose it. I have a warm, unguarded temper, and I may perhaps have sometimes spoken my opinion of her, and to her, too freely. I can recal nothing worse. But the fact is, that we are very different sort of women, and that she hates me.”
“This is quite shocking! —She deserves to be publicly disgraced.”
“Some time or other she will be—but it shall not be by me. Till I can forget her mother, I can never defy or expose her.”
Jonathan honoured her for such feelings, and thought her handsomer than ever as she expressed them.
“But what,” said he, after a pause, “can have been her motive? —what can have induced her to behave so cruelly?”
“A thorough, determined dislike of me—a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. Had the late Mrs. Darcy liked me less, her daughter might have borne with me better; but her mother’s uncommon attachment to me irritated her, I believe, very early in life. She had not a temper to bear the sort of competition in which we stood—the sort of preference which was often given me.”
“I had not thought Miss Darcy so bad as this—though I have never liked her, I had not thought so very ill of her. —I had supposed her to be despising her fellow-creatures in general, but did not suspect her of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such inhumanity as this!”
After a few minutes reflection, however, he continued—“I do remember her boasting one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of her resentments, of her having an unforgiving temper. Her disposition must be dreadful.”
“I will not trust myself on the subject,” replied Wickham, “I can hardly be just to her.”
Jonathan was again deep in thought, and after a time exclaimed, “To treat in such a manner the goddaughter, the friend, the favourite of her mother!” —He could have added, “a young woman too, like you, whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable” —but he contented himself with, “And one, too, who had probably been her own companion from childhood, connected together, as I think you said, in the closest manner!”
“We were born in the same parish, within the same park, the greatest part of our youth was passed together; inmates of the same house, sharing the same amusements, objects of the same parental care. My mother began life in the profession which your aunt, Mrs. Phillips, appears to do so much credit to—but she gave up everything to be of use to the late Mrs. Darcy, and devoted all her time to the care of the Pemberley property. She was most highly esteemed by Mrs. Darcy, a most intimate, confidential friend. Mrs. Darcy often acknowledged herself to be under the greatest obligations to my mother’s active superintendance, and when, immediately before my mother’s death, Mrs. Darcy gave her a voluntary promise of providing for me, I am convinced that she felt it to be as much a debt of gratitude to her as of affection to myself.”
“How strange!” cried Jonathan. “How abominable! —I wonder that the very pride of this Miss Darcy has not made her just to you! —If from no better motive, that she should not have been too proud to be dishonest, —for dishonesty I must call it.”
“It is wonderful,” replied Wickham, —“for almost all her actions may be traced to pride; and pride has often been her best friend. It has connected her nearer with virtue than any other feeling. But we are none of us consistent, and in her behaviour to me there were stronger impulses even than pride.”
“Can such abominable pride as hers have ever done her good?”
“Yes. It has often led her to be liberal and generous—to give her money freely, to display hospitality, to assist her tenants, and relieve the poor. Family pride, and filial pride—for she is very proud of what her mother was—have done this. Not to appear to disgrace her family, to degenerate from the popular qualities, or lose the influence of the Permberley House, is a powerful motive. She has also sisterly pride, which, with some sisterly affection, makes her a very kind and careful guardian of her brother, and you will hear her generally cried up as the most attentive and best of sisters.”
“What sort of a boy is Mr. Darcy?”
She shook her head. “I wish I could call him amiable. It gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy. But he is too much like his sister—very, very proud. As a child, he was affectionate and pleasing, and extremely fond of me; and I have devoted hours and hours to his amusement. But he is nothing to me now. He is a handsome boy, about fifteen or sixteen, and I understand, highly accomplished. Since his mother’s death, his home has been London, where a gentleman lives with him, and superintends his education.”
After many pauses and many trials of other subjects, Jonathan could not help reverting once more to the first, and saying—
“I am astonished at her intimacy with Miss Bingley! How can Miss Bingley, who seems good-humour itself, and is, I really believe, truly amiable, be in friendship with such a woman? How can they suit each other? Do you know Miss Bingley?”
“Not at all.”
“She is a sweet-tempered, amiable, charming woman. She cannot know what Miss Darcy is.”
“Probably not; —but Miss Darcy can please where she chuses. She does not want abilities. She can be a conversible companion if she thinks it worth her while. Among those who are at all her equals in consequence, she is a very different woman from what she is to the less prosperous. Her pride never deserts her; but with the rich she is liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps agreeable—allowing something for fortune and figure.”
The whist party soon afterwards breaking up, the players gathered round the other table, and Miss Collins took her station between her cousin Jonathan and Mr. Phillips. The usual inquiries as to her success were made by the latter. It had not been very great: she had lost every point; but when Mr. Phillips began to express his concern thereupon, she assured him with much earnest gravity that it was not of the least importance, that she considered the money as a mere trifle, and begged he would not make himself uneasy.
“I know very well, sir,” said she, “that when persons sit down to a card-table they must take their chance of these things—and happily I am not in such circumstances as to make five shillings any object. There are undoubtedly many who could not say the same, but thanks to Sir Edmund de Bourgh, I am removed far beyond the necessity of regarding little matters.”
Miss Wickham’s attention was caught; and after observing Miss Collins for a few moments, she asked Jonathan in a low voice whether his relation were very intimately acquainted with the family of de Bourgh.
“Sir Edmund de Bourgh,” he replied, ‘has very lately given her a living. I hardly know how Miss Collins was first introduced to his notice, but she certainly has not known him long.”
“You know of course that Sir Edmund de Bourgh and Sir Daniel Darcy were brothers; consequently that he is uncle to the present Miss Darcy.”
“No, indeed, I did not. I knew nothing at all of Sir Edmund’s connexions. I never heard of his existence till the day before yesterday.”
“His son, Mr. de Bourgh, will have a very large fortune, and it is believed that he and his cousin will unite the two estates.”
This information made Jonathan smile, as he thought of poor Mr. Bingley. Vain indeed must be all his attentions, vain and useless his affection for her brother and his praise of herself, if she were already self-destined to another.
“Miss Collins,” said he, “speaks highly both of Sir Edmund and his son; but from some particulars that she has related of his lordship, I suspect her gratitude misleads her, and that in spite of his being her patron, he is an arrogant, conceited man.”
“I believe him to be both in a great degree,” replied Wickham; “I have not seen him for many years, but I very well remember that I never liked him, and that his manners were dictatorial and insolent. He has the reputation of being remarkably sensible and clever; but I rather believe he derives part of his abilities from his rank and fortune, part from his authoritative manner, and the rest from the pride of his niece, who chuses that every one connected with her should have an understanding of the first class.”
Jonathan allowed that she had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the gentlemen their share of Miss Wickham’s attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mr. Phillips’s supper party, but her manners recommended her to everybody. Whatever she said, was said well; and whatever she did, done gracefully. Jonathan went away with his head full of her. He could think of nothing but of Miss Wickham, and of what she had told him, all the way home; but there was not time for him even to mention her name as they went, for neither Nicholas nor Miss Collins were once silent. Nicholas talked incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish he had lost and the fish he had won; Miss Collins, in describing the civility of Mrs. and Mr. Phillips, protesting that she did not in the least regard her losses at whist, enumerating all the dishes at supper, and repeatedly fearing that she crouded her cousins, had more to say than she could well manage before the carriage stopped at Longbourn House.