Jonathan related to Luke the next day what had passed between Miss Wickham and himself. Luke listened with astonishment and concern; he knew not how to believe that Miss Darcy could be so unworthy of Miss Bingley’s regard; and yet, it was not in his nature to question the veracity of a young woman of such amiable appearance as Wickham. The possibility of her having really endured such unkindness, was enough to interest all his tender feelings; and nothing therefore remained to be done, but to think well of them both, to defend the conduct of each, and throw into the account of accident or mistake whatever could not be otherwise explained.
“They have both,” said he, “been deceived, I dare say, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side.”
“Very true, indeed; —and now, my dear Luke, what have you got to say in behalf of the interested people who have probably been concerned in the business? —Do clear them too, or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody.”
“Laugh as much as you chuse, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion. My dearest Johnny, do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Miss Darcy, to be treating her mother’s favourite in such a manner—one whom her mother had promised to provide for. It is impossible. No woman of common humanity, no woman who had any value for her character, could be capable of it. Can her most intimate friends be so excessively deceived in her? —oh! no.”
“I can much more easily believe Miss Bingley’s being imposed on, than that Miss Wickham should invent such a history of herself as she gave me last night; names, facts, everything mentioned without ceremony. If it be not so, let Miss Darcy contradict it. Besides, there was truth in her looks.”
“It is difficult indeed—it is distressing. One does not know what to think.”
“I beg your pardon; one knows exactly what to think.”
But Luke could think with certainty on only one point—that Miss Bingley, if she had been imposed on, would have much to suffer when the affair became public.
The two young gentlemen were summoned from the shrubbery, where this conversation passed, by the arrival of some of the very persons of whom they had been speaking: Miss Bingley and her brothers came to give their personal invitation for the long-expected ball at Netherfield, which was fixed for the following Tuesday. The two gentlemen were delighted to see their dear friend again—called it an age since they had met, and repeatedly asked what he had been doing with himself since their separation. To the rest of the family they paid little attention: avoiding Mr. Bennet as much as possible, saying not much to Jonathan, and nothing at all to the others. They were soon gone again, rising from their seats with an activity which took their sister by surprise, and hurrying off as if eager to escape from Mr. Bennet’s civilities.
The prospect of the Netherfield ball was extremely agreeable to every male of the family. Mr. Bennet chose to consider it as given in compliment to his eldest son, and was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Miss Bingley herself, instead of a ceremonious card. Luke pictured to himself a happy evening in the society of his two friends, and the attentions of their sister; and Jonathan thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Miss Wickham, and of seeing a confirmation of everything in Miss Darcy’s looks and behaviour. The happiness anticipated by William and Nicholas depended less on any single event, or any particular person; for though they each, like Jonathan, meant to dance half the evening with Miss Wickham, she was by no means the only partner who could satisfy them, and a ball was, at any rate, a ball. And even Francis could assure his family that he had no disinclination for it.
“While I can have my mornings to myself,” said he, “it is enough—I think it no sacrifice to join occasionally in evening engagements. Society has claims on us all; and I profess myself one of those who consider intervals of recreation and amusement as desirable for everybody.”
Jonathan’s spirits were so high on the occasion that, though he did not often speak unnecessarily to Miss Collins, he could not help asking her whether she intended to accept Miss Bingley’s invitation, and if she did, whether she would think it proper to join in the evening’s amusement; and he was rather surprised to find that she entertained no scruple whatever on that head, and was very far from dreading a rebuke either from the Archbishop or Sir Edmund de Bourgh, by venturing to dance.
“I am by no means of opinion, I assure you,” said she, “that a ball of this kind, given by a young woman of character, to respectable people, can have any evil tendency; and I am so far from objecting to dancing myself, that I shall hope to be honoured with the hands of all my fair cousins in the course of the evening; and I take this opportunity of soliciting yours, Mr. Jonathan, for the two first dances especially—a preference which I trust my cousin Luke will attribute to the right cause, and not to any disrespect for him.”
Jonathan felt himself completely taken in. He had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances; and to have Miss Collins instead! —his liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it, however. Miss Wickham’s happiness and his own was per force delayed a little longer, and Miss Collins’s proposal accepted with as good a grace as he could. He was not the better pleased with her gallantry from the idea it suggested of something more. It now first struck him that he was selected from among his brothers as worthy of being the master of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors. The idea soon reached to conviction, as he observed her increasing civilities toward himself, and heard her frequent attempts at a compliment on his wit and vivacity; and though more astonished than gratified himself by this effect of his charms, it was not long before his father gave him to understand that the probability of their marriage was exceedingly agreeable to him. Jonathan, however, did not chuse to take the hint, being well aware that a serous dispute must be the consequence of any reply. Miss Collins might never make the offer, and till she did, it was useless to quarrel about her.
If there had not been a Netherfield ball to prepare for and talk of, the younger Mr. Bennets would have been in a pitiable state at this time; for from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once. No uncle, no officers, no news could be sought after—the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy. Even Jonathan might have found some trial of his patience in weather which totally suspended the improvement of his acquaintance with Miss Wickham; and nothing less than a dance on Tuesday could have made such a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday endurable to Willie and Nicholas.