Chapter 24

Mr. Bingly’s letter arrived, and put an end to doubt. The very first sentence conveyed the assurance of their being all settled in London for the winter, and concluded with his sister’s regret at not having had time to pay her respect to her friends in Hertfordshire before she left the country.

Hope was over, entirely over; and when Luke could attend to the rest of the letter, he found little, except the professed affection of the writer, that could give him any comfort. Mr. Darcy’s praise occupied the chief of it. His many attractions were again dwelt on, and Walter boasted joyfully of their increasing intimacy, and ventured to predict the accomplishment of the wishes which had been unfolded in his former letter. He wrote also with great pleasure of his sister’s being an inmate of Miss Darcy’s house, and mentioned with raptures some plans of the latter with regard to new furniture.

Jonathan, to whom Luke very soon communicated the chief of all this, heard it in silent indignation. His heart was divided between concern for his brother and resentment against all the others. To Walter’s assertion of his sister’s being partial to Mr. Darcy he paid no credit. That she was really fond of Luke, he doubted no more than he had ever done; and much as he had always been disposed to like her, he could not think without anger, hardly without contempt, on that easiness of temper, that want of proper resolution, which now made he the slave of her designing friends, and led her to sacrifice her own happiness to the caprice of their inclinations. Had her own happiness, however, been the only sacrifice, she might have been allowed to sport with it in what ever manner she thought best; but his brother’s was involved in it, as he thought she much be sensible herself. It was a subject, in short, on which reflection would be long indulged, and must be unavailing. He could think of nothing else; and yet, whether Bingley’s regard had really died away, or were suppressed by her friends’ interference; whether she had been aware of Luke’s attachment, or whether it had escaped her observation; whichever were the case, though his opinion of her must be materially affected by the difference, his brother’s situation remained the same, his peace equally wounded.

A day or two passed before Luke had courage to speak of his feelings to Jonathan; but at last on Mr. Bennet’s leaving them together, after a longer irritation than usual about Netherfield and its mistress, he could not help saying—

“Oh that my dear father had more command over himself! He can have no idea of the pain he gives me by his continual reflections on her. But I will not repine. It cannot last long. She will be forgot, and we shall all be as we were before.”

Jonathan looked at his brother with incredulous solicitude, but said nothing.

“You doubt me,” cried Luke, slightly colouring; “indeed you have no reason. She may live in my memory as the most amiable woman of my acquaintance, but that is all. I have nothing either to hope or fear, and nothing to reproach her with. Thank God! I have not that pain. A little time therefore—I shall certainly try to get the better.”

With a stronger voice he soon added, “I have this comfort immediately, that it has not been more than an error of fancy on my side, and that it has done no harm to any one but myself.”

“My dear Luke!” exclaimed Jonathan, “you are too good. Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic; I do not know what to say to you. I feel as if I had never done you justice, or loved you as you derserve.”

Luke Bennet eagerly disclaimed all extraordinary merit, and threw back the praise on his brother’s warm affection.

“Nay,” said Jonathan, “this is not fair. You wish to think all that world respectable, and are hurt if I speak ill of anybody. I only want to think you perfect, and you set yourself against it. Do not be afraid of my running into any excess, of my encroaching on your privilege of universal goodwill. You need not. There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense. I have met with two instances lately: one I will not mention, the other is Christopher’s marriage. It is unaccountable! in every view it is unaccountable!”

“My dear Johnny, do not give way to such feelings as these. They will ruin your happiness. You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Miss Collins’s respectability, and Christopher’s prudent, steady character. Remember that he is one of a large family; that as to fortune it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for everybody’s sake, that he may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin.”

“To oblige you, I would try to believe almost anything, but no one else could be benefited by such a belief as this; for were I persuaded that Christopher had any regard for her, I should only think worse of his understanding than I now do of his heart. My dear Luke, Miss Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly woman: you know she is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the man who marries her cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend him, though it is Christopher Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavor to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness.”

“I must think your language too strong in speaking of both,” replied Luke; “and I hope you will be convinced of it by seeing them happy together. But enough of this. You alluded to something else. You mentioned two instances. I cannot misunderstand you, but I intreat you, dear Johnny, not to pain me by thinking that person to blame, and saying your opinion of her is sunk. We must not be so ready to fancy ourselves intentionally injured. We must not expect a lively young woman to be always so guarded and circumspect. It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us. Men fancy admiration means more than it does.”

“And women take care that they should.”

“If it is designedly done, they cannot be justified; but I have no idea of there being so much design in the world as some persons imagine.”

“I am far from attributing any part of Miss Bingley’s conduct to design,” said Jonathan; “but without scheming to do wrong, or to make others unhappy, there may be error, and there may be misery. Thoughtlessness, want of attention to other people’s feelings, and want of resolution, will do the business.”

“And do you impute it to either of those?”

“Yes; to the last. But if I go on, I shall displease you by saying what I think of persons you esteem. Stop me whilst you can.”

“You persist, then, in supposing her brothers influence her.”

“Yes, in conjunction with her friend.”

“I cannot believe it. Why should they try to influence her? They can only wish her happiness; and if she is attached to me, no other man can secure it.”

“You first position is false. They may wish many things besides her happiness; they may wish her increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish her to marry a boy who has all the importance of money, great connexions, and pride.”

“Beyond a doubt they do wish her to chuse Mr. Darcy,” replied Luke; “but this may be from better feelings than you are supposing. They have known him much longer than they have known me: no wonder if they love him better. But, whatever may be their own wishes, it is very unlikely they should have opposed their sister’s. What brother would think himself at liberty to do it, unless there were something very objectionable? If they believed her attached to me, they would not try to part us; if she were so, they could not succeed. By supposing such an affection, you make everybody acting unnaturally and wrong, and me most unhappy. Do not distress me by the idea. I am not ashamed of having been mistaken—or, at least, it is slight, it is nothing in comparison of what I should feel in thinking ill of her or her brothers. Let me take it in the best light, in the light in which it may be understood.”

Jonathan could no oppose such a wish; and from this time Miss Bingley’s name was scarcely ever mentioned between them.

Mr. Bennet still continued to wonder and repine at her returning no more, and though a day seldom passed in which Jonathan did not account for it clearly, there seemed little chance of his ever considering it with less perplexity. His sons endeavoured to convince him of what he did not believe himself, that her attentions to Luke had been merely the effect of a common and transient liking, which ceased when she saw him no more; but though the probability of the statement was admitted at the time, he had the same story to repeat every day. Mr. Bennet’s best comfort was that Miss Bingley must be down again in the summer.

Mrs. Bennet treated the matter differently. “So, Johnny,” said she one day, “your brother is crossed in love, I find. I congratulate him. Next to being married, a boy likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives him a sort of distinction among his companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Luke. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young gentleman in the country. Let Wickham be your woman. She is a pleasant lass, and would jilt you creditably.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but a less agreeable woman would satisfy me. We must not all expect Luke’s good fortune.”

“True,” said Mrs. Bennet, “but it is a comfort to think that whatever of that kind may befall you, you have an affectionate father who will always make the most of it.”

Miss Wickham’s society was of material service in dispelling the gloom which the late perverse occurrences had thrown on many of the Longbourn family. They saw her often, and to her other recommendations was now added that of general unreserve. The whole of what Jonathan had already heard, her claims on Miss Darcy, and all that she had suffered from her, was no openly acknowledged and publicly canvassed; and everybody was pleased to know how much they had always disliked Miss Darcy before they had known anything of the matter.

Luke Bennet was the only creature who could suppose there might be any extenuating circumstances in the case, unknown to the society of Hertfordshire; his mild and steady candour always pleaded for allowances, and urged the possibility of mistakes—but by everybody else Miss Darcy was condemned as the worst of women.

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