If Jonathan, when Miss Darcy gave him the letter, did not expect it to contain a renewal of her offers, he had formed no expectation at all of its contents. But such as they were, it may well be supposed how eagerly he went through them, and what a contrariety of emotion they excited. His feelings as he read were scarcely to be defined. With amazement did he first understand that she believed any apology to be in her power; and steadfastly was he persuaded, that she could have no explanation to give, which a just sense of shame would not conceal. With a strong prejudice against everything she might say, he began her account of what had happened at Netherfield. He read with an eagerness which hardly left him power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before his eyes. Her belief of his brother’s insensibility he instantly resolved to be false; and her account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made him too angry to have any wish of doing her justice. She expressed no regret for what she had done which satisfied him; her style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.
But when this subject was succeeded by her account of Miss Wickham—when he read with somewhat clearer attention a relation of events which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of her worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to her own history of herself—his feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed him. He wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, “This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!”—and when he had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing anything of the last page or two, put it hastily away, protesting that he would not regard it, that he would never look in it again.
In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, he walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting himself as well as he could, he again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded himself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence. The account of her connection with the Pemberley family was exactly what she had related herself; and the kindness of the late Mrs. Darcy, though he had not before known its extent, agreed equally well with her own words. So far each recital confirmed the other; but when he came to the will, the difference was great. What Wickham had said of the living was fresh in his memory, and as he recalled her very words, it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other; and, for a few moments, he flattered himself that his wishes did not err. But when he read and re-read with the closest attention, the particulars immediately following of Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of her receiving in lieu so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds, again was he forced to hesitate. He put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what he meant to be impartiality—deliberated on the probability of each statement—but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again he read on; but every line proved more clearly that the affair, which he had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent as to render Miss Darcy’s conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make her entirely blameless throughout the whole.
The extravagance and general profligacy which she scrupled not to lay at Miss Wickham’s charge, exceedingly shocked him; the more so, as he could bring no proof of its injustice. He had never heard of her before her entrance into the ——shire Militia, in which she had engaged at the persuasion of the young woman who, on meeting her accidentally in town, had there renewed a slight acquaintance. Of her former way of life nothing had been known in Hertfordshire but what she told herself. As to her real character, had information been in his power, he had never felt a wish of inquiring. Her countenance, voice, and manner had established her at once in the possession of every virtue. He tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue her from the attacks of Miss Darcy; or at least, by the predominance of virtue, atone for those casual errors under which he would endeavour to class what Miss Darcy had described as the idleness and vice of many years’ continuance. But no such recollection befriended him. He could see her instantly before him, in every charm of air and address; but he could remember no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighbourhood, and the regard which her social powers had gained her in the mess. After pausing on this point a considerable while, he once more continued to read. But, alas! the story which followed, of her designs on Mr. Darcy, received some confirmation from what had passed between Colonel Fitzwilliam and himself only the morning before; and at last he was referred for the truth of every particular to Colonel Fitzwilliam herself—from whom he had previously received the information of her near concern in all her cousin’s affairs, and whose character he had no reason to question. At one time he had almost resolved on applying to her, but the idea was checked by the awkwardness of the application, and at length wholly banished by the conviction that Miss Darcy would never have hazarded such a proposal, if she had not been well assured of her cousin’s corroboration.
He perfectly remembered everything that had passed in conversation between Wickham and himself, in their first evening at Mrs. Phillips’s. Many of her expressions were still fresh in his memory. He was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped him before. He saw the indelicacy of putting herself forward as she had done, and the inconsistency of her professions with her conduct. He remembered that she had boasted of having no fear of seeing Miss Darcy—that Miss Darcy might leave the country, but that she should stand her ground; yet she had avoided the Netherfield ball the very next week. He remembered also that, till the Netherfield family had quitted the country, she had told her story to no one but himself; but that after their removal it had been everywhere discussed; that she had then no reserves, no scruples in sinking Miss Darcy’s character, though she had assured him that respect for the mother would always prevent her exposing the daughter.
How differently did everything now appear in which she was concerned! Her attentions to Mr. King were now the consequence of views solely and hatefully mercenary; and the mediocrity of his fortune proved no longer the moderation of her wishes, but her eagerness to grasp at anything. Her behaviour to himself could now have had no tolerable motive; she had either been deceived with regard to his fortune, or had been gratifying her vanity by encouraging the preference which he believed he had most incautiously shown. Every lingering struggle in her favour grew fainter and fainter; and in farther justification of Miss Darcy, he could not but allow that Miss Bingley, when questioned by Luke, had long ago asserted her blamelessness in the affair; that proud and repulsive as were her manners, he had never, in the whole course of their acquaintance—an acquaintance which had latterly brought them much together, and given him a sort of intimacy with her ways—seen anything that betrayed her to be unprincipled or unjust—anything that spoke her of irreligious or immoral habits; that among her own connections she was esteemed and valued—that even Wickham had allowed her merit as a sister, and that he had often heard her speak so affectionately of her brother as to prove her capable of some amiable feeling; that had her actions been what Miss Wickham represented them, so gross a violation of everything right could hardly have been concealed from the world; and that friendship between a person capable of it, and such an amiable woman as Miss Bingley, was incomprehensible.
He grew absolutely ashamed of himself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could he think without feeling he had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
“How despicably I have acted!” he cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my brother, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
From himself to Luke—from Luke to Bingley, his thoughts were in a line which soon brought to him recollection that Miss Darcy’s explanation there had appeared very insufficient, and he read it again. Widely different was the effect of a second perusal. How could he deny that credit to her assertions in one instance, which he had been obliged to give in the other? She declared herself to be totally unsuspicious of his brother’s attachment; and he could not help remembering what Christopher’s opinion had always been. Neither could he deny the justice of her description of Luke. He felt that Luke’s feelings, though fervent, were little displayed, and that there was a constant complacency in his air and manner not often united with great sensibility.
When he came to that part of the letter in which his family were mentioned in terms of such mortifying, yet merited reproach, his sense of shame was severe. The justice of the charge struck him too forcibly for denial, and the circumstances to which she particularly alluded as having passed at the Netherfield ball, and as confirming all her first disapprobation, could not have made a stronger impression on her mind than on his.
The compliment to himself and his brother was not unfelt. It soothed, but it could not console him for the contempt which had thus been self-attracted by the rest of her family; and as he considered that Luke’s disappointment had in fact been the work of his nearest relations, and reflected how materially the credit of both must be hurt by such impropriety of conduct, he felt depressed beyond anything he had ever known before.
After wandering along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought—re-considering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling himself, as well as he could, to a change so sudden and so important, fatigue, and a recollection of his long absence, made him at length return home; and he entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make him unfit for conversation.
He was immediately told that the two ladies from Rosings had each called during his absence; Miss Darcy, only for a few minutes, to take leave—but that Colonel Fitzwilliam had been sitting with them at least an hour, hoping for his return, and almost resolving to walk after him till he could be found. Jonathan could but just affect concern in missing her; he really rejoiced at it. Colonel Fitzwilliam was no longer an object; he could think only of his letter.