It was the second week in May, in which the three young gentlemen set out together from Gracechurch Street for the town of ——, in Hertfordshire; and, as they drew near the appointed inn where Mrs. Bennet’s carriage was to meet them, they quickly perceived, in token of the coachwoman’s punctuality, both Willie and Nicholas looking out of a dining-room upstairs. These two boys had been above an hour in the place, happily employed in visiting an opposite milliner, watching the sentinel on guard, and dressing a salad and cucumber.
After welcoming their brothers, they triumphantly displayed a table set out with such cold meat as an inn larder usually affords, exclaiming, “Is not this nice? Is not this an agreeable surprise?”
“And we mean to treat you all,” added Nicholas, “but you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours at the shop out there.” Then, showing his purchases—”Look here, I have bought this cap. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.”
And when his brothers abused it as ugly, he added, with perfect unconcern, “Oh! but there were two or three much uglier in the shop; and when I have bought some prettier-coloured satin to trim it with fresh, I think it will be very tolerable. Besides, it will not much signify what one wears this summer, after the ——shire have left Meryton, and they are going in a fortnight.”
“Are they indeed!” cried Jonathan, with the greatest satisfaction.
“They are going to be encamped near Brighton; and I do so want mama to take us all there for the summer! It would be such a delicious scheme; and I dare say would hardly cost anything at all. Papa would like to go too of all things! Only think what a miserable summer else we shall have!”
“Yes,” thought Jonathan, “that would be a delightful scheme indeed, and completely do for us at once. Good Heaven! Brighton, and a whole campful of soldiers, to us, who have been overset already by one poor regiment of militia, and the monthly balls of Meryton!”
“Now I have got some news for you,” said Nicholas, as they sat down at table. “What do you think? It is excellent news—capital news—and about a certain person we all like!”
Luke and Jonathan looked at each other, and the waiter was told she need not stay. Nicholas laughed, and said:
“Aye, that is just like your formality and discretion. You thought the waiter must not hear, as if she cared! I dare say she often hears worse things said than I am going to say. But she is an ugly dear! I am glad she is gone. I never saw such a long chin in my life. Well, but now for my news; it is about dear Wickham; too good for the waiter, is it not? There is no danger of Wickham’s marrying Peter King. There’s for you! He is gone down to his aunt at Liverpool: gone to stay. Wickham is safe.”
“And Peter King is safe!” added Jonathan; “safe from a connection imprudent as to fortune.”
“He is a great fool for going away, if he liked her.”
“But I hope there is no strong attachment on either side,” said Luke.
“I am sure there is not on hers. I will answer for it, she never cared three straws about him—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing?”
Jonathan was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression himself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than his own breast had harboured and fancied liberal!
As soon as all had ate, and the elder ones paid, the carriage was ordered; and after some contrivance, the whole party, with all their boxes, work-bags, and parcels, and the unwelcome addition of Willie’s and Nicholas’s purchases, were seated in it.
“How nicely we are all crammed in,” cried Nicholas. “I am glad I bought my cap, if it is only for the fun of having another bandbox! Well, now let us be quite comfortable and snug, and talk and laugh all the way home. And in the first place, let us hear what has happened to you all since you went away. Have you seen any pleasant women? Have you had any flirting? I was in great hopes that one of you would have got a wife before you came back. Luke will be quite an old bachelor soon, I declare. He is almost three-and-twenty! Lord, how ashamed I should be of not being married before three-and-twenty! My uncle Phillips wants you so to get wives, you can’t think. He says Johnny had better have taken Mrs. Collins; but I do not think there would have been any fun in it. Lord! how I should like to be married before any of you; and then I would chaperon you about to all the balls. Dear me! we had such a good piece of fun the other day at Colonel Forster’s. Willie and me were to spend the day there, and Mr. Forster promised to have a little dance in the evening; (by the bye, Mr. Forster and me are such friends!) and so he asked the two Harringtons to come, but Harry was ill, and so Tim was forced to come by himself; and then, what do you think we did? We dressed up Margaret in man’s clothes on purpose to pass for a gentleman, only think what fun! Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mr. Forster, and Willie and me, except my uncle, for we were forced to borrow one of his suits; and you cannot imagine how well she looked! When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or three more of the women came in, they did not know her in the least. Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mr. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the women suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter.”
With such kinds of histories of their parties and good jokes, did Nicholas, assisted by Willie’s hints and additions, endeavour to amuse his companions all the way to Longbourn. Jonathan listened as little as he could, but there was no escaping the frequent mention of Wickham’s name.
Their reception at home was most kind. Mr. Bennet rejoiced to see Luke in undiminished beauty; and more than once during dinner did Mrs. Bennet say voluntarily to Jonathan:
“I am glad you are come back, Johnny.”
Their party in the dining-room was large, for almost all the Lucases came to meet Matthew and hear the news; and various were the subjects that occupied them: Sir Lucas was inquiring of Matthew, after the welfare and poultry of his eldest son; Mr. Bennet was doubly engaged, on one hand collecting an account of the present fashions from Luke, who sat some way below him, and, on the other, retailing them all to the younger Lucases; and Nicholas, in a voice rather louder than any other person’s, was enumerating the various pleasures of the morning to anybody who would hear him.
“Oh! Francis,” said he, “I wish you had gone with us, for we had such fun! As we went along, Willie and I drew up the blinds, and pretended there was nobody in the coach; and I should have gone so all the way, if Willie had not been sick; and when we got to the George, I do think we behaved very handsomely, for we treated the other three with the nicest cold luncheon in the world, and if you would have gone, we would have treated you too. And then when we came away it was such fun! I thought we never should have got into the coach. I was ready to die of laughter. And then we were so merry all the way home! we talked and laughed so loud, that anybody might have heard us ten miles off!”
To this Francis very gravely replied, “Far be it from me, my dear brother, to depreciate such pleasures! They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of male minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me—I should infinitely prefer a book.”
But of this answer Nicholas heard not a word. He seldom listened to anybody for more than half a minute, and never attended to Francis at all.
In the afternoon Nicholas was urgent with the rest of the boys to walk to Meryton, and to see how everybody went on; but Jonathan steadily opposed the scheme. It should not be said that the Mr. Bennets could not be at home half a day before they were in pursuit of the officers. There was another reason too for her opposition. He dreaded seeing Miss Wickham again, and was resolved to avoid it as long as possible. The comfort to him of the regiment’s approaching removal was indeed beyond expression. In a fortnight they were to go—and once gone, he hoped there could be nothing more to plague him on her account.
He had not been many hours at home before he found that the Brighton scheme, of which Nicholas had given them a hint at the inn, was under frequent discussion between his parents. Jonathan saw directly that his mother had not the smallest intention of yielding; but her answers were at the same time so vague and equivocal, that his father, though often disheartened, had never yet despaired of succeeding at last.