The first week of their return was soon gone. The second began. It was the last of the regiment’s stay in Meryton, and all the young gentlemen in the neighbourhood were drooping apace. The dejection was almost universal. The elder Mr. Bennets alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep, and pursue the usual course of their employments. Very frequently were they reproached for this insensibility by Willie and Nicholas, whose own misery was extreme, and who could not comprehend such hard-heartedness in any of the family.
“Good Heaven! what is to become of us? What are we to do?” would they often exclaim in the bitterness of woe. “How can you be smiling so, Johnny?”
Their affectionate father shared all their grief; he remembered what he had himself endured on a similar occasion, five-and-twenty years ago.
“I am sure,” said he, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Miller’s regiment went away. I thought I should have broken my heart.”
“I am sure I shall break mine,” said Nicholas.
“If one could but go to Brighton!” observed Mr. Bennet.
“Oh, yes!—if one could but go to Brighton! But mama is so disagreeable.”
“A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.”
“And my uncle Phillips is sure it would do me a great deal of good,” added Willie.
Such were the kind of lamentations resounding perpetually through Longbourn House. Jonathan tried to be diverted by them; but all sense of pleasure was lost in shame. He felt anew the justice of Miss Darcy’s objections; and never had he been so much disposed to pardon her interference in the views of his friend.
But the gloom of Nicholas’s prospect was shortly cleared away; for he received an invitation from Mr. Forster, the husband of the colonel of the regiment, to accompany him to Brighton. This invaluable friend was a very young man, and very lately married. A resemblance in good humour and good spirits had recommended him and Nicholas to each other, and out of their three months’ acquaintance they had been intimate two.
The rapture of Nicholas on this occasion, his adoration of Mr. Forster, the delight of Mr. Bennet, and the mortification of Willie, are scarcely to be described. Wholly inattentive to his brother’s feelings, Nicholas flew about the house in restless ecstasy, calling for everyone’s congratulations, and laughing and talking with more violence than ever; whilst the luckless Willie continued in the parlour repined at his fate in terms as unreasonable as his accent was peevish.
“I cannot see why Mr. Forster should not ask me as well as Nicholas,” said he, “Though I am not his particular friend. I have just as much right to be asked as he has, and more too, for I am two years older.”
In vain did Jonathan attempt to make him reasonable, and Luke to make him resigned. As for Jonathan himself, this invitation was so far from exciting in him the same feelings as in his father and Nicholas, that he considered it as the death warrant of all possibility of common sense for the latter; and detestable as such a step must make his were it known, he could not help secretly advising his mother not to let him go. He represented to her all the improprieties of Nicholas’s general behaviour, the little advantage he could derive from the friendship of such a man as Mr. Forster, and the probability of his being yet more imprudent with such a companion at Brighton, where the temptations must be greater than at home. She heard him attentively, and then said:
“Nicholas will never be easy until he has exposed himself in some public place or other, and we can never expect him to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to his family as under the present circumstances.”
“If you were aware,” said Jonathan, “of the very great disadvantage to us all which must arise from the public notice of Nicholas’s unguarded and imprudent manner—nay, which has already arisen from it, I am sure you would judge differently in the affair.”
“Already arisen?” repeated Mrs. Bennet. “What, has he frightened away some of your lovers? Poor little Johnny! But do not be cast down. Such squeamish youths as cannot bear to be connected with a little absurdity are not worth a regret. Come, let me see the list of pitiful lasses who have been kept aloof by Nicholas’s folly.”
“Indeed you are mistaken. I have no such injuries to resent. It is not of particular, but of general evils, which I am now complaining. Our importance, our respectability in the world must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Nicholas’s character. Excuse me, for I must speak plainly. If you, my dear mother, will not take the trouble of checking his exuberant spirits, and of teaching him that his present pursuits are not to be the business of his life, he will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. His character will be fixed, and he will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made himself or his family ridiculous; a flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person; and, from the ignorance and emptiness of his mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which his rage for admiration will excite. In this danger Willie also is comprehended. He will follow wherever Nicholas leads. Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled! Oh! my dear mother, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their brothers will not be often involved in the disgrace?”
Mrs. Bennet saw that his whole heart was in the subject, and affectionately taking his hand said in reply:
“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Luke are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly brothers. We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Nicholas does not go to Brighton. Let him go, then. Colonel Forster is a sensible woman, and will keep him out of any real mischief; and he is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton he will be of less importance even as a common flirt than he has been here. The officers will find men better worth their notice. Let us hope, therefore, that his being there may teach him his own insignificance. At any rate, he cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock him up for the rest of his life.”
With this answer Jonathan was forced to be content; but his own opinion continued the same, and he left her disappointed and sorry. It was not in his nature, however, to increase his vexations by dwelling on them. He was confident of having performed his duty, and to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, was no part of his disposition.
Had Nicholas and his father known the substance of his conference with his mother, their indignation would hardly have found expression in their united volubility. In Nicholas’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. He saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. He saw himself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. He saw all the glories of the camp—its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, he saw himself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.
Had he known his brother sought to tear him from such prospects and such realities as these, what would have been his sensations? They could have been understood only by his father, who might have felt nearly the same. Nicholas’s going to Brighton was all that consoled him for his melancholy conviction of his wife’s never intending to go there herself.
But they were entirely ignorant of what had passed; and their raptures continued, with little intermission, to the very day of Nicholas’s leaving home.
Jonathan was now to see Miss Wickham for the last time. Having been frequently in company with her since his return, agitation was pretty well over; the agitations of formal partiality entirely so. He had even learnt to detect, in the very gentleness which had first delighted him, an affectation and a sameness to disgust and weary. In her present behaviour to himself, moreover, he had a fresh source of displeasure, for the inclination she soon testified of renewing those intentions which had marked the early part of their acquaintance could only serve, after what had since passed, to provoke him. He lost all concern for her in finding himself thus selected as the object of such idle and frivolous gallantry; and while he steadily repressed it, could not but feel the reproof contained in her believing, that however long, and for whatever cause, her attentions had been withdrawn, his vanity would be gratified, and his preference secured at any time by their renewal.
On the very last day of the regiment’s remaining at Meryton, she dined, with other of the officers, at Longbourn; and so little was Jonathan disposed to part from her in good humour, that on her making some inquiry as to the manner in which his time had passed at Hunsford, he mentioned Colonel Fitzwilliam’s and Miss Darcy’s having both spent three weeks at Rosings, and asked her, if she was acquainted with the former.
She looked surprised, displeased, alarmed; but with a moment’s recollection and a returning smile, replied, that she had formerly seen her often; and, after observing that she was a very ladylike woman, asked him how he had liked her. His answer was warmly in her favour. With an air of indifference she soon afterwards added:
“How long did you say she was at Rosings?”
“Nearly three weeks.”
“And you saw her frequently?”
“Yes, almost every day.”
“Her manners are very different from her cousin’s.”
“Yes, very different. But I think Miss Darcy improves upon acquaintance.”
“Indeed!” cried Miss Wickham with a look which did not escape him. “And pray, may I ask?—“ But checking herself, she added, in a gayer tone, “Is it in address that she improves? Has she deigned to add aught of civility to her ordinary style?—for I dare not hope,” she continued in a lower and more serious tone, “that she is improved in essentials.”
“Oh, no!” said Jonathan. “In essentials, I believe, she is very much what she ever was.”
While he spoke, Wickham looked as if scarcely knowing whether to rejoice over his words, or to distrust their meaning. There was a something in his countenance which made her listen with an apprehensive and anxious attention, while he added:
“When I said that she improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that her mind or her manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing her better, her disposition was better understood.”
Wickham’s alarm now appeared in a heightened complexion and agitated look; for a few minutes she was silent, till, shaking off her embarrassment, she turned to him again, and said in the gentlest of accents:
“You, who so well know my feeling towards Miss Darcy, will readily comprehend how sincerely I must rejoice that she is wise enough to assume even the appearance of what is right. Her pride, in that direction, may be of service, if not to herself, to many others, for it must only deter her from such foul misconduct as I have suffered by. I only fear that the sort of cautiousness to which you, I imagine, have been alluding, is merely adopted on her visits to her uncle, of whose good opinion and judgement she stands much in awe. Her fear of him has always operated, I know, when they were together; and a good deal is to be imputed to her wish of forwarding the match with Mr. de Bourgh, which I am certain she has very much at heart.”
Jonathan could not repress a smile at this, but he answered only by a slight inclination of the head. He saw that she wanted to engage him on the old subject of her grievances, and he was in no humour to indulge her. The rest of the evening passed with the appearance, on her side, of usual cheerfulness, but with no further attempt to distinguish Jonathan; and they parted at last with mutual civility, and possibly a mutual desire of never meeting again.
When the party broke up, Nicholas returned with Mr. Forster to Meryton, from whence they were to set out early the next morning. The separation between him and his family was rather noisy than pathetic. Willie was the only one who shed tears; but he did weep from vexation and envy. Mr. Bennet was diffuse in his good wishes for the felicity of his son, and impressive in his injunctions that he should not miss the opportunity of enjoying himself as much as possible—advice which there was every reason to believe would be well attended to; and in the clamorous happiness of Nicholas himself in bidding farewell, the more gentle adieus of his brothers were uttered without being heard.