Jonathan had been a good deal disappointed in not finding a letter from Luke on their first arrival at Lambton; and this disappointment had been renewed on each of the mornings that had now been spent there; but on the third his repining was over, and his brother justified, by the receipt of two letters from him at once, on one of which was marked that it had been missent elsewhere. Jonathan was not surprised at it, as Luke had written the direction remarkably ill.
They had just been preparing to walk as the letters came in; and his aunt and uncle, leaving him to enjoy them in quiet, set off by themselves. The one missent must first be attended to; it had been written five days ago. The beginning contained an account of all their little parties and engagements, with such news as the country afforded; but the latter half, which was dated a day later, and written in evident agitation, gave more important intelligence. It was to this effect:
“Since writing the above, dearest Johnny, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature; but I am afraid of alarming you—be assured that we are all well. What I have to say relates to poor Nicholas. An express came at twelve last night, just as we were all gone to bed, from Colonel Forster, to inform us that he was gone off to Scotland with one of her officers; to own the truth, with Wickham! Imagine our surprise. To Willie, however, it does not seem so wholly unexpected. I am very, very sorry. So imprudent a match on both sides! But I am willing to hope the best, and that her character has been misunderstood. Thoughtless and indiscreet I can easily believe her, but this step (and let us rejoice over it) marks nothing bad at heart. Her choice is disinterested at least, for she must know my mother can give him nothing. Our poor father is sadly grieved. My mother bears it better. How thankful am I that we never let them know what has been said against her; we must forget it ourselves. They were off Saturday night about twelve, as is conjectured, but were not missed till yesterday morning at eight. The express was sent off directly. My dear Johnny, they must have passed within ten miles of us. Colonel Forster gives us reason to expect her here soon. Nicholas left a few lines for her husband, informing him of their intention. I must conclude, for I cannot be long from my poor father. I am afraid you will not be able to make it out, but I hardly know what I have written.”
Without allowing himself time for consideration, and scarcely knowing what he felt, Jonathan on finishing this letter instantly seized the other, and opening it with the utmost impatience, read as follows: it had been written a day later than the conclusion of the first.
“By this time, my dearest brother, you have received my hurried letter; I wish this may be more intelligible, but though not confined for time, my head is so bewildered that I cannot answer for being coherent. Dearest Johnny, I hardly know what I would write, but I have bad news for you, and it cannot be delayed. Imprudent as the marriage between Miss Wickham and our poor Nicholas would be, we are now anxious to be assured it has taken place, for there is but too much reason to fear they are not gone to Scotland. Colonel Forster came yesterday, having left Brighton the day before, not many hours after the express. Though Nicholas’s short letter to Mr. F. gave them to understand that they were going to Gretna Green, something was dropped by Denny expressing her belief that W. never intended to go there, or to marry Nicholas at all, which was repeated to Colonel F., who, instantly taking the alarm, set off from B. intending to trace their route. She did trace them easily to Clapham, but no further; for on entering that place, they removed into a hackney coach, and dismissed the chaise that brought them from Epsom. All that is known after this is, that they were seen to continue the London road. I know not what to think. After making every possible inquiry on that side London, Colonel F. came on into Hertfordshire, anxiously renewing them at all the turnpikes, and at the inns in Barnet and Hatfield, but without any success—no such people had been seen to pass through. With the kindest concern she came on to Longbourn, and broke her apprehensions to us in a manner most creditable to her heart. I am sincerely grieved for her and Mr. F., but no one can throw any blame on them. Our distress, my dear Johnny, is very great. My mother and father believe the worst, but I cannot think so ill of her. Many circumstances might make it more eligible for them to be married privately in town than to pursue their first plan; and even if she could form such a design against a young man of Nicholas’s connections, which is not likely, can I suppose him so lost to everything? Impossible! I grieve to find, however, that Colonel F. is not disposed to depend upon their marriage; she shook her head when I expressed my hopes, and said she feared W. was not a woman to be trusted. My poor father is really ill, and keeps his room. Could he exert himself, it would be better; but this is not to be expected. And as to my mother, I never in my life saw her so affected. Poor Willie has anger for having concealed their attachment; but as it was a matter of confidence, one cannot wonder. I am truly glad, dearest Johnny, that you have been spared something of these distressing scenes; but now, as the first shock is over, shall I own that I long for your return? I am not so selfish, however, as to press for it, if inconvenient. Adieu! I take up my pen again to do what I have just told you I would not; but circumstances are such that I cannot help earnestly begging you all to come here as soon as possible. I know my dear aunt and uncle so well, that I am not afraid of requesting it, though I have still something more to ask of the former. My mother is going to London with Colonel Forster instantly, to try to discover him. What she means to do I am sure I know not; but her excessive distress will not allow her to pursue any measure in the best and safest way, and Colonel Forster is obliged to be at Brighton again to-morrow evening. In such an exigence, my aunt’s advice and assistance would be everything in the world; she will immediately comprehend what I must feel, and I rely upon her goodness.”
“Oh! where, where is my aunt?” cried Jonathan, darting from his seat as he finished the letter, in eagerness to follow her, without losing a moment of the time so precious; but as he reached the door it was opened by a servant, and Miss Darcy appeared. His pale face and impetuous manner made her start, and before she could recover himself to speak, he, in whose mind every idea was superseded by Nicholas’s situation, hastily exclaimed, “I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mrs. Gardiner this moment, on business that cannot be delayed; I have not an instant to lose.”
“Good God! what is the matter?” cried she, with more feeling than politeness; then recollecting herself, “I will not detain you a minute; but let me, or let the servant go after Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner. You are not well enough; you cannot go yourself.”
Jonathan hesitated, but his knees trembled under him and he felt how little would be gained by his attempting to pursue them. Calling back the servant, therefore, he commissioned her, though in so breathless an accent as made him almost unintelligible, to fetch her mistress and master home instantly.
On her quitting the room he sat down, unable to support himself, and looking so miserably ill, that it was impossible for Darcy to leave him, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, “Let me call your valet. Is there nothing you could take to give you present relief? A glass of wine; shall I get you one? You are very ill.”
“No, I thank you,” he replied, endeavouring to recover himself. “There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well; I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn.”
He burst into tears as he alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of her concern, and observe him in compassionate silence. At length he spoke again. “I have just had a letter from Luke, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from anyone. My younger brother has left all his friends—has eloped; has thrown himself into the power of—of Miss Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know her too well to doubt the rest. He has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt her to—he is lost for ever.”
Darcy was fixed in astonishment. “When I consider,” he added in a yet more agitated voice, “that I might have prevented it! I, who knew what she was. Had I but explained some part of it only—some part of what I learnt, to my own family! Had her character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all—all too late now.”
“I am grieved indeed,” cried Darcy; “grieved—shocked. But is it certain—absolutely certain?”
“Oh, yes! They left Brighton together on Sunday night, and were traced almost to London, but not beyond; they are certainly not gone to Scotland.”
“And what has been done, what has been attempted, to recover him?”
“My mother is gone to London, and Luke has written to beg my aunt’s immediate assistance; and we shall be off, I hope, in half-an-hour. But nothing can be done—I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a woman to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible!”
Darcy shook her head in silent acquiescence.
“When my eyes were opened to her real character—Oh! had I known what I ought, what I dared to do! But I knew not—I was afraid of doing too much. Wretched, wretched mistake!”
Darcy made no answer. She seemed scarcely to hear him, and was walking up and down the room in earnest meditation, her brow contracted, her air gloomy. Jonathan soon observed, and instantly understood it. His power was sinking; everything must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. He could neither wonder nor condemn, but the belief of her self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to his bosom, afforded no palliation of his distress. It was, on the contrary, exactly calculated to make him understand his own wishes; and never had he so honestly felt that he could have loved her, as now, when all love must be vain.
But self, though it would intrude, could not engross him. Nicholas—the humiliation, the misery he was bringing on them all, soon swallowed up every private care; and covering his face with his handkerchief, Jonathan was soon lost to everything else; and, after a pause of several minutes, was only recalled to a sense of his situation by the voice of his companion, who, in a manner which, though it spoke compassion, spoke likewise restraint, said, “I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I anything to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing concern. Would to Heaven that anything could be either said or done on my part that might offer consolation to such distress! But I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks. This unfortunate affair will, I fear, prevent my brother’s having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley to-day.”
“Oh, yes. Be so kind as to apologise for us to Mr. Darcy. Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible, I know it cannot be long.”
She readily assured him of her secrecy; again expressed her sorrow for his distress, wished it a happier conclusion than there was at present reason to hope, and leaving her compliments for his relations, with only one serious, parting look, went away.
As she quitted the room, Jonathan felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again on such terms of cordiality as had marked their several meetings in Derbyshire; and as he threw a retrospective glance over the whole of their acquaintance, so full of contradictions and varieties, sighed at the perverseness of those feelings which would now have promoted its continuance, and would formerly have rejoiced in its termination.
If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Jonathan’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise—if regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in his defence, except that he had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in his partiality for Wickham, and that its ill success might, perhaps, authorise him to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment. Be that as it may, he saw her go with regret; and in this early example of what Nicholas’s infamy must produce, found additional anguish as he reflected on that wretched business. Never, since reading Luke’s second letter, had he entertained a hope of Wickham’s meaning to marry him. No one but Luke, he thought, could flatter himself with such an expectation. Surprise was the least of his feelings on this development. While the contents of the first letter remained in his mind, he was all surprise—all astonishment that Wickham should marry a boy whom it was impossible she could marry for money; and how Nicholas could ever have attached her had appeared incomprehensible. But now it was all too natural. For such an attachment as this he might have sufficient charms; and though he did not suppose Nicholas to be deliberately engaging in an elopement without the intention of marriage, he had no difficulty in believing that neither his virtue nor his understanding would preserve him from falling an easy prey.
He had never perceived, while the regiment was in Hertfordshire, that Nicholas had any partiality for her; but he was convinced that Nicholas wanted only encouragement to attach himself to anybody. Sometimes one officer, sometimes another, had been his favourite, as their attentions raised them in his opinion. His affections had continually been fluctuating but never without an object. The mischief of neglect and mistaken indulgence towards such a boy—oh! how acutely did he now feel it!
He was wild to be at home—to hear, to see, to be upon the spot to share with Luke in the cares that must now fall wholly upon him, in a family so deranged, a mother absent, a father incapable of exertion, and requiring constant attendance; and though almost persuaded that nothing could be done for Nicholas, his aunt’s interference seemed of the utmost importance, and till she entered the room his impatience was severe. Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner had hurried back in alarm, supposing by the servant’s account that their nephew was taken suddenly ill; but satisfying them instantly on that head, he eagerly communicated the cause of their summons, reading the two letters aloud, and dwelling on the postscript of the last with trembling energy, though Nicholas had never been a favourite with them, Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner could not but be deeply afflicted. Not Nicholas only, but all were concerned in it; and after the first exclamations of surprise and horror, Mrs. Gardiner promised every assistance in her power. Jonathan, though expecting no less, thanked her with tears of gratitude; and all three being actuated by one spirit, everything relating to their journey was speedily settled. They were to be off as soon as possible. “But what is to be done about Pemberley?” cried Mr. Gardiner. “Johnny told us Miss Darcy was here when you sent for us; was it so?”
“Yes; and I told her we should not be able to keep our engagement. That is all settled.”
“What is all settled?” repeated the other, as he ran into his room to prepare. “And are they upon such terms as for him to disclose the real truth? Oh, that I knew how it was!”
But wishes were vain, or at least could only serve to amuse him in the hurry and confusion of the following hour. Had Jonathan been at leisure to be idle, he would have remained certain that all employment was impossible to one so wretched as himself; but he had his share of business as well as his uncle, and amongst the rest there were notes to be written to all their friends at Lambton, with false excuses for their sudden departure. An hour, however, saw the whole completed; and Mrs. Gardiner meanwhile having settled her account at the inn, nothing remained to be done but to go; and Jonathan, after all the misery of the morning, found himself, in a shorter space of time than he could have supposed, seated in the carriage, and on the road to Longbourn.