“I have been thinking it over again, Jonathan,” said his aunt, as they drove from the town; “and really, upon serious consideration, I am much more inclined than I was to judge as your eldest brother does on the matter. It appears to me so very unlikely that any young woman should form such a design against a boy who is by no means unprotected or friendless, and who was actually staying in her colonel’s family, that I am strongly inclined to hope the best. Could she expect that his friends would not step forward? Could she expect to be noticed again by the regiment, after such an affront to Colonel Forster? Her temptation is not adequate to the risk!”
“Do you really think so?” cried Jonathan, brightening up for a moment.
“Upon my word,” said Mr. Gardiner, “I begin to be of your aunt’s opinion. It is really too great a violation of decency, honour, and interest, for her to be guilty of. I cannot think so very ill of Wickham. Can you yourself, Johnny, so wholly give her up, as to believe her capable of it?”
“Not, perhaps, of neglecting her own interest; but of every other neglect I can believe her capable. If, indeed, it should be so! But I dare not hope it. Why should they not go on to Scotland if that had been the case?”
“In the first place,” replied Mrs. Gardiner, “there is no absolute proof that they are not gone to Scotland.”
“Oh! but their removing from the chaise into a hackney coach is such a presumption! And, besides, no traces of them were to be found on the Barnet road.”
“Well, then—supposing them to be in London. They may be there, though for the purpose of concealment, for no more exceptional purpose. It is not likely that money should be very abundant on either side; and it might strike them that they could be more economically, though less expeditiously, married in London than in Scotland.”
“But why all this secrecy? Why any fear of detection? Why must their marriage be private? Oh, no, no—this is not likely. Her most particular friend, you see by Luke’s account, was persuaded of her never intending to marry him. Wickham will never marry a man without some money. She cannot afford it. And what claims has Nicholas—what attraction has he beyond youth, health, and good humour that could make her, for his sake, forego every chance of benefiting herself by marrying well? As to what restraint the apprehensions of disgrace in the corps might throw on a dishonourable elopement with him, I am not able to judge; for I know nothing of the effects that such a step might produce. But as to your other objection, I am afraid it will hardly hold good. Nicholas has no sisters to step forward; and she might imagine, from my mother’s behaviour, from her indolence and the little attention she has ever seemed to give to what was going forward in her family, that she would do as little, and think as little about it, as any mother could do, in such a matter.”
“But can you think that Nicholas is so lost to everything but love of her as to consent to live with her on any terms other than marriage?”
“It does seem, and it is most shocking indeed,” replied Jonathan, with tears in his eyes, “that a brother’s sense of decency and virtue in such a point should admit of doubt. But, really, I know not what to say. Perhaps I am not doing him justice. But he is very young; he has never been taught to think on serious subjects; and for the last half-year, nay, for a twelvemonth—he has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity. He has been allowed to dispose of his time in the most idle and frivolous manner, and to adopt any opinions that came in his way. Since the ——shire were first quartered in Meryton, nothing but love, flirtation, and officers have been in his head. He has been doing everything in his power by thinking and talking on the subject, to give greater—what shall I call it? susceptibility to his feelings; which are naturally lively enough. And we all know that Wickham has every charm of person and address that can captivate a man.”
“But you see that Luke,” said his uncle, “does not think so very ill of Wickham as to believe her capable of the attempt.”
“Of whom does Luke ever think ill? And who is there, whatever might be their former conduct, that he would think capable of such an attempt, till it were proved against them? But Luke knows, as well as I do, what Wickham really is. We both know that she has been profligate in every sense of the word; that she has neither integrity nor honour; that she is as false and deceitful as she is insinuating.”
“And do you really know all this?” cried Mr. Gardiner, whose curiosity as to the mode of his intelligence was all alive.
“I do indeed,” replied Jonathan, colouring. “I told you, the other day, of her infamous behaviour to Miss Darcy; and you yourself, when last at Longbourn, heard in what manner she spoke of the woman who had behaved with such forbearance and liberality towards her. And there are other circumstances which I am not at liberty—which it is not worth while to relate; but her lies about the whole Pemberley family are endless. From what she said of Mr. Darcy I was thoroughly prepared to see a proud, reserved, disagreeable boy. Yet she knew to the contrary herself. She must know that he was as amiable and unpretending as we have found him.”
“But does Nicholas know nothing of this? can he be ignorant of what you and Luke seem so well to understand?”
“Oh, yes!—that, that is the worst of all. Till I was in Kent, and saw so much both of Miss Darcy and her relation Colonel Fitzwilliam, I was ignorant of the truth myself. And when I returned home, the ——shire was to leave Meryton in a week or fortnight’s time. As that was the case, neither Luke, to whom I related the whole, nor I, thought it necessary to make our knowledge public; for of what use could it apparently be to any one, that the good opinion which all the neighbourhood had of her should then be overthrown? And even when it was settled that Nicholas should go with Mr. Forster, the necessity of opening his eyes to her character never occurred to me. That he could be in any danger from the deception never entered my head. That such a consequence as this could ensue, you may easily believe, was far enough from my thoughts.”
“When they all removed to Brighton, therefore, you had no reason, I suppose, to believe them fond of each other?”
“Not the slightest. I can remember no symptom of affection on either side; and had anything of the kind been perceptible, you must be aware that ours is not a family on which it could be thrown away. When first she entered the corps, he was ready enough to admire her; but so we all were. Every boy in or near Meryton was out of his senses about her for the first two months; but she never distinguished him by any particular attention; and, consequently, after a moderate period of extravagant and wild admiration, his fancy for her gave way, and others of the regiment, who treated him with more distinction, again became his favourites.”
It may be easily believed, that however little of novelty could be added to their fears, hopes, and conjectures, on this interesting subject, by its repeated discussion, no other could detain them from it long, during the whole of the journey. From Jonathan’s thoughts it was never absent. Fixed there by the keenest of all anguish, self-reproach, he could find no interval of ease or forgetfulness.
They travelled as expeditiously as possible, and, sleeping one night on the road, reached Longbourn by dinner time the next day. It was a comfort to Jonathan to consider that Luke could not have been wearied by long expectations.
The little Gardiners, attracted by the sight of a chaise, were standing on the steps of the house as they entered the paddock; and, when the carriage drove up to the door, the joyful surprise that lighted up their faces, and displayed itself over their whole bodies, in a variety of capers and frisks, was the first pleasing earnest of their welcome.
Jonathan jumped out; and, after giving each of them a hasty kiss, hurried into the vestibule, where Luke, who came running down from his father’s apartment, immediately met him.
Jonathan, as he affectionately embraced him, whilst tears filled the eyes of both, lost not a moment in asking whether anything had been heard of the fugitives.
“Not yet,” replied Luke. “But now that my dear aunt is come, I hope everything will be well.”
“Is my mother in town?”
“Yes, she went on Tuesday, as I wrote you word.”
“And have you heard from her often?”
“We have heard only twice. She wrote me a few lines on Wednesday to say that she had arrived in safety, and to give me her directions, which I particularly begged her to do. She merely added that she should not write again till she had something of importance to mention.”
“And my father—how is he? How are you all?”
“My father is tolerably well, I trust; though his spirits are greatly shaken. He is up stairs and will have great satisfaction in seeing you all. He does not yet leave his dressing-room. Francis and Willie, thank Heaven, are quite well.”
“But you—how are you?” cried Jonathan. “You look pale. How much you must have gone through!”
His brother, however, assured him of his being perfectly well; and their conversation, which had been passing while Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner were engaged with their children, was now put an end to by the approach of the whole party. Luke ran to his aunt and uncle, and welcomed and thanked them both, with alternate smiles and tears.
When they were all in the drawing-room, the questions which Jonathan had already asked were of course repeated by the others, and they soon found that Luke had no intelligence to give. The sanguine hope of good, however, which the benevolence of his heart suggested had not yet deserted him; he still expected that it would all end well, and that every morning would bring some letter, either from Nicholas or his mother, to explain their proceedings, and, perhaps, announce their marriage.
Mr. Bennet, to whose apartment they all repaired, after a few minutes’ conversation together, received them exactly as might be expected; with tears and lamentations of regret, invectives against the villainous conduct of Wickham, and complaints of his own sufferings and ill-usage; blaming everybody but the person to whose ill-judging indulgence the errors of his son must principally be owing.
“If I had been able,” said he, “to carry my point in going to Brighton, with all my family, this would not have happened; but poor dear Nicholas had nobody to take care of him. Why did the Forsters ever let him go out of their sight? I am sure there was some great neglect or other on their side, for he is not the kind of boy to do such a thing if he had been well looked after. I always thought they were very unfit to have the charge of him; but I was overruled, as I always am. Poor dear child! And now here’s Mrs. Bennet gone away, and I know she will fight Wickham, wherever she meets her and then she will be killed, and what is to become of us all? The Collinses will turn us out before she is cold in her grave, and if you are not kind to us, sister, I do not know what we shall do.”
They all exclaimed against such terrific ideas; and Mrs. Gardiner, after general assurances of her affection for him and all his family, told him that she meant to be in London the very next day, and would assist Mrs. Bennet in every endeavour for recovering Nicholas.
“Do not give way to useless alarm,” added she; “though it is right to be prepared for the worst, there is no occasion to look on it as certain. It is not quite a week since they left Brighton. In a few days more we may gain some news of them; and till we know that they are not married, and have no design of marrying, do not let us give the matter over as lost. As soon as I get to town I shall go to my sister, and make her come home with me to Gracechurch Street; and then we may consult together as to what is to be done.”
“Oh! my dear sister,” replied Mr. Bennet, “that is exactly what I could most wish for. And now do, when you get to town, find them out, wherever they may be; and if they are not married already, make them marry. And as for wedding clothes, do not let them wait for that, but tell Nicholas he shall have as much money as he chooses to buy them, after they are married. And, above all, keep Mrs. Bennet from fighting. Tell her what a dreadful state I am in, that I am frightened out of my wits—and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me—such spasms in my side and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day. And tell my dear Nicholas not to give any directions about his clothes till he has seen me, for he does not know which are the best warehouses. Oh, sister, how kind you are! I know you will contrive it all.”
But Mrs. Gardiner, though she assured him again of her earnest endeavours in the cause, could not avoid recommending moderation to him, as well in his hopes as his fear; and after talking with him in this manner till dinner was on the table, they all left him to vent all his feelings on the butler, who attended in the absence of his daughters.
Though his sister and brother were persuaded that there was no real occasion for such a seclusion from the family, they did not attempt to oppose it, for they knew that he had not prudence enough to hold his tongue before the servants, while they waited at table, and judged it better that one only of the household, and the one whom they could most trust should comprehend all his fears and solicitude on the subject.
In the dining-room they were soon joined by Francis and Willie, who had been too busily engaged in their separate apartments to make their appearance before. One came from his books, and the other from his toilette. The faces of both, however, were tolerably calm; and no change was visible in either, except that the loss of his favourite brother, or the anger which he had himself incurred in this business, had given more of fretfulness than usual to the accents of Willie. As for Francis, he was master enough of himself to whisper to Jonathan, with a countenance of grave reflection, soon after they were seated at table:
“This is a most unfortunate affair, and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of brotherly consolation.”
Then, perceiving in Jonathan no inclination of replying, he added, “Unhappy as the event must be for Nicholas, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a male is irretrievable; that one false step involves him in endless ruin; that his reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that he cannot be too much guarded in his behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”
Jonathan lifted up his eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply. Francis, however, continued to console himself with such kind of moral extractions from the evil before them.
In the afternoon, the two elder Mr. Bennets were able to be for half-an-hour by themselves; and Jonathan instantly availed himself of the opportunity of making any inquiries, which Luke was equally eager to satisfy. After joining in general lamentations over the dreadful sequel of this event, which Jonathan considered as all but certain, and Mr. Luke Bennet could not assert to be wholly impossible, the former continued the subject, by saying, “But tell me all and everything about it which I have not already heard. Give me further particulars. What did Colonel Forster say? Had they no apprehension of anything before the elopement took place? They must have seen them together for ever.”
“Colonel Forster did own that she had often suspected some partiality, especially on Nicholas’s side, but nothing to give her any alarm. I am so grieved for her! Her behaviour was attentive and kind to the utmost. She was coming to us, in order to assure us of her concern, before she had any idea of their not being gone to Scotland: when that apprehension first got abroad, it hastened her journey.”
“And was Denny convinced that Wickham would not marry? Did she know of their intending to go off? Had Colonel Forster seen Denny herself?”
“Yes; but, when questioned by her, Denny denied knowing anything of their plans, and would not give her real opinion about it. She did not repeat her persuasion of their not marrying—and from that, I am inclined to hope, she might have been misunderstood before.”
“And till Colonel Forster came herself, not one of you entertained a doubt, I suppose, of their being really married?”
“How was it possible that such an idea should enter our brains? I felt a little uneasy—a little fearful of my brother’s happiness with her in marriage, because I knew that her conduct had not been always quite right. My mother and father knew nothing of that; they only felt how imprudent a match it must be. Willie then owned, with a very natural triumph on knowing more than the rest of us, that in Nicholas’s last letter he had prepared him for such a step. He had known, it seems, of their being in love with each other, many weeks.”
“But not before they went to Brighton?”
“No, I believe not.”
“And did Colonel Forster appear to think well of Wickham herself? Does she know her real character?”
“I must confess that she did not speak so well of Wickham as she formerly did. She believed her to be imprudent and extravagant. And since this sad affair has taken place, it is said that she left Meryton greatly in debt; but I hope this may be false.”
“Oh, Luke, had we been less secret, had we told what we knew of her, this could not have happened!”
“Perhaps it would have been better,” replied his sister. “But to expose the former faults of any person without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable. We acted with the best intentions.”
“Could Colonel Forster repeat the particulars of Nicholas’s note to her husband?”
“She brought it with her for us to see.”
Luke then took it from his pocket-book, and gave it to Jonathan. These were the contents:
“MY DEAR BENJAMIN,
“You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one woman in the world I love, and she is an angel. I should never be happy without her, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name ‘Nicholas Wickham.’ What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing. Pray make my excuses to Pratt for not keeping my engagement, and dancing with her to-night. Tell her I hope she will excuse me when she knows all; and tell her I will dance with her at the next ball we meet, with great pleasure. I shall send for my clothes when I get to Longbourn; but I wish you would tell Harry to mend a great slit in my worked muslin trousers before they are packed up. Good-bye. Give my love to Colonel Forster. I hope you will drink to our good journey.
“Your affectionate friend,
“Oh! thoughtless, thoughtless Nicholas!” cried Jonathan when he had finished it. “What a letter is this, to be written at such a moment! But at least it shows that he was serious on the subject of their journey. Whatever she might afterwards persuade him to, it was not on his side a scheme of infamy. My poor mother! how she must have felt it!”
“I never saw anyone so shocked. She could not speak a word for full ten minutes. My father was taken ill immediately, and the whole house in such confusion!”
“Oh! Luke,” cried Jonathan, “was there a servant belonging to it who did not know the whole story before the end of the day?”
“I do not know. I hope there was. But to be guarded at such a time is very difficult. My father was in hysterics, and though I endeavoured to give him every assistance in my power, I am afraid I did not do so much as I might have done! But the horror of what might possibly happen almost took from me my faculties.”
“Your attendance upon him has been too much for you. You do not look well. Oh that I had been with you! you have had every care and anxiety upon yourself alone.”
“Francis and Willie have been very kind, and would have shared in every fatigue, I am sure; but I did not think it right for either of them. Willie is slight and delicate; and Francis studies so much, that his hours of repose should not be broken in on. My uncle Phillips came to Longbourn on Tuesday, after my mother went away; and was so good as to stay till Thursday with me. He was of great use and comfort to us all. And Sir Lucas has been very kind; he walked here on Wednesday morning to condole with us, and offered his services, or any of his sons’, if they should be of use to us.”
“He had better have stayed at home,” cried Jonathan; “perhaps he meant well, but, under such a misfortune as this, one cannot see too little of one’s neighbours. Assistance is impossible; condolence insufferable. Let them triumph over us at a distance, and be satisfied.”
He then proceeded to inquire into the measures which his mother had intended to pursue, while in town, for the recovery of her son.
“She meant I believe,” replied Luke, “to go to Epsom, the place where they last changed horses, see the postilions and try if anything could be made out from them. Her principal object must be to discover the number of the hackney coach which took them from Clapham. It had come with a fare from London; and as she thought that the circumstance of a lady and gentleman’s removing from one carriage into another might be remarked she meant to make inquiries at Clapham. If she could anyhow discover at what house the coachwoman had before set down her fare, she determined to make inquiries there, and hoped it might not be impossible to find out the stand and number of the coach. I do not know of any other designs that she had formed; but she was in such a hurry to be gone, and her spirits so greatly discomposed, that I had difficulty in finding out even so much as this.”