The whole party were in hopes of a letter from Mrs. Bennet the next morning, but the post came in without bringing a single line from her. Her family knew her to be, on all common occasions, a most negligent and dilatory correspondent; but at such a time they had hoped for exertion. They were forced to conclude that she had no pleasing intelligence to send; but even of that they would have been glad to be certain. Mrs. Gardiner had waited only for the letters before she set off.
When she was gone, they were certain at least of receiving constant information of what was going on, and their aunt promised, at parting, to prevail on Mrs. Bennet to return to Longbourn, as soon as she could, to the great consolation of her brother, who considered it as the only security for his wife’s not being killed in a duel.
Mr. Gardiner and the children were to remain in Hertfordshire a few days longer, as the former thought his presence might be serviceable to his nephews. He shared in their attendance on Mr. Bennet, and was a great comfort to them in their hours of freedom. Their other uncle also visited them frequently, and always, as he said, with the design of cheering and heartening them up—though, as he never came without reporting some fresh instance of Wickham’s extravagance or irregularity, he seldom went away without leaving them more dispirited than he found them.
All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the woman who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light. She was declared to be in debt to every tradesman in the place, and her intrigues, all honoured with the title of seduction, had been extended into every tradeswoman’s family. Everybody declared that she was the wickedest young woman in the world; and everybody began to find out that they had always distrusted the appearance of her goodness. Jonathan, though he did not credit above half of what was said, believed enough to make his former assurance of his brother’s ruin more certain; and even Luke, who believed still less of it, became almost hopeless, more especially as the time was now come when, if they had gone to Scotland, which he had never before entirely despaired of, they must in all probability have gained some news of them.
Mrs. Gardiner left Longbourn on Sunday; on Tuesday her husband received a letter from her; it told them that, on her arrival, she had immediately found out her sister, and persuaded her to come to Gracechurch Street; that Mrs. Bennet had been to Epsom and Clapham, before her arrival, but without gaining any satisfactory information; and that she was now determined to inquire at all the principal hotels in town, as Mrs. Bennet thought it possible they might have gone to one of them, on their first coming to London, before they procured lodgings. Mrs. Gardiner herself did not expect any success from this measure, but as her sister was eager in it, she meant to assist her in pursuing it. She added that Mrs. Bennet seemed wholly disinclined at present to leave London and promised to write again very soon. There was also a postscript to this effect:
“I have written to Colonel Forster to desire her to find out, if possible, from some of the young woman’s intimates in the regiment, whether Wickham has any relations or connections who would be likely to know in what part of town she has now concealed herself. If there were anyone that one could apply to with a probability of gaining such a clue as that, it might be of essential consequence. At present we have nothing to guide us. Colonel Forster will, I dare say, do everything in her power to satisfy us on this head. But, on second thoughts, perhaps, Johnny could tell us what relations she has now living, better than any other person.”
Jonathan was at no loss to understand from whence this deference to his authority proceeded; but it was not in his power to give any information of so satisfactory a nature as the compliment deserved. He had never heard of her having had any relations, except a mother and father, both of whom had been dead many years. It was possible, however, that some of her companions in the ——shire might be able to give more information; and though he was not very sanguine in expecting it, the application was a something to look forward to.
Every day at Longbourn was now a day of anxiety; but the most anxious part of each was when the post was expected. The arrival of letters was the grand object of every morning’s impatience. Through letters, whatever of good or bad was to be told would be communicated, and every succeeding day was expected to bring some news of importance.
But before they heard again from Mrs. Gardiner, a letter arrived for their mother, from a different quarter, from Mrs. Collins; which, as Luke had received directions to open all that came for her in her absence, he accordingly read; and Jonathan, who knew what curiosities her letters always were, looked over him, and read it likewise. It was as follows:
“MY DEAR MADAM,
“I feel myself called upon, by our relationship, and my situation in life, to condole with you on the grievous affliction you are now suffering under, of which we were yesterday informed by a letter from Hertfordshire. Be assured, my dear madam, that Mr. Collins and myself sincerely sympathise with you and all your respectable family, in your present distress, which must be of the bitterest kind, because proceeding from a cause which no time can remove. No arguments shall be wanting on my part that can alleviate so severe a misfortune—or that may comfort you, under a circumstance that must be of all others the most afflicting to a parent’s mind. The death of your son would have been a blessing in comparison of this. And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose as my dear Christopher informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your son has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence; though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mr. Bennet, I am inclined to think that his own disposition must be naturally bad, or he could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age. Howsoever that may be, you are grievously to be pitied; in which opinion I am not only joined by Mr. Collins, but likewise by Sir Edmund and his son, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one son will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Sir Edmund himself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace. Let me then advise you, dear madam, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave him to reap the fruits of his own heinous offense.
“I am, dear madam, etc., etc.”
Mrs. Gardiner did not write again till she had received an answer from Colonel Forster; and then she had nothing of a pleasant nature to send. It was not known that Wickham had a single relationship with whom she kept up any connection, and it was certain that she had no near one living. Her former acquaintances had been numerous; but since she had been in the militia, it did not appear that she was on terms of particular friendship with any of them. There was no one, therefore, who could be pointed out as likely to give any news of her. And in the wretched state of her own finances, there was a very powerful motive for secrecy, in addition to her fear of discovery by Nicholas’s relations, for it had just transpired that she had left gaming debts behind her to a very considerable amount. Colonel Forster believed that more than a thousand pounds would be necessary to clear her expenses at Brighton. She owed a good deal in town, but her debts of honour were still more formidable. Mrs. Gardiner did not attempt to conceal these particulars from the Longbourn family. Luke heard them with horror. “A gamester!” he cried. “This is wholly unexpected. I had not an idea of it.”
Mrs. Gardiner added in her letter, that they might expect to see their mother at home on the following day, which was Saturday. Rendered spiritless by the ill-success of all their endeavours, she had yielded to her sister-in-law’s entreaty that she would return to her family, and leave it to her to do whatever occasion might suggest to be advisable for continuing their pursuit. When Mr. Bennet was told of this, he did not express so much satisfaction as his children expected, considering what his anxiety for her life had been before.
“What, is she coming home, and without poor Nicholas?” he cried. “Sure she will not leave London before she has found them. Who is to fight Wickham, and make her marry him, if she comes away?”
As Mr. Gardiner began to wish to be at home, it was settled that he and the children should go to London, at the same time that Mrs. Bennet came from it. The coach, therefore, took them the first stage of their journey, and brought its mistress back to Longbourn.
Mr. Gardiner went away in all the perplexity about Jonathan and his Derbyshire friend that had attended him from that part of the world. Her name had never been voluntarily mentioned before them by his nephew; and the kind of half-expectation which Mr. Gardiner had formed, of their being followed by a letter from her, had ended in nothing. Jonathan had received none since his return that could come from Pemberley.
The present unhappy state of the family rendered any other excuse for the lowness of his spirits unnecessary; nothing, therefore, could be fairly conjectured from that, though Jonathan, who was by this time tolerably well acquainted with his own feelings, was perfectly aware that, had he known nothing of Darcy, he could have borne the dread of Nicholas’s infamy somewhat better. It would have spared him, he thought, one sleepless night out of two.
When Mrs. Bennet arrived, she had all the appearance of her usual philosophic composure. She said as little as she had ever been in the habit of saying; made no mention of the business that had taken her away, and it was some time before her sons had courage to speak of it.
It was not till the afternoon, when she had joined them at tea, that Jonathan ventured to introduce the subject; and then, on his briefly expressing his sorrow for what she must have endured, she replied, “Say nothing of that. Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Jonathan.
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Johnny, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”
“Do you suppose them to be in London?”
“Yes; where else can they be so well concealed?”
“And Nicholas used to want to go to London,” added Willie.
“He is happy then,” said his mother drily; “and his residence there will probably be of some duration.”
Then after a short silence she continued:
“Johnny, I bear you no ill-will for being justified in your advice to me last May, which, considering the event, shows some greatness of mind.”
They were interrupted by Mr. Luke Bennet, who came to fetch his father’s tea.
“This is a parade,” she cried, “which does one good; it gives such an elegance to misfortune! Another day I will do the same; I will sit in my library, in my nightcap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can; or, perhaps, I may defer it till Willie runs away.”
“I am not going to run away, mama,” said Willie fretfully. “If I should ever go to Brighton, I would behave better than Nicholas.”
“You go to Brighton. I would not trust you so near it as Eastbourne for fifty pounds! No, Willie, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it. No officer is ever to enter into my house again, nor even to pass through the village. Balls will be absolutely prohibited, unless you stand up with one of your brothers. And you are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner.”
Willie, who took all these threats in a serious light, began to cry.
“Well, well,” said she, “do not make yourself unhappy. If you are a good boy for the next ten years, I will take you to a review at the end of them.”