While visiting Kitty and Lydia in London Elizabeth and Jane learned some news about Mr. Wickham.
‘There is no danger of Wickham’s marrying Mary King—there’s for you! She is gone down to her uncle at Liverpool; gone to stay. Wickham is safe.’said Lydia.
‘And Mary King is safe!’ added Elizabeth; ‘safe from a connection imprudent as to fortune.’
‘She is a great fool for going away, if she liked him.’
‘But I hope there is no strong attachment on either side,’ said Jane.
‘I am sure there is not on his. I will answer for it, he never cared three straws about her. Who could about such a nasty little freckled thing?’
Lydia received an invitation from Mrs. Forster, the wife of the colonel of the regiment, to accompany her to Brighton. This invaluable friend was a very young woman, and very lately married. A resemblance in good-humour and good spirits had recommended her and Lydia to each other, and out of their three months’ acquaintance they had been intimate two.
‘Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances’ said Mr. Bennet.
‘If you were aware,’ said Elizabeth, ‘of the very great disadvantage to us all, which must arise from the public notice of Lydia’s unguarded and imprudent manner, nay, which has already arisen from it, I am sure you would judge differently in the affair.’
Elizabeth, as she, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!
‘And of this place,’ thought she, ‘I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might have now been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcomed to them as visitors my uncle and aunt. But no,’ recollecting herself, ‘that could never be; my uncle and aunt would have been lost to me; I should not have been allowed to invite them.’
This was a lucky recollection—it saved her from something like regret.
She longed to inquire of the housekeeper whether her master were really absent, but had not courage for it. At length, however, the question was asked by her uncle; and she turned away with alarm, while Mrs. Reynolds replied that he was; adding, ‘But we expect him to-morrow, with a large party of friends.’ How rejoiced was Elizabeth that their own journey had not by any circumstance been delayed a day.
Mrs. Reynolds showed them the house and Elizabeth was surprised to learn some new things of Mr. Darcy:
‘I have never had a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him ever since he was four years old.’
‘He is the best landlord, and the best master,’ said she, ‘that ever lived. Not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men.’
‘In what an amiable light does this place him!’ thought Elizabeth.
They went for a walk in the park later. As they walked across the lawn towards the river, Elizabeth turned back to look again; her uncle and aunt stopped also: and while the former was conjecturing as to the date of the building, the owner of it himself suddenly came forward from the road which led behind it to the stables.
They stood a little aloof while he was talking to their niece, who, astonished and confused, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and knew not what answer she returned to his civil inquiries after her family. Amazed at the alteration of his manner since they last parted, every sentence that he uttered was increasing her embarrassment; and every idea of the impropriety of her being found there recurring to her mind, the few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of her life. Nor did he seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his inquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.
At length every idea seemed to fail him; and after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself, and took leave.
The others then joined her, and expressed their admiration of his figure; but Elizabeth heard not a word, and, wholly engrossed by her own feelings, followed them in silence. She was overpowered by shame and vexation. Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world! How strange must it appear to him! In what a disgraceful light might it not strike so vain a man! It might seem as if she had purposely thrown herself in his way again!
They entered the woods, and, bidding adieu to the river for a while, ascended some of the higher ground; whence, in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, with the long range of woods overspreading many, and occasionally part of the stream.
Whilst wandering on in this slow manner, they were again surprised, and Elizabeth’s astonishment was quite equal to what it had been at first, by the sight of Mr. Darcy approaching them, and at no great distance.
Mrs. Gardiner was standing a little behind; and on her pausing, he asked her if she would do him the honour of introducing him to her friends.
The introduction, however, was immediately made; and as she named their relationship to herself, she stole a sly look at him, to see how he bore it; and was not without the expectation of his decamping as fast as he could from such disgraceful companions. That he was surprised by the connection was evident: he sustained it, however, with fortitude: and, so far from going away, turned back with them, and entered into conversation with Mr. Gardiner. Elizabeth could not but be pleased, could not but triumph. It was consoling that he should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush.
Mrs. Gardiner, who was walking arm in arm with Elizabeth, gave her a look expressive of her wonder. Elizabeth said nothing, but it gratified her exceedingly; the compliment must be all for herself.
Her astonishment, however, was extreme; and continually was she repeating, ‘Why is he so altered?
From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change as this. It is impossible that he should still love me.’
He acknowledged the truth of it all; and said that business with his steward had occasioned his coming forward a few hours before the rest of the party with whom he had been travelling. ‘They will join me early to-morrow, he continued, ‘and among them are some who will claim an acquaintance with you,—Mr. Bingley and his sisters.’
Elizabeth answered only by a slight bow. Her thoughts were instantly driven back to the time when Mr. Bingley’s name had been last mentioned between them; and if she might judge from his complexion, his mind was not very differently engaged.
‘There is also one other person in the party,’ he continued after a pause, ‘who more particularly wishes to be known to you. Will you allow me, or do I ask too much to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?’
They now walked on in silence; each of them deep in thought. Elizabeth was not comfortable; that was impossible; but she was flattered and pleased. His wish of introducing his sister to her was a compliment of the highest kind. They soon outstripped the others; and when they had reached the carriage, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were half a quarter of a mile behind.
To be continued next Tuesday!