The two first dances, however, brought a return of distress: they were dances of mortification. Mr. Collins, awkward and solemn, apologizing instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. The moment of her release from him was ecstasy. She danced next with an officer, and had the refreshment of talking of Wickham, and of hearing that he was universally liked.
When those dances were over, she returned to Charlotte Lucas, and was in conversation with her, when she found herself suddenly addressed by Mr. Darcy, who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him. He walked away again immediately, and she was left to fret over her own want of presence of mind: Charlotte tried to console her.
While dancing they stood for some time without speaking a word; and Elizabeth began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and, at first, was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time, with—
‘It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.’
He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.
‘Very well; that will do for the present. Perhaps, by and by, I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones; but now we may be silent.’
‘Do you talk by rule, then, while you are dancing?’
‘Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together; and yet, for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible.’
‘Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?’ ‘Both,’ replied Elizabeth archly; ‘for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.’
‘This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure,’ said he. ‘How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait, undoubtedly.’
‘I must not decide on my own performance.’
He made no answer, and they were again silent till they had gone down the dance, when he asked her if she and her sisters did not very often walk to Meryton. She answered in the affirmative; and, unable to resist the temptation, added, ‘When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance.’
The effect was immediate. A deeper shade of hauteur overspread his features, but he said not a word; and Elizabeth, though blaming herself for her own weakness, could not go on. At length Darcy spoke, and in a constrained manner said,—
‘He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship,’ replied Elizabeth, with emphasis, ‘and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life.’
Darcy made no answer, and seemed desirous or changing the subject.
‘I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave;—that your resentment, once created, was unappeasable. You are very cautions, I suppose, as to its being created?’
‘I am,’ said he, with a firm voice.
‘And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?’
‘I hope not.’
‘It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.’
‘May I ask to what these questions tend?’
‘Merely to the illustration of your character,’ said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. ‘I’m trying to make it out.’
‘And what is your success?’
She shook her head. ‘I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.’
‘So, Miss Eliza, I hear you are quite delighted with George Wickham? Your sister has been talking to me about him, and asking me a thousand questions; and I find that the young man forgot to tell you, among his other communications, that he was the son of old Wickham, the late Mr. Darcy’s steward. Let me recommend you, however, as a friend, not to give implicit confidence to all his assertions; for, as to Mr. Darcy’s using him ill, it is perfectly false: for, on the contrary, he has been always remarkably kind to him, though George Wickham has treated Mr. Darcy in a most infamous manner. I do not know the particulars, but I know very well that Mr. Darcy is not in the least to blame; that he cannot bear to hear George Wickham mentioned; and that though my brother thought he could not well avoid including him in his invitation to the officers, he was excessively glad to find that he had taken himself out of the way.
His coming into the country at all is a most insolent thing, indeed, and I wonder how he could presume to do it. I pity you, Miss Eliza, for this discovery of your favourite’s guilt; but really, considering his descent, one could not except much better.’
‘His guilt and his descent appear, by your account, to be the same,’ said Elizabeth, angrily; ‘for I have heard you accuse him of nothing worse than of being the son of Mr. Darcy’s steward, and of that, I can assure you, he informed me himself.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ replied Miss Bingley, turning away with a sneer. ‘Excuse my interference; it was kindly meant.’
‘Insolent girl!’ said Elizabeth to herself. ‘You are much mistaken if you expect to influence me by such a paltry attack as this. I see nothing in it but your own wilful ignorance and the malice of Mr. Darcy.’
When supper was over, singing was talked of, and Elizabeth had the mortification of seeing Mary, after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company. By many significant looks and silent entreaties did she endeavour to prevent such a proof of complaisance,—but in vain; Mary would not understand them; such an opportunity of exhibiting was delightful to her, and she began her song. Elizabeth’s eyes were fixed on her, with most painful sensations; and she watched her progress through the several stanzas with an impatience which was very ill rewarded at their close; for Mary, on receiving amongst the thanks of the table the hint of a hope that she might be prevailed on to favour them again, after the pause of half a minute, began another. Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected. Elizabeth was in agonies. She looked at Jane to see how she bore it; but Jane was very composedly talking to Bingley. She looked at his two sisters, and saw them making signs of derision at each other, and at Darcy, who continued, however, impenetrably grave. She looked at her father to entreat his interference, lest Mary should be singing all night. He took the hint, and, when Mary had finished her second song, said aloud,—
‘That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.’
The Longbourn party were the last of all the company to depart; and by a manœuvre of Mrs. Bennet had to wait for their carriage a quarter to an hour after everybody else was gone, which gave them time to see how heartily they were wished away by some of the family. Mrs. Hurst and her sister scarcely opened their mouths except to complain of fatigue, and were evidently impatient to have the house to themselves.
When at length they arose to take leave, Mrs. Bennet was most pressingly civil in her hope of seeing the whole family soon at Longbourn; and addressed herself particularly to Mr. Bingley, to assure him how happy he would make them by eating a family dinner with them at any time, without the ceremony of a formal invitation. Bingley was all grateful pleasure; and he readily engaged for taking the earliest opportunity of waiting on her, after his return from London, whither he was obliged to go the next day for a short time.
Mrs. Bennet was perfectly satisfied; and quitted the house under the delightful persuasion that, allowing for the necessary preparations of settlements, new carriages, and wedding clothes, she should undoubtedly see her daughter settled at Netherfield in the course of three or four months. Of having another daughter married to Mr. Collins she thought with equal certainty, and with considerable, though not equal, pleasure. Elizabeth was the least dear to her of all her children; and though the man and the match were quite good enough for her, the worth of each was eclipsed by Mr. Bingley and Netherfield.
To be continued next Tuesday.