Henry Bennet and Charlotte Lucas had been inseparable companions as children, and at twenty-five and twenty-seven respectively, were as near friends as two young, unmarried people could be. If she had ever expected anything more from him, she never gave any hint of it. Even the indefatigable Lucases had more or less given up hope, though Lady Lucas still dropped hints she considered subtle.
In fact, though Charlotte would have gladly married him had he asked, her affection for him was purely sororal. She was probably the only girl within five miles of Meryton who could meet his laughing dark eyes without flushing, losing the ability to speak, or insulting the whole room.
That changed when Mr Bingley, the new tenant of Netherfield, arrived at an assembly in Meryton. He brought with him no less than three young ladies who were perfectly indifferent to Henry Bennet. Two of these were Mr Bingley's sisters, one married, one single, and both far too convinced of their own importance to notice the heir of a minor country squire.
The third, a Miss Darcy, seemed to be Miss Bingley's particular friend. She initially drew the attention of the room by her tall, womanly figure, lovely features, aristocratic appearance, and the rumour that she was heiress to a vast fortune.
"Ten thousand pounds a year," Mrs Bennet and Lady Lucas whispered to one another in reverential tones, and prodded their sons in her direction. However, Miss Darcy danced only with Mr Hurst and Mr Bingley before declining all offers - and then, nothing could save her from having a most forbidding countenance, and being wholly unworthy of their offspring. She was the proudest, most disagreeable girl in the world, and everybody hoped she would never come there again.
Mrs Bennet, however, harboured a greater resentment than most, for Miss Darcy had particularly slighted her son.
Henry Bennet had been much in demand the whole evening. He attributed it more to the scarcity of gentlemen than his own charms, but regardless of the cause, he was exhausted. During a pause in the dancing, he collapsed into a chair, ignoring the hubbub around him.
"- Bennet," said Mr Bingley. Henry's eyes flew open. It seemed that Miss Darcy's perambulations had brought her, and then Mr Bingley, into his general vicinity. "But she has a handsome brother, sitting down just behind you. I daresay he is very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you; I am sure he would be only too glad to ask for your hand in the dance."
Henry considered her profile and decided this probably would have been true, two hours before. Apparently Bingley had been far too absorbed with his own partners to observe that his guest had already rejected a half-dozen offers.
"Who do you mean?" Miss Darcy glanced behind her for a moment, meeting his eyes without a trace of demureness. Then she turned back to her companion and said coldly, "He is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to dance with anyone. I have already said so to several young men."
"Oh! forgive me," he said, flushing - either at her incivility, or his error. "I did not notice."
Miss Darcy permitted herself an icy smile. "I had apprehended as much. So you had better return to your partner, and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
He hesitated, then bowed and followed her advice. Miss Darcy wandered in a different direction, and Henry, surprised and amused, was left with no very cordial feelings towards her. He was too well-bred to speak of a lady to other young men, but he told the story with great spirit amongst his own family.
"Only tolerable, eh?" said Mr Bennet, as Henry set up the chessboard.
"Apparently so, sir. Miss Bingley, however, condescended to dance with me, so my vanity is not altogether destroyed."
"Is the lady much like her brother?"
"Not in disposition," said Henry. "There is a very great resemblance in person; if not, I would think him an orphan her parents discovered on the doorstep. I assure you, I more than felt the compliment of her hand."
Mr Bennet laughed. "Well, she appears to be have better taste than her friend."
"Yes." Henry suppressed a frown. "Unfortunately, she has even less wit. I do not know if I have ever heard anyone use so many words to say so little. Miss Darcy's ideas are repulsive, but she certainly succeeded in communicating them."
The rest of the evening he spent talking with Jane, whose caution in speaking of Mr Bingley gave way when they were alone. As Henry could hardly participate in her raptures, he nodded at the appropriate moments and limited himself to a few satirical asides. However, he could not agree when her approbation extended to the man's sisters.
"Their manners are not equal to his," said he.
She hesitated, looking distressed. "Certainly not, at first," she allowed, "but they are very pleasing women when you converse with them."
"I conversed with Miss Bingley for half an hour," said Henry, unconvinced, and restrained himself from adding, and I would be quite happy to never do so again. "However, she may improve on further acquaintance."
In fact, Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley could be excellent company, when they were in good spirits, and considered the effort worthwhile. They were handsome as well, with polished manners and twenty thousand pounds apiece. They preferred to remember that their father had come from a genteel Yorkshire family, and to forget that he had been the youngest of six sons, and inherited his fortune from a godfather in trade. It was still the greatest regret of their lives that they could not drop casual references to "our brother Bingley's estate" into conversation.
Their father's trust had ensured that they were educated at a distinguished private seminary in town, where they had first become acquainted with Miss Darcy.
The young Miss Darcy did not deign to associate with anyone beyond a coterie of her own connections, bound together by ties so incomprehensibly convoluted that no outsider could hope to decipher them. Even the Bingley sisters, ambitious and often impudent with it, had not quite aspired to acceptance by the likes of Diana Howard and Catherine Darcy.
Nevertheless, the relationship, such as it was, stood Miss Bingley in good stead. Several years later, she found that her brother had been introduced to Miss Darcy - and the lady not only condescended to remember Miss Bingley's existence, but seemed delighted to discover the connection.
Miss Bingley, of course, was perfectly amenable to furthering their acquaintance; and after a year and a half, had more than enough confidence in their intimacy to invite her to stay at Netherfield.
The friendship between the two girls was, nevertheless, a very peculiar one. When it came down to it, Miss Bingley knew only that her friend disliked dancing and playing the pianoforte, but sang very well; that she had inherited a vast fortune under certain conditions, and spent more of it on her library than her jewels; and that one of Miss Darcy's grandfathers had been a great statesman, the other an earl.
Miss Darcy's more extensive understanding of Miss Bingley was due not to greater interest, but simply greater abilities. Miss Bingley was not deficient by any means - but Miss Darcy was clever. Even had she wished to, she could not have failed to see what her friend was.
However, Miss Bingley's follies amused her; moreover, the easiness, openness, and ductility of Mr Bingley's temper had endeared him to her from the first. Miss Darcy did not love him. However, she was very fond of him, had long taken all the interest in him that his own sisters could feel, and indeed hoped to become one of them in a few years' time. Inveterate meddler that she was, Miss Darcy considered Miss Bingley's company a small price to pay for the privilege of managing her brother.
For his part, Mr Bingley had a very high regard for Miss Darcy's abilities and judgment; whatever he might have initially thought, he now considered her as another, elder sister, and rather a more congenial one than those Nature had chosen to bestow upon him.
When they returned home, he said heartily:
"I have never met with pleasanter people, or prettier girls, in my life! Everybody was most kind and attentive to me, there was no formality - no stiffness - "
His sisters stared at him. Mr Hurst only looked indifferent.
"No," Miss Darcy said, "there certainly was not."
"I soon felt acquainted with the whole room," he persisted, "and I cannot conceive of an angel more beautiful than the eldest Miss Bennet."
Miss Bingley's mouth twitched. "What of Miss Grey? Or Lady Diana Howard? Or Miss D -"
"I," said Miss Darcy coolly, "saw a crowd of people without fashion or beauty, from whom I received no attention or pleasure, and in whom I felt not the slightest interest. Miss Bennet is handsome, but she smiles too much. I do not believe her expression changed the whole night."
"I am sure it did not," Miss Bingley said, "but nevertheless, she is a sweet girl."
Mrs Hurst added, "I quite like and admire her. We would not object to knowing more of her, at least - would we, Caroline?"
"Not at all."
Mr Bingley smiled.
Naturally, the neighbourhood knew about the whole affair within a few hours, laughed with Henry, and disliked Miss Darcy more than ever.
Only Jane Bennet and Charlotte Lucas had anything to say in her defence.
"Miss Bingley told me," said Jane, "that she never speaks much, except among her intimate acquaintance. With them she is remarkably agreeable."
Mrs Bennet loudly contested this, with all the indignation and sense at her command. Poor Mrs Long had been forced to endure an half-hour of silence; if Miss Darcy could be congenial company among her own friends, then she would have been so to a perfect stranger. Agreeable, forsooth!
"I do not mind her not talking to Mrs Long," Charlotte said, "but I wish she had danced with Harry."
Mrs Bennet sniffed. "If I were you, Hal, I would not dance with her even if I could."
"I believe, ma'am," said Henry, smiling, "I may safely promise you that I shall never dance with her."
His promise was endangered within less than a week of giving it. Two or three days after the assembly at Meryton, Henry accompanied his mother and sisters to a dinner-party at Haye Park.
The neighbourhood's conversation was never of a very high calibre, but it was particularly inane on that occasion; and, fond though he was of society, Henry felt a very strong temptation to cover his ears, or at the very least light the tablecloth on fire.
Instead he took advantage of the earliest opportunity to escape, thanking the vacuous girl he had somehow been persuaded into dancing with, and hurrying toward Miss Lucas. She did not flirt and often wanted partners, but they had not retained their childhood friendship for nothing.
Much to his surprise, he found her deep in conversation with another young woman. Henry had rarely seen her so animated, and hesitated, but not quickly enough.
"Mr Bennet!" said Miss Lucas, looking inordinately pleased.
"Miss Lucas." He glanced at her companion, and his surprise hurtled toward utter astonishment. The other lady - the lady with whom she had been so earnestly speaking - was Miss Darcy.
Miss Lucas' smile was more than a little mischievous. "I do not believe you have been introduced to Miss Darcy? - Miss Darcy, this is Mr Henry Bennet. Our mothers are intimate friends, and we were all brought up together. I believe you have met his eldest sister?"
"It is a pleasure," Miss Darcy said indifferently.
"Oh, the honour is all mine," said Henry.
Miss Lucas looked down modestly. "I believe the next set is about to begin, Mr Bennet. I do hope you will grace some young lady or other with the pleasure of your company?"
Nearly everybody was already lining up; Miss Darcy must have noticed as well, because she assumed a martyred expression. Henry was immediately determined that nothing would prevail upon him to ask for her hand.
"Of course I will," said Henry, "if you will dance with me, Miss Lucas."
Charlotte blinked. "Oh. Yes, thank you. Unless -" She turned to her companion, but Miss Darcy excused herself with very evident relief.
It was her ill luck that her perambulations took her directly past Sir William Lucas. "My dear Miss Darcy!" he boomed.
She almost jumped out of her skin. "Sir William," she said with a very shallow nod, and looked about for escape.
"I hope you are not being neglected?"
"Not at all," said Miss Darcy weakly, but he was already searching the room for eligible partners. "I - I was too preoccupied by my conversation with your daughter to care about a partner."
Sir William returned his gaze to her. "Charlotte, eh? Well, that's very kind of you - very kind of you, indeed."
Miss Darcy did not attempt to understand him. "She is dancing with Mr Henry Bennet now," she said. "I apprehend that they are friends, of a sort."
"Oh! yes - Lady Lucas and Mrs Bennet are thick as thieves. Now there's one who would be a feather in your cap."
Her lip curled. "I beg your pardon?"
"You could do much worse: Harry will have a very pretty property one day, and I daresay he's as fine a young man as you'll find anywhere."
Miss Darcy was too well-bred to tell him what she thought of this - but her expression of polite incredulity spoke for her. She saw little worthy of admiration in Henry Bennet, or even of interest - so little, indeed, that she had but the faintest memory of the incident at the ball, and none of the young man in question. She certainly did not recognise him in the interloper who had ended her conversation with Charlotte Lucas. Miss Lucas was the first good company she had found in this wretched place; she felt only annoyance at the interruption, and as for the man responsible, only looked at him to criticise.
His features, though not plain, were insignificant; none of them could really be called good. His smile was crooked - his figure irregular, his face too thin, his address decidedly unfashionable (almost insolent) - and he talked too much.
This much she had determined within two or three meetings, and this much she told the entire Netherfield party; for all her reserve, she was not shy - least of all about her opinions, which she habitually aired with all the subtlety that might be expected of her forthright nature.
Therefore, when she discovered that she had been mistaken in her initial judgment, it was more than a surprise, it was a mortification.
His figure, though light, was pleasingly tall; there was an elasticity about his walk that she admired; and in his eyes, which were a fine dark grey, she saw such intelligence and animation as to transform his whole countenance. His lively manners might not be quite those of the fashionable world, but despite herself, Miss Darcy was caught by their ease and spirit.
Henry himself was entirely ignorant of all this. He only knew that she had not been agreeable to anyone, and only cared that she had not thought him good enough to dance with. Over the next fortnight, however, he could not help but observe that Charlotte Lucas plainly did not share his antipathy.
The two girls seemed almost as inseparable as Jane and Mr Bingley, their heads constantly bent together over embroidery or essays or even novels. Henry admired them as a man of discernment, and he knew that Charlotte considered them a harmless pleasure; but he would not have expected Miss Darcy's tastes to extend to epic poetry, let alone novels. He certainly had not expected to find her laughing over Camilla with Charlotte Lucas.
Miss Darcy felt equal bemusement at her own discoveries, and considerably greater curiosity - or at least more consciousness of it. She could not bring herself to speak to him directly, but she hovered in Henry's general vicinity, attending to his conversations.
On one occasion, a large party at Lucas Lodge, he finally turned to Charlotte and said, "What does Miss Darcy mean, by listening to my conversation with Colonel Forster?"
"I cannot say," she said, but a smile quirked at the corners of her mouth.
At another time, Henry might have assumed he was the object of some feminine joke. Since Miss Darcy was clearly incapable of such a thing, he could only watch in some bewilderment as she drifted toward them.
"Naturally, you will never mention it to her," said Charlotte.
Then, of course, he was obliged to. Henry, his most charming smile in place, said, "Did you not think, Miss Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I asked Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?"
"With great energy," said Miss Darcy repressively.
"You will have even more opportunity in a moment," Miss Lucas told him. "I am going to open the instrument, and you know what follows."
Miss Darcy's eyes widened. "I did not know you played. Do you do it well?"
"Magnificently," said Henry.
Charlotte glanced from one to the other, then said, "Perhaps you could sing with him, Catherine. It would be a delightful performance, I am sure."
"Oh! no. I never sing in public."
Henry went to amuse the company at the pianoforte, Charlotte to attend to her father's guests. Miss Darcy evaded Sir William's ham-handed hospitality, but after only a few minutes' contented solitude, she was accosted by Miss Bingley.
"I can guess the subject of your reverie."
"I should imagine not." Miss Darcy's mouth curled into a smile - a smile which Henry Bennet, whatever the deficiencies of his quick, narrow judgment, would have understood and which Miss Bingley did not.
"You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner - in such society; and indeed, I am quite of your opinion."
Since Miss Bingley always shared her opinions, no matter how ludicrous, Miss Darcy was not quite as overwhelmed by this revelation as the other lady hoped.
"I was never more annoyed! The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all these people!"
Quite, thought Miss Darcy.
"What I would give to hear your strictures on them!"
"Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you," Miss Darcy said, her smile becoming very sweet. "My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a handsome man can bestow."
Miss Bingley threw a meaningful glance at her brother. "My dear," she said, satisfaction pervading every word, "you must tell me which charming gentleman has the credit of inspiring such reflections! I quite long to know."
Seized by an impulse of mischief, Miss Darcy replied carelessly: "Mr Henry Bennet."
She had not, of course, intended to acknowledge her humiliating mistake - but Miss Bingley was really very provoking sometimes.
"Mr - Henry - Bennet!" repeated Miss Bingley. "I am all astonishment! How long has he been such a favourite? - and pray, when am I wish you joy?"
"That is exactly the question I expected you to ask." Miss Darcy's lips thinned. "Your imagination is as rapid as most ladies'. You all jump from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy."
"You are severe upon our sex," Miss Bingley said, then laughed. "Nay, if you are so serious about it, I shall consider the matter as absolutely settled. You will have a charming mother-in-law, indeed; shall you all live at Longbourn together? No - she will be always at Pemberley with you."
Miss Darcy listened to her with perfect indifference, which silenced her alarm, and encouraged her to continue in like manner until the end of the evening.
Henry observed their departure with mixed relief and bewilderment. While Miss Bingley called Jane "a dear creature," kissing her cheeks and making very dramatic and very insincere declarations of eternal devotion, Miss Darcy and Miss Lucas bade their own farewells, pressing each others' hands with quiet affection. He tried to conceal his continued astonishment, but not quickly enough.
"Poor Harry!" said Charlotte, smiling. "It must look very strange to you."
"We are very different; at least in some respects. I am not sure how it is that we always find something to talk about; I certainly do not know why she tolerates my company."
"It - seems more than tolerance," said Henry, "but I was not thinking about that. I know I do not have the right - I would not dictate your friendships to you, even were I in a position to do so. Yet, as your friend, I must admit to some concern over the whole affair. What enjoyment can there be in her company, that would be worth the effort of a friendship that cannot last more than a few months?"
"I like to hear her talk," said Charlotte, shrugging. "She entertains me; and she is so extremely pretty, that I have great pleasure in looking at her."
Even Henry had to acknowledge that Miss Darcy was very beautiful and very articulate; and with this much, however little basis for friendship it seemed to him, he was forced to be content.
Lavinia, Lady Darcy, lived in Hertfordshire, about twelve miles from Netherfield. Although Miss Darcy had little fondness for her great-aunt, her strong family loyalties impelled her to do her duty by all her relations. She paid a visit in November, leaving Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst to their own devices for the day.
Within an hour, the former had sent a note to Miss Bennet. It read:
My dear friend,
If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day's tête-à-tête between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on the receipt of this. Miss Darcy has gone to visit her aunt at Pickering, and my brothers are to dine with the officers. Yours ever,
The peremptory message did little to endear its writer to Henry, but Jane was flattered and pleased. Mrs Bennet sent her over on horseback, hoping that a storm might keep her at Netherfield.
Her purpose was more than answered. Jane wrote to Henry the next morning, assuring him that she had got caught in the rain, but was not very sick. He immediately decided to leave, and see her for himself.
"It is still wet," said his mother, fretfully. "You will make yourself ill."
"Nonsense," he replied, and his youngest sisters agreed to accompany him as far as Meryton, where they hoped to see an officer or two.
The rest of the way he walked alone, increasing his pace and leaping over stiles and puddles, and reached Netherfield with muddy boots and flushed cheeks. Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley, though polite, were plainly shocked; Miss Darcy stared; Mr Hurst only yawned.
"Bennet!" cried Bingley, springing up and warmly shaking his hand.
Henry enquired after Jane, hoping her situation was no worse than she had represented it, but knowing her too well to believe it to be the case. Instead he discovered that she was feverish, and far too weak to leave her room. He sat with her as long as he could, Jane clinging to his hand; but at three, admitted that he should return to Longbourn.
"You may use our chaise," Miss Bingley said graciously.
Jane began to cry. "I am sorry," she said between hiccups. "It is only that – Hal, I have felt so much better with you here – and I know it is selfish, but I do not want you to go."
Miss Bingley did not like her friend's brother, and certainly did not wish to throw him into Miss Darcy's company; but she was hardly so inhuman as to be unaffected by this. "Mr Bennet, I hope you will stay at Netherfield for the present."
"Of course," said Henry.
The sisters' solicitude for Jane slightly improved their standing in Henry's eyes, but only until dinner. Then, beyond a few trite statements, they seemed scarcely to remember her existence, and instead paid court to Miss Darcy.
Their attentions were well beyond what might be expected of the most doting friends; even Henry did not know what to think of it, at first. However, their constant appeals to their brother for confirmation quickly persuaded him that they hoped for a nearer connection.
This did nothing to endear the lady to him, though he could not persuade himself that she shared their ambitions. She accepted the ceaseless panegyrics with indifference, at best, and often irritation. As vain as she was, he had supposed that she would be particularly susceptible to flattery – but undoubtedly she thought so well of herself, as to require no affirmation from others.
If Miss Bingley's compliments for Miss Darcy were endless, so were her complaints about their guest.
"Harry Bennet," said Miss Bingley, as soon as he had left the room, "is insolent, plain, rude, satirical, exactly the kind of young man I most abominate."
Bingley stared, but Mrs Hurst adeptly picked up her sister's opening. "I quite agree, sister. He has nothing, in short, to recommend him, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget his appearance this morning. He really looked almost wild."
"Are you mad?" said her husband.
"His boots," she said, ignoring him. "Did you see them? I believe they were entirely caked with mud."
Miss Bingley nodded firmly. "They were. Really, I do not see why should a gentleman wander about the countryside, because his sister has a cold!"
"It shows an affection for his sister that is very much to his credit," said Bingley.
His own sisters laughed. "Nonsense, Charles!" Miss Bingley cried. "You certainly would not act in such a ridiculous manner if Louisa or I had a trifling little fever."
"Of course I would."
She fell silent, but Miss Darcy gave him an approving look. Thus encouraged, Miss Bingley ignored her brother's unfashionable affection for her, and turned to her friend.
"I am afraid, Catherine," she whispered, "that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of his fine eyes."
Miss Darcy looked surprised. "Not at all," said she. "They were brightened by the exercise."
That evening, Henry returned downstairs with some reluctance. The others were all playing cards – at high stakes, he suspected, so declined to join them.
"I cannot leave Jane very long," he said; "I believe I shall amuse myself with a book, if I may."
The ladies only glanced in his direction, Miss Darcy a little longer than the others; he could not help but notice her lips curving into her usual smile of serene superiority.
Mr Hurst, however, stared. "Do you prefer reading to cards? – that is rather singular!"
"Shall I fetch you the other books?" said Bingley hastily. "I am afraid they are all that my library affords; I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever look into."
Henry smiled. "Thank you, but I can suit myself perfectly with those in the room."
Miss Bingley sniffed. "I am astonished that my father should have left so small a collection of books. – What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Catherine!"
"It ought to be good," she replied. "It has been the work of many generations."
"But you have added so much to it yourself!" Miss Bingley looked pointedly at her brother. "You are always buying books."
For a moment, Miss Darcy's smile gained something of sincerity, and her features animation. "I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these," she said earnestly.
"Neglect!" cried Miss Bingley. "I am sure you neglect nothing that can add to the beauties of that noble place. Charles, when you build your house, I wish it may be half as delightful as Pemberley."
Bingley seemed to have little expectation of this, but said politely, "I wish it may."
"But I would really advise you to make your purchase in that neighbourhood, and take Pemberley for a kind of model. There is not a finer county in England than Derbyshire."
"With all my heart; I will buy Pemberley itself, if Miss Darcy will sell it."
The lady in question glanced up, eyes flashing with indignation, or perhaps even anger; her face, which had frozen into its usual lines of abstracted disinterest, hardened – but, for the first time in their acquaintance, she held her tongue.
Miss Bingley, oblivious as always, looked petulant. "I am talking of possibilities, Charles."
"Upon my word, Caroline, I should think it more possible to get Pemberley by purchase than imitation."
Henry had not previously felt the slightest interest in the estate of which Miss Darcy was mistress – but at this, his attention was caught. Miss Darcy, of course, would be satisfied with nothing less than a lavish monument to her vanity; and a house that would appeal to Miss Bingley's extravagant tastes, that her brother would find quite inimitable, must possess more than mere splendour. His imagination conjured up a monstrosity of gaudy, ostentatious opulence. Even this, however, could only amuse him for a moment; so, after a brief argument with Miss Darcy - and Miss Bingley, he supposed, though she did not signify - he returned upstairs.
Jane was worse, and Henry decided to send for the apothecary in the morning, if she had not improved. Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst declared themselves miserable at the bad news; Bingley pestered his servants; and Miss Darcy said she was very sorry.
He sent for Mrs Bennet the following day; she quickly ascertained that Jane was in no serious danger, and therefore wished her to remain ill, and at Netherfield. In this latter desire she was seconded, for rather different reasons, by Mr Jones.
Upon hearing their reports, Bingley would not hear of her removal, and Miss Bingley coldly assented. Jane and Henry would remain at Netherfield a few days longer.
Mrs Bennet's spirits were quite elevated by this excess of civility. "I do not know a place in the country that is equal to Netherfield," she observed, looking about with an acquisitive eye. "You will not think of quitting it in a hurry, I hope, though you have but a short lease."
"Whatever I do is done in a hurry," said Bingley; "and, therefore, if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here."
Henry laughed. "That is exactly what I should have supposed of you."
"You begin to comprehend me, do you?"
"Oh! yes - I understand you perfectly," said Henry easily.
"I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful."
Henry shrugged. "That is as it happens. It does not follow that a deep, intricate character -" he carefully avoided Miss Darcy's glance - "is more or less estimable than such a one as yours."
"Hal is so clever," said the doting mama.
Miss Bingley sent her a fulminating look, and, the next day, told Miss Darcy that she suspected "that dreadful woman" was behind the whole affair.
"Do you?" said Catherine, her smile and her indifference firmly in place. "I doubt she has the capacity for any kind of serious thought - let alone command over the elements."
"Well," Miss Bingley replied, a little discomfited by this, "I hope you will give your mother-in-law a few hints, when your desirable alliance takes place, as to the advantage of holding her tongue; and if you can compass it, do cure the younger girls of running after the officers."
Catherine's brows rose, but she said only in a very dry voice, "Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?"
Happily, Jane continued to recover, and by that evening, was improved enough to come downstairs. Henry, wrapping his sister in a blanket, brought her to the dining-room.
"Miss Bennet, I am glad you are well again," said Catherine, and Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley greeted their friend with such cries of delight that he felt it safe to leave her to their care.
When he returned with the other gentlemen, Bingley instantly gravitated to her side, piling up the fire, moving her away from any draft that might come through the door, and was so absorbed in their conversation as to pay little attention to anybody else in the room. Henry, amused and pleased, left them to their own devices.
Mr Hurst fell asleep on the sofa; his wife played with her bracelets, or talked to Jane and Bingley; Henry and Catherine read; and Miss Bingley took up the second volume of Miss Darcy's book, stared at it in mixed confusion and boredom, and instead watched her, either asking questions or peering at her page. Miss Darcy endured this with her customary sedateness, but Miss Bingley herself finally lost patience and heaved a great yawn.
"How pleasant it is to spend an evening this way!" she cried. "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! - Charles, when you have a house of your own, I hope it will have an excellent library."
Miss Darcy cast her a sardonic look, but said nothing; neither did anybody else.
After several similar attempts, Miss Bingley got up and walked about the room, glancing repeatedly at Henry. Her friend had done the same the previous day; and, as he could not suppose himself an object of interest to such a great heiress, he had supposed there must be something so objectionable about him as to draw her attention. However, this assumption seemed somehow quite ridiculous in regard to Miss Bingley's interest, and his concern was edging toward alarm when she approached him directly.
"Mr Harry Bennet," she said, her smile saccharine-sweet, "let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. - I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude."
Henry could hardly refuse before the whole room, and not only joined her but offered his arm. Miss Bingley gladly accepted; Miss Darcy glanced up, and was promptly rewarded for her trouble by hearing herself, yet again, praised to the skies. Miss Darcy was a pillar of womanly virtue, elegant, serene, and persuasive - her beauty was incomparable, her mind refined, her accomplishments innumerable - what, Miss Bingley demanded of the impudent Henry, was there to laugh at in such a paragon?
"Miss Darcy is not to be laughed at!" he cried, trying not to smile. "That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh."
The object of all this stiffened. "Caroline has given me credit for more than can be," said she. "The wisest and best of women, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."
Her direct glance at him made it evident, if there had been any doubt, that he was the person to whom she referred. Despite himself, Henry's amusement vanished. "Certainly," he said, "there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. - But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without."
She shrugged. "Perhaps that is not possible for anyone," she allowed. "But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
Henry did not even notice Miss Bingley's fingers releasing his arm. "Such as vanity and pride?" he said, with a quizzical arch of his brows.
"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride -" Catherine hesitated. "Where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation."
He could not help smiling at that, turning away to conceal it from her. Miss Bingley, having failed in both her aims - of bringing her friend's virtues to Bingley's attention, and showing Harry Bennet how unworthy he was of her - looked at him with contempt.
"Your examination of Miss Darcy is over, I presume? and pray, what is the result?"
"I am perfectly convinced by it that Miss Darcy has no defect," he replied. "She owns it herself without disguise."
"No," said Catherine, meeting his gaze with cool, hard eyes, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but I hope they are not of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. - It is, I believe, too little yielding - certainly too little," she added, lifting her chin, "for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the vices and follies of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. - My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever."
"That is a failing indeed! Implacable resentment is a shade in a character," he said. "But you have chosen your fault well. - I really cannot laugh at it; you are safe from me."
Something of her customary abstraction came over her face. "There is, I believe, in every disposition," said she, "a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
"And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody," said Henry sharply.
"And yours," Catherine said with a smile, "is wilfully to misunderstand them."
Henry and Jane left on Sunday, to the relief of nearly all concerned; Miss Bingley, in particular, was so pleased that she embraced Jane and even held out her hand to Henry.
The next day, Mr Bennet informed his wife that they were to expect a guest – a stranger.
"It is Mr Bingley, I am sure!" trilled Mrs Bennet. "Why, Jane – you never dropped a word of it, you sly thing!"
However, it was not Mr Bingley, but rather, a Mr Collins, one of Mr Bennet's distant cousins. His father, an ignorant, small-minded man, had quarrelled with Mr Bennet over some trifle, and the families had been estranged ever since. However, the death of the elder Mr Collins had freed the younger to make peace with his relations.
As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures of good-will are highly commendable, and must be acceptable to you and, particularly, your amiable daughters - but of this hereafter.
Henry's eyebrows shot up.
The rest of the letter was written in a similar manner, and the family immediately fell to discussing it.
"He must be an oddity, I think," said Henry, smiling. "I cannot make him out. – There is something very pompous in his style. Can he be a sensible man, sir?"
"No, I think not," Mr Bennet said in a tone of the utmost satisfaction.
The letter had been sent over a month earlier, and responded to a fortnight after that; Henry, though perfectly understanding the trials of life with his mother, looked at Mr Bennet in mixed exasperation and amusement.
Mr Collins arrived that afternoon, as promised. He was a tall, heavy-set man of about Henry's age, formal and grave, but very loquacious.
"My dear madam," he said, bowing deeply to Mrs Bennet, "I have heard much of your daughters' beauty, but in this instance, fame has fallen short of the truth. I do not doubt of your seeing, in due time, all of them well-disposed in marriage."
Kitty and Lydia giggled; Mary blushed; Jane exchanged a startled glance with Henry.
"You are very kind, sir, I am sure," simpered Mrs Bennet.
His kindness did not end there. He examined the hall, the dining-room, even the furniture with minute care, and praised them all. Mrs Bennet's heart was so touched that she retracted everything she had ever said against the whole tribe of Collinses.
After dinner, Mr Bennet beamed at his young relation and encouraged him to speak about the lady who had been so generous as to bestow the Hunsford living upon him.
"Oh!" cried Mr Collins, with a look of ecstatic reverence, "I have never before in my life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank! such affability and condescension I have experienced from Lady Catherine! She has graciously pleased to approve of both the discourses I have had the honour of preaching before her, and twice invited me to dine at Rosings! Why, she sent for me only last Saturday, to make up her pool of quadrille!"
Mr Bennet's eyes widened. "Her pool of quadrille? That must have been a very great honour for you."
Henry, standing behind his father's chair, felt an urgent need to examine the nearest window.
"Oh, yes," Mr Collins said. "She is reckoned proud by many people I know, but I have never seen anything but affability in her. She has always spoken to me as she would any other gentleman - why, she made not the slightest objection to my joining the society of the neighbourhood, or leaving the parish for a week or two, to visit my relations. She even condescended to advise me to marry as soon I can, provided I choose with discretion; and, once, she paid a visit to my humble parsonage, where she perfectly approved all the alterations I had been making, and even vouchsafed to suggest some herself! - some shelves in the closets upstairs."
Mr Bennet had chosen his subject well; Mr Collins' praise of his patroness took up about an half-hour - an half-hour in which Mary and Mrs Bennet listened with the acutest attention, while Henry avoided his father's tranquil gaze and tried not to laugh. He did not quite trust himself to speak.
Mr Collins had been brought up in such subjection and retirement as to give him a sort of humility, and very little understanding. He had continued these habits at Cambridge, and likely would never have amounted to anything, had not sheer luck brought him to the notice of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Due to said prosperity, and the recommendation of Lady Catherine, he intended to marry; and the reports he received of his cousins' beauty had persuaded him that he should seek a reconciliation with the Longbourn family, and choose a wife from among Mr Bennet's four daughters, if they were as handsome and amiable as he had heard.
Naturally, he first settled upon Miss Bennet, the eldest and loveliest, and the next morning, hinted as much to Mrs Bennet.
She was all smiles. "As to my younger daughters," said she, "I cannot take upon myself to say - I cannot positively answer - but I do not know of any prepossession. My eldest daughter - I might just mention - I feel it incumbent on me to hint, that she will likely be very soon engaged."
This placed him into something of a quandary; Mary, of course, ought to come next, but he had not come to Longbourn to marry a plain girl. On the other hand, she was not repulsive, and he wished to oblige Lady Catherine, and himself, by marrying, much more than he wished for a raving beauty.
After all, so many handsome girls were brought up with high expectations; even if he did find one, she would likely make an extravagant, scatterbrained housekeeper - not at all what Lady Catherine had advised him to find. Mary was just the sort of quiet, decorous creature she would approve of - and she had been attentive, more than any of the others. Very likely she was in love with him.
Yes, he would choose Mary; with his guidance, she would make a very agreeable companion. "Miss Mary is an excellent young woman," he said.
Mrs Bennet fervently agreed. Mr Collins was nothing to Mr Bingley, of course, but then Mary was nothing to Jane or Lydia. He was quite good enough for her.
Mr Bennet, never a sociable man, was by then so exasperated by the constant noise in his house that he asked Mr Collins and Henry to accompany the girls to Meryton. Mr Collins gladly assented, unaware that Mary had decided to stay home, while Henry trailed after his sisters and cousin with rather less pleasure.
They had barely reached Meryton when they caught sight of an officer with whom Henry was vaguely acquainted. At his side was a strange young man, so strikingly handsome in every feature, except for a strangely misshapen nose, as to capture the attention of every lady in the place.
Mr Denny, the officer, introduced his friend as Mr Wickham. They were all standing together and talking with great animation, when they heard the sound of horses, and saw Bingley, his sister, and Catherine all riding down the street. Bingley immediately began to address Jane, and Catherine had just decided that she would not look at Henry, when their eyes fell on the stranger.
Miss Darcy stared, her cheeks flushing; Mr Wickham turned white. However, after a few moments, the latter touched his hat and the former just deigned to nod her head; and shortly thereafter, the oblivious Bingley rode off with his sister and her friend.
After visiting Mrs Phillips, who invited her relations and the officers to return the following evening, they walked home. Henry took advantage of the opportunity to tell Jane what he had seen.
"I do not - I am sure -" She looked bewildered. "I cannot think what it means."
Neither could Henry, until Mrs Phillips' party.
Mr Wickham was popular with all the young women; but Lydia was the happy girl by whom he finally seated himself. Henry, knowing his sister too well to trust her with such a specimen as Mr Wickham, made sure to play at their table, though he could not bring himself to attend much to Lydia's idea of flirtation.
"- Miss Darcy?"
Henry glanced up from his cards.
"Oh, a few weeks," said Lydia carelessly. "She's frightfully rich, I hear. Maria Lucas told me she has her own estate, even though she isn't married."
Wickham lowered his voice. "Yes - it is a noble one. A clear ten thousand per annum."
"Clear? Is that after taxes and grandmothers and things?" asked Lydia.
"Oh, yes. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head than myself - for I have been connected with her family in a particular manner from my infancy."
Henry's eyes widened.
"You have? How terribly exciting!" said Lydia. "You must tell me all about it."
However, she showed no interest in listening even to him. He had scarcely opened his mouth when she exclaimed over a prize, and then over a bet, and soon was so engrossed as to have no attention to spare for anything else.
Wickham turned to Henry, and said after a moment of hesitation, "You look surprised, Mr Bennet - as well you might be, after seeing the cold manner of our meeting yesterday. - Are you much acquainted with Miss Darcy?"
"As much as I ever wish to be," Henry said. "I have spent four days in the same house with her, and I think her very disagreeable."
"I have no right to give my opinion as to her being agreeable or otherwise," replied Wickham. "I am not qualified to form one. I have known her too long, and too well, to be a fair judge."
These fine sentiments notwithstanding, he returned to the subject shortly thereafter.
"Society, I own, is necessary to me. I have been a disappointed man, and my spirits will not bear solitude. I must have employment and society. A military life is not what I was intended for, but circumstances have now made it eligible. The church ought to have been my profession - I was brought up for the church, and I should at this time have been in possession of a most valuable living, had it pleased the lady we were speaking of just now."
"Indeed!" cried Henry.
"Yes - Mr Darcy bequeathed me the next presentation of the best living in his gift. He was my godfather, and excessively attached to me. I cannot do justice to his kindness. He meant to provide for me amply, and thought he had done it; but when the living fell, it was given elsewhere."
Henry frowned. "How can that be? How could his will be disregarded? - why did you not seek legal address?"
"There was just such an informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from law." Wickham sighed, adding, "A woman of principle could not have doubted the attention, but Miss Darcy chose to doubt it - or to treat it as a merely conditional recommendation, and to assert that I had forfeited all claim to it by extravagance, imprudence, in short anything or nothing. A lady's judgment of such matters is perhaps over-particular, but I cannot accuse myself of having really done any thing to deserve to lose the living. But the fact is that she hates me."
Henry could scarcely believe his ears - yet it all accorded so neatly with his own opinion of her. He had not, perhaps, thought her unprincipled; but he could not be surprised that the bad temper, which governed her every action, and which she herself had admitted to, might lead her to even worse faults. "She deserves to be publicly disgraced!" he said hotly.
"I daresay she will, sometime or other," said Wickham, "but not by me. It is unjust, perhaps, but one cannot speak of a lady as one would of a gentleman - however shameless she might be. Yet even if that were set aside, I could not do it. Till I forget the father, I can never defy or expose the daughter."
Henry acknowledged the awkwardness of his position and added, "But what can have been her motive? What could have induced her to behave in such a manner?"
"A thorough, determined dislike of me," said Wickham. "When she was no older than Miss Lydia, I received such proofs of her cold heart and ungovernable temper, as should have ensured that I could no longer be surprised at anything she did to me; I can only suppose that my unreasonable partiality for her blinded me to her true nature. My own weakness, I am afraid to say, has given her many opportunities to inflict her malice, which she would not otherwise have had."
"Your partiality for her?" said Henry, feeling as if his eyes were about to start out of his head. Somehow, her beauty and her friendships notwithstanding, it seemed impossible that anyone could like her more than he did.
Wickham sighed. "Her father brought me up at his own expence, you know - we were always together as children, and not only at lessons. I cannot think of her without being grieved by a thousand tender recollections - we were inseparable companions until Mr Darcy sent us off to school. I still wonder what happened in those years, to turn her into the creature I found when I returned to Pemberley." He fell silent, his eyes distant. "I fell in love with her the moment I saw her coming down the stairs, and she gave me every reason to suppose she returned my feelings. You must know the ways in which a woman encourages a man's affections."
A line appeared between Henry's brows. "I suppose so," he said, glancing away. He was only too happy to hear of Miss Darcy's misdeeds, but somewhat uneasily felt that he could not like Wickham. Something about the other man did not sit quite right - he was too theatrical, too ingratiating.
Henry considered these for a moment, then dismissed them as the habits of a man whose comfort had always depended on the favour of others. He still did not like him, but some irritating mannerisms hardly excused Miss Darcy's perfidy.
"We had talked of waiting, of breaking the news to her father, even of how we would live; I really believed the matter all but settled. But when I finally worked up the courage to ask for her hand, she -" Wickham permitted himself a small, humourless smile. "She laughed. It was, she said, beyond belief that I should dare raise my eyes to her. Had I really believed that she would suffer such a degradation as marriage to the son of their steward?"
Henry winced. "If those were her feelings, why did she permit your suit to continue so far?"
"To crush my hopes, she necessarily had to raise them," said Wickham, his smile twisting into a grimace; "that was her intention all along. It was all done to punish me, from the very beginning. I suppose she must have resented me for years. Had Mr Darcy liked me less, his daughter might have liked me better; but he always regretted that he had no son, and I believe looked upon me as a sort of substitute. She had not the temper to bear the preference which was often given me."
"I have heard of women who pretend to the sort of elegance that consists of tormenting respectable men," said Henry, "but I never thought to meet one. Her disposition must be dreadful."
"I will not trust myself on the subject," said Wickham. "I can hardly be just to her."
Henry's mind went back to her previous depredation. "And she was not content with this, but ruined your career in the church, as well?"
Wickham nodded. "That was over five years later, but yes. I do not suppose she will ever be wholly satisfied."
"I must say," said Henry, horrified despite himself, "I had not thought Miss Darcy so bad as this. Though I have never liked her, I had not thought so very ill of her - I had supposed her to be despising her fellow-creatures in general, but did not suspect her of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such inhumanity as this!" He paused. "However, I do remember her boasting one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of her resentments, of her having an unforgiving temper."
"That sounds exactly like her. She would be proud of it; indeed, almost all her actions may be traced to pride; - and," Wickham added, with an expression of such conscious nobility that Henry was forced to hide a smile, "pride has often been her best friend. It has connected her nearer with virtue than any other feeling. But we are none of us consistent; and in her behaviour to me, there were stronger impulses even than pride."
Henry, having recovered his countenance and his sympathy, stared. "Can such abominable pride as hers, have ever done her good?"
But for whatever reason, Wickham was determined to give Miss Darcy her due. She was a hospitable hostess, and a benevolent mistress of her estate; she gave her money freely - not only to her equals and dependents, but to the poor; and some affection for the younger Miss Darcy, coupled with a great deal of pride in her accomplishments, made her a kind, attentive, and careful sister to her.
"What sort of girl is Miss Georgiana?" asked Henry. He had heard Miss Bingley mention her more than once - and, even more frequently, Miss Darcy herself, though Henry had preferred not to dwell on those occasions.
Wickham shook his head. "I wish I could call her amiable. It gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy." He sighed. "But she is too much like her sister, - very, very proud."
They moved to other subjects, and after awhile the whist party broke up; but, when Mr Wickham chanced to overhear Mr Collins' gloating praise of Lady Catherine, he turned to Henry in surprise.
"Is your relation very intimately acquainted with the family of de Bourgh?" he said in a soft voice.
"Lady Catherine de Bourgh has lately given him a living," replied Henry. "I hardly know how Mr Collins was first introduced to her notice, but he certainly has not known her long."
Wickham hesitated, then said, "You know of course that Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lady Anne Darcy were sisters; consequently that she is aunt to Miss Darcy."
Henry looked at him in some surprise. "No, indeed, I did not," he said. "I knew nothing at all of Lady Catherine's connections. I never heard of her existence till the day before yesterday. I had heard Miss Darcy's Christian name from Miss Bingley and Miss Lucas, but that is all."
Wickham smiled, with a trace of bitterness. "Although Lady Catherine's daughter, Miss de Bourgh, will have almost as large a fortune as Miss Darcy, her ladyship's nephew will be all but penniless when he inherits the earldom. It is believed that Miss Darcy will marry her cousin - all the family wish for it, whatever the price."
"The price?" repeated Henry, amused. "The price of enduring marriage to Miss Darcy?"
"Not exactly," said Wickham, and changed the subject.
The next day, Henry told Jane about Miss Darcy's cruelty to Mr Wickham, as regarded the living.
"Oh dear," said she. "I cannot think Miss Darcy so unworthy of the Bingleys' regard; yet I cannot imagine that such an amiable young man as Mr Wickham could invent such a story! It is quite impossible."
"I cannot think what there is to be gained by telling me," Henry said.
Jane's eyes brightened. "They have both been deceived, I daresay, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side."
"Very true, indeed," said Henry, laughing; "and now, dear Jane, what have you got to say in behalf of the interested people who have probably been concerned in the business? - Do clear them too, or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody."
"Laugh at me as much as you choose, but you shall not laugh me out of my opinion," Jane said stubbornly.
They were interrupted by the arrival of the Bingleys themselves, who came to deliver a personal invitation to their ball. It was to take place on the following Tuesday; and caused such a furore of excitement at Longbourn, that Henry spent the rest of the week cravenly hiding in his father's study.
Mrs Bennet had filled Jane's head with the hope that Mr Bingley would open the ball with her, though she could not bring herself to expect it.
"I suppose he will dance first with Miss Darcy," she said. "Miss Bingley thought so, at any rate - and it would be only proper."
Henry looked at her, but could not trust himself to speak.
However, he ushered his family into the carriage with unusual haste. When they arrived at Netherfield, he glanced hurriedly about the room. All the officers but Wickham were present; Bingley, his sisters, and his brother-in-law were smiling and shaking hands with their guests; and - yes, Catherine and Charlotte had their heads together as usual.
Henry made a beeline for Miss Darcy as soon as he properly could. "I beg your pardon," he said, a little out of breath, "but may I request the honour of your hand for the first set, Miss Darcy?"
"I -" Catherine flushed, either with anger or embarrassment, but stammered, "I - er - you may."
Henry stared at her. "Thank you," he said blankly.
For some reason, her usual audacity failed her; she dropped her eyes, excused herself in an inarticulate murmur, and fled to the other side of the room.
"I am peculiarly reminded of your plan to spoil Harriet Long's gown," Charlotte said, sotto voce. "How old were you? Eight or nine?"
"Seven," said Henry, and turned his horrified gaze on her. "Did she just accept me?"
"I presume that was not, in fact, your intention in asking her?"
"Of course not! If she had rejected me as she ought, she could not dance with anybody else - and Bingley would be free to open the ball with Jane."
She looked fascinated. "And, if she dances with you, he is not free to do so? - forgive me, I fear I have missed some aspect of your strategy."
Henry's scowl broke into a smile. "You are quite right, of course. It is all for Jane's sake. I may comfort myself with that."
He had an half-formed expectation that Miss Darcy would renege on the engagement, but his hopes had only begun to rise when he saw her coming toward him with a purposeful expression.
They took their places in the set, Henry still in a state of utter bemusement; all his neighbours seemed equally astonished by the event. After dancing in silence for some time, Henry decided that conversation would be a greater punishment for her, and said,
"The music is rather slow."
"It is," Miss Darcy agreed.
He was quiet for several minutes. Then he directed his half-laughing gaze toward her, and said, "It is your turn to say something now, Miss 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."
She smiled up at him. "I will say whatever you wish me to say."
"Very well. - That reply 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," said Henry, unable to avoid the impression that she was thoroughly enjoying herself. There was something in her expression well beyond her usual serenity; she looked happy.
He remembered the pain with which Wickham had talked of her; no doubt she felt not the slightest shame for anything she had done, and slept with as clear and untroubled a conscience as Jane.
Perhaps she was not the equal of a Montoni or Lovelace; they did not abound in reality. Yet, as Henry looked at her and danced with her, he could not escape the conviction that, in her quiet, well-bred way, Catherine Darcy was as monstrous as any of them - a monster of ordinary life, who could torment a man without hesitation or regret, destroy his chances of worldly prosperity, and then be received into every house in the kingdom.
"Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?" she was saying dryly.
"Sometimes," said Henry. "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 as possible."
"Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case," said Catherine, her eyebrows rising, "or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?"
Henry laughed. "Both; 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 eclat of a proverb."
"This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure. How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say." Her voice sharpened. "You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly."
No longer amused, Henry said only, "I must not decide upon my own performance."
She did not respond to this, but after they had gone down the dance, said, "Do you and your sisters very often walk to Meryton?"
"Yes, we do." He could not resist the temptation to add, "When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance."
Miss Darcy's mouth compressed to a thin line. For a moment she was silent; then she said, "Mr Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends - whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain."
"He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship," replied Henry, looking directly into her chilly blue eyes, "and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life."
A look of haughty composure came over her features. "Oh, I rather doubt that," she said.
On the following morning, as Mrs Bennet sat with Kitty and Mary, Mr Collins addressed the former with all the dignity at his disposal.
"May I hope, madam, for your interest with your fair daughter Mary, when I solicit for the honour of a private audience with her in the course of this morning?"
Mary gave a conscious blush, and Mrs Bennet immediately replied,
"Oh dear! - yes - certainly. I am sure Mary will be very happy - I am sure she can have no objection. - Come, Kitty, I want you upstairs."
They were gone in a trice; and, when Henry and Lydia, who had each tossed and turned the entire night, and slept through much of the morning, finally ventured downstairs, they were greeted with the happy news.
Mr Collins had made Mary an offer, and she had accepted him.
Lydia never attended to either of them; she thought it all a great joke, and very much ruffled her prospective brother's feathers by saying so.
Henry was not on intimate terms with Mary; she was probably his least favourite amongst his sisters - but, nevertheless, she was still his sister, and he still loved her. He certainly could not think of her married to such a man as Collins with any degree of complaisance. Yet nothing could be done now; Jane hoped they would be happy, and Mr Bennet refused to intercede. Henry's only comfort was that Mary seemed to feel a genuine respect for Mr Collins, without cherishing many illusions about their future.
"I - I wish you joy," said he.
On the following day, Catherine and Lydia declared their intention of walking to Meryton, to see the officers and ask after Wickham. Jane's brow furrowed.
"I shall remain at home, with my mother and my betrothed," said Mary complacently.
Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins smiled with about equal pleasure, and the latter embarked upon a speech which nobody attended to.
Henry, meeting Jane's eyes, quietly excused himself and joined Mr Bennet in the library. He had little hopes that his disapproval of Kitty and Lydia's behaviour, that anybody's disapproval, could bring his father to act, yet the attempt must be made. In exchange for his trouble, however, he received only an injunction to accompany them.
"If they have the wit God gave a gnat, they will behave themselves better under your eye than I have ever seen them do under mine. A doubtful proposition, I know, but I am not a wholly unnatural parent. I continue to hope for some glimmers of sense."
Henry did not quite trust himself to speak, but accordingly followed his sisters to Meryton. Wickham met them as they entered the town, made himself agreeable to all three girls at once, and loudly declared that business in town had tragically kept him away from the ball.
He must have caught Henry's sceptical glance, for after they all arrived at Mrs Phillips' house, he admitted, "I found as the time drew near, that I had better not meet with Miss Darcy; that to be in the same room, the same party with her for so many hours together, might be more than I could bear."
Henry turned his head away, but managed to say in a level voice, "How very prudent."
Wickham and Chamberlayne, another officer, walked back with them to Longbourn. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Bennet accepted the compliment in raptures, and proved to be a worse chaperone than none at all. Henry sighed, and remained to watch his sisters.
Not long after their arrival, Jane received a letter from Netherfield. Henry saw her expression shift to one he could not interpret; saw her read it several times - saw that even after she had put it away, her attempts to behave with her usual cheerfulness were decidedly unconvincing.
As soon as Wickham and Chamberlayne left, he followed Jane upstairs and she read him the letter.
It was from Miss Bingley; the entire party had returned to town, and did not intend to return. The manifold attractions of Miss Georgiana Darcy, a younger, more accomplished version of her sister, were dwelt upon with loving attention.
"What think you of this, my dear Hal?" cried Jane. "Is it not clear enough? - Does it not expressly declare that Caroline neither expects nor wishes me to be her sister? that she is perfectly convinced of her brother's indifference, and that if she suspects the nature of my feelings for him, she means (most kindly!) to put me on my guard? Can there be any other opinion on the subject?"
Henry stared. "Yes, there can; for mine is totally different. - Will you hear it?"
"Most willingly," said Jane, in a small voice.
"You shall have it in a few words. Miss Bingley sees that her brother is in love with you, but wishes him to marry a Miss Darcy. Perhaps the elder sister's indifference persuaded her to try her luck with the younger; in any case, she follows him to town in the hope of keeping him there, and tries to persuade you that he does not care about you."
Alas! They had unhappy confirmation when Lady Lucas and her daughters called; Miss Darcy had written to Miss Lucas.
My dear Charlotte, her letter read,
I am very sorry, but we must refuse your father's invitation. Mr Bingley has gone to London, where he shall probably remain for some time, and his brother and sisters have decided to join him, that he may stay at Mr Hurst's house in Grosvenor Street. I will, of course, be returning to my own house and my own sister.
I do not anticipate our visiting Hertfordshire again soon, or perhaps ever. Although I have not enjoyed my sojourn in your country - I lack certain feminine graces, and I found my situation uncongenial in a number of respects - I shall miss your company. Intelligent intercourse of any kind is rare enough, and I believe I may say that I enjoyed the entirety of ours.
Were it possible, I should very much like to see you again, at the opera or the theatre, or even here at Darcy House. However, as you have yet to leave Hertfordshire, I consider that a highly unlikely event; therefore, I hope you will feel at liberty, but not under obligation, to write to me at any time.
Yours, very sincerely,
They soon had opportunity to read another, rather more diverting, letter. After the engagement was announced, Mr Collins returned to Hunsford - to prepare the house, he said, though Henry suspected that gaining Lady Catherine's blessing figured largely in his plans.
Although they were forced to scrape by without his sparkling presence, he did his best to fill the breach by writing to Mr Bennet:
My gratitude knows no bounds. Not only did you open your home to me, with as much kindness and hospitality as anybody could desire, overlooking the estrangement between yourself and my late honoured father without a moment's hesitation, but the gift you shall present to me shortly hereafter is a pearl beyond price. - I refer, of course, to my dear Mary. I can scarcely conceive what you must feel, to endure such a loss - but your equanimity would be the wonder of sages.
Again and again, I thank you for the many kindnesses I have received, and gladly anticipate the day when I may call myself your son. My father, I am sure, is now elevated to such a stature that he has no regard for insignificant earthly quarrels, so I have no doubts that he will forgive what may seem a breach of filial devotion.
I hope to see you all again on Monday fortnight, for Lady Catherine so heartily approves my marriage, that she wishes it to take place as soon as possible - which I trust will be an unanswerable argument with my amiable Mary to name an early day for making me the happiest of men.
Mr Collins arrived back at Longbourn in due course, and so did the wedding-day. It was a quiet affair - the bride looked well - her brother's smile never faltered.
Shortly before their departure, Mary pulled him aside.
"Henry," said she, grasping his hands with sudden urgency, "you will come and see me, will not you?"
Discomposed, he said, "Oh! yes, of course. I intend to go to town in the spring. I can easily come down to Hunsford for a little while."
"No. Henry, you must come for longer than that, a proper visit. A few weeks at Easter, if it is convenient; I have already spoken to Mr Collins, Henry, and he said Lady Catherine could have no objection -"
The hands clasping his were trembling. "It would be a great comfort to me, Hal," she said quietly.
He only hesitated a moment. "Then of course I shall."
The months after Mary's marriage passed in a sort of dreary blur.
Jane and Henry did miss her, a little; Longbourn did not seem Longbourn without the occasional irrelevant quotation from Hannah More or James Fordyce. They wrote to her faithfully.
Lydia and Kitty flirted with the officers, encouraged by their mother; Mr Bennet retreated to his library, content with the company of his books and his son. Jane pined after Bingley, and Mrs Bennet raged on her behalf, deepening the wound still further.
Even Henry soon gave up expectation of his return. Jane never wept, but he could not ignore the signs that everybody else missed. He longed to rush to London and demand an explanation, or at the least write a very cutting note, but what could it accomplish? Jane's pride would be further trampled, and in any case, he had already promised her that he would do nothing of the sort.
"Charm and easy manners are very desirable qualities in a suitor," observed Mr Bennet, "but, fortunately for you and your sisters, they are not at all necessary in a husband."
Henry, leaning against the mantelpiece, scowled at one of his childhood sketches. "I suppose," he said, "that if Bingley is so absurdly weak-minded as to give up Jane at his sisters' behest – well, can you imagine the sort of fatuous, inane arguments they must have put forth?"
Mr Bennet chuckled. "Easily," said he.
"Rank – privilege – matching one fortune with another. A man who could be swayed by such concerns, when he has a comfortable, a more than comfortable, independence of his own, certainly does not deserve Jane."
"Quite true – though I understand that such concerns are common in many parts of the world. The Hysilgani peoples of Niatirb, you know, have a peculiar tradition of paying men to marry their daughters. The fathers announce how much they are willing to pay for each girl. Then the families arrange the marriages with an eye to increasing their holdings, and only occasional reference to the young people in question. An utterly heathen practise, of course, and unheard of throughout the enlightened states of Christendom."
"Very clever, sir," said Henry.
It was not in his nature to be miserable, for himself or for others; nevertheless, the arrival of his uncle and aunt Gardiner came as a blessed relief.
Mr Gardiner was Mrs Bennet's younger brother, as much her superior in intelligence and kindness as education, and much more happily married. In his youth, he had left Meryton to pursue a respectable line of trade in the City, and now, fifteen years later, he had a more than comfortable income and a flourishing family. They were great favourites with their Longbourn nephew and nieces; Henry stayed with them when he went to town, and Jane often accompanied him.
The Gardiners had only been a few days in Hertfordshire when Mrs Gardiner requested his company on a long walk, away from the others.
"Hal," she said, looking even graver than usual, "this matter of Jane and Mr Bingley was not a casual flirtation?"
"No. I do not suppose Jane has ever so much as imagined herself in love before this. She would not know what a casual flirtation is."
Mrs Gardiner paused. "By Jenny's account in her letters, theirs was a love to be immortalised in song or epic poetry, but I confess I did not attend to her concerns overmuch. It seems I was mistaken."
It took Henry a moment to remember that Jenny was Mrs Bennet. None of her own older, more formal generation used Christian names at all; but then, Mrs Gardiner was just thirty – a mere handful of years older than himself. Henry shifted uncomfortably.
"Bingley gave every impression of a man violently in love," he said after a moment.
Mrs Gardiner smiled. "Oh, every young man with a passing fancy is violently in love, these days. You should know that, Hal; when you first stayed with us in Gracechurch Street, were you not yourself violently in love every other week?"
Henry laughed and acknowledged this to be true. "Nevertheless, Mr Bingley's attachment appeared both deep and genuine. I believe he sincerely valued her, and would have married her but for his lamentable weakness of character. Perhaps it is a mercy that he did not."
Mrs Gardiner glanced sharply at him, but kept her thoughts on that point to herself. "My sister Bennet means well, undoubtedly," she said, in her most diplomatic tones; "however, I do not imagine that it eases Jane's sufferings to have the matter constantly raked over. It might be better if she were to stay with us for a time."
"If it is no inconvenience, I should think it a vast improvement over her present situation," Henry replied. "As always, we owe more to your generosity, and my uncle's, than we can possibly repay."
Mrs Gardiner waved this aside. "You were to come in the spring. Bring her with you then, and she shall stay with us while you go gallivanting off with your Oxford friends."
"I shall be honoured, of course, but – alas! – you have made a small error, ma'am." Henry grimaced. "Mr Collins is a Cambridge man."
Jane assented to the plan with pleasure, if not enthusiasm.
"I hope I may be of use to the children," she said, flushing a little. Henry kissed her cheek.
"I am sure you will."
By March, even she was relieved to escape from the stifling state of affairs at Longbourn.
Henry drove Jane to London. At Mr and Mrs Gardiner's urging, he stayed a few days with them in Gracechurch Street, amusing the children, enjoying long conversations with his uncle, and generally admiring the Gardiners' felicity. When they invited him to join them the following summer, on their tour of the Lakes, he was only too glad to accept.
From there he went to Hunsford.
Almost as soon as he stepped out of the carriage, Mary and Collins appeared at the door, beaming in unison. Henry hesitated, wondering if they had always resembled one another so closely – hadn't Mr Bennet often said that Lydia favoured the Collins side? – then returned their smiles.
"I am very glad to see you, Henry," Mary said.
"Thank you," said Henry, kissing her cheek.
Collins shook his hand. "I hope that your – our – family is in good health, particularly my dear father and mother."
"Yes, thank – "
"And Catherine has recovered from her latest illness, I trust?"
"Yes, she – "
"Kitty is always sickly," said Mary. "What of Jane? Mama wrote to me about her, but – "
"It may be a comfort to all of us, that our sister has conducted herself with the utmost propriety in each circumstance which has befallen her. She could not possibly be blamed for the faithlessness so common to those gentleman who lack the strict principles granted by a properly regulated upbringing."
"Certainly not!" Mary replied. "Jane would be a perfect model of womanhood, if she could find a husband to guide her steps, and to be elevated by the purity of her example."
Henry cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should go in," he said.
Thankfully, Mr and Mrs Collins required only a moment of discussion to agree to this much, and led him into the house.
"I can see that you admire the neatness of the entrance," Mr Collins told him.
"It is very . . . tidy."
Mary seemed pleased. "You look tired, brother. Would you like something to drink?"
"I – "
"Welcome," said Mr Collins, preceding them into the parlour, "to my humble abode. We are deeply honoured by your condescension in accepting our invitation, and hope that you will be comfortable for the duration of your time here. Naturally, no convenience will be denied to my Mary's brother, and – "
" – and you must require some refreshment."
"Yes, thank you," Henry managed to say, before Mary and Collins commandeered the conversation once more.
The parsonage was neat and comfortable, and Mary seemed very happy – happier than she had ever been at Longbourn. She scolded the parishioners and commanded her servants with almost palpable pleasure. She and her husband even appeared devoted to one another, their conversations composed almost entirely of perfect, contented agreement on the failings of the less worthy, or veneration of Lady Catherine, or praise of each other.
He had not the slightest idea why Mary had begged him to stay with her – not only at her wedding, when she might have been plagued with bridal anxieties, but in all her letters afterward. It was all unutterably dull.
On the third day after his arrival, there was at least one minor diversion: as he composed a letter to Jane, he saw a phaeton stop at the gate. The occupants, an old lady and a very small, very fair woman, spoke to a shivering Mary for at least ten minutes, then continued on their way.
"That was Miss de Bourgh and her companion, Mrs Jenkinson," Mary told him, once she returned to the house. "She – Miss de Bourgh – was kind enough to invite us all to dinner on Sunday, and to advise me on some parish matters."
"She was abominably rude to keep you out in the wind," Henry said, then softened his voice. "I beg your pardon. Undoubtedly she meant well."
"Yes." She hesitated. "Your fraternal concerns do you credit, Henry. I am most appreciative. However, I hope that, when you are introduced to Lady Catherine, you will be at – at your most agreeable. I am sure you are the cause of this invitation."
"I? Surely her protégé's brother-in-law is rather below her notice?"
"Lady Catherine is a great woman," said Mary fervently. "Nothing is beneath her notice. Why, she even condescended to advise me that my meat cuts were too large for our family."
Henry glanced away. "Her condescension is clearly beyond all description."
On Sunday, they walked the half-mile to Rosings. Mr Collins boasted of the trees, the furniture, the servants, the dinner-plates, the window-glazings; Mary clung to Henry's arm and breathlessly echoed her husband.
Henry, less than awed by such ostentatious magnificence, suppressed a sigh.
"Miss de Bourgh told me – "
"Lady Catherine has often said – "
"I hope," said Henry, "that we are permitted to walk in the park? It seems very well-tended."
"Of course," Collins assured him; "Lady Catherine feels it is the duty of the great to share their bounty with lesser men and women."
Henry prayed that his tongue would still be in one piece by the time he returned home.
From the entrance hall, several servants led them through an ante-chamber, to the room where Lady Catherine sat with her daughter and Mrs Jenkinson. The great lady rose to greet them, her piercing blue eyes settling on Henry.
She was very tall, towering over all but the gentlemen and certainly over the diminutive Mary; – taller, even, than her namesake – perhaps. He did not quite remember if Miss Darcy's head had reached his shoulder or his ear, or if she were plump or slender – only the cold face and strong hands. Still, he could not help but search for her in Lady Catherine. Nor could he help the tinge of satisfaction he felt when he found her in the sharply-marked features, the slow, deliberate carriage, even the haggard remnants of beauty.
Mary quailed, but summoned up sufficient courage to stammer, "Y-your ladyship, this is Mr Henry Bennet, my elder brother. Hal – Mr Collins' p-patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh; her daughter, Miss de Bourgh; and Miss de Bourgh's companion, Mrs Jenkinson."
"I am honoured to make your acquaintances," said Henry.
Miss de Bourgh, who he had originally taken for a much younger girl, was perhaps his own age or even older – delicate and pallid, her bland prettiness drowned out by an abundance of rings, bracelets, and pink and white ruffles. Never mind her cousin; her spaniel bore rather greater resemblance to Lady Catherine than she did.
Miss de Bourgh mumbled something indistinct; Lady Catherine commanded them to sit down. They exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes – or rather, Lady Catherine and Mr Collins did. The others could hardly be expected to get more than a few words in between her ladyship's authoritative questions and Collins' obsequious, verbose replies. Finally, Mary managed to say:
"M-my brother was just admiring the park, your ladyship."
"Who, indeed, could not?" cried Mr Collins.
Lady Catherine ignored him and permitted herself a small smile. "Yes, it is very fine. Your taste is to be commended, Mr Bennet; you may walk or ride in it, if you please. You would be in no one's way there."
"You are very kind," said Henry.
She sent them to a window to admire it further, Collins waxing eloquent on each statue or shrubbery.
"It is much more worth looking at in the summer," Lady Catherine said.
Dinner came and went, as grand as had been promised, and since Henry did not feel prepared to praise each dish as nectar of the gods, his brother-in-law did the work of two. Lady Catherine, gratified by such unstinting flattery, bestowed generous smiles all around.
Apparently, even she could not match her niece's adamantine vanity.
Apart from Mr Collins, scarcely anybody talked; Henry, stuck between Mary and Miss de Bourgh, made no headway with either and eventually gave up entirely, and even Lady Catherine had little to say while eating.
The ladies returned to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to amuse themselves until after tea. Collins, undeterred by his patroness' absence, praised her without cessation – without, Henry suspected, even drawing breath. For himself, Henry cherished wistful thoughts of Miss de Bourgh's silence, and recited Roman emperors in his head.
The next time they called, Henry quickly stationed himself and his sister by Miss de Bourgh.
"It was very kind of Lady Catherine to invite us again – and so soon!" said Mary. "I suppose you do not have much company at this time of year?"
"No," said Miss de Bourgh.
"That must be a great trial to your mother," Henry said sympathetically. "Perhaps she imports poor relations to fill out the card tables?"
Mary kicked him under the table, but Miss de Bourgh's expression remained as indifferent as ever. "No – two of my cousins come every year, but they are not poor. One of them, John, is a younger son, however."
"I understand that is a great trial," said Henry. "I have always felt grateful that I have no younger brothers to dread my marriage or anticipate my death."
"One does not require brothers for that. I am certain my father's nephews poisoned my tea when they last visited."
Henry, largely preoccupied with avoiding his brother-in-law, choked on his coffee. "Oh?" he gasped. "How – er – dreadful."
"Yes, I think so." She paused, then added with a hint of distaste, "John comes with our cousin Catherine. I have often suspected that her fortune is larger than mine, which would be deeply unfair. Do not you think so?"
Mary blinked. "Yes?"
"After all, I am four years older, and my father was a baronet. Her father was just a Member of Parliament."
"How terrible!" said Henry. "You have my heartiest sympathies, ma'am."
"Thank you. I do have some comfort, however: I shall be much wealthier when I marry, but Catherine will not; - our cousin Rochford is nearly penniless."
"Perhaps she will not marry at all," Henry suggested. "After all, if she wishes for a companion to do her bidding, she can simply hire one."
Miss de Bourgh looked surprised. "Oh, no," she said. "Catherine will marry. - Mrs Jenkinson, where is my shawl?"
They continued to dine about twice a week at Rosings; otherwise, the neighbourhood's style of living was well beyond the Collinses' reach, and they spent most of their time at Hunsford. Henry, for his sister's sake, occupied himself in being agreeable to Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh, and encouraged Mary as much as he could.
"You can see that Lady Catherine likes company and conversation," he said, "in her way. I am sure she would be quite pleased to hear your opinions - as long as they coincide with hers."
"Of course they do," said Mary.
"Then there is nothing to fear." He smiled. "You have never had any difficulty speaking your mind before."
Mary adjusted her music. "That is not wholly accurate, brother. To speak one's own mind is a rather more difficult thing than speaking others' minds, and it does not seem quite appropriate to quote extracts at Lady Catherine. I can never think of anything else to say to her, but she always has so much to say, and all of it her own."
"Few of our thoughts are really new," said Henry, after a long pause. "So much is derived from what has come before, even if most of us cannot trace the derivations quite as - precisely as you do. Even Lady Catherine undoubtedly learnt her opinions somewhere."
"There is nothing new under the sun?"
Henry laughed. "Exactly so."
On one of their visits to Rosings, not long after Henry's arrival, Lady Catherine greeted them with unusual animation. It soon became evident that her pleasure came not from their presence, but rather, from the letter she was holding. She frequently returned to it, the hard lines about her mouth softening, and condescended to explain:
"My niece Catherine is coming for a long visit just before Easter. She is such a fine young woman! She has been mistress of her father's estate since she came of age, and a more capable one could not be found anywhere."
"Except at Rosings, ma'am," said Mr Collins.
"Yes, of course." Lady Catherine perused the letter once more, her satisfaction this time pulling the corners of her mouth into a smile. "She is lovely and accomplished, of course; just the sort of woman all girls should aspire to imitate - not one of your milk-and-water misses. I do not suppose you will have ever met with her like."
Henry, listening to all this with the greatest amusement, said, "I am afraid I must contradict your ladyship, if you refer to Miss Darcy. We are already acquainted; last autumn, she stayed at an estate near my father's, and my sisters and I frequently saw her."
"Well!" Lady Catherine sniffed. "You do not seem cognisant of your great good fortune, young man."
"Pray forgive me," Henry said humbly. "I assure you, I was left with a powerful impression of her consequence and disposition."
He rather looked forward to her arrival, for though he had never so loathed another person in his life, he had not seen anyone but his brother and sister Collins, and Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh, for a fortnight; Miss Darcy was at least worth looking at.
Henry and Mary had the earliest intelligence of her arrival, for Mr Collins spent the morning walking within view of the lane. He bowed grandly as the carriage turned into the park, and hurried home; and the following morning, rushed to pay his respects. When he arrived, however, there were not one, but two relations of Lady Catherine to require them; and, to his even greater surprise, they both insisted upon accompanying him home.
Mary saw them through the window. "Mr Collins has two people with him," she said in bewilderment, then gasped. "Why, 'tis Miss Darcy! - and a gentleman, but Miss Darcy! What a great compliment!"
Henry said nothing, and in a moment, the doorbell rang and all three entered.
The stranger was a dark-haired man of about thirty, decidedly unattractive in person, but with manners so engaging and well-bred that one was inclined to overlook it. Miss Darcy introduced him as Colonel Fitzwilliam, the younger son of her uncle, Lord Harrington.
"Jack, this is Mr Collins' wife and her brother, Mr Henry Bennet," said Miss Darcy, with every appearance of composure.
They all murmured greetings, and Colonel Fitzwilliam immediately entered into conversation; but Miss Darcy, after one comment to Mrs Collins, sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, she addressed Henry:
"I hope the rest of your family is in good health?"
"Yes, thank you," said Henry, and seized by an impulse of mischief, added, "My eldest sister has been in town these three months. Have you never happened to see her there?"
"No," she said, dropping her eyes, "I have not been so fortunate as to meet Miss Bennet."
Neither said anything further, and after a little longer, the cousins returned to Rosings.
Colonel Fitzwilliam called several times over the next week, furthering the good impression he had already made. He was sensible, good-humoured, friendly - rather, Henry thought, like a less theatrical, more intelligent Wickham. It was pleasant, too, to associate with a man other than Collins; he could only imagine what Fitzwilliam endured at Rosings, where Miss Darcy seemed likely to be the best company.
Miss Darcy herself remained aloof: she nodded at them at church, but that was all. Henry could not even pretend to be surprised at this, nor at the sudden cessation of invitations to Rosings.
It was a week and a half before Lady Catherine summoned them again. She received them, of course, with due civility, but Henry could plainly see that she valued their company far less when she could get somebody else. She spent most of the evening engrossed in her niece and nephew - particularly the former, whom she doted upon with about as much force as might be expected of her nature. Fitzwilliam wandered about aimlessly and looked pitiable.
Henry grinned and struck up a conversation, to the older man's obvious relief. They talked easily for several minutes, until they caught Lady Catherine's attention.
"I cannot say I care for it," Henry was saying. "It is too loud, too dramatic. Perhaps I am hopelessly provincial, but I prefer to enjoy music."
"But would you not accept that -"
"What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam?" called Lady Catherine. "What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Mr Bennet? Let me hear what it is."
Miss Darcy glanced at them in some curiosity, and a little envy. Henry imagined a week spent at Lady Catherine's side and could not help feeling a twinge of sympathy; he had questioned her principles but never her intelligence. Fitzwilliam, at least, could walk away.
"We are talking of music, madam," said the colonel.
"Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient."
Miss Darcy made a muffled sound and Henry, meeting her wide eyes, almost laughed aloud.
Lady Catherine, unobservant as ever, swept on. "And so would Anne, had her health allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully. How does Georgiana get on, Catherine?"
Miss Darcy praised her sister in a suspiciously unsteady voice, but with evident affection. Henry was surprised for a moment; then he remembered that even Wickham had acknowledged some sisterly partiality. And a few days later, he was discomfited by further evidence of her strong family feelings.
Colonel Fitzwilliam turned to her and asked, "Kate, may I have the carriage for a day?"
Before Miss Darcy could do more than nod her assent, Lady Catherine scowled at him. "Must you refer to your cousin by that vulgar name?" said she, crossly.
"I beg your pardon, madam," he replied, with every appearance of meekness, and glancing over his shoulder at Miss Darcy, grimaced. "My dear cousin Catherine, can you spare your equipage?"
Henry, expecting to see her usual icy disapproval, was astonished to see her bite back laughter. "Very well, John," she said in a trembling voice, her eyes dancing; and if Henry had not been so familiar with the selfishness and cruelty of her real disposition, he would have supposed her to love her cousin as sincerely as Jane did him.
Henry could not always remain inside with his sister and brother-in-law, and often went on long walks on a quiet, sheltered path between Hunsford and Rosings. He had never seen anyone else there, and rather enjoyed the solitude; despite his pleasure in society, he always found it a little tiring.
Therefore, it was a surprise and an unpleasant one when, as Henry rambled through the park, he unexpectedly met Miss Darcy.
"Mr Bennet!" she cried, leaping to her feet.
"Miss Darcy," he said, too polite to show his feelings, and at her invitation joined her. After awhile, he asked, "Do you often walk this way?"
"No. It has been several years, at least."
Henry, convinced of the mutuality of their antipathy, felt certain that she, too, would wish to prevent the mischance of this meeting from ever recurring. "I am very fond of it - I come here about every other morning," he said with a meaningful look, and feeling obliged to give some excuse for the hint, added, "The sunrise is very beautiful."
With a conscious blush that left him with no doubts that she had understood him, Catherine glanced away.
"Is it?" said she.
Yet, somehow, he happened across her a second time, and then a third. He could not imagine a reason for it - and particularly not a reason why she would accompany him back to Hunsford, citing an intention to call upon Mary, without ever having much to say to her. Nor did she even speak much to him, and at first he did not attend to her stiffly-worded nothings. On the third occasion, however, he could not help but notice a number of oddities in what passed for conversation with her.
"I hope you have enjoyed your stay at Hunsford."
"Yes," he replied absently.
"Do you walk out like this at home?"
She gave him an expectant look.
"I enjoy walking," he said.
"And you are satisfied with your sister's happiness in her marriage?" said she, with another of her incomprehensible leaps of thought.
"I -" Henry paused, forced to consider his words. "Mary is content, I believe. She and my brother Collins certainly seem very well-suited."
"That must be a great comfort to you." He did not reply, and she apparently did not expect him to, for she continued, "I understand you lost your way at dinner last week."
Henry flushed. "I did."
"You need not be embarrassed - Rosings is very large," she said. "My mother used to bring me here when I was a child, and I constantly lost my way. I am sure that you will be as comfortable with it as my cousins and I, once you have had time to grow accustomed to all the twists and turns."
He stared at her. "I do not expect that I shall ever spend enough time at Rosings to know it that well," he said. Catherine frowned.
"Perhaps not at first," she allowed, "but after awhile, I think you will be welcome."
Henry did not even try to understand her.
One day, as he re-read one of Jane's dispirited letters, Henry was yet again interrupted by approaching footsteps. He smiled in some relief when he caught sight of Colonel Fitzwilliam, instead of Miss Darcy.
"I did not know before that you ever walked this way," he said, putting the letter away.
"Not usually," acknowledged Fitzwilliam, "but I have been making the tour of the park, as I generally do every year, and intend to close it with a call at the parsonage. Are you going much further?"
"No. I should have turned in a moment."
The two men walked back to the parsonage together, talking easily. After some time, Henry asked,
"Do you and Miss Darcy certainly leave Kent on Saturday?"
"Yes," said Fitzwilliam; then he laughed. "At least we shall, if Kate does not put it off again. I am at her disposal, now."
"We travel in her equipage, with her horses," Fitzwilliam said. "It seems only fair to abide by her convenience. I confess it is a little strange, however; not so very long ago, I made all decisions of this kind."
Henry tried to look less incredulous than he felt. "You did? That is - very difficult to imagine."
"I am not surprised that you should think so, but when my uncle died, I was made guardian to both my cousins. Kate was very nearly grown, of course, but Georgiana remains under my care."
Henry imagined the carefree man before him struggling with a wilful adolescent girl, such as Wickham had described, and grinned. "Is she, indeed? And pray, what sort of guardian do you make? Does your charge give you much trouble? Young ladies of her age are sometimes a little difficult to manage, and if she has the true Darcy spirit, she may like to have her own way."
Fitzwilliam looked sharply at him. "Why do you suppose she would give me any uneasiness?"
"You need not be frightened; I never heard any harm of her," Henry replied, only a little surprised. He felt reasonably certain that he had approached the truth too nearly for her guardian's comfort. "She is a great favourite with some ladies of my acquaintance, Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley. I think I have heard you say that you know them."
The colonel's mouth twitched. "I know them a little. Their brother is a pleasant, gentlemanlike man - Kate's latest project, I expect."
Henry glanced up. "Her project?"
"Had you not noticed? She's an inveterate matchmaker - well, not quite that. She likes to help people, and she has a genius for persuasion."
"She must," said Henry. "I cannot imagine any other reason that people would tolerate a single young woman meddling in their lives."
Fitzwilliam laughed. "Meddling? I suppose it is, from a certain point of view - but I have never thought of it as such. After thirty years as Lady Catherine's nephew - well! Kate's little schemes seem nothing in comparison, and I suspect Bingley thinks himself born to be married. From something that she told me in our journey hither, I have reason to think him very much indebted to her. But I ought to beg his pardon, for I have no right to suppose that Bingley was the person meant."
Jane. Henry felt his throat tightening, his nails digging into one arm. "What is it you mean?"
"Oh, she merely told me that she congratulated herself on having lately saved a friend's brother from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage, but without mentioning names or any other particulars. I only suspected it to be Bingley from believing him the kind of young man to get into a scrape of that sort, but also one likely to attend to a lady's understanding of another lady."
"Does he not have sisters?" Henry asked, after a long pause. "I am sure Miss Bingley would have given him exactly the same advice as your cousin."
"Miss Bingley can be very agreeable, but - hers is not a towering intellect, and her brother knows it." Fitzwilliam shrugged.
"Did Miss Darcy give you her reasons for this kind interference?"
"I understand there were some very strong objections against the lady. Knowing Kate, she has other plans for him, as well."
Henry unclenched his jaw. "And what arts did she use to separate them? Even considering your cousin's singular . . . abilities, it must have taken some doing."
"Kate did not talk to me of her own arts," said Fitzwilliam, smiling affectionately. "She only told me what I have now told you. Perhaps Kate and Miss Bingley arranged the entire affair between themselves. I suspect, however, that Miss Bingley appealed to Kate's judgment when her own attempts failed. Kate assures me that Bingley thinks of her as an older sister, but even he might not have been willing to make enquiries of such a kind to a young lady so nearly unconnected with him."
"Undoubtedly," said Henry quietly.
Henry could not think of their upcoming engagement at Rosings without dread; however, when the day came, Fate finally decided to smile upon him - Mary fell ill. Mr Collins fluttered aimlessly about her, torn between the two objects of his devotion.
"You could not possibly disappoint Lady Catherine," said Henry hastily. "I will stay with my sister - pray make my excuses to her ladyship."
Blessing Mary's fever, he remained with her until midday, when she fell asleep. Then he slipped out of her room and went downstairs, stretching his cramped legs and looking forward to the prospect of a quiet, solitary day.
He had only just opened his book, however, when the door opened and a servant announced Miss Darcy.
Torn between surprise and annoyance, Henry rose. "Miss Darcy. What a very unexpected pleasure. Would you care to sit down?"
"I - yes, thank you," she said. His jaw twitched, and she added in a hurried voice, "I hope you will forgive the interruption; I came to enquire after Mrs Collins. Mr Collins told us she was taken ill? - I hope she is better."
"Yes, I believe so."
Yet again, she gazed at him expectantly; the expression had grown familiar after the last few weeks, but not any more comprehensible.
"I will tell Mary that you called," Henry said. "I am sure she will be flattered by your interest."
If Miss Darcy understood the hint, she ignored it; for instead of leaving, she seated herself by the fire and continued to look at him. Henry could not return her gaze without anger, and accordingly glanced away, trying to think of something civil to say.
He was immediately distracted, however, for she sprang up almost as soon as she had sat down, and walked before the mantelpiece, looking at once bewildered and ambivalent. Then she seemed to make up her mind, and turned to him in her usual decisive manner.
"You must change your name," she announced.
Henry stared at her. "I beg your pardon?"
"I am sorry - I should have mentioned it before. It is a silly thing; I cannot think why my father did it - well, I understand, of course, and it was quite sensible in a way - but it is terribly awkward to explain."
"I . . ." Even by the standards Henry usually applied to Miss Darcy's incoherent conversation, this was incomprehensible. "What?"
"When we are married," she explained patiently. Henry's jaw dropped. "It is the condition of my inheritance; I must marry by thirty, and my husband must take the Darcy name."
"Miss Darcy -"
"Indeed, I have often felt a certain apprehension that the sort of man I expected to marry might reasonably insist upon retaining his own name. You, however, can have no objections; yours is nothing compared to mine. Of course I would prefer a gentleman of family - or, at the very least, a well-connected one, but the inferiority of your circumstances does have its advantages."
"I think," said Henry, feeling obliged to sit down and rest his head against his palm, "I think I must be dreaming. This cannot actually be happening to me."
Miss Darcy favoured him with a brilliant smile. "I thought that might be what kept you from declaring yourself," she said. "It is true that you are considerably my inferior in consequence. Moreover, there are even greater family obstacles; your connections are not merely unremarkable, but low. My own relations, I know, will be disappointed and angry at such a degrading alliance. I have not forgotten any of this; my judgment has always opposed my inclination in this matter. My will, my reason, even my character are all set against this attachment; and yet I have found it impossible to conquer. Therefore, I am willing to bestow my hand upon you."
Henry, despite his deeply-rooted dislike, could not be insensible of the compliment of such a woman's affection; while he would never ask for her hand - heaven forbid! - he was, at first, sorry for the pain she must receive from his rejection. Compassion could hardly endure in the face of this speech, however, and by its end, he felt little more than exasperation.
"I suppose," said he, "that I ought to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed - however unequally they may be returned."
Miss Darcy turned white.
"It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot - I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to any one. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation."
For one long, dreadful moment, she did not speak; surprise and resentment were writ large on her face, and she seemed determined to remain silent until she regained at least the appearance of her usual composure. Finally, however, she said in a tone of icy tranquillity,
"And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance."
Henry coloured. "I might as well enquire why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?" he said. "Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have."
"Oh?" said Miss Darcy, even more coldly.
"Had not my own feelings decided against you, had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to offer for the woman who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?"
She listened to him without interruption, or even much interest.
"I have every reason in the world to think ill of you," he told her. "No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other, of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind."
Henry paused to glance at her, and saw that she was smiling. He sprang to his feet.
"Can you deny that you have done it?"
She shrugged. "I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power, such as it is, to separate Mr Bingley from your sister - or that I rejoice in my success." She lifted her chin and added, "Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself."
Henry refused to acknowledge this last insult, but his hands shook. "But it is not merely this affair on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place, my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of assistance can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation, can you here impose upon others?"
Catherine's eyes blazed. "You take an eager interest in that gentleman's concerns," said she, her voice unsteady and her cheeks flushing. The implication was clear: How is his business any concern of yours?
"I may not be on intimate terms of friendship with him," Henry replied, "but who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?"
"His misfortunes!" repeated Catherine contemptuously. Her lip curled. "Oh, yes! his misfortunes have been great indeed!"
Henry's voice rose. "And of your infliction! You have tormented his feelings and broken his heart. You have reduced him to his present state of poverty - comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages, which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life, of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortunes with contempt and ridicule."
"And this is your opinion of me!" she cried, pacing about the room and pushing her hair away from her face. "This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed!"
She stopped, turning to look at him. "But perhaps these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious intent of accepting you.
"These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I with greater policy concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my feeling an unqualified, unalloyed inclination - by reason, by reflection - if I had confessed myself willing to give up everything for you. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.
"Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?"
Henry was almost blind with rage, but he replied in a clear, calm voice:
"You are mistaken, Miss Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected my in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in disappointing a lady, had you expressed yourself in a more well-bred manner."
"You could not have expressed your feelings in any way which would have tempted me to offer for you."
Her eyes widened with shock and embarrassment, but she said nothing.
"From the very beginning," he went on, "from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last woman in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."
The words fell into the silence; Henry, angrier than he had ever been in his life, met her eyes without regret; and finally, she replied,
"You have said quite enough, sir. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness."
Her voice dropped lower and lower as she spoke, and when she had done, she turned on her heel and left the room. After a moment, Henry heard her open the front door and leave the house
He dropped into his chair, exhausted and astonished - and, to his even greater astonishment, felt something hot pricking at his eyes.
Henry woke to all the confusion and dismay with which he had fallen asleep, and escaped immediately after breakfast. He was on the point of returning to his favourite walk in the park, when he remembered how often he had met Miss Darcy there, and the terror of doing so again sent him up the lane.
However, he was finally tempted to look in the park - caught sight of a tall lady in white - began to retreat; but it was too late.
"Mr Bennet!" called the lady.
The voice was unquestionably hers. Henry wanted nothing so much as to run away; instead, he walked toward the gate, unable to resist the demands of civility. She reached it at about the same time.
"I hope you will do me the honour of reading this letter," said Miss Darcy, meeting his eyes squarely. Hers looked tired and rather swollen – he tried not to think of what it might mean, and accepted the letter without knowing what he did.
She turned on her heel and left, shoulders straight and head tilted at an even higher angle than usual. As soon as she was out of sight, he broke the seal.
Four pages were written quite through, in a narrow, precise hand, and Henry, wildly curious despite a strong prejudice against anything she might say, rushed through the first half at such a pace that he scarcely comprehended it. She said something about the Bingleys appealing to her judgment, as Fitzwilliam had surmised, of Jane's supposed indifference - all the grossest falsehood, of course.
When he saw Wickham's name, however, he forced himself to read with greater care, and what he meant to be impartiality:
As for myself, it is many, many years since I first began to think of him in a very different manner. Mr Wickham and I are near in age, and were brought up together until we were sent to school - he to Eton, I to a London seminary. When I returned home, we had not seen one another for five years; - he was then nineteen years old, and I, sixteen.
I suppose that he must have discovered that, while my sister was to inherit the smaller estates and our mother's fortune, I was to be sole inheritrix of Pemberley. To this day, however, I cannot imagine how he persuaded himself that I would be receptive to his attentions. I was not. I disliked him a great deal by then, and even had I not, what then passed for courtship with him was not the sort to appeal to a girl with any sense of delicacy.
Needless to say, I rebuffed him as well as I knew how, but he remained convinced that I only wished to increase his love by suspense, and continued to make certain disagreeable advances. - My mother's nephews had recently arrived for their yearly visit, and I immediately told them everything. They made their sentiments on the matter known to him, and he never again importuned me in that manner. Nevertheless, I could not forget the vicious propensities - the want of principle, which he was careful to guard from the knowledge of his best friend.
Henry caught his breath. "This must be false," he whispered to himself. "This cannot be."
The letter continued, detailing a simple excuse, or justification, for her actions in regard to the living: at his request, she had already compensated him for it. If true, three thousand pounds was more than generous - but no. It could not be true, not any of it. He would not read another word.
Approximately thirty seconds later, he picked it up again.
My sister, who is almost ten years my junior, was left to the guardianship of my mother's nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam. About a year ago, she was taken from school, and an establishment formed for her in London; and last summer she went with the lady who presided over it, to Ramsgate; and thither also went Mr Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and Mrs Younge, in whose character we were most unhappily deceived; and by her connivance and aid he so far recommended himself to Georgiana, whose affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child, that she was persuaded to believe herself in love, and to consent to an elopement . . .
Henry walked back to Hunsford in a daze. He scarcely knew where he had been or what he had done; he could think of nothing but his letter.
He had been so certain - so certain in his own abilities, his own judgment. Yet, from the first time he saw her, had he once applied any real thought to either Miss Darcy or himself? Of course he had not. His injured vanity had done all the work his intellect ought to have.
Only now, as he cast a retrospective eye throughout their entire acquaintance, did he realise that he had never seen the slightest trace of anything unprincipled or unjust in her behaviour. Her manner was off-putting, to be certain, but he could accuse her of nothing worse. Those whose knowledge of her consisted of more than a few public encounters admired and loved her; even Wickham had been unable to deny her virtues as a patroness, a hostess, a sister.
And, although he had preferred to turn a blind eye to anything that did not betoken pride or malice, he had seen more in her despite himself - the quiet sincerity of her friendship with Charlotte Lucas, the devotion to her sister.
When he walked through the door, Henry found his own sister studying a book of Mr Collins' favourite sermons. She sprang up as soon as she saw him.
"Henry, why did not you tell me - are you unwell?"
"Quite well, thank you. Forgive me; there was some business I needed to reflect upon."
Mary's eyes darted from his white, strained face to the letter in his hand. "Is it bad news?"
He managed to smile. "Yes, but only for me; you need not concern yourself over it. Have - have you received any callers?"
"Oh! yes. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy came to take their leave. Was that not prodigiously civil? She left immediately afterward, but he stayed almost an hour." Mary paused, considering. "Miss Darcy condescended to ask after my health, but Colonel Fitzwilliam, though of course quite pleasant to me, seemed rather irritable."
Henry flinched. - He had seen her affectionate camaraderie with her cousin, too. If she were to confide the disastrous events of yesterday in anyone, it would be Colonel Fitzwilliam. He remembered his accusations of the evening before, the vindictive pleasure he had felt in saying them, her composure shattering when he spoke of Wickham, and felt faintly ill.
"I am sorry I missed them," he lied, and fled upstairs.
In half a minute, the letter was unfolded again, and Henry poring over its lines.
The next fortnight was quite possibly the most miserable of Henry's life. He made a few feeble efforts to seem like himself, which succeeded with Mary and Collins, and Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh; but he felt certain they would not deceive Jane, and dreaded what he must tell her.
His sister and brother-in-law bade him an affectionate farewell.
"You may, in fact," said Collins, "carry a very favourable report of us to Hertfordshire, my dear brother. I flatter myself, at least, that you will be able to do so. Lady Catherine's great attentions to Mrs Collins you have been a daily witness of. Let me assure you, brother, that I can from my heart most cordially wish you equal felicity in marriage. My dear Mary and I have but one mind and one way of thinking. There is in everything a most remarkable resemblance of character and ideas between us. We seem to have been designed for each other."
"I can see that," Henry replied. "You are very fortunate; few can say so much."
He kissed Mary, shook Collins' hand, stepped into the chaise - and, a mere four hours later, reached Mr Gardiner's house. For the end of their stay, Mrs Gardiner had arranged a number of entertainments for them, so he had little opportunity of observing Jane's spirits, or of revealing the conversation - if such a paltry word could be used of it! - between himself and Miss Darcy.
It was, he reflected, likely the only time he had looked forward to leaving town for Longbourn.
They returned in the middle of May, to a warm reception from their family.
"My dear Jane, you are as beautiful as ever," Mrs Bennet exulted.
Mr Bennet contented himself with smiling at his son, and frequently saying, "I am glad you are come back, Hal."
They were not home more than a few hours, however, when their mother's pleasure at their return devolved into repeated demands for a holiday at Brighton, where the militia was to be stationed. Much to Henry's relief, however, Mr Bennet plainly had no intention of yielding.
They retired for the evening, and the next morning, Henry could restrain his impatience no longer. He sprawled across one of Jane's chairs and told her all that had happened at Hunsford.
It was an awkward recital; he could not speak of Miss Darcy without flushing, and hardly lifted his eyes from the floor. Still, to have excited the affection of such a woman gratified him, a little; he managed to glance up at the end, and smile at Jane's wide-eyed astonishment.
"Of course, anybody admiring you is perfectly natural," she said loyally, clasping his hand, "but - but Miss Darcy? I never dreamt of such a thing. Oh, I am sorry. She was wrong to be so certain of you, but think how much it must increase her disappointment. How she must have suffered, must be suffering still. Poor, poor Miss Darcy!"
Henry, who had tried very hard not to think about this, bit his lip. After a moment, he managed to say in a tolerably light tone, "Oh, I am heartily sorry for her, but she has other feelings which will probably soon drive away her regard for me. You do not blame me, however, for not offering for her?"
"Blame you! Oh, no."
"But you blame for having spoken of Wickham."
"No," said Jane, her brow furrowing, "I do not know that you were wrong in saying what you did."
Henry looked away. "But you will know it," he said, his voice sharpening, "when I have told you what happened the very next day. Miss Darcy handed me a letter before she left, and and it explained that Wickham had denied all claim to the living years earlier, and been compensated accordingly."
"Nor is that the worst part. She said that he attempted to - to seduce her when she was Lydia's age, to gain control of her fortune. Obviously he failed, but only last summer, he tried again, this time with her sister. Miss Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam intervened barely in time to save her."
Jane looked as ill as he felt. "Oh, but - but surely, nobody could be that unfeeling. Hal, there must have been some mistake somewhere. Perhaps he fell in love with both of them, and expressed himself poorly, or - or - "
"No, Jane," said Henry, trying not to laugh. "You will never be able to make both of them good for anything. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one."
After convincing her of Wickham's unspeakable depravity, Henry and his sister settled the matter of exposure. It did not seem quite fair that such a man could wander about the neighbourhood with impunity - but then, he would be gone soon, and then his true character would not signify anything to them.
Mrs Bennet's and Lydia's gloom over the militia's departure was soon dispelled. Mrs Forster, the colonel's very young wife and a particular friend of Lydia's, pronounced herself incapable of enduring the delights of Brighton without her friend's company. Kitty was mortified, and Mrs Bennet and Lydia delighted.
Henry, who considered the invitation little short of a death-warrant for what common sense Lydia still possessed, could not help but secretly advise their father against it.
Mr Bennet patted his shoulder. "We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton. Let her go then. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton she will be of less importance, even as a common flirt, than she has been here. The officers will find women better worth their notice. Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse without authorizing us to lock her up for the rest of her life."
With this answer, Henry was forced to be content; but his own opinion continued the same, and he left him disappointed and sorry.
Between Kitty's sulks and Mrs Bennet's raptures, there was little enjoyment to be found at Longbourn. Henry could not summon up any of his old amusement at their excesses, or share in his father's; not when he realised that his family's behaviour, above everything else, was responsible for Jane's misery. – Miserable she remained, though she did her best to hide it, and never spoke of Bingley.
More than ever, he anticipated his tour of the Lakes with Mr and Mrs Gardiner. Even this, however, brought its disappointments; not long before he was to depart, he received a letter from Mrs Gardiner.
My dear Hal,
I am afraid I must break to you some rather disheartening news. Your uncle's business will prevent us from beginning our journey for another fortnight, and he must return within the month. We cannot imagine that the original route could be properly enjoyed at such a pace as that period would require, so we have been obliged to give up the Lakes and substitute a more contracted tour; we shall be able to go no further than Derbyshire.
I hope you will not be too disappointed, my dear; that country, after all, contains more than enough to occupy us for three weeks - and, of course, to meit has a particularly strong attraction. - Mr Gardiner has promised me that we will stay some days in Lambton itself.
I do apologise for rearranging your plans at such a late date, but will consider ourselves assured of your forgiveness and anticipate seeing you again in July.
Yours, very affectionately,
He could not think of Derbyshire without also thinking of Miss Darcy - but surely the country was large enough for both of them? She would not miss a few petrified spars.
This first alarm settled, Henry comforted himself with the thought that, with his pleasure already marred, his expectations were no longer so high as to be inevitably dashed. July came quickly; the Gardiners brought their children to Longbourn; Henry, after bidding a cheerful farewell to his parents and remaining sisters, gratefully joined his uncle and aunt.
Their route took them by Oxford, Blenheim, and Kenilworth; altogether, it was pleasant and uneventful, very much like anybody else's tour. From there they travelled north into Derbyshire, and then to the small market-town where Mrs Gardiner had lived until her marriage.
Henry had never been a highly-strung man – just the opposite; but, as they drew near to Lambton, he felt a nearly palpable anxiety, which increased with every mile.
"Pemberley, you know, is within five miles of Lambton," said Mrs Gardiner. "It is not on the direct road, but it is only a mile or two off it. I should like to see the place again."
Henry's hand tightened on his arm. "Oh, you have been there before?" he said lightly. "What is it like?"
Mrs Gardiner laughed. "I was only a child at the time, but I remember it as very grand, very splendid. Even though it was almost Christmas, I thought the park was beautiful. I did not see Mr Darcy or Lady Anne, but his sister spoke to all of us in the friendliest way." She smiled at the memory. "It is a pity her niece does not take more after her."
"Yes," said Henry, "a very great pity."
"I would be quite willing to go," Mr Gardiner said.
"Hal, dear," said Mrs Gardiner, "should not you like to see a place of which you have heard so much? A place, too, to which so many of your acquaintance are connected. Your friend Wickham passed all his youth there, you know."
Henry tried not to look as alarmed as he felt. "I must own, ma'am, that I do not feel any particular inclination for seeing it. I am tired of great houses; we have been over so many, I no longer have any pleasure in fine carpets or satin curtains."
"Nonsense!" cried Mrs Gardiner, laughing heartily. "Really, Hal, stupidity ill becomes you. How can you say such ridiculous things? If it were merely a fine house richly furnished, I should not care about it myself; but the grounds are delightful. They have same of the finest woods in the country."
He could offer no more objections, but the horrifying prospect of meeting Miss Darcy, meeting Miss Darcy at her own house, instantly entered his mind and would not be dismissed. He flushed a vivid scarlet. Henry promised himself that he would privately enquire if the family were at home; if so, even telling Mrs Gardiner of the real reason for his reluctance would be preferable to an encounter with her.
As he retired for the evening, therefore, he turned to the servant and said, "Is Pemberley not a very fine place?"
"Oh! yes, sir - the finest in the neighbourhood."
"What is the name of its proprietor?"
"Darcy, sir -– but 'tis Miss Darcy –- the master's older daughter. He died a few years ago and she has not married yet."
"Ah, I see," said Henry. "And is the family down for the summer?"
Thus reassured, he gave way to the curiosity he had always felt about the place – imagined all the splendour of Rosings coupled with even more grandeur.
The next morning, Mrs Gardiner brought up the subject again – her nephew said that he had no particular dislike of the idea – and Mr Gardiner gave his hearty assent. To Pemberley, therefore, they were to go.
Henry retained the appearance of indifference until he caught sight of the woods, sprawling across the hills and beyond sight. As the carriage ascended up the sloping road, Henry stared all around, his eyes constantly caught by some beauty or other – the rich colours of the forest, the sunlight illuminating the leaves, the tall, upright oaks and maples, slim birches and rowans bending in the breeze. He could not even speak.
After about a half-mile, they finally emerged from the woods, at the top of the hill. Before them was a valley, into which the road sharply descended; and, nestled into its other side, atop a slight rise, was an elegant, stately mansion. More woods covered the hills behind it; in front, a bridge arched over a bright, curving river.
Henry had never seen anything less like Rosings in his life. It was lovely; it was certainly grand; and yet he could find no ostentation, no blatant displays of wealth.
"How beautiful!" exclaimed Mrs Gardiner, her eyes nearly as wide as his own. "It is not at all how I remember."
"A very handsome place," Mr Gardiner said approvingly. "It looks exactly what it is."
Henry, too, was warm in his admiration, but he could not escape the realisation that this, not the monstrosity he had amused himself with, was the product of Miss Darcy's mind and Miss Darcy's tastes.
To be master of Pemberley, he acknowledged, might be something!
They drove to the door, and as they admired the front of the house, a sudden dread of meeting its proprietress returned. Perhaps the servant had been wrong, or –
"Are you coming, Hal?" said Mrs Gardiner, and he tried to put the prospect out of his mind, looking around the hall in some bemusement.
The housekeeper, a Mrs Reynolds, was not at all the superior, haughty creature he expected, but rather a small, elderly woman, respectable in appearance, civil in address, with a marked resemblance to a bird.
She led them into the dining-parlour; Henry, always more interested in the beauties of nature than the beauties of furniture, took it all in with a glance and went to the window. Everything they had just wandered through could be seen, with the advantage of distance: the woody hill, the winding of the valley, the river and the trees scattered on its banks.
They went into other rooms, each as lofty and elegant as the ones before, but with nothing gaudy or uselessly fine about any of them. The view seemed to change with each room, but only as a matter of perspective. Each was beautiful.
And of this place, I might have been master. With these rooms, I might now have been familiarly acquainted. Henry looked around in a sort of daze. Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcomed to them my uncle and aunt. But no – he caught himself – I should have had to force her to invite them.
This was a lucky recollection – it saved him from something like regret.
He was just working up the courage to settle his apprehension of meeting Miss Darcy, when Mr Gardiner asked the question himself.
"And is your mistress absent, Mrs Reynolds?"
Henry turned sharply around, to all appearances absorbed in an examination of the wall.
"Yes, sir," said she – he gave a sigh of relief – "but we expect her tomorrow, with a large party of friends."
If they had been delayed a day – !
"Hal," Mrs Gardiner called, "come and look at this picture."
He obeyed, and found himself looking at a miniature of George Wickham, suspended among others.
"That," Mrs Reynolds said, "is a young gentleman, the son of my late master's steward, who was brought up by him at his own expence. He is now gone into the army, but I am afraid he has turned out very wild."
Mrs Gardiner smiled at Henry, but he could not return it; he could scarcely keep himself from grimacing at the sight of him.
Mrs Reynolds' wrinkled finger moved to another miniature, this one of a handsome girl with deep blue eyes and a cloud of dark hair.
"And that," said she proudly, "is my mistress – and very like her. It was drawn at the same time as the other, about eight years ago."
Henry, staring at the miniature, wondered if that was when Wickham had made his first attempt to seduce his way into her family. Mrs Gardiner followed his gaze.
"I have heard much of your mistress' fine person; it is a lovely face," she said; "but Hal, you can tell us whether it is like or not."
"Does that young man know Miss Darcy?" cried Mrs Reynolds, her respect for him visibly increasing.
Henry coloured, and said, "A little."
"And do you not think her a beautiful young lady, sir?"
"Yes," said Henry, "very beautiful."
This encouragement sent her into rhapsody of adoration – Miss Darcy was the handsomest woman in the world, and the most devoted sister; Miss Darcy was so clever; and both sisters so accomplished! Miss Georgiana practised all day long, and Miss Darcy sang like a bird.
Henry was almost reminded of Miss Bingley's panegyrics, but Mrs Reynolds' were far more convincing. Perhaps sincerity helped.
"If your mistress would marry," Mr Gardiner said, as they followed her upstairs, "you might see more of her."
She looked startled. "Yes, sir; she must marry someday, but I do not know when that will be. I do not know who is good enough for her."
Mr and Mrs Gardiner exchanged meaningful smiles, but Henry, astonished by this commendation from one who not only endured Miss Darcy's company for a few days, but lived at her whim for six months at a time, could not keep himself from saying, "It is very much to her credit, I am sure, that you should think so."
"I say no more than the truth," retorted Mrs Reynolds, "and what everybody will say who knows her. I have never had a cross word from her in my life, and I have been at Pemberley since she was born."
Henry's head snapped up. Even before Wickham, and even after her letter, his firmest opinion (in many respects his only opinion) had always been that she was an ill-tempered woman: a younger, cleverer edition of Lady Catherine.
"There are very few people of whom so much can be said," said Mr Gardiner. Henry silently blessed him. "You are lucky in having such a mistress."
"Yes, sir, I know I am," Mrs Reynolds said fervently. "If I was to go through the world, I could not meet with a better. But I have always observed that they who are good-natured when children are good-natured when they grow up; and she was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted, little girl in the world."
Henry almost stared. Miss Darcy?
"Her father was an excellent man," Mrs Gardiner said.
"Yes, ma'am, that he was indeed, and his daughter will be just like him," Mrs Reynolds said. Henry, who had never thought of Catherine resembling any relation but her namesake, traded astonishment for fascinated impatience. The housekeeper could interest him on no other point; thankfully, it took very little encouragement to lead her back to her favourite subject.
"There is not one of her tenants or servants but will give her a good name," she declared. "Some people call her proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because she does not prattle away like other young ladies."
"This fine account of her," whispered Mrs Gardiner to Henry, "is not quite consistent with her behaviour to our poor friend."
Again, Henry's fingers left four sets of half-moons on his palm.
"Perhaps we might be deceived," said Henry.
"That is not very likely." Mrs Gardiner's dark brows knit together. "Our authority was too good."
Upon reaching the lobby, Mrs Reynolds showed them into a very pretty sitting-room, lighter and more elegant than similar apartments downstairs.
"Miss Darcy just had it done," she informed them, "to give pleasure to Miss Georgiana; she took a fancy to the room when last she was here."
Henry, true to form, glanced about the room, then gravitated to the window. "She is certainly a good sister," he said in a neutral voice.
Wickham had told him so, and he had already known it, or ought to have – but nevertheless, Henry felt as if his entire conception of the world had been turned on its head.
"Miss Georgiana will be utterly delighted when she enters this room," predicted Mrs Reynolds; "and this is always the way with Miss Darcy. Whatever can give her sister any pleasure is sure to be done in a moment. There is nothing she would not do for her."
Catherine's Jane, Henry thought, and felt dizzy.
Two or three of the main bedrooms, and the long gallery, were all that remained to be shown. The gallery contained a great many fine paintings. Mrs Gardiner seemed particularly arrested by one hanging near the late Mr Darcy ('tis Lady Auckland, madam, said Mrs Reynolds, Miss Philadelphia that was), but Henry had little interest in art, and the portraits of strangers could hold no allure for him.
He walked on, in quest of Miss Darcy's face – and at last he found her, looking very much as he remembered. She was perhaps smaller and slighter then, but the features, colouring, even the tranquil smile, were all as he remembered.
Never had he liked her so much as he did at that moment – standing in her hall and staring at her portrait, the painted eyes fixed on him, her housekeeper's praise ringing in his ears. How many people's lives depended upon her merest caprices!
No, not her caprices, he realised, her decisions. When had he ever seen her act on a whim? Even her attachment to him had been considered for months on end. No: with Catherine, every word she used to persuade, every particle of interest she employed, would be measured beforehand in her cool, careful brain. And all those under her influence, her sister, her servants, her tenants – everyone from her noble relations to the wretches receiving her charity - would feel it.
He had long regretted the hatred he had expended on her, the acrimony of his rejection, even the misunderstandings he had unwittingly contributed to. He had never wanted her to fall in love with him; but for the first time, he was grateful that she had.
Afterwards, they returned downstairs. Mrs Reynolds consigned them to the care of the gardener, who met them at the hall and led them out toward the river.
"It is certainly not a modern house," Mr Gardiner said. "However, when you consider the gallery and the saloon, I cannot think it was built much before James' time – perhaps Elizabeth's, but no earlier."
"Edward, the chapel and the dining room are plainly medieval- "
Henry, laughing, glanced over his shoulder at the house – and the owner of it herself walked forward.
She came from the road, which led behind it, to the stables, and appeared with such abruptness that it was impossible to avoid her sight
Their eyes met – their cheeks crimsoned – she visibly started.
"Mr Bennet!" she cried. "I – I beg your pardon. I did not – your family – they are in good health?"
"Yes – excellent – I believe," said he, his voice somewhere between a gasp and a croak. "And – and yours are well, I hope?"
As if summoned by the enquiry, Colonel Fitzwilliam's voice rang out. "Kate, I do not understand why – " Fitzwilliam himself rounded the corner – "Bennet?"
"Fitzwilliam. I was just asking after your family's health," said Henry.
Miss Darcy took her cousin's arm in a grip which would have reduced a lesser man to tears. "We are all very well, are we not?"
"Oh, quite," said Fitzwilliam.
"Have you – have you been long in this part of the country?" she persevered. Henry said something, he knew not what; he had no attention to spare for anything but the excruciating embarrassment they suffered under. – Even Colonel Fitzwilliam's expression, which he correctly interpreted as murderous rage, inspired nothing more than mild alarm; his was a humiliation so complete as to leave little room for anything else.
Civility was left to Miss Darcy, who, to his embarrassed surprise, made a valiant effort. She enquired after his family at least thrice, and the time of his having left Longbourn, and the length of his stay in Derbyshire, several times more. The distraction of her thoughts was evident in her strained face and hurried manner, and still more in the lack of anything like her usual serenity. Finally, she seemed to give it up as hopeless, and the cousins took their leave.
Mr and Mrs Gardiner, who had immediately recognised the lady as Miss Darcy, joined him.
"What a lovely young woman," said Mr Gardiner.
"She has an excellent figure," Mrs Gardiner added.
Henry heard not a word and trailed after them in silence. Shame and vexation overpowered him. His coming to Pemberley was the most foolish, unfortunate thing in the world! – what must she have thought? So vain a woman would only think that he had purposely sought her out.
Why had he come? Why had she come before she was expected? Why had they not left just ten minutes earlier?
He could not stop blushing; nor could he stop wondering at her odd behaviour. She had been perfectly civil – cordial, really, if one accounted for the situation. He remembered the last time she had addressed him, hauteur pervading every word.
They walked down a beautiful walk by the river, but Henry could think of nothing but Miss Darcy. Where was she? What was she thinking? What did she think of him? – was she still in love with him?
Perhaps her civility came from the familiarity of her own home – but no, she had been anything but at ease. Whether she had seen him with pain or pleasure, she had not done so with composure. He knew not what to think of it.
Henry longed to be gone, but could not bring himself to ruin his aunt and uncle's evident pleasure; and, though he could not attend to anything before his eyes, he pretended to for their sakes.
They had left the river to climb through the woods, when Mr Gardiner announced:
"I should like to go around the whole park."
"It might be beyond a walk, however."
The gardener smiled triumphantly. "It is ten miles, sir."
"Ten miles! We must take the accustomed circuit then."
Henry gave a sigh of relief.
After some time, their path took them back to the edge of the water. They crossed a bridge, which led them into a small glen, simpler even than what else they had seen. It allowed room only for the stream and a narrow, winding path through the coppice-wood which bordered it. Henry, restored a little to himself, longed to explore it.
Mrs Gardiner, however, was tired, and thought only of returning to their carriage as soon as possible. Her nephew was obliged to submit, and in the circumstances did so without any great reluctance.
They walked back on the nearest side of the river, but slowly. Although Mr Gardiner's long residence in town left him little opportunity to indulge his passion, he was an avid fisherman, and so distracted by the trout in the water, and in talking to the gardener about them, that in the course of an half-hour, they had advanced but little.
Henry, not particularly enraptured by fish, almost stumbled over his own feet when he saw Miss Darcy approaching them once more. This path was less sheltered than the one which had brought them there, and allowed them to see her before they met; Henry felt grateful, at least, for the warning. He was just resolving to appear calm, when a turning in the walk concealed her from view, and he half-hoped that she would strike into another path.
However, another turn brought her immediately before them, her expression no longer alarmed, but every bit as earnest and welcoming as before.
Henry stepped forward. "Miss Darcy," said he, determined to match civility for civility, "your home is quite lovely. A delightful, charming place – " He remembered the last time Pemberley had been mentioned between them, imagined how its praise might be construed, and fell silent, colouring deeply.
She glanced at Mrs Gardiner, who stood a little behind him, and said, "Mr Bennet, will you do me the honour of introducing me to your friends?"
Plainly, she did not recognise them as the low connections she had railed against at Hunsford, but took them for people of fashion. Henry suppressed a smile.
"Of course. Mr Gardiner, Mrs Gardiner, this is Miss Darcy." He added, "Mr Gardiner is my mother's brother, Miss Darcy."
He cast a sly glance at her, half-expecting her to hurry away; but, though plainly very surprised, she not only failed to flee his disgraceful companions, but joined them and struck up a conversation with Mrs Gardiner.
"I hope, madam, that you have enjoyed Pemberley."
"Oh, very much," said Mrs Gardiner. "It is even lovelier than I remembered."
"You have been here before, then?" She looked gratified.
"Yes, many years ago. I was only a child at the time, but my aunt and my grandfather brought me. They were from Lambton and my mother and I had just come to live with them."
"Lambton!" repeated Miss Darcy. "Why, that is not five miles away. Did you live there long?"
Mrs Gardiner smiled. "Almost fifteen years – until Mr Gardiner swept me away to London, ten years ago."
"Five-and-twenty years? That was not long before I was born," Miss Darcy said. "You must have been very young."
"Thank you! I believe I was six or seven years old."
"And have you visited Lambton since your marriage?"
"No; this is the first time I have returned to the country. I understand that several of my old acquaintances remain here, however."
"I might know of the whereabouts of some of them," said Miss Darcy, her manner growing a little more cautious. "I try – we do not often go into Lambton, but we hear about the people who live around Pemberley."
To Mrs Gardiner's credit, her serenity did not falter. She only blinked, and said, "I am particularly hoping to see my dearest friend from those days. Her name was Maria Leland."
"One of the apothecary's daughters," Miss Darcy said promptly.
"Why, yes! – the eldest."
Miss Darcy's eyes narrowed in thought. "I think she was married several years ago, to the proprietor of – yes, Willard's. He inherited his uncle's shop."
"Oh, old Mr Willard is dead? I am sorry to hear it."
"As was I. He was an excellent man – "
Henry smiled. He felt more than surprise - pleasure, triumph. It was consoling for her to know he had some relations for whom there was no need to blush. He listened with the closest attention to everything that passed between them, glorying in every expression, every sentence of his aunt, which marked her intelligence, her taste, or her good manners.
Miss Darcy, walking beside Mr Gardiner, must have seen his longing glances at the river, for she said presently, "I hope you will feel welcome to fish here as long as you continue in the neighbourhood, Mr Gardiner. We can provide you with tackle. The gentlemen of my party, I understand, intend to fish there the day after tomorrow; I am sure you will be welcome, and they can tell you where to find the best sport."
"Thank you very much," said Mr Gardiner. "I would be honoured to join them."
Mrs Gardiner, walking arm-in-arm with Henry, gave him an expressive look. He said nothing, but his astonishment was extreme.
Why had she so changed? Surely, it could not have been his words – nonsense! They could not work so dramatic a change; and, besides, it was impossible that she should still be in love with him.
After walking some time in this way, Mrs Gardiner found Henry's arm inadequate to her support; the gentlemen accordingly changed places, and Henry and Miss Darcy walked on together.
Henry hesitated, then said: "Your arrival was very unexpected, for your housekeeper informed us that you would certainly not be here till to-morrow; and indeed, before we left Bakewell we understood that you were not immediately expected in the country."
"That is quite true," said she, "but some business with my steward occasioned my cousin and I coming forward a few hours before the rest of the party with whom we were travelling. They will join me early tomorrow, and among them are some who will claim an acquaintance with you."
Henry gave her an enquiring look.
"Miss Bingley, and her brother and sister."
He could only give a slight bow at this, instantly reminded of the last time that name had been mentioned between them. She was blushing.
After a very awkward pause, she continued, "There is also one other person in the party who, more particularly, wishes to be known to you." Her eyes were fixed on the ground, her hands almost wringing. "Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce you to my sister's acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?"
Henry, too surprised to know what he said, assented. Georgiana Darcy could only know of him through her sister; plainly, whatever resentment Miss Darcy had felt, had not made her think ill of him. He was satisfied at this, without quite knowing why, and flattered and pleased by the request.
They continued in silence; both were excellent walkers, their strides strong and brisk, and they so quickly outstripped the others, that Mr and Mrs Gardiner were an eighth of a mile behind by the time they reached the carriage.
"Perhaps you are tired," said she. "Would you like to walk into the house?"
"No, I am not tired," Henry replied. He tried to think of something to say, but almost every subject seemed a painful reminder of some point of their history. "We – we saw Dovedale on our way to Lambton."
"Oh! Dovedale!" Miss Darcy clasped her hands again. "It is very picturesque, is not it?"
"Yes, I thought so." Another dreadful silence threatened to descend upon them. Henry added, with an edge of desperation, "We went to Matlock as well."
"Matlock? It is reckoned very fine. How did you like it?"
"Oh, we all admired it greatly – "
They persevered as well as they could; but time, and Mrs Gardiner, moved slowly, and they were nearly out of ideas when the Gardiners finally came up.
"Would you like to come in and take refreshment?" Miss Darcy asked.
The exhausted Mrs Gardiner was forced to decline, and they all said farewell with wonderful politeness. Miss Darcy curtseyed to everybody; they climbed into the carriage; and as it drove away, Henry watched her walk slowly toward the house.
"Well, I must say that she is infinitely superior to anything I expected," said Mrs Gardiner.
"I quite agree," added her husband. "She is perfectly well behaved, polite, and unassuming."
Henry listened to their praises with a bewildering sense of gratification, hoping they would content themselves with praise alone.
"To be sure, Hal," Mrs Gardiner said, "she is not so handsome as Jane; or rather, she has not Jane's countenance, for her features are perfectly good. But how came you tell us she was so disagreeable?"
He excused himself as well as he could. "I liked her better in Kent than before," he lied, "and I have never seen her so pleasant as this morning."
"But perhaps she is a little whimsical in her civilities," said Mr Gardiner. "Great ladies often are; and therefore I shall not take her at her word about fishing, as she might change her mind another day, and warn me off her land."
Henry felt certain that she would not recognise a whim if a chorus of angels presented one to her, but remained silent until Mrs Gardiner mentioned Miss Darcy's supposed cruelty to Wickham. Then he felt compelled to speak.
"By what I heard from her relations in Kent," he said carefully, "her actions are capable of a very different construction. Her character is by no means so faulty, nor Mr Wickham's so amiable, as they were considered in Hertfordshire. I heard from a very reliable authority that, when his godfather died, Mr Wickham asked for and received three thousand pounds in lieu of the living, in addition to a legacy of another thousand pounds. When the incumbent died, he asked for it again – and, not unreasonably, was refused."
"Really? Then how – " Mrs Gardiner began, but just then, Lambton came within sight, and she was far too busy remembering and pointing out each familiar landmark, to think of anything else.
For his part, although Henry accompanied them to dinner, and then to their meetings with Mrs Gardiner's old acquaintances, he could do nothing but think of Miss Darcy and her desire for him to be acquainted with her sister.
Henry and the Gardiners spent the morning with her friends, and had just returned home to dress for dining with them, when they heard the sound of a carriage.
Curious, all three peered out the window; they could only indistinctly make out the forms of two ladies, but Henry recognised the livery. He hastily retreated.
"I suppose," he said, blushing all over again, "it is Miss Darcy. She – she told me that she would like to introduce her sister to – to us. I am sorry I did not warn you; I thought they were coming tomorrow."
His uncle and aunt stared. Though very flattered by Miss Darcy's attentions, they had wholly attributed them to good manners. However, Henry's evident embarrassment, along with the circumstances of the previous day, prompted a suspicion of some sort of attachment. At the very least, their acquaintance plainly went farther than anyone had guessed.
Henry was perturbed, and amazed at being so. What if Miss Darcy had said too much in his favour? Miss Georgiana might expect – heaven only knew what. He paced in the back of the room, certain that the meeting would be a disaster, while his uncle and aunt gave him looks that only made everything worse.
In a few short minutes, the young ladies appeared. "Georgiana," said her sister, her voice gentler than he had ever heard it, "this is Mr Henry Bennet, and his uncle and aunt, Mr and Mrs Gardiner. Mr Bennet, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Gardiner – my sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy."
Although Henry had heard from Mrs Gardiner's friends that Miss Georgiana was exceedingly proud, a few minutes' observation served to convince him that she was only exceedingly shy, with nothing of her sister's sharp, fearless eye about her.
Miss Georgiana Darcy was tall and womanly, her features good, her expression sensible and good-humoured. She had an abundance of pale brown hair and fine blue eyes, the same shape and colour as Catherine's. She ought to have been a handsome girl; and indeed she was, when taken by herself. But when her bland prettiness was set against Catherine's vivid beauty, as it must often have been, she looked merely a pale shadow of her sister.
Henry, only too familiar with the havoc such a contrast could wreak among sisters, heartily pitied her, and did his best to set her at ease.
Catherine looked at him with unguarded approval, though she only said, "Mr Bingley is coming, as well."
"I shall be very glad to see him," said Henry, just in time to hear Bingley's quick step on the stair.
"Bennet!" he cried. "How are you? It has been too long. I hope your family is well?"
"Quite well," said Henry, unable to retain resentment in the face of such warmth.
Mr and Mrs Gardiner watched all of this with considerable interest. They had long wished to see Bingley – but their suspicions of Miss Darcy and Henry took precedence. Mr Gardiner joined the conversation between Mr Bingley, Miss Georgiana, and Henry, and made discreet enquiries, while his wife took a turn about the room with Miss Darcy.
"I have grown ridiculously frail," she said, leaning heavily on the young lady's arm. "We can sit down, if I am burdening your arm too much."
"Oh, no," said Miss Darcy. "I am very strong."
"That is exactly what my nephew says," said Mrs Gardiner, laughing. Miss Darcy flushed. "Have you known him long?"
"Almost a year."
"Henry and Miss Georgiana seem to be getting on quite well."
Miss Darcy gazed at them with an expression at once grave, pleased, and wistful. "Yes, I thought they would," she said artlessly. "If anybody could draw her out, it would be Mr Bennet. – He has a most engaging manner."
Mrs Gardiner smiled, satisfied. "Yes, he does."
Of the gentleman's sensations they remained a little in doubt; of the lady's, however, they were certain. At least one of them knew what it was to love.
While the others were preoccupied, Bingley said to Henry, "It has been a very long time since we had the pleasure of meeting. – It is above eight months! We have not met since the twenty-sixth of November, when we were all dancing at Netherfield."
"Your memory is very exact," said Henry. "I believe it was, though I had not recalled the precise date."
Bingley made idle conversation for a few minutes; then he dropped his voice and asked, "Are all your sisters still at Longbourn?"
"Jane and Kitty are," Henry replied, smiling. "Lydia has accompanied the colonel's wife to Brighton."
"I hope she will enjoy her stay there," said Bingley.
"I am certain she shall."
Their visitors stayed about a half-hour, and when they arose to depart, Miss Darcy and Miss Georgiana invited Mr and Mrs Gardiner and Mr Bennet to dinner at Pemberley. Mrs Gardiner looked at Henry, who scarcely knew what to think or where to look, but nodded his acquiescence.
"We would be honoured," she said. "Which evening would be most convenient?"
"A number of my cousins have threatened to descend upon me tomorrow," said Miss Darcy, "so – the day after that, perhaps?"
"That would suit our plans admirably."
They left, and Mr and Mrs Gardiner, and Henry, went to dress for the evening's engagements. The latter's thoughts were, if anything, even more at Pemberley than on the previous night. He laid awake for two whole hours, trying to decide what to do.
He certainly did not hate her; her attachment to him had long ceased to be repugnant to his feelings; quite the contrary. He was fascinated by her; perhaps he had always been so. After all that he had discovered, he even admired her, liked her. Above all of these, however, he felt grateful – grateful not only that she had loved him once, but for loving him well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of his rejection, to accept the kernels of truth amidst his unjust accusations.
He had been left with no doubts that she would accept a proposal; now he had only to decide whether he wished to offer one.
That evening, Mr Gardiner had accepted Miss Darcy's offer of her river and tackle; he and Henry were to meet some of the gentlemen at Pemberley by noon. Mrs Gardiner had decided that such a striking civility as Miss Georgiana's, in coming to see them on the very day of her arrival, ought to be imitated, and therefore intended to call on the ladies of the house at about the same time.
Henry, therefore, spent a good part of the day in an activity he had no interest in, longing to be somewhere else, with nothing but the scenery to appeal to him. He felt convinced the trout were amusing themselves at his expence.
The cousins had apparently made good on their threat; at least, one fashionable young man referred to some inconvenient debts and added, "God bless Cousin Kate!"
"Kate? You have sunk to borrowing from a woman?" cried his brother. "Have you no shame?"
"Shame is a luxury of the rich. – Kate understands that well enough. Besides, I will get it back soon enough and then I shall repay her in whole."
"Kate understands nothing of the kind! I grant you she is clever in her way, but – "
Henry's pole jerked. "I beg your pardon," he said.
After what seemed several hours more, they finally returned to the house. He had not known whether he more anticipated or dreaded meeting her again; he was favouring anticipation when they entered the saloon, and he began to regret that he had come.
She was accompanied by Bingley's sister, Mrs Gardiner, and a number of other young ladies, many of whom seemed to be related to her, for most of the visit. He could not imagine that she had spoken of – of anything concerning only themselves, but plainly suspicions had somehow been roused. The moment he entered, every eye in the room seemed to settle upon him, and again whenever he spoke to her.
This could not have been above four or five times; when they did talk, she was exactly as he had become accustomed to seeing her, but there were few opportunities. Henry gave it up early on and divided his time between watching her, making conversation with Bingley and Miss Georgiana, and avoiding Colonel Fitzwilliam.
He thought of striking up a conversation with one of the Darcy cousins – several of them were very pretty – but did not bother.
Catherine would be distressed, he told himself nobly, and glancing in her direction, found her listening to Mrs Gardiner with an expression of acute interest, to all appearances oblivious to him.
Henry chuckled softly, and admitted that, whatever Catherine's role in his indifference, it was indeed indifference that he felt. He certainly could not dredge up enough interest to invest his time in a conversation of any significance. Like Miss Georgiana before them, they all seemed lesser versions of Catherine.
He was very nearly persuaded that he ought to marry her and be done with it.
Henry's party left shortly thereafter. They talked of everything and everybody but the person they were all most interested in – her sister, her friends, her house, her fruit, everything but herself; yet Henry longed to know what they thought of her, and the Gardiners would have been highly gratified by their nephew's beginning the subject.
On the following day two letters arrived, just as Henry and his uncle and aunt were preparing to walk out. Both were from Jane, whose continued silence he had felt some concern over, so Mr and Mrs Gardiner left him alone to read them.
The first, written five days ago and missent to Durham, of all places – the usually punctilious Jane had scribbled the address in an indecipherable scrawl – must be attended to first. Henry broke the seal and read.
My dear Hal,
We are all very content at home. Mama has suffered some difficulties with her health, but nothing beyond the usual. She recovered quickly, however - just in time for the dinner-party she had planned, thankfully. Everything went over well - Mr Goulding said some kind things - and she has spent the day with Lady Lucas and Mrs Long.
Charlotte seems a little under the weather, but I am sure she will be better soon. - Papa's books arrived today, so he is in very tranquil spirits. - My cousins are delightful; I spend hours with them, for my sake as well as their own. Lucy brought me a flower. - There is to be another assembly next week, and I hope my new gown will be finished by then. - I know it is selfish of me, but I should like to wear it before the end of summer. I am afraid you were right about the fabric.
Henry smiled, shook his head, laughed – then caught his breath, eyes widening and fingers gripping the paper.
Since writing the above, dearest Hal, 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 Lydia. An express came at twelve last night, just as we were all gone to bed, from Colonel Forster, to inform us that she was gone off to Scotland with one of his officers; to own the truth, with Wickham!
He ripped open the next with shaking hands.
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 uncle and aunt so well that I am not afraid of requesting it, though I have still something more to ask of you and Mr Gardiner.
My father is going to London with Colonel Forster instantly, to try to discover her. What he means to do, I am sure I know not; but his excessive distress will not allow him 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 uncle's advice and your assistance would be every thing in the world; you will both, I am sure, immediately comprehend what I must feel, and I rely upon your goodness.
Your devoted sister,
"Oh! where, where is my uncle?" Henry cried, springing to his feet as he determined not to lose a moment of precious time; but as he reached the door, it was opened by a servant, and Miss Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam appeared.
She started, and before she could recover herself enough to speak, he said hastily,
"I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mr Gardiner this moment, on business that cannot be delayed; I have not a moment to lose."
"Good God! what is the matter?" cried she, reaching out her hand; then she seemed to remember herself, and straightening, said, "We will not detain you a minute, but let us – let my cousin go after Mr and Mrs Gardiner. You are not well enough, you cannot go yourself."
Henry hesitated, but the room spun about him and he realised little would be gained by pursuing them himself. He gave their direction, though in so low and breathless a voice that he could scarcely be heard.
"Jack, they were headed towards Willard's," said Miss Darcy. "Bring them back as quickly as you can."
Fitzwilliam cast a suspicious look at Henry. "Kate, I do not think – "
He left, and Henry stumbled to a chair, looking so miserable that Catherine could not bring herself to leave him in peace, or refrain from saying gently, "Let me call your man. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? – A glass of wine; – shall I get you one? – you are very ill."
Henry did not know whether to laugh or cry. "No, I thank you. There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news I have just received from – from Longbourn."
His voice broke, and for several minutes he could not speak. Catherine hesitated, then sat beside him, placing her hand against his sleeve. She murmured something indistinct, then fell into compassionate silence.
"I have just had a letter from Jane, with dreadful news," said Henry, staring blankly ahead of him. "It cannot be concealed from anyone. My youngest sister has left all her friends – has eloped; – has thrown herself into the power of – of Mr Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to – she is lost forever."
Catherine stared in horrified astonishment.
"She is only a child – sixteen not two months ago. When I consider that I might have prevented it! – I who knew what he was! Had I but explained some part of it only – some part of what I learnt – to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened! But it is all too late now."
She drew back her hand, crying, "I am grieved indeed; grieved – shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?"
"Oh, yes," said Henry. "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, what has been attempted, to recover her?"
Henry looked at her oddly. "My father is gone to London," he said, "and Jane has written to beg my uncle's and my 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 are we to work upon such a man? How are we even to discover them? I have not the smallest hope. It is in every way horrible!"
Catherine, never one to indulge in comforting falsehoods, could offer nothing but full agreement with this conclusion. She contented herself with a nod and rose to her feet, knitting her brows together as she thought, her mind leaping from point to point.
Finally, she said stiffly, "I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I any thing to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing, concern." She paused. "This unfortunate affair will, I fear, prevent my sister's and my having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley to-day."
"Oh, yes. Apologise for us to Miss Georgiana. Please say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible. - I know it cannot be long."
"You may depend upon my cousin's and my secrecy," Catherine assured him. "I am very sorry, and I hope – " She looked desperately awkward – "I hope that Miss Lydia's unhappy situation will resolve itself in a happier manner than there is reason to suppose it will."
Henry, awash in misery, almost laughed; and, at that moment - the moment that all hope of anything more, of anything at all, must be lost - felt that he could easily have loved her.
Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy returned to Pemberley in near-silence.
Finally, he said, "If Bennet said anything untoward - again - then I would be only too happy to -"
"His youngest sister has eloped with Mr Wickham," said Catherine absently. "I am deciding how to manage the matter."
"You are what?"
She glanced up. "I consider it very unlikely, as does Mr Bennet, that he will be able to find Mr Wickham, let alone prevail upon him to marry his sister."
"Kate, you cannot, you must not -" Fitzwilliam took a deep breath and began again. "Catherine, did Bennet ask for your help?"
An edge of resentment entered her voice. "No," she said, "of course not. How could he? However, I believe we may be of some service. Mr Wickham's . . . associate still lives on Edward Street, and there is no doubt but that he would have turned to her for assistance. She may even be harbouring them."
"So you intend to . . . send them her address?"
Catherine smiled. "Do not be foolish, John. Locating them is plainly the least difficult aspect of the situation. Lydia Bennet does not deserve to be thrust upon the town because she is silly and selfish and sixteen, nor even to be shackled to that man for the rest of her life. The happiest alternative would be to detach her from him, but I am not certain I will be able to persuade her of the wisdom of that course."
"To persuade her! Kate, you cannot mean - you cannot - please tell me that you do not mean to meddle in this affair personally. Surely you do not intend to go to London yourself!"
She looked at him for a long moment. "I am sorry," she said. "I disapprove of deceit, so I am afraid that I cannot tell you that. I hope I may rely upon you to assist me. There will undoubtedly be a certain amount of unpleasantness involved, but it may be somewhat ameliorated by your presence, cousin."
Fitzwilliam opened his mouth and shut it again. Finally, he said, "Is this for him?"
"His distress is a consideration for me, naturally." Catherine rubbed her temples. "I very much hope that it is not the only consideration. I hope that I am a woman who can act upon principle and compassion without Henry Bennet to remind me of their meaning."
Catherine frowned at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"There is plainly no use in attempting to change your mind," said Fitzwilliam. "Therefore, as always, you may depend upon me."
He spent the evening railing against himself for his own weakness, while Catherine sang and schemed. They left the following morning, citing urgent business in town.
"Once we find them," she told him, "we must attempt to persuade Miss Lydia to return to her friends. I am sure Mr Bennet and Mr and Mrs Gardiner can provide some excuse for her disappearance, which we will - by sheer coincidence - be able to verify."
"Verify to whom?"
"The neighbourhood, naturally - and therefore all those with whom they correspond." Catherine smiled. "Persuading Mr Bingley to return there, and Miss Bingley to invite us, should be no great task."
Fitzwilliam suppressed a groan. "And what of the rest? Did the girl leave a note?"
"All part of a nefarious plot of Mr Wickham's," said Catherine. "A plot foiled by Miss Lydia's relations, I think."
"And all doubts of their veracity immediately disappear?"
She considered. "Not all, perhaps, but most. What is the word of a scoundrel and gamester against Miss Darcy of Pemberley and Colonel the Honourable John Fitzwilliam? Moreover, my disdain for the Bennets is likely well-known. It would seem preposterous that I, of all people, would lie for the benefit of Lydia Bennet."
"Preposterous, indeed." Fitzwilliam cast a sideways glance at her. "I thought you disapproved of deceit, coz."
"Oh, I do. Unfortunately, that does not mean that I never engage in it. - Now, there is a strong possibility that I will not succeed in convincing her to leave Mr Wickham. She is not a very accommodating girl, and he can be very persuasive, when he chooses. In that eventuality, we shall be obliged to arrange a marriage." Her lip curled. "That will entail some degree of interaction with Mr Wickham himself."
"Incentive," said Catherine.
In the event, Mrs Younge had not been able to harbour Wickham and Lydia, but she did know where they to be found. There seemed to be a sort of honour amongst thieves and wretches; it took two days and fifty pounds to procure the wished-for direction.
Fitzwilliam looked at the scrap of paper and laughed. " 'Tis nearly on Mr Gardiner's doorstep," he said.
"Of course it is," said Catherine, her face white and pinched. He frowned at her.
"I shall speak to Wickham, Kate. I have given you your way in all of this, but -"
"Very well," said she, hastily. "However, I have no doubt but that Miss Lydia will be nearly as provoking."
"What do you think of this one?" said Lydia, holding a gown up to the light. "I told Kitty that yellow flatters my complexion much more than hers, but she -"
Catherine ignored this. "I can help you," she said. "If you will quit this - this disgraceful situation, and return to your friends as soon as they can be prevailed upon to receive you, then -"
"Bah! What do I care for any of my friends, when I have Wickham? I shan't leave and I want no help of yours. You are nothing but a great hypocrite, coming here with your own officer, and then scolding me. I cannot wait to tell Wickham, and Hal too; hoity-toity Miss Darcy-"
"Colonel Fitzwilliam is my cousin," said Catherine evenly.
"All the better! I must say that mine is much better-looking, though, and more agreeable too. Whatever did he want to talk to Wickham about?"
"Your marriage, or lack of one."
Lydia scowled. "We shall be married some time or other. It does not much signify when."
"My cousin is trying to assist Mr Wickham in his business affairs," said Catherine, trying to look less obviously duplicitous than she felt. "If he succeeds, your 'some time or other' will be much sooner than it would be otherwise. You will return home as a married woman."
For the first time, Lydia hesitated.
"You shall be able to claim precedence over Miss Bennet."
Catherine pressed her advantage. "Surely you would like that much more than living in this dreadful place, with no amusements and no company? Perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam will even be able to get your husband a commission in the regulars - but only if he is your husband."
"He would look much more dashing in the regulars," Lydia said thoughtfully.
"Of course he would."
Wickham and Fitzwilliam emerged from what passed for a study. The latter seemed grim, and he hurried Catherine away before Wickham could bestow more than an insolent look.
"Apparently," said Fitzwilliam, "Wickham was obliged to leave the regiment. Debts of honour, as always. He blames Miss Bennet's situation entirely upon herself - he intends to make his fortune in some other country."
"He always does; however, he is at something of a disadvantage at present." Catherine paused. "She refuses to leave him. How much is he demanding?"
"Ten thousand pounds."
"Nonsense, of course, but I think it can be reduced to something reasonable."
"Undoubtedly. I made arrangements to meet with him again."
Catherine glanced up at his tired face, and placed her hand against his arm. "I am sorry," she said quietly. "I - you have seen that idiotic child. How could I simply leave her to her fate, no matter whose sister she is? I wish I need not have inconvenienced you, however. I would have managed it all myself, if I could have."
"God forbid!" Fitzwilliam smiled at her, and pressed his lips against the crown of her head. "Never mind that, Kate. You are quite right about the Bennet girl, and - well, my conscience may not be quite as exacting as yours, but I will readily admit that my life would be very dull without your mad schemes."
He met with Wickham three times, and in the end, came to a mutually satisfactory agreement: Wickham's debts would be paid, both in Hertfordshire and Brighton; he would receive an ensigncy in the regulars; and Lydia's dowry would be increased by a thousand pounds. Her father need only provide a hundred pounds a year.
"I do not suppose that can be much more than she costs him already," said Fitzwilliam, gladly accepting a cup of tea. "As for the rest of it, I can - "
"No." Catherine cut him off. "It is nothing, nearly nothing, for me, while you would have some difficulty explaining yourself to my uncle."
"And that, of course, is your only motive?"
She smiled. "Why, no. I wish to make amends for the results of my secrecy."
The next step, of course, was to acquaint Lydia's family with their arrangements - and to do so in a manner unlikely to offend. Fitzwilliam therefore called at Gracechurch Street by himself, only to discover that Mr Gardiner could not be seen; he, his brother-in-law, and his nephew were occupied by urgent family business.
"However," he told Catherine, when he returned to his parents' house, "Mr Bennet is to leave tomorrow morning, and Bennet is gone almost every day - looking for his sister, I imagine."
Catherine flinched. "Well," said she, "it will be easier to consult with Mr Gardiner, in any case. Mr Bennet is a very . . . eccentric man."
"I shall attempt to do so on Saturday, then."
Biting her lip, Catherine wandered over to a mirror and removed an infinitesimal speck of dirt from her cheek. "I would prefer it," she said, "if Mr Bennet - Mr Henry Bennet - did not know of my involvement. Would it be too inconvenient to ask Mr Gardiner to refrain from mentioning it?"
"I am not certain I can explain my own interest, if it is not for your sake," said Fitzwilliam, "but I shall do my best."
"Perhaps," she said, adjusting a stray hair, "you wish to make amends for your secrecy."
He laughed. "Very well. And what of Wickham and Miss Bennet?"
"I believe I can persuade them."
Catherine had no difficulty in convincing Wickham to refrain from spreading flattering stories about her. Lydia, who could rarely attend to any subject for more than five minutes, posed a rather greater difficulty.
"Oh, 'tis you," she said, when Catherine, assured that Henry would be away, arrived to take Lydia to her uncle and aunt. "I cannot decide which bonnet to wear. I suppose it does not matter, since Wickham will not be there to see it."
"I am sure," said Catherine gently, "that he finds you equally lovely in either."
Lydia beamed. "You are not nearly as disagreeable as I thought you would be," she said, and prattled at her all the way to Gracechurch Street. Catherine only listened with half an ear, divided between impatience and pity, but looked at the hatboxes thoughtfully.
Shortly thereafter, Fitzwilliam managed to hammer out an agreement with Mr Gardiner, Mrs Gardiner and Henry - though the latter often felt that he was only listening to half a conversation. He certainly did not understand Fitzwilliam's pointed references to Miss Darcy, which somehow enabled him to carry his point each and every time. He could not begin to perceive the man's motivations; he plainly still resented Henry's rejection of his cousin, and his mumbled explanation that he somehow felt responsible for Wickham could scarcely have been less convincing.
"Well," said Mrs Gardiner, smiling over her work, "it may be that you are right, Hal, and he does have another interest in the affair - but would that do him any less credit? We are very much obliged to - to Colonel Fitzwilliam's kindness."
"I know," Henry said in a low voice, and tried not to remember the misery of his first week in London, the days spent scouring London's wretched underbelly, the nights in sleepless exhaustion, his head full of his sister and Catherine Darcy. Lydia had been restored to them, would be married - their father's consent to the marriage, if not the wedding-clothes, had arrived that very morning - it had all turned out better than they had any right to hope.
Well, except for the minor inconvenience of falling in love with a girl he had no chance of marrying. Sister-in-law of Wickham! Even if she had been willing to accept him, every feeling must recoil from the connection.
Wickham himself, flirting tenderly with Lydia, glanced over at him and waved. Henry, who thought he put up with the pangs of disappointed love very well, suppressed the urge to throw him out the window.
"I beg your pardon," he said to his aunt, "I only just remembered that - I must go and do - something."
She looked sympathetic.
Fitzwilliam stayed at Pemberley until the wedding, when he returned to resolve the last of the money matters. Henry avoided him; he could not possibly regret his rejection less than Fitzwilliam did, but he hardly wished to be reminded of it, least of all on a day as unpropitious as this one.
The wedding itself passed without event; Henry gave Lydia away, and did not harm Wickham; they all signed the appropriate documents, and the happy couple finally left for Longbourn. It had taken Henry's and Jane's combined efforts to convince their father to countenance the marriage by even a brief visit. Henry still had no idea how Lydia had acquired her wedding-clothes.
They returned to the house, and Mrs Gardiner said, "I hope, Hal, that you will not mind having company for dinner. We arranged it when you were away, and -"
"Of course not," he assured her, and laughed. "Unlike Lydia, I am aware that this is, in fact, your house. Do I know your friends?"
"Er, yes. Yes, they are - er - Colonel Fitzwilliam and his cousin - er, Miss Darcy."
Henry dropped his cup. "I beg your pardon," he said, staring down in bewilderment, and called a servant to clean up the mess. "Miss Darcy! I . . . I did not know she was in town."
"She just returned," Mrs Gardiner said truthfully.
Dinner was almost as dreadful as he expected.
Fitzwilliam stationed himself at his cousin's side, and eyed Henry with considerable suspicion for the entire evening.
Nobody talked about the wedding, of course, or any of the events leading up to it; if not for Mr and Mrs Gardiner, Henry did not know how they would have talked at all. As it was, he had no memory whatsoever of anything he said.
Catherine seemed exactly herself - quiet, beautiful, and inflexibly well-bred. She was a little stiff, of course, but tried not to be, and he caught more than a few touches of wryness in her manner. She smiled at him twice.
Henry wondered if she knew: if she pitied him, or - or - he could not even think it.
He returned to Longbourn in a gloom even he could not quite laugh himself out of, though he had some success at concealing it. - Lydia and Wickham's presence provided all the explanation required, even by Jane.
One day, shortly before her departure, Lydia told her eldest sister,
"Jane, I never gave you an account of my wedding, I believe. You were not by, when I told Mama and the others about it. Are you not curious to hear how it was managed?"
Jane opened her mouth and then closed it again, entirely at a loss for words.
"Lydia," said Henry, "I think there cannot be too little said on the subject."
"La! You are so strange! But then, you were there yourself, so I cannot suppose you care about it. Why, you would not even speak to Papa about my wedding-clothes. Miss Darcy had to get them for me."
"Miss Darcy!" Henry repeated in utter amazement.
Lydia clapped a hand over her mouth. "Gracious me! I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. I promised them so faithfully! What will Wickham say? It was to be such a secret!"
"If it was to be secret, say not another word on the subject," said Jane. "You may depend upon my seeking no further."
"Oh, certainly; we will ask you no questions," Henry added, burning with curiosity.
Lydia looked slyly at them. "Thank you - for if you did, I should certainly tell you all, and then Wickham would be angry."
He suffered dozens of wild conjectures for a few hours; then, unable to bear the suspense, he snatched up a piece of paper and scrawled a letter to his aunt.
Mrs Gardiner's reply came with commendable haste. Henry announced that he intended to take a long walk, and hurried out to read it.
He could scarcely believe his eyes. Catherine had done it all - well, not all, but as much as a lady could possibly do - discovered them, bribed Wickham to marry Lydia, paid for the commission, and completed the affair with extravagant wedding-clothes.
My God, he thought, almost dropping the letter. Catherine, Catherine, do you do nothing by halves?
Had she done it for him? No, of course not - but perhaps, some remaining partiality - perhaps she had felt something -
He heard someone approaching, and quickly folded the letter.
"I am afraid I interrupt your solitary ramble, my dear brother," said Wickham cheerfully.
Henry's teeth clenched. "You certainly do. Are the others coming out?"
"I do not know. Mrs Bennet and Lydia are going in the carriage to Meryton. - And so, brother, I find from our uncle and aunt, that you have actually seen Pemberley."
"I almost envy you the pleasure," said Wickham, sighing, "and yet I believe it would be too much for me, or else I could take it in my way to Newcastle. And you saw the old housekeeper, I suppose? Poor Reynolds, she was always very fond of me. But of course she did not mention my name to you."
"Oh, but she did."
"And what did she say?"
Henry's grin bared perhaps a few more teeth than absolutely necessary. "That you were gone into the army, and she was afraid had turned out badly - a wastrel with no value for anybody, and therefore valued by none." He paused. "At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented."
"Certainly," he replied, biting his lip. Henry hoped he had silenced him, but had no such luck. "I was surprised to see Miss Darcy in town last month. We passed each other several times. I wonder what she can be doing there."
"Perhaps preparing for her marriage with Lord Rochford," said Henry, and smiled brightly. "No doubt she will make a fine viscountess."
Wickham and Lydia left for Newcastle, much to the relief of everyone but Mrs Bennet. However, even she was cheered by the news which almost immediately followed: Mr Bingley was returning to Netherfield.
Jane caught her breath and blushed. She had not so much as mentioned his name for months, but as soon as she and Henry were alone, she said,
"I know I appeared distressed, but don't imagine it was from any silly cause. I was only confused for the moment, because I felt that I should be looked at. I do assure you that the news does not affect me either with pleasure or pain."
He allowed this to pass with only a single incredulous glance. From what he had seen in Derbyshire, Bingley was still partial to Jane. Had he been bold enough to come of his own volition?
Bingley and his party arrived in due course, and called at Longbourn three days after their arrival.
"Look - look!" called Mrs Bennet. " 'Tis Mr Bingley and his sister! Jane, why did you not wear the green gown?"
Jane resolutely kept her place at the table, but Henry obliged his mother and went to the window - looked - saw Miss Darcy with the Bingleys - and sat down again.
"There is a lady with them, Mama," said Kitty. "Who can it be?"
Henry, feeling his pulse thundering in his head, almost laughed when Mrs Bennet replied in utter indifference,
"Some acquaintance or other, my dear, I suppose; I am sure I do not know."
"La! It looks just like that woman that used to be with them before. Miss What's-her-name. That tall, proud girl."
"Miss Darcy," said Henry tonelessly.
Jane's eyes widened. He had told her almost nothing of their meeting in Derbyshire, and therefore she believed that this meeting must be almost the first since he had received her letter, with all the awkwardness that implied. Brother and sister each felt for each other, and of course for themselves, and heard nothing their mother said, but Jane could not guess at Henry's further sources of anxiety. Miss Darcy was not merely a person whose affections he had disappointed and whose merit he had undervalued, but the woman he loved, and to whom they were all indebted.
He hardly knew what was said; Bingley looked friendly, Miss Bingley supercilious, and Catherine serious, as usual. Aside from an enquiry after the Gardiners, the latter never spoke, and all in all seemed much more akin to the Miss Darcy he had first known than the one he had met at Pemberley. When, unable to resist the impulse, he raised his eyes to her face, he found her staring at Jane as frequently as himself, and often simply at the ground.
His only comfort was that Bingley, after the first awkward minutes, gave Jane more and more of his attention, looking every bit as besotted as he had ever done.
Mrs Bennet invited them to dinner in a few days, reminding Bingley of the invitation he had missed the previous winter. He looked blank and mumbled something incoherent, but accepted gladly.
"I am very happy for Jane," said Charlotte Lucas, when he related the events of the day to her. "But Harry, you do not seem pleased. Do you disapprove of the match?"
"No, of course not." Henry fingered his cane, wondering how much he dared to say. "It is only . . . I am afraid I misjudged Miss Darcy somewhat. It is rather uncomfortable to be in company with her."
"She will undoubtedly overlook it." Charlotte smiled. "She is better-humoured than one might think."
"Yes, I know." He remembered Miss Darcy's letter - not his, but the one Charlotte had shown them months earlier. As casually as he could, he asked, "Have you been corresponding with her all this time?"
"Oh, yes. I suppose I have dozens of her letters, now."
Henry suppressed a twinge of envy.
"I have not seen her yet, however. Did she look well?"
"Very well." He rubbed his temples. "That is - a little tired, perhaps, but still lovely."
Charlotte gave him an odd look.
The dinner-party was an unmitigated success, as far as Mrs Bennet was concerned. Bingley had attended to Jane almost as devotedly as before; Mr Bennet did not insult anybody; and, to top it all off, Miss Darcy complimented her partridges.
Henry, exhausted, closed his eyes. He was pleased for Jane, truly; but for himself, he could not quite share his mother's joy. Even if he had been able to scrounge up the courage to speak to Miss Darcy, rather than simply staring at her, Miss Lucas had almost completely monopolized her attention. The two girls had been quietly overjoyed to meet again, and - well. He hardly begrudged them their friendship, but it made things that bit more awkward than they already were.
Bingley called again a few days later, without Miss Bingley or her friend.
"My sisters are indisposed, and Miss Darcy had business in London - something to do with her estate," he said, a little coolly, then laughed. "I am too idle and feckless a fellow to understand anything she said about it."
He could not dine with them, unfortunately, but he quickly accepted an invitation to do so on the following day. Mrs Bennet did her best to leave him alone with Jane, aided by an uncomprehending Kitty and reluctant Henry - to no avail, except to silence Jane's declarations of indifference.
He came to shoot with Mr Bennet the next morning, and upon accepting another invitation to dinner, was yet again subject to Mrs Bennet's machinations. Henry had wandered off to write a letter to a friend in Gloucestershire, and when he returned, he saw his sister and Bingley standing together over the hearth, as if engaged in earnest conversation. They turned sharply around, and all three flushed in sympathetic embarrassment.
Bingley whispered something to Jane and ran out of the room, and Jane flew into her brother's arms.
"I am the happiest creature in the world!" she cried, lifting tearful dark eyes to his face. " 'Tis too much! by far too much. I do not deserve it. Oh! why is not everybody as happy?"
Henry congratulated her with wholehearted delight.
"Oh! Hal, to know what I have to relate will give such pleasure to all my dear family! how shall I bear such happiness?"
And with that, she rushed upstairs to tell Mrs Bennet and Kitty.
From this time onward, Bingley visited Longbourn daily, arriving before breakfast and remaining until after supper, unless some barbarous neighbour- who could not be enough detested- had given him an invitation to dinner which he felt himself obliged to accept.
The news soon spread to all the neighbourhood; Mrs Bennet told Mrs Phillips, and Mrs Phillips told everyone. Only a few weeks earlier, they had all declared that the Bennets were the unluckiest family in the world - but now, they were proved to be marked out for fortune.
About a week later, Bingley and the ladies were all sitting together in the dining room, when they saw a chaise-and-four driving up the lawn. It was too early for visitors and none of them recognised the carriage or the livery; but since a visitor had come regardless, Bingley and Jane escaped into the shrubbery.
"Lady Catherine de Bourgh, ma'am."
Henry almost stared, his mother and sister actually did so, and Lady Catherine entered with an even more ungracious air than usual.
"What an unexpected pleasure, your ladyship," said Henry.
Lady Catherine only inclined her head in response and sat down. After several moments, she said,
"I hope you are well, Mr Bennet. That lady, I suppose, is your mother."
Henry's eyebrows rose. "She is."
"And that I suppose is one of your sisters."
Mrs Bennet, so far from being offended by this, was only too delighted to speak to a Lady Catherine. "Yes, madam. She is my youngest girl but one. My youngest of all is lately married, and my eldest is somewhere about the grounds, walking with a young man who will soon become part of the family."
Lady Catherine glanced about with a critical eye. "You have a very small park here."
The conversation continued for several minutes, Mrs Bennet's desperate civilities meeting Lady Catherine's resolute lack of them, until finally her ladyship rose and turned to Henry.
"Mr Bennet, there seemed a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you would favour me with your company."
Bemused but intrigued, Henry gladly assented. They walked in silence along the gravel that led to the copse, Henry determined to make no effort at conversation in the face of such disagreeable insolence. More than once, he glanced at her face and wondered how he could ever thought her like her niece.
As soon as they were safely alone in the copse, Lady Catherine announced: "You can be at no loss, Mr Bennet, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I am come."
"You are mistaken, madam," said Henry, in utter astonishment. "I have not at all been able to account for the honour of seeing you here."
Lady Catherine's eyes blazed. "Mr Bennet, you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you will not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness -"
"I am sure it has," said Henry.
"- and in cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. A report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago. I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Mr Henry Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards making proposals to my niece, my own niece, Miss Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood, though I would not injure her so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you."
Henry flushed. "If you believed it impossible to be true," said he, "I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What could your ladyship propose by it?"
"At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted!"
"Your coming to see me will be rather a confirmation of it - if," he added coolly, "such a report is indeed in existence."
"If!" Lady Catherine cried. "Do you then pretend to be ignorant of it? Do you not know that such a report is spread abroad, likely by yourself?"
Henry lifted his chin. "I never heard that it was."
"And can you likewise declare that there is no foundation for it?"
Henry hesitated. Had he done anything to provide fodder for a rumour of this kind? It could be unpleasant for Miss Darcy - but no. He had hardly spoken to her. Charlotte, perhaps, might have guessed at his feelings - the Lord only knew what Catherine had let slip in her letters - but she would not have done this. She adored Catherine.
"I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship," he said finally. "You may ask questions which I shall choose not to answer."
"This is not to be borne!" Lady Catherine marched a few feet ahead, the birds and fruit on her hat swaying wildly, then whirled to face him. "Mr Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has my niece accepted an offer of marriage from you?"
Henry smiled. "Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible."
"It ought to be so. It must be so, while she retains the use of her reason. But your charm and audacity may, in a moment of infatuation, have made her forget what she owes to herself and to all her family."
"Why, thank you," said Henry. "I am flattered that you think so highly of my abilities."
"Mr Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this."
"That is unfortunate."
"I am almost the nearest relation she has in the world, and am entitled to know all her dearest concerns."
He did not know if Catherine were particularly fond of her namesake; even if so, however, he felt reasonably confident that she would object to this. "You are not entitled to know mine," he pointed out.
"Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Miss Darcy is engaged to my nephew. Now what have you to say?"
Henry almost laughed. This was about Fitzwilliam's cipher of a brother? Even at Rosings itself, Catherine had never so much as alluded to his existence. "Only this," said he. "If she is so, then you can have no reason to suppose she will accept an offer from me."
Lady Catherine looked away. "The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From her infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of her mother, as well as our brother and myself; while in her cradle, we planned the union of the Fitzwilliam title and the Pemberley interest. She is descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line as my nephew, and on the paternal, from a respectable, honourable, and ancient, if untitled, family. Her fortune is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young man without family, connections or fortune. Is this to be endured? It shall not be!"
"Whatever my connections may be, if your niece does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."
"Tell me once for all, have you proposed marriage to her?"
Henry paused. Then he said:
"I have not."
She permitted herself a sigh of relief. "And will you promise me never to make such a proposal?"
"I will make no promise of the kind," said Henry. "Forgive me, but if these considerations exert such unanswerable force, why you did not bring them to bear on your niece herself? Surely she would be more likely to accord them their due importance than a feckless, impudent specimen such as myself?"
"I would not insult her - "
"Yes, yes; your niece is plainly made of such delicate stuff that she cannot endure the slightest enquiry. Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character if you think I can be worked upon by such persuasions as these. I can only suppose that you inexplicably believed me more susceptible to them than Miss Darcy, or -"
He caught his breath, eyes widening.
"- or you have already demanded similar assurances from her, without any more success than you have found with me."
"Catherine is too young and innocent to see your arts and allurements for what they are," Lady Catherine retorted. "I thought you might have some regard for her honour and credit. Do you not consider that a connection with you must disgrace her in the eyes of everybody? Unfeeling, selfish boy!"
Henry could have kissed her. He eyed her parasol, and thought better of it. "Lady Catherine, I have nothing further to say. You know my sentiments."
"You are then resolved to have her?"
"I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."
"Do not imagine," said Lady Catherine, her lips thinning, "that your ambition will ever be gratified. I came to try you. I hoped to find you reasonable; but, depend upon it, I will carry my point."
She lectured him all the way to the carriage, then turned sharply about. "I take no leave of you, Mr Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased."
Henry said nothing. Once she was gone, he walked back to the house, his mind racing. Only one thought clearly emerged: Catherine had refused to reject him. Catherine, who had barely managed to overcome similar scruples at the height of her feelings for him, had - she had stood against her own family, had all but agreed to accept him.
She would accept him.
Henry had only one choice left: should he go to London immediately, or wait for Miss Darcy's return to Netherfield?
He decided to wait.
After two days, his impatient ebullience had almost driven his family mad. Fortunately, she arrived the following morning; Henry saw her through the window and almost collapsed upon the sopha.
"Mr Bingley, Miss Bingley, and Miss Darcy, madam," said Hill.
Henry turned pale, his hands shaking, but managed to greet them all with a semblance of composure. Catherine avoided his gaze.
"It is a lovely day," Bingley announced. "Perhaps we could all walk out."
Mrs Bennet and Miss Bingley, neither in the habit of walking, demurred, but Jane, Kitty, Catherine, and Henry agreed.
Bingley and Jane soon lagged behind, fooling nobody, while the other three were left to entertain each other. Henry glanced sideways at his sister.
"Kitty, did you not intend to call on Miss Maria?"
"Oh! yes," she said, reluctantly tearing her eyes from their companion's gown, and hurried away.
Henry offered his arm, studiously ignoring the elegant line of her neck and shoulders.
She turned in his direction, gazing at him with cool, quizzical eyes. Every other feature might as well have been carved in stone.
They were so close, then, that he could see everything, the charcoal-grey ring about her irises, a small fading scratch across one cheekbone - and pale shadows beneath the eyes, as if she were not stone at all, but merely a woman who had not slept very well.
Henry swallowed, feeling his pulse thunder in his temples, and gathered what courage remained to him. "Miss Darcy," said he, "I am a very selfish man, and for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours."
Another shadow flickered across her face, and he regretted the words almost immediately. If not quite a falsehood, they were certainly not true.
"I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister."
Without any trace of her usual reserve, she cried, "I am sorry, exceedingly sorry, that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs Gardiner so little to be trusted!"
"Do not blame my aunt. Lydia first betrayed to me that you had purchased her wedding-clothes; I realised that you must have been concerned in the matter, and demanded an explanation of her. I . . . when I think of a lady, when I think of you, Miss Darcy - " she coloured - "bearing such trouble, so many mortifications, doing what you have done for the sake of my poor silly sister and the man you, above all, have every reason to detest - "
"Surely," said Catherine, "you do not think it was for him."
"I - " he paused. "No, of course not, but I do believe that you acted principally because of him. Miss Darcy, I cannot begin to express the gratitude I feel, that the rest of my family would feel, were it known to them."
She hesitated only a moment, meeting his gaze with that peculiar unflinching pride he had once detested in her, and which now had become inexplicably dear to him. "Mr Bennet," she said steadily, "I ask only that if you will thank me, let it be for yourself alone. I shall not attempt to deny that . . . that the wish of, in some way, giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on. Your family owe me nothing."
For one long, frozen moment, they stared at one another. Then, a smile twitched Henry's lips, touched his cheeks, and turned into a shout of laughter. "Miss Darcy," he said, looking into her indignant blue eyes and taking her hands in his, "dearest Miss Darcy, you cannot begin to imagine how I have tortured myself since that day at the Lambton Inn. I have thought of you - hoped and dreamt of, perhaps, gaining some intelligence of you - "
Her face changed; he saw her lips part over the next breath, her eyes widening. "Mr Bennet, you cannot mean - you cannot feel - "
"I feel," said he, lifting her fingers to his mouth, "that I have, after all, borne the name of Bennet quite long enough. Do you think yours would suit me, Miss Darcy?"
She could not speak. Nevertheless, she must have somehow made her sentiments known to him, for five weeks later, the following announcement appeared in The Times and The Courier:
Lately, Catherine, daughter of Christopher Darcy of Pemberley, and Lady Anne Darcy, was married to Henry Darcy, Esq.