The next morning Elizabeth had still not recovered from the surprise of Darcy’s proposal to her. Feeling in need of exercise and fresh air, she decided to have a walk. In order to avoid meeting Mr Darcy, she kept away from her favourite path, but could not resist walking a little way into Lady Catherine’s park. There she was astonished to see Darcy himself approaching her and calling her name.
‘I have been walking some time in the hope of meeting you,’ he said. ‘Will you do me the honour of reading this letter?’ And, handing her an envelope, he bowed slightly and walked quickly away.
With no expectation of pleasure, but with the strongest curiosity, Elizabeth opened the letter, and began to read it as she continued her walk alone:
Do not be alarmed, madam, that I shall repeat the offer which so disgusted you last night. I have no intention of mentioning again wishes which, for the happiness of both of us, cannot be too soon forgotten. I would not have written, but justice requires my character to be defended. You accused me last night of two very different offences. The first was that I had separated Mr Bingley from your sister, in spite of their mutual affection, and the second was that I had destroyed Mr Wickham’s chance of future wealth and happiness, in spite of my father’s honourable promises to him. I hope that you will no longer blame me for either of these offences, when you have read the explanation which follows. If I am forced to describe feelings which offend you, I can only say I am sorry.
I had not been long in Hertfordshire before I noticed that Bingley preferred your elder sister Jane to any other young woman. But I had often seen him in love before, and it wasn’t until the Netherfield ball that I realized how serious his attachment was. I was careful to observe your sister closely, and as her manners and appearance were as pleasant and cheerful as ever, I remained convinced that she did not feel strongly about him. I was perhaps deceived by her calmness, and in that case, your anger has not been unreasonable. But I sincerely believed that her heart had not been touched. I objected to Bingley’s possible marriage to her, not only for those reasons of social inferiority that I mentioned to you last night, but also for reasons which in my case I had tried to forget, but which I must state now.
The behaviour that evening of your mother, your three younger sisters, and occasionally even your father, was so lacking in social correctness that I made up my mind to save my friend from what I considered would be a most unhappy marriage. If you are upset by my description of your family’s faults, it may comfort you to consider that you and your elder sister have avoided any share of blame, and deserve nothing but honourable praise for your behaviour.
To continue – when I was in London, with the help of Bingley’s sisters, who shared my opinion, I explained to him the disadvantages of marriage to your sister. This alone would not have been enough to prevent the marriage, if I had not also been able to convince him of your sister’s indifference to him. Then it was easy to persuade him not to return to Hertfordshire.
I do regret one thing, however. Miss Bingley and I both knew that your sister was in London, but we hid the fact from Bingley. In this I consider I was less than honest, but I have no other apology to offer.
Your other, more serious accusation refers to Mr Wickham. Here again I may cause you pain – only you can tell how much. In order to show you his real character I must explain the whole of his connection with my family. His late father worked for mine for many years, helping to look after the Pemberley farms. His son, George Wickham, received much kindness from my father, who paid for him to go to school and to university. My father hoped the young man would enter the Church. If he became a priest, I was to give him the post of rector in a village near Pemberley, when it became vacant.
But even before my father died, I had discovered Wickham’s weakness of character and lack of morals.
After my father’s death, Wickham wrote to inform me that he did not intend to enter the Church, and asked for an amount of money instead of the post of rector. I knew that, with his character faults, he ought not to become a priest, and I therefore agreed at once.
The business was soon arranged. He resigned all claim to the church post, and accepted three thousand pounds instead. I hoped that I would not see him or hear from him again.
But three years later he wrote again, this time to ask for the rector’s post, informing me that his money had all gone and his situation was desperate. You will hardly blame me for refusing. Since then he has doubtless been violent in accusing me of injustice to all who will listen to him.
There is one more circumstance which I would like to forget myself, but which I must now mention. I rely on your keeping this confidential. A year ago, I sent my sister, who is ten years younger than I am, on holiday to Ramsgate in Kent, in the care of a female companion. Unfortunately, there was an understanding between this woman and Mr Wickham, who also went to Ramsgate. With her help and encouragement, he spent a great deal of time with Georgiana, and flattered her so much that she believed she was in love, and agreed to elope with him. She was only fifteen at the time, and I am glad to say that she confessed everything to me immediately, when I arrived unexpectedly in Ramsgate just before their planned elopement.
Naturally, I dismissed the companion, and wrote to Wickham, who left the place at once. He was doubtless most interested in my sister’s fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds, but I cannot help supposing that he was also eager to revenge himself on me. I hope you will now clear me of all blame in this matter. If, madam, you doubt the truthfulness of my description of these circumstances, I suggest you speak to Colonel Fitzwilliam. As my cousin and close friend, he knows every detail of these events, and will be happy to support what I say.
I will only add, may God be with you.
Elizabeth experienced a variety of emotions as she read the letter. She was astonished to discover that Darcy was capable of any sort of apology. It was with a strong prejudice against anything he might say that she began reading his explanation of what had happened at Netherfield, and at first she was too angry with him to treat him with justice. But when she went on to read his description of his relationship with Wickham, she hesitated. It was so very different from Wickham’s story, which she would have preferred to believe. But after a few moments’ thought she realized that Darcy’s statement was much more likely to be true.
She began to remember several things about Wickham which now appeared strange to her. On the first evening she had met him, he had told the whole story about his lost fortune and the Darcy family to her, a total stranger. Then he had boasted of having no fear of Darcy, but had avoided the Netherfield ball the very next week. In addition, he had waited until the Bingleys and Darcy had left Netherfield before making his accusations public.
She reminded herself that no one in Hertfordshire knew anything about Wickham’s past, so it was quite possible that he lacked morals, as Darcy said.
She had to admit that Darcy himself, though horribly proud, had always shown himself to be a gentleman. Finally, Darcy would certainly not have dared to refer her to Colonel Fitzwilliam, if he were not certain that his cousin could prove these statements. She became absolutely ashamed of herself. ‘How badly I have behaved!’ she cried. ‘How prejudiced I have been, I who have always been so proud of my ability to judge people! That pride has led me blindly into making a stupid mistake. Flattered by Wickham’s interest, and offended by Darcy’s coolness, I have misjudged both of them. Till this moment, I never knew myself.’
She re-read what Darcy had to say about Jane, and this time was forced to admit that Jane had displayed few outward signs of her feelings for Bingley. Charlotte had even commented on it. Then when Elizabeth looked again at Darcy’s comments on her family’s behaviour, her sense of shame was very great, and she could not deny the justice of his words. Feeling more miserable than she had ever felt before, she slowly returned to the Rectory, where she had difficulty in maintaining a cheerful appearance.
Mr Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam left Rosings the next day, and were sadly missed by their aunt, who now had so little entertainment that she invited the Collinses and their visitors several times that week. As Elizabeth only had a few days left before the end of her visit, she thought it fortunate that most of her time was occupied. When she had a moment to herself, it was a great relief to walk outside in the garden or the park, alone with her thoughts. She soon knew Mr Darcy’s letter by heart. Although she was still angry with him for the proud, over-confident way in which he had proposed, her anger turned against herself when she considered how unjustly she had criticized and accused him. She respected his character and felt pity for his disappointment, but did not for a moment regret her refusal, or have the slightest desire to see him ever again. She was saddened when she thought of her family. Her father enjoyed laughing at Kitty’s and Lydia’s foolishness so much that he never attempted to control his two youngest daughters, and her mother, whose own behaviour was far from correct, was completely unaware that anything was wrong. And poor Jane! It now appeared that Bingley’s affection had been sincere, and Jane’s disappointment had been indirectly caused by the behaviour of her own near relations.
On Saturday morning Elizabeth said goodbye to her friend Charlotte, feeling sorry to leave her with such a husband. But Charlotte, although regretting the departure of her visitors, appeared quite content with her domestic arrangements.
Mr Collins took care to say to Elizabeth, before she left, ‘I do hope, my dear Miss Elizabeth, that you will be as happy in marriage as I am. My dear Charlotte and I have one mind and one way of thinking. We seem to be made for each other.’
‘It is most fortunate when that is the case,’ was all that Elizabeth could safely reply. By midday she had arrived in London, where she had arranged to stay a few days at her aunt’s house. There was, however, no opportunity to discuss Mr Darcy’s letter with Jane, until they both reached Longbourn again, at the end of the week. It was pleasant to be at home again, but Elizabeth was very conscious of her younger sisters’ silliness. They were full of the sad news they had just heard, that the regiment was leaving Meryton in two weeks’ time and would be staying for the summer in Brighton, a holiday town on the south coast. Lydia and her mother were trying hard to persuade Mr Bennet to take them to Brighton too, for several months, as the summer would be so miserable in Hertfordshire without the officers. Fortunately, Elizabeth felt sure her father would not agree to this foolish idea.
When she and Jane were alone, she told her sister about Darcy’s proposal of marriage. Jane was astonished, but soon her sisterly feelings made her think it quite natural, and her kind heart felt pity for Darcy’s disappointment. However, when she heard about George Wickham’s wickedness, as explained in Darcy’s letter, she was deeply shocked. After some discussion, the sisters decided not to tell anyone what they knew about Wickham, as he would soon be leaving Meryton in any case.
Elizabeth felt greatly relieved by this conversation. She had got rid of two of her secrets, and was certain of a willing listener in Jane, whenever she might wish to talk again of either. But she dared not tell the third, and explain to Jane how sincere Bingley’s feelings for her had been. She could see that Jane was not happy, because of her continued warm affection for Bingley. However, there seemed little chance of Bingley marrying her now, and Elizabeth did not want to deepen Jane’s feelings of regret for her lost happiness.