Chapter Four

Elizabeth meets Mr Wickham

 

When later that morning Lydia suggested walking to Meryton to see some of the officers, all her sisters except Mary agreed to accompany her. Even Mr Collins went with them, encouraged by Mr Bennet, who was by now most anxious to have some time to himself. During their walk, the girls listened politely to Mr Collins’ self-important speeches, but as soon as they entered Meryton, the younger ones no longer even pretended to be interested in his conversation, but looked eagerly around in search of the officers.

Just then all the young ladies noticed a very gentleman-like young man, whom they had never seen before, walking down the street with an officer they knew. They were all wondering who the handsome stranger could be, when the officer came up to them to greet them. He asked permission to introduce his friend, whose name was Mr Wickham, and who had apparently arrived recently from London, to become an officer in the regiment. This was exactly as it should be, because the young man only needed an officer’s uniform to become completely charming. He was very good-looking, with a very pleasant, sociable manner, and after the introductions, conversation flowed most enjoyably in the little group.

They were still standing and talking happily together, when they heard the sound of horses, and saw Darcy and Bingley riding down the street. The two gentlemen came straight towards the ladies to greet them. Bingley was clearly most interested in Jane Bennet, and started talking particularly to her. Darcy, however, was just determining not to look at Elizabeth, when he suddenly noticed the stranger. By chance Elizabeth saw Darcy’s and Wickham’s faces at the moment when they caught sight of each other, and she was astonished at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour, one white, the other red. After a few moments Mr Wickham touched his hat, and Mr Darcy nodded very slightly. What could this mean? It was impossible to imagine, and it was impossible not to wish to know.

In another moment Mr Bingley, who did not seem to have noticed what had happened, said goodbye and rode away with Mr Darcy. The two officers accompanied the young ladies to Mrs Philips’ house, but did not go in, in spite of Lydia’s repeated invitations. Mrs Philips was always glad to see her nieces, and welcomed Mr Collins most politely when he was introduced to her. She did not, however, have any more information for the girls about the agreeable Mr Wickham. ‘But I tell you what, my dears,’ she said brightly, ‘I’m giving a little supper party for some of the officers tomorrow. I’ll ask Mr Philips to visit Mr Wickham and invite him to come too. Will you all come as well?’

The girls were delighted and agreed at once to this arrangement, and the whole group walked back to Longbourn, happily discussing the enjoyable evening they were going to have. Mr Collins had been very impressed with Mrs Philips’ politeness, and when they reached Longbourn, he complimented Mrs Bennet on her sister’s elegance and charming manners.

The next evening the carriage took him and his five cousins to Meryton, and the girls had the pleasure of hearing, as they entered the hall, that Mr Wickham had accepted their uncle’s invitation, and was at that moment in the house.

When Mr Collins was shown into the sitting-room, and had time to look around and admire it, he said immediately to Mrs Philips, ‘Madam, I must compliment you on the size and furniture of this room. Really, I could almost imagine myself in the smaller summer breakfast-room at Rosings!’

This remark did not at first please his hostess very much, but when she heard from him what Rosings was, and who its owner was, and how much Lady Catherine’s furniture cost, she realized what a great compliment it was.

During the evening Mr Collins found Mrs Philips a kind and attentive listener, which was fortunate, as the Bennet girls could not bring themselves to listen to him any longer. All the ladies were impatient to see Mr Wickham, and when he came into the room, he appeared far more charming and gentlemanly than any of the officers present. He was the lucky man towards whom almost every female eye turned, and Elizabeth was the lucky woman beside whom he finally took his seat.

His pleasant way of making conversation made her feel that he could talk interestingly about anything. As he did not play cards, which some of the party were doing, he stayed talking to Elizabeth for a large part of the evening. She hoped he would tell her how he knew Mr Darcy, but she dared not mention that gentleman. Luckily, however, Mr Wickham himself began to talk about it, although in a rather hesitating manner. ‘Netherfield is quite near Meryton, I suppose? How long has – has Mr Darcy been staying there?’

‘He has been there about a month,’ replied Elizabeth. Unwilling to let the matter drop, she added, ‘He is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand.’

‘Yes,’ replied Wickham, ‘his income is ten thousand a year at least. I know more about him than most people, as I have been closely connected with his family since childhood.’ Elizabeth could only look surprised. ‘You might well be surprised, Miss Bennet, at my saying that, after noticing, as you probably did, the very cold manner of our meeting yesterday. Do you know Mr Darcy well?’

‘As well as I ever wish to!’ cried Elizabeth. ‘I’ve spent four days in the same house as him, and I consider him very disagreeable.’

‘I’ve known him too long and too well to judge fairly whether he’s disagreeable or not. But I believe most people would be astonished by your opinion.’

‘He is not at all liked here in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with his pride. You won’t find him praised by anyone.’

‘I can’t pretend to be sorry that he is valued as he deserves, but with him I believe it doesn’t often happen. The world is blinded by his fortune and importance, or frightened by his proud behaviour, and sees him only as he chooses to be seen.’ After a pause Wickham added, ‘I wonder if he’s likely to stay at Netherfield much longer.’

‘I don’t know at all, but I hope his presence won’t stop you becoming an officer in the regiment here.’

‘Oh no! I won’t be driven away by Mr Darcy. If he wishes to avoid seeing me, he must go. The reason I have for avoiding him is one I could easily make public to the whole world – he has treated me very badly. His late father, Miss Bennet, was one of the best men who ever lived, and the most faithful friend I ever had. And whenever I’m with this Mr Darcy, I think of his father with the most painful regret. Mr Darcy has behaved wickedly towards me, but I could forgive him anything except the insult to his father’s memory.’

Elizabeth was fascinated, and listened eagerly, but did not like to ask any questions. Mr Wickham began to speak more generally about Meryton and the charming people he had met there. ‘In fact, that’s why I was tempted to join the regiment. I’d heard that Meryton society is most agreeable. Society, I confess, is necessary to me. I have been a disappointed man, you see. I did not intend to join the army at all. The Church ought to have been my profession, and I should at this moment have a comfortable income as a Derbyshire rector, if the gentleman we were speaking of just now had wished it.’

‘Indeed!’

‘Yes – Mr Darcy’s father had always been very fond of me, and intended to give me the post of rector of Pemberley. But unfortunately, after his death, when the post became vacant, it was given to someone else.’

‘No!’ cried Elizabeth, horrified. ‘But how could that happen? Why didn’t you get legal advice, and claim what was rightfully yours?’

‘Mr Darcy’s father had not stated his wish in writing. A man of honour could not have doubted his intention, but Mr Darcy chose to treat it as a recommendation only. I really cannot accuse myself of having done anything to deserve to lose the post. The fact is, he hates me. I think he was jealous of his father’s affection for me, which annoyed him from the beginning.’

‘This is very shocking! I hadn’t thought Mr Darcy as bad as this, although I’ve never liked him. I assumed he felt superior to everyone else, but did not suspect him of behaving in such a wicked, unjust, inhuman way!’

‘We grew up together at Pemberley, you know. My father gave up all his time to take care of the Pemberley farms, and was greatly appreciated as a close friend by the late Mr Darcy, who promised just before my father’s death to provide for me. The present Mr Darcy did not choose to respect that promise.’

‘How strange that Mr Darcy’s pride has not made him help you! Surely he’s too proud to wish to appear dishonest – which is what I must call him.’

‘He’s certainly very proud – proud of his position, his family, his father, and his sister, too, you know.’

‘What sort of a girl is Miss Darcy?’

He shook his head. ‘It gives me pain to criticize a Darcy. But she’s too much like her brother – very, very proud. She’s a handsome girl of about fifteen or sixteen, and, I understand, extremely accomp-lished.’

‘I am astonished at Mr Darcy’s close friendship with Mr Bingley! How can Mr Bingley, who seems so charming and kind, be friendly with such a man?’

‘I don’t know Mr Bingley at all, but Mr Darcy can be a pleasant companion if he thinks it worthwhile.’

Just then they were joined by some of the others, and the conversation became more general. When Mr Collins was talking to Mrs Philips about his patron, Mr Wickham looked looked quickly in his direction, and then asked Elizabeth, ‘Does your cousin know Lady Catherine de Bourgh very well?’

‘I don’t think he has known her for long, but she has recently given him the post of rector of Hunsford.’

‘Perhaps you know that Lady Catherine is the present Mr Darcy’s aunt? I believe she is planning to marry her daughter, who will inherit a fortune, to Mr Darcy.’

This information made Elizabeth smile, as she thought of poor Miss Bingley’s efforts to attract Mr Darcy, which might all be in vain.

The supper party came to an end, and Elizabeth went away with her head full of Mr Wickham. She could think of nothing but him, and what he had told her, all the way home. The next day she told Jane everything she had discussed with Mr Wickham. Jane listened with astonishment and concern. She could not believe that Mr Darcy could so little deserve Mr Bingley’s friendship, and yet she did not want to doubt the truthfulness of such an agreeable young man as Mr Wickham. Elizabeth, however, felt sure that Mr Darcy was to blame.

That morning an invitation arrived at Longbourn. Mr Bingley had fixed the date for the ball he had promised to give at Netherfield, and it was to be on the following Tuesday. Every female in the Bennet family was looking forward to it, even Mary, who lifted her head from her book to say, unsmiling, ‘As long as I have my mornings free for serious reading, I do not mind meeting people in the evenings. I consider some relaxation and amusement is good for everybody.’

Elizabeth felt so cheerful at the thought of dancing with Mr Wickham that she made an unusual effort to speak kindly to Mr Collins. ‘Will you accept Mr Bingley’s invitation, sir? And if you do, will you, as a priest, consider it right to dance?’

‘I shall certainly accept, and I am so far from objecting to dancing that I hope to have the honour of dancing with all my beautiful cousins. I take this opportunity of asking you, Miss Elizabeth, for the first two dances especially.’

She was very surprised, and rather annoyed. She had hoped that Wickham would ask her for those dances, but now she would have Mr Collins instead! She could not refuse, however, and his request also worried her in another way. His manner to her seemed particularly flattering, which gave her the unwelcome idea that perhaps she had been chosen from among her sisters to be the rector of Hunsford’s wife. As she observed the increasing number of compliments he paid to her beauty and character, she felt sure that he intended to propose marriage. For the moment, however, she decided to do nothing, but wait and see.

On Tuesday evening, when Elizabeth entered the hall at Netherfield and looked in vain for Mr Wickham among the red coats gathered there, she was surprised and disappointed to see he was not present. She had never doubted he would come, and had dressed with more than her usual care, looking forward to winning his heart, which she knew was already partly hers. But she immediately suspected that Darcy had persuaded Bingley not to invite Wickham, and although she discovered from one of the officers that in fact Wickham had been invited, but had been called away on business, she felt sure Wickham had wanted to avoid meeting Darcy, and blamed Darcy for this. As a result, when Darcy greeted her, she was so annoyed with him that she could hardly reply politely. But she soon became more cheerful, and determined to enjoy the ball in spite of Wickham’s absence.

Unfortunately, the first two dances, with Mr Collins, were painfully embarrassing, as her cousin had no idea how to dance, and moved extremely awkwardly. She was relieved to leave him, and have the third dance with an officer, who gave her great pleasure by talking about Wickham and his popularity in the regiment. After this, she was very surprised to be approached by Mr Darcy and invited to dance. She was so astonished, in fact, that she accepted him without thinking, and found herself standing opposite him on the dance floor. ‘What an honour for me, to be allowed to dance with Mr Darcy!’ she thought. They danced for some time in silence, and then she made a remark. He replied, and was silent again. After a pause, she spoke again. ‘Now you must say something, Mr Darcy. You could remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.’

He smiled. ‘I’ll say whatever you wish me to say.’

‘Very well. That reply will do for the moment.

Perhaps soon I’ll observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we can be silent. Conversation needs to be arranged in this way so that those people who don’t enjoy talking are not required to make any effort.’

‘Are you referring to yourself, or are you thinking of me?’

‘Both,’ said Elizabeth, smiling, ‘because I think you and I are similar. We’re both unsociable and unwilling to speak, unless we can astonish and impress the whole room.’

‘I am sure you aren’t like that,’ he answered. ‘I cannot say whether I am, or not. You obviously think so.’

She said nothing.

‘Do you and your sisters often go to Meryton?’ he continued.

‘We do,’ she replied, and, unable to resist the temptation, she added, ‘When you met us there last week, we had just been introduced to someone.’

The effect was immediate. There was a new coldness in Darcy’s expression. After a moment he said, with difficulty, ‘Mr Wickham is so agreeable that he makes friends easily. Whether he can keep them is less certain.’

‘He has been unlucky enough to lose your friendship,’ replied Elizabeth sharply, ‘and in a way which will cause him hardship all his life.’

Darcy did not reply to this, and there was only time for a little more conversation before the dance ended.

Elizabeth went to find Jane, and listened with delight as she described her feelings for Bingley, and her confidence in his affection for her. But apart from Jane, it seemed to Elizabeth that if her family had made an agreement to appear as stupid as possible during the ball, they could not have been more successful. First, Mr Collins insisted on going to introduce himself to Mr Darcy, the nephew of his respected patron, and was received very coldly. Then, during supper, Mrs Bennet could not be prevented from talking very loudly to Lady Lucas about her great hopes of Jane’s marriage to Bingley. Elizabeth blushed in embarrassment when she realized that the Bingley sisters and Mr Darcy were able to hear. Finally, when some music was required, Mary Bennet went confidently to the piano, and sang and played several songs, all rather badly.

The rest of the evening brought Elizabeth little amusement. She could not even go and talk to people she knew, as Mr Collins seemed determined to stay close by her side all evening. Fortunately, her good friend Charlotte Lucas occasionally gave her some relief, by kindly listening to some of Mr Collins’ long speeches. At least Elizabeth did not have to talk to Mr Darcy any more. He often stood near her, quite alone, but did not come close enough to speak. At the end of the evening it was obvious to Elizabeth that although her family had greatly enjoyed the ball, the Bingley sisters were eager for these particular guests to leave. Mr Collins, however, was enthusiastic in his praise of the Bingleys’ hospitality, and Mrs Bennet invited the whole Bingley family to visit Longbourn as soon as possible. She was feeling very satisfied, convinced that in three or four months Jane would be married to Bingley. She was also sure that Elizabeth would marry Mr Collins. This was a good enough marriage for Elizabeth, who was her least favourite daughter, but not nearly as impressive as Jane’s marriage to Bingley.