MR. COLLINS WAS NOT a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of a brave but illiterate father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had oft borne the condemnation of his peers for a perceived lack of bloodlust. The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him much knowledge of the art of combat; but it was a good deal counteracted by his weak head, fleshy figure, and now, the ease of his current patronage. A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who had been forced to behead her previous rector when he succumbed to the walking death.
Having now a good house and a very sufficient income, he intended to marry; and in seeking a reconciliation with the Longbourn family he had a wife in view, as he meant to choose one of the daughters, if he found them as handsome and amiable as they were represented by common report. This was his plan of amends-of atonement-for inheriting their father’s estate; and he thought it an excellent one, full of eligibility and suitableness, and excessively generous on his own part.
His plan did not vary on seeing them. The eldest daughter’s lovely face and striking muscle tone confirmed his views, and for the first evening she was his settled choice. The next morning, however, made an alteration; for in a quarter of an hour’s t^ete-`a-t^ete with Mrs. Bennet before breakfast, a conversation beginning with his parsonage-house, and leading naturally to the avowal of his hopes, that a mistress might be found for it at Longbourn, produced from her, amid very complaisant smiles and general encouragement, a caution against the very Jane he had fixed on. As to her younger daughters, she could not take upon her to say-she could not positively answer-but she did not know of any prepossession; her eldest daughter, she must just mention-she felt it incumbent on her to hint, was likely to be very soon engaged.
Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, and perhaps surpassing her in skill, succeeded her of course. Mrs. Bennet treasured up the hint, and trusted that she might soon have two daughters married; and the man whom she could not bear to speak of the day before was now high in her good graces.
Lydia’s intention of walking to Meryton was not forgotten; every sister except Mary agreed to go with her, determined that she survive the trip. Mr. Collins was to attend them, at the request of Mr. Bennet, who was most anxious to get rid of him, and have his library to himself.
Mr. Collins used the walk to Meryton to his advantage, spending most of it at the side of Elizabeth-who was watching the surrounding woods, prepared to meet to first sign of trouble with her Brown Bess. Jane and the others followed behind, their muskets also thus engaged. Mr. Collins, who fancied himself a man of peace, carried neither barrel nor blade; he happily puffed away on his ivory and chestnut pipe-“a gift from her ladyship,” he boasted at every opportunity.
They were scarcely a quarter mile past the old croquet grounds, when Elizabeth first caught the scent of death. Seeing her body tense, the other girls raised their muskets and closed ranks, ready to meet an attack from any direction.
“Is… is there some sort of trouble?” asked Mr. Collins, who suddenly looked as if he might faint.
Elizabeth pressed a finger to her lips, and motioned for her sisters to follow. She led them along a set of carriage tracks, her footsteps so light as to leave even the smallest grain of sand undisturbed. The tracks continued for a few yards before suddenly veering toward the woods, where broken branches signaled the very spot it had left its wheels and plummeted into the ravine that paralleled one side of the road. Elizabeth peered over the side. Some twenty yards below, eight or nine blood-soaked zombies crawled over a shattered wagon and its leaking barrels. Most of them were busy picking at the innards of the carriage horse; but one happy dreadful was scooping the last morsels from the broken skull of the driver-a young girl the sisters recognized at once.
“Good Heavens!” whispered Jane. “Penny McGregor! Oh! Poor, miserable girl! How often we warned her not to ride alone!”
Penny McGregor had delivered lamp oil to Longbourn, and most of the estates within thirty miles of Meryton, since she was scarcely old enough to talk. The McGregors owned a modest home not far from town, where they daily received cartfuls of whale blubber, and processed it into lamp oil and fine perfumes. The smell was unbearable, especially during summer; but their goods were desperately needed, and the McGregors were known to be among the most pleasant people in all of Hertfordshire.
“God have mercy on that wretched girl,” said Mr. Collins, who had joined them.
“Can’t we just be on our way?” asked Lydia. “There’s no helping her now. Besides, think of how dirty our dresses will get if we have to fight in that awful ravine.” As Jane expressed her shock at such a sentiment, and Kitty argued in favor of it, Elizabeth took the pipe from Mr. Collins’ mouth, blew on the glowing tobacco, and threw it over the side.
“That was a gift from her ladyship!” he cried, loud enough to draw the attention of the zombies below. They looked up and let loose their terrible roars, which were cut short by a violent, fiery explosion as pipe and oil met. Suddenly engulfed, the zombies staggered about, flailing wildly and screaming as they cooked. Jane raised her Brown Bess, but Elizabeth pushed the barrel aside.
“Let them burn,” she said. “Let them have a taste of eternity.”
Turning to her cousin, who had averted his eyes, she added, “You see, Mr. Collins… God has no mercy. And neither must we.”
Though angered by her blasphemy, he thought better of saying anything on the matter, for he saw in Elizabeth’s eyes a kind of darkness; a kind of absence-as if her soul had taken leave, so that compassion and warmth could not interfere.
Upon entering Meryton, after stopping at the McGregors to deliver the unhappy news, the eyes of the younger ones were immediately wandering up in the street in quest of the officers, and nothing less than a very smart bonnet indeed, or the wail of the undead, could recall them.
But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with another officer on the other side of the way. The other officer, Mr. Denny, was known to Lydia, and he bowed as they passed. All were struck with the stranger’s air, all wondered who he could be; and Kitty and Lydia, determined to find out, led the way across the street, under pretense of wanting something in an opposite shop, and fortunately had just gained the pavement when the two gentlemen, turning back, had reached the same spot. Mr. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce his friend, Mr. Wickham, who had returned with him the day before from town, and he was happy to say had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation-a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming; and the whole party were still standing and talking together very agreeably, when the sound of horses drew their notice, and Darcy and Bingley were seen riding down the street. On distinguishing the ladies of the group, the two gentlemen came directly towards them, and began the usual civilities. Bingley was the principal spokesman, and Jane Bennet the principal object. He was then, he said, on his way to Longbourn on purpose to inquire after her. Mr. Darcy corroborated it with a bow, and was beginning to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger.
Elizabeth happened to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, so slight as to escape all but her highly trained eye. Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat-a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. Elizabeth could tell by the miniscule twitches of Darcy’s sword hand that he had briefly flirted with the notion of drawing his blade. What could be the meaning of it?
In another minute, Mr. Bingley, without seeming to have noticed what passed, took leave and rode on with his friend.
Mr. Denny and Mr. Wickham walked with the young ladies to the door of Mr. Philips’s house, and then made their bows, in spite of Miss Lydia’s pressing entreaties that they should come in, and even in spite of Mrs. Philips’s throwing up the parlour window and loudly seconding the invitation.
Mrs. Philips was always glad to see her nieces; and the two eldest, from their recent absence, were particularly welcome. Her civility was claimed towards Mr. Collins by Jane’s introduction of him. She received him with her very best politeness, which he returned with as much more, apologising for his intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with her. Mrs. Philips was quite awed by such an excess of good breeding; but her contemplation of one stranger was soon put to an end by exclamations and inquiries about the other; of whom, however, she could only tell her nieces what they already knew, that Mr. Denny had brought him from London, and that he was to have a lieutenant’s commission in the regiment which was presently engaged to the North. She had been watching him the last hour, she said, as he walked up and down the street, and had Mr. Wickham appeared, Kitty and Lydia would certainly have continued the occupation, but unluckily no one passed windows now except a few of the officers, who, in comparison with the stranger, were become “stupid, disagreeable fellows.” Some of them were to dine with the Philipses the next day, and their aunt promised to make her husband call on Mr. Wickham, and give him an invitation also, if the family from Longbourn would come in the evening. This was agreed to, and Mrs. Philips protested that they would have a little bit of hot supper, and a nice comfortable noisy game of Crypt and Coffin. The prospect of such delights was very cheering, and they parted in mutual good spirits.
As they walked home, Elizabeth related to Jane what she had seen pass between the two gentlemen; but though Jane would have defended either or both, had they appeared to be in the wrong, she could no more explain such behaviour than her sister.