AS NO OBJECTION was made to the young people’s engagement with their aunt, the coach conveyed Mr. Collins and his five cousins at a suitable hour to Meryton.
As they passed the croquet grounds and the scorched acre of woods that marked Penny McGregor’s final resting place, the idle chatter that had engaged them thus far was suddenly ended; for all six could think of nothing but the news which had only that morning reached them at Longbourn. Penny’s father, mad with grief, had thrown himself into a vat of boiling perfume. By the time his apprentices pulled him out, he had been badly disfigured and rendered blind. Doctors were unsure if he would survive, or if the stench would ever leave him. All sat in reverent silence until they reached the outskirts of Meryton.
Upon reaching their destination, Mr. Collins was at leisure to look around him and admire, and he was so much struck with the size and furniture of the apartment, that he declared he might almost have supposed himself in one of Lady Catherine’s drawing-rooms. Mrs. Philips felt all the force of the compliment, being herself quite aware of Lady Catherine’s proclivity for slaying the sorry stricken, which, she dare thought, exceeded that of her own nieces’.
In describing to her all the grandeur of Lady Catherine and her mansion, which had received considerable improvements, including a grand dojo, and new quarters for her private guard of ninjas, Mr. Collins was happily employed until the gentlemen joined them; and he found in Mrs. Philips a very attentive listener, whose opinion of his consequence increased with what she heard, and who was resolving to retail it all among her neighbours as soon as she could. To the girls, who could not listen to their cousin without taking a silent inventory of the countless ways they could kill him, the interval of waiting appeared very long. It was over at last, however. The gentlemen did approach, and when Mr. Wickham walked into the room, Elizabeth felt as if she had just been stunned by a devastating roundhouse kick. Such was his effect on her-that those traits of her sex, despite all her training, remained susceptible to influence. The officers of the shire were in general a very creditable, gentlemanlike set; but Mr. Wickham was as far beyond them all in person, countenance, air, and walk, as they were superior to the broad-faced, stuffy Uncle Philips, breathing port wine, who followed them into the room.
Mr. Wickham was the happy man toward whom almost every female eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he finally seated himself; and the agreeable manner in which he immediately fell into conversation, though it was only on its being a wet night, made her feel that the commonest, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker.
With such rivals for the notice of the fair as Mr. Wickham and the officers, Mr. Collins seemed to sink into insignificance; to the young ladies he certainly was nothing; but he had still at intervals a kind listener in Mrs. Philips, and was by her watchfulness, most abundantly supplied with coffee and muffin. When the card-tables were placed, he had the opportunity of obliging her in turn, by sitting down to Crypt and Coffin.
Mr. Wickham did not play at Crypt and Coffin, and with ready delight was he received at the other table between Elizabeth and Lydia. At first there seemed danger of Lydia’s engrossing him entirely, for she was a most determined talker; but being likewise extremely fond of cards, she soon grew too much interested in the game, too eager to know whether players would find their “crypts” eerily empty or their “coffins” happily full. Allowing for the common demands of the game, Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told-the history of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy. She dared not even mention that gentleman. Her curiosity, however, was unexpectedly relieved. Mr. Wickham began the subject himself. He inquired how far Netherfield was from Meryton; and, after receiving her answer, asked in a hesitating manner how long Mr. Darcy had been staying there.
“About a month,” said Elizabeth. “He is a man of many kills, I understand.”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Wickham; “his talent as a warrior is above reproach. 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 his family in a particular manner from my infancy.”
Elizabeth could not but look surprised.
“You may well be surprised, Miss Bennet, at such an assertion, after seeing, as a lady of your training probably might, the very cold manner of our meeting yesterday. Are you much acquainted with Mr. Darcy?”
“As much as I ever wish to be,” cried Elizabeth very warmly. “I have spent four days in the same house with him, and I think him very disagreeable.”
“I have no right to give my opinion,” said Wickham, “as to his being agreeable or otherwise. I am not qualified to form one. I have known him too long and too well to be a fair judge. It is impossible for me to be impartial. But I believe your opinion of him would in general astonish-and perhaps you would not express it quite so strongly anywhere else, other than here in your own family.”
“Upon my word, I say no more here than I might say in any house in the neighbourhood, except Netherfield. He is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with his pride. I hope your plans in favour of the shire will not be affected by his being in the neighbourhood.”
“Oh! No-it is not for me to be driven away by Mr. Darcy. If he wishes to avoid seeing me, he must go. We are not on friendly terms, and it always gives me pain to meet him, but I have no reason for avoiding him. We are, after all, both warriors-and it is beneath the honour of a warrior to shrink from the sight of any man. His father, Miss Bennet, the late Mr. Darcy, was one of the best zombie slayers that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had; and I can never be in company with this Mr. Darcy without being grieved by a thousand tender recollections. His behaviour to myself has been scandalous; but I believe I could forgive him anything, rather than his disappointing the hopes and disgracing the memory of his father.”
Elizabeth found the interest of the subject increase, and listened with all her heart; but the delicacy of it prevented further inquiry.
Mr. Wickham began to speak on more general topics, Meryton, the neighbourhood, the society, appearing highly pleased with all that he had yet seen, excluding of course the ever-increasing number of unmentionables-no doubt a direct consequence of Manchester’s collapse.
“A military life is not what I was intended for, but circumstances have now made it unavoidable, as they have for so many who intended otherwise with their lives. 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 gentleman we were speaking of just now.”
“Yes-the late 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 he was slain in the Second Battle of Kent, it was given elsewhere.”
“Good heavens!” cried Elizabeth; “but how could that be? How could his will be disregarded? Why did you not seek legal redress?”
“There was just such an informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from law. A man of honour could not have doubted the intention, but Mr. 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. But the fact is, that we are very different sort of men, and that he hates me.”
“This is quite shocking! He deserves to be felled at the end of a Zatoichi Cane Sword!”
“Some time or other he will be-but it shall not be by me. Till I can forget his father, I can never expose him or challenge him to duel.”
Elizabeth honoured him for such feelings, and thought him handsomer than ever as he expressed them.
“But what,” said she, after a pause, “can have been his motive? What can have induced him to behave so cruelly?”
“A thorough, determined dislike of me-a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. Had the late Mr. Darcy liked me less, his son might have borne with me better; but his father’s uncommon attachment to me irritated him, I believe, very early in life. He could find no fault with me, and I dare say it drove Darcy to resent my very existence. And when his father passed, he saw his opportunity to punish me for years of perceived injustice.”
“I had not thought Mr. Darcy so bad as this-though I have never liked him. I never suspected him of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such inhumanity as this.”
Mr. Wickham related to Elizabeth a tale from his youth, which he believed best illustrated the nature of that inhumanity. When he and Darcy were both boys of no more than seven years, the elder Darcy had taken a keen interest in their training. One day, during a daybreak spar, the young Wickham landed a severe kick, which sent Darcy to the ground. The elder Darcy implored Wickham to “finish” his son with a blow to the throat. When the boy protested, the elder Darcy-rather than punishing him for insolence, praised his generosity of spirit. The young Darcy, embarrassed more by his father’s preference than his own defeat, attacked Wickham when his back was turned-sweeping his legs with a quarterstaff, and shattering the bones of both. It was nearly a year before he walked without the aid of a cane.
“Can such abominable pride as his have ever done him good?”
“Yes. It has often led him to be liberal and generous, to give his money freely, to display hospitality, to assist his tenants, and relieve the poor. He has also brotherly pride, which, with some brotherly affection, makes him a very kind and careful guardian of his sister.”
“What sort of a girl is Miss Darcy?”
He shook his head. “I wish I could call her amiable. It gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy. But she is too much like her brother-very, very proud. As a child, she was affectionate and pleasing, and extremely fond of me; and I have devoted hours and hours to her amusement. But she is nothing to me now. She is a handsome girl, about fifteen or sixteen, and, I understand, highly skilled in the deadly arts. Since her father’s death, her home has been London, where a lady lives with her, and superintends her training.”
After many pauses and many trials of other subjects, Elizabeth could not help reverting once more to the first, and saying:
“I am astonished at his intimacy with Mr. Bingley! How can Mr. Bingley, who seems good humour itself, and is, I really believe, truly amiable, be in friendship with such a man? How can they suit each other? Do you know Mr. Bingley?”
“Not at all.”
“He is a sweet-tempered, amiable, charming man. He cannot know what Mr. Darcy is.”
The Crypt and Coffin party soon afterwards breaking up, the players gathered round the other table and Mr. Collins took his station between his cousin Elizabeth and Mrs. Philips. The usual inquiries as to his success was made by the latter. It had not been very great; he had found the majority of his crypts quite full of zombies; but when Mrs. Philips began to express her concern thereupon, he assured her with much earnest gravity that it was not of the least importance, that he considered the money as a mere trifle, and begged that she would not make herself uneasy.
“I know very well, madam,” said he, “that when persons sit down to a game of Crypt and Coffin, they must take their chances of these things, and happily I am not in such circumstances as to make five shillings any object. There are undoubtedly many who could not say the same, but thanks to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I am removed far beyond the necessity of regarding little matters.”
Mr. Wickham’s attention was caught; and after observing Mr. Collins for a few moments, he asked Elizabeth in a low voice whether her relation was very intimately acquainted with the family of de Bourgh.
“Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” she replied, “has very lately given him a living. I hardly know how Mr. Collins was first introduced to her notice, but he certainly has not known her long.”
“You know of course that Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lady Anne Darcy were sisters; consequently that she is aunt to the present Mr. Darcy.”
“No, indeed, I did not. I knew only of Lady Catherine’s claim to quieting more of Satan’s servants than any woman in England.”
“Her daughter, Miss de Bourgh, will have a very large fortune, and it is believed that she and her cousin will unite the two estates.”
This information made Elizabeth smile, as she thought of poor Miss Bingley. Vain indeed must be all her attentions, vain and useless her affection for his sister and her praise of Mr. Darcy himself, unaware that he was already destined for another.
“Mr. Collins,” said Elizabeth, “speaks highly both of Lady Catherine and her daughter; but I suspect his gratitude misleads him, and that in spite of her being his patroness and a great warrior, she is an arrogant, conceited woman.”
“I believe her to be both in a great degree,” replied Wickham; “I have not seen her for many years, but I very well remember that I never liked her, and that her manners were dictatorial and insolent. She has the reputation of being remarkably skilled; but I rather believe she derives part of her fame from her rank and fortune.”
Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together, with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Mr. Wickham’s attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mrs. Philips’s supper party, but his manners recommended him to everybody. Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully. Elizabeth went away with her head full of him. She could think of nothing but of Mr. Wickham, and of what he had told her, all the way home; but there was not time for her even to mention his name as they went, for she and her sisters could hear the groans of unmentionables echoing through the pitch black woods on either side of the carriage. They were distant enough so as not to arouse a fear of imminent attack, but close enough to necessitate a minimum of noise. They rode in silence, the girls with their firearms resting neatly on their laps. For once, Mr. Collins could not be persuaded to make a sound.