Concession and Conciliation
To Elizabeth it appeared that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit, or finer success; and happy did she think it for Bingley and her sister that some of the exhibition had escaped his notice, and that his feelings were not of a sort to be much distressed by the folly which he must have witnessed. That his two sisters and Mr. Darcy, however, should have such an opportunity of ridiculing his relations was bad enough, and she could not determine whether the silent contempt of the gentleman, or the insolent smiles of the ladies were more intolerable.
The rest of the evening promised little amusement or relief from her vexation. She was teased by Mr. Collins, who continued most perseveringly by her side, and though he could not prevail with her to dance with him again, put it out of her power to dance with others. He assured her that he was perfectly indifferent to it; that his chief object was by delicate attentions to recommend himself to her, and that he should therefore make a point of remaining close to her the whole evening. Elizabeth realized, not for the first time, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.
She could take no more, her vexation was extreme. Putting a hand to her forehead, she excused herself from the company of Mr. Collins, imputing a faintness coming upon her and the need to get fresh air, leaving as quickly as she might lest he offered to accompany her. Passing Charlotte Lucas, she entreated her friend to engage Mr. Collins in conversation to bring her relief. Charlotte good-naturedly agreed.
At the far end of the assembly room were doors covered by heavy drapes that Elizabeth knew led to small alcoves with windows to bring ventilation to the room in summer months. She slipped all but unnoticed past the draperies to the alcove. The one person who had observed her removal was Mr. Darcy. He had no intention of following her; indeed, that would be a breach of his principles as a gentleman. However, without knowing why, he moved closer to the doorway, so that he would be able to detect her return. By doing so, he unfortunately put himself closer to Mr. Collins as well.
Not wasting an opportunity to pay deference to the relation of his patroness, Mr. Collins excused himself to Charlotte, bowing and apologizing to such an extent that it amused Charlotte greatly to think how the parson might act had he truly trespassed against her.
Sidling up to Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins, in an exultant tone, exclaimed, "Sir, I have been so fortunate as to make a most important discovery! I have found out," said he, "by a singular accident, that you are a near relation of my patroness. I happened to overhear you, sir, mentioning to the young lady who does the honours of this house the names of your cousin Miss de Bourgh and of her mother, Lady Catherine. Although I would not have you think that I am of the ilk to listen in on other's conversations, I cannot think that but Providence alone has made the exception for me tonight! How wonderfully these sort of things occur! Who would have thought of my meeting with - perhaps - a nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in this assembly! - I am most thankful that this discovery is made in time for me to pay my respects to you, which I am now going to do, and trust that you will excuse my not having done it before. My total ignorance of the connection must plead my apology."
Darcy, whose mind was much more pleasantly occupied by the thoughts of a certain lady, was startled by the enthusiasm in which he was applied to. Before he could form a reply, Mr. Collins continued.
"Indeed, it is in my power to assure you that her ladyship was quite well yesterday a se'nnight ago, as was her daughter. From what I am to understand by my patroness, there is a great expectation of an illustrious alliance between the houses of Pemberley and Rosings Park"
Darcy rolled his eyes at this, no doubt Lady Catherine had informed this toadying man of her unrequited wish for he to marry his cousin Anne. Would this simpering fool ever leave? Darcy had no wish to be rude to him, but he had no desire to dignify this conversation with a reply.
Collins, receiving no disapprobation to dampen his entreaties, continued in a more conspiratorial tone. "My dear sir, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment in all matters based on your excellent reputation as set forth to me by Lady Catherine, in whose judgment I can find no fault. Your aunt has very kindly condescended to me the import of choosing a wife, and I must confess, that is the reason behind my visit to Longbourn. I would be most gratefully honoured if you would equally condescend to give me your opinion of my choice of partner, as I would wish not to upset Lady Catherine in any way..."
It was all too much for Darcy. Throughout the entire exchange, he had fixed a most unpleasant countenance upon the man. Mr. Collins, however, was not discouraged from speaking again, and Mr. Darcy's contempt was increasing with each word. Finally, he could take no more and rather than risk speaking to him and inviting a reply, he only made a slight bow, and moved another way. As he escaped the acquaintance of Mr. Collins--and truly, escaped was the only way to describe it--Darcy noted Miss Elizabeth had been absent for quite some time and made the decision to check on her welfare.
Determining that he would go to the alcove into which he saw her disappear, he made his way past Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth's mother was talking to Lady Lucas freely, openly, and of nothing else but of her expectation that Jane would be soon married to Mr. Bingley. It was an animating subject, and Mrs. Bennet seemed incapable of fatigue while enumerating the advantages of the match. His being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points of self-gratulation; and then it was such a comfort to think how fond the two sisters were of Jane, and to be certain that they must desire the connection as much as she could do. It was, moreover, such a promising thing for her younger daughters, as Jane's marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men; although she thought it very likely that Elizabeth would be married to Mr. Collins. Mr. Darcy started as he heard her words.
"To be sure, Mr. Collins is nothing to Mr. Bingley. Lizzy would not have the pin money nor carriages that Jane would have. Still, he is a respectable gentleman, and certainly good enough for that girl, if I could convince Mr. Bennet to talk some sense into her. Mark my words, Lizzy is far too impertinent for her own good. It vexes me greatly that Mr. Bennet does not take care to curb her in that way. What will become of us if she drives Mr. Collins away, I ask you? No, it is decided, Mr. Bennet must make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins."
At this exchange, Mr. Darcy's countenance changed gradually from indignant contempt to composed and steady gravity. He was disheartened to find himself at such close proximity to Mrs. Bennet, whose disapprobation was clear and though propriety forbade him from admitting it, mutual. The subject matter of which Mrs. Bennet appeared to be tireless was no less troubling. Though he had acknowledged Jane Bennet to be a beauty, she seemed distant and willing to receive Bingley's attention, but without displaying any of her own in recompense. Mrs. Bennet had evidently pushed her eldest daughter to make a match for the material gain of the Bennet family, her very words testified to it. And if one could believe Sir William, the entire town of Meryton appeared to be expecting it. This would not do! Darcy felt strongly that Bingley's regard was unmatched and would lead him to a loveless union. As his friend, he commissioned himself to save Bingley from the mercenary machinations all around him. If he were to be completely honest with himself, he did note that it the thought of
Elizabeth marrying Mr. Collins bothered him more than the thought of Bingley making an unequal match. However, he knew that his sense of honour required an action, and he meditated on the course it should take.
Inside the alcove, Elizabeth drew long breaths as she struggled to regain her composure. Unfortunately, she happened upon a conversation on the opposite side of the drapes that propelled her to even further grief,
"...upon my word, Louisa, you may depend on that woman doing everything in her power to situate her daughter at Netherfield. Jane Bennet is a sweet girl, to be sure, but really, a family that low connected to us! It is in every way unimaginable!"
"Consider, Caroline, family dinners with that woman, no doubt guessing the price of each course, all the while complimenting us in the most obliging way. And her younger daughters, too, bringing a different officer to dine with us each night. No, I am in agreement with you, Caroline, we must talk to Charles. Surely he can see that her mother's regard for our consequence is much stronger than Jane's regard for him."
"I propose we speak to Mr. Darcy. You know Charles will listen to his good opinion. He looked very grave at supper, did he not? No doubt his company with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Miss Eliza, with her pert opinions, gave him pause. Poor soul! -- I hardly wonder that he could enjoy his meal!"
Laughing openly at her relations, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst continued away from the alcove to which Elizabeth had secreted herself. The insults that she had heard made Elizabeth shake with anger. How dare they insinuate that Jane had little regard for Bingley? She could not comprehend how they could suggest such a thing. Why, Jane was in as much danger of falling greatly in love with their brother as he was to her! Then she recalled Charlotte Lucas' words that Jane should show more affection than she felt in order to reassure Bingley of her regard and secure his affection in return. Evidently, Jane's regard was not as obvious as she had believed. Elizabeth made the decision to seek out Jane and warn her of his sisters' treachery.
As she was about to place her hand on the draperies, another voice told her that someone else had moved in front of the doorway. Fearing being caught, she drew back and decided to wait until the voice had moved away as well. She recognized the voice as Captain Forster, who was entering into a quiet conversation with another officer, whose voice she could not immediately place. Embarrassed by what was clearly intended to be a private conversation, she willed herself to ignore it until the mention of Wickham pulled her back into the discourse.
"Begging your pardon, sir, this is hardly the proper forum for speaking to you of this matter, but I had wished to draw no attention on myself in this regard, so a proper interview seemed out of the question."
"Yes, yes, Sanderson, let us come to the point quickly, I find that Mrs. Forster does not appreciate my abandoning her at these assemblies for business."
"I understand, sir. It's about Wickham."
"Wickham! He is not here, is he?"
"No sir, he claimed to have business that called him to town. But the truth is, sir, do you see that gentleman over there, speaking to the mistress and her sister?"
"Yes, Mr. Bingley's friend, I believe, from Derbyshire."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley. My aunt is his sister's companion. I have intelligence from my aunt of a connection between Wickham and Mr. Darcy that I believe was the true motivation for Wickham's removal from the ball."
"I know all of that, Sanderson. Wickham told me himself that his late father was the steward of his estate some years ago and that he was promised a living by Darcy's father that was never given by the son."
"That is not exactly precise, sir. According to my aunt, Wickham refused the living that was offered to him, and was given no small amount in compensation. Nevertheless, Mr. Darcy has been applied to for relief of his debts on more than one occasion. And that's not the worst. The truth is, sir, that Wickham had designs on Mr. Darcy's sister last year, not the kind to bring up in company. It is my understanding from my aunt that Mr. Darcy prevented his sister, who was all of fifteen at the time, from eloping with Wickham. "
"Good Lord, man! One can hardly wonder that Wickham avoids Darcy then!"
"Yes, sir, but my concern is that Wickham has not atoned for his behaviour in the past. I have become aware from some of my men that Wickham has amassed a great deal of debt already in gaming with the men, though he has been with the militia but a short time. No doubt in response to this debt, he has made inquiries as to the fortunes of the other ladies in town, I suspect to make his fortune, though he seems to have preferred Miss Elizabeth Bennet at first. I believe Denny told him that the Bennet sisters had little by way of a dowry, so he set himself to find it elsewhere. However, given his past behaviour, I would not put it past him to take full advantage of any partiality he may receive from Miss Bennet without any honourable intentions."
"A scoundrel in our midst! Well, Sanderson, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I am going to have to watch our Wickham a little closer, am I not? At risk of betraying your confidence, I may need to approach Mr. Bennet to protect the honour of his daughter. I cannot have a scandal of that magnitude on my hands. Do you have anything other information to besmirch the man's character, Sanderson?" Col. Forster's amiable tone did not hide his agitation at the intelligence he had just received.
"No, sir, believe me, I did not wish to give you the information I had, but
I felt that it was important that you were aware. As you say, sir, it would behove us to avoid a scandal."
"Yes, well, if that is the case, thank you for making me aware of this situation. I shall rely on you to keep me abreast of any new developments.
Now, let us rejoin Mrs. Forster and endeavour to enjoy the rest of the evening."
As they moved away from the doorway, Elizabeth felt her surroundings swirling about her. Wickham -- as horrible a beast as they come! Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, "This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!" But to what purpose would Sanderson lie? This kind of lie would damage Wickham for life, and ensure that he would never be admitted in society again. Elizabeth tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence that might rescue him from the attacks of Sanderson, but no such recollection befriended her. His countenance, voice and manner had established him in her mind of every virtue, she had never had a wish of enquiring as to his real character. How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned! How differently Mr. Darcy's treatment of him now appeared! She instantly regretted the insinuations and allusions she made to Mr. Darcy during their dance. She still found him above his company, but her heart softened at the thought of Mr. Darcy's attentions despite her incivility and foreswore to approach him with more respect than she had in the past.
The object of her contemplations was aware that some considerable time had past since she stole away into the alcove. He was not unaware that Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had been in each other's confidence near her refuge and worried that Elizabeth might have overheard their resolution to approach him with their concerns of the match between Bingley and Miss Bennet, a concern that he shared with them. Mr. Darcy cautioned them not to express so openly amongst the Meryton neighbourhood, blanching a little at their indiscretion. He gave them his word that he would speak to Charles privately, to convince him of the improprieties of such a union.
His mind, having made such a resolution, now turned back to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He comprehended that had she overheard Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, her own mind might be even more mortified than was shown on her countenance at supper. Against his better judgment, as he was fearful of belying his growing esteem, he decided to inquire as to her health.
Darcy held sway the draperies and asked in a gentle voice, "Miss Bennet, are you feeling unwell?"
Elizabeth, after comprehending that none other than Mr. Darcy had found her retreat, burst into tears at all that occurred that evening.
Darcy, with more feeling than he would have rather exhibited, said, "Good God! What is the matter? Are you ill?"
"No, I thank you, Mr. Darcy. I am quite well, I am just overcome and your entrance startled me."
"I fear you must greatly desire my taking your leave, forgive me."
"No, again, I thank you," Elizabeth steeled herself, realizing that she had but this one chance to set right her actions this evening, "but I fear that if I do not relate to you now what has so upset me, I shall make myself much worse, for it involves you as much as I. If you please, sir, may I request a private conference with you?"
"If you would like." Elizabeth's words startled Darcy, but he held his countenance, "Would you prefer to talk here or shall we move to the library?"
"I dare not walk out of here in my present condition, sir. If you don't
mind, I would like to stay here."
"Very well, what have you to say to me?"
Elizabeth drew a large breath and allowed the words to pour from her, "Mr. Darcy, please allow me to apologize most exceedingly for my behaviour this evening. I cannot think of it without the greatest remorse. I have allowed my pride to prejudice me against you in regards to Mr. Wickham. I have come into some intelligence about Mr. Wickham's true character that will not allow me to view him or yourself with the same eye. Your forbearance in light of my allusions to him earlier this evening is truly commendable and gentlemanly beyond words. You warned me not to take your likeness at that time, and I'm afraid my vanity did not allow for the possibility that you were correct. I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I could not have been more wretchedly blind! 'Til this moment, I never knew myself!"
Darcy's heart leapt in spite of himself at such an open admission. He wanted to know how much she knew of Wickham, but couldn't bring himself to ask. He wanted to console the weeping woman in front of him, but knew not the right words. After some deliberation, he said, "Please Miss Bennet, your apology is unnecessary, but if it will comfort you, it is all forgotten from this moment. I am only too grateful that you have been spared from discovering Wickham's true nature with first-hand knowledge, as I am afraid too many have."
"Indeed, Mr. Darcy, the gratitude is all mine. I have but one more apology to make to you as well." Elizabeth could scarcely believe the words forming in her mouth, but felt a desperate need to clear her beloved sister's name in light of what she overheard from Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. "Although it pains me greatly to say this to you, sir, I am mortified by the behaviour of my family tonight, as I know you have witnessed yourself. My father is a fine gentleman, but unfortunately, does not take it upon himself to check the actions of his wife or my younger sisters, much to my chagrin this evening. As much as I love my family, I have to admit that my younger sisters are in need of guidance in their behaviours, which Jane and I attempt, but so often, are not attended at all. The utter lack of restraint my mother shows in her effusions is tiresome for those who have daily experience in it. For yourself, and for the Bingleys, I am afraid that it must come as quite the indignity. I do not wish you to think that my mother has any expectations for Jane other than the felicity of a marriage of true affection. Jane's disposition is all that is good and kind, but she is decidedly demure. My mother and I know that she holds Mr. Bingley in the highest esteem, however, and my mother's good wishes stem from the hope that Mr. Bingley returns her affection."
This was new intelligence for Darcy, and he strove not to exhibit astonishment at what she revealed. He questioned if her disclosures were proper, but admired her forthrightness to admit the improprieties on behalf of her family and to endeavour to place Jane in a more becoming light. Elizabeth's candour was something to be admired in itself, though he could not imagine being able to match her openness himself, he found himself wanting to spend more time with her. He saw the weight of these admissions lifted from her bodily and she seemed much more in possession of herself. Indeed, except for a slight redness around her eyes, she did not appear as upset as she had only minutes before. He knew he must respond to her entreaties, so in as controlled a manner as possible, he replied,
"I insist, Miss Bennet, that you not take blame for any actions of your family upon yourself. You and your sister have both behaved honourably and as to avoid any share of censure. Your concern for how your family has been perceived this evening is no less admirable, but unnecessary. I assure you that my only care has been Mr. Bingley's welfare, and you have been so kind as to put some of those concerns to rest. Indeed, although I cannot claim to possess your candour, please allow me to proffer my regrets as to my own behaviour during our acquaintance. I have not the ability I have observed in others to join in the niceties of society and make small talk--it is a great struggle for me to feel comfortable among those whom I am not intimately acquainted. I am afraid that my native reserve may be misconstrued as an arrogance that I by no means feel. Miss Bennet, allow me to state further that although your family may not share the same manners as that of the ton, I have not found your or your sister's company in anyway objectionable, and if I may be so bold, I look forward to furthering our acquaintance."
Elizabeth blushed, "Again, sir, you are all kindness, but I know that your opinion is not shared by Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. I am quite sure that they consider any connection between our families as an aberration not to be tolerated. I could not bear the happiness of my most beloved sister being subject to such hostilities, which is why I have conveyed all that I have to you."
Darcy smiled wryly. "Miss Bennet, I would not trouble yourself over concern about your 'low' relations. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst have very selective recollection as to the nature of their father's fortune. I have it on good authority that it was made in trade, not unlike your mother's brother in town."
Elizabeth laughed out right at this admission. Darcy admired how her eyes sparkled and came alive at this diversion. Perhaps Mr. Darcy is not so humourless as I had comprehended, thought Elizabeth. Perhaps his description of himself as shy and reserved does him more justice than my judgment of his arrogance. Certainly my discernment in other matters has not proven to be as I had hoped. Why, he does not find the Bingleys below his regard, no matter where their fortune was derived! He has even claimed a desire to furthering our acquaintance. Elizabeth noticed his dark eyes for the first time, showing amusement at their shared joke. Beyond feeling remorse at her treatment of him, she now wished to further her acquaintance as well, to see more of the man she just glimpsed behind the reserve.
"I am glad to note you are doing better, Miss Bennet, have you any thing else you wish to confess, or shall we rejoin the assembly outside? I fear that are absence will be noticed if we tarry much longer. As it is, Miss Bingley is probably stalking the halls looking for me." Darcy allowed himself to roll his eyes in mock exasperation at this last comment, and Elizabeth joined in his mirth, glad to see that Miss Bingley's intentions were not lost on him.
"I agree that we should return, although I may say that I am dreading it.
My cousin, Mr. Collins, has been quite persistent with his attentions, and
I fear the renewal of them."
"I had noticed that Mr. Collins does seem to be paying you particular notice, Miss Bennet," the corners of Darcy's lips curled almost imperceptively upwards. Elizabeth was forced once again to comprehend that she had missed much of the man's humour in her acquaintance, but here it was evident again. How could she have been so blinded by prejudice?
"I dare not make any promise, however, perhaps I might be of assistance in that regard, Miss Bennet," Darcy held out his arm for Elizabeth to take so that he might escort her from the alcove. She gratefully took his arm and with a warm smile and nod to each other, they re-entered the assembly.
Miss Bingley, as predicted, was openly scanning the hall for Mr. Darcy. Her smile became quite fixed as she espied her object escorting Elizabeth back into the assembly. The warm smiles on both their countenances gave her pause. Though she teased Darcy unmercifully on Elizabeth's "fine eyes," she felt less resentment towards Miss Eliza when she observed her disinterestedness in claiming Darcy's regard. To see her on his arm was a step towards a more intimate acquaintance by which she simply would not abide.
Nodding at Miss Bingley as he passed, Darcy felt Elizabeth give his arm the slightest squeeze. He dared not look at her, lest their shared joke be exposed to its object. He led Elizabeth back to her eldest sister and Bingley, allowing a slight smile to play on his lips for her benefit. Bowing briefly before removing himself from the group, he walked over to Mr. Collins, who had renewed his conversation with Charlotte Lucas.
"Mr. Collins, may I have a word?"
"Of course, kind sir, I will be more than glad to leave my charming company for the opportunity to converse with you. I am sure that Miss Lucas will not perceive any slight in my desire to provide any intelligence you may seek from my noble patroness, Lady Catherine...."
"Yes, yes, Mr. Collins, I will not be but a moment. I have comprehended that you are visiting the Bennets with the intent to secure a wife from Mr. Bennet's daughters. From what I have observed this evening, it appears your choice is Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Is that so?"
"In a word, Mr. Darcy, yes. You see, Longbourn is entailed upon me and as your aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh so condescendingly advised me to me to enter the state of matrimony, it appeared to be, might I say, the perfect answer to seek my wife from the Bennets. I am sure that Lady Catherine could have no objections to my choice..."
Darcy knew he was approaching the boundaries of what could be termed gentlemanly behaviour. Yet, he persevered, "Ah, but there, Collins, I am afraid I must disagree with you. My knowledge of Lady Catherine is of some considerable years and intimacy beyond your acquaintance with her, and I am quite sure that Lady Catherine would never approve of Miss Elizabeth Bennet as a parson's wife. I have been in Miss Bennet's acquaintance since our arrival at Michaelmas, and I have observed an independence in her character that I am sure Lady Catherine would find impertinent. You know how Lady Catherine comprehends her role in bestowing her condescension. I have grave doubts that Miss Bennet would receive this condescension in a manner befitting a woman of Lady Catherine's consequence. Might I be as so bold as to suggest that you consider Miss Mary Bennet, surely she has an air far more suitable to Lady Catherine's idea of a parson's wife? Or Miss Lucas, whom I know to be a practical, admirable gentlewoman, and whom I am sure would treat Lady Catherine with the utmost in deference?"
The forcefulness and bluntness of Darcy's speech appeared to silence Mr.
Collins. Darcy hid his amusement behind a grave countenance. Had he known of its effectiveness, he would have employed this technique at their first acquaintance. Though he felt art, of any kind, to be beneath him, he felt he was not deceptive in his opinion that Miss Elizabeth Bennet would not make a proper wife for Mr. Collins. No, he could much more easily see her being the mistress of an entirely different estate. He could see Mr. Collins struggling to form a reply, and lest Darcy be caught behind an avalanche of obsequious inanities, he bid farewell to the man as curtly as possible,
"Good evening, Mr. Collins, I am sure I will see you upon my next visit to
Rosings Park," with a short bow, Darcy removed himself from Mr. Collins.