Lydia intended to walk to Meryton that morning, and every sister except Mary, who preferred to read, agreed to go with her. Mr Collins was their companion, at the request of Mr Bennet, who was most anxious to get rid of him and have his library to himself because his cousin never stopped talking.
The girls listened politely to his remarks until they entered Meryton. The attention of the younger ones was then no longer to be won by him. Their eyes were immediately wandering up the street in search of the officers.
But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man whom they had never seen before. He was of a most gentlemanly appearance and was walking with an officer on the other side of the road. All were struck by the stranger’s manner. Kitty and Lydia knew the officer, and decided to find out who his friend was. They led the way across the street, under pretence of wanting something in a shop opposite, and had just reached the pathway when the two gentlemen arrived at the same place. Mr Denny, the officer, addressed them directly and introduced his friend, Mr Wickham, who had just joined the army.
The young man appeared very pleasant. He was good-looking and he had a fine figure and very pleasing manners. The whole party was still having a pleasant conversation, when the sound of horses drew their attention, and Darcy and Bingley were seen riding down the street. On recognizing the ladies in the group, the two gentlemen came directly towards them, and began the usual polite greetings. Bingley was the chief speaker, and Miss Jane Bennet the chief object. He was then, he said, on his way to Longbourn to inquire after her health. Mr Darcy followed him, and was beginning to decide to keep his eyes away from Elizabeth, when they suddenly became fixed on the stranger. Elizabeth happened to see the faces of both when they looked at each other, and was astonished at the effect of the meeting. The face of one became white, the other turned red. Mr Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat in greeting, but Mr Darcy seemed hardly to move a finger in return. What could be the meaning of it? It was impossible to imagine, and it was impossible not to want to know the reason for this behaviour.
In another minute, Mr Bingley, who seemed not to have noticed what had happened, said goodbye to the ladies and rode on with his friend.
As they walked home, Elizabeth described to Jane what she had seen pass between the two gentlemen, but Jane could no more explain such behaviour than her sister.
At Meryton the young people had accepted an invitation from their aunt to supper and cards. The carriage took Mr Collins and his five cousins at a suitable hour to the town, and the girls had the pleasure of hearing, as they entered the sitting room, that Mr Wickham had accepted an invitation from their uncle to be present, and was already in the house.
When this information was given, and they had all taken their seats, Mr Collins was free to look around him and talk. To the girls the time of waiting appeared very long, but it was over at last. The gentlemen joined them, and when Mr Wickham walked into the room, Elizabeth felt that she had not been thinking of him with at all unreasonable admiration.
Mr Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every lady’s eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he seated himself at last. With such fine men as Mr Wickham and the officers in competition for the attention of the ladies, Mr Collins seemed to sink into unimportance, but he still had from time to time a kind listener in Mrs Philips.
Elizabeth was very willing to hear Mr Wickham talk, though she could not hope to be told what she chiefly wished to hear — the history of his acquaintance with Mr Darcy. But her interest was most unexpectedly satisfied. Mr Wickham began the subject himself. He asked slowly how long Mr Darcy had been staying in the area.
‘About a month,’ said Elizabeth, and then, unwilling to let the subject drop, she added: ‘He is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I believe.’
‘Yes,’ replied Wickham, ‘Pemberley, his property there, is a noble one — at least ten thousand a year. You could not have met with a person better able to give you information about it than myself. I have been connected with his family since my birth.’
Elizabeth could not help looking surprised.
‘You may well be surprised, Miss Bennet, at such a statement, after seeing the very cold manner of our meeting yesterday. Do you know Mr Darcy well?’
‘Quite as well as I ever wish to do,’ cried Elizabeth warmly. ‘I have spent several days in the same house with him, and I find him very disagreeable.’
‘I cannot pretend to be sorry,’ said Wickham, after a short pause. ‘His behaviour to me has been shameful. I could have forgiven him anything, though, except for his disappointing the hopes of his father and bringing shame on his memory.’
Elizabeths’ interest in the subject increased.