Elizabeth took her place in the set, astonished at the honour at which she had arrived in being allowed to stand opposite to Mr Darcy, and seeing in the faces of her neighbours their equal astonishment. They spoke very little until they had finished the dance, when he asked her if she and her sisters did not often walk to Meryton. She answered that this was so, and, unable to stop herself, added, ‘When we met you the other day there, we had just been forming a new acquaintance.’
The effect was immediate. The expression on his face became prouder than ever. At last he spoke:
‘Mr Wickham is fortunate enough to have such pleasing manners that he can always be sure of making friends. It is less certain that he is able to keep them.’
‘He has been unlucky enough to lose your friendship,’ replied Elizabeth.
Darcy made no answer, and seemed anxious to change the subject. At that moment Sir William Lucas appeared, and stopped to offer him a mark of attention.
‘My dear sir, such very high-class dancing is not often seen. I must hope to have this pleasure often repeated, especially after a certain desirable event,’ and he looked towards Jane and Mr Bingley. ‘What congratulations will then flow in!’
Sir William’s mention of his friend seemed to strike Darcy with some force, and his eyes were directed with a very serious expression towards Bingley and Jane, who were dancing together.
When the dance was over, Miss Bingley came towards Elizabeth, and, with a look of scorn, addressed her as follows:
‘So, Miss Eliza, I hear you are quite pleased with George Wickham. But let me warn you not to trust what he says. The story that Mr Darcy has wronged him is completely untrue. He has always been kind to him, though Wickham treated him in a shameful manner. I do not know the details, but I do know that Mr Darcy is not to blame. I pity you, Miss Eliza, but really, considering his family, one could not expect much better.’
‘His guilt and his family appear, by your account, to be the same,’ said Elizabeth angrily.
‘I beg your pardon,’ replied Miss Bingley, turning away. ‘My words were kindly meant.’
Elizabeth then went in search of her oldest sister, who met her with a smile of such sweet satisfaction that Elizabeth immediately understood her feelings and forgot everything else for the moment in the hope that Jane was on the way to happiness. Jane began to talk about Mr Wickham. ‘Mr Bingley does not know the whole of the history, but is sure that his friend has acted rightly and honourably. I am sorry to say that by his account Mr Wickham is not at all a respectable young man.’
‘Mr Bingley does not know Mr Wickham himself?’
‘No. He never saw him until the other morning at Meryton.’
‘This explanation, then, is what he has received from Mr Darcy. I am perfectly satisfied. Mr Bingley has defended his friend, but I shall continue to hold the same opinion.’
She then changed the subject to one more pleasing to them both, and listened with pleasure to the happy hopes which Jane had of Mr Bingley’s feelings towards her. When Mr Bingley himself joined them, Elizabeth moved away to Miss Lucas.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Collins came up to them in a state of great excitement. He had discovered that Mr Darcy was a relative of Lady Catherine.
‘You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr Darcy?’
‘Of course I am.’
Elizabeth tried hard to persuade him against this, warning him that Mr Darcy would consider it as a piece of impoliteness rather than as a mark of respect for his aunt.
‘Pardon me for neglecting to take advantage of your advice,’ was his reply, ‘but in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.’ And, with that, he left her to approach Mr Darcy, whose astonishment was plain, and who replied with cold politeness.
Elizabeth felt ashamed of her cousin, and turned her attention to the more pleasing subject of Jane’s future. Her mother’s thoughts were plainly of the same kind, and when they sat down to supper, Elizabeth was deeply annoyed to find that Mrs Bennet was talking loudly to Lady Lucas of nothing else but her expectations that Jane would soon be married to Mr Bingley. Elizabeth tried without success to control her mother’s words, because she could see that they were heard by Mr Darcy, who sat opposite them. Nothing she could say had any effect. Elizabeth reddened with shame.
When supper was over, singing was mentioned, and Elizabeth had the added discomfort of seeing Mary getting ready to entertain the company. Mary was the least pretty of the five sisters, so she had tried to make herself more attractive by becoming more able than the others, and was always eager to bring her musical skill to notice. But her powers were by no means fitted for this kind of performance. Her voice was weak, and her manner unnatural. Elizabeth listened with impatience. Mary sang twice, and Elizabeth could see Mr Bingley’s sisters exchanging scornful smiles. She looked at her father, who understood and gently stopped his daughter.
The rest of the evening brought Elizabeth little amusement. Mr Collins continued at her side and would not leave her alone. Mr Darcy took no more notice of her, even when he was standing near her.
But Mrs Bennet left Netherfield perfectly satisfied. She was fully confident that she would see Jane married in the course of three or four months. She thought with equal certainty of having another daughter married to Mr Collins. She loved Elizabeth less than her other daughters, and she thought Mr Collins quite good enough for her.