The Ball at Netherfield
Elizabeth repeated to Jane, the next day, what had passed between Mr Wickham and herself. Jane listened with astonishment and concern. She could not believe that Mr Darcy could be so undeserving of Mr Bingley’s friendship, but it was not in her nature to question the truthfulness of a young man of such pleasing appearance as Wickham.
‘They have both been mistaken, I expect,’ she said, ‘in some way or other, of which we can form no idea.’
The two young ladies were called from the garden, where this conversation was taking place, by the arrival of some of the persons of whom they had been speaking. Mr Bingley and his sisters came to give their personal invitation for the long-expected ball at Netherfield, which was fixed for the following Tuesday. Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst appeared very pleased to see their dear friend again, and complained that it was a long time since they had last met. They took very little notice of the rest of the family, avoiding Mrs Bennet as much as possible, saying not much to Elizabeth, and nothing at all to the others.
The thought of the Netherfield ball was exciting to every female of the family. Mrs Bennet considered it to be given as a mark of attention to her oldest daughter, and was particularly pleased at receiving the invitation from Mr Bingley himself, instead of by means of a formal card. Jane pictured to herself a happy evening in the society of her two friends and the attentions of their brother, and Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr Wickham. The happiness of Kitty and Lydia depended less on any special event or person. All that they wished for was plenty of partners. Even the serious-minded Mary was willing to go.
Elizabeth’s spirits were so high that though she did not often speak unnecessarily to Mr Collins, she could not help asking him whether he intended to accept Mr Bingley’s invitation. To her surprise, he replied that he would go, and added:
‘I shall hope to be honoured in the dance with the hands of all my cousins in the course of the evening, and I take this opportunity of asking for yours, Miss Elizabeth, for the first two dances especially. I trust that my cousin Jane will understand the reasons for this preference, and not think that it is in any way disrespectful to her.’
Elizabeth felt herself completely at a disadvantage. She had fully intended being promised to Wickham for those same dances, and to have Mr Collins instead! Her liveliness had never been expressed at a worse moment. But she could do nothing. Mr Collins’s offer was accepted with as much pleasure as she could manage to show. It now first struck her, though, that she was chosen from among her sisters as being suitable in his opinion to be his wife at Hunsford Parsonage. The idea was soon strengthened as she observed his increasing politeness to her, and though she herself was more astonished than pleased, it was not long before her mother let her know that the possibility of their marriage was extremely pleasing to her. Elizabeth pretended not to understand her, because she knew very well that a serious argument would result from any reply. Mr Collins might never make the offer, and until he did, it was useless to quarrel about him.
If there had not been a ball to get ready for and to talk about, the younger Misses Bennet would have been in a sad state at this time. From the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, continuous rain prevented them from walking to Meryton. No aunt, no officers, no news could be looked for. Even Elizabeth might have found some test of her patience in weather that delayed the development of her acquaintance with Mr Wickham, and nothing less than a dance on Tuesday could have made such a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday bearable to Kitty and Lydia.
On the Tuesday evening, Elizabeth entered the sitting room at Netherfield, and looked without success for Mr Wickham among the group of officers present there. Until then, no doubt about him coming had entered her mind. She had dressed with more care than usual, and readied herself in the highest spirits to complete the winning of his heart. But in a moment the terrible thought came to her that he had been purposely left out of the Bingleys’ invitation to the officers, for Mr Darcy’s pleasure, and although this was not exactly the case, his friend Mr Denny told them that Wickham had had to go to London on business, and added:
‘I do not imagine that he would have gone just now, if he had not wished to avoid a certain gentleman here.’
This information sharpened Elizabeth’s feelings of displeasure against Mr Darcy, and although she tried to be cheerful, the first two dances brought a return of unhappiness. Mr Collins, serious and awkward, apologizing instead of paying attention, and often moving wrongly without being conscious of it, brought her all the shame and unhappiness which a disagreeable partner can give.
She danced next with an officer. Then she found herself suddenly addressed by Mr Darcy, who took her so much by surprise in his request for her hand that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him.