After a week spent in professions of love and schemes of felicity, Mr. Collins was called from his amiable Charlotte by the arrival of Saturday. The pain of separation, however, might be alleviated on his side, by preparations for the reception of his bride; as he had reason to hope, that shortly after his return into Hertfordshire, the day would be fixed that was to make him the happiest of men. He took leave of his relations at Longbourn with as much solemnity as before; wished his fair cousins health and happiness again, and promised their father another letter of thanks.
On the following Monday, Mrs. Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and his wife, who came as usual to spend the Christmas at Longbourn. Mr. Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education. The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well-bred and agreeable. Mrs. Gardiner, who was several years younger than Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Phillips, was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her Longbourn nieces. Between the two eldest and herself especially, there subsisted a particular regard. They had frequently been staying with her in town.
The first part of Mrs. Gardiner's business on her arrival was to distribute her presents and describe the newest fashions. When this was done she had a less active part to play. It became her turn to listen. Mrs. Bennet had many grievances to relate, and much to complain of. They had all been very ill-used since she last saw her sister. Two of her girls had been upon the point of marriage, and after all there was nothing in it.
"My only consolation" she continued, "is that Mr Wickham has been visiting so very often that I am sure he must be interested in one of my girls. Only I cannot see if he prefers Kitty or Lydia. He is so friendly and agreeable to everyone. He danced with Mary just the other night! And he is very handsome in his regimentals. I would have liked him very much myself in my day. But it is hard to be happy for it when I think that Jane and Lizzy might both have been married, and yet are not. If only something had come of it, then I could be very happy. However, your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, of long sleeves."
Mrs. Gardiner, to whom the first half of this news had been given before, in the course of Jane and Elizabeth's correspondence with her, made her sister a slight answer, and, in compassion to her nieces, turned the conversation.
When alone with Elizabeth afterwards, she spoke more on both subjects. Her first concern was Jane, and after asking after her state of mind and receiving an unfavourable, if not unexpected, answer, she determined to invite her to London in hopes that a change of scenery might prove some relief. Mrs. Gardner then proceeded to the topic of Mr. Wickham.
"Pray, Lizzy, who is the Mr. Wickham of whom your mother spoke so warmly? Has he a serious interest in one of your sisters?"
"He is an officer in the —shire Militia, and he shows great interest in one of my sisters, though neither of those who my mother imagines. He has been showing a particular interest in Mary."
"Mary? I am relieved that it is not Kitty or Lydia, as they are too young to be considering any gentleman seriously. Though I admit that I did not expect it to be Mary. You believe him serious in his attentions?"
"Oh yes. He turns her pages when she plays, brings her books from the lending library, and has on more than one occasion spoke out for her against Lydia. Lydia is quite jealous, for she cannot imagine why he would prefer Mary's company over her own."
"He does have every symptom of having fallen in love. And your mother has no suspicions?"
"I dare say that she would have noticed, if she were not so distracted by the loss of two other anticipated sons-in-law. As it is, her time with in company with Mr. Wickham has been spent more in lamentations than in observation. And Mary and I are the last of her daughters that she expects to attract handsome men. But I think her lack of perception has served Mary well. Without the guidance of our mother Mary has received Mr. Wickham's attentions with more composure and intelligence than could have been expected. I believe the attention has done Mary good. Of late she has spent as much time in company, provided that Mr. Wickham is present, as in pursuit of accomplishments, and yesterday she asked Jane to help her with her hair."
"But is it a desirable match for Mary? Has he any fortune? What are his prospects?"
"Only the prospects of any intelligent and energetic young man. He has no great fortune, that is true, but we Bennet sisters mustn't all expect to mary wealth. Fortunes are so often attracted by like, and we have none with which to do the attracting. And where there is true attachment it would seem mercenary to demand it be set aside in favour of prudence and wealth. We see every day that where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune from entering into engagements with each other, and not all such engagements must end poorly. If Mary is happy, is that not more important than wealth?"
"You are too sensible, Lizzy, to not see the imprudence of a match with no fortune. At very least it should not be encouraged."
The uncomfortable familiarity of these words now spoken by her aunt, a women for whom Elizabeth had the greatest respect and esteem, and whose marriage she considered a pattern to be followed, prevented Elizabeth from continuing on the topic, and the conversation soon turned to more pleasant subjects.
The Gardiners stayed a week at Longbourn; and the engagements so carefully provided by Mrs. Bennet for her brother and sister offered ample opportunity for Mrs. Gardiner to observe both Mary and Mr. Wickham, and to determine that Mr. Wickham was well on his way to being seriously in love, and that Mary's feelings, though not as strong, varied with his only in degree.
To Mrs. Gardiner, Wickham had one means of affording pleasure, unconnected with his general powers. About ten or a dozen years ago, before her marriage, she had spent a considerable time in that very part of Derbyshire to which he belonged. They had, therefore, many acquaintances in common; and though Wickham had been little there since the death of Darcy's father, it was yet in his power to give her fresher intelligence of her former friends than she had been in the way of procuring.
Mrs. Gardiner had seen Pemberley, and known the late Mr. Darcy by character perfectly well. Here consequently was an inexhaustible subject of discourse. In comparing her recollection of Pemberley with the minute description which Wickham could give, and in bestowing her tribute of praise on the character of its late possessor, she was delighting both him and herself. On being made acquainted with his opinion on the present Mr. Darcy, she tried to remember some of that gentleman's reputed disposition when quite a lad which might agree with it, and was confident at last that she recollected having heard Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy formerly spoken of as a very shy, yet sweet-tempered boy.
Though she enjoyed such discussion, her chief concern was his interest in her niece, and with that in mind, she often turned the subject to topics that might enlighten her on his present circumstances and his past relationship with Mr. Darcy. What Mrs. Gardiner learned did little to assuage her fears. That he was intelligent and educated was indisputable, and his ready admission of past faults, followed by an earnest regret and a desire to improve his reputation, spoke well of his character. But these past faults meant he had not the financial ability to support a family nor the connections to the Darcy family to aid him in his chosen career. Had this determination to be an honorable man come only a few years earlier, he would have been an excellent choice for Mary, but as it was, it seemed likely that many years would pass before he would be able to support a wife in the smallest of comforts.
Mrs. Gardiner's caution to Mary, punctually and kindly given on the first favourable opportunity of speaking to her alone, was not received as well as could be hoped. After honestly telling Mary what she thought, she thus went on:
"You are a studious girl, Mary, and I am sure you will not take any action without first contemplating all of the consequences. In a situation such as this, a mother's experience and advice is invaluable, but I think your mother has been too distressed of late to offer you the attention she should. When one's heart is engaged, especially for the first time, it can be difficult to judge a situation clearly, and I fear you encourage Mr. Wickham more than is prudent."
"I thank you aunt, for your kind advice. One should not disregard the wisdom that only experience and a superior knowledge of the world can provide. I will certainly reflect on your words." Mary paused for a moment, before continuing with a degree of emotion hitherto lacking. "But I do wish to encourage Mr. Wickham. I do not think Mr. Wickham's prospects such an impediment, at least not for me. I would not need a large establishment to be happy. I have no interest in the lace and the trinkets my sisters find so necessary. I should miss my pianoforte, but sacrifices are good for one's soul, and I think I should endure without too much complaint. I know no marriage can take place now, but Mr. Wickham is sure to advance in his career, and I do not mind waiting. My sisters have always talked of marrying for love, but I am much more plain than my sisters, and never had great expectations. Now that I find it possible, I do not wish to give it up."
"My dear Mary, I dearly hope that you, and all of your sisters will find love in marriage! I caution you only out of concern; I do not want you to be hurt by unreasonable expectations. I see that we neither understand the other as well as we could. You are no longer a girl, and I had hardly noticed. Your sister, Jane, is coming back to London with us. Would you be persuaded to join her? It would allow us to get to know each other as we should, and the distance for a short while from Mr. Wickham will allow you to test the possibility of a long engagement."
Though Mary was not as easily convinced as Jane had been, Mrs. Gardiner recruited her husband and brother to her cause, and before the week was up, she had prevailed in her attempts. As the effects of the news of her departure were a request from the gentleman that he might send her send letters by way of her aunt, and a promise to call on her when he was next in town, so it can be suspected that Mary was not entirely unhappy with the development.