There is one characteristic which may be safely said to belong to nearly all happily-married couples—that of desiring to see equally happy marriages among their young friends; and in some cases, where their wishes are strong and circumstances seem favourable to the exertion of their own efforts, they may even embark upon the perilous but delightful course of helping those persons whose minds are as yet not made up, to form a decision respecting this important crisis in life, and this done, to assist in clearing the way in order that this decision may forthwith be acted upon.
Some good intentions of this kind, arising out of a very sincere affection for both the persons concerned, and a real anxiety about the future of the younger and dearer of the two, had actuated Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in promoting an engagement between Georgiana Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Georgiana was then twenty, and had lived entirely with her brother during the three and a half years of his married life. Reserved, shy, without self-reliance, and slow to form new attachments, she had been accustomed to look upon the Colonel as, after her brother, her eldest and best friend, a feeling which the disparity of their ages served to strengthen. She had therefore accepted the fact of their new relations with a kind of timid pleasure, only imploring Elizabeth that nothing need be said about marriage for some time to come.
"Elizabeth, when I am married, shall I have to go and stay at Rosings without you?" she had asked; and on being assured that such might be the terrible consequences of matrimony, she had manifested a strong inclination not to look beyond the present, but to enjoy for some time longer the love and protection she had always met with as an inmate of her brother's house.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh had thought it necessary to go through the form of expressing displeasure at the whole proceeding, in consequence of Darcy's omission to ask her advice in the disposal of his sister's hand, but in reality she so thoroughly approved of the match between her nephew and niece that she forgot her chagrin, and talked everywhere of her satisfaction in at last seeing a prospect of a member of the Darcy family being united to one who was in every respect worthy of the position.
Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were seated in the library at Pemberley one April morning when the engagement was about six months old. Their two children, a handsome boy of two, and a baby girl of a few months, had just been taken upstairs after the merry games with their parents to which this hour was usually devoted, and Elizabeth was arranging with her husband the plans for the day.
"What has become of Georgiana and Fitzwilliam?" inquired Darcy. "I understand they were going to ride together; but they both said they would prefer to put it off till twelve o'clock, when I could go with them."
"They have been walking on the terrace, but Georgiana has gone in now," replied Elizabeth, glancing out of the window. She returned to her husband's side, and, sitting down, began to speak with great earnestness. "Do you think that they are really happy in their engagement? I have been watching them closely for some days, and I am convinced that Georgiana, at all events, is not."
Mr. Darcy's manner expressed surprise and incredulity. "What fancy is this you have taken into your head, Elizabeth? No, certainly no such idea had ever crossed my own mind. You must be mistaken."
"I do not think so," said Elizabeth. "Their relation to one another has not, since he has been staying here this time, its former ease and naturalness, and I have noticed other indications as well, which make me think that freedom would bring them mutual relief."
"I am sorry for what you say, Elizabeth," said Darcy gravely; "but it is possible you lay too much stress on what may be merely a passing mood. When we first consented to the engagement I thought them to be excellently suited to each other, and so far I have not seen anything to modify that opinion. What has Georgiana been saying to you?"
"She has said nothing, but knowing her so well, I can see she is not happy. She is nervous, restless, unlike herself; she tries to escape being alone with Robert; she avoids with a painful embarrassment any reference to her future plans; nay, you must have noticed incidents like that of yesterday, when she almost cried and begged to be excused from going with us to Bath next week."
"That is mere foolishness; there is no shadow of reason why she should be more afraid of her Aunt Catherine now than she ever was."
"There is more reason, if she dreads to hear her marriage talked of as rapidly approaching, and herself and Robert referred to as a most fortunate and admirably-assorted pair—you know how your aunt harangues them on all occasions."
Darcy smiled slightly, then rose and began to pace the room. "If your conjectures are correct, Elizabeth, and Georgiana is unhappy in the prospect of this marriage, of course it cannot go on; but I shall be deeply grieved for all reasons, and I hardly know how to ask Fitzwilliam to release her. Excellent fellow though he is, he might well resent being thrown over after half a year for what seems like a girlish caprice."
"I do not believe that in any case he would resent it," replied Elizabeth. "There would be regret on both sides—regret that they had not been able to make each other happy; but I more than suspect that if we could ascertain his feelings, we should find them to coincide with Georgiana's. In six months, you know, they have had time to reflect and to realize what the engagement means to both of them."
"You assume a good deal, Elizabeth. I cannot believe that it is so uncongenial to Fitzwilliam."
"That is because he is too good, too honourable to show it; and yet I am sensible that it is so—that his regard for Georgiana is that of a friend, a brother, nothing more. I suppose you cannot remember the time when we were engaged, Darcy, and Bingley and Jane also?" she added, looking archly at her husband.
"My dear, I recollect it all with the deepest satisfaction; but, you know, everyone does not display their feelings in the same way. Fitzwilliam is an older man than I am, and was never prone to raptures, and Georgiana has not the liveliness of mind of my Elizabeth."
"I know they are not likely to be run away with by their feelings, as Mr. Collins would say," replied Elizabeth, smiling; "but even taking Fitzwilliam's age and Georgiana's gravity into consideration, this is not at all the same thing. I am convinced that they do not find that complete joy in their engagement that people should, and that these two might if they were each engaged to the right person."
"Do you mean that Georgiana has seen someone whom she might prefer?" asked Darcy sharply.
Elizabeth gave a decided negative to this, and her husband remained for some minutes wrapped in thought. At length he roused himself, and said: "You had better speak to Georgiana on the subject, Elizabeth, and if it is as you suppose, we will talk it over with Fitzwilliam together. For my sister to dissolve her engagement is a serious step, and must be well considered."
His wife agreed, and added: "Pray, dear Darcy, if it should come to an end, do not show any resentment in your manner towards Georgiana. She cannot help not caring enough for Fitzwilliam, and it will be painful enough for her to break with him and to know that she has disappointed you."
"I will try not to do so, Elizabeth; but you know how much I desire a safe and honourable settlement in life for Georgiana, such as this marriage would have been."
"We both wished it so much that I am afraid we were led into mistaking the real nature of their attachment," said his wife. "At any rate, since we assisted in bringing the affair about, we must share the responsibility of ending it—a fact which your aunt is not likely to allow us to forget, is she, Darcy?"
"True," returned Darcy. "It is regrettable that the engagement was so generally made known. However, Georgiana may stay away from Bath if she prefers."
It was a relief to Elizabeth to have fairly talked her husband into accepting the possibility of such an unwelcome turn of affairs, for events proved her misgivings to have been well founded. She had truly gauged the feelings of Georgiana and Fitzwilliam with regard to each other and to their engagement. Georgiana confessed, with deep distress and confusion, that she knew it was very ungrateful and naughty, but—she did not seem to be able to care for her cousin in that way, and would have said so before, but that she was afraid her brother and her aunt would be angry. Fitzwilliam admitted that he had long feared his inability to make his cousin happy, but showed how very great was his dread of causing her, by his defection, to be wounded, reproached, or unkindly talked about. Elizabeth had a difficult task to smooth away all obstacles and to bring comfort to the minds of two very troubled and scrupulous people, besides her other duty of persuading her husband that the separation was the right thing, and of shielding Georgiana from all disagreeables; but in a few days everything had been accomplished except what time alone could do.
Darcy could not altogether conceal his regret and disappointment at this termination of his hopes, and Georgiana was miserable in the consciousness that he blamed her for not having known her mind at the beginning of the engagement. Had she really cared for Fitzwilliam, he was convinced that it must have gone on to a happy conclusion; and naturally his cousin could hardly be the one to uphold a different opinion. Fitzwilliam could only assert and reassert that Georgiana was undeserving of the slightest reproach, and endeavour to divert his cousin's attention to himself.
It was arranged that he should accompany the Darcys as usual to Bath, where they were to meet Lady Catherine, and meanwhile Georgiana accepted an invitation from Jane and Mr. Bingley, which on a hint from Elizabeth was warmly extended to her, to go and stay with them at the same time at their house on the other side of Derbyshire.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh, with her daughter and Mrs. Jenkinson, had been established in her favourite lodgings in Pulteney Street since the middle of March. It had been her custom of late years to spend six or seven weeks in Bath every spring. She had considered it to be good for her daughter's health; she also considered that her own constitution and spirits benefited greatly by this yearly change of social environment. The Rosings' card-parties lacked variety. Mr. and Mrs. Collins remained admirable listeners, but their conversation, like their civilities, occasionally wore a little thin. Lady Catherine, would she but have admitted it, thought that Mr. Collins was too much interested in his own asparagus-beds and too little in her peach-houses; and the ailments of the children kept Mrs. Collins at home on several evenings when it would have been convenient to the hostess at Rosings to make up a quadrille-table. Obviously the most suitable spot in which Lady Catherine and her daughter could have sought change of air would have been the residence of her nephew; but Darcy and Elizabeth had very early in their married life made it clear that they did not intend their house to be turned into a hydropathic establishment for their ailing relatives, and that they would entertain their visitors at such times and for as long as they chose; consequently Lady Catherine had been reduced to the expedient of going to Bath in the season, and to Pemberley when she was asked. She, however, reserved to herself the right of insisting that her relatives should visit her at Bath, and Darcy, who wished to give no occasion of offence to his mother's only sister, was in the habit of taking his wife and sister down there every spring for a short stay at one of the hotels, thus forming among themselves a pleasant and independent little party, which was usually joined by Colonel Fitzwilliam. This year Lady Catherine, having been there for some weeks previously, had been collecting round her a circle of acquaintances, some more and some less likely to be congenial to the relatives whose visit was pending.
"Elizabeth," said Mr. Darcy to his wife, as they stood together in Lady Catherine's drawing-room at a large reception which she was giving in their honour, two days after their arrival, "I think I see General Tilney over there; and, unless my memory is failing me, surely this is his daughter coming towards us, whom we made friends with last year."
"Why, so it is; what a delightful surprise!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "Dear Lady Portinscale, how glad I am to see you again! Do not say you have forgotten me, or I shall find it hard to forgive you!"
"No, indeed, Mrs. Darcy, I was coming to introduce myself, in fear that you might have forgotten me. How do you do, Mr. Darcy? Lady Catherine told me that she was expecting the whole party from Pemberley this week."
"Yes, we have come to put in our period of attendance, as you see," said Elizabeth, "but I never dreamed of anything so pleasant as meeting you again, after what you said last year."
"The truth is that my father has not been at all well, and as he felt himself obliged to come here for a short time, he begged us to join him for two or three weeks."
"Your husband is here this evening?"
"Yes, he is in the next room; I see him talking to Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"And are your brother and his pretty wife in Bath this spring? I remember her so well."
"No, they are at home; but we have a brother of hers staying with us—James Morland. He has a curacy in a very unhealthy part of the Thames Valley, and he has been extremely ill with a low fever, so we have brought him here for a fortnight in the hope that it will do him good."
"How very kind of you to take care of him! He is fortunate to have such friends."
"Oh, no, it is a very small thing; and he is such an excellent young fellow—sensible and agreeable, and so hard-working! My husband has the highest opinion of him; and were he less amiable, it would be a pleasure to be of service to anyone connected with Catherine."
"You oblige me to repeat that anyone who has you for his or her advocate is indeed fortunate, Lady Portinscale," answered Elizabeth, smiling; "but now that you know your character, pray perform the same kind office for some of the people here. They are nearly all strangers to me, and if my husband were not listening, I should say that I wonder how my aunt manages to pick them up."
"Lady Portinscale will soon gauge your character, Elizabeth, if you make such terribly outspoken comments," said Darcy, smiling. "You must not mind her, Lady Portinscale; my aunt's presence has a demoralizing effect upon my wife. It is a very sad thing, but I have often remarked it."
"Not her presence in the ordinary way," said Elizabeth; "but to-day we have been through such a stormy scene together, that I may be excused for feeling that my aunt and I must go diametrically opposite ways for the rest of our lives."
"Really?" said Eleanor Portinscale, with the faintest suspicion of laughter in her eyes. "Poor Lady Catherine! I recollect last year that you and your sister-in-law were continually brewing some kind of rebellious mischief against her."
"That is just the cause of the trouble now," responded Elizabeth. "My sister-in-law became engaged to Colonel Fitzwilliam last November; but I saw that they were both so extremely unhappy in their engagement that I was instrumental in breaking it off, and this happened only last week; so that is why Robert Fitzwilliam is looking ten years younger, Georgiana is sheltering safely at home, and Lady Catherine is furiously angry with everyone all round, especially with me."
"I am sorry," said Lady Portinscale with gentle sympathy. "These things cannot be done without regrets and heartburnings. I hope it will mean real happiness for them both in the end."
"One has to take that part of it on trust," was Elizabeth's answer; "in the meantime it has upset my husband dreadfully, and I am afraid he will never be quite reconciled to it until he sees Georgiana happily married to somebody who has at present not appeared on the scene."
"I suppose she felt altogether disinclined for coming with you to Bath, else she might have met friends here who would have distracted her thoughts."
"Yes; but, of course, she would not come, and I could hardly persuade her even to accept an invitation to go and stay with my sister Jane for part of the time that we shall be away. We left her in such terribly low spirits that it is really some consolation to see Colonel Fitzwilliam looking as if a weight had been taken off his mind. It would be a sad pity that we should all have got into hot water with Lady Catherine and nobody be a penny the better for it."
Lady Portinscale smiled. "He is a very handsome man, and extraordinarily young-looking; he is nearly forty, is he not?"
"Yes, one would not suspect him of it. There is Captain Wentworth talking to him now; they seem to come here every year. Mrs. Wentworth and Georgiana became rather friendly, and they correspond. But those relatives of hers are impossible! Why, what is going on? Lady Catherine seems to be carrying off Colonel Fitzwilliam; poor man, he was in such a congenial group! Whom can she be introducing him to? They are people I never saw before."
"I do not know them myself, but I have several times seen them with Lady Catherine," replied Lady Portinscale. "They are called Ferrars; at least, one of them is Mrs. Ferrars, I am not sure which."