But no,"--recollecting herself--"that could never be; my uncle and aunt would have been lost to me; I should not have been allowed to invite them."
This was a lucky recollection--it saved her from something very like regret.
She longed to inquire of the housekeeper whether her master was really absent, but had not the courage for it. At length however, the question was asked by her uncle; and she turned away with alarm, while Mrs. Reynolds replied that he was, adding, "But we expect him to-morrow, with a large party of friends." How rejoiced was Elizabeth that their own journey had not by any circumstance been delayed a day!
Her aunt now called her to look at a picture. She approached and saw the likeness of Mr. Wickham, suspended, amongst several other miniatures, over the mantelpiece. Her aunt asked her, smilingly, how she liked it. The housekeeper came forward, and told them it was a picture of a young gentleman, the son of her late master's steward, who had been brought up by him at his own expense. "He is now gone into the army," she added; "but I am afraid he has turned out very wild."
Mrs. Gardiner looked at her niece with a smile, but Elizabeth could not return it.
"And that," said Mrs. Reynolds, pointing to another of the miniatures, "is my master--and very like him. It was drawn at the same time as the other--about eight years ago."
"I have heard much of your master's fine person," said Mrs. Gardiner, looking at the picture; "it is a handsome face. But, Lizzy, you can tell us whether it is like or not."
Mrs. Reynolds respect for Elizabeth seemed to increase on this intimation of her knowing her master.
"Does that young lady know Mr. Darcy?"
Elizabeth coloured, and said: "A little."
"And do not you think him a very handsome gentleman, ma'am?"
"Yes, very handsome."
"I am sure I know none so handsome; but in the gallery upstairs you will see a finer, larger picture of him than this. This room was my late master's favourite room, and these miniatures are just as they used to be then. He was very fond of them."
This accounted to Elizabeth for Mr. Wickham's being among them.
Mrs. Reynolds then directed their attention to one of Miss Darcy, drawn when she was only eight years old.
"And is Miss Darcy as handsome as her brother?" said Mrs. Gardiner.
"Oh! yes--the handsomest young lady that ever was seen; and so accomplished!--She plays and sings all day long. In the next room is a new instrument just come down for her--a present from my master; she comes here to-morrow with him."
Mr. Gardiner, whose manners were very easy and pleasant, encouraged her communicativeness by his questions and remarks; Mrs. Reynolds, either by pride or attachment, had evidently great pleasure in talking of her master and his sister.
"Is your master much at Pemberley in the course of the year?"
"Not so much as I could wish, sir; but I dare say he may spend half his time here; and Miss Darcy is always down for the summer months."
"Except," thought Elizabeth, "when she goes to Ramsgate."
"If your master would marry, you might see more of him."
"Yes, sir; but I do not know when THAT will be. I do not know who is good enough for him."
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner smiled. Elizabeth could not help saying, "It is very much to his credit, I am sure, that you should think so."
"I say no more than the truth, and everybody will say that knows him," replied the other. Elizabeth thought this was going pretty far; and she listened with increasing astonishment as the housekeeper added, "I have never known a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him ever since he was four years old."
This was praise, of all others most extraordinary, most opposite to her ideas. That he was not a good-tempered man had been her firmest opinion. Her keenest attention was awakened; she longed to hear more, and was grateful to her uncle for saying:
"There are very few people of whom so much can be said. You are lucky in having such a master."
"Yes, sir, I know I am.