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Misconduct and Misdirection

Chapter Text

The long-awaited day on which Lydia and Mr Wickham were to marry arrived at last. Even Lydia’s brash temper appeared to quake a little at the solemnity of the occasion. She was exceedingly anxious that some calamity might occur and cause their party to be late to the ceremony, fussing and fretting ceaselessly from the moment she woke until their carriage finally drew to a halt in front of St. Clement’s.

Elizabeth, who had to endure a great deal of her sister’s nervous complaining, wondered whether this uncharacteristic fretfulness was a symptom of Lydia’s finally comprehending, on some level at least, the precariousness of her position and the importance to her own future of ensuring that the marriage came off. Elizabeth herself had by this time so little faith in Wickham’s character that she would scarcely have been surprised if he had absconded the night before the wedding.

She was grateful that she was to stay in London as long as Lydia and Mr Wickham remained in Hertfordshire, where they were to travel directly from the church. She had seen enough of them both in the past weeks to last her a long time, and the notion of another ten days in the same house with the newlyweds, with her mother’s raptures to endure besides, had been more than she felt she could withstand. Fortunately, her aunt and uncle had understood her wishes and extended an invitation for her to remain with them for as long as she wanted.

Whatever concerns or doubts Lydia had harboured, they seemed to dissipate the moment she stepped into the church on Mr Gardiner’s arm and saw Wickham waiting for her at the altar. To his credit, it must be said that the bridegroom played his role well, and no casual observer could have guessed how much coaxing had been required to bring him to the sticking point.

Elizabeth’s eye, however, was repeatedly drawn not to the groom, but to the man standing up with him. Mr Darcy’s demeanour was impenetrably solemn, and try as she might, she could not divine what he was thinking. Once or twice, she caught him looking her way, but he quickly averted his eyes each time.

For her part, Elizabeth could not but feel acutely the perverseness of the mischance that had caused Lydia and Wickham to be the ones reciting their marriage vows, thus precluding the possibility of herself and Mr Darcy ever being in their current position. It was a bittersweet thought indeed that, had matters progressed differently ‒ had they each been a little less foolish at the beginning of their acquaintance, or had they met again under happier circumstances ‒ they might have been the ones standing at the altar today, forming a union based on mutual respect and affection rather than one made necessary by lust and brought about by greed.

She was able to pay but little attention to the progression of the wedding ceremony, which seemed at the same time to last an eternity and be over in the blink of an eye. The presiding clergyman spoke, vows were exchanged; then they were entering the vestry to sign the marriage lines, and it abruptly struck her that, after today, she would likely never speak to Mr Darcy again ‒ never have the opportunity to voice her gratitude for all that he had done on her family’s behalf.

Perhaps something similar was going through Mr Darcy’s mind, for he lingered behind with her as the newly-minted Mr and Mrs Wickham strolled towards the church doors, Mrs Wickham clinging to her husband’s arm as he made polite conversation with the clergyman. The rest of the small wedding party had already filed outside to await the newlyweds there; Elizabeth perceived her opportunity and, before her courage could fail her, took it.

“Mr Darcy,” she said quietly, “I ought not to speak, yet I cannot remain silent any longer. You must allow me to thank you for all that you have done on my sister’s behalf. I know that I have expressed my gratitude before ‒ but I did not then know the extent, the magnitude of your kindness, and so could not do it proper justice. My family and I are forever in your debt.”

As she finished speaking, she heard the church doors swing closed. Mr Darcy, no doubt also perceiving that they were alone, stepped closer, though his voice was still low when he replied: “I beg you, do not speak of debt or gratitude. I know not how you have discovered my part in the proceedings, but I am exceedingly sorry that you have. I had hoped that you need never know of it ‒ and now fear that you may have misunderstood my motives.”

“Oh, fear not, sir,” Elizabeth exclaimed, awash in mortification, “that your generosity should have raised undue expectations. I am aware of the circumstances; I fully understand that, with my sister now Mrs Wickham, any connection between our families is impossible. I hope that it may reassure you that none but myself, my aunt and my uncle are aware of what you have done for us. You need not be anxious about rumours or demands ‒ I would not betray your confidence, nor presume to hope ‒”

“But you have it entirely wrong!” cried Mr Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion. “My desire for secrecy had nothing to do with such concerns as you have attributed to me. I have only endeavoured, as far as possible, to avoid giving you unease ‒ I would not wish you to feel under any sort of obligation to me.”

Elizabeth could not look at him; had the wedding party not been gathered outside the church, she might have abandoned all dignity and rushed out of the doors. She did not know whether to be more distressed about having once again entirely misunderstood Mr Darcy, or about having, as she feared she had done, precipitously revealed too much of her feelings. She could not think, she could not speak for her embarrassment.

Mr Darcy had no such trouble, as she discovered when her hands were seized into a fervent grip and he said urgently: “Miss Bennet, you spoke of not presuming to hope, yet you have compelled me to do precisely that. If I am mistaken, a word, a look will suffice to send me away ‒ but I must ask, I must know whether it is possible that your feelings towards me might have changed since April. My wishes remain the same; my affections have only grown deeper; but I will not distress you by speaking of them again, if you do not desire it.”

Had Elizabeth not already been struck speechless, she would have experienced the sensation now. Yet it was absolutely necessary to say something; though she could still not raise her eyes from the floor, she was acutely aware of the awkwardness and anxiety of Mr Darcy’s situation ‒ indeed, she could feel the unsteadiness of his hands as they clasped hers.

Fortunately, a few short words ‒ only half intelligible though they were ‒ were enough to make the alteration of her feelings known. She was then spared further conversation for some time, for words were not enough to express Darcy’s delight at having his proposal accepted. Elizabeth had not thought him to be the sort of man who would kiss a young lady in the middle of a church, nor herself the sort of young lady who would accept, let alone encourage such behaviour ‒ but she was thoroughly proven wrong on both counts.

Afterwards, she rested her head against his shoulder, his arm securely about her waist, and marvelled at the way their usual dispositions seemed to have been reversed. She was still too overcome to attempt any semblance of coherent speech, while he seemed to have gained all the eloquence she had temporarily lost, and was putting it to good use by detailing the extent of his admiration and love.

They might have remained thus for quite some time, forgetful of everything but each other, had not a noise from outside startled them into recalling their surroundings. Elizabeth, hastily stepping back and smoothing out her skirts, met Darcy’s eye and blushed at the dishevelled picture he made. Then, realising that her own appearance was likely just as disordered, she blushed even more and quickly set about putting herself to rights. When she looked up again, she found Darcy regarding her with an expression that betrayed equal amounts of affection and concern.

“I hope I have not frightened you,” he said quietly.

She was helpless to do anything but smile; the tenderness and delight overflowing in her heart required an outlet. Still, some trace of reason remained, and so she replied: “Not at all ‒ but we had best join the others before we are missed. After all the trouble you have gone to in order to restore Lydia’s reputation, we ought not to risk causing another scandal ‒ and at her wedding, too.”

At this, Mr Darcy looked suddenly pained, and he made no reply. Elizabeth felt an abrupt stab of uncertainty. Steeling herself, she said softly: “There is still time to reconsider, sir. If you are not certain, absolutely certain, that you can endure having such a man as your brother, I will not hold you to anything you have said ‒ there have been no witnesses ‒”

She got no further before finding herself once again in his arms, his voice fervent in her ear.

“If you imagine that such a consideration would detain me for an instant ‒!” He was silent for some moments, perhaps struggling to regain his composure. Then, releasing her from his embrace but retaining hold of her hands, he continued very seriously: “Elizabeth, not long ago I thought you lost to me forever. I spent several days fearing that I might have to see you married to that scoundrel ‒ or worse. When I discovered my error ‒ when I found out that there was still hope ‒” He broke off again, shaking his head. “Surely, you cannot think that such a paltry thing could frighten me away after that.”

Elizabeth, once again too overcome for words, stepped closer and rose up on her toes, and several moments were spent in silent mutual reassurance. When she retreated at last, she was forced to avail herself of his handkerchief to dab at her eyes.

“I am sorry,” said Darcy, still exceedingly serious, “that I should have given you cause to doubt me. I shall endeavour to never do so again.”

“And I am sorry to have doubted you even for a moment. But the turn of your countenance when I spoke of Lydia ‒ I suppose I spent so long attempting to resign myself to losing you that I can scarcely believe you could want to marry me despite everything.”

“It was not the mention of your sister which gave me pause ‒ merely that I became aware of my own ungentlemanly conduct. To accost you in such a place and in such a manner! I should have had more concern for your reputation.”

“Oh! That will teach me to curb my wretched tendency towards ill-timed levity!” Elizabeth exclaimed, though she was suddenly hard-pressed not to laugh. She did indeed need to learn to consider her words more carefully ‒ but she would also need to teach him to take himself a little less seriously, lest they find themselves forever speaking at cross purposes. “My dear sir ‒ my dearest Mr Darcy ‒ your conduct may not have been entirely proper, but I assure you I could not be better pleased with it.”

The lightening of his countenance made her heart soar, and she knew that if she did not keep her wits about her, they would soon find themselves defying propriety again.

“However, I assure you that Lydia will not forgive us if she discovers that we have usurped her wedding day by becoming engaged. We shall never hear the end of it! So come, let us go see her off before somebody comes looking for us.”

This, finally, brought a smile to Darcy’s face. “You are right ‒ let us give your sister her due. It is her day, after all.” He tucked her hand securely into the crook of his arm. “Though I expect the next wedding I attend will be even more memorable.”

As it turned out, nobody paid much attention to their late arrival outside, for though their conversation in the church had been momentous enough to feel as if it ought to have lasted longer, they had in fact been away from the rest of the wedding party for scarcely more than twenty minutes. Their appearance, too, escaped suspicion for the most part. Darcy was not of a disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth, and Elizabeth’s demeanour was sufficiently sobered by the sight of her sister smugly showing off her ring to some of the Gardiners’ neighbours. Only Mrs Gardiner gave them a knowing look as they mingled with the well-wishers who had gathered outside the church. She did not miss the fact that they remained arm in arm the entire time that they were circulating through the small crowd, nor the fact that they kept stealing glances at each other when they believed no one was looking.

At last, Mr Gardiner’s carriage departed with the newlyweds. In an effort to keep up appearances, a few of the Gardiners’ neighbours and friends had been invited to their home for a modest wedding breakfast, and as the party set off walking towards Gracechurch Street, it was not difficult for the newly betrothed couple to steal a moment’s conversation. It was agreed between Elizabeth and Darcy that he would speak to Mr Gardiner that very day, and that the Gardiners should be consulted to determine the best manner in which to inform the rest of the family.

The wedding breakfast was a comfortable affair made particularly pleasant by the absence of Mr and Mrs Wickham themselves. Still, Elizabeth could not help being rather impatient for the guests to depart, and though Darcy exerted himself to be civil to the Gardiners’ acquaintances, she had no doubt that he felt the same. It was with equal parts relief and nervous anticipation, therefore, that she watched the last of the guests take their leave, and saw Darcy approach Mr Gardiner immediately afterwards.

Almost as soon as the door had closed behind Darcy and Mr Gardiner, Mrs Gardiner turned to her niece.

“Well, Lizzy? Have you something to tell me?”

“Oh, aunt! I am the happiest creature in the world!”