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An Offer of Prudence

April 06, 2017 11:17PM
Preface: This story is built around a premise that Darcy does not propose at Hunsford. Thus, while enamored of Elizabeth, Darcy does not lose his deliberate approach to the matter and instead travels to London the week before her return to meet and converse with Mr. Gardiner. I accept that this story may not be to everyone’s taste but I hope they can find some enjoyment from it anyway.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“You wished to see me, Uncle?”

Elizabeth looked at her Uncle Gardiner with a quizzical expression. It was rare that he would invite her to his study and usually then only for purposes of some importance. She had returned only an hour past noon from visiting her friend, Charlotte Collins, and could think of nothing that would have necessitated this invitation so soon afterwards. Her uncle returned her gaze with one equally questioning.

“You have spent six weeks in Kent with your cousin and his wife?”

Elizabeth agreed that she had. “It was an interesting experience to be sure, although not one I would wish to enjoy again any time soon. Mr. Collins’ company is not all that pleasant and his patroness, Lady Catherine, thinks altogether too well of herself and her opinions.”

“You were in company with Mr. Darcy while there, I gather. Lady Catherine’s nephew?”

“I was.” She grimaced. Her temper had cooled markedly since she left Kent. A week to think about Colonel Fitzwilliam’s revelations had, to a small extent, dissipated her anger roused by learning of Mr. Darcy’s intervention to separate her sister, Jane, from Mr. Bingley, with whom Jane had grown increasingly attached. Colonel Fitzwilliam had suggested that his cousin had intervened because there were serious objections to her sister, although Colonel Fitzwilliam suggested that the identities of the parties was a matter of conjecture on his part and he had no knowledge at all of the lady’s identify. Nonetheless, the Colonel was sure it was Mr. Bingley and thus Elizabeth was equally certain that the lady concerned was her sister.

Her initial suppositions had been that Mr. Darcy’s ‘objections’ were due to her sister’s lack of fortune and connections, for she could only suppose those to be of the greatest importance to that gentleman. She had considered whether the impropriety of her family’s behaviour, particularly that of her mother and two youngest sisters, might have played a part but had almost as quickly discounted such a consideration; however, as her anger cooled, she had been forced to reconsider and to accept that she might have been too quick to dismiss the significance of such behaviour. If the latter had been a contributing factor, then Jane owed her distress as much to her family’s behaviour as to the machinations of Darcy. Nonetheless, that he had intervened and was the cause of her sister’s distress could not be ignored.

She had successfully avoided his company that day by pleading a headache on the last evening they would have been together at Rosings Park. He had, in company with his cousin, called the next day to take his leave of the residents of the parsonage, had spoken with her briefly, inquiring minutely into her plans to return to the Gardiners and even going so far as to request their address. The former was, she thought, uncommonly and uncharacteristically civil of him. She could think of no reason for the latter request and her astonishment at it prevented her from devising a valid reason to not impart the information. Charlotte Collins certainly thought it significant, for she had been unable to hide her surprise at the request and, afterwards, had wondered aloud why he should have done so. Elizabeth could supply no answer and wished to think of Mr. Darcy as little as possible and, therefore, had striven to banish the matter from her thoughts. It had required only several days and as many walks to accomplish the task. Charlotte had not referred to the subject again, although Elizabeth knew herself to be the object of speculative glances from her friend.

Her uncle regarded her thoughtfully. “I understand that your opinion of Mr. Darcy is poor.”

She huffed. Mr. Gardiner smiled.

“You have never really explained why you had taken him in such dislike.” said he.

“Is not his treatment of Mr. Wickham sufficient cause?”

“If you are inclined to place your confidence unreservedly in Mr. Wickham, I suppose it is.”

She looked at him incredulously, “You cannot suppose he was not being truthful? There was truth in his looks, in his open manners. He could not have been dissembling.”

Her uncle looked doubtful. “I cannot claim to have spoken enough with Mr. Wickham to form an opinion. Certainly, you were more in his company than me. Your aunt found him quite agreeable as well, although anyone who can speak well of Derbyshire will find her favour.” He paused, “She seemed a little dubious about his more recent behaviour, was she not?”

Elizabeth nodded reluctantly. Her aunt had looked unfavourably at Mr. Wickham’s ready courtship of Miss King upon that lady’s acquisition of a small fortune. Surely, that was of little significance. Mr. Wickham could hardly court someone who did not possess at least some fortune to her credit. She said as much to her uncle. If his reaction was to be trusted, he viewed such behaviour with as little enthusiasm as her aunt but he declined to explain his reservations. In truth, Elizabeth knew what they were, for there was, if one looked at it in a particular manner, something rather mercenary about Mr. Wickham’s actions.

“So,” her uncle continued, “your opinion of Mr. Darcy was fixed because of Mr. Wickham’s sad tale?”

Elizabeth disliked the scepticism imbued in her uncle’s reference to a ‘sad tale’. She shook her head in denial.

“My opinion of Mr. Darcy was formed well before that took place.”

Mr. Gardiner’s eyebrows rose and his slight hand gesture invited her to be more explicit. Elizabeth began to describe Darcy’s behaviour during his sojourn in Hertfordshire and, as she spoke, her voice became increasingly defensive as her awareness, and her uncle’s, of the insubstantiality of her charges against Darcy became apparent. She chose to omit the initial incident – Darcy’s egregious insult at the assembly – because she realized, when she had been about to describe the incident, that her own wounded vanity lay at the root of her dislike of Darcy.

Her voice tailed off, “. . .and he refused to dance with anyone other than Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst.”

“Anyone? He danced only with those two ladies? I thought he danced with another?”

Mr. Gardiner’s eyebrows had risen again and he waited expectantly. Elizabeth sighed, “He also danced with me at Mr. Bingley’s ball.”

“Hmmm!”

Mr. Gardiner was silent for almost a minute.

“And his behaviour in Kent? Was it also disagreeable? Was he impolite? Rude? Disdainful?” he paused momentarily, “Did you see much of him while there?”

Elizabeth, not for the first time, wondered as to the purpose of her uncle’s questions and expressed her curiosity. Mr. Gardiner ignored her query, smiled and declared, “At this point, I would prefer that you answer my questions. My purpose shall become clear with time.”

Elizabeth sighed in frustration, “He was, for the most part, quite civil, although he could rarely be won to much conversation.”

“A most grievous fault, to be sure.” He paused only briefly, not allowing her to respond to his slight touch of sarcasm. “So, he was not rude or uncivil or disagreeable? Are there other charges to be laid to Mr. Darcy’s account?”

“He separated Mr. Bingley from Jane!” she blurted.

For once Mr. Gardiner looked surprised, “He did? How did he. . .”

“I cannot say but his cousin spoke of it with assurance!” she interrupted, “There were apparently some serious objections to Jane.” Her ire re-emerged, “Her lack of fortune and connections were not, I must suppose, adequate for a friend of the oh-so-proud Mr. Darcy.”

Mr. Gardiner’s reaction surprised her, for his features reflected amusement rather than anger. Elizabeth’s ire was re-directed to another target.

“I cannot comprehend what amusement you can find in this matter, Uncle.” She snapped and then was overcome with embarrassment, for she had never once in her life spoken in anger to her uncle. Fortunately, he did not appear offended.

“I see.” He replied, “However, I would ask that you allow me the liberty of my own understanding on the matter. Mr. Bingley is a man grown, is he not?”

Elizabeth agreed he was.

“And he has the sole control of his fortune, does he not?”

Elizabeth easily understood the direction of her uncle’s queries but he would not allow her to avoid an answer and she finally conceded that Mr. Bingley was indeed financially independent.

“And,” continued her uncle, “Mr. Bingley is an intelligent man?”

Elizabeth assented to the statement also but followed quickly with a qualifying observation.

“Mr. Bingley dislikes arguments and avoids them whenever he can.”

“Are you suggesting that he acquiesced to his friend’s opinions and those of his sisters, solely to avoid a dispute?”

Elizabeth felt as though she had bitten into something sour but she nodded reluctantly.

“’Tis not a particularly estimable trait, now is it, Lizzy?”

She did not respond and Mr. Gardiner took her silence as assent and continued, “I might, under the circumstances, be annoyed with Mr. Darcy for his advice, but surely you must concede that Mr. Bingley’s character is deficient in some respect, if his attachment to Jane, which you have continually asserted was pronounced, can be so easily put aside. I would fear for your sister’s happiness with such a man.”

Elizabeth shook her head, “You cannot convince me, Uncle, that Mr. Bingley is anything but the best man for Jane. I have seen them together.”

“And I shall not attempt any such thing, Lizzy. My purpose was solely to have you reconsider, or perhaps more accurately, ask that you consider Mr. Darcy in a less prejudicial manner.”

“Why, Uncle? I see no point to all this discussion. Mr. Darcy is of no importance whatsoever to me. I doubt I shall ever meet him again.”

Mr. Gardiner smiled and rose from behind his desk. He encouraged Elizabeth to rise, led her from the room and directed her towards the small front parlour. The hallway was suspiciously clear of anyone. Even her sister and aunt appeared to have disappeared. He paused outside the door, rested his hand on the doorknob and spoke words that left Elizabeth stunned.

“On the matter of never meeting Mr. Darcy again, you are quite incorrect, for he is inside and wishes to speak with you in private.”

“Mr. Darcy!” she gasped.

He nodded and continued, “I have agreed to allow him to do so and will be sitting” and he gestured towards a chair across the hall, “outside for the sake of propriety. I urge you to use that excellent brain of yours for a purpose more important than keeping your ears apart. You are a sensible girl, Elizabeth, and we expect you to act accordingly.”

He waited a few seconds for a response and, when none came, began to open the door.

“Wait!” she cried, “Mr. Darcy can have nothing to say that you cannot hear.”

“I disagree. This is a matter which lies between you and he alone.”

Elizabeth looked wildly about, “You. . .He. . .cannot be serious?”

“Quite serious, Lizzy. Now I suggest you gather your composure, for I believe you will need all your wits about you. When this is done, we may speak again, if you feel it necessary.”

He opened the door and ushered her into the room. Darcy had been standing, gazing out the window and, upon hearing the door open, turned to face Mr. Gardiner and Elizabeth. His bow was perfectly civil and Elizabeth found herself curtsying automatically. Mr. Gardiner broke the brief silence, “Mr. Darcy, I have informed Elizabeth only that you wish to speak with her in private and that I shall allow you as much time as you require. I trust that you will not abuse my generosity?”

Mr. Darcy agreed firmly. For her part, Elizabeth was sure she required no more than five minutes to make her opinion known. When she did not respond, Mr. Gardiner closed the door behind him. Darcy gestured to a pair of chairs which had been placed facing each other. Elizabeth selected one and Darcy the other. They were separated sufficiently as to make conversation possible without impinging on each other. Elizabeth was not inclined to begin the discussion, for they were meeting at his request. She wondered if his usual taciturnity would desert him. She was surprised when he spoke almost immediately.

“I have no doubt,” he intoned, “that you are greatly surprised at my requesting such a meeting.”

Elizabeth agreed curtly that she was. He nodded thoughtfully and removed a sheet of paper from his waistcoat pocket, laid it open on the small table beside his chair and smoothed it flat. Elizabeth could see that the page was written quite through and in such a close hand as to prevent her deciphering its contents. He glanced briefly at it before fixing his gaze on her. His first words were shocking.

“I have known you now for about six months, Miss Bennet. During that time, I have developed a great admiration for your character. You will, I hope, concede that I am not some callow youth driven by infatuation. You are a remarkably attractive woman and I am fully sensible of that fact. But, while I appreciate your beauty, it is your intelligence, your liveliness, your composure in the face of opposition, your kindness and that impertinence which is so much a part of you, that has formed the basis of my admiration. I had not known you more than a fortnight before my respect had grown to such dimensions as to quite overset all my thoughts in regards to marriage. As much as I admired you whilst in Hertfordshire, I felt I must separate myself from you to allow me to consider the matter in a rational manner. It was, in the months that followed, the comparisons I found myself making between yourself and other ladies to whom I was introduced, that formed the bedrock of my current approbation. Before we unexpectedly met in Kent, I had already resolved to approach you at the first opportunity. Our subsequent encounters in Kent only fixed more firmly in my mind that you would, in every respect, be the perfect wife for me and that I could in many ways enhance your life. I did not approach you there because I wished to speak with your relation for approval to do so. Hence my inquiries as to your plans upon departing Kent.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond question. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This appeared to surprise him not at all and he continued before she could marshal her thoughts to respond.

“I will not confess to anything more than a strong admiration and a deep respect, Miss Bennet. What the future may hold, I dare not say, but many successful marriages have been founded on much less. I had thought you returned my regard but my cousin and your uncle have given me to understand, to my great surprise, that your feelings for me are very much the reverse of mine. Neither spoke of the reasons for that and I hope you will enlighten me as to what they are and allow me to address them, if not immediately, then before we leave this room.”

He paused briefly as if to allow her to comment but her mind was still grappling with the idea of his admiration. She had always believed him to hold her in contempt and she understood fully that the blow to her vanity at their first encounter had blinded her to his interest. Finding her unprepared to respond, he continued.

“Having accepted that your regard has not been wakened, I can only hope to convince you on the benefits of the match for you by addressing what I see our marriage as offering you. First, you may be assured of my respect and consideration. I have no doubt we will disagree and sometimes with anger; however,” and he smiled a little ruefully, “despite my rather resentful temper, I am not impervious to persuasion when proven to be in the wrong. I will never resent you for expressing your opinion, for I know that it will be the product of your intelligence and therefore worthy of respect and consideration. My good opinion, once earned – which you have – is firmly fixed and not easily changed.

“Secondly, I am quite aware of the perilous situation facing your mother and your sisters should your father die unexpectedly. I am quite prepared to assist your family to establish themselves in Meryton or somewhere else as necessary. In addition, your sisters will become mine and it will be as much in my interest to assist them in finding suitable husbands as it is to assist my own sister. How that may be done I cannot say, but I have no doubt your excellent uncle will assist and guide us in the process. I have, Miss Bennet, come to respect him greatly.”

The mention of her uncle recalled something that had been plaguing her since she entered the room.

“I am confused, Mr. Darcy. Why have you approached my uncle on this matter? I would have thought you would instead have spoken to my father.”

“And I fully intend to do so, Miss Bennet. However, I did not wish to wait until you returned to Longbourn and suspected that we might speak with less. . .interference here in London. Once I had spoken with your uncle, I was certain I had made the correct decision and he agreed to it as well. A very sensible man, your uncle, and one whose advice I have come to appreciate greatly.”

He waited for several moments and, when it seemed she had nothing further to say, continued, “Thirdly, your own future will be secured in the marriage settlement. You and our children will need never fear the hedgerows. Pemberley is not entailed and, should we have only daughters, it may be inherited by the eldest.”

He stopped briefly to consult his page of paper. He looked up at her and smiled. “I am so often bereft of coherent speech in your company, that I thought to order my thoughts on paper.”

“You are doing an admirable job of it so far, Mr. Darcy.”

He smiled again and resumed, “Fourthly, our children will have all the advantages that our position and wealth can provide. With you as their mother, I have every confidence that they will behave with propriety and civility.

“Fifth, I understand your love for learning, for reading. We will travel almost anywhere you might wish. There’s a wealth of society and knowledge and places to enjoy and learn from. As well, I can offer a most excellent library at Pemberley. And. . .”

“The work of generations, I understand.”

He smiled once again and Elizabeth found herself smiling in response. He was a handsome man and, when he smiled, he turned her stomach into knots.

He was not yet done.

“I know how much you appreciate the country and I am convinced you will love Derbyshire. I spend at least half the year at Pemberley and when. . .if we marry, I can see spending even more time there. We shall, of course, come to town, for there are some entertainments that can best be found there, but I have rarely enjoyed London’s society. I do have business interests that will call us to town, but I am quite pleased to contemplate spending my days at Pemberley. Your family, your aunt and uncle and their children shall all visit and, in fact, I have invited your uncle and his family to visit this summer and would hope that they, and possibly your family, would join us next Christmas.

“I am asking for your hand in marriage, Miss Bennet. Will you gift me with it?”

He paused and looked at her expectantly. She hardly knew what to say. Her thoughts were all jumbled, spinning from one subject to another in an almost endless loop. She had never been so discomposed or confused in her life.

“You seriously wish to marry me?” she mumbled.

He nodded solemnly.

“But surely there are serious objections to such a match?”

He looked at her uncertainly and then understanding arrived and he grimaced, “My cousin?”

She nodded.

“Ah. . .” he muttered a few moments later, “Bingley and your sister?”

She nodded again, wondering what he might say, how he might excuse his actions.

“I will not deny that I advised my friend against your sister. I. . .”

“Her fortune and connections were wanting, I suppose.” was her sharp rejoinder.

“They were a consideration, of course; however, that was not the most salient point to my friend. It was your sister’s affections, or rather the lack of such affections, that convinced him not to return. All other considerations Bingley had put aside, but I stated that I had seen no evidence that your sister’s heart had been touched, and Bingley is too dear a friend for me to wish to see him in a marriage where his affections are not returned.”

“And he accepted your advice on this matter? The advice of one who could not have possibly known my sister as well as himself? Who was rarely in her company. You set yourself up as the judge of her feelings? Who are you that she should reveal them to you or anyone so unconnected with her? Is she to put herself on display like Miss Bingley, for the amusement of all? Is that how her affections are to be gauged? She will not have it so. Nor should she. Her behaviour was everything that was proper and Mr. Bingley should have been allowed to make the determination by himself.”

Elizabeth found her control of her temper slipping and forced herself to rise and move towards the window, breathing deeply and slowly to find her calm. A silence fell between them for several minutes, broken at last by Darcy who had risen as she did but remained standing by his chair.

“An additional reason to accept my suit is that your sister and my friend will inevitably find themselves in company together. With no interference on our part, they should find their way together, if their feelings for one another are strong. I hold no animus towards your sister, Miss Bennet, and if she makes my friend happy, then I will be pleased for them both. I did not act with malicious intent, Elizabeth. I simply wished to be of service to my friend, much, I suspect, as you wish to be of service to your sister.”

Elizabeth turned to look at him closely. She had not missed his use of her Christian name, nor was she blind to its significance. He sounded sincere and she carefully reviewed all that he had said so far and their previous conversations. She could not recall him ever being less than civil to her, despite her provocations and now, with perfect hindsight, had no doubt of his sincerity on those occasions. It was all in contradiction to the perception of him she had previously formed. Certainly, this man could not have acted in the dishonourable manner that Mr. Wickham claimed.

“Mr. Wickham has stated you refused him a valuable living intended for him by your father.”

Darcy glowered and she observed first his features flush with anger and then his mastery of that anger. With the return of his composure, he replied, “I did indeed, but only after suitable compensation had been agreed upon between us. My refusal came several years after he had already rejected the living. Is that the substance of his charge against me?”

A touch of uneasiness entered his manner as he spoke but Elizabeth could make nothing of it and simply nodded before asking, “Compensation?”

“Three thousand pounds! Which he wasted in two or three years, after which he requested the living and I refused it.” He paused, “I also have proof, documents, to verify my statements. And Colonel Fitzwilliam can provide his assurances as well, for he was quite familiar with all of the details.”

Elizabeth turned back to look out the window. Her embarrassment was complete. The man she had deemed injured was quite the opposite and Darcy exonerated of every charge. To think of some response was essential.

“You have been clear on the advantages to me from such a union. I do not see that you benefit, Mr. Darcy.”

Even with her back to him, she could detect a lightness to his words. And she realized that she had inadvertently acknowledged her willingness to accept his offer, for her question was meaningless otherwise. In the window, she saw him step closer to her, though remaining distant enough to satisfy propriety. His voice was warm and there was a tenderness in it she had never heard from a man.

“I believe I have expressed my appreciation for your character, Miss Bennet, and those attributes which have contributed to it. I believe you will make an excellent mistress of my estates, a kind and loving mother to our children. I hope that we are blessed with a large family, for Pemberley has missed the happy sounds of children for too many years. As well, I believe you will be a superior guide and helpmeet to my sister who is but sixteen and rather shy and reserved. I will not deny that I hope you will be of assistance to me in society, for I find it difficult to deal with strangers. As I said to you at Rosings Park, I find it difficult to converse with those with whom I am unfamiliar. In your company, I find my words flow a little more readily; however, all those benefits pale beside that afforded by your company, your companionship, for the remainder of my days. I have envisioned you at Pemberley, walking its trails, alone or with me or with our children. I have seen you in our library, reading silently across from me in an armchair, debating and arguing with me on books, matters of the estate, our children. I am not a man with many friends, Elizabeth. I treasure the few I have and to have my wife as my closest friend and perhaps more, should matters between us reach such a conclusion, is my dearest wish.”

She turned to face him.

“And my lack of fortune and my connections, an uncle who is naught but a country attorney and another who is engaged in trade, these do not represent an impediment? I saw your disdain when you entered our society, Mr. Darcy. Was your pride under good regulation then, sir, for it did not appear so to me?”

Darcy paled and closed his eyes, “For several reasons, I was not in a good humour when I first entered your society which made my behaviour less than it ought to be. I confess that I found the blatant appraisal of my station and fortune most unpleasant and reacted accordingly. I was, in general, not of a mind to be pleased with anyone, Miss Bennet, and my behaviour was not under good regulation. In regards to your lack of fortune, the matter is of no importance to me. I can provide quite well for you and our children without additional funds and I doubt that you are a spendthrift. As to your connections, I will concede that it was a concern but one I have, after careful consideration, long since put aside. Having met and talked with your Uncle Gardiner, such reservations as remained were dispelled. Besides, I count Bingley as my closest friend and I am not such a hypocrite as deny he owes his fortune to trade and has family who are so engaged.“

“As much as his sisters wish to do so.” Elizabeth could not suppress a small giggle. She sobered quickly, for his reference to Bingley’s family reminded her of another possible objection to the match.

“My family?” she said.

Darcy grimaced, “I would not have you believe I approve of the behaviour of your younger sisters or your mother. Occasionally, even your father’s actions appear improper.” He held up a hand to forestall her immediate response. “My disapproval should not be interpreted as a lack of acceptance. They are your family and will become mine as well. I tolerate my aunt’s incivilities, little though I approve of her behaviour. I will accord your family the same respect, Elizabeth; however, I hope you would not expect to introduce them into London society without first addressing those deficiencies of behaviour which would embarrass us both.”

As much as she might wish it were otherwise, Elizabeth could not dispute the accuracy of his appraisal. Her mother and younger sisters had too often been the source of her mortification, for her to wish to suffer it unnecessarily in the future. If she were to accept? The thought staggered her, for how had it come so quickly to this?

“You must be aware, Mr. Darcy, that my feelings are not equal to yours.”

His slight wave of his hand dismissed the concern.

“Do you respect me, Miss Bennet?”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and considered his question. If she put aside her wounded vanity and Wickham’s now disputable claims, was her respect for Mr. Darcy in doubt? She knew that when she had spoken to Wickham, she had been surprised at such dishonourable behaviour by Darcy. Until then she had believed him a proud and disagreeable man, but one to be respected. He had been diligent in caring for his estate and dealing with his business correspondence, and even Wickham had credited him with being a caring brother. He had also borne with his aunt’s continuous incivilities with remarkable composure.

“Yes, Mr. Darcy, I believe I do respect you.” She replied.

“Then, Miss Bennet, we have the beginnings of an excellent marriage, for I am convinced that nothing is more important to felicity in marriage than mutual respect.”

Elizabeth nodded. She had, from her own experience, observed the consequences of her father’s lack of respect for her mother. He had treated with her for his own amusement and his contempt for her had been poorly hidden from his children, though Elizabeth could not be certain that her mother recognized its existence. Mr. Darcy had promised her his respect and she had no doubt he would honour his commitment. She considered her answer once again and, as she did so, gazed more carefully at the man who wished to be her husband. He was tall and well-formed, handsome to be sure, and of an active disposition, for she had, more than once, observed him riding and had encountered him on her walks at Rosings. With a sudden insight, she realized that those meetings had not been accidental. He had, with deliberation, sought her out with the object of speaking with her. That his purpose had not been obvious to her, spoke as much to her own blindness as to his awkwardness. She smiled. He was truly the opposite of Mr. Collins in every respect, for that gentleman had a shortage only of sensible speech. Mr. Darcy was hardly verbose but what he said was always sensible and well thought out. As well, and she ran her gaze up and down his figure, he was indeed very well formed. She had been repulsed at the thought of marital intimacies with Mr. Collins. Mr. Darcy engendered a very different reaction and she suspected that his attentions would not be unpleasant at all. The thought caused her to flush and she noted that Mr. Darcy had not been oblivious to her study and his eyebrows had risen in question. Her flush deepened, for this was not something she could discuss now.

She turned back to face him and gave him her response.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Mr. Darcy was inquiring after you, madam.”

“And where might I find him, Carson?”

“I believe he is awaiting you in his study, madam.” replied their butler.

In a matter of moments, she pushed open the door to her husband’s study and shrieked when a pair of arms surrounded her from behind. She felt lips nuzzling her neck and a hand that had wandered up from her waist to cup a breast.

“Oh, Jonathon.” She breathed. And her husband’s chuckle was accompanied by a tweak of a nipple.

“Saucy wench!” he murmured, “how shall I deal with you appropriately?”

She twisted in his grasp, reached behind him to twist the key in the door, securely locking it. “Howsoever you wish, Mr. Darcy. Howsoever you wish.”

She felt herself lifted and carried and then gently deposited on the large sofa that had been introduced into the room some months after their marriage. She did not relinquish her grasp of her husband, drawing him down on her body.

“Shall we attempt to enlarge our family, Mr. Darcy?” she murmured.

“I believe we must, Mrs. Darcy, for there is a shocking imbalance. We have only two daughters and need at least one more to make the numbers balance."

“That is a dangerous game, sir, for what shall we do should another son be the consequence?”

“In the words of my aunt, we must, therefore, practice even more to improve our proficiency.”

Further conversation was, for some while, of a private nature and not the subject of this story. As to whether the object of the exercise was successful, it should only be noted that Emily Jane Darcy was introduced to her family some nine months later. No one could understand why her father insisted that he had always anticipated his youngest daughter would be a studious child. However, that happy event lay some months in the future. Darcy thought to remind his wife of an earlier and happier one as they lay entwined on the sofa.

“It is twelve years to the day that you accepted my offer of marriage.”

“It is?” she was thoughtful for some moments, “It is, indeed. How clever of you to remember.”

“You have no regrets?”

“I should have thought that five children and today’s little effort would banish such concerns.”

“I assure you, Elizabeth, that I put considerable effort into today’s activity.”

“I noted it and I thoroughly enjoyed your consideration.”

“There have been many changes, have there not? You could not have been sanguine about the matter at the time?”

“I was not.” Elizabeth wondered at his bring up this topic, for it was one she thought they had left behind many years ago.

“And yet you are now content.”

“I am!” and she burrowed more closely into her husband’s embrace. It had been a gradual process, for he had been right. Their marriage, founded on mutual respect, had developed into everything she could have wished. It had been a surprise to her that she could so enjoy their marital intimacies. She had expected there to be some awkwardness and reluctance on her part and, in truth, there was at first but she had come to realize that it was no more than any new bride might experience. Her husband had been a considerate lover, guiding and introducing her to the pleasures of the marriage bed. She had never repined their intimacy and only a month after their marriage had willingly acceded to his request to spend her nights in his bed. Her own bedroom had eventually been turned into a nursery where their new-born babes had spent the first year of their life. Her wandering thoughts were brought back by Darcy’s voice.

“Bingley wrote me but, as usual, I can barely decipher his letter. Was your sister more informative?”

“We may expect them in a fortnight.” She chuckled, “Jane assures me that Miss Bingley will not be accompanying them.”

She smiled at her husband’s discernible sigh of relief. Miss Bingley had accepted her brother’s marriage and that of Darcy to retain her right to visit Pemberley. She had repaid every arrear of civility to Elizabeth for quite a few years, however, recently there had been a resurgence of that disdain which had so marked their early acquaintance. Elizabeth could only suspect that Miss Bingley’s desperation at her continued spinsterhood had played a part in her behaviour. Finally, Darcy had spoken to Bingley on the matter and demanded a change in his sister’s manners, if she wished to be welcomed at Pemberley in the future. Her response was clear and her absence not unwelcome to Pemberley’s inhabitants. Elizabeth returned to the question which had prompted her distraction.

“I knew when I married you that you were an honourable and respectable man. Over the course of the following months I learned that you were a caring and kind one.” She spoke into Darcy’s chest. She also knew that traces of his arrogance and pride remained. What she had thought was disdain for the lack of consequence of her Hertfordshire neighbours she now understood was a response to their vulgarity and frequent lapses in propriety. He was fastidious in this respect and, if not an altogether admirable characteristic, it was one she had come to accept. He was not perfect but then neither was she. Several months after their wedding he had been required to visit his estate in Scotland for a fortnight. His absence has brought home to her how much she had come to depend upon him and that her own feelings had deepened from respect into love and admiration. Her confession, upon his return, had prompted his own declaration.

“I had fallen irretrievably in love with you when I left Hertfordshire for the first time. I departed to be sure my feelings were more than a simple infatuation. They were, as I quickly came to realize.”

“Then you were in love with me when you proposed?”

“I was, although I felt it best to conceal that fact from you. Your uncle knew, but he promised to respect my wishes on the matter.”

He was the best man she knew. It had been his careful guidance that had allowed her sisters - even foolish, wild Lydia - to find suitable husbands, for he had, as part of the marriage settlement, increased their dowries to a respectable amount and with her Uncle Gardiner’s assistance had overseen and guided their futures. Her mother, once her daughters were well settled, had calmed noticeably and her nervous effusions lessened. Her father enjoyed the benefit of a quieter household, although that did not discourage him from visiting Pemberley as often as could be.

She was well pleased with her decision made so many years past.

“I could not have made a better choice for a husband, Fitzwilliam. You have pleased me in every particular and I love you dearly.”

“Then you must” he replied as he pressed her back down on the sofa, “allow me to please you in those particulars once more, Mrs. Darcy.”

She smiled and he did.

~ The End ~
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An Offer of Prudence

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