Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight
Awakening in the morning to her very first hangover unaided by pain killers, Alison dragged herself from the horror of a bed stiff, aching, and rebelling against the world. Sunlight attacked her eyes, and she could not see her way to believing that such acute pain could be anything other than poignant reality. No, this was no comma or similar episode of imagination: this was a living nightmare, perhaps hell itself, and there was no hope of an end in sight.
Hill stuffed her into yet another uncomfortable costume, supposedly appropriate for whatever time of day it was. 12:00! she mentally exclaimed, forcing herself to focus on the clock above the mantel. Never had she slept so late! Alison groaned aloud, but submitted passively to the torture of having her hair brushed, pricked, and pinned beneath a lace cap: the Regency equivalent to the ponytail.
Downstairs she found the entire family breakfasting in far too cheerful spirits. She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat gingerly down upon her chair. Lydia was talking so quick and loud that it was several minutes before Alison took in what she said.
"An uncle came storming down from London, traveling with four horses, and snatched Mary away within the hour. She hadn't time to pack all her things, which will be sent on behind her. La! How I wish I could have seen her face! After lording her conquest over us all these weeks, too! She shan't find someone near so handsome in London, where her 10,000 pounds will do less to diminish her freckles!" Lydia shrieked with laughter, which Kitty echoed with less enthusiasm, while Mary (and Mr. Bennet from behind his paper) looked on with perseverance. "I shall say the very thing to Wickham when we see him this morning in Meryton, as we surely shall, and we shall see what he says!" Another piercing round of giggles.
"Enough!" Alison bellowed loud enough to make herself wince. Once more she found herself confronting a table full of bewildered Bennets. "You will not badmouth the poor girl to her former suitor, not today nor any other day, for you may not speak with Mr. Wickham at all! I forbid you to say so much as good morning to the man."
"Not speak to Wickham?" Lydia echoed. "You want me to snub the handsomest man in all the regiment? Really, Mama! What has come over you lately?"
"An excellent question, my dear," Mr. Bennet said, folding the paper and putting it aside. "What has come over Mrs. Bennet?" his eyes twinkled amusedly.
"Nothing has come over me!" she snapped back, knowing such antics were not in her favor but feeling too reckless to care. "We should all be grateful to Mary King's uncle! Clearly, he learned something which rendered Mr. Wickham exceedingly undesirable as a husband, else why would he behave so? Let's take it as a lesson well learned and have nothing more to do with the man."
A few inchoate protests resounded through the room, then Mr. Bennet said, "It would cause a great deal of trouble to cut a gentleman on the militia."
"You should speak to Colonel Forster about his reputation before letting your daughters make fools of themselves over him, or are you afraid of taking the trouble to protect your children from a rogue?" Alison fumed in reply, finding gratification in the surprised look upon his face. Soon he regained himself.
"Careful, my dear!" he warned sardonically. "Do you wish to render the man irresistible? Stop talking up his charms, and your purpose will be better served."
"I am in no mood for manipulative games! The man is dangerous. I'll say no more on the subject. If you know what is good for you, girls, you'll stay well away from him." Oh god! I'm really turning into her! Alison thought with a shudder, reflecting on the inconsistency of her speech, yet she couldn't stop herself from continuing. "If nothing else, I will preserve this family from George Wickham. You may not walk to Meryton today, and we shall not be at home if he calls!"
"You heard your mother, girls!" Mr. Bennet declared with both finality and amusement as he rose from the table. "I"ll try to weather the clamor from my library." With dismay Alison watched him leave as the decibel of Lydia and Kitty's now joint complaints rose to new heights, and once having finally reached a plateau choosing to rest there for no less than an hour, Alison was thoroughly grateful when a visit from Mrs. Lucas and her youngest daughter heralded a change in pitch.
"It is odd to not have our elder girls not with us on such an occasion, is it not Mrs. Bennet?" questioned their guest in mournful tones. "To discuss a ball without the benefit of your Miss Elizabeth and dear Mrs. Collins to reflect on the follies of all! You cannot know the hardship of parting with a child through marriage. Maria will return to me, but who is to say I will live to see Charlotte returned to the neighborhood? How kind it was of you to spare Elizabeth for so long. What tales of Hunsford she will have to tell! Lady Catherine has been most condescending, and they have dined at Rosings quite regularly."
And so she prattled on. Alison narrowed her eyes at the woman, in such a manner that had always shown everyone in a conference room or PTA meeting that she meant business, little effect as it seemed to have in Longbourn's drawing room. Just as Lady Lucas was delving deeper into the subject of Mr. Collins' last sermon, Alison interrupted her. "Just because we do not have the company of all our daughters, it does not mean we are so devoid of conversation the night after a ball to need speak of Hunsford, where they have had very little entertainment at all."
"No entertainment!" Lady Lucas exclaimed, shocked at such a dismissal. "When they have dined at Rosings Park at least eight times!"
"It sounds very dull, indeed! Nothing but Lady Catherine's ill-founded pronouncements and dictates to listen to, while we have all the gossip afforded by a ball to got through, including the excitement of Mary King escaping George Wickham's clutches, with which Lydia has been regaling us all morning."
"Do you really think she has had such a narrow escape, Mama?" Mary asked.
"I believe her 10,000 pounds would be gone in a hurry had the marriage taken place," Alison replied, gazing around the room imperiously, as if to punctuate her words with wide eyes.
"I do not know why Mama has taken such a sudden dislike to poor Mr. Wickham, whose praises she was full of when he seemed to court Lizzy," Lydia pouted.
"Elizabeth was lucky to escape his attentions before they could do any more damage."
"What damage could dear Miss Eliza have possibly suffered at Mr. Wickham's hands," Lady Lucas laughed uncomfortably.
"He damaged her opinion of Mr. Darcy, and she has lived to regret it," Alison hastily declared, disliking the direction in which Lady Lucas's thoughts seemed to be heading.
"Mr. Darcy!" everyone in the room seemed to shout at once, followed by a melee of inquiries.
Alison pressed her fingers to her temples. "They have been much in each other's company in Kent, and Elizabeth's letters indicate that she was mistaken in her previous sentiments regarding the man. I do not meant to make any more of it than that. Mr. Darcy's behavior, though his demeanor has been lacking, has always been that of a gentleman. Mr. Bingley, whose good nature is beyond doubt, is his close friend and admirer. What do we know of Mr. Wickham but that the respectable Mr. Darcy despises him, and Mary King's uncle found him a highly objectionable suitor?"
"One should always judge a character by their deeds and not their charms," Mary provided.
"Yes. Thank you, Mary," Alison acknowledged with a sigh. Lady Lucas turned the subject back to Hunsford, and Alison simply tuned her out. She was watching Kitty, who sat thoughtfully by the window, while Lydia sulked ominously in her chair.
Read Chapter Ten