"Enough!" she said forcefully, and both Kitty and Lydia quieted down. "Now please speak one at a time."
"Mrs. Forster has invited me to accompany her to Brighton, and Kitty pretends you already denied me permission to go!" Lydia spoke quickly and with indignation.
"I do not know how I can deny something before it is asked, but Kitty is correct in predicting I would do so." Lydia began to complain of injustice, but Alison quickly stopped her. "If you do not cease at once there will be no visiting or trips to Meryton until after the militia's departure."
Instinct told Lydia to protest, but a look at her mother quelled the impulse. Instead she flounced off to her room to cry.
"Well done, Mama!" Lizzy complimented.
"It is better to put an end to it all at once. She will overcome the disappointment with time."
"You did say she would not be allowed to go, Mama," Kitty said. "Do you not remember? We were all at breakfast, just after learning of the militia's departure, and Lydia's laments grew so loud you reprimanded her. She took to her room, much as she did just now, and Papa asked you if you thought the decampment a good thing?" She looked expectant.
"I am sorry Kitty that I do not recall the minutia of our daily conversations. Do forgive me, and pray tell: what did I reply?"
"You said that as long as Lydia did not go to Brighton, all would be well."
Yes, and I must wonder if Mrs. Forster were to invite me instead, if I might be able to go instead?"
"Are you mad, child? No one is going to Brighton."
"I just thought I would ask," Kitty said in slightly sulky tones before bobbing a curtsy, excusing herself, and following Lydia up the stairs.
"You have achieved wonders with them both," Elizabeth commented. "Kitty is a changed creature."
"Children want a firm hand, no matter what they might think of it. It tells them you care enough to bother."
"Yes. I suppose it does," Elizabeth's words were wistful, and Alison gave her an encouraging hug and smile before both retired to the parlor, where they found Mary and Jane at work.
"I suppose you made short work of Lydia's request," Mary commented smugly. "Imagine believing she should be allowed to go!"
"There was no harm in asking," Alison replied, feeling a bit defensive of the youngest Bennet. "I suppose you were all in an uproar all morning?"
"Just the last quarter of an hour since my sisters returned from Meryton," Jane's smile conveyed some amusement at the episode.
"Kitty would insist that you had already determined not to allow Lydia to go, and I kept trying to explain that it did not matter in the least what you said before, as you would surely say no now," Mary provided.
Elizabeth looked thoughtful and glanced at Alison in question. All she received in return was a slightly sheepish smile. The conversation turned, and the militia and Brighton were soon forgotten. Kitty and Lydia, pouty but calm, joined them shortly, and five Bennet ladies spent the hours until dinner in industrious needlework, while Alison Bateman read aloud from Leonora.
After Alison had changed for the evening and was just about to return downstairs for dinner, Lizzy knocked on her door. "May I have a moment?"
"Certainly, my dear! Come in."
"I have been pondering the matter, and I wondered if Jane Austen told you not to allow Lydia to go to Brighton?"
"Yes, I suppose she did."
"I can think of many a reason why such a trip should not be attempted, but it does seem strange that such a specific warning should proceed through the ages, when practical sense ought to have held the day."
Alison sighed. "Well there you have it: practical sense did not always hold the day."
"You mean my mother? I suppose she would have encouraged such an ill-founded scheme, but my father could not countenance it," she said firmly.
"Even if worked upon?"
She contemplated this and asked, "Might he actually allow such a thing?"
"Dear me!" she sat down into an arm chair. "And dare I ask what horrific consequences proceeded from such imprudence that it is still talked of two hundred years hence?"
Alison considered the question. She had been wondering what to tell Elizabeth - how much and when - for she suspected she would eventually have to reveal all. Lizzy would not stop questioning the matter until it eventually came out, and as these were fictional characters, real though they might seem, she didn't see how sharing some useful information could harm anyone. "Do you want to know?" she asked.
Elizabeth looked searchingly into this woman who looked like her mother's eyes. "Yes."
"Lydia absconded from Brighton in the company of Mr. Wickham."
"Mr. Wickham!" Elizabeth rose indignantly to her feet and began to pace the room in her fury. "What could he want with a girl like Lydia? She has no money, nor enough sense to be an agreeable companion!"
"I am sorry to inform you that it is not always sense which a man most values in female companionship."
"Did he marry her?"
"Well, thank God for that! What happened: did my father hunt them down and force a marriage?"
"He tried, but it was not your father who succeeded." Alison studied the inflamed young woman before her carefully before saying, "It was Mr. Darcy."
"Mr. Darcy?" Even as she spoke the words in questioning tones, Elizabeth recalled Kitty and Lydia's strange pronouncements on the subject back at the coaching inn, when Mrs. Bennet's changed personality first came to her attention. "What do you know of Mr. Darcy?"
Alison's courage faded and she evaded the question. "I know he is the best of men."
"But you have never even met the man? Why is his story so wrapped with ours that your Jane Austen knows of him?"
"I am not sure how to tell you this ..."
"Plain language is always best," Elizabeth interjected,
"You sound just like her."
"Jane Austen. It is appropriate that you do. Neither she nor I are descendants of yours. She is rather your contemporary, in a way. You see, she created you."
Elizabeth was truly startled. "Created me?"
"Yes. You are a character in a book."
"I am what!"
"A character in a book. I haven't traveled in time, but into a book, or rather a fantady based upon one. I named my daughters after the people in the book: you and your sisters. That is why I know all about you."
"You must be mad!" Elizabeth exclaimed, her face drawn white.
"You know I am not," Alison retorted, but with a hint of fear in her voice. The two women stared at each other: Alison beseechingly, and Elizabeth with mistrust and fear. The former couldn't abide it. "Do not look so appalled! If you believe I am not your mother, then you must believe you are a character in a book. The only other option is that I am your mother and completely mad."
Read Chapter Seventeen