"I am afraid those seem to be the only options," Alison replied.
"You will forgive me then for concluding in the favor of the more probable option!"
"You think I'm mad?"
"I do not think I am a fictional being."
"But I know all about you," Alison persisted. "I know just what happened in Hunsford with Mr. Darcy."
Elizabeth's flushed skin flamed red. "What do you know?"
"'In vain have I struggled,'" she quoted from memory. "'It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.'"
"But," Elizabeth hesitated, "how can you ..."
"I have read that scene a thousand times, maybe more. I have watched it performed by half a dozen actors in as many movies and twice in the theater. Your story is one of the most beloved in the English language."
Elizabeth was floored. She knew not what to believe. How could Alison be able to recite Mr. Darcy's words, which sounded painfully romantic when heard a second time, if it were not true? She resorted to her usual defense when at a loss: laughter. "Well, I suppose if I must be a work of fiction, it is preferable to be a famous one. What is the name of the book?"
"Pride and Prejudice."
"Hmm," she smirked. "How fitting. This Jane Austen must have a way with words. We must be long expected below. Shall we make our way down?"
Alison smiled at Elizabeth but her gaze was evaded. She was fairly certain that Elizabeth was still of the belief she was crazy, but she also reasoned that she would accept the truth as the shock wore off. Alison could, if needed, produce ample evidence in her favor, but she hoped it would not prove necessary. As much as she discounted any concerns about changing the future in reality, she did have lingering concerns about changing the future of the book, and now that Lydia was safe, it was best to meddle as little as possible, allowing Elizabeth's journey to Pemberley proceed as it always had, excepting the precipitous departure.
Dinner was a stilted affair, marked only by the diversion of a discourse on Mary's new book and Lydia's continued sulkiness. Jane, who perceived Elizabeth's unease with concern, strove to maintain a conversation with her regarding the needs of a tenant, but it was entirely one-sided.
When the ladies withdrew, Mr. Bennet held Elizabeth back in order to determined what ailed her. "You are not at all yourself," he protested. "Nothing could divert you at dinner, with Mary and Lydia both providing ample provocation. What has unsettled you, girl?"
Elizabeth, who had been pacing the room, stopped and confronted him. "I think my mother might be mad."
"I am certain of it," he readily agreed.
"This is no time for levity, Papa," she said, resuming her walk with frustration.
"It is always time for levity! How else is one to live? You have been taking yourself inordinately seriously since your return, and I cannot like it. Where is my Lizzy beneath all this seriousness?"
"She is here," her voice pleaded, "she is just concerned for her mother. I cannot except that you do not see anything the matter with her."
"I already agreed she was mad. That was no ordinary bump on the head she suffered."
"Indeed, it was not!"
"But as any change in her person can only be hailed as a blessing to us all, why do you persist in upsetting our new found peace? I have not been so pleased with my life's companion in more than two decades!" He firmly declared.
"Oh, Papa!" Elizabeth sank into a chair, wondering if he was or was not in danger of committing infidelity. The thought made her head ache, and she pressed her temples with her palms. "She tried to convince me I am a character in a book today."
"Well, she is much mistaken there. I never knew a heroine who enjoyed good health, cheer, and wasn't prone to swoon. You are not at all a good candidate for the position."
"Nevertheless, she truly believes that is what we all are - players in a work of fiction!"
"It might possibly prove more diverting than ordinary life, but one shudders at the inconvenience of having daughters eloping left and right."
Elizabeth began to tell him that it was precisely such a scenario Alison had envisioned for Lydia, but then she recalled what was said about Mr. Bennet consenting to Lydia following the militia to Brighton. Though she first balked at the notion of such imprudence, her current frustration made her wonder if her father weren't capable of it. Other things Alison said also rang true. How did she know about Mr. Darcy's proposal? she wondered once again. Perhaps it was too soon to press the issue on her father, especially as he was proving far from receptive. "It does sound exceedingly tiresome," she said with a forced smile, which her father accepted as a sufficient enough improvement to dismiss her.
Alison heard a knock on her door that evening, and though the now familiar swell of nerves attacked her as usual, she felt a corresponding surge of disappointment when Elizabeth, not Mr. Bennet, came through the door. "Lizzy! I thought you would continue to avoid me at least until tomorrow."
"I am sorry if my response caused offense, but you must acknowledge how very disturbing it is to be told your existence is meaningless."
"Not meaningless, Elizabeth. You have no notion the countless millions of people you have inspired, and of course it is disturbing. It is why I did not want to tell you the truth."
"It is the truth, though. I realize now there is no other explanation. To persist in resisting the truth because it is disagreeable is the real madness."
Alison reached out and clasped her hand, drawing the girl to sit on the edge of the bed. A flash a deja vue struck her, as she recalled how often her own Elizabeth had sat just so, confessing her concerns and fears. In her mind's eye, she could no longer clearly recall the difference in the appearance of the two Lizzys, and her heart throbbed at the realization, but in typical motherly fashion she suppressed her own cares to comfort those of the child before her. "I was concerned you might try to persuade your father to lock me away."
"I nearly did, but he would not heed my concerns. It was his unresponsiveness which brought home the truth. I can all too easily imagine having a similar conversation with him regarding Lydia and Brighton, to equal avail." She forced a smile, "Are you not concerned about what might happen now you have altered the plot?"
"I have wondered if it were wise, but I cannot see any purpose to my being here if it is not to remedy those imperfections, so well detailed by Mr. Darcy in his letter, that I am so particularly capable of addressing. As long as my actions do not have any contrary effects on the remainder of the tale, all should be well, I think."
"It is so strange to think you know it all, as if you were there!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "Do you think I was wrong to conceal the truth of Wickham's evil propensities? Had I not, Lydia could never have been imposed upon."
"I think your desire to protect Miss Darcy's reputation is ample justification for the decision. You could not know what was to come and must not blame yourself for it."
"And what is to happen next?"
Alison held Elizabeth's eyes in a steady gaze. "You are not to go to the Lakes."
Read Chapter Nineteen