Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven
Over the next several days, Alison exerted herself to make the best of the situation. Lydia continued sulky, but naturally high spirits will not be repressed for long, and soon she was eagerly engaging her mother's attention once more. Alison teetered between encouragement and restraint in a balancing act that would make a tightrope walker's stomach flop, but it seemed to work. She was rewarded with the endearing affection Lydia had it in her to provide, when she was so motivated.
Kitty was a further source of pleasure. Like her own Kitty, Austen's was self-conscious and warm-hearted, resembling her modern counterpart far more than the other two girls. It was easy to love her, and for a few moments in her company, Alison was even able to forget her predicament, and that she didn't belong to this time.
On the evening of Colonel Forster's ball, Alison surveyed herself in the old fashioned mirror that hung above Mrs. Bennet's vanity. The many layers that composed her gown were laced and pinned to such a degree that she barely dared to move, so precarious was the nature of the carefully achieved effect. She wore a feathered turban that Mrs. Hill insisted was a favorite. How the twins would laugh at her! The thought brought tears to her eyes, which she quickly suppressed. They were, after all, probably all gathered around her this very moment. It was silly to yearn for what must be right there, even if she couldn't see or touch it.
Girlish giggles filled the halls as the three sisters ran about making their preparations. The sound was so familiar and almost like that her own girls made when getting ready for a party, but there was an intangible something slightly off. She sighed. All she need do is look around at her archaic surroundings and the intangible something became all too real, just like the pin jabbing her in the side.
It was good to hear Mary's usually sombre voice ringing light and carefree along with Kitty and Lydia's. Alison had taken the middle Bennet shopping the day before, intent on helping her present a prettier sight than was possible with the severe hairstyle and matronly clothing she usually wore. Most of Regency fashion was still a mystery to Alison, but some basic notions of appearance seemed to hold true through the centuries. Mary had not a single gown that wasn't dowdy, her real mother having long ago stopped arguing the point and let the girl choose her own attire. Alison theorized that Mary deliberately sabotaged her appearance, unwilling to compete with her sisters in the field of beauty, seeking to set herself off as an intellect instead. That her chosen role was ill-fitting, the novel amply demonstrated.
After much gentle persuasion, Mary conceded to wearing an older gown of Kitty's (who was delighted to be of service). It was a pretty blue, pale but vibrant, and complimented her hazel eyes. They bought a beautifully painted fan and some trim to match it, and Mary had been diligently stitching and altering ever since. Alison instructed Sarah to do her hair looser and higher on her head, softening her silhouette. The end result was satisfying enough to provoke Lydia's shocked surprise upon seeing her sister. "My word! Don't you look dashing, Mary, but whatever will you do without your tucker?"
Not until the moment they were walking out the door did Mr. Bennet join them. In his ballroom attire, he looked much more attractive than in his regular clothes, which Alison assumed to be that of the average country gentleman. He offered her his arm and escorted her to the carriage, and as they walked beside one another, Alison thought she saw a momentary resemblance to Tom in his moonlit profile.
The girls laughed like any others embarking on an evening of fun. Mr. Bennet smiled indulgently on them, catching Alison's eye as he did so. In this shared moment of parental camaraderie, Alison felt Austen might have been a bit harsh in her portrayal of the couple, despite the many facts contesting to the veracity of her account.
The ball was taking place at the local inn, where the assemblies occurred. Colonel Forster's lodgings could not accommodate so formal a gathering. The room swarmed with officers and their varying smells, while Alison struggled to not choke on the smoke from the multitude of candles. She managed to usher the girls through the receiving rooms and find Mr. Bennet once more before being presented to the host and hostess. Lydia and Kitty were quickly claimed by Mrs. Forster, and at the former's insistence, Mary tagged along. Finding herself alone with Mr. Bennet, Alison could not resist the urge to lean towards him and ask, "So now what do we do, having disposed of the girls?"
He looked at her in perplexity a mere moment before an impudent grin grew upon his face. "You are about to find out, my dear."
At that moment, Lady Lucas and Mrs. Phillips descended upon her, quickly sweeping her away in their chatter towards a group of ladies on the opposite side of the room. Alison cast a desperate look back at Mr. Bennet, just in time for her to see him disappear into the room designated for cards.
The next few hours passed in a jumble of gossip, petty dramas, and claustrophobia, but there was a single shining moment amongst all the unpleasantness that eclipsed all else. Alison was submerged in a bewildering debate between Mrs. Phillips and Mrs. Long regarding the efficacy of asafetida in fighting the vapors, when Lydia came squealing up to her, so overcome with excitement that she could scarcely breathe. Alison coached her through some deep breathing, and the entire story unfolded.
"Mary King has been packed off to London to stay with relations. The engagement is off! WIckham is safe, and I have the next dance!" she squealed again, and Alison had to forcibly keep her from jumping for joy.
You mean Mary King is safe, she could not help but think, instead saying gravely, "Do you not think it telling that her relations would go to such measures to prevent their union?"
"La, Mama!" Lydia exclaimed. "There is no knowing what to make of you any more! I would think you'd enter into my feelings upon Wickham, and what I'm sure will be Lizzy's too, when she learns of it! For myself, I shall take every opportunity to enjoy myself before she comes home," and she flounced off, determined to make the most of her dance, and leaving Alison with a blistering headache to endure the prattle of Mrs. Bennet's friends until dinner was mercifully served, and she was able to reunite with the relatively comfortable Bennet clan. Somehow managing to secure Mr. Bennet's companionship for the remainder of the evening, she was at least granted a reprieve from the nearly unendurable neighborhood ladies as the horrid night dragged on into the wee hours of morning.
Read Chapter Nine
Note: This scene also needs to include the announcement that the militia is leaving for Brighton. Expect it in the final draft.