In the spring of 18__, Margaret Dashwood remarked to her sister Marianne, “I’m so very glad you married the Colonel after all. His stories are so much more interesting than Willoughby’s poetry.”
Their eldest sister, Elinor, gave Margaret a sharp look and asked a pointed question about that afternoon’s embroidery. Margaret ignored her as usual and rose to stare out the window of the Parsonage at the well-tended, English garden. “Last night at dinner he told me about a jungle he crossed in India, where the air is so thick with moisture and heat that the natives wear barely any clothes.”
“Margaret,” hissed Mrs Dashwood from the corner of the sitting room where everyone had assumed she was napping. “That is hardly a comely subject for a young lady.”
Margaret lifted the side of her mouth in something that on a less elegant young woman might have been called a smirk. The Colonel had been telling her stories of his travels since they had met. She’d only just begun to realize how shocking some of them were.
“They say nothing in England can compare to the animals in the east. There are frogs and birds in every color you can imagine,” Margaret said as she completed her arithmetic.
“Snakes and poisonous insects as well, Margaret,” said Elinor. “Do not forget about those.”
Marianne smiled indulgently at her younger sister who continued on as though she had not been interrupted.
“Colonel Brandon said he once saw a great, black snake twice as long as he is tall, and a spider larger than any hand.”
“Colonel Brandon has a talent for storytelling,” said Elinor, “but not, I think, a talent for accurate description.”
“You saw the book he gave me at Michaelmas, Elinor. The engravings were quite detailed.”
“Engravings made by young men who wished their travels to seem more exciting than they were, perhaps,” said Elinor. “Or soldiers who wish their relations did not ask quite so often why they returned to England at all if the jungles were so marvelous.”
Marianne coughed to hide a laugh. This was not a new conversation for their family, nor one that she supposed would ever be resolved. Unless Margaret and Elinor could see the animals in question for themselves, neither would ever be satisfied with the other’s reasoning or explanations.
Marianne, unbeknownst to her mother and Elinor had encouraged her husband’s affectionate friendship with her younger sister. Their mother was aging, despite her best efforts, and if Margaret was not visiting her at Delaford, she might be forced more into company with Mrs. Jennings. Marianne had survived the repressive atmosphere at Barton Park, but she did not wish it for her headstrong younger sister. The ladies there had recently been hinting strongly that Margaret was well of an age to think about marriage.
Mrs. Jennings recent efforts on that score, however, had not met with much success. Some relations of Mr Palmer had come to visit with the gentleman and his family the previous summer. Margaret, sensing her danger, had attached herself to the oldest member of the party - a retired captain of the Royal Navy - and proceeded to ignore anyone closer her age in favor of his tales of life at sea. The gentleman in question was so flattered by Margaret’s attention that no one had the heart to address her churlish behavior.
However dangerous her mother and sister might find Margaret’s fascination with far off lands, it did mean she was less likely to fall in love with the next elegible young man who arrived in the neighborhood. Few of them merited her attention at all, and the few who did were inspected lightly and discarded with haste. And as Margaret did not have an income of her own, Marianne thought it was unlikely she would to escape to sea any time in the near future.
While Marianne was passing the morning with her sisters at Delaford parsonage, her reticent husband was putting a plan in motion that would prove her very wrong indeed.
His sister’s son had spent the last few years establishing himself in the growing trade around the African continent’s southern coast. He had made the long journey back to England expressly to persuade his mother to join him in his new home. Colonel Brandon thought that while his sister was unlikely to leave the comforts of country society for adventures in a strange new land, he might know another who would leap at the chance.
“Miss Dashwood, may I present my nephew, Mr. Chapman of Whitwell and the Cape Colony.”
Margaret’s eyes, which had taken on a glassy expression after the fifteenth introduction of the evening, sharpened to inspect the new arrival. His skin had been tanned by more sun than afternoon shooting normally provided and his carriage was not that of a gentleman of leisure. Margaret glanced at the Colonel with some confusion. Of all her relations she had thought him the least likely to play at matchmaking.
Mr. Chapman smiled warmly and bowed. Margaret hesitated only a moment before she dipped in acknowledgement.
“I have heard a great deal of you from my uncle, Miss Dashwood,” said the young man. “He wrote me last year to send drafts of the colony for your collection.”
Margaret’s eyes widened in understanding. “Then you are the secret correspondent he alluded to last year, but never named.” The maps and diagrams had been rough, but illuminating. Every neighborhood she had lived in was so established that it was part of the countryside itself. The various sketches Mr. Chapman had sent showed a town planned with attention to function and landscape, not history.
“Yes, I am. Although I am not sure why he kept it so secret. Are you ashamed of me, uncle?”
“Not at all,” answered the Colonel, smiling. “Ah, my wife gestures that I must attend her. Please forgive me.” An unusual merriment lit the Colonel’s eyes as he crossed to Marianne. He had been afraid to mention the young man too often lest Margaret suspect his idea. Better to leave her to form her own impressions of the young man.
Mr. Chapmanspent a great deal of time at his uncle’s Delaford estate in the weeks that followed. Lady Middleton remarked to Mrs Jennings one evening that it hardly seemed necessary for him to go over every detail of Mrs. Chapman’s financial arrangements with her brother. After all, the Colonel had been managing them since the untimely passing of her husband and could be reliably counted upon to continue doing so in his nephew’s absence without much oversight.
As Marianne had entered her confinement and insisted she was more than well enough cared for with her mother and sister in residence at the great house for the duration, neither Lady Middleton nor Mrs. Jennings had the opportunity to notice that rather more of Mr. Chapman’s time was spent wandering the gardens or perusing the library with the young Miss Dashwood than was spent analyzing his mother’s monthly registers.
When the letter announcing Miss Margaret’s impending marriage and departure for the Cape Colony reached Norland, a weight John Dashwood had not known he still carried lifted finally from his shoulders. As Fanny had said, the removal to Barton Cottage really had been the best thing for all of his sisters. He would never have allowed a daughter of Norland to align herself with someone in trade, but a half-sister living in the country? That was another matter entirely.
Margaret Chapman stood at the prow of the Galina as the great ship left harbor for the open seas, the salt air chilling her face and the gloved hand around hers a pleasant, contrasting warmth. She smiled briefly up at her newest and most cherished friend before gazing out again at the horizon that opened before her.