The grey streaks of dawn were just beginning to show on the eastern sky, when I closed the door of Barton Cottage behind me. Soon the morning sun would grace the Devonshire downs with a rim of gold, but for now, the world was still a pearly grey, and everything was quiet. The air of this early June morning was so pure and exhilarating that, to me, it tasted like chilled white wine.
I climbed the grassy slope on which the cottage sat, paused at the hill’s top, and looked down on the small, neat house of dark, grey granite. Nothing moved behind the windows yet, so I could indulge in an activity that would have sent my mother into an uproar, should she ever find me out. I broke into a healthy, uncontrolled jaunt down the hill’s other side. I ran until I had no breath left, then rolled in the hillside’s soft grass, panting and laughing. Oh, it was so good to be out of the cottage with its stuffy rooms, and away from Mother with her constant complaints – always weeping and whining about one thing or everything.
My name is Margaret Dashwood and I am the youngest of three sisters. Elinor and Marianne, both married to the man they loved, were as different as could be, the former a tall, graceful young woman with heavy brown hair and grey eyes, the latter also tall but much more elegant, with a mass of golden curls and a pair of cornflower blue eyes. They were also each other’s opposite in character and disposition, Elinor being the sensible, responsible eldest of the two, quiet and discrete, and Marianne, who was mostly led by her emotions, cheerful and loud.
Compared to my sisters, I was not really beautiful but some people thought me attractive with my fair, curly hair and my pale blue eyes. As for myself, I hated my snub little nose and the sprinkle of freckles on it, though some found it cute. I would have liked to be taller since I was barely 5’5 which, according to Mother, was a scant too short to be considered beautiful. Elinor and Marianne were both over 5’8 so I guess Mother was right. However, there was nothing I could do about my height so I accepted my lack of inches with good humour.
I had turned twenty-one the month before and – to members of the circle of Society our family moved in – I was still relatively young, even if one was endowed with enough prospects, such as beauty, a fortune or a title, to be offered to a possible suitor. However, when one is blessed with a rather inconspicuously pleasant prettiness, without any financial prospects and absolutely no bonds to the nobility, at twenty-one I was what people called ‘on the shelf’.
I am content with remaining unmarried. Eight years ago, Marianne left to marry Colonel Christopher Brandon and shortly thereafter Elinor had done the same to be united with Edward Ferrars. Someone had to stay and look after dear Mama, endearingly shallow and confused as she was, or she would end entangling herself in disastrous situations. Mama had never managed to reconcile herself with our dire financial circumstances after my half-brother John had left us with a yearly income of barely 500 pounds. She was still most hurt by him turning us out of our beloved Norland Park, Papa’s estate, where all three of us grew up.
So I, level-headed, intelligent Margaret, had to play the part of nursemaid, coping with Mama’s eternal harebrained and silly ways. I did not mind because they gave me the opportunity of doing exactly what I wanted without anyone asking questions.
My childhood had been rather uneventful. First I had a nanny, later a governess until I was thirteen and our father died, leaving us practically nothing to live on. So my governess, Miss Pewter, had to go and, short time later, we had moved away from Norland Park into Devonshire and the estate of Sir John Middleton of Barton Park, a distant cousin of Mama’s, who kindly offered us the use of a cottage on his grounds. I grew up with nothing more than books for company, though Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings were always happy to receive us regularly at Barton Hall for quiet country dinner evenings. Thus, I became a solitary, earnest girl, always engrossed in books and with not much knowledge of what the world was like beyond the beautiful downs of Devonshire, a process that was even increased after my sisters married and left me alone with Mama.
I was quite reconciled with the certainty that I would never be what Mama wanted me to be, a distinguished, wealthy woman, married to a rich and preferably titled gentleman. There were none in the vicinity of Barton Park, except Sir John and he was a widower of some sixty years without children. In Torquay, a rapidly growing country town, some twenty miles southwest of Barton Park, there lived several rich manufacturers and tradesmen with sons in search of a wife, but I was no match for them, being free-spirited and outspoken as I was. I could never have thrived in that confined, narrow-minded world and the young men I encountered soon became aware of that. So far, none of them had ever tried to deepen the acquaintance they made with me during the balls I too rarely attended.
In short, I was undisciplined, but free and I did not care as long as nothing more was asked of me than looking after Mama.
After having recovered my breath, I did what I liked the most. Adopting a sturdy pace, I began walking the moors towards my own favourite spot, a small circle of standing stones. There were many of them to be found in Devonshire and this one was without the grandeur of Stonehenge and much smaller. There were only eight standing stones in the small circle, each about seven feet high. Between them there were benches lying that were some fifteen inches high. The circle had a diameter of approximately twenty yards so the whole was rather tight and cosy.
Just when I reached my sheltered spot behind one of the large stones of the circle, the sun rose above the horizon in a blaze of bright orange. Magnificent! I lowered myself down, rested my back in the hollow of a boulder and sighed with pleasure. The light would provide an adequate help for my sketching and I started rummaging through my bag for my sketchbook and pencils.
For the good part of an hour I was happily and most satisfactory engrossed in my drawing.
I was just thinking of breakfasting on the food I had with me, when I suddenly saw a horse running towards me. A riderless horse, yet saddled and bridled. Coming at me at a swift canter, it abruptly stopped a few yards away from me, startled and with huge eyes full of fear.
Colonel Brandon, Marianne’s husband had allowed me the use of his stables at his estate of Delaford and over the years I had become a fairly good horsewoman. Therefore, I was not afraid, but rose and stepped towards the horse, my hands stretched out before me and whistling softly. The huge black stallion approached and sniffed one of my hands when I addressed it in soft, murmuring tones.
“Hey, my beauty, hush now, where do you come from?”
The stallion blew into my hands, snorted and allowed me to stroke his neck. After a bit of caressing and crooning, I made an attempt to mount him. He allowed me do it with just a hint of panic, which was easily soothed as soon as I was in the saddle. I gave him free hand and he started trotting lightly to the west. That is when I saw he was limping a bit, but it did not seem to bother him much. I chuckled when I thought of what Mother would have to say about me sitting astride a horse, in a man’s saddle, with my skirts hitched up high.
My steed continued westwards over the wide stretch of grassland for a few minutes and I was beginning to enjoy the ride when he suddenly stopped, trusting his head upwards.
“What is it, boy?” I stroked the animal’s neck and he moved forward again. Then, I saw what the stallion had wanted to show me and froze with shock. The body of a man, lying face down on the boggy grass.