Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

CHAPTER 1

THE FAMILY OF DASHWOOD had been settled in Sussex since before the Alteration, when the waters of the world grew cold and hateful to the sons of man, and darkness moved on the face of the deep.

The Dashwood estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the dead centre of their property, set back from the shoreline several hundred yards and ringed by torches.

The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. Her death came as a surprise, ten years before his own; she was beating laundry upon a rock that revealed itself to be the camouflaged exoskeleton of an overgrown crustacean, a striated hermit crab the size of a German shepherd. The enraged creature affixed itself to her face with a predictably unfortunate effect. As she rolled helplessly in the mud and sand, the crab mauled her most thoroughly, suffocating her mouth and nasal passages with its mucocutaneous undercarriage. Her death caused a great change in the elderly Mr. Dashwood’s home. To supply her loss, the old man invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it.

By a former marriage, Henry had one son, John; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother. The succession to the Norland estate, therefore, was not so really important to John as to his half sisters; for their mother had nothing, and their fortune would thus depend upon their father’s inheriting the old gentleman’s property, so it could one day come to them.

The old gentleman died; his will was read, and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure. He was neither so unjust, nor so ungrateful, as to leave his estate from his nephew—but Mr. Dashwood had wished for it more for the sake of his wife and daughters than for himself or his son—and to John alone it was secured! The three girls were left with a mere thousand pounds a-piece.

Henry Dashwood’s disappointment was at first severe; but his temper was cheerful and sanguine, and his thoughts soon turned to a long-held dream of noble adventure. The source of the Alteration was unknown and unknowable, but Mr. Dashwood held an eccentric theory: that there was discoverable, in some distant corner of the globe, the headwaters of a noxious stream that fed a virulent flow into every sea, every lake and estuary, poisoning the very well of the world. It was this insalubrious stream (went Henry Dashwood’s hypothesis), which had affected the Alteration; which had turned the creatures of the ocean against the people of the earth; which made even the tiniest darting minnow and the gentlest dolphin into aggressive, blood-thirsty predators, hardened and hateful towards our bipedal race; which had given foul birth to whole new races of man-hating, shape-shifting ocean creatures, sirens and sea witches and mermaids and mermen; which rendered the oceans of the world naught but great burbling salt-cauldrons of death. It was Mr. Dashwood’s resolution to join the ranks of those brave souls who had fought and navigated their way beyond England’s coastal waters in search of those headwaters and that dread source, to discover a method to dam its feculent flow.

Alas! A quarter mile off the coast of Sussex, Mr. Dashwood was eaten by a hammerhead shark. Such was clear from the distinctive shape of the bite marks and the severity of his injuries, when he washed up on the shore. The cruel beast had torn off his right hand at the wrist, consumed the greater portion of his left leg and the right in its entirety, and gouged a ragged V-shaped section from Mr. Dashwood’s torso.

His son, present wife, and three daughters stood in stunned desolation over the remains of Mr. Dashwood’s body; purpled and rock-battered upon the midnight sand, bleeding extravagantly from numerous gashes—but unaccountably still living. As his weeping relations watched, astonished, the dying man clutched a bit of flotsam in his remaining hand and scrawled a message in the muddy shore; with enormous effort he gestured with his head for his son, John, to crouch and read it. In this final tragic epistle, Mr. Dashwood recommended, with all the strength and urgency his injuries