Sense and Nonsense
by Lisa Karon Richardson
Based on Sense and Sensibility
Super serious Evangeline Bennett has no time for frivolities like courtship. Besides, she tried it once and doesn’t intend to lay her heart open to that sort of pain again. Now she has her sights set on a higher goal. She’s going to be a missionary to Ceylon. But when her plans go awry, only James Ferris, the son of the missionary board’s chairman, can hope to set things right. Too bad he’s the very man she’s sworn to never see again.
May 16, 1899
Evangeline Danwood paged through the Sears & Roebuck catalogue until she found the guns. A revolver ought to work—a small one that could fit in her handbag, or maybe even a pocket. Not too expensive though, she couldn’t afford to squander her savings.
Caught up in the intricacies of the offerings, Eva only distantly registered the sound of feet pounding along the corridor. She made a mental note to speak to the girls about decorum in the hallways then happily lost herself in the minutiae of the decision again. Heavy-handed rapping on her door made her start and lose her place.
Popping to her feet she scrambled to answer the door.
Hand at the knob, Eva paused. Megan. There went her pleasant evening of planning for Ceylon, the teardrop shaped island that looked like it was falling off the tip of India where she would soon be teaching in a missionary school. She opened the door to her closest friend.
A whirlwind of chiffon, red curls, and eau du cologne engulfed her as Megan rushed in and grabbed her arms in a pincer-like grip. “Eva, it’s gone. It’s all gone.”
Eva pulled back. “What’s gone?”
“All of the missions money. It’s all gone. I don’t know what happened. I had it at the mission office, then I was thinking about some things Mama asked me to pick up for her. Then I remembered about James’s birthday coming—”
Hands cold despite the early evening warmth, Eva took hold of Megan’s shoulders. “Tell me what happened.”
“I don’t know,” wailed Megan. “I just know the money is gone.”
Eva snatched Meg’s impractically small handbag from her and inspected it. The minute bag held a single quarter, a folded bit of paper, a handkerchief, and a pencil stub. It most certainly did not contain one thousand dollars.
“Not there,” Meg said.
Eva ignored her as she upended the bag over her pale blue quilt. The money did not magically appear among the meager contents.
Eva picked up the folded paper, but before she could look at it closely, Megan whisked it from her hand. “That doesn’t have anything to do with this. And the money wasn’t in the bag when it was lost.”
Half wishing she’d thought to buy a gun earlier, Eva planted her fists on her hips. “Megan Victoria Conroy, you are going to find that money if we have to ransack all of Austin to do it.”
Tears filled Megan’s wide eyes. “Don’t be angry with me. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
Eva kneaded the bridge of her nose. “I know that. But without that money, I’ll never make it to Ceylon. I’m supposed to book my passage this coming week.” Her mattress springs screeched in protest as she plopped down on the bed.
Megan sat more tentatively. “I’m so sorry.” She put an arm around Eva’s shoulders. “But if anyone can find that money, it’s you. You’re the smartest person I know.”
Eva plucked her handkerchief from her sleeve and handed it to Megan. “I’m not one of your beaus to flatter, Meg.” A smile softened the reproach. “But who am I to sniff at a tactic that works on all of them?”
Megan offered a beatific smile in return and laid her head on Eva’s shoulder. “I knew I could count on you.”
Eva pulled away. “You’re not off the hook. We’re going to have to find this money together. Now start at the beginning and tell me what happened. Wait, when did you last have the money?”
“Well…” Megan said, “I definitely had it after the fair.”
Eva tried not to scream. “Of course you did. I was there when Mr. Ferris gave it to you.” Although how anyone ever thought Meg would make a good chairwoman of the missionary board’s fundraising committee, she’d never know. “What did you do after the fair?”
Meg’s fingers began to pleat the delicate fabric of her skirt.
Eva narrowed her eyes. “Meg—”
Meg sprang to her feet. “I stopped by the missionary society offices. I left it there. I’ll tell you all about it.” She reached for Eva’s hand. “But please come on. We have to go look or I’ll never get a wink of sleep tonight.”
“But I’m responsible for the girls.”
“Pish, they should all be going to bed soon.”
Eva raised an eyebrow. “You act as if you never attended this school.”
“Oh, all right. But surely one of the other teachers could help you out for a change. You’re always doing everything for them.”
“I shall have to tell the kettles that the pot had something to say about their conduct.”
Meg swatted at her arm. “You know what I mean. I’m sure someone would be willing to repay your many kindnesses by giving you an evening’s respite.”
“I suppose Miss Allan—”
“Miss Allan is perfect. Let’s call upon her now.”
Eva allowed herself to be all but dragged down the hall to the deportment teacher’s room. In typical tornado fashion, Meg made short work of Miss Allan’s defenses, and almost before she knew it, Eva was on the sidewalk in front of the Jeanette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies.
Twilight softened the city’s sharp edges, and a little thrill slicked along Eva’s spine. The unsanctioned outing felt daring in the extreme. She was not the stick in the mud her students believed.
The walk to the offices of the missionary society took only a few moments. It was slightly eerie being the only pedestrians on the street. She couldn’t even hear any of the usual clatter and bells from the trolleys. Eva picked up her already quick pace, until Meg was almost running to keep up. When they arrived Eva looked expectantly to Megan.
“What?” Meg responded as if confused.
“Do you have a key?”
Eva’s lips compressed together.
“Don’t give me that look, Eva. I know I can be flighty, but I’m not addlepated.” She raised a delicate fist and knocked in a decidedly indelicate fashion.
Eva had no time to ponder what this new development might mean. The door swung in to reveal a figure, backlit by the gaslights glowing inside.
His height always seemed to take her by surprise on first sight because he had such a self-deprecating manner. Although she could not see his deep brown eyes due to the light behind him, she knew he would be regarding her with the same serious attention he always showed. For the second time that evening, Eva had the sickening sensation of falling into an abyss.
He shifted to make room for them to enter, and the light illuminated a slightly too-big nose and the brown hair that never quite lay flat. His gaze found Eva’s, and she could not look away or even blink. She had not seen him except from a distance for at least two months. Not since the announcement of his engagement to Miss Megan Conroy.
“Oh, James.” Meg slipped past him into the office. “We’re sorry to disturb you, but I had some committee business to complete and dear Eva agreed to assist me.”
From somewhere deep in her well-mannered soul, Eva dredged up a smattering of polite conversation straight from her adopted mama’s lips. “Good evening, Mr. Ferris. I understand congratulations are in order. I wish you every blessing.” Her knees wobbled ever so slightly as she stepped past him.
He made a sound like a fishbone had caught in his throat then inclined his head. “You’re very kind, Miss Danwood. It seems I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“I had not noticed.” The untruth seared her throat, but she could think of no way to recall the words and so let them hang like a fog in the air between them. Not that it mattered. The air was already choked with a million words that had not been said.
“Eva,” Meg called from the inner office.
“Please excuse me.” Eva swept around him and hurried through the spare, slightly shabby front room to join her friend.
“I missed you.” James’s words were tentative, and had her senses not been straining toward him, she’d have missed them.
God help me. She squared her shoulders. There was no use thinking of what might have been. She had to contend with one final Megan crisis then she would go to Ceylon. The thought soothed her. Very soon she would be in a whole new world, and all of the entanglements of her life in Austin would fade away as if they had never been. She would be able to immerse herself in helping her students. If it meant giving up the delights of marriage and a home of her own… Well, so be it. Surely God would ease the ache over time. And it wasn’t as if she had the promise of those things if she stayed in Austin anyway.
“I had it right here in an envelope.” Megan sat at a roll top desk. “There were a bunch of receipts from the fairs. I had to reconcile what bills were still owed with the money that came in. I was all excited because we earned so much, and I knew it was for your trip.”
Eva bent over the desk and they began to open and rifle through the myriad drawers. For a long moment the only sound was the slide of wood and shuffle of paper.
She straightened. “Wait! Don’t these desks usually have a secret compartment?”
“Yes! Maybe someone just moved it!” Megan fiddled with an apparently solid panel and opened it. She revealed a dark little cubbyhole. Megan reached inside, but came away with nothing.
Eva grimaced. “Let me guess, you decided against using it because you thought it would be too obvious, didn’t you?”
“Am I that transparent?” Meg’s tone was sharp with disappointment.
“Only to me. And only because never in your life have you taken the easy route when a complicated one was available.”
“You needn’t rub it in.” Megan crossed her arms and slumped back against the chair.
“Just tell me what you did.”
“I thought that a thief would be looking for something like a safe or a secret drawer, so I purposely avoided those things. I wrapped the money up in the bills and put the envelope in the outgoing mail.”
Eva lunged for the mail tray. “Taking a page from Mr. Poe’s book?” She flipped through the accumulated pile of letters. None was thick enough to hold a stack of bills and cash. She reached the end and then started over again. No, no, no. It must be here. “Are you certain that’s what you did with it?” She started through them a third time. “Did you write anything on the cover?” She took each envelope out of the basket as she examined it.
“I addressed it to Mrs. Collins.” Megan took the wire basket from her and sat on the edge of the cracked, inlaid-leather surface of the aged desk.
Eva stopped pulling envelopes from the basket. “Why ever did you do that?”
“I don’t know. It seemed fitting at the time. She let us read mysteries because she said they would make us think, and if that was the only way to encourage us then so be it. So when I think of Poe I always think of her—”
Eva held up a hand to forestall the rest of Megan’s explanation. “Were any of these other letters here when you put the envelope in the pile?”
Megan looked at the envelopes. “Yes. I think so. I put my envelope in amongst the rest. I didn’t just set it on top.”
Eva plucked out the last letter. “Well we can say with certainty that it isn’t here.”
“It must be. I know without a doubt that I put it there.”
“I believe you.” Eva patted Megan’s arm.
“But what are we going to do? I’m so embarrassed. Everyone will think I’ve lost the money, or even worse that I took it.” Megan covered her face with her hands.
Eva bit back a sharp retort about the fact that her entire future had rested on those funds. Instead she said mildly, “You have to tell James.”
Megan looked at her with horror-stricken eyes. “Eva, I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.”
“But what if he calls off the wedding?”
An unkind frisson of anticipation shot through Eva’s heart like a little bolt of lightning. Even as she prayed for forgiveness, she tried to reassure Megan. “James is an honorable man. You do him a disservice to think he won’t stand by you at a trying time.”
“You’re very kind, Miss Danwood.” James’s voice, rich as coffee, came from the open doorway.
Eva straightened so fast she sent the tray flying.
James stooped to help her gather the scattered correspondence. “I’m sorry to have startled you.”
“Please don’t apologize. It is nothing.”
“What’s this about trying times? Is something wrong?”
Eva looked at Megan. She wasn’t
going to rescue her this time. Megan could explain to her fiancé how a thousand
dollars had disappeared.