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Authors: Dorothy Eden

Tags: #Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Suspense

Darkwater (2 page)

BOOK: Darkwater
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‘Your father must have been glad when he decided to go out to the East twenty years ago, and didn’t come back.’

‘He must have,’ Amelia said in a heartfelt voice. ‘Dear Papa, who’s so respectable. I believe it wasn’t only money with Uncle Oliver, but’—she lowered her voice—‘women! That’s why Mamma says these children could be anybody.’

Fanny tried to remember the distant day when she, a mere baby, had made the long terrifying journey to Darkwater. She remembered the dark muffling folds of a blanket, and much later the strange strident noise which sent her into floods of tears, but which proved to be only the elegant and haughty peacocks on the lawn. She could have been anybody, too.

‘They’re your own flesh and blood, Amelia,’ she said reprovingly. ‘Your father sees that. He’s the only one, it seems to me, who does see it.’

Amelia flounced across the room. She had still to learn to move gracefully.

‘Oh, Fanny, Don’t be so righteous. I know what one’s duty is, as well as Papa, and as well as you. But it’s an awful bore having to explain about infant cousins all the way from China. And if they should have slant eyes—well, I don’t care, I’m not going to let them interfere with my life.’

Poor babies, Fanny was thinking. No one wanted them. Not even Uncle Edgar, really. And she was callously planning to run away, and let Hannah, who would accompany her to London, bring them home.

But she had to seize this opportunity! If she didn’t do it now, the war in the Crimea would be over, Miss Nightingale wouldn’t require any more volunteers, she would have no alternative but to apply for a position as a governess or a companion, both impossible without references, and both nauseating to think about. At least, in the Crimea, one would be doing a worthwhile task, and probably meeting at last a man to whom integrity, a warm heart, and a little beauty, too, meant more than landed property or stocks and shares.

The children were travelling with their Chinese amah who would remain with them. They would be adequately cared for.

‘Fanny, you’re not even listening to me!’ Amelia said peevishly.

‘Yes, I was. I was thinking how we all try to protect our own lives.’

Amelia’s pale blue eyes, a little prominent, like her father’s, widened.

‘But what have
you
to protect?’

‘My heart beats, the same as yours,’ Fanny said dryly. Then, because she was fond enough of Amelia, who was selfish and undiscerning and remarkably empty-headed, but who did not, at least, have her brother’s sadistic qualities, she said reassuringly, ‘I’m sure you’re worrying unnecessarily. The children will stay upstairs in the nursery and the schoolroom, and you’ll hardly see them.’

Amelia shrugged. ‘Yes, I expect so. After all, what are servants for? But don’t stay in London a minute longer than you need to. I shall have to read to Grandmamma while you’re away. You know I can’t endure that.’

Both Aunt Louisa and Uncle Edgar were in the library. Aunt Louisa was walking up and down as if this were the end of an argument, and one which, as usual, she had lost, for her lips were compressed, and the tip of her large nose flushed. Uncle Edgar was watching her with benevolence. Arguments seemed to amuse rather than anger him. He rarely lost his temper, a fact which drove his wife to fury. She could have coped with a hot temper, she couldn’t cope with the unbendable unbreakable iron beneath her husband’s soft, plump, pleasant, facetious, and good-natured exterior.

When Fanny came in they both turned.

Uncle Edgar said at once, in surprise, ‘My dear child, why are you looking so shabby? You’re not proposing to travel in those clothes?’

Fanny had meant to scrupulously leave behind her fur-trimmed coat, her striped silk gown, and her dark blue bonnet with the velvet ribbons. They were her best clothes and as good as anything that Amelia or Aunt Louisa wore. She considered that they still belonged to Uncle Edgar, and anyway, in her new circumstances, she would have no use for them.

‘I thought, for a train journey, with the dust and smuts—’

‘Which is very sensible and prudent,’ said Aunt Louisa.

Uncle Edgar shook his head.

‘On the contrary, Louisa my dear, that’s quite wrong. Fanny is representing me. She must look her best, in any case, we always like her to look her best.’

When he noticed her, Fanny thought privately. For he had a curious trick of seeing her, and probably his own family, too, only through the eyes of outsiders. She could wear a faded and shabby house gown the entire week, without comment, but as soon as visitors were expected, or, more particularly, when she followed the family procession into church on Sunday mornings, she had to be expensively and fashionably dressed so as to do him credit. So that people could say that Edgar Davenport was remarkably generous to his penniless niece?

It was only in her darker moments that Fanny believed that last assumption. Uncle Edgar was a fair and kindly man. He was absent-minded at home. He truly didn’t notice what his family was doing or wearing unless they drew attention to themselves. He spent a great part of the day in the library with his stamp collection, his erudite books, his correspondence on charitable affairs which he meticulously looked after himself, and his committees. He looked just a little eccentric, with his high domed balding head with its ruff of hair that would one day be saintly shining silver, his prominent mild blue eyes, his full-lipped mouth. In the house he liked to wear a shabby wine-coloured velvet smoking jacket, and was given to extravagantly-coloured waistcoats. A heavy gold watch chain lay across his chest. The watch concealed in his pocket was a chiming one. He had used to make it chime for the children when he was in a jovial mood. It had often stopped tears and tantrums. Fanny wondered if its magic would be called upon for the new children. She hoped it would, for if Uncle Edgar were not kind to them, who would be?

‘You will go upstairs and change,’ Uncle Edgar was saying. ‘You have plenty of time. The carriage has been ordered for half past eleven. The train leaves at twelve. Now repeat to me again exactly what you have to do.’

‘Yes, Uncle Edgar, I’m to take a cab from the station to the shipping office to make enquiries as to whether the
China Star
has arrived, as expected, and which train the children will be on. I’m also to ask if an official has been sent to meet them and escort them to London, and later to suitably reimburse him.’

‘What is suitably?’

‘A guinea as you suggested, Uncle Edgar.’

‘Correct, my dear. What next?’

‘After we’ve been to the shipping office and ascertained our time-tables Hannah and I are to go to our hotel and wait.’

‘Correct again. You see, Louisa, Fanny is quite capable of taking charge of this business. It saves you a journey which I’m sure you don’t want, and it’s quite impossible for me to get away. I’m far too busy. I’m a man of many affairs.’

‘Too many,’ said Aunt Louisa tartly. ‘If you’d taken a little more interest in your brother when you were both young, we might never have been in this contretemps.’

‘I don’t think my influence would have stopped Oliver going to the bad,’ Uncle Edgar said seriously. ‘He was always uncontrollable, even as a small boy. Anyway, I wouldn’t refer to this matter as a contretemps. It merely means our family is a little larger. What of that? There are enough empty rooms in this house. It will keep the servants up to the mark.’

‘The children will have to be taught.’

‘Ah, yes. You mean the problem of a governess.’ Uncle Edgar’s eyes flicked to Fanny and away so quickly that she couldn’t be sure he had looked at her. ‘Well, we don’t need to take all our fences at once. And anyway, my dear, we’ve been over this matter often enough. Oliver has made the children my wards. I have no alternative, have I, even had I wanted one. Which naturally I don’t. I shall enjoy the little beggars.’

He gave his wide beaming smile. And Fanny knew that he didn’t want these strange children any more than, seventeen years ago, he had wanted her. But he was a man of principle and it worried him that he should have uncharitable thoughts. He was busily convincing himself and his wife that he hadn’t.

Aunt Louisa got up, in her fussy bossing manner.

‘I won’t have Amelia’s chances ruined.’

‘My dear, whatever do you mean?’

‘You’ve promised her a dowry of ten thousand.’

‘Did I suggest reducing it?’

‘No, but you frequently talk as if money is short, and now there will be extra expense. You can’t deny that. And the other thing is,’—Aunt Louisa hesitated, biting her lip—‘must we let it be known the children are coming until we see what they look like, I mean, supposing—’

Uncle Edgar threw back his head, guffawing heartily.

‘You mean, supposing the little beggars are yellow? There’s not a chance. Oliver was a fool, but not that much of a fool.’

‘How do you know?’ Aunt Louisa said tightly.

‘Why, the devil take it, because he was a Davenport.’

Uncle Edgar was feeling in his breast pocket. His expression had changed. His brother Oliver’s undisciplined life and inconvenient demise had been put out of his mind, and he was smiling with anticipatory pleasure.

‘Come here, Fanny. Your aunt and I thought we would like to make you a small gift. You’ve been with us a long time now and you’ve given us a great deal of help, not to say pleasure.’

Fanny looked swiftly from one to the other. Aunt Louisa’s expression had not changed. She was still thinking petulantly of the awkwardness and inconvenience of having to give a home to the strange children arriving from Shanghai—or was she thinking of the unsuitability of giving Fanny a gift?

But Uncle Edgar was smiling and waiting for Fanny’s response.

She bit her lips. Whatever the gift was, she wasn’t sure she could accept it gracefully.

‘Look,’ said Uncle Edgar, opening a small red morocco box.

The jewel gleamed on the red velvet. Fanny’s self-possession left her and she gasped.

‘But Uncle Edgar! Aunt Louisa! It’s too valuable!’

Uncle Edgar picked up the pendant and swung it from his plump forefinger. It was a dark blue sapphire set in diamonds and gold filigree.

‘It belonged to an aunt of mine,’ said Uncle Edgar. ‘A great-aunt of yours. So you’re entitled to it just as much as Amelia would be. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?’

Fanny looked again mutely at Aunt Louisa. Aunt Louisa said in her tart voice, ‘Don’t thank me. I personally think your uncle is spoiling you. Just because you’re going on a short journey which is no doubt a great excitement and pleasure to you.’

So she was expected to take charge of the children when they had settled down at Darkwater. Aunt Louisa could not have told her more plainly. She was full of indignation and confusion, for she didn’t mean to come back, anyway. So how could she accept so valuable a present?

Fanny had inherited from her Irish mother not only her luxuriant dark hair, but a mobile mouth whose lower lip protruded when she was hurt or angry. It was something she couldn’t control.

‘Why are you giving it to me, Uncle Edgar?’ she asked aggressively.

Uncle Edgar’s expression remained amused, benevolent, just a little unreadable.

‘Because it pleases me to. It’s as simple as that. Your aunt thought we should have waited until your twenty-first birthday. She didn’t agree that this was the right occasion on which to make you a gift of this kind. Why not, I said? Fanny’s like a daughter to us. We must do all we can for her. After all, she has only her looks to get her a husband. I’ve no doubt they’re more than sufficient, but a bauble or two may help. Come here, my dear. Let me put it on you.’

Some people, Fanny thought, were born to be givers and some takers. Neither appreciated the other. She must accept this gift gracefully, although it couldn’t have been made at a worse time. This was not the moment to begin feeling grateful, otherwise her strength of purpose would weaken. After all, she could leave the jewel behind. Amelia would eventually pounce on it greedily and claim it as her own.

Uncle Edgar’s plump hands, remarkably soft, on the back of her neck made her flesh prickle. Once before she had felt them there. It was a long time ago. She was dripping wet from her fall into the lake, and he was caressing her beneath her soaking hair, reassuring her. She remembered that she had been still trembling with fear and shock.

The sapphire lay like the touch of a cool finger-tip against her throat.

Aunt Louisa had thawed sufficiently to give a frosty smile and said, ‘It’s very becoming, Fanny. You must wear it at Amelia’s coming-out ball.’

‘Yes, Aunt Louisa. Thank you very much. Thank you, Uncle Edgar.’

(And people would say, Where did you get that magnificent pendant? Your uncle? Isn’t he the most generous person in the world!…) But she wouldn’t be there. She would be far far away in the Crimea, in a useful world she had found for herself. Fanny’s lashes fluttered, and Uncle Edgar cried joyously, ‘There! She’s looking delighted. Aren’t you, my love?’

He gave his throaty chuckle and patted his wife’s cheek.

‘I hope you will look as delighted the next time I give you a piece of jewellery. Eh, my dearest?’ He was using his playful tone, which meant he was in a high good humour. ‘But of course you will. You always do. That’s one of the most charmingly predictable characteristics of the fair sex. Now, Fanny,’ his voice changed to his brisk business-like one. ‘You have only fifteen minutes in which to change before Trumble will be waiting. So run along, and see that Hannah is ready, too.’

3

D
ARKWATER… THE NAME HAD
come from the peculiarly dark colour of the water in the moat that had surrounded the house until the last century. The brown soil and the frequently lowering grey sky had made the water look black. Now the moat had been drained and the sloping lawn was green and innocent, but the lake glittering beyond the yews and the chestnuts had the same tendency to turn into black marble on a dark day.

The drawbridge had gone, the Elizabethan façade of time-mellowed brick, diamond-paned windows, and rows of tortuously shaped chimneys, remained. Extensive restoration work had been done at the beginning of the century, but there were still the cavernous fireplaces, the winding stairways, the elaborately carved oak ceilings, darkened with time, and the tiny minstrels’ gallery hanging over the long dining room.

BOOK: Darkwater
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