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Authors: Dorothy Eden

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

Darkwater (3 page)

BOOK: Darkwater
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There were twenty bedrooms, as well as those of the servants in the attics. The house and parkland lay in a gentle fold of the hills. Only from the upstairs windows were the moors visible. The wind blew across them and into the house which was always full of draughts and ancient creaking noises.

It was only in the summer that the place was innocent. Then the tattered and writhing shapes of the oaks were concealed beneath green leaves, the yellow flag irises swayed on the edge of the lake, and the water reflected the passing clouds. Sun shone through the diamond-paned windows of the house, and the whining edge had gone out of the wind. In the downstairs rooms there was an old, old smell, impregnated in the walls, of pot pourri, beeswax, woodsmoke, and roses. The warmth of the sun brought it out.

In the summer Darkwater was beautiful. It was as if its happier ghosts—perhaps there were summertime ghosts—lived then.

But in winter the picture was entirely different. The gardens and parkland were desolate, leafless, and stricken. Clouds and mist hung close to the ground. The Chinese pavilion by the lake, built by the same Davenport who had restored the house, its red and gold paint flaked and faded with the years, looked barbaric and completely alien. The wind battered on the windows and the heavy draperies made slow deliberate movements. Logs smouldered in the great fireplace in the hall day and night and fires had to be maintained in the living rooms and bedrooms. With the curtains drawn and the lamps lit the rooms took on a cosiness that deceived all but the most sensitive. These might be nervous maids who spilt hot water or a scuttle of coals in the passage because a curtain billowed out, or a voice cried. Or it was more likely to be the children who didn’t care for the long passages at dusk and screamed if a draught blew out the candle. Amelia used to cling to Fanny’s skirts. Fanny remembered once taking a wrong turning and instead of opening her bedroom door finding herself in a completely strange room, with a fourposter, and the dark shape of a form in the bed.

She had been sobbing with fright when the maid found her.

‘It’s your own fault, Miss Fanny! Running ahead like that, thinking to be so clever.’

‘There’s s-someone in the bed!’ Fanny stuttered.

The maid held the candle high. Its flickering light fell on the plump coverlet and the long shape of the bolster. The bed was empty.

‘You see! There’s no one there. This room hasn’t been used for ages. Not since my time here, anyway. You’re a silly girl to be frightened.’

But the little maid, not much taller than Fanny, was frightened, too. Fanny knew that by the way the candlestick shook in her hand. They had scurried back down the passage, round the right turning, and safely to Fanny’s room, the little narrow one next to Amelia’s and the nursery.

That was when Fanny first began to hear sounds in the wind, voices, laughter, and sometimes footsteps.

But that was partly Lady Arabella’s fault for the unsuitable stories she had used to tell the children before their bedtime. She would begin an innocent fairy tale, and then, when the three children’s attention was completely engaged, the tale would become subtly and indescribably sinister, this somehow made worse by Lady Arabella’s own plump kindly and cosy appearance. Only her eyes showed a curious glee. They were the wolf’s eyes looking out of the amiable sheep’s head.

Amelia used to burst into sobs and have to be comforted with sugar plums. Fanny had never cried. Once she had put her fingers in her ears, and Lady Arabella had chuckled with what seemed to be gentle satisfaction. But mostly she had been driven to listening with a terrible fascination. She was not always able to eat her sugar plum afterwards, but put it in the pocket of her apron to be enjoyed in a calmer moment. George, of course the eldest and a boy, never showed any nervousness or fear, but it was significant that now, in his delicate state of health as a result of his war wound, he frequently had nightmares and cried out, not about the charging Cossacks, but about the human head beneath the innocent piecrust, or the clothes in the wardrobe that came out and walked about in the dusk.

George was too old now to be comforted with sugar plums. He kept a bottle of brandy beside his bed instead. It was on the doctor’s recommendation.

When Edgar Davenport had bought Darkwater some three years after his marriage, Lady Arabella had come to make her home there. She hadn’t been interested in sharing the young couple’s quite modest manor house in Dorset, she had bitterly opposed her daughter’s marriage to a young man whom she had considered a nobody. She was the daughter of an earl herself, and had thought that Louisa could have done a great deal better for herself. But Louisa hadn’t any great beauty and since Lady Arabella’s husband had squandered her own fortune, and then drunk himself to death, Louisa’s chances were considerably marred. At the age of twenty-three, she had been very glad to take Edgar, as perhaps her only chance. And anyway, if he was a quietish sort with no dashing looks, he was still a pleasant and amusing young man, with none of his young brother’s tendencies towards wildness. As it turned out, he was a very good catch, for when the ancient great uncle in Devon died, and Darkwater came on the market, it appeared that Edgar had more resources than he had divulged.

Darkwater, he said, must not be allowed to go out of the family. He would buy it himself, even if it meant economising for years to come. His wife demurred, it was late autumn when she saw Darkwater for the first time and it depressed and vaguely frightened her. The leaves were falling and the clouds hanging low. The house indoors had the shabbiness to be expected after the eighty year occupation of a bookish and solitary bachelor. It made Louisa shiver. Or perhaps this was only because she was at that time expecting Amelia, and pregnancies didn’t agree with her.

But Edgar had no intention of asking his wife’s opinion. He was the master and the decision was his. He had made up his mind the moment he had heard of his great uncle’s death.

So, just before Amelia’s birth, the family moved to Devon, and Lady Arabella accompanied them. It was necessary for a mother to be near her daughter at such a time, she said. Her innocent myopic eyes told nothing, but it was clear enough from the start that she considered Darkwater a fitting residence for herself, the descendant of a noble family. She meant to spend the rest of her life there.

She had no patience with Louisa’s fancies about the place. Anyway, Louisa’s blood had been considerably watered down by the unfortunate father she had had, and one wouldn’t expect her to fit so easily into this environment.

Edgar took immediately to the life of lord of the manor, with his stable well-stocked with good hunters and his house with servants, his tenants eagerly welcoming a landlord who was interested in their welfare, the village church no less, for it needed restoration and a vicar less old and doddering, and the sparse social life of the moors desperately wanted an infusion of new blood. Lady Arabella also took to the mingled charm and desolation of Darkwater. She found that it suited her temperament. The closing down of the mist filled her with excitement, she adored the wind-petrified shapes of the leafless trees, she simply put on another shawl if the draughts were too bad.

She selected two large rooms on the first floor and made them uniquely hers. As the years went by the rooms shrank, for they were so cluttered with her possessions. These included a life-size marble statue of her mother, the Countess of Dalston in Grecian robes which stood imposingly in a corner. At dusk, before the maids had brought in the lamps, it looked terrifyingly like another person in the room. Even more so when Lady Arabella had negligently tossed one of her shawls, or perhaps her garden hat, on to it. But this was strictly her privilege. No servant or child was allowed to take such liberties.

For the rest, there were innumerable small tables, knick-knacks, paintings, low chairs with uncomfortably sloping backs, an astonishing edifice of seashells and fishes beneath a glass dome, an enormous globe on which she was wont to make the children trace all the countries of the British Empire, a birdcage empty and a little morbid since her parrot had died, heavy plush curtains heavily ornamented with bobbles, gilt-framed mirrors, cupboards filled to overflowing with a hotchpotch of stuff, and in the centre of the room the chaise-longue on which Lady Arabella spent a great deal of her time, doing her needlework or pursuing what she called her historical readings. She was deeply interested in history and folklore, particularly regarding the part of the country in which she lived.

Or she might simply sit idle with her cat Ludwig in her lap.

‘Do you know why he is called Ludwig?’ she used to ask the unwillingly enthralled children. ‘Because once I was in love with someone called Ludwig. Oh, yes, stare if you like, but it’s true. He was a German prince. He had moustaches, so!’ Lady Arabella puffed her cheeks and caressed imaginary moustaches. She was a born story-teller. ‘But he wasn’t permitted by his parents, or protocol, call it what you will, to return your Grandmamma’s love. And anyway I was only sixteen, which was much too young even in those days, when we were all wearing muslin dresses that looked like nightgowns and pretending to be afraid of Napoleon Buonaparte. So now I have only a cat to love me. Unless by some chance any of you children do.’

She stared at them so hard with her round short-sighted eyes that they murmured affirmatives, Amelia going so far as to cry, ‘I do, Grandmamma. I do.’

It was always George, her favourite, to whom Lady Arabella looked for a display of affection.

But it was only Ludwig, the big dark tabby with the flat supercilious face who sat on her lap and rubbed his head insinuatingly against her. Fanny was sure he was the German prince reincarnated.

Those two rooms were a small world within a world. As a child Fanny had felt as if she had been on a nerve-wracking journey when she had had to visit Lady Arabella. It was only when she was grown-up and read to Lady Arabella daily that she lost her fear of the old lady. Or thought she did.

Louisa had grumbled continuously after the move to Darkwater. Finally her husband, in spite of his constant talk of economy, found enough money to buy her an elegant sable cape and muff. So Louisa made the discovery that an expensive gift could do a great deal towards mending hurt feelings. She never let her husband forget that again.

When Fanny, the difficult precocious three year old, who already showed that she was going to have more looks man Amelia, arrived, Louisa found that a diamond brooch made her more tolerant towards the child. During the years, various crises were suitably marked by trinkets, a new bonnet, silk for a gown. Edgar Davenport was an indulgent husband. Or perhaps he just liked peace.

Needless to say, Louisa was already debating the price of the orphans from Shanghai. This could be a high one, because the situation was getting ridiculous. Edgar’s relatives seemed to have a habit of dying like flies and leaving their offspring in his devoted care. To have three penniless children foisted on one was not amusing during the course of one’s marriage. Not to say that Fanny wasn’t quite useful now, so long as she kept her place. But with the worry of George’s health and the launching of Amelia into society, there was just no time or place in Louisa Davenport’s life for small foreign children.

George was waiting at the turn of the stairs when Fanny, dressed now in her best, came down. He sprang out at her and seized her hand. She started violently. She hadn’t seen him there in the shadows. He was always doing this sort of thing now, lying in wait for her, and then laughing immoderately, especially if she screamed.

He wasn’t laughing today. Instead he put her hand to his lips, pressing a passionate kiss on it.

Fanny tried to snatch it away. She couldn’t until he chose to let it go. He had a frighteningly strong grasp.

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that, George. It’s absurd, and I don’t like it.’

‘Absurd?’ The word faltered. He was hurt, his confidence ebbing. He was such a good-looking young man, tall, broad-shouldered, a high glow in his cheeks. When he had joined the 27th Lancers he had looked so proud and arrogant in his uniform. But now, although he had suffered no physical disfigurement, his long body had that vaguely shambling look, his eyes changed too quickly from uncertainty and hurt to intense excitement. His actions, too, were unpredictable. He would want the groom to saddle his horse at midnight so that he could ride over the moors, or he would walk about the house calling out softly to see who was awake and would talk to him.

All the doctors said that a long period of rest and quiet was essential. After that he should be able to lead a normal life, not too strenuous, perhaps. His army career was certainly over. But there seemed no reason why he shouldn’t eventually marry.

‘George!’ That was his mother’s voice from the foot of the stairs. It was sharp. Although it was addressed to George, the sharpness was for Fanny. She was annoyed by this attachment her son had formed for Fanny, and blamed Fanny for it. It was easy enough to cool a young man’s ardour if one wanted to. Fanny obviously didn’t want to. After all, George was quite a catch.

‘George, Tomkins had been walking up and down with your horse for half an hour. He said you wanted it by eleven. Don’t keep the poor beast waiting any longer.’

‘Oh, lord, I forgot.’ George was an abashed schoolboy, the passionate lover gone. ‘Well, good-bye, Fanny. Have a good time. Don’t stay away long. We’ll miss you.’

Why, this might be the last time she ever saw him! The knowledge swept over Fanny, making her forget George’s recently developed disturbing habits, and remembering only that he had always seemed to be her brother.

‘Good-bye, George,’ she called fondly. ‘Take care of yourself.’

George turned to give a gratified wave. His mother said tartly, ‘Since you’ll be gone no more than two nights, Fanny, nothing much can happen to George or any of us in that time.’

‘Things can happen to people all the time,’ Lady Arabella was shuffling down the passage from her room. ‘I fancy I heard the bird last night.’

BOOK: Darkwater
10.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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