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Authors: Dorothy Eden

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

Darkwater (4 page)

BOOK: Darkwater
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Once, only once, long ago, when she had been less than ten years old, Fanny, too, had heard the bird. She had lain petrified for hours after the scuffling noise had stopped. The legendary bird was reputed to be imprisoned in one of the many chimneys, though in which one no one was ever quite sure. It had been a white bird, the legend said, though when finally it fell lifeless into the hearth it was pitifully soot-streaked. It could have been a white barn owl, people said, or a dove. Or there was the fantastic story that it had been a white heron, its long legs hopelessly entangled in the narrow space. That had been why the fluttering and screeching had been so loud. Its imprisonment had coincided with the death of the young mistress of Darkwater at that time. When the dishevelled creature had fallen into the hearth, her young face had lain like snow on her pillow.

As the years and then the centuries passed, the struggling bird was heard again and again. It always portended disaster.

‘Mamma, there was a gale blowing last night,’ Aunt Louisa said. ‘That’s all you heard.’

‘That’s what you’d like to think,’ said the old lady portentously. ‘But remember the last time I heard it. We had news about George soon after.’

Aunt Louisa clucked impatiently.

‘Goodness me, it’s a good thing we haven’t all got your imagination. If I’d listened to all your omens I’d have been frightened out of my life years ago. Now watch your step. Where are you going?’

The old lady lifted her voluminous skirts an inch or two and peered short-sightedly at the stairs.

‘To say good-bye to Fanny, of course. Should I be left out of the farewells?’

‘First George, and now you. Anyone would think Fanny was going on a long journey and not coming back.’

Lady Arabella had reached Fanny’s side. She was out of breath and wheezing a little. She tucked a crumpled package into Fanny’s hand.

‘Sugar plums, my dear. Eat them on the journey. Keep one or two for the children. They will find them comforting. You always did, do you remember?’

‘Yes, Great-aunt Arabella. Thank you very much.’

Fanny’s eyes pricked with tears. It was a good thing the old lady was too short-sighted to see them. Anyway, she had turned to remount the stairs. She had two woolly shawls around her shoulders. Her head, with its slightly awry lace cap, sank among them cosily. With her short broad stature and her skirts tending towards the crinoline, it was virtually impossible to pass her on the stairs. She was more comical than sinister. Surely she wasn’t really sinister, at all. That had been only childish imagination in a dusk-filled room.

Now she had been kind, and Fanny wished passionately that she hadn’t been. First it had been Amelia with her request for French ribbons, then George urging her to hurry back, and now Lady Arabella giving her comfits for her journey.

But she mustn’t let these things shake her resolution. She wouldn’t be back at Darkwater. Never again…

Hannah had appeared with the baggage, and Uncle Edgar came in briskly to say that the carriage was at the door.

‘That’s better,’ he said, looking at Fanny’s smart appearance. Her fur-trimmed cloak, the smart shiny boots peeping beneath her silk skirts, her bonnet tied with velvet ribbon, all marked her as a young lady of taste and fashion. ‘You must look your best, my dear, otherwise you may find people trying to take advantage of you. Hannah!’

The elderly servant in her modest dark attire came forward.

‘Yes, sir?’

‘I expect you to take good care of Miss Fanny. Don’t let her do anything foolish.’

Hannah’s lips went together. It wasn’t for her to say that the master must know Miss Fanny could be unpredictable at times. Didn’t he remember the storms and tantrums at intervals in the past? But one had to admit she looked a well-bred well-behaved young lady at this minute, so perhaps all would be well. Personally she couldn’t wait until the nerve-wracking journey in one of those fast smoky trains was over, the perils of London safely avoided, and all of them home again in the peace and quiet of Darkwater.

‘Fanny! Fanny!’ Amelia was flying down the stairs, her skirts billowing. ‘Here’s the money for the ribbon. Papa gave it to me. Don’t forget, it’s to be striped. And if you can’t get the exact shade, get the nearest you can.’ Amelia’s cheeks were as pink as the ribbon she hoped Fanny would bring back from London. She was a silly little affectionate thing, and one didn’t want to disappoint her…Reluctantly Fanny put out her hand for the money. Hannah could bring back the ribbon. Uncle Edgar was smiling indulgently. Aunt Louisa said, ‘Really, Amelia! You and your fal-lals. I hope you’re not neglecting the serious reading Miss Ferguson recommended every day. Then come, Fanny. Trumble can’t wait forever.’

Darkwater…All the way down the curving drive, Fanny’s head was thrust out of the carriage to look back. The sun was out from behind the clouds, and the house looked the way she loved it most, warmly red, the windows shining, smoke curling from the twisted chimneys. It was like a jewel lying against its backdrop of gentle green hillside. The flaring red of the rhododendrons marked the path to the lake. The lawns were velvet. The peacock and the peahen strutted near the rose garden. Rooks cawed in the swaying elms.

‘Put your head in, Miss Fanny, do.’

Fanny fumbled for her handkerchief. She couldn’t let Hannah see the tears on her cheeks. It was Hannah, long ago, who had told the children, and the avidly interested Lady Arabella the legend of the bird in the chimney. She had heard it from the previous housekeeper who had been in employment at Darkwater for forty years. And before that it had come from another superstitious and nervous servant.

It was only a legend. No one really believed it, not even Lady Arabella, although it pleased her to make startling announcements.

Indeed, there must often have been a bird caught in one of those many chimneys, a swift, perhaps, or a starling. But not that white forlorn sinister one that was a portent.

Yet Fanny had sometimes likened herself to the unfortunate creature. She too, had been caught in her poverty, in her orphanhood, in her inability to live a free untrammelled life because an unprotected young woman had little place in the world.

That was why she had determined to escape before she, like the bird, suffocated in the claustrophobic atmosphere.

But today she loved Darkwater. If only the morning had been dark and gloomy, the clouds pressing down, the wind whining. But the sun shone and she had a sense of identification with the great faded rose-red house lying against the hillside. It was as if she had known it, not only for the seventeen years of her residence there, but for centuries. She was going to long for it bitterly, as if she had left part of her heart behind.

A branch whipped her face. She drew back, a reason now for her tears.

‘There, I told you,’ said Hannah. ‘Hanging out there like a great overgrown child. You’re a fine one to be bringing little children safe home.’

Fanny dabbed at her reddened cheek.

‘I’m sorry, Hannah. I do foolish things.’

‘You don’t need to tell me that, Miss Fanny.’ Hannah had been at Darkwater for fifty years. She came from the village where she, and her seven brothers and sisters had slept like peas in a pod in the bedroom of the two-roomed cottage. Her father had been a labourer on the estate and her mother, in between being brought to bed with a new baby, had helped in the kitchen of the great house. Later, there had only been two brothers and a sister left. The rest, one by one, had withered away with a fever. Only four in the big bed had seemed lonely. Hannah had been glad at the age of twelve to begin work in the great house. Now she was sixty-two and had earned the privilege to speak her mind. ‘I can see I’ll have my hands full with the three of you.’

‘No, you won’t, Hannah. I’m going to be perfectly sensible.’

Hannah reached out a neatly gloved hand to pat Fanny’s. Being the eldest of eight children had given her a maternal quality that she had never lost. Her face, apple-cheeked and prim, within the sedate circle of her bonnet was full of kindness.

‘Of course you will, love. You can be when you wish. But don’t look as if it’s going to be such pain to you. Or is it that you’re homesick already? Silly child. You’re not leaving Darkwater forever.’

4

E
VERYTHING HAD GONE ACCORDING
to plan. Fanny and Hannah had arrived safely in London to find that the children were due from the ship docked at Tilbury by midday the next day. Fanny had contained her excitement about her own private plans sufficiently even to go shopping for Amelia’s ribbon. She meant to go with Hannah to meet the children, take them by cab to Paddington and put them on the train for Devon, then take Hannah aside and say good-bye.

Hannah would be dreadfully upset, she might even be angry, but she was a servant and must do as she was ordered. She was quite capable of taking the children safely to Darkwater and breaking the news of Fanny’s escape.

Escape? It was odd that that was the word that came to her.

Of course she didn’t mean to tell Hannah where she was going. That could result in Uncle Edgar fuming and fussing to London to insist on her returning home. She would merely say she had a situation and was going to take it up that day.

It had all seemed so simple. The only thing she had overlooked was her emotional reaction to the new arrivals.

She hadn’t thought they would look so small and desperately self-contained and lost. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might see herself in them, herself as she had been seventeen years ago, just as frightened and lost, just as eager for a welcoming voice.

But there they were, the strange little trio, rooted to the ground with apprehension. Miss Nightingale and her nurses, the pride of doing a worthwhile task, the possibility of meeting some young man who would marry her for love, all swept out of Fanny’s head. She was kneeling on the dusty sooty ground to gather the children into her arms.

The amah was bowing low. Behind her the strange man said, ‘I take it you are Miss Davenport?’

Fanny straightened herself. The little girl whom she had embraced stood aloof, her black eyes still staring warily, but the boy’s cold hand was curled within her own.

‘I am. And you’re the gentleman from the shipping company who so kindly met my little cousins.’

He bowed. ‘My name is Adam Marsh.’

She hadn’t needed to know his name. She wondered how she could best give him his guinea with dignity and bid him farewell. She thought he was behaving in a slightly too familiar way for a mere employee of a shipping company. He was really staring at her quite openly. His eyes were very dark brown, almost black.

‘Thank you, Mr Marsh, for your help. My uncle will no doubt be writing to you. In the meantime, he instructed me to give you this.’

She held out the guinea in her gloved hand. She thought that for a moment Mr Marsh looked surprised, as perhaps was not to be wondered at. He would hardly expect to receive money from a young woman. But in a moment his fleeting expression of surprise had turned to what seemed to be amusement, and he took the coin with another bow. He was well-dressed, she noticed, his coat of excellent cut, his linen immaculate.

‘My thanks to your uncle, Miss Davenport. But surely we’re not parting immediately. I believe I was to see you safely on your train for Devon.’

‘That’s quite unnecessary. I have my maid waiting at the other side of the barrier. We have ordered a cab.’ She looked up at the waiting young man. Something made her add, ‘Though I would be grateful if you would see us to the cab and find a porter for the luggage…’

‘The porter is waiting. And in the cab we’ll perform introductions. I believe you don’t yet know the children’s names.’

He was very self-assured. It was scarcely his business, a stranger, to make her known to her own cousins.

But she couldn’t help the relief of being capably looked after. The old Chinese woman looked so remote and unapproachable, and the children seemed likely to burst into tears at any moment. It was nice to see Adam Marsh swing the little boy into his arms, and tell the girl to take Miss Davenport’s hand. It made them a little family, filing through the gates, the amah discreetly a few paces behind.

The cab was waiting. The luggage was hoisted on top, and the children, then Fanny, followed by the amah who was plainly terrified of this new method of transport, got inside. Hannah, who was relieved to have everyone safely arrived, climbed in next, and Mr Marsh told the driver to take them to Paddington station.

As Fanny was leaning out to repeat her thanks to him, he lifted a long leg on to the step.

‘Is there room inside for me? I think so. Nolly and Marcus and Ching Mei take up the space of only one small person. Marcus can come on my lap.’

He settled down comfortably, his knees all but touching Fanny’s.

‘But, Mr Marsh—’

‘Not a word, Miss Davenport, It’s no trouble to me at all. Besides,’ he patted his pocket, and surely the gravity of his face didn’t conceal the irreverent amusement, ‘I have been well paid. Now let me have the pleasure of presenting your cousins to you. This,’ he took the little girl’s hand, ‘is Olivia, but I understand she has always been called Nolly. And this young fellow is Marcus. Shake hands with your cousin—’ he hesitated questioningly.

‘Fanny,’ said Fanny reluctantly, and only for the benefit of the children. This stranger was taking too much on himself. Hannah was looking at him with disapproval. It was the way she should be looking at him, too. Yet she couldn’t help liking the easy way he held the little boy in his lap. He surely couldn’t be just a lowly shipping clerk. Perhaps he was the son of the owner, learning the business from the ground up, as some young men did.

‘Your cousin Fanny,’ he said, prompting the children, who reluctantly held out limp cold hands to be shaken.

The little girl spoke for the first time.

‘Are we going to live with you?’

The unmistakably hostile and perfectly contained voice abruptly brought Fanny to a realisation of what she had let happen to herself. In a moment of emotion and pity and sympathy she had sacrificed her chances of happiness, happiness which for her lay only in living an independent and worthwhile life. She had gone down on her knees on a dusty smutty railway station and promised two strange children that they would be safe with her.

BOOK: Darkwater
5.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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