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Authors: V. J. Banis

Tags: #gothic novel, #horror fiction, #romantic suspense novel

Darkwater

BOOK: Darkwater
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DARKWATER

A GOTHIC NOVEL
OF HORROR

V. J. BANIS

COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

Copyright © 1975, 2012 by V. J. Banis

Published by Wildside Press LLC

www.wildsidebooks.com

DEDICATION

I am deeply indebted to my friend, Heather, for all the help she has given me in getting these early works of mine reissued.

And I am grateful as well to Rob Reginald, for all his assistance and support.

CHAPTER ONE

Second Witch
: By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes.

Macbeth
, Act IV, Scene 1

Jennifer Hale sheltered in the doorway from the driving rain and watched the approaching cart slip and bounce its way along the muddy track. She felt certain it was coming for her, and at the moment she couldn't say whether she was glad or sorry to see it.

It was only mid-afternoon but as dark as evening. The lights were on in the station behind her and the heat from the iron stove could be felt even here in the doorway. She would have been more comfortable inside but she was too nervous to sit still for long, and the stationmaster's wife had only added to her uneasiness.

“Oh, you've made a mistake,” she said when she learned who Jennifer was and why she had come. “Alicia Dere will never agree to you.” She said this in a sympathetic tone, but her eyes, bright with excitement, belied the voice.

Now, having spied the approaching cart, she came to stand behind Jennifer. “That'll be from Darkwater,” she said. “Why, it looks like the mister has come himself.”

Jennifer could see only that the driver of the cart was a big figure swathed in black. It might have been the dark angel himself, come to fetch her, and she shivered a little. She was beginning to regret having come at all. It had been such a long trip, by train from Memphis to Shreveport and from Shreveport here to Durieville, and quite possible all of it for nothing.

The cart came to a stop at the steps. The man in black jumped down and ran quickly up the steps, his head down against the rain.

The stationmaster's wife, her voice quavering with excitement, was quick to greet him. “Afternoon, Walter. This here's the young lady you'll be looking for.”

He stepped into the glow of light from the room, shaking some water from his head, and looked down at Jennifer. He appeared startled by her appearance.

Jennifer did not mean to let the moment drag on, giving the plump woman at her elbow more and more to tell her friends later. She thrust a determined hand forward.

“You're Mr. Dere,” she said. “I'm Jennifer Hale. How do you do?”

His hand came automatically to clasp hers and he mumbled “How do you do,” in return, but there was no warmth of greeting in either the gesture or the words.

“It was kind of you to come for me yourself,” she said, “particularly in this weather.” She glanced once toward the stationmaster's wife and then toward the cart. “My bags are inside.”

His eyes followed hers and to her relief he seemed to understand her concern regarding the stationmaster's wife. “I'll fetch them,” he said.

She watched him stride to where the porter had left her two bags.

“Sorry to have come in the cart,” he said as he reemerged from the station, “but it couldn't be helped. We broke an axle on the carriage and I was working on it, but I couldn't get it fixed in time.”

“I don't mind a little rain,” she said. She did not wait but followed at his heels as he took the bags down to the cart. By the time he had loaded them she had already climbed into the passenger's seat without waiting to be handed in. She did not want to give him time to consider things too carefully.

He paused for a moment, looking up at her, before he climbed into the driver's seat and they were off almost at once, the two horses finding their way with little or no direction from him. Jennifer turned over her shoulder to wave goodbye to the stationmaster's wife, who looked a bit disappointed.

Jennifer's sense of triumph, however, was not great. For all she knew she would be back again in an hour or so to face the woman's questioning eyes again. There was no telling how long or how brief her visit to Darkwater might be.

As it was, they did not even get to the house. When they were out of sight of the station, the man beside her guided the horses to the side of the road. He reined them in under the sheltering branches of a spreading oak tree and turned to face her.

“This won't do,” he said without preamble. “There's no point in even taking you up to the house.”

“I can't see why.” She turned in the seat to face him directly. Rainwater trickled down his forehead in tiny rivulets.

“I think you do. We very specifically asked for an older woman. I told the agency we'd accept nobody under the age of forty.”

“I persuaded the woman at the agency to make no mention of my age when she wrote to you. And if you'll give me any opportunity, I shall try to persuade you to let me have the job notwithstanding my age. I'm quite well qualified, really. I've had experience as a companion, and as a nurse to my...to someone quite convalescent. I believe that I can convince you of my qualifications.”

Behind his stern countenance she thought she saw the beginnings of a smile. “Then I'd be better off to take you back to the station now and not give you an opportunity.”

“There are no return trains tonight. And I've already come a very long distance. I had only just arrived in Shreveport before I caught the train for Durieville, after traveling from Memphis, so you can surely see that at this particular moment I am very weary.” She paused and added, “And very wet.”

He sat for a moment longer, regarding her with no discernible expression on his face. Then he turned forward again and gave the horses a snap of the reins.

“Hospitality is a tradition at Darkwater.” He did not look again in her direction. “You may stay tonight. Tomorrow I'll bring you in to catch the train back to Shreveport. And I will reimburse you for the trip.”

“I have no desire for charity,” she said a bit sharply, because her disappointment was stinging just behind the lids of her eyes.

“Never mind, I will charge it to the agency that sent you. They should pay, for wasting my time, and yours.”

After that they rode in silence. There were a great many things she would have liked to say, but she bit her tongue. It was plain he was already angry and she had no desire at the moment to make him more so.

Whatever she might have said out of pride, the truth was, she was very nearly reduced to charity. It would humiliate her to say so but she had not even the money for the return ticket to Shreveport. She had gambled in coming here, desperation making her hopeful. It had taken more than she had anticipated for the ticket, almost the last of her meager funds. She had hoped that in persuading the Deres to overlook her youth she might have a little luck. Now it looked as if it would take more than luck to get her this job—it would take a miracle.

She stole a glance in his direction. He was a very tall man and bundled in his heavy cloak he looked immense. She could see that he had strong hands that were scrubbed clean, as if he had used a brush on them. Not aristocratic hands, but the hands of a man who worked with them. He was handsome, his face finely chiseled and turned leathery by the sun and wind, so that his pale blue eyes were a shocking contrast. His hair was probably brown by inclination but the sun had streaked it with yellow and even white.

He turned and found her looking at him. For a moment their eyes met. Under any other circumstances she would have lowered hers as propriety demanded, but she was disappointed and a little angry and she met his gaze boldly. He looked away first.

Maybe, she thought, maybe it wasn't hopeless yet. She pulled her cloak about her and watched what she could see of the passing countryside.

What she could see was water. It not only fell from the heavens but lay on all sides as well. The road ran through the bayou, and all about them stretched the swamp, the surface of the water glistening darkly. Not far away to the left, the land rose. She made out the dim outlines of trees and supposed that Darkwater sat on this higher land.

They soon enough turned to the left. The road began to climb slightly, mounted a rise, and in place of reedy marshes they now passed neatly fenced fields. There were more trees here, and a variety of vegetation. For a time she had wondered if Darkwater sat in the very swamp, but now she saw this was not so.

After a while they turned again, between two massive gateposts, and went up a drive lined with magnolias dripping moss. Even in the gray light and the rain it looked romantic and lovely. She was grateful they were nearly there. Although it was a warm night, she was soaked through with the rain and she felt chilled, and bone weary.

The house came into view. It was a splendid, rambling old structure, but less formal and elegant looking than one might expect. She had pictured one of the grand antebellum mansions still scattered about the South, many of them in ruins since the war.

Darkwater was certainly big, but it had more the look of an overgrown farmhouse. The central building was nothing more than a large box, with galleries added to soften the lines a little. From either side, wings extended a considerable distance. It was no architectural marvel, but it looked comfortable and easy to live in.

He left the cart in the drive and hurried her in through the front door, into a long, narrow hall with wood floors. The lamps here had not yet been lit and the corridor was dark, but from adjoining rooms lamplight cast flickering shadows on the polished wood.

She slipped out of her wet cloak. She was drenched and her bonnet had not prevented her hair from getting thoroughly wet. The bottom of her skirt was crumpled and muddy. She would have liked to look her best just now, if only because it would have given her confidence. Instead, she knew without benefit of the gilt mirror on the wall that she looked like nothing so much as a drowned animal.

He took her cloak, apologizing again for having to get her in an open wagon. He was polite and, in an informal way, quite gracious. There was no sign of the disagreement that lay between them.

A woman emerged from one of the lighted rooms. “Oh, the lamps haven't been lit out here,” she said, and then, in the same breath, “There you are, I thought I heard you.”

She came down the hall toward them, a slip of a woman with gray hair and a firm walk. “I'm Helen Dere, Walter's mother, and you are....”

She suddenly paused, close enough now to really see Jennifer despite the dim light. It was obvious she was taken aback. She had been about to offer her hand, but it was frozen in midair.

“I'm Jennifer Hale, how do you do,” Jennifer said, clasping the hand firmly in her own.

“There's been a bit of confusion,” Walter said. “But Miss Hale will be staying the night with us. Have Bess set an extra place for supper and make up the guest bed.”

“Yes, of course.” Helen Dere quickly recovered her poise. “Alicia's been wanting you.”

“Is she still in bed? The doc said she ought to get up during the afternoons.”

“She says she won't get up unless you come to help her dress.” She glanced sideways at Jennifer, a little embarrassed at this family exchange before a stranger.

“I've got to put up the cart,” Walter said. “I'll be back in a minute. If you'll see that Miss Hale is made comfortable.”

“Of course.” Helen took Jennifer's arm in a friendly manner. “You poor child. You look all wet and bedraggled, and you must be dead tired. Why don't I show you to your room and you can have some time to rest and freshen up before you think of meeting the family? Walter, bring her bags up right away, will you? I'm sure Miss Hale will want to change into something dry.”

He went out and Jennifer went along with her hostess, her flagging self-confidence restored a little by the woman's inherent graciousness. She had half-expected a family of pompous wealth and artificial manners, but it took no great perception to see that the Deres were not like that at all. Mrs. Dere's warmth and friendliness was too obviously genuine and Walter himself, despite his stubbornness on the subject of her employment, had been kind and courteous.

Perhaps if she spoke with them frankly and admitted her situation to them, she could persuade them to change their minds and let her stay. At least, with a full evening before her, she had considerable opportunity to plead her case.

Besides, now that she was here, inside the house, she wanted more than ever to stay. It was a lovely home and not only because it was big and well-furnished. It had an atmosphere that was welcoming. The sitting room that they went past was bright and cozy, with a fire blazing on the hearth, and a big old hound dog before it, who lifted his head to take note of her passing.

“You have a lovely home,” Jennifer said aloud as they started up the stairs.

“Thank you. We've tried to make it that, a home, and not a showplace. Ours is a family that likes to live and not just pose at it, and I like to think Darkwater reflects that.”

The aroma of bread baking drifted from somewhere deep in the house. It mingled with other smells—other foods cooking, the scent of burning pine, of polish and wax and soap. A homely blend of smells and aromas. It was a well-kept home.

Until now the silence had been punctuated rather than broken by the ticking of a grandfather clock, by the creak of stairs beneath their feet, and the sound of the wind and rain from outside. Suddenly it was shattered. Childish laughter floated along the hall, as if on a vapor.

“Such a happy sound,” Jennifer said. “I believe you can tell a great deal about a house by listening to its sounds.”

Those unfortunate words were scarcely out of her mouth when another, less happy sound pierced the stillness. A woman screamed, and screamed again, a high, wailing shriek.

BOOK: Darkwater
10.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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