Darkwater

By: V. J. Banis


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.”