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Jennifer Wilde writing as Beatrice Parker
I tried to banish the apprehension. There was no reason to feel this way, no reason at all, yet the nervous uneasiness remained as the ancient coach rattled over the rough terrain, bringing me nearer and nearer to Danmoor. I was the only passenger. A lumpy burlap bag filled with mail occupied the seat across from me. Danmoor was remote, isolated on the edge of the moors, and the mail coach made but one trip a week. I had been fortunate to make the connection. Clutching the edge of the seat to lessen the joggling, I stared out the windows at the desolate countryside, bleak gray and brown with patches of tarry black bog and a few gnarled green trees. It was like the rim of the world, barren, disturbing, filled with menace.
I couldn't believe this was really happening. A month ago I had graduated at the head of my class. The boarding school was austere and strict, but it had been home to me for eleven long years. My uncle had provided the money, true, but I had had no communication with him during all that time. He was a complete stranger. I had assumed I would find some sort of employment after graduation, and the summons had come as a complete surprise: “Expecting you at Danver Hall September 12. Fare enclosed. Charles Danver.” That was all, and now I was on my way to a house I could not remember.
Even though I had spent the first seven years of my life there, Danver Hall remained shrouded in mist in my memory. I could not recall it, no matter how hard I concentrated. Whenever I tried to remember those early years, the headaches came, the throbbing, the quivering nerves and the fear. Why should I be afraid? Why should I be gripped with apprehension even now? It did not make sense, and I considered myself a very sensible young woman.
I was eighteen years old. I had no illusions about myself. I realized that I would never be pretty with my pale face, blue-gray eyes and drab brown hair worn in tight braids on top of my head. I was plain, a dull, unremarkable girl with prim mannerisms, but I was intelligent, and I
sensible. Why, then, did my wrists feel weak, and why did I have this hollow sensation in the pit of my stomach? Why did Danver Hall represent a threat when it should represent a refuge? I could not understand it.
Danver Hall had been built over two hundred years ago by one of my ancestors. It had eventually passed into the hands of my father, as had the textile mill that provided the main means of livelihood for the citizens of Danmoor. I had been born in the house. Seven years later both my parents had been killed in a freak accident when part of the decayed west wing collapsed on them, and my uncle had inherited the house and the mill. He sent me away to school. The summons was the first direct communication I had had from him in eleven years.
The coach clattered over a particularly nasty rut, tossing me against the dusty cushions. The bag of mail tumbled to the floor with a dull thud, the contents rustling crisply. I smoothed the skirt of my dark blue dress and wiped a smudge of dust from my cheek, hoping my trunk fastened on top of the coach hadn't been knocked down. Sighing deeply, I made an effort to compose myself. It wouldn't do to arrive in Danmoor ruffled and disturbed. I must remain cool, in complete possession of myself.
I must accept facts.
My schooldays were over. I was entering upon a new phase of life, and I must adjust myself to whatever might come. I was penniless, an orphan. I had received my schooling only through the charity of my uncle. I had no recourse but to obey his will. The past eleven years were gone. I did not regret leaving the school with its dark brown walls and icy corridors, the lumpy dormitory beds and hard wooden chairs. I would not miss the tasteless food or the odors of dust and chalk and flushed bodies, nor would I miss the stern mistresses or the giggling girls who took such delight in teasing me. They never let me forget that I was an orphan, never let me forget my pale, plain face and the coronet of tight, ugly brown braids. I was dull Jane Danver, the bookworm, the prude, reading Virgil in the original while they chattered about ribbons and the delivery boys. I had been miserable, yes, but I had adjusted to the misery and there had been a certain security in it. Now that security was gone â¦ I was cast adrift, heading for the unknown.
If only Jamintha could be with me.
She was my only friend. Opposites attract, they say, and Jamintha and I were as different as it would be possible for two young women to be, yet we had been close for eleven years. Whenever I was glum, whenever I was tired and depressed and suffering from one of the incessant headaches, Jamintha was there, a capricious sprite, her silvery laughter tinkling merrily, her irrepressible spirits putting me to shame and helping me forget my worries. I could depend on her. I could never have survived those long years without her. Would I ever see her again?
I thought about her promise that last night. I wondered if she would keep it.
I had been in my narrow room, staring at the shabby, brass bound trunk that took up most of the floor space. It was already packed, and I would be leaving first thing in the morning. The candle spluttered, casting wavering gold shadows on the damp brown wall. The other girls were asleep in their own rooms, but I was too upset, too excited to sleep. My head was throbbing, and I was dry-eyed, unable to shed the tears that would have provided some release. Shivering in my thin chemise, I watched the shadows dancing on the walls and listened to the silence that filled the dormitory. The candle flickered. There was a rustle of silken skirts. Jamintha crept into my room, a finger over her lips, her blue eyes filled with mischief. She stood by the trunk, listening, and then she laughed her merry, irreverent laugh.
“I had to come,” she said. “I had to tell you goodbye. Oh Jane, are you really leaving this place?”
I nodded glumly.
,” she replied. “
think it's ever so exciting. It'll be an adventure. Who knows what interesting things might happen? You may even meet a dashing young man and fall in
“There's not much chance of that,” I said primly.
“Oh, Jane, you infuriate me, always belittling yourself. You've got ever so many nice featuresâyou're pretty in fact. All you need is a little sparkle, a little vitality. If only you weren't so proper, so humorlessâ”
“I could never be like you,” I said.
be,” she insisted.
I shook my head, staring at her in the dim, flickering candlelight. Jamintha was everything I wasn't. She was everything I wanted to be. With her long, lustrous hair and sparkling blue eyes, she was undeniably beautiful. We were the same age, and both of us were orphans. We were the same size, too, and could wear the same dresses, but whereas Jamintha looked like a princess in her flowered silks, I looked like someone in drab masquerade. She radiated vitality and health, a bright, merry creature who found life a joyous adventure even in the dreary confines of the school. I had poor health, and I rarely smiled.
She whirled around, her silk skirt billowing over rustling petticoats. The dress was light blue, patterned with pink and lilac flowers. The bodice fit snugly over her full breasts and narrow waist. Rich chestnut curls fell to her shoulders, and her cheeks were flushed a delicate pink. I could see that she had some mischief in mind as she peered into the small, murky blue mirror that hung beside the door.
“It's terribly late,” I said. “Why are you dressed? You should be in bedâ”
“Pox on their silly rules and regulations,” she retorted. “I'm going to see Billy. He's meeting me on the other side of the wall.”
“You're slipping out again? If they should catch youâ”
“To hell with them,” Jamintha said sweetly. “They haven't caught me yet, have they? I'm very careful. Besides, Billy and I don't do anything
. He takes me to the music halls, and occasionally I let him steal a kiss. I'm quite as virginal as you are, Jane, although I'm not so
“I wish you wouldn't use such language.”
Jamintha smiled her pixie smile, delighted to have shocked me. I felt gauche and naive in her presence. Although she was only eighteen, although her life here at school had been as strict and closely supervised as my own had, Jamintha was surprisingly sophisticated. It was as though she had been born with a worldly knowledge I could never hope to possess. She was dazzling. I would pass unnoticed, but men would be unable to resist Jamintha. I felt no envy, just great admiration.
“I'll miss you,” I said. “I don't know what I'll do without you, Jamintha.”
“Just be glad you're leaving this dreadful school. If Charles Dickens were still alive he'd write an exposÃ© of the place! Imagine living in such bleak, airless rooms and eating such incredible foodâit's deplorable!”
“I'm afraid,” I whispered.
“I'll have no one to confide in. You're the only friend I've ever had, the only one whoâ”
“I know,” she interrupted, her lovely eyes serious. “We've been closer than sisters, Jane. It's meant as much to me as it has to you.”
“What will become of you now?” I inquired. “You've graduated, too. Will you become a governess? Will youâ”
“I haven't the slightest notion,” she retorted. “I'll get by. I may even come to Danmoor.”
“Why in the world would you do a thing like that?”
“To look after you, ninny. We need each other.”
“If only you
Jamintha perched on the edge of the bed, lifting her skirts up to examine her pretty blue slippers. She avoided my eyes, but I could tell from her voice that she was as touched as I, as sad and disheartened.