Through a curtain of sea mist, I stared from my carriage at the black-hooded figure silhouetted against the gray and lowering sky. The crash of the waves against the rocks drowned any cry from the few seagulls wheeling overhead. Perched on the edge of the seat, I took a deep breath, clenching my gloved fingers together. Had I been too hasty in agreeing to come to Seacliff House? I’d convinced myself I’d be able to contain my fear of the sea but hadn’t anticipated this dark figure on the cliff’s edge with its black cape swirling in the wind.
The unmoving figure with its back to me, making any identification impossible, sent a chill along my spine. The sight could almost tempt me believe in apparitions.
“Waiting for the Sea Dragon,” Armin Brown, the carriage driver called down to me. “Day after day she waits there.”
What was he saying about sea dragons? I shivered, hugging myself, my eyes on the black-garbed woman until the horses rounded a curve and the dark figure was lost to sight.
“Mrs. Peter couldn’t see the ship if it did sail past,” Armin went on. “She’s well nigh blind.”
I straightened. Again I’d allowed my imagination to overcome my common sense. I could almost hear Sister Samara’s chiding voice. “Keep your feet on the ground, Esma, where they belong; keep your mind on what is real, away from flights of fancy.”
Mrs. Peter must be the elder Mrs. Nikolai, grandmother of Alisette, the sickly five year old girl I’d been hired to care for. Now I knew Mrs. Peter Nikolai must walk to the cliffs every day to watch the sea for the arrival of her son’s ship, the ship Armin had called Sea Dragon.
“Some folks think Captain Stephen won’t never come back.” Armin chuckled unpleasantly. “And there’s them who wish he wouldn’t. Been five years and more, it has. Many’s the things that change in five years.”
I said nothing. The Nikolai carriage had met me at the stage station in Eureka and Armin had first stared at me like I was some kind of freak of nature, then questioned me as though he were the one passing on my ability for the post--he even asked my age. Twice! I’d been relieved when he finally began pointing out the sights of Eureka on our drive along the south coast into the highlands where Seacliff House was located.
Though I’d answered his questions and listened to his discourse on Eureka politely, I’d been careful not to encourage him in any way. I didn’t set myself above him--I’d soon be working for the Nikolais as he already did--but I didn’t take to him, for all he was good-looking enough, with shrewd brown eyes and hair as dark and curly as my own. His manner hinted he knew unwholesome secrets.
Catching sight of a peaked tower thrusting above the redwoods, I tensed in anticipation of my first sight of the Nikolai mansion. That was what Sister Samara had called it, a mansion.