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The Cases of Susan Dare
By Mignon G. Eberhart
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1939 Mignon G. Eberhart
All rights reserved.
"BUT IT IS FANTASTIC," SAID SUSAN Dare, clutching the telephone. "You can't just be afraid. You've got to be afraid of something." She waited, but there was no reply.
"You mean," she said presently, in a hushed voice, "that I'm to go to this perfectly strange house, to be the guest of a perfectly strange woman"
"To you," said Jim Byrne. "Not, I tell you, to me."
"But you said you had never seen her—"
"Don't maunder," said Jim Byrne sharply. "Of course I've never seen her. Now, Susan, do try to get this straight. This woman is Caroline Wray. One of the Wrays."
"Perfectly clear," said Susan. "Therefore I'm to go to her house and see why she's got an attack of nerves. Take a bag and prepare to spend the next few days as her guest. I'm sorry, Jim, but I'm busy. I've got to do a murder story this week and—"
"Sue," said Jim, "I'm serious."
Susan paused abruptly. He was serious.
"It's—I don't know how to explain it, Susan," he said. "It's just—well, I'm Irish, you know. And I'm—fey. Don't laugh."
"I'm not laughing," said Susan. "Tell me exactly what you want me to do."
"Just—watch things. There ought not to be any danger—don't see how there could be. To you."
Susan realized that she was going. "How many Wrays are there, and what do you think is going to happen?"
"There are four Wrays. But I don't know what is going on that has got Caroline so terrified. It was that—the terror in her voice—that made me call you."
"What's the number of the house?" said Susan.
He told her. "It's away north," he said. "One of those old houses—narrow, tall, hasn't changed, I suppose, since old Ephineas Wray died. He was a close friend, you know, of my father's. Don't know why Caroline called me: I suppose some vague notion that a man on a newspaper would know what to do. Now let me see—there's Caroline. She's the daughter of Ephineas Wray. David is his grandson and Caroline's nephew and the only man—except the houseman—in the place. He's young—in his twenties, I believe. His father and mother died when he was a child."
"You mean there are three women?"
"Naturally. There's Marie—she is old Wray's adopted daughter—not born a Wray, but more like him than the rest of them. And Jessica—she's Caroline's cousin; but she's always lived with the Wrays because her father died young. People always assume that the three women are sisters. Actually, of course, they are not. But old Ephineas Wray left his fortune divided equally among them."
"And they all live there together?"
"Yes. David's not married."
"Is that," said Susan, at the note of finality in his voice, "all you know about them?"
"Absolutely everything. Not much for you to go on, is it? It was just," said Jim Byrne soberly, with the effect of a complete explanation, "that she was so—so horribly scared. Old Caroline, I mean."
Susan retraced the address slowly before she said again: "What was she afraid of?"
"I don't know," said Jim Byrne. "And—it's queer—but I don't think she knew either."
It was approaching five o'clock, with a dark fog rolling up from the lake and blending itself with the early winter twilight, when Susan Dare pressed the bell beside the wide old door—pressed it and waited. Lights were on in the street, but the house before her was dark, its windows curtained. The door was heavy and secretive.
But they were expecting her—or at least Caroline Wray was; it had all been arranged by telephone. Susan wondered what Caroline had told them; what Jim Byrne had told Caroline to say to explain her presence; and, suddenly, what Caroline was like.
"Little Johnny hung his sister.
She was dead before they missed her. Johnny's always up to tricks,
Ain't he cute, and only six—"
The jingle had been haunting her with the persistency of a popular dance tune, and it gave accent to the impatient little beat of her brown oxford upon the stone step. Then a light flashed on above the door. Susan took a deep breath of the moist cold air and felt a sudden tightening of her nerves. The door was going to open.
It swung wider, and a warm current of air struck Susan's cheeks. Beyond was a dimly lit hall and a woman's figure—a tall, corseted figure with full sweeping skirts.
"Yes?" said a voice harshly out of the dimness.
"I am Susan Dare," said Susan.
"Oh—oh, yes." The figure moved aside and the door opened wider. "Come in, Miss Dare. We were expecting you."
Afterward Susan remembered her own hesitation on the dark threshold as the door closed with finality behind her, and the woman turned.
"I am Miss Jessica Wray," she said.
Jessica. This was the cousin, then.
She was a tall woman, large-boned, with a heavy, dark face, thick, iron-gray hair done high and full on her head, and long, strong hands. She was dressed after a much earlier fashion; one which, indeed, Susan was unable to date.
"We were expecting you," she said. "Caroline, however, was obliged to go out." She paused just under the light and beside a long mirror.
Susan had a confused impression of the house, in that moment; an impression of old, crowded elegance. The mirror was wavery and framed in wide gilt; there were ferns in great marble urns; there were marble figures.
"We'll go up to your room," said Jessica. "Caroline said you would be in Chicago for several days. This way. You can leave your bag here. James will take it up later; he is out just now."
Susan put down her small suitcase, and followed Jessica. The newel post and stair rail were heavy and carved. The steps were carpeted and thickly padded. And the house was utterly, completely still. As they ascended the quiet stairs it grew increasingly hot and airless.
At the top of the stairs Jessica turned with a rigid motion of her strong body.
"Will you wait here a moment?" she said. "I'm not sure which room—"
Susan made some assenting gesture, and Jessica turned along the passage which ran toward the rear of the house.
So terrifically hot the house was. So crowded with old and almost sentient furniture. So very silent.
Susan moved a bit restively. It was not a pleasant house. But Caroline had to be afraid of something—not just silence and heat and brooding, secretive old walls. She glanced down the length of hall, moved again to put her hand upon the tall newel post of the stair rail beside her. The carved top of it seemed to shift and move slightly under the pressure of her hand and confirmed in the strangest way her feeling that the house itself had a singular kind of life.
Then she was staring straight ahead of her through an open, lighted doorway. Beyond it was a large room, half bedroom and half sitting room. A lamp on a table cast a circle of light, and beside the table, silhouetted against the light, sat a woman with a book in her lap.
It must be Marie Wray—the older sister; the adopted Wray who was more like old Ephineas Wray than any of them. Her face was in shadow with the light beyond it, so Susan could see only a blunt, fleshy white profile and a tight knot of shining black hair above a massive black silk bosom. She did not, apparently, know of Susan's presence, for she did not turn. There was a kind of patience about that massive, relaxed figure; a waiting. An enormous black female spider waiting in a web of shadows. But waiting for what?
The suggestion was not one calculated to relieve the growing tension of Susan's nerves. The heat was making her dizzy; fanciful. Calling a harmless old woman a black spider merely because she was wearing a shiny black silk dress! Marie Wray still, so far as Susan could see, did not look at her, but there was suddenly the flicker of a motion on the table.
Susan looked and caught her breath in an incredulous little gasp.
There was actually a small gray creature on that table, directly under the lamplight. A small gray creature with a long tail. It sat down nonchalantly, pulled the lid off a box and dug its tiny hands into the box.
"It's a monkey," thought Susan with something like a clutch of hysteria. "It's a monkey—a spider monkey, is it?—with that tiny face."
It was turning its face jerkily about the room, peering with bright, anxious eyes here and there, and busily, furiously eating candy. It failed somehow to see Susan; or perhaps she was too far away to interest it. There was suddenly something curiously unreal about the scene. That, thought Susan, or the heat in this fantastic house, and turned at the approaching rustle of skirts down the passage. It was Jessica, and she looked at Susan and then through the open doorway and smiled coldly.
"Marie is deaf," she said. "I suppose she didn't realize you were here."
"No," said Susan.
"I'll tell her—" She made a stiff gesture with her long hand and turned to enter the room beyond the open door. As her gray silk rustled through the door the little monkey jerked around, gave her one piercing black glance and was gone from the table in a swift gray streak. He fled across the room, darted under an old sofa.
But Jessica did not reprove him. "Marie," she said loudly and distinctly.
There was a pause. Jessica's flowing gray silk skirts were now silhouetted against the table lamp, and the monkey absently began to lick its paw.
"Yes, Jessica." The voice was that of a person long deaf—entirely without tone.
"Susan Dare is here—you know—the daughter of Caroline's friend. Do you want to see her?"
"See her? No. No, not now. Later."
"Very well. Do you want anything?"
Jessica's rigid back bent over Marie as she arranged a cushion. Then she turned and walked again toward Susan. Susan felt queerly fascinated and somehow oddly shocked to note that, as Jessica turned her rigid back to the room, the monkey darted out from under the sofa and was suddenly skittering across the room again in the direction of the table and the candy.
He would be, thought Susan, one very sick monkey. The house was too hot, and yet Susan shivered a bit. Why did people keep monkeys?
"This way," said Jessica firmly, and Susan preceded her down the hall and into exactly the kind of bedroom she might have expected it to be.
But Jessica did not intend to leave her alone to explore its Victorian fastnesses. Under her somewhat unnerving dark gaze, Susan removed her cock-eyed little hat, smoothed back her light hair and put her coat across a chair, only to have it placed immediately by Jessica in the enormous gloomy wardrobe. The servants, said Jessica, were out; the second girl and James because it was their half day out, the cook to do an errand.
"You are younger than I should have expected," she said abruptly to Susan. "Shall we go down now?"
As they passed down the stairs to the drawing room, a clock somewhere struck slowly, with long trembling variations.
"Five," said Jessica. "Caroline ought to return very soon. And David. He usually reaches home shortly after five. That is, if it isn't rainy. Traffic sometimes delays him. But it isn't rainy tonight!"
"Foggy," said Susan and obeyed the motion of Jessica's long gray hand toward a chair. It was not, however, a comfortable chair. And neither were the moments that followed comfortable, for Jessica sat sternly erect in a chair opposite Susan, folded her hands firmly in her silk lap and said exactly nothing. Susan started to speak a time or two, thought better of it, and herself sat in rather rigid silence. And was suddenly aware that she was acutely receptive to sight and sound and feeling.
It was not a pleasant sensation.
For she felt queerly as if the lives that were living themselves out in that narrow old house were pressing in upon her—as if long-spoken words and long-stifled whispers were living yet in the heated air.
She stirred restively and tried not to think of Marie Wray. Queer how difficult it was, once having seen Marie and heard her speak, not to think of that brooding figure—sitting in its web of shadows, waiting.
Three old women living in an old house. What were their relations to one another? Two of them she had seen and had heard speak, and knew no more of them than she had known. What about Caroline—the one who was afraid? She stirred again and knew Jessica was watching her.
They heard the bell, although it rang in some back part of the house. Jessica looked satisfied and rose.
"It's David," she said. At the door into the hall she added in a different tone: "And I suppose Caroline, too."
Susan knew she was tense. Yet there was nothing in that house for her—Susan Dare—to fear. It was Caroline who was afraid.
Then another woman stood in the doorway. Caroline, no doubt. A tall slender woman, a blonde who had faded into tremulous, wispy uncertainty. She did not speak. Her eyes were large and blue and feverish, and two bright pink spots fluttered in her thin cheeks, and her bare thin hands moved. Susan rose and went to her and took the two hands.
"But you're so young," said Caroline. Disappointment throbbed in her voice.
"I'm not really," said Susan.
"And so little—" breathed Caroline.
"But that doesn't matter at all," said Susan, speaking slowly, as one does to a nervous child. There were voices in the hall, but she was mainly aware of Caroline.
"No, I suppose not," said Caroline, finally looking into Susan's eyes. Terrified, Jim had said. Curious how right Jim managed to be.
Caroline's eyes sought into Susan's, and she was about to speak when there was a rustle in the doorway. Caroline's uncertain lips closed in a kind of gasp, and Jessica swept into the room.
"But I must know what she's afraid of," thought Susan. "I must get her alone—away from Jessica."
"Take off your coat, Caroline," said Jessica. "Don't stand there. I see you've spoken to Susan Dare. Put away your hat and coat and then come down again."
"Yes, Jessica," said Caroline. Her hands were moving again, and she looked away.
"Go on," said Jessica. Her voice was not sharp, it was merely undefeatable.
"Yes, Jessica," said Caroline.
"Marie is reading," said Jessica. "You needn't speak to her now unless you wish to do so. You may take Susan Dare in to see her later."
Caroline disappeared and in her place stood a man, and Susan was murmuring words of acknowledgment to Jessica's economical introduction.
David, too, was blond, and his eyes were darkly blue. He was slender and fairly tall; his mouth was fine and sensitive, and there was a look about his temples and around his eyes that was—Susan sought for the word and found it—wistful. He was young and strong and vibrant—the only young thing in the house—but he was not happy. Susan knew that at once. He said:
"How do you do, Miss Dare?"
"Don't go upstairs yet, David," said Jessica. Her voice was less harsh, she watched him avidly. "You ought to rest."
"Not now, Aunt Jessica. I'll see you again, Miss Dare."
He walked away. "Aunt Marie all right?" he called from the stairway.
"Perfectly," said Jessica. Her voice was harsh again. "She's reading—"
Afterward Susan tried to remember whether she could actually hear David's steps upon the padded stairs or whether she was only half consciously calculating the time it took to climb the stairs—the time it took, or might have taken to walk along the hall, to enter a room. She was sure that Jessica did not speak. She merely sat there.
Why did Jessica become rigid and harsh again when David spoke of Marie? Why did—
A loud, dreadful crash of sound forever shattered the silence in the house. It fell upon Susan and immersed her and shook the whole house and then receded in waves. Waves that left destruction and intolerable confusion.
Susan realized dimly that she was on her feet and trying to move toward the stairway, and that Jessica's mouth was gray, and that Jessica's hands were clutching her.
"Oh, my God—David—" said Jessica intelligibly, and pushed the woman away from her.
She reached the stairway, Jessica beside her, and at the top of the stairs two figures were locked together and struggling in the upper hall.
"Caroline," screamed Jessica. "What are you doing? Where's Marie—where—"
"Let me go, Caroline!" David was pulling Caroline's thin clutching arms from around him. "Let me go, I tell you. Something terrible has happened. You must—"
Jessica brushed past them and then was at the door of Marie's room.
"It's Marie!" she cried harshly. "Who shot her?"
Susan was vaguely conscious of Caroline's sobbing breaths and of David's shoulder pressing against her own. Somehow they had all got to that open doorway and were crowding there together.
It was Marie.
She sat in the same chair in which she'd been sitting when Susan saw her so short a time ago. But her head had fallen forward, her whole body crumpled grotesquely into black silk folds.
Jessica was the first to enter the room. Then David. Susan, feeling sick and shaken, followed. Only Caroline remained in the doorway, clinging to the casing with thin hands, her face like chalk and her lips blue.
Excerpted from The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1939 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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