Read an Excerpt
Escape the Night
By Mignon G. Eberhart
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1944 Mignon G. Eberhart
All rights reserved.
She knew that something was happening in the house.
The knowledge of it obtruded itself stealthily between her and the book in her hands so she read the same lines over and over, not taking in their sense. She was listening so hard that it was as if her eyes and hands and every pore in her body had suddenly developed audient power; but there was nothing to hear. The house was quiet.
After a moment she closed the book with a quick thrust of her hands and got up decisively, and then just stood there listening again. She was a woman of fifty-odd; Luisa de la Vega Condit, aunt of Sutton Condit, the present owner of the great Condit ranch. It was one of the oldest ranches of the Monterey peninsula. The long, half-shabby, half-elegant room in which she stood, with its blue and red rugs, blue curtains and chintz-covered chairs, had seen much of California history in the making, although the house itself had been added onto and changed from time to time. It was now a gracious blend of the old and the new, built in Spanish-California fashion around two sides of an open patio, with a high white wall enclosing the patio's fourth side. From the windows Luisa could see mountains covered patchily with oaks and pine and broom, and nearer the tall hedge of eucalyptus trees beyond which, at some distance, lay the barns and sheds and corrals. From the other side of the house, the patio side, one had a view of the sea.
Luisa de la Vega Condit had a small, forceful head with coal-black hair and pale-blue, observant eyes which now looked perplexed. The de la Vega side of the family were Castilians, blue-eyed Castilians, and proud of it. The Condit side were New England; her nephew, Sutton Condit was all New England. When she thought of her nephew, Sutton, she thought of his wife Amanda. They were moving cattle that morning, and Amanda had gone out very early in riding clothes; Amanda knew more of the ranch, really, than Sutton, although they'd been married only four years. Luisa shrugged, put her book down on the long table with its great bowls of pink and lavender stock and the bronze statuettes of two famous Condit horses. She left the room, crossed the narrow hall and went out into the patio.
She saw and heard no one. The two-storied house, with its double verandas and the flagged walks of the patio, seemed deserted. Frowning and rather uneasy, she crossed the patio and stood in the open, arched doorway in the white wall. This gave upon the graveled and sanded driveway, white in the sun, and beyond it a breathtaking view of the valley and sea far below.
It was a clear morning, early. The sea was incredibly blue, and waves curled whitely over jagged black rocks. She could see part of the little green and white and yellow village of Carmel; beyond and above were mountains, lifting up to the lofty head of Torro. The bay of Carmel and Still Water Cove were cups of blue; tiny black points in a group near some rocks were the little pointed heads of seals. Cypress Point thrust out jaggedly and blackly into the blue Pacific and, way above in the sky, silver against the blue, a dirigible drifted, looking for Japanese submarines. Luisa watched it all for a moment, diverted. War and submarines and dirigibles; Red Cross work and organization to cope with possible air raids; point rationing and taxes and the price of beef; men you knew leaving for war and undertaking experiences which few women, ever, can really comprehend.
The changes, mused Luisa, that war makes!
Brooding, she forgot for the moment the uneasy feeling that had driven her out into the patio. She turned and stumped heavily toward one of the two flights of stairs at the left and right of the patio opposite each other, leading to the upper floor of the double veranda and to the line of bedroom doors. The patio was the heart and life of the house; there was, in fact, no other means of communication between the living rooms and bedrooms. Still thinking of the war, she started up the flight of wooden stairs and there was suddenly, out of that quiet, an odd sharp sound and the simultaneous splintering of a tiny section of wooden stair railing, just above her hand.
She flung her hand upward and looked at the small shattered splinters and a small round hole. She whirled around and at the same instant a shadow moved in the doorway of that white wall and disappeared beyond the wall.
She didn't stop to think, but charged heavily across the patio toward the arched doorway, her eyes like blue flames, her heart chugging all over her thick body.
At almost that very moment Serena March reached San Francisco. Or rather, she reached Oakland and the ferry. Not until she got off the long, yellow streamliner, got her baggage checks from a redcap, walked the length of the train and through the chilly, dampish ferry shed and onto the boat itself and smelled the water; not until the gulls swirled, crying around the slip, and she could see across the shimmering bay the hills and skyline of that romantic and fabulous city, did she really believe that she had made a decision (or rather it had been made for her) and had come home. Across the continent, from New York.
The ferryboat began to churn away from the slip. She walked to the bow and stood there, with the breeze from the water cool upon her face. She pulled her short fur jacket closer around her shoulders; in her gray traveling tweeds and brown alligator pumps and bag, her small gray hat in her hand so the breeze ruffled her hair, she looked younger than she had looked in New York, less sleek and sophisticated. Even her face felt different, she thought suddenly, watching the buildings of the city loom nearer and clearer. It was as if she had dropped the New York personality she had acquired and had become herself again, Sissy March—not the new, poised, young woman everybody called Serena March.
She had started to New York, four years ago, she remembered, by that ferry; crossing the bay in the late afternoon, with the sun in her eyes, so she couldn't see the city she was leaving. The sun—and tears.
She had cried all the way to New York. One did have feelings at nineteen.
It was queer that a week ago, when she had hurried to keep an appointment with Leda Blagden at the Oak Room of the Plaza she hadn't had the faintest, smallest notion of what that talk was to lead to. Funny. Life was like that, of course; a turn to the left instead of the right; a casual telephone call; a forgotten or a remembered address; or a cocktail with an old friend like Leda (although Leda was really her sister Amanda's friend; Serena knew her well, but only because Leda had been for so many years one of the close, tight little circle around Amanda) and the course of your life was changed. Or might be changed. Might be?
That caught at her heart like a small hand; well, she wouldn't think of that. Not yet.
There was the Golden Gate. And Alcatraz as clear and small-looking as a miniature island there in the bay. She'd get the afternoon train down to the Monterey peninsula. Only a few hours now.
Things had fallen together to permit her to come west in almost a fateful way. She'd had a vacation coming, but she hadn't known that she could take it then until she asked for it, the very morning after her curious and unpleasant talk with Leda, who was returning to California the next day, and, to her surprise was told to take it at once—the end of the week. She had worked feverishly over her scripts (advertising material for the radio), getting them written ahead; again, almost fatefully, they were all right—there were but few revisions which were passed on and approved the last afternoon before she left New York. And then, as she had despaired of train or plane reservations west, due to the crowded travel conditions, someone at the last moment had canceled.
Once on the Twentieth Century and then on the streamliner, the City of San Francisco, watching snow-covered mountains slide past, she had had time to think of herself.
She'd been nineteen at the time of Amanda's marriage to Sutton Condit. She had been too thin; something of the reserved and sober child still in her eyes; her black hair (now pinned up so sleekly) in a long, shoulder-length bob; her bridesmaid's dress absurdly plain and youthful. She'd been a little sober because Amanda was being married. Amanda was her older sister. They'd lived together at the old March house, Casa Madrone, with an aunt who had taken over their care long, even, before their father's death. Their mother had died when Serena was a baby. Serena and Amanda had been neither friends nor enemies; there was perhaps too much difference in their ages to be friends, and too little for the older sister to feel motherly toward the younger. But with Amanda's marriage, Serena would be left alone at Casa Madrone, with Aunt Jane. Amanda would go as Sutton's wife to live at the Condit ranch. It had had a sobering effect upon the nineteen-year-old girl. Whether or not she and Amanda were close in their mutual affection, the fact remained that they were family to each other; there was no one else. Aunt Jane March had undertaken their upbringing; she had been kind and sensible in her way. But it had been a job for Aunt Jane March; one for which she was paid out of the moderate estate Amanda and Serena shared. She was fond of them both but in no sense devoted. So Amanda's marriage induced a very real sense of loneliness on the part of Serena.
But she had intended, she supposed now, to stay on with Aunt Jane at Casa Madrone.
And Jem—Jeremy Daly—had come to the wedding.
He was new to the peninsula; he had come all the way from New York to be Sutton Condit's best man. Sutton had been sent to Princeton to school; Jem was his friend and roommate; so Jem must come for the wedding. Because it was such a long trip and he wanted to see something of California, he had arrived a week before the wedding; he had been instantly liked. Not that he was particularly gay or charming or attractive; he was just Jem. Tall, but rather well and strongly built; a brownish skin with gray-blue eyes which saw more than they admitted seeing; a pleasant, but rather removed and detached manner; that was Jem. There were of course other things she remembered about him; his black hair and the tendency it had to curl upward over his ears; his sudden smile and the way his eyes warmed; his gentleness with her, Serena.
The first day or two he had been less quiet than, it had seemed to Serena later, he grew as the wedding approached; perhaps the business trip he was about to make down into Southern California accounted for a growing gravity and distraction on his part. Whatever it was, certainly on the day of the wedding he had been extremely quiet. Serena remembered that and the way she had either intentionally or unintentionally been near him most of that day. She didn't know now whether he had sensed something of her own loneliness (and her own sudden, overwhelming—yet nineteen-year-old—feeling for him) and was thus very gentle and very kind; or whether he himself had had some unexplained need for her company. Whatever was the reason, the fact remained that he was constantly near her during the day, so she felt a kind of support and comfort in his presence. After the wedding, and after Amanda had thrown her bouquet of flowers (which Alice Lanier—then Alice Byrnes—had caught) and had gone away, smiling and beautiful on Sutton Condit's arm, much later after all the guests had gone and Aunt Jane had taken off her tight, high-heeled pumps and tottered wearily upstairs to bed, she and Jem had walked in the patio.
Four years ago—and she'd been nineteen and there is a tremendous gulf between nineteen and twenty-three, the gulf between all the childhood before, and all the adulthood afterward, yet she remembered that walk very clearly. It had been a balmy night, a spring night, with no moon and only the bright stars above. They'd talked some of the wedding; some of his trip; eventually they sat at the curve of the path near a clump of madrone trees from which the house took its name. It was an old house, the Casa Madrone, across the valley from the Condit ranch where Amanda would now live, and owned for three generations by the March family; built in the early days, much of its furniture had come around the Horn. The garden was old, too, and, as only an old garden can, seemed to have a depth and feeling and sentience all around them in the quiet night, as if it knew things, had seen things, knew what in the end was life. She'd felt that, dimly; mainly she was aware of the man beside her—smoking, very quiet, yet oddly nervous. And then he'd gone, but before he went away he took her unexpectedly, very gently in his arms and kissed her, and said: "Thank you, dear. Good-bye."
He'd gone then, quickly; out the gate and away, walking along the twisting, shadowy road, toward the lighted Lodge where, because of the many Condit wedding guests that packed the house of the Condit ranch, he was staying. And he'd taken a very young girl's very young heart along with him.
He hadn't known that; he couldn't have known it.
She'd not slept that night; she'd not slept, in fact, for many nights. He had gone, as he'd planned, the next day. She did not hear from him; naturally, she hadn't expected to hear from him. He did not return and she learned later in some roundabout way that he'd gone to South America—unexpectedly, apparently, for if that had been his plan when he left Pebble Beach no one had known of it.
And then, thinking it all out beforehand, covering every possible contingency and argument in her mind in advance, Serena had told Aunt Jane that she intended to leave. She was going to New York. She was going to get a job. Aunt Jane should have her usual allowance from Serena's half of the family estate; she and Amanda had divided the estate equally between them a few weeks before Amanda's marriage. Serena had taken the house; she had wanted it, for she loved it, and Amanda's home was now the Condit house on the mountain slopes at the other side of the bay. Amanda had taken, rightly, by far the major share of invested stocks; still, there had been enough for Aunt Jane, and Serena had almost at once got and held a job.
Aunt Jane had been willing enough; she listened to Serena's plan, thought it over and sensibly agreed. They closed the house; covered the furniture; sent the old flat silver to the vault; locked away linens and china; hired a caretaker to come along occasionally to make sure things were in order and to air the house.
Serena went to New York. She was then in love with Jem, with all the devotion, the unquestioning belief, the painful and unanswered dreams of nineteen. Eventually of course she'd conquered the pain; she'd enjoyed life; she'd filled her mind with new places, her affections with people. She'd known other men, too; had gone out with them and liked them—one or two enough to question seriously just how deep and strong that liking might grow to be. But it had never grown quite deep enough.
She thought that rather wryly, smiling a little. Never quite deep enough. That was because of Jem and her memory of him.
Well. Now she would discover how much that memory actually meant.
For Leda had told her that, too; it was, as a matter of fact, the only thing that had emerged as clear and sensible from the welter of half-hysterical, half-frank and half-evasive, altogether unpleasant plea that Leda had thrust at her during that hour at the Plaza. Leda had said, incidentally, merely by chance, that Jem was back. "He's been there for several weeks. You remember him, don't you, Serena? Jeremy Daly?"
Serena hadn't answered. Not, at least, with her lips, or in any way that Leda could observe but actually it was at that instant that she decided to come home. Back to California; back to the peninsula and the brown hills and the blue sea and the black rocks. It was really as if the decision had been made for her, deeply and instinctively and at once. She only knew she was coming, and it was not because of Leda's hysterical begging, nor what she said—except that she had said, too, that Jem Daly was there.
And she had come.
Of course, he might not even remember her. There was that—a sobering thought.
But she would know.
She hadn't thought much, really, of any of the other things that Leda had said; Leda was inclined to exaggerate, she had been upset and, certainly, hysterical.
They approached the slip and the Ferry building. Well-remembered landmarks suddenly rose ahead of her, and the air and the blue sky and steep hills of the city all seemed to rush to meet her.
Excerpted from Escape the Night by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1944 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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