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It was too quiet. Even the nocturnal songs of crickets and frogs were eerily absent tonight. Only her breathing, which she forcibly kept steady, and the ticking clock on her bedside table permeated the thick atmosphere. As usual, only one lamp remained lit in the parlor, and the meager light barely reached the bedroom where Mary lay anxiously.
He should have been home by now.
Again she went through her mental checklist. Dresses and undergarments that were ostensibly sent out for alterations or repairs months ago were now packed and ready. Money she'd stockpiled penny by penny was in the drawstring pouch, safe and sound in its hiding place in the hall closet. The two pertinent doors in the house were now oiled; they opened and closed without a sound. Squeaky floorboards were mentally mapped out, and after weeks of practice she could navigate around the house silently even in the dark. Jonathan's hunting dog was deep in sleep, thanks to the powerful sedative she'd added to the brute's water dish. He would be quiet throughout the night.
Most importantly, the tickets were purchased. Everything was ready.
She glanced at the clock. Three thirty. The train would leave in an hour. Daniel had timed the trip and it took exactly seventeen minutes on horseback from their meeting point to the train station. If she didn't leave by four o'clock, they wouldn't make it. Could she leave before he got home? Once again, she dismissed that idea.
That would never work. She couldn't chance meeting him on the way out the door, or near the depot. No. If he wasn't home in the next ten minutes, they would have to plan for another time. It would mean at least another twentyseven days. There were very few passenger cars scheduled during the night, and taking a train in broad daylight was fraught with too many ways for him to find her. She blinked back the tears. All that planning! Even the weather was cooperative; there wasn't a star in the sky, no moon, not even a breeze. The shadows were pitch black.
It was perfect.
But it had to be. This wasn't the first time her plans were thwarted. It would be perfect some day. She gave in to a desolate whimper.
The hollow sound of horse hooves on the cobblestone driveway stifled her self-pity. She heard James scrambling to care for the horse. He had to have been sitting awake waiting for Jonathan's arrival just as she was; but then no one knew her plans; they both had to have thought she was fast asleep. Mary knew she wouldn't sleep tonight.
There were no words exchanged. Jonathan didn't speak to his servants except to dole out orders or chastise them in some way. This was a good sign; when he was overly aggravated he would light into his hired help without provocation. She could hear his footsteps crunch on the gravel when he stumbled onto the porch. He was mumbling. Humming? She smothered a smile. Oh this couldn't be any better!
After seven years of marriage, Mary knew Jonathan's moods. He returned home either angry or happily inebriated. Violent relations always accompanied the former, but she stood a chance with the happy drunk. She was sometimes even lucky enough to avoid his sexual urges altogether if she feigned sleep, breathed very quietly, and moved not a muscle.
She checked the clock again. There was time. Even if he did force himself on her, she would live through it. Afterwards she would just have to wait for him to slip into unconsciousness. She said a quick prayer before he entered the house.
She counted his footsteps. He entered the washroom and chuckled. It was more of a childish giggle; so innocent sounding, yet knowing the man intimately as she did, she knew the laughter was thoroughly evil. It was a sound that made one wonder what wicked plan he was concocting, but she couldn't afford the time or distraction to speculate tonight.
Water splashing ... he left his belt unbuckled; she could hear it jangle while he walked through the bathroom door and across the hall to their bedroom.
This was it.
Her heart beat with such force, she was sure he could hear it. She didn't move. He walked across the room to stand right in front of her. Though she dared not open her eyes even to slits, she knew his waist was mere inches from her face. She could smell him. Cigar smoke mingled with whiskey, the odor of his own body, and the unmistakable scent of cheap perfume.
For long moments he stood still. Was he watching her? Studying her? Could he tell that she was awake? She hoped he was inebriated enough, and prayed that she could pull off the act.
One last time.
Breathe in, exhale. Deeply. Perfectly timed.
Not moving from his place beside her, he began to undress. He fell against the bed once, jarring the mattress with what must have been an elbow. He chuckled again. Still she didn't move. When he regained his balance, she heard his trousers hit the floor, belt and all. After another nerve-racking pause, he flipped the quilt off of her, and covered her breast through her chaste nightgown with his long thin hand.
He squeezed. She wanted to cry out from the pain, but she couldn't. She wouldn't. She refused to even swallow the bile that rose to her throat while she heard him rubbing himself grotesquely just inches from her nose.
He cursed, chuckled, and even mumbled something about Annie's thighs, before roughly pushing away from her. She mumbled, and readjusted her head on the pillow. He chuckled again, then moved away. She listened, scarcely believing that she had escaped the first round. He crossed the room, poured whiskey from the decanter on his bureau, and swallowed it. If she allowed herself to show any emotion right now, her smile would be enormous. The same sedative that kept the bird dog happily slumbering was now swirling inside Jonathan's stomach.
He threw himself onto the bed beside her, causing the mattress to lurch. His arm went around her like a meat hook and dragged her against him. She was relieved to note that he still wore his long underwear, and he wasn't aroused. Still, he pumped his hips against her and snickered into her ear. Torturous moments passed before he belched, cursed, and then flipped himself over onto his stomach, leaving one hand clamped over her breast.
The next prayer Mary gave was that of thanksgiving. Only very rarely did he come home and not force himself on her. He must have won a few hands of poker at the saloon tonight, enough to afford him a whore and a jovial mood. Whoever Annie was, Mary thanked her. It couldn't be more perfect.
She risked a peek at the clock. Ten minutes until four. Even if she had to wait fifteen minutes more before slipping out, she would still make it. Just as she knew that the sun would rise in the next few hours, she knew that Daniel was waiting. He'd be there, with a change of clothes, her few belongings, a borrowed mount, and most importantly a new identity. She would leave here with nothing but the nightgown she wore. And the money, she reminded herself. Lord, don't forget the money!
The minutes passed interminably. Jonathan's breathing became deep and steady, but still not good enough. She waited for the telltale snore. Only then was it safe, and she found the courage to slowly slip from beneath his arm. When that worked without interrupting his breathing, she continued the motion and inched off the bed. She was ready with an explanation as to what she was doing out of bed, but he didn't stir. She left her slippers and robe at the foot of the bed, and tiptoed through the bedroom door.
Now her heart was beating double time. It was so loud in her ears that it terrified her with the thought that she wouldn't be able to hear him if he approached her. She tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry. There was no turning back. She picked her way through the hallway, reached into the closet and found the thick purse of money. At the front door, Mary Elise Vickerson Stanton paused, listened, thanked God, and then disappeared.