A governess becomes entangled with a dysfunctional and dangerous family in this novel by a New York Times–bestselling “master of suspense” (Mary Higgins Clark).
Finally liberated from her cruel and domineering mother, twenty-eight-year-old schoolteacher Jessica Abbott has accepted a position as governess in Hampden House, a crumbling plantation on the cliffs of St. Croix. Her charge is Leila Drew, the oppressed teenage daughter of a pathologically punishing mother. But the vulnerable girl is not Catherine Drew’s only victim.
For years, Catherine’s desperate husband, King, a man to whom Jessica is irresistibly drawn, has been searching for the means to a safe escape—for himself and Leila—from this ruin of a family. As Jessica becomes further entwined in the violent dynamics of the Drew family, she realizes Catherine’s wretched power may be grounded in a secret that has trapped not only King and Leila, but herself as well.
A recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, Phyllis A. Whitney was hailed by Mary Higgins Clark as “a superb and gifted story teller, and a master of suspense.”
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Phyllis A. Whitney including rare images from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Whitney resided in several places, including New Jersey. She traveled to every location mentioned in her books in order to better depict the settings of her stories. She earned the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award in 1988, the Agatha in 1990, and the lifetime achievement award from the Society of Midland Authors in 1995. Whitney was working on her autobiography at the time of her passing at the age of 104.
Read an Excerpt
I had come softly along the upper gallery so as not to waken the members of a household which was still strange to me. After all that had happened since my arrival, I was wide awake and torn between the feeling that I wanted to stay and engage myself in this strange combat and the wish to turn back to emptiness, to lethargy and a suspension of all pain.
The high gallery on which I stood looked out over the town and the lovely harbor of Charlotte Amalie, with the dark islands and little peninsulas floating on a moonlit sea. The moon was bright, but for all its beauty and the way it turned the rooftops to silver, it seemed a chill illumination.
Below the gallery a flamboyant tree spread its branches, shadowing the wide, paved terrace that had formed a stage for ugly drama only a few hours before. From where I stood I could see the tops of a thick planting of tropical forest that seemed to entice me to enter its tangle of dark undergrowth, even while its lush vegetation repelled me at the same time. I did not understand why, just as I did not understand what it was about the man, Kingdon Drew, which gave me so strong an impulse to advance and flee at one and the same time. He had made it clear that he neither approved of me nor welcomed my presence, yet I had felt a quickening in me at the first sight of him, and my sympathies were too readily engaged, for all that I was scornful and bitterly amused by my own reactions.
Why it must be this man, I did not know — though I understood the cause well enough. I could almost hear my mother's voice chiding me: "Do stop dreaming, Jessica. You are twenty-eight years old and it is ridiculous to find yourself bemused by flame trees and a moonlit tropical night." But my mother's voice had been silent for two months. I could dream if I liked — and if I was brave enough to dream.
At that moment I was shaken and far from brave. I had been in the house for only a short time yet I had already encountered hostility that dismayed me by its vigor. I was here because two women — my aunt, Janet Foster, and the formidable Mrs. Maud Hampden — had connived to bring me here. I had been gently bullied and overruled until I found it easier to drift with the tide of their persuasion than to summon the energy to swim against them.
For the past seven years I had deliberately cut myself off from a large area of living. I had tried as far as it was possible to give myself to my work as a teacher and counselor in a small private school for girls, to concern myself with the problems of young students and with the care of my mother, who had been an invalid for years. I had made large claims to myself — true enough in part — about the satisfactions of such a life. Of course there were satisfactions. But I'd turned a deaf ear to those mocking inner voices that accused me of stepping aside from any real involvement with life. Now and then wry laughter would rise in me and I would turn futilely in my trap trying to find a way to silence my own accusers, but mostly I had learned to guard my sensitivities, to dull, to blunt, to avoid. Now the need was gone and suddenly I had the alarming feeling that a driving impulse to be alive was about to come storming in upon me like a tidal wave that would wash me out to sea.
Two months ago Helen Abbott, my mother, had died suddenly and left me alone and free of my bondage. I had loved her a great deal, and sometimes I had hated her. It was because of her, ironically enough, that Maud Hampden had brought me to this house and engaged me for what seemed an impossible task.
Where I now stood on this high mountain spine of the island a wind seemed always to blow with a great rushing of sound through the trees. On the terrace below me the shadow of the flamboyant stirred in the moonlight as though something moved beneath its branches. I could hear my mother's voice, "Fanciful, fanciful!" but I did not need to listen any more. I was free and perhaps I could learn how to be a whole woman for the first time in my life. But not heedlessly, recklessly, simply because those life forces in me which had been so long submerged and sublimated were too suddenly set free.
Three weeks ago I had turned in my resignation to the school where I had taught in a small lakeshore suburb of Chicago, and I had come to the Virgin Islands. For three quiet weeks I had immersed myself in St. Thomas. In August the wintertime crowds were absent and I could find quiet stretches of beach where I might lie in the sun, letting it sap my energy and lull me into emptiness. I had not wanted to waken, or to think. There were too many questions I was afraid to face. Had I thrown my life away for so many years that it was now too late to repair the damage? If I had stood and fought seven years ago, would a marriage with Paul have brought me what I wanted? If I was to be honest with myself, I had to admit that Paul was a very small part of what had frightened me. However bitter-tasting self-knowledge might be, I must eventually face my own destructive self-doubts. I must not forever excuse myself, or be panicked into a thoughtless snatching at what I had missed.
Often enough my mother had told me that I was born to spinsterhood and the service of others. She said this in her teasing way, being realistic according to her lights. Men frightened me, she used to say — she who was never afraid of any man! How could I not believe her when I was too young to know any better? But now, though I was no longer a child, and though Helen was gone, I had not yet learned how to still her teasing voice.
Perhaps I had not tried very hard. I had drowsed in the sun and postponed any testing of myself with new encounters that might bring demands I would not know how to meet. It seemed safer that way.
Until Aunt Janet began to worry about me. She was my father's older sister and when she lived in the States she knew my mother well and liked her not at all. My aunt was a plump, hearty woman, with a frank liking for food and men. Probably in that order. Not that she tried to be anything but her age, or that she was in the least like Helen. My mother thrived on that adulation she could so easily win from men younger than herself, though once she had it she would turn fecklessly toward some new source of admiration. She acquired, tired of, threw away. Aunt Janet wanted only to give, and give generously. She felt that a healthy interest in men was vital and the men she knew responded to her cheerful enjoyment of their company. She had been twice a widow and it would not have surprised me to see her marry again. Some years ago she had taken over a handsome old Danish house in Charlotte Amalie and turned it efficiently into a small, successful hotel.
By contrast, my mother had never had an efficient thought in her head — except perhaps when it came to charming admirers. In recent years I had noticed that she no longer put on her glasses when she looked at herself in a mirror — so the effect must have remained gently blurred and undisturbing as she grew older. Not that she had lost her beauty or her ability to trouble young men with longings she had no intention of satisfying with more than kind words and a touch of the hand. I learned very early what she was doing, yet somehow I never stopped loving her.
There was a great deal about my mother to love — her gaiety and sweetness, her interest in the problems of others that made us all open our hearts and talk to her, not realizing at first to what deadly and yet innocent use the things she learned might later be put. Even her helplessness was sometimes endearing and held me to her. Before he died, my professor father had warned me that I must look after her because she could not look after herself — she did not even know who "herself" was. I had kept my promise to him. That, at least, I had done.
But here in St. Thomas I could lie on the sand, walk the waterfront, climb the hills in a state of suspension that postponed any coming to grips with the fact that I had no life of my own. However much I had avoided facing this in the past, sooner or later I must now accept it, do something about it before the wasted years slipped away and it was too late. But cautiously — always I reminded myself of that — and not because the look in a man's eyes set the blood thudding in my veins.
Aunt Janet worried about me increasingly. "Are you going back to that school to teach?" she would prod. "For goodness' sakes, isn't it time to get out of your rut and be a woman as well as a teacher? A job is important — but it's only a part of your life."
I did not want to go back. When my aunt had written me after the funeral, asking me to stay with her as long as I liked, I'd packed my bags and come. I had managed that bit of action, at least, I thought wryly. I suppose I had some vague notion that in a new place I would at once take on a new coloration. I would be so different from my old self that no one would guess I was that nice but rather timid schoolteacher who was really known by only a few young girls, and considered remote, wrapped in her work, her devotion to her mother, by everyone else.
Of course the change in scene had brought no change in me. I had not flung myself gaily into island life, in spite of Aunt Janet's attempts to introduce me to her friends. I slipped out of the way when guests gathered at the hotel, and wandered off alone, holding back from the moment when sensation would return. I suppose I dreamed of becoming someone new, without being in the least willing to work at it.
Aunt Janet had ended all this the day before. She pried me out of my hiding place and plunged me into the frightening conflict in which I now found myself. For several days she had been plotting behind my back. She was often on the telephone to Hampden House — that square white structure with the sloping roofs that stands high on its cliff above Charlotte Amalie, managing somehow to look overbearing and ominous. She had gone up the mountain to talk to Maud Hampden, and, finally, she brought Maud herself down to talk to me, leaving us alone so that I could turn to no one for assistance.
We sat in the cool, shadowy parlor of the hotel, with its grass rugs, its woven Hong Kong fan chairs and pearl-inlaid tables from old China. When Aunt Janet left us, I sat in one of those chairs, feeling dwarfed by the huge fan that exploded behind me in a regal spread.
Maud Hampden — I quickly called her "Maud" to myself, since that was how Aunt Janet spoke of her and the name came easily — knew better than to trust such a chair. She sat on the chintz sofa with its flower print that was no more flamboyant than the trees of St. Thomas which bear that name. She was probably in her seventies, a woman of medium height, thin — lean rather than slim — and turned a bit leathery by much tolerance for the sun. She wore her gray hair short and let it blow to untidiness in island winds. Her brown print dress was sleeveless and her bare arms showed the stringiness of thin old age. Her hands seemed those of a capable woman in spite of ridged blue veins, and they made one think in contrast of Helen's hands, so smooth of skin and pampered.
Maud Hampden's eyes were her one handsome feature, and wide set, gray-blue, they studied me so attentively that I was flattered into giving her an equal attention. She was a woman clearly accustomed to command and she reduced me without effort to the position of a sophomore facing the school principal. In three weeks of nothingness I had even forgotten my teacher's useful poise, which could often hide uncertainty about myself and enable me to meet strange parents without betraying concern.
Troubling with no preliminaries, Maud Hampden's first words cut through the chitchat of convention. She had given me a confident handshake that crunched my bones and waved me into my chair, though she did this forthrightly and without offense.
"I like the way you look," she said at once.
I could think of no reply, and she smiled at me reassuringly, a warm smile that showed me how handsome she must have been in her younger years.
"Of course you're wondering what on earth I mean by that. I'll tell you. First of all, you're young and that will put you closer to Leila in age than the rest of us. You seem friendly in a reserved way, and not at all frightening. I like gray eyes that look at me directly, and I like the way you wear your nice brown hair."
To escape fuss, I wear my hair simply in a straight, smooth bob that swings to the line of my jaw. I have been caught by the turn of fashion's pendulum, so that I'm now in style again, though I suspected that Maud Hampden had little interest in style. On this she promptly surprised me, continuing in her straightforward, assured manner.
"You dress quietly too. I like that blue linen you're wearing. You haven't rushed off to the shops to get yourself up in tropical prints like a tourist."
I had no way of knowing that she compared me with Leila's mother, Catherine Drew — to what she regarded as my advantage.
"Janet tells me you have a way with young girls," she said. "She tells me you've a knack for dealing with problem children."
This was pure hearsay on Aunt Janet's part. She could not really know, except by letters I had written her about my experiences at school.
"My work has been with young people — mainly girls," I admitted, still wondering what this was all about.
Maud Hampden nodded her gray head vigorously. "Exactly. And I understand that you want to find yourself a new position and not return to your former school."
"I've burned my bridges," I said "But I haven't got around to looking for a new place yet."
"Good. Then you're in the market, so to speak. I want you to come up the mountain to Hampden House and try your hand with my granddaughter. I can't promise you anything for sure, but if this should work out, I might be able to offer you private employment with us for the next several years."
"But — what would I be doing? How old is your granddaughter?"
"Leila is fourteen. Oh, you wouldn't be a governess in the old-fashioned sense. You'd be more a friend and counselor, with some tutoring thrown in. We still have a school problem here in the Islands, you know. Leila's father is from Colorado and he honestly believes she should be sent home to his sister's in Denver. You can help me convince him that this won't be necessary. There's time enough for her to leave St. Thomas when she's older. You can supplement what schooling she receives here and help prepare her for college."
By this time I was recovering my scattered wits. Her plan sounded doubtful to me. There was something oddly urgent behind Mrs. Hampden's invitation. Surely I was a very thin reed for anyone to clutch with such vigorous intent — unless in final desperation. And I wanted to deal with no one else's desperate problems. I had enough of my own.
"Why don't you want her to leave the island?" I asked.
Surprisingly, the old woman's face seemed to crumple in upon itself and the look of autocracy gave way to something sad and rather touching.
"I suppose I'm selfish," she said. "Leila is all I have left. I don't want her to go away. I want her here with me, where I can watch over her as I've done since she was born. But this must be for her good, as well as for mine. Leila doesn't want to be sent away. She's fighting her father with all her might. You could offer an answer for her, though she may not accept you, even so."
This was an honest admission, and I liked Maud Hampden the better for it. Until now she had seemed well able to order her universe and I had resisted her ordering mine. I'd had too much of being ordered in my life. But this gently affecting aspect of her character engaged my sympathy.
"You spoke of a problem," I said. "Can you tell me about it?"
She did not hesitate. "It's mother trouble," she admitted, and left it there, her clear, fine eyes watching me intently.
Warmth crept all too readily into my cheeks, and to the very roots of my hair. Obviously Aunt Janet and Maud Hampden had been talking about my own mother problem, and I hated the idea that my secrets had been displayed to a stranger.
Excerpted from "Columbella"
Copyright © 1966 Phyllis A. Whitney.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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