The gale was turning into a full blown hurricane. Sobbing across the Florida bay like an embodiment of fury, it buffeted Dorothy Janeway’s new gray sedan. She tightened her hands on the plastic steering wheel, feeling the whole car shiver in a wailing blast of wind.
Driving alone, she was prey to a thousand fears — the lonely empty stretch of spray-swept road — the possibility of a flat tire. She realized she was a person who despised loneliness, and being on the highway late at night like this appalled her.
Except for the two frail holes her headlights bored in the black wet night, she could see nothing clearly. Dimly, she made out the shifting shadows of tall pines heaving and bending beneath the force of the storm.
Her sensuous lower lip crept between her teeth. Perhaps she should have stayed over in Bradenton with Harry and Sue. But she’d laughed at Harry’s fears.
“Of course there are storm warnings. But I’ve plenty of time to get back to St. Pete.”
“No use arguing, Harry,” his wife Sue had sighed. “What Dorothy Janeway intends is always what she does — but do be careful, darling.”
There was a reason Dorothy Janeway meant to be home exactly on schedule. But she said nothing about this to Harry and Sue. The visit with them had been nice, she was anxious to be home with Robert in the storm — that was all.
Her eyes glued to the slick stretch of highway, she thought of the way Robert had looked the day she’d packed to visit in Bradenton. She had snapped her bag closed, not wanting to look at him again.
“I’m sure this is the best way, Robert,” she had said. “Lord knows I don’t owe this girl anything, least of all my generosity in allowing you to see her again. But these things are better when the break is final and complete, if there’s no room left for willy-nilly hope and indecision in her mind. You’ll have a day or so to think things over, to get in mind just what you’re going to say to her.”
She had looked at him then. A tall, lean man with a fine-boned face, gray sprinkling his temples, wearing tropical worsteds debonairly. Moody eyed, his face white about the lips. President of her family’s company, Larkin’s Citrus, he had the worldly appearance of an artist.
She had looked down at her bag. “When I get back from Brandenton, perhaps we can live on the beach for a week and you can do a painting.”
The indrawn expression of his face hadn’t changed. “You’ve been darned decent about this, Dorothy.”
He’d stowed her bag in her car, and kissed her goodbye with lips cold against her cheek. She’d tried to smile. She’d been sure it would pass. He would break off permanently with the redheaded Janice Carter. There’d been difficult times before. Robert had always been moody; sometimes in the early years of their marriage, his crazy drinking bouts lasted days at a time while he railed against this house, against Larkin Citrus.
But he loved the comforts her money bought too well ever to break away. And Dorothy was pleased with the bargain of their married life: Robert cut a good figure as host and husband. Not since their honeymoon had he suggested they live on his meager income while he established himself with his painting. She’d exerted all her charms to get him to enter her father’s firm. He was successful except for a lack of firmness with the employees.
The storm outside the car was melting into one continuous roar. Dorothy Janeway breathed relievedly when she saw the street lights along Fourth Street were still burning. Soon the light power would go off, leaving the city desolately black, in hurricane-riven oblivion.
Watching skittering dead palm fronds, she wheeled into her driveway from the deserted street. Her rambling Spanish style house stood limned faintly against the black maw of sky.
Through the iron grillwork enclosing the patio, she could see a single lighted window. She clamped her hand on the horn, waited, blew the horn again in short, angry barks. Nothing happened, the rumbling wind increased.
Impatiently, she slipped into her rain hood. She blew the horn twice more in long, annoyed blasts. Then she opened the car door. The wind struck with such force she had to cling to the door handle. Rain, wind-driven, slashed her cheeks. Lowering her head, she ran to the garage doors. Counterbalanced, they swung up easily.
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When she had the car safely in the garage beside Robert’s, she made her way through the house to the lighted study. The study was empty. All the rest of the house was dark.
The rising thunder of the hurricane made the silence here in the house all the more hateful.
Standing in the doorway, she reminded herself coldly that a single lamp turned low in a silent house was no reason to get the shakes. But Robert’s coupé was in the garage. He must be in the house.
She heard a loud metallic crash, realised it was a metal chair hurled by the wind against one of the pillars in the patio. It struck her then that Robert had done nothing to ready the house for the blow. Windows unshuttered, lawn furniture exposed in a battened-down town.
She went on standing there, staring at the light, the silent deserted study. Annoyed because she knew Robert had furloughed the servants the moment she was out of the house. Now, where was he?
She crossed to the telephone, picked up the receiver, dialed. There was nothing, no contact, just the immensity of silence.
She went stiffly through the house, turning on lights as she passed each switch. Out in the gleaming white kitchen, she found the candles she’d bought for candle light dinners. She was glad she had plenty of them. The power would be going off soon.
The cabinet door stood open. Tensing, she thought if someone beside Robert were in the house — had heard the car horn — hidden …
It’s nerves, she told herself firmly.
With the box of candles under her arm, she started back to the living room, glancing at windows and doors as she passed, making sure they were closed and locked. Except for the things outside, she felt the house, unprepared, could weather another hurricane. She paused in the dining room, listening to the wind. It was sending tremors through the house now.
In the living room, she put the box of candles on an end table and sank in a deep club chair. There was nothing more she could do now but wait, listening to the rain against the windows. The lights flickered, dimmed, and she stiffened involuntarily. There were hours of utter darkness ahead. But she didn’t want candlelight yet. She hoped feverently the lights would not go out until Robert returned.
From her chair, she could not avoid seeing a portrait Robert had done of her, on the opposite wall. He could really paint, she admitted reluctantly, but somehow she’d never liked this particular painting.
Now she found herself staring at it. The lights dimmed again, the face in the painting seemed to come to life, the shadows about the cheekbones deepening, the eyes leaping at her, almost glowing.
She caught her breath. Rising, she moved slowly toward the painting. The hurricane pounded against the walls of the house.
Why, she’d never really seen this painting before. Those lean cheeks, the tilted, stubborn chin, the contempt in the violet eyes, the hauteur stamped in the shadowed planes of forehead, cheeks and jaw.
She thought, but I’m not like that at all. How monstrous of Robert to do such a thing.
Chilled, she sank in the club chair again, pushing herself far back in it. Remembering the painting was done just after her father died. She’d been almost prostrated by grief. Robert had stunned her after her father’s death by being almost gay. He had even suggested they sell the house.
“Of all things!” she’d said. “And, I suppose, the Firm?”
And the Firm. Go away together. All she could think was, father built a success here, and Robert mustn’t be allowed to throw it away on a whim such as painting.
She tore her gaze from the portrait, her hands splayed on the arms of the club chair. She listened to the awful whisper of the hurricane; shadows lengthened in her gaze, and nameless dark phantasms bubbled in her mind. Her father’s grave swept by the fury of the storm, the way he’d always said she was his daughter, now he in his loneliness, she in hers … .
Her lips trembled. She turned her head again to stare at that horrid painting. She brought her eyes back to the study doorway. Her heart lurched. She was positive she’d left the study door standing open. Now it was closed.
She crouched in the chair, unable to move. A draft of air of course, swinging the door gently closed.
She stood up. After a moment, she went to the study door. There with hand on the knob, she listened, hearing only the throb of the storm. She flung the door open.
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The Smoldering Darkness
It was as if clammy hands laid themselves upon her, tight on her throat. A draft of air might close a door. But it couldn’t do this. She remembered distinctly she’d left the study light burning. Yet now the study was illumined only by the glow spilling wanly from the living room.
She braced herself against the doorjamb. She saw nothing in the study from the living room glow to alarm her. She would walk to the study lamp, unscrew the bulb, certain she’d find it burned out.
With an effort, she took a step. She was three steps inside the study when the whole house plunged in blackness.
She smothered the scream. She clenched her hands tight at her sides, feeling the agony of the pulse hammering at her temples.
In the smothering darkness, she made her way to the end table where she’d laid the candles. She clasped one up, reaching in her pocket for her cigarette lighter. Flame wavered on the candle wick and sent out bleak wan shadows in the living room. She sighed. It was so nice to have light again.
She hadn’t thought of holders and the end table was one of her favorites. But she began lighting candles from the first one, dropping wax to hold them upright, and lining them up on the table. She created a tiny world of light, determined she would spend the night in the club chair, the guttering candles beside her.
She huddled in the chair, feeling cold, with the darkness pressing in damply upon her. There was a lull in the wind, bringing a momentary silence that made her feel as if her brains were being sucked out through her ears. In this silence, she heard the gentle closing of a door … .
Bracing her arched back in the club chair, she stared at the study doorway. It was still open. But beyond it — the closet door?
New thrusts of wind and rain enveloped the house with a crash that deafened her. The candles flickered, feeble and impotent. Her eyes caught the first movement in the study, a shifting of shadow against shadows.
She inched her way out of the chair. Realized she was silhouetted starkly against the candlelight. Trembling, she could feel beads of clamminess in her palms as she struck out in a spasm of movement of her leaden arms and pushed over the end table. The candles winked out.
She knew he’d been waiting for the power to fail. Involuntarily, she stepped backward. Then she was stumbling through the suffocating blackness. She knew her beloved house so well, yet for a moment she completely lost her direction.
Blindly, she located the dining room buffet. Her shaking hands sought a drawer. When the drawer was open, her fingers froze and she endured the desperate thought she was going to faint. Beneath her groping fingers, the rest of the set was there, but long, keen carving knife was gone.
Breath sobbing out of her in soft moans, she made her way along the dinning room wall.
She saw the faint wink of light in there almost like a firefly, as the wan ray of a pencil flashlight touched here and there, seeking her. Coming closer to her. Until it touched her.
She screamed, reeling away from the wall. She clawed her way through a jungle of furniture, down a corridor of night, babbling wildly to herself.
She’d escaped the little light. She was in the kitchen. She remembered the door that opened on the side lawn.
She opened the door. The wind roared in, sending something crashing behind her, needling rain through the screen in a fine, cold spray.
Outside, the wind tore the breath from her, leaving her lungs burning. Gripping her, it hurled her bodily along the side of the house. Stumbling, she landed in a huddle in the wet grass, pushed herself to her knees.
Rain streamed down her face, her hair was wet and harsh against her neck and cheeks. Sodden and numbed, she searched for the shadow of the house next door. Just a small expanse of lawn to cross. Then safety, with other people around her.
She moaned as a shadow slashed at her, missed and struck the side of the house, a wet palm frond, torn by the wind.
Reeling to her feet, huddled against the house, she shivered as the wind plastered her wet clothes tight against her.
She saw the wan pencil flashlight again. It too, moved alongside the house, nearing her, winking low to the earth.
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Dorothy Janeway knew she could never reach the house next door.
I’ll get back inside, she thought, lock all the doors. Lock myself in a room.
She grabbed at the slippery spider-working of thin wrought iron bars that enclosed the patio. Clutching at them, she moved forward until she reached the gate. Opening it, she stumbled into the patio.
She found it calmer here, sheltered on three sides by wings of the house. She ran to the portico, rattled the doorknob of the small storage room that opened off the kitchen. It was unyielding, and she remembered she’d checked every window and outside door when she’d first discovered she was alone.
Terror had blanked her mind. Trapped her here in the cul-de-sac formed by the house … .
On the wall beside her a yellow spot splashed. She twisted, and the light caught her in the eyes. There was no time to move, not even time to shrink. He dropped the light and sprang upon her, his knife glinting. Even in the raging storm she could hear his breathing. She could feel his hands, clutching at her throat.
He was smashing her back. She was falling into depths as black and turbulent as the hurricane itself. She thought: There are two hurricanes. One in Nature. One in Robert.
Her head struck something hard. Lights pinwheeled behind her eyes for an instant before they vanished. Dorothy Janeway ceased to hear the hurricane … .
Dorothy felt the warmth of crisp white sheets against her body, sunlight against her face, a cap swathing her head down to her ears, which must be bandages. She smelled, faintly, biting antiseptics, knew she was in a hospital.
There was a soft scuffling of feet, sound of voices. There was someone named Conlan from the police who wanted to question her. A doctor warning that he was rushing things. Then Conlan again, saying they only wanted to know if Mrs. Janeway had some idea where her husband might have gone.
And then Sue’s voice, and warmly Dorothy realized Sue had ridden up from Bradenton to be with her.
“You’re sure it was — Robert?”
The man Conlan answered Sue, his voice low. As she listened, her eyes closed, the torrents of rain swept again through her mind, and the hurricane raged anew in Dorothy Jane way’s brain.
Janice Carter was dead. Robert had found her body on the beach before her cottage.
The two had had a last quarrel. According to Janice Carter’s maid, the redhaired commercial artist had railed at Robert that he look at himself, soft as cheese, well trained as a lap dog, afraid to lose the soft berth that had decayed him. Robert must have awakened under the sting of her words, packed a bag, returned to her cottage, only to find her body down on the beach.
The winds howled through Dorothy’s mind now, listening to them. In his way, Robert must have loved Janice intensely, for her death sent him dear out of his mind. All his paintings were found in his house, ripped to shreds. All that saved his wife was his thought he’d killed her when he struck her head against the patio pillar. He’d left her sheltered there, the carving knife at her side.
Robert? Dorothy Janeway thought. There was a phrase she tried to remember, something about the Gods first making mad whom they would destroy.
Tears stung her lids, a faint moan escaped her lips.
“Dorothy! Darling, this is Sue. I’m taking you home with me. Everything is all right. Doctor, she’s coming out of it. Can you hear me, Dorothy ? How do you feel, darling?”
Dorothy Janeway opened her eyes.
“Feel?” she whispered. “I feel like a very hollow rusty little tin god. … “
“Delirious,” said Mr. Conlan with a frown. “Well, I can always come back later.”
~ The End ~