“Last night I dreamt of Mandalay.” I have to confess, when I heard that line read out in the local cinema at the start of the new film, I had to stop myself from choking. You see, although I have never moved in the circles of the people that Du Maurier wrote of, I had a very similar experience. And yet – well, let me start at the beginning.
I met Rafe on a liner crossing from New York to Southampton. I was twenty one, and newly into a sizable inheritance that my late father had left me, and was seized with the desire to tour Europe. The first night I saw him sitting there at the bar, in his white jacket, drinking a cocktail and looking very sad. I sat next to him, struck up a conversation, and learnt that he was on the last stage of a round the world tour to try and get over the death of his wife Rowena. She had died six months earlier, suddenly and unexpectedly, of a heart attack, and it had destroyed him. Now he was on his way home, to start his life again and hope to move on.
Well, you know how it can be with the sea and the moonlight, but before two days had passed we had fallen deeply in love with each other. When we docked, Rafe and I went to London for a few days, and before July was out I had changed from Elaine Catrup to Mrs Rafe DeVere.
We stayed there for a few more days, as Rafe told me about the small town he lived in. He was the local doctor, and had lived with a housekeeper for many years before courting and marrying Rowena. He promised me that, on his return to the house and introducing me to Mrs Williams, he would show me her portrait. He then described Mrs Williams – in her early forties, a proper and correct woman in every way, who had looked after him for many years. I have to say, I was looking forward to meeting her, while at the same time wondering how she would take the news of me as Rafe’s wife.
It was mid August when we found ourselves travelling down the country roads, before stopping outside an old brick house with a red roof. Standing in the doorway was a woman in a black dress, who stepped forward and opened the gate as Rafe climbed out of the car. “Mrs Williams,” he said, “May I introduce Elaine, my wife.”
She looked at me with clear blue eyes, almost as if she was appraising me, before assaying “Welcome, Mrs DeVere. I have some tea waiting if you would like to accompany me. Mister DeVere, your locum wishes to speak with you as soon as possible.”
“Later, Mrs Williams,” Rafe said as he took me by the arm. “Come with me.” He led me to the dining room, where there hung on the wall a portrait of a tall, thin woman in a flowing white dress, smiling as if she had not a care in the world.”
“Rowena?” I said, and Rafe nodded. He had already told me of how he came home on night from a call to find her lying on a couch, her heart stilled and her eyes closed. It was one of the things I loved about Rafe from the moment we met – his openness and honesty. I myself was about his height, with light brown hair cut into a bob, but I did not feel threatened by her portrait. IF anything, it seemed to be smiling on our house and our lives as we settled in.
As the weeks passed, I found myself becoming more and more part of the local community. I think the local women found me amusing with my Yankee ways, while I in turn loved taking part in the local events as Rafe watched. The only sore part seemed – well, a little trifling, but I somehow felt I never could quite get Mrs Williams on my side. Oh, she was dutiful and courteous, but I always felt there was something she was holding back, something she was not saying.
There was also the way she looked at Rafe when she thought nobody was looking – a little bit like a schoolgirl looks at a favourite tutor. I have to admit I dismissed those thoughts – and that may have been my biggest mistake.
The night everything happened was late in October. We had just settled by the fire after dinner, listening to the radio, when the telephone started ringing. I heard Mrs Williams answering it, and then there was a knock on the door.
“Forgive me, Mister DeVere,” Mrs Williams said as she came in, “but Mister Jones is on the line. Apparently his wife is unwell, and he wishes you to call round.” Rafe looked at me, shrugging his shoulders, and said “I’m sorry darling, but duty calls.” I smiled back and returned to the book I was reading, having already bathed and changed into a nightgown and dressing gown for the evening. “Don’t wait up for me,” he said as he collected his bag and went out of the door, Mrs Williams smiling at me as she followed him out. I could hear the rain falling outside, and the claps of thunder in the distance, but thought nothing of them.
Half an hour or so passed, before she returned with a tray, holding a pot of tea and a cup. “I thought you may like some tea before I retire for the night,” she said as she placed the tray on the table and poured a cup. “Goodnight, Mrs DeVere.”
As she closed the door, I picked up the cup and took a sip. I noticed it had a strange taste, but thought nothing of it as I replaced the cup on the saucer and returned to the book. Within a few minutes, I felt my eyes growing heavier and heavier, and despite my best attempts to stay awake I found myself falling fast asleep, the book falling from my hand as I did so. The last thing I dimly remembered was the door opening and I thought I saw Mrs Williams coming in, but nothing else.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself shivering from cold, but there was more than that. My body was numb, like it had been in one position for too long, and my ankles and wrist felt as if they were secured down. As my vision returned, I saw with horror that it was more than a feeling – my wrists had been strapped down to the arms of some sort of chair, while my ankles were held in place with more leather. I tried to call out, but something seemed to be preventing any noise from leaving my mouth. I realised the woolly taste in my mouth was just that – a thick woollen scarf which had been pulled between my teeth, muffling me and making my jaws ache. I tried to turn my head, but without success as I felt thick leather rub against my neck.
“Good evening, Mrs DeVere,” I heard a voice I knew say, and Mrs Williams walked in front of me. “I hope you are comfortable – I would hate these last few minutes f your life to be too hurtful.”
I looked round the room as much as I could, and saw plastered over the walls of the area pictures and stories of Rafe, and also of his first wife Rowena. Mrs Williams was dressed in a white robe, with a twisted belt around her waist, and she had a look in her eyes that seemed unnatural.
“I have loved Rafe for oh so many years, without asking for his love in return,” she said as she picked up a small thin box, “and when SHE came I was determined to try and forget him. I could not however – and she hurt him in her ways as well, so I dealt with her. I thought I would have him to myself, and then the telegram arrived saying he was brining you home. I tried to adjust again, but it was no use – so I am afraid you must go now as well.”
She opened the tin and took out a hypodermic needle. “A little bubble of air,” she said as she drew the plunger back, “so small, so undetectable, and so efficient. I hope you fare well in the next life, Mrs DeVere – Rafe will be happy with me in this.”
Well, I twisted like mad as she came closer, the light from the bulb in the ceiling flickering and casting shadows as she came closer, the needle raised in her hand. “Don’t struggle,” she said as she rolled up the sleeve of my gown, “It will be over soo...”
The light suddenly went out, and a blast of cold air came into the room. I could not see where it came from, as the door was out of my eye line, but I could see Mrs Williams quite clearly, and she was looking past me with her eyes widening as she whispered “No.” The syringe dropped from her hand to the floor, and she backed away clawing at nothing at all until she hit the wall. I saw a white mist pass over me, before the dark haired woman screamed and ran past me, her footfall echoing on the stone floor.
The faint shape had formed before my eyes into that of a woman, and as she turned I saw for myself the long blonde hair, the white dress and the smile of...
The woman smiled and nodded as she drifted past me again, the scrams of Mrs Williams echoing from elsewhere. I could hear other, heavier footsteps, and Rafe calling out “Elaine! Where are you?” I tried without much success to call out, but I started crying when I saw Rafe run to stand in front of me, reaching out to pull the scarf from my mouth.
“Did you see her?” I croaked as he unbuckled my wrists.
“Mrs Williams? She ran past me and out of the house. What’s been going on here?”
“Not her – the other woman. Rowena.”
Rafe looked at me as I stood up, and that must have been when I fainted into his arms.
I woke in my bed, Rafe looking over me. “I’m afraid we found Mrs Williams at the bottom of the local quarry,” he said as he poured me a glass of water, “Her hair was white, and she looks as if she had a massive heart attack. I never knew she felt that way about me, but to try to kill you...”
“Rafe, it’s over now,” I said as I took his hand, “and I think we should move on. I think Rowena would want that as well – she is still watching you.”
“How can you be so sure, so calm?”
“Please, trust me on this,” I said as I lay back, “I know.”
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