Daphne du Maurier's "The Escort" originally appeared in her collection The Rendezvous and Other Stories, which was published in 1980, though most of the stories had been written much earlier, some in her youth. With a wartime setting, U-Boats prowling the North Atlantic in search of Allied prey, this one must have been written sometime during or near the end of the war. It's been reprinted in the rather suspenseful NYRB Classics edition, which I'm working my way through at the moment.
As I'm a great fan of Daphne du Maurier I have a small but varied collection of books by and about her, including The Daphne du Maurier Companion. It was published in 2007, the centenary year of her birth, and when it first came in the mail I was slightly disappointed as it seemed mainly to contain essays about her novels, the same essays that appear as introductory material in each of the modern editions that Virago now publishes. However, I've come to appreciate the companion as it has additional material and it serves as a nice reference tool with all the essays in one convenient place. As a matter of fact Minette Walters (an author to read if you like a really good psyhological thriller by the way), writes in her essay about du Maurier's life at the same period she wrote this story.
"Daphne's husband 'Boy' Browning was far away for most of this time, in command of airborne troops, and despite the suggested rifts and infidelities within their marriage, there seems little doubt there was a strong bond of mutual admiration and affection between them, which may explain the wishful supernatural elements to 'Escort' and 'Split Second' (which I'll be reading next week) that allow the characters to reach safe harbour or make a last contact with someone they love."
The rather unremarkable merchant ship, Ravenswing, leaves an unnamed Scandinavian port for home one October afternoon facing the open sea in what has lately been called The German Ocean. It's not an unfamiliar trip, having made it several times previously, but the fear is that luck will have run out as the the sea is teeming with German U-Boats who torpedo ships and then leave the survivors to drown. After the captain is taken ill the man next in command, William Blunt, must lead the ship safely home. Indeed, luck has run out as soon after a periscope is sighted and a submarine begins to rise from the water. The only thing to stave off attack is a misty fog that rolls in at the same time enveloping all in shadows so the ship must rest in complete silence to escape detection as they decide what to do next.
While lacking the same psychological tension and eeriness of the two previous stories, this is not without its spooky moments, particularly when the mist brings with it a ghost ship offering to escort the Ravenswing home. What's especially interesting about reading these stories is seeing the problem du Maurier sets for herself in each one, seeing how she constructs the story reeling in and out the tension, and then discovering how she resolves the problem for the good or bad of the characters.