As butler to William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon castle, Christian Benediktsson lives quietly, almost invisibly. He completes his tasks efficiently and with aplomb, catering to the whims of the volatile Chief and overseeing the running of the hectic household. Privy to the goings-on of the celebrity guests who visit as well as to Hearst's intimate relationship with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, he is the picture of discretion. An extremely private man, those around him know nothing of him or his life. And so it is in his thoughts and in unsent letters to his wife back in Iceland that we witness the unraveling of his former life, which began when he abandoned her and their children for an actress in New York City. Once a successful businessman, he erases his past and himself after a sudden tragic death and his financial ruin, the result of a jilted lover's vengeance. Walking into the Night is a stunning portrait of a man wrestling with guilt and secret passions.
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October 11, 2004
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Excerpt from Walking Into the Night by Olaf Olafsson
He tripped on the steps up to the main building but managed not to fall. Fuchsia blossoms met his eye as he straightened up; azaleas beyond them. He walked over to the cypress and leaned against it while he caught his breath. He was hot in his black suit in the afternoon sun. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a white handkerchief to mop his brow and pat his cheeks. Fairweather clouds hovered on the horizon, while closer to shore gleaming ripples tossed back and forth. He sensed a breeze, and suddenly a sharp whistling sound passed through the trees and a bell clanged in one of the towers. Once, then silence. He noticed a hint of lavender as he put the handkerchief back in his pocket and continued on his way.
The Chief had mislaid his magnifying glass. Kristjan--or, rather, Christian Benediktsson, as he had called himself since coming to this country during the Great War, twenty years ago--had spent the morning hunting for it in the old man's bedroom and on the balcony outside, in the gothic library next door and down in the reception room, �rst by the teletype machine, then on the jigsaw-puzzle and chess tables, but without success. He had paused in his search for a moment when the teletype suddenly began to hum, and hesitated before the machine, waiting for the message the Chief had been expecting.
"What on earth can have happened to that magnifying glass, Christian?" asked the old man as his butler handed him the telegram and reported his failure. The Chief glanced at the message, then went to the window and said: "Unless I left it outside yesterday."
Kristjan thought he remembered seeing his employer wandering around the previous afternoon with a book in his hand, Dickens, he believed, as it had the same leather binding as the collected works. Oliver Twist had been lying on the Chief's bedside table yesterday morning but was there no longer, so it seemed likely to have been the one. He had looked round all the guest-houses, by the Neptune Pool, in the billiards room, where he remembered seeing the Chief sitting for a while before sunset yesterday, by the fountain with the statue of David, and in Miss Davies' room, though she hadn't been there for over a week and wasn't expected until next weekend, when the Chief was planning a costume ball.
Had he thoroughly checked by the swimming pool? He stopped in his tracks, trying to remember whether he'd looked under the table on the side where the old man usually sat. He didn't move on again until he'd convinced himself that he had missed nothing.
The magnifying glass was of medium size, with an ivory handle gilt-embossed with the Chief's initials: WRH. He had borne it a grudge ever since the Chief fell asleep in his poolside chair last year with a book on his lap, the magnifying glass clutched in his right hand over an open page. Kristjan had been in the house fetching a cold drink for Miss Davies when he heard the screams.
He set off immediately at a trot, trying to balance the drink on its silver tray, through sunbeams and shadows, and dropped the glass at the sight of the Chief lurching to his feet with his jacket in �ames. The book lay burning on the edge of the pool at his feet but he was still clutching the magnifying glass. He seemed dazed with sleep, so Kristjan grabbed him round the waist and leaped into the pool with him.
It was remarkable that the Chief had only slightly singed the back of his right hand but otherwise escaped unharmed. Once he'd grasped what had happened, he stroked his shirt where it had caught �re, and said:
"Where were you?"
Kristjan put an arm under his shoulder and helped him up onto the side of the pool, where Miss Davies was waiting for them. The gardener and two girls from the kitchen, who had rushed out when they heard the screams, now retreated out of sight so the Chief wouldn't realize they had witnessed his humiliation.
"Where were you?" he repeated.
"He was just fetching me some lemonade, dear."
She helped him indoors while Kristjan swept up the charred remains of the book and picked up pieces of glass from the path where he had dropped the drink. He worked methodically, taking care not to cut his �ngers or burn himself on the still smoldering book. Oliver Twist, a �rst edition, bound in light-brown leather. Before going inside to change, he emptied the water from his shoes.
Kristjan quickened his pace. The hunt for the magnifying glass had disrupted his day. He pulled the watch from his pocket and squinted at it. Half past two. Monday-May 17th. "San Simeon, May 22nd, 1937," was engraved at the top of the menu for Saturday night's dinner. He'd found two spelling errors and had them corrected. The Chief's shoes were waiting to be polished and he still had to make a clean copy of the guest list for the costume ball. A cool draft sneaked from the shadows, and for a moment he imagined someone was breathing on his neck. He started.