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March 19, 1989|MARY HIGGINS CLARK | Clark, dubbed "The Queen of Suspense" by the nation's book critics, has written six best - sellers

I was born with wings on my feet and sand in my shoes. When I was growing up, my world consisted of the tri-state area of New York (specifically the Bronx), New Jersey and Connecticut. The trips to New Jersey and Connecticut were occasioned by family weddings or wakes. But I read books that were set in China and England and Russia and France--and always I dreamed the travel dream.

At age 21, it came true. By brushing up on my high-school French, I managed to become a Pan American stewardess and joyously "walked across the Atlantic" to Europe, Africa and Asia. Foreign travel will be a part of my life style until my legs are too weary to tread the Bridge of Sighs.

But another place, this one closer to home, always haunted my imagination, too.

Cape Cod.

I avidly read all the women's magazine stories in which husbands took the Friday evening train from New York to weekend with their families at the Cape, and I considered them a privileged lot. Then, 20 years ago, a friend invit- ed me to visit Cape Cod, and I have never failed to return. Now my cottage sits precariously on a bluff over Cape Cod Bay. The sun sinks beyond the horizon so close to the deck it seems as though it could be touched. The moment it drops from sight is wondrous, giving one an awesome sense of sitting at the feet of God; and then, an instant later, the sky is imbued and infused with streaks of pink and lavender, orange and yellow and red--a nightly kaleidoscope.

I spend summers at the Cape and often slip up for a quiet winter weekend when the welcoming warmth of the sea has fled and the ocean becomes assertive with angry whitecaps and crashing surf. The ocean is a jealous mistress and fights fiercely to recapture the land it once claimed as its own.

In any season, the sight, sound and scent of the sea as it roars against the Cape Cod shore has become part of my very being. The tranquil beauty of lakes pales beside this majesty; the wind is filled with sea mist. I taste the cool, salty spray on my lips.

You may say that this could be true of any ocean-touched land. I would raise my voice in protest. The Cape is special . Our first settlers landed not at Plymouth but at Provincetown and after six months realized that the sandy soil could not be farmed. That was when they set sail again and took root at Plymouth, the first permanent English settlement. But forever after they remained intrigued with "the narrow land," as they called the Cape.

There is a sense of timelessness about the place. Present, past and future meld, and a sojourn there refreshes the soul. Well-kept homes bear the legend of the generations they have sheltered. The dates on modest metal plaques read 1690, 1712, 1742, 1825, 1890, 1910. A newer house proudly bears the legend 1988. In 100 years, it, too, will take its place in history.

A walk or a bike ride along the quiet streets can become a trip into another time. The names of the lanes and paths evoke a sense of deja vu . Mooncusser Lane honors the wily natives who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, would stand on the beach on moonless nights and swing their lanterns. Shipmasters, believing they were following the lights of other schooners into the harbor, sailed toward the beacons and crashed against the shore. The mooncussers then became scavengers and helped themselves to the bountiful cargo.

Many old Cape homes have--hidden behind the fireplace--a room that can be reached by removing a false panel in a cabinet traditionally placed next to the hearth. It has been piously believed that this was a room where settlers hid from Indian violence but it seems equally accurate to say it was where the mooncussers hid their booty from the outraged representatives of the Crown.

I ride along U. S. Route 6A to antique at the dozens of charming shops, many of them in historic houses. Route 6A was long ago called the King's Highway, but after George III, our last king, lost his colonies, the settlers dubbed it the Cranberry Highway. Well named! Cranberry bogs still cover acres upon acres of Cape marshland.

The handsome captains' houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries are famous for the railed balcony perched on the roof. On any one of these, the anxious wife of a shipping captain who was due home would begin her vigil, scanning the horizon for the sight of her husband's vessel. Many of the ships never returned, victims of pirates or storms. Eventually such a balcony became known as a widow's walk, a name it bears to this day. I never pass one without wondering about those women who often waited in vain.

Hyannis is the busiest town on the Cape--"too crowded in the summer," to quote the year-rounders. It has its own legend, the Camelot years, when a handsome young statesman vacationed in his family home and the President's flag flew with lofty pride over the Kennedy compound.

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