On his wedding morning he woke up late, after the bachelor party of the night before.
He opened his eyes, and they met her face, in a frame, on the dressertop, slanted so that it would look toward his bed. Just as in her house, probably, his own face was there to meet her eyes when they first opened of a morning. Paper replicas, the need for which would come to an end at five o’clock this evening.
He got up, and the moment of contemplation ended. He set about his preparations for the day.
He went out for some coffee, and he called Lansing up from the place where he was drinking it, since there was no phone in the house where he was now rooming. Lansing was standing up for him as best man.
"How are you after last night?" Lansing asked him.
"Oh, boy," Marshall groaned.
"I’ve been packing for the trip. I’m about finished now."
"I’ll be over and pick you up at about four-thirty," Lansing said.
"Hadn’t you better make it a little earlier?" Marshall asked worriedly.
Lansing laughed. "I’ll get you there on time," he promised. "The less time you have to spend hanging around waiting, the less you’ll suffer. I know those things. Just leave everything to me."
"All right," Marshall said gratefully. "See you later."
"See you later."
He went back to his room again. There he laid out his wedding clothes and got into them, dressing slowly and carefully. He caught himself whistling. The song of that season, the new song that everyone was taken with just then. "Peg o’ My Heart."
He stopped a moment to shrug. I thought grooms were supposed to be nervous, or something. Funny; I don’t feel that way.
He went to work with his hairbrushes, stroking them on opposite sides of his head with as much meticulous care as though he were modeling something in moist clay between a pair of trowels.
He looked at his watch. A little past four. Lansing should have been here by now. He said he’d come earlier.
He had her picture still out, saving it to put away until the last. It stood on the table, ready to go into the valise. He stood still, to look at her.
When we were born, I didn’t know you. And you didn’t know me. Last year on this very same day, in June of Nineteen Fourteen, I still didn’t know you. You still didn’t know me. Now we come together, in the closest way two living people can. Then when we die, and we both must die someday, the one of us who is left a little while longer will go back to that before, to that without-the-other stage. And then again it will be: I don’t know you. And you don’t know me. What a strange thing marriage is.
He was all ready now, just for the dress-tie and the coat. He looked at his watch again, good-naturedly. What’s the matter with that Lansing? Am I going to have to send out a St. Bernard with a keg of brandy?
Then finally the summons came that he’d been expecting for so long. The buzzer sounded, as Lansing fingered the downstairs doorbell to his room. He released the latch to the downstairs door, to let him into the house, then stepped over to the room door and left it ajar for him, so that he wouldn’t have to go back to it a second time. Then he went back to his own immediate task: the tie. He dipped his knees slightly, in his absorption, as he stood there before the glass struggling with it. One wing kept stubbornly projecting a fraction of an inch beyond the complement above it.
He could hear Lansing’s tread coming up the outside stairs, now. He called out a raucously jovial greeting to him sight unseen from where he stood, without turning his head.
"You lazy hound! So you finally got here, did you? Well, it’s about time!"
There was a smothered chuckle, and Leona Harris was lounging against one side of the open doorway, her cheek pressed languidly against the frame.
He saw her in the mirror, before he’d had time to turn. Then, having seen her there, her reflection seemed to hold him fast, like some hypnotic apparition, so that he was no longer able to turn. He kept looking at her that way, by indirection.
His hands dropped away from his tie, as though they’d withered and died up there, and dangled lifeless at his sides, no longer volatile; dead things still fastened to him by their own tendons.
She peeled her cheek from the doorframe and came in a little further. A dainty, mincing step or two, like a dancer pointing a delicate toe before her, feeling her way in some difficult pas she is not yet sure she has mastered. He hadn’t moved. He couldn’t.
"So you’re getting married today," she said affably. "So today’s the great day. I thought I’d drop by and offer my congratulations."
A cord at the side of his neck whipped up, and, as though it were a rusted hinge, he emitted a grating sound. "Get out of here."
He was still looking into the mirror, frozen. The very position of his feet hadn’t shifted. A man staring into a looking glass.
"I haven’t got any present for you, but the least I can do is offer you my—"
The hinge jarred again. "How did you know?"
"It was in the papers. After all, she’s a society girl. It was in all the morning editions."
"No. I mean how did you know...? My name isn’t downstairs."
She nodded matter-of-factly. "I know. William Prince, isn’t it? That was on my account, I suppose." She swung the loose end of a handkerchief about in one hand. "You moved in here on a Wednesday, I think, and I’ve known ever since the following Friday. After all, you do have to start home from the same place each night: Two Wall Street."
He made a peculiar hissing sound under his breath, as when something hurts excruciatingly for an instant or two. His eyes shuttered themselves in accompaniment, then opened again.
She had moved closer to the table by now. Drifted, seemingly, without use of her feet at all. Now he wrenched himself from the glass at last, turned face-forward to her, sprang over there protectively. The table was between them.
She looked down at the train tickets. "Atlantic City," she murmured idly.
Her hand moved on a little. It didn’t touch anything, just rode the surface of the table.
"Tiffany’s," she mused. "It’s beautiful. I saw you the day you were in there buying it."
"Get away from it!" he ordered harshly. She withdrew her hand trailingly. Her fingertips left little steam-tracks on the polished surface which quickly cleared.
He was leaning toward her across the table, gripping it at its outer sides. His head was down, but the pupils of his eyes were sighted upward toward her, so that they were directed at her face instead of downward at the table, as they normally would have been given the tilt of his head.
"Look, I don’t want to use force."
"I wouldn’t," she said without inflection.
His fist crashed down on the table. "You’re not human at all!" he screamed sobbingly at her. "You’re a demon. I don’t know what you are. You look like a girl. You’ve got a face like a baby, but— Haven’t you ever slept with other men? Why don’t you hound one of them?"
She backed her hand to her mouth. "Press," she said with shocked propriety. She went over to the door, softly closed it. "What things you say. They’ll hear you out there."
He crashed his fist down on the table again. This time he didn’t say anything with it. His head went lower in accompaniment to the blow.
She ran two fingers back and forth across the frame of her handbag.
He was looking down, as if staring at his own reflection in the surface of the table. A tendril of his carefully brushed-back hair reversed itself and fell forward, down over his forehead, partially obscuring one eye.
"This is the last time, Press," she said soothingly.
His mouth twisted at one extremity. "Each time it’s the last time. Then each time there’s another time that comes after it."
They stayed motionless and silent for a moment after that, as if an unspoken contest of wills were taking place. They were not even looking at one another. His eyes were cast downward at the tabletop, sullenly immobile. Hers strayed, with an air of insouciant waiting; but never toward him.
"Press, why don’t you let me go?" she urged at last. "It’ll be over in a minute. It would have been over already by this time if you’d only..."
A drop of moisture peered through the hairs of his eyebrow, dammed there in its slow descent.
"Press, this is your wedding day," she reminded him, in the tone of someone seeking to restore a spoilsport to good humor.
"And if I don’t, you’ll go there to the very church itself, won’t you?"
"I would like to see a real society wedding," she said almost contritely.
He was shaking all over.
"How much this time?" he said simply. He tried to turn from the table, and had to hold it for a moment to support himself. Then he turned from it and went over to the dresser.
"The same as last. Two-fifty."
He opened a drawer, looked in it, then closed it again, as if not seeing what he sought.
She pointed briefly. "It’s up there, on top," she said. He picked up the checkbook from the top of the dresser, and brought it over to the table. Then he turned and looked helplessly across his shoulder in search of something else. A slight impact on the tabletop brought his eyes back, and his fountain pen lay there uncapped, barrel toward him in readiness.
"It was clipped to your vest pocket, on the back of that chair over there," she said. "I saw it from here." She examined her fingers to make sure no trace of ink was on them.
His hand was shaking too much. The pen point regurgitated a great glossy blot, left it behind as it swept on.
He tore the check out of the folder, began again on the one below.
"Don’t be so nervous, Press." There was a note of laughter in the observation, but it wasn’t unkind laughter; it was rather the good-natured, indulgent kind apt to be exchanged between two close friends at times.
He didn’t look up at her. He heard a match snap, and a thin panoply of smoke drifted horizontally past his nose. He signed his name, and he had finished it. He relaxed his thumb, and the pen slid from his hand and fell to the floor at his feet.
"It’s a good thing it’s not your rug," she said. She took the check and made sure it was dry by blowing her breath along it, passing it back and forth below her lips as she did so, as if it were a harmonica. Then she folded it carefully, opening the handbag, put it inside.
He was still standing where he’d written it, quavering hands to the edge of the table, as if incapable of releasing it.
"Now go to your wedding," she said, with an inflection almost of fondness. She surveyed him with a sort of kindly interest. "You make a good-looking groom. Wait, your tie-ends aren’t straight. I wonder why it is men can never— Do you want me to fix it for you before I go? That’ll be my wedding present to you, Press, a nice even tie."
She set her cigarette down against the rim of the table, and came around it to his side.
Her hands reached toward his tie, and she was right before him for a maddening moment.
She shouldn’t have come so close to him.
He didn’t see what happened next. Missed seeing it as completely as if he were outside the room, on the other side of the closed door. There was a singeing flash of six weeks of accumulated hate, fear, and torment, as blinding to his senses as a literal combustive explosion would have been. She disappeared completely behind it. He didn’t feel anything, or know what any part of his body was doing. He heard a stifled scream come through from the other side of the sheet of fire, as though it were a visible thing that had shocked and seared her too, as well as himself.
Then it dimmed, and she peered through at him again. He could see her once more.
They were locked together in a serpentine double arm-clasp. Her throat was between his hands. They were turned inward, thumb-joint toward thumb-joint, pressing in upon the soft front part of it. Feeling it give, and circle, and try to swim away in ripples of flesh. While the firmer structure beneath held fast in columnar hollowness, a column that he was trying to cave in and crush closed.
He kept his face back beyond her reach. He had a longer arm-span than she, and her hands flickered helplessly upon his arms, like wriggling snakes trying to clamber up a pair of fallen tree trunks.
They were moving, but he couldn’t feel it. Taking little steps, this way, that way, now forward, now back, like a pair of drunken dancers. And as in a conventional dance his steps— the man’s—led, her steps—the woman’s—followed. Whichever way he stepped, she stepped a moment later.
One time they were very near the door. Her mouth opened abortively, and closed, frustrated; opened again, then closed once more; and he could feel a little straining lump or sac come up in her throat, under his thumbs, and he squeezed it flat again.
Then the door moved past along the wall, and she was gone to the far end of the room. And still the silent music played, and still they rocked to it.
The bedstead came nosing toward them diagonally, one corner of it forward like the prow of a ship. Then like a ship that suddenly changes course, it too veered aside. But not quickly enough. The back of her heel must have struck the bottommost part of its leg, where its caster nosed the floor. The jar coursed through both of them, passing from her arms to his, and from them into his body, just as though it were he himself had struck the obstacle. There was a hollow, tubular ring from the bedpost, as when a faulty anvil is struck. Then suddenly she began to lean acutely away from him, and pull him violently downward after her with her whole weight, and it was only after the act had been half completed that he realized it was a bodily fall, involuntary.
He couldn’t brace against it. The two of them went down together, still locked together at her neck. They fell crosswise, in the little clear space between the foot of the bed and the bulky steam radiator against the wall. She fell upon her back and he fell face forward. She fell uncushioned to the floor, and he fell partly upon her body, due to the overlap from their formerly vertical position. His face fell upon her breast, as if in amorous indolence.
And as the fall completed itself, again there was a hollow, knell-like ring, this time from the steam radiator. It ebbed and dwindled into silence, and they didn’t move. She was completely supine, except for her head, and that was tilted a bare inch or two by the radiator behind it. It was as though she were trying to look down at her own length at the top of his head, nestled on her breast.
Their eyes met, in a strange stillness. His hands had burst open with the fall, but they still formed an unclosed half-circle toward her neck, and lying within its compass, like an overripe fruit, lay her silent inert head. Like a giant seedling of death, that had just burst free from its pod.
A little blood twinkled at the seam of her lips, like a new kind of rouge applied from the inside out. But over-applied, for it ran over at last, at one corner, and started tremulously down her chin, then stopped again and ran no more.
He flung his arms wide in sudden, explosive gesture of riddance, and her own fell off them like disengaged tendrils, lay sodden on the floor.
He shook her at the shoulders, then, and her arms moved; but when he stopped, they stopped, were still again.
He made spasmic squirming motions backward away from her, and reared on the points of his knees, on the floor beside her.
"You can have the money," he whispered. "Go ahead, take it, and get out of here."
He shook her urgently, this time by one shoulder alone, and she seemed to say "No," for her head went slightly from side to side.
"Come on, get up. Take the money, and get out."
He pulled at her, tried to draw her up toward him.
"Cut it out, do you hear me? Get up, will you?"
Her head came erect, and then overbalanced itself, came forward against the white front of his shirt, as if in a smothered kiss. He quickly pried it away and held it at a distance. It went over to the side, and lay thus, as if cocked at him in macabre quizzical interrogation.
He could do with her what he willed, move her any way and she obeyed; and now that he could, he didn’t want to any more, he wanted her as she had been. And that was the one thing that he couldn’t do with her, make her as she had been.
Dead. They called this being dead. This was what it was when they said someone was dead. He’d never seen anyone like this before. He’d seen them dead in coffins, stylized, prepared, but not like this, just minutes after. And—done by himself.
Four whimpered words escaped from him into bated sound.
"Christ, I’ve killed her."
It was very quiet, and he didn’t move. It was as though he was given that one precious, gratuitous minute to rest upon, to gather himself together upon as best he could, for there would be no more, for the rest of his life, for the rest of all time.
And then the knock came at the door. The knock he’d once been expecting, and now had forgotten to expect any more. Of his best man, come to take him to his wedding, come to take him to his bride.
Copyright © 1950 by George Hopley. Renewed by Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A. as Executor of the Estate of Cornell Woolrich, R 671100, September 8, 1977.