Death and the Woman by Gertrude Atherton
Her husband was dying, and she was alone with him. Nothing could
exceed the desolation of her surroundings. She and the man who was
going from her were in the third-floor-back of a New York
boarding-house. It was summer, and the other boarders were in the
country; all the servants except the cook had been dismissed, and
she, when not working, slept profoundly on the fifth floor. The
landlady also was out of town on a brief holiday.
The window was open to admit the thick unstirring air; no sound
rose from the row of long narrow yards, nor from the tall deep houses
annexed. The latter deadened the rattle of the streets. At intervals
the distant elevated lumbered protestingly along, its grunts and
screams muffled by the hot suspended ocean.
She sat there plunged in the profoundest grief that can come to
the human soul, for in all other agony hope flickers, however
forlornly. She gazed dully at the unconscious breathing form of the
man who had been friend, and companion, and lover, during five years
of youth too vigorous and hopeful to be warped by uneven fortune. It
was wasted by disease; the face was shrunken; the night--garment hung
loosely about a body which had never been disfigured by flesh, but
had been muscular with exercise and full-blooded with health. She was
glad that the body was changed; glad that its beauty, too, had gone
some other--where than into the coffin. She had loved his hands as
apart from himself; loved their strong warm magnetism. They lay limp
and yellow on the quilt: she knew that they were already cold, and
that moisture was gathering on them. For a moment something convulsed
within her. They had gone too. She repeated the words twice, and,
after them, "forever." And the while the sweetness of their pressure
came back to her.
She leaned suddenly over him. He was in there still, somewhere.
Where? If he had not ceased to breathe, the Ego, the Soul,, the
Personality was still in the sodden clay which had shaped to give it
speech. Why could it not manifest itself to her? Was it still
conscious in there, unable to project itself through the
disintegrating matter which was the only medium its Creator had
vouchsafed it? Did it struggle there, seeing her agony, sharing it,
longing for the complete disintegration which should put an end to
its torment? She called his name, she even shook him slightly, mad to
tear the body apart and find her mate, yet even in that tortured
moment realizing that violence would hasten his going.
The dying man took no notice of her, and she opened his gown and
put her cheek to his heart, calling him again. There had never been
more perfect union; how could the bond still be so strong if he were
not at the other end of it? He was there, her other part; until dead
he must be living. There was no intermediate state. Why should he be
as entombed and unresponding as if the screws were in the lid? But
the faintly beating heart did not quicken beneath her lips. She
extended her arms suddenly, describing eccentric lines, above, about
him, rapidly opening and closing her hands as if to clutch some
escaping object; then sprang to her feet, and went to the window. She
feared insanity. She had asked to be left alone with her dying
husband, and she did not wish to lose her reason and shriek a crowd
of people about her.
The green plots in the yards were not apparent, she noticed.
Something heavy, like a pall, rested upon them. Then she understood
that the day was over and that night was coming.
She returned swiftly to the bedside, wondering if she had remained
away hours or seconds, and if he were dead. His face was still
discernible, and Death had not relaxed it. She laid her own against
it, then withdrew it with shuddering flesh, her teeth smiting each
other as if an icy wind had passed.
She let herself fall back in the chair, clasping her hands against
her heart, watching with expanding eyes the white sculptured face
which, in the glittering dark, was becoming less defined of outline.
Did she light the gas it would draw mosquitoes, and she could not
shut from him the little air he must be mechanically grateful for.
And she did not want to see the opening eye--the falling jaw.
Her vision became so fixed that at length she saw nothing, and
closed her eyes and waited for the moisture to rise and relieve the
strain. When she opened them his face had disappeared; the humid
waves above the house-tops put out even the light of the stars, and
night was come.
Fearfully, she approached her ear to his lips; he still breathed.
She made a motion to kiss him, then threw herself back in a quiver of
agony--they were not the lips she had known, and she would have
His breathing was so faint that in her half-reclining position she
could not hear it, could not be aware of the moment of his death. She
extended her arm resolutely and laid her hand on his heart. Not only
must she feel his going, but, so strong had been the comradeship
between them, it was a matter of loving honor to stand by him to the
She sat there in the hot heavy night, pressing her hand hard
against the ebbing heart of the unseen, and awaited Death. Suddenly
an odd fancy possessed her. Where was Death? Why was he tarrying? Who
was detaining him? From what quarter would he come? He was taking his
leisure, drawing near with footsteps as measured as those of men
keeping time to a funeral march. By a wayward deflection she thought
of the slow music that was always turned on in the theatre when the
heroine was about to appear, or something eventful to happen. She had
always thought that sort of thing ridiculous and inartistic. So had
She drew her brows together angrily, wondering at her levity, and
pressed her relaxed palm against the heart it kept guard over. For a
moment the sweat stood on her face; then the pent-up breath burst
from her lungs. He still lived.
Once more the fancy wantoned above the stunned heart. Death--where
was he? What a curious experience: to be sitting alone in a big
house--she knew that the cook had stolen out--waiting for Death to
come and snatch her husband from her. No; he would not snatch, he
would steal upon his prey as noiselessly as the approach of Sin to
Innocence--an invisible, unfair, sneaking enemy, with whom no man's
strength could grapple. If he would only come like a man, and take
his chances like a man! Women had been known to reach the hearts of
giants with the dagger's point. But he would creep upon her.
She gave an exclamation of horror. Something was creeping over the
window-sill. Her limbs palsied, but she struggled to her feet and
looked back, her eyes dragged about against her own volition. Two
small green stars glared menacingly at her just above the sill; then
the cat possessing them leaped downward, and the stars
She realized that she was horribly frightened. "Is it possible?"
she thought. "Am I afraid of Death, and of Death that has not yet
come? I have always been rather a brave woman; He used to call me
heroic; but then with him it was impossible to fear anything. And I
begged them to leave me alone with him as the last of earthly boons.
But she was still quaking as she resumed her seat, and laid her
hand again on his heart. She wished that she had asked Mary to sit
outside the door; there was no bell in the room. To call would be
worse than desecrating the house of God, and she would not leave him
for one moment. To return and find him dead--gone alone!
Her knees smote each other. It was idle to deny it; she was in a
state of unreasoning terror. Her eyes rolled apprehensively about;
she wondered if she should see It when It came; wondered how far off
It was now. Not very far; the heart was barely pulsing. She had heard
of the power of the corpse to drive brave men to frenzy, and had
wondered, having no morbid horror of the dead. But this! To wait--and
wait--and wait--perhaps for hours--past the midnight--on to the small
hours--while that awful, determined, leisurely Something stole nearer
She bent to him who had been her protector with a spasm of anger.
Where was the indomitable spirit that had held her all these years
with such strong and loving clasp? How could he leave her? How could
he desert her? Her head fell back and moved restlessly against the
cushion; moaning with the agony of loss, she recalled him as he had
been. Then fear once more took possession of her, and she sat erect,
rigid, breathless, awaiting the approach of Death.
Suddenly, far down in the house, on the first floor, her strained
hearing took note of a sound--a wary, muffled sound, as if some one
were creeping up the stair, fearful of being heard. Slowly! It seemed
to count a hundred between the laying down of each foot. She gave a
hysterical gasp. Where was the slow music?
Her face, her body, were wet--as if a wave of death-sweat had
broken over them. There was a stiff feeling at the roots of her hair;
she wondered if it were really standing erect. But she could not
raise her hand to ascertain. Possibly it was only the coloring matter
freezing and bleaching. Her muscles were flabby, her nerves twitched
She knew that it was Death who was coming to her through the
silent deserted house; knew that it was the sensitive ear of her
intelligence that heard him, not the dull, coarse-grained ear of the
He toiled up the stair painfully, as if he were old and tired with
much. work. But how could he afford to loiter, with all the work he
had to do? Every minute, every second, he must be in demand to hook
his cold, hard finger about a soul struggling to escape from its
putrefying tenement. But probably he had his emissaries, his minions:
for only those worthy of the honor did he come in person.
He reached the first landing and crept like a cat down the hall to
the next stair, then crawled slowly up as before. Light as the
footfalls were, they were squarely planted, unfaltering; slow, they
Mechanically she pressed her jerking hand closer against the
heart; its beats were almost done. They would finish, she calculated,
just as those footfalls paused beside the bed.
She was no longer a human being; she was an Intelligence and an
EAR. Not a sound came from without, even the Elevated appeared to be
temporarily off duty; but inside the big quiet house that footfall
was waxing louder, louder, until iron feet crashed on iron stairs and
She had counted the steps--one--two--three--irritated beyond
endurance at the long deliberate pauses between. As they climbed and
clanged with slow precision she continued to count, audibly and with
equal precision, noting their hollow reverberation. How many steps
had the stair? She wished she knew. No need! The colossal trampling
announced the lessening distance in an increasing volume of sound not
to be misunderstood. It turned the curve; it reached the landing; it
advanced--slowly--down the hall; it paused before her door. Then
knuckles of iron shook the frail panels. Her nerveless tongue gave no
invitation. The knocking became more imperious; the very walls
vibrated. The handle turned, swiftly and firmly. With a wild
instinctive movement she flung herself into the arms of her
When Mary opened the door and entered the room she found a dead
woman lying across a dead man.