A Journey by Edith Wharton
As she lay in her berth, staring at the shadows overhead, the rush
of the wheels was in her brain, driving her deeper and deeper into
circles of wakeful lucidity. The sleeping-car had sunk into its
night-silence. Through the wet window-pane she watched the sudden
lights, the long stretches of hurrying blackness. Now and then she
turned her head and looked through the opening in the hangings at her
husband's curtains across the aisle....
She wondered restlessly if he wanted anything and if she could hear
him if he called. His voice had grown very weak within the last months
and it irritated him when she did not hear. This irritability, this
increasing childish petulance seemed to give expression to their
imperceptible estrangement. Like two faces looking at one another
through a sheet of glass they were close together, almost touching, but
they could not hear or feel each other: the conductivity between them
was broken. She, at least, had this sense of separation, and she
fancied sometimes that she saw it reflected in the look with which he
supplemented his failing words. Doubtless the fault was hers. She was
too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease.
Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his
irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his
helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the change had found her so
unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure;
both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now
their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead of life,
preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged
behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.
When they married, she had such arrears of living to make up: her
days had been as bare as the whitewashed school-room where she forced
innutritious facts upon reluctant children. His coming had broken in on
the slumber of circumstance, widening the present till it became the
encloser of remotest chances. But imperceptibly the horizon narrowed.
Life had a grudge against her: she was never to be allowed to spread
At first the doctors had said that six weeks of mild air would set
him right; but when he came back this assurance was explained as having
of course included a winter in a dry climate. They gave up their pretty
house, storing the wedding presents and new furniture, and went to
Colorado. She had hated it there from the first. Nobody knew her or
cared about her; there was no one to wonder at the good match she had
made, or to envy her the new dresses and the visiting-cards which were
still a surprise to her. And he kept growing worse. She felt herself
beset with difficulties too evasive to be fought by so direct a
temperament. She still loved him, of course; but he was gradually,
undefinably ceasing to be himself. The man she had married had been
strong, active, gently masterful: the male whose pleasure it is to
clear a way through the material obstructions of life; but now it was
she who was the protector, he who must be shielded from importunities
and given his drops or his beef-juice though the skies were falling.
The routine of the sick-room bewildered her; this punctual
administering of medicine seemed as idle as some uncomprehended
There were moments, indeed, when warm gushes of pity swept away her
instinctive resentment of his condition, when she still found his old
self in his eyes as they groped for each other through the dense medium
of his weakness. But these moments had grown rare. Sometimes he
frightened her: his sunken expressionless face seemed that of a
stranger; his voice was weak and hoarse; his thin-lipped smile a mere
muscular contraction. Her hand avoided his damp soft skin, which had
lost the familiar roughness of health: she caught herself furtively
watching him as she might have watched a strange animal. It frightened
her to feel that this was the man she loved; there were hours when to
tell him what she suffered seemed the one escape from her fears. But in
general she judged herself more leniently, reflecting that she had
perhaps been too long alone with him, and that she would feel
differently when they were at home again, surrounded by her robust and
buoyant family. How she had rejoiced when the doctors at last gave
their consent to his going home! She knew, of course, what the decision
meant; they both knew. It meant that he was to die; but they dressed
the truth in hopeful euphuisms, and at times, in the joy of
preparation, she really forgot the purpose of their journey, and
slipped into an eager allusion to next year's plans.
At last the day of leaving came. She had a dreadful fear that they
would never get away; that somehow at the last moment he would fail
her; that the doctors held one of their accustomed treacheries in
reserve; but nothing happened. They drove to the station, he was
installed in a seat with a rug over his knees and a cushion at his
back, and she hung out of the window waving unregretful farewells to
the acquaintances she had really never liked till then.
The first twenty-four hours had passed off well. He revived a little
and it amused him to look out of the window and to observe the humours
of the car. The second day he began to grow weary and to chafe under
the dispassionate stare of the freckled child with the lump of
chewing-gum. She had to explain to the child's mother that her husband
was too ill to be disturbed: a statement received by that lady with a
resentment visibly supported by the maternal sentiment of the whole
That night he slept badly and the next morning his temperature
frightened her: she was sure he was growing worse. The day passed
slowly, punctuated by the small irritations of travel. Watching his
tired face, she traced in its contractions every rattle and jolt of the
tram, till her own body vibrated with sympathetic fatigue. She felt the
others observing him too, and hovered restlessly between him and the
line of interrogative eyes. The freckled child hung about him like a
fly; offers of candy and picture- books failed to dislodge her: she
twisted one leg around the other and watched him imperturbably. The
porter, as he passed, lingered with vague proffers of help, probably
inspired by philanthropic passengers swelling with the sense that
“something ought to be done;” and one nervous man in a skull-cap was
audibly concerned as to the possible effect on his wife's health.
The hours dragged on in a dreary inoccupation. Towards dusk she sat
down beside him and he laid his hand on hers. The touch startled her.
He seemed to be calling her from far off. She looked at him helplessly
and his smile went through her like a physical pang.
“Are you very tired?” she asked.
“No, not very.”
“We'll be there soon now.”
“Yes, very soon.”
“This time to-morrow—”
He nodded and they sat silent. When she had put him to bed and
crawled into her own berth she tried to cheer herself with the thought
that in less than twenty-four hours they would be in New York. Her
people would all be at the station to meet her—she pictured their
round unanxious faces pressing through the crowd. She only hoped they
would not tell him too loudly that he was looking splendidly and would
be all right in no time: the subtler sympathies developed by long
contact with suffering were making her aware of a certain coarseness of
texture in the family sensibilities.
Suddenly she thought she heard him call. She parted the curtains and
listened. No, it was only a man snoring at the other end of the car.
His snores had a greasy sound, as though they passed through tallow.
She lay down and tried to sleep... Had she not heard him move? She
started up trembling... The silence frightened her more than any sound.
He might not be able to make her hear—he might be calling her now...
What made her think of such things? It was merely the familiar tendency
of an over-tired mind to fasten itself on the most intolerable chance
within the range of its forebodings.... Putting her head out, she
listened; but she could not distinguish his breathing from that of the
other pairs of lungs about her. She longed to get up and look at him,
but she knew the impulse was a mere vent for her restlessness, and the
fear of disturbing him restrained her.... The regular movement of his
curtain reassured her, she knew not why; she remembered that he had
wished her a cheerful good-night; and the sheer inability to endure her
fears a moment longer made her put them from her with an effort of her
whole sound tired body. She turned on her side and slept.
She sat up stiffly, staring out at the dawn. The train was rushing
through a region of bare hillocks huddled against a lifeless sky. It
looked like the first day of creation. The air of the car was close,
and she pushed up her window to let in the keen wind. Then she looked
at her watch: it was seven o'clock, and soon the people about her would
be stirring. She slipped into her clothes, smoothed her dishevelled
hair and crept to the dressing-room. When she had washed her face and
adjusted her dress she felt more hopeful. It was always a struggle for
her not to be cheerful in the morning. Her cheeks burned deliciously
under the coarse towel and the wet hair about her temples broke into
strong upward tendrils. Every inch of her was full of life and
elasticity. And in ten hours they would be at home!
She stepped to her husband's berth: it was time for him to take his
early glass of milk. The window-shade was down, and in the dusk of the
curtained enclosure she could just see that he lay sideways, with his
face away from her. She leaned over him and drew up the shade. As she
did so she touched one of his hands. It felt cold....
She bent closer, laying her hand on his arm and calling him by name.
He did not move. She spoke again more loudly; she grasped his shoulder
and gently shook it. He lay motionless. She caught hold of his hand
again: it slipped from her limply, like a dead thing. A dead thing? ...
Her breath caught. She must see his face. She leaned forward, and
hurriedly, shrinkingly, with a sickening reluctance of the flesh, laid
her hands on his shoulders and turned him over. His head fell back; his
face looked small and smooth; he gazed at her with steady eyes.
She remained motionless for a long time, holding him thus; and they
looked at each other. Suddenly she shrank back: the longing to scream,
to call out, to fly from him, had almost overpowered her. But a strong
hand arrested her. Good God! If it were known that he was dead they
would be put off the train at the next station—
In a terrifying flash of remembrance there arose before her a scene
she had once witnessed in travelling, when a husband and wife, whose
child had died in the train, had been thrust out at some chance
station. She saw them standing on the platform with the child's body
between them; she had never forgotten the dazed look with which they
followed the receding train. And this was what would happen to her.
Within the next hour she might find herself on the platform of some
strange station, alone with her husband's body.... Anything but that!
It was too horrible—She quivered like a creature at bay.
As she cowered there, she felt the train moving more slowly. It was
coming then—they were approaching a station! She saw again the husband
and wife standing on the lonely platform; and with a violent gesture
she drew down the shade to hide her husband's face.
Feeling dizzy, she sank down on the edge of the berth, keeping away
from his outstretched body, and pulling the curtains close, so that he
and she were shut into a kind of sepulchral twilight. She tried to
think. At all costs she must conceal the fact that he was dead. But
how? Her mind refused to act: she could not plan, combine. She could
think of no way but to sit there, clutching the curtains, all day
She heard the porter making up her bed; people were beginning to
move about the car; the dressing-room door was being opened and shut.
She tried to rouse herself. At length with a supreme effort she rose to
her feet, stepping into the aisle of the car and drawing the curtains
tight behind her. She noticed that they still parted slightly with the
motion of the car, and finding a pin in her dress she fastened them
together. Now she was safe. She looked round and saw the porter. She
fancied he was watching her.
“Ain't he awake yet?” he enquired.
“No,” she faltered.
“I got his milk all ready when he wants it. You know you told me to
have it for him by seven.”
She nodded silently and crept into her seat.
At half-past eight the train reached Buffalo. By this time the other
passengers were dressed and the berths had been folded back for the
day. The porter, moving to and fro under his burden of sheets and
pillows, glanced at her as he passed. At length he said: “Ain't he
going to get up? You know we're ordered to make up the berths as early
as we can.”
She turned cold with fear. They were just entering the station.
“Oh, not yet,” she stammered. “Not till he's had his milk. Won't you
get it, please?”
“All right. Soon as we start again.”
When the train moved on he reappeared with the milk. She took it
from him and sat vaguely looking at it: her brain moved slowly from one
idea to another, as though they were stepping-stones set far apart
across a whirling flood. At length she became aware that the porter
still hovered expectantly.
“Will I give it to him?” he suggested.
“Oh, no,” she cried, rising. “He—he's asleep yet, I think—”
She waited till the porter had passed on; then she unpinned the
curtains and slipped behind them. In the semi-obscurity her husband's
face stared up at her like a marble mask with agate eyes. The eyes were
dreadful. She put out her hand and drew down the lids. Then she
remembered the glass of milk in her other hand: what was she to do with
it? She thought of raising the window and throwing it out; but to do so
she would have to lean across his body and bring her face close to his.
She decided to drink the milk.
She returned to her seat with the empty glass and after a while the
porter came back to get it.
“When'll I fold up his bed?” he asked.
“Oh, not now—not yet; he's ill—he's very ill. Can't you let him
stay as he is? The doctor wants him to lie down as much as possible.”
He scratched his head. “Well, if he's really sick—”
He took the empty glass and walked away, explaining to the
passengers that the party behind the curtains was too sick to get up
She found herself the centre of sympathetic eyes. A motherly woman
with an intimate smile sat down beside her.
“I'm real sorry to hear your husband's sick. I've had a remarkable
amount of sickness in my family and maybe I could assist you. Can I
take a look at him?”
“Oh, no—no, please! He mustn't be disturbed.”
The lady accepted the rebuff indulgently.
“Well, it's just as you say, of course, but you don't look to me as
if you'd had much experience in sickness and I'd have been glad to
assist you. What do you generally do when your husband's taken this
“I—I let him sleep.”
“Too much sleep ain't any too healthful either. Don't you give him
“Don't you wake him to take it?”
“When does he take the next dose?”
“Not for—two hours—”
The lady looked disappointed. “Well, if I was you I'd try giving it
oftener. That's what I do with my folks.”
After that many faces seemed to press upon her. The passengers were
on their way to the dining-car, and she was conscious that as they
passed down the aisle they glanced curiously at the closed curtains.
One lantern- jawed man with prominent eyes stood still and tried to
shoot his projecting glance through the division between the folds. The
freckled child, returning from breakfast, waylaid the passers with a
buttery clutch, saying in a loud whisper, “He's sick;” and once the
conductor came by, asking for tickets. She shrank into her corner and
looked out of the window at the flying trees and houses, meaningless
hieroglyphs of an endlessly unrolled papyrus.
Now and then the train stopped, and the newcomers on entering the
car stared in turn at the closed curtains. More and more people seemed
to pass—their faces began to blend fantastically with the images
surging in her brain....
Later in the day a fat man detached himself from the mist of faces.
He had a creased stomach and soft pale lips. As he pressed himself into
the seat facing her she noticed that he was dressed in black
broadcloth, with a soiled white tie.
“Husband's pretty bad this morning, is he?”
“Dear, dear! Now that's terribly distressing, ain't it?” An
apostolic smile revealed his gold-filled teeth.
“Of course you know there's no sech thing as sickness. Ain't that a
lovely thought? Death itself is but a deloosion of our grosser senses.
On'y lay yourself open to the influx of the sperrit, submit yourself
passively to the action of the divine force, and disease and
dissolution will cease to exist for you. If you could indooce your
husband to read this little pamphlet—”
The faces about her again grew indistinct. She had a vague
recollection of hearing the motherly lady and the parent of the
freckled child ardently disputing the relative advantages of trying
several medicines at once, or of taking each in turn; the motherly lady
maintaining that the competitive system saved time; the other objecting
that you couldn't tell which remedy had effected the cure; their voices
went on and on, like bell-buoys droning through a fog.... The porter
came up now and then with questions that she did not understand, but
that somehow she must have answered since he went away again without
repeating them; every two hours the motherly lady reminded her that her
husband ought to have his drops; people left the car and others
Her head was spinning and she tried to steady herself by clutching
at her thoughts as they swept by, but they slipped away from her like
bushes on the side of a sheer precipice down which she seemed to be
falling. Suddenly her mind grew clear again and she found herself
vividly picturing what would happen when the train reached New York.
She shuddered as it occurred to her that he would be quite cold and
that some one might perceive he had been dead since morning.
She thought hurriedly:—“If they see I am not surprised they will
suspect something. They will ask questions, and if I tell them the
truth they won't believe me—no one would believe me! It will be
terrible”—and she kept repeating to herself:—“I must pretend I don't
know. I must pretend I don't know. When they open the curtains I must
go up to him quite naturally—and then I must scream.” ... She had an
idea that the scream would be very hard to do.
Gradually new thoughts crowded upon her, vivid and urgent: she tried
to separate and restrain them, but they beset her clamorously, like her
school-children at the end of a hot day, when she was too tired to
silence them. Her head grew confused, and she felt a sick fear of
forgetting her part, of betraying herself by some unguarded word or
“I must pretend I don't know,” she went on murmuring. The words had
lost their significance, but she repeated them mechanically, as though
they had been a magic formula, until suddenly she heard herself saying:
“I can't remember, I can't remember!”
Her voice sounded very loud, and she looked about her in terror; but
no one seemed to notice that she had spoken.
As she glanced down the car her eye caught the curtains of her
husband's berth, and she began to examine the monotonous arabesques
woven through their heavy folds. The pattern was intricate and
difficult to trace; she gazed fixedly at the curtains and as she did so
the thick stuff grew transparent and through it she saw her husband's
face—his dead face. She struggled to avert her look, but her eyes
refused to move and her head seemed to be held in a vice. At last, with
an effort that left her weak and shaking, she turned away; but it was
of no use; close in front of her, small and smooth, was her husband's
face. It seemed to be suspended in the air between her and the false
braids of the woman who sat in front of her. With an uncontrollable
gesture she stretched out her hand to push the face away, and suddenly
she felt the touch of his smooth skin. She repressed a cry and half
started from her seat. The woman with the false braids looked around,
and feeling that she must justify her movement in some way she rose and
lifted her travelling-bag from the opposite seat. She unlocked the bag
and looked into it; but the first object her hand met was a small flask
of her husband's, thrust there at the last moment, in the haste of
departure. She locked the bag and closed her eyes ... his face was
there again, hanging between her eye-balls and lids like a waxen mask
against a red curtain....
She roused herself with a shiver. Had she fainted or slept? Hours
seemed to have elapsed; but it was still broad day, and the people
about her were sitting in the same attitudes as before.
A sudden sense of hunger made her aware that she had eaten nothing
since morning. The thought of food filled her with disgust, but she
dreaded a return of faintness, and remembering that she had some
biscuits in her bag she took one out and ate it. The dry crumbs choked
her, and she hastily swallowed a little brandy from her husband's
flask. The burning sensation in her throat acted as a counter-irritant,
momentarily relieving the dull ache of her nerves. Then she felt a
gently-stealing warmth, as though a soft air fanned her, and the
swarming fears relaxed their clutch, receding through the stillness
that enclosed her, a stillness soothing as the spacious quietude of a
summer day. She slept.
Through her sleep she felt the impetuous rush of the train. It
seemed to be life itself that was sweeping her on with headlong
inexorable force— sweeping her into darkness and terror, and the awe
of unknown days.—Now all at once everything was still—not a sound,
not a pulsation... She was dead in her turn, and lay beside him with
smooth upstaring face. How quiet it was!—and yet she heard feet
coming, the feet of the men who were to carry them away... She could
feel too—she felt a sudden prolonged vibration, a series of hard
shocks, and then another plunge into darkness: the darkness of death
this time—a black whirlwind on which they were both spinning like
leaves, in wild uncoiling spirals, with millions and millions of the
* * * * *
She sprang up in terror. Her sleep must have lasted a long time, for
the winter day had paled and the lights had been lit. The car was in
confusion, and as she regained her self-possession she saw that the
passengers were gathering up their wraps and bags. The woman with the
false braids had brought from the dressing-room a sickly ivy-plant in a
bottle, and the Christian Scientist was reversing his cuffs. The porter
passed down the aisle with his impartial brush. An impersonal figure
with a gold-banded cap asked for her husband's ticket. A voice shouted
“Baig- gage express!” and she heard the clicking of metal as the
passengers handed over their checks.
Presently her window was blocked by an expanse of sooty wall, and
the train passed into the Harlem tunnel. The journey was over; in a few
minutes she would see her family pushing their joyous way through the
throng at the station. Her heart dilated. The worst terror was past....
“We'd better get him up now, hadn't we?” asked the porter, touching
He had her husband's hat in his hand and was meditatively revolving
it under his brush.
She looked at the hat and tried to speak; but suddenly the car grew
dark. She flung up her arms, struggling to catch at something, and fell
face downward, striking her head against the dead man's berth.