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Authors: Cornell Woolrich

Black Curtain

Cornell Woolrich - Black Curtain


Copyright, 1941 by Cornell Woolrich


    If I stoop

Into a dark, tremendous sea of cloud,

It is but for a time.--I shall emerge one day.





BOOK I The Curtain

BOOK II The Curtain Lifts

BOOK III Behind the Curtain




The Curtain




First everything was blurred. Then he could feel hands fumbling around him, lots of hands. They weren't actually touching him; they were touching things that touched him. He got their feel one step removed. Flinging away small, loose objects like chunks of mortar or fragments of brick, which seemed to be strewn all over him. Every minute there was less of these.


Then, dimly, he heard a voice say: "Here's the ambulance now." Another answered: "Bring him over here, where they can get at him easier."


He felt himself being moved, set down again. He tried to open his eyes, and a lot of grit and dust settled into them, stung them shut again the first time. The second time he tried it he was able to make it. He got a blinding flash of light-blue sky. Faces were peering down at him, upside down, around the perimeter of it.


He could feel his coat and shirt being spread open and then pressure being applied along his sides. "No ribs broken." Someone flexed his arms and then his legs. "No broken bones anywhere. He got off easy. Just that nasty bump on his head."


He was righted to a sitting position, and a trickle of plaster or something spilled down off his hair. The intern said: "O.K., brother, we'll dress it up, and that ought to take care of it for you."


He dabbed something on it that burned and made the man jump. Then he plastered something over it. "All right, I guess you can stand up now."


They helped him to his feet; he reached out and steadied himself against one of them first. Then he was able to stay up by himself.


"You want to take a ride in with us, anyway, and have yourself checked over?" the intern asked, closing up his case.


"No, I'm all right," he said. He wanted to get home. It must be late. Virginia would be waiting for him. He didn't like to be late.


"O.K., but if you don't feel good, you better come around and have yourself looked at."


"Yeah," he said, "I will."


A cop shoved forward with poised notebook and said, "Let me have your name and address."


"Frank Townsend," he said unhesitatingly. "Eight-twenty Rutherford Street, North."


That was all. The ambulance had already clanged off. The cop turned away, finishing up his report as he went. A smear of rubble on the sidewalk and a jagged rent in the roof coping of the building immediately beside it were the only remaining signs of what had just happened. The thick cluster of onlookers grouped about began to fan out and disperse. Townsend turned and began to worm his way out through them.


A youngster of twelve or so called after him: "Hey, here's your hat! I picked it up for you."


Townsend turned and took it from him, dusted it off sketchily, reversed it to put it on. Then he stood still, staring down inside it. It had "DN" initialed on the sweatband.


He shook his head to the kid, tried to return it. "Where'd you get it? This isn't mine--"


"Sure it's yours! I seen it roll off you when you went down!"


Townsend cast his eyes doubtfully over the littered sidewalk and the gutter alongside, but there was no other hat in sight.


The kid was eying him askance. "Don't you know your own hat, mister?"


Some of the grownups laughed. They were all standing around, gaping at him. He wanted to get away. He was still shaky, from the accident. He wanted to get home. He tried the hat on and it fit his head to a T. It had that telltale feeling of having been on a hundred times before.


He left it on and made his way up the street, but he knew that he was wearing somebody else's initials on his head.


He looked around him, and he couldn't understand what he was doing around here, what had brought him here in the first place. It was a slum street, swarming with humanity, and riddled with pushcarts. Some mission from the office? Some errand from Virginia? Whatever it was, the shock of the accident had knocked it completely out of his mind. He turned the corner, passing under a street sign that read "Tillary Street," and, once around it, reached absently into his pocket for a cigarette while he continued on his homeward way.


Instead of the familiar cheap, crumpled pack he was used to carrying around him for days at a time until it practically shredded to pieces, he brought up a sleek enamel case, wafer thin, banded in gold, flashing at him with malignant brilliance.


He dropped it as though it had bitten him. He stared at it where it lay for long minutes. Then finally he stooped, picked it up with an unsteady hand, opened and examined it. Its fill wasn't even his own brand. There was no inscription inside or out, nothing to show whose it was or where he'd got it.


He put it back in his pocket and forced himself to go on. He was afraid to stand there too long and let himself think about it too much. A strange terror darted in and out of the air just over his head, and he was afraid to attract it full force, as one is of lightning. He wanted to get home, now, more than ever.


He had to board a bus, he was so far out of the way. He rode all the way up in it in a sort of shadow, though it was well lighted inside.


He got off, turned a corner, and the familiar reaches of Rutherford Street opened before his gaze at last. He trudged down it toward his flat. Just a few doors more now and he'd be in. Familiar as the street was, there was something a little different about it. Details seemed to have altered here and there, but he couldn't tell just which ones they were. He saw the same familiar kids playing around; they all looked bigger to him.


He sighted his house just ahead, and when he had reached it and turned to go in, he stopped suddenly, stood rigid, his foot on the bottommost entrance step. His face froze, looking over at his own two ground-floor windows, on the left. What had happened since this morning? What in God's name had taken place?


The curtains were gone from the windows. The panes were cloudy, filmed with dust, as though they hadn't been washed in weeks. Virginia always kept the windows sparkling, crystalline. How could they have got into such a state since just this morning? She must have taken ashes or scouring powder and blurred them on purpose; maybe this was some new cleansing method she was trying out. She'd taken her potted geranium off the sill, too.


He went in, still pale, palpitating from the shock his nervous system had just received. He found he'd lost his key, probably at the scene of the accident. He didn't waste time looking for it; he wanted to get inside, away from all this strangeness. He knocked, rattled the knob hectically.


She didn't come to the door. She didn't let him in. He couldn't stand still. He went back to the entrance and rang for Mrs. Fromm, the janitor's wife.


She came right up. She showed an inordinate amount of surprise at sight of him. So she was going to be part of the strangeness, too. "Mr. Townsend! Well what are you doing around here?"


"What am I--?" he repeated dazedly.


"You thinking of taking your old flat back? Just say the word. It's here waiting, the last tenants only moved out six weeks ago."


"My old flat? Six weeks--" He put his hand to the wall, to steady himself. "Could I have a drink of water, please?"


She ran to get it for him, alarmed.


He could feel his hackles rise, as in the presence of some chilling, unfathomable mystery. He tried to get a tight grip on his mental equilibrium, keep it level at all costs. "I'm Frank Townsend. I've come home like I do every day from work. Why should this happen to me?"


By the time she had come back, he had forced himself into a glazed semblance of calm. Instinctively, he knew that neither Mrs. Fromm nor any other outsider could help him in this. He would only get involved in all sorts of delays, maybe even be hauled off into confinement. There was only one person to go to, there was only one person he could fully trust. He wanted to get quickly to his Virginia, wherever she was. But where was she?


He said, trying to sound casual, "Could you tell me where I can find my wife? Some falling plaster hit me on the head just now, and I guess I'm a little dizzy, came here by mistake--"


She paled, but she gave him what he was hoping for. "Your wife's living around on Anderson Avenue now, Mr. Townsend, two blocks down, the second house from the corner. She stopped in here several times to see if there was any mail for her, that's how I happen to know."


"Thanks," he said expiringly, backing away. "Isn't it funny how I--uh--got balled up?"


She followed him to the street entrance, shaking her head concernedly. "I wouldn't neglect a thing like that if I were you, you may have a slight concussion--"


He turned and walked away rapidly, his heart going like a trip hammer. He was more than just frightened now. The terrifying mysteries mounted. First, initials on his hatband that didn't match his name. Then a cigarette case that he'd never seen before, filled with a brand that he'd never smoked before, in his pocket. Now an empty flat when he got home; his abode changed, without warning, between morning and evening. And yet the janitress speaking as though it had been weeks or months. He began to run toward Anderson Avenue.


He found the place at last, and it was with a feeling close to horror that he sighted a name, her name and yet not hers, on one of the letter boxes when he scanned them: "Miss Virginia Morrison." What was she doing over here in this strange house, under her maiden name? Why had she left the other one so quickly? What had taken place there?


Whatever this whole thing was that had happened, he knew he was about to have it explained to him. In just a few minutes now. And that was no solace. For it had plunged to depths of strangeness that no ordinary explanation would reach any more. He almost dreaded explanation as much as he did continuing mystification now.


He rang the bell, and the door catch was released for him. He went inside into the inner hallway and to the door that bore a matching number to the one on the bell. He stopped before it and waited.


Minutes passed that no one's life should hold. Minutes of deliriumlike strangeness, in which nothing happened, minutes tense with waiting for something to happen, and wondering what it would be.


He heard steps approaching on the other side of the door, and he shrank back a little, away from them, on the side on which he was. Then the knob turned, and the latch tongue drew in, and the door opened a little--to face-width--and there they were, looking at each other.


He and she. Frank Townsend and his wife Virginia.


He'd called her his rag doll. She always reminded him of a rag doll. One of the pert kind, that sits all contorted on the edge of a dresser. Maybe because she was long-limbed and had a way of flinging herself about in chairs. Not just dropping into them rearwards, but going into them sidewards, over their arms. Then, too, she had a Way of wearing her hair cut in a straight line above her eyes. That helped. And her mouth was very small, like a red-outlined pucker half the time. That was her.


But now--the rag doll was all limp and wilted. And though she hadn't changed, yet she had changed. Everything was the same, and yet everything was not quite the same. Just a little faded, just a little toned down, not quite as shiny.


He thought she was going to fall out on the floor at his feet. But her grip on the door held her. She leaned her forehead against the door frame for a minute, as though her eyes were very tired and she wanted to rest them in that way, by supporting her entire head.


Then suddenly she was against him, in his arms.


She kept breathing against him as though she couldn't get enough air. He couldn't breathe very well himself; it was sort of catching.


"Virginia, honey, let me come in," he said. "I'm frightened. Queer things have been happening. I want to be inside with you."


She closed the door with her back, holding him with both hands, as if the door were an active agency that might siphon him out again if she didn't hang on to him. Then he was in the bedroom, sitting on the edge of one of their familiar twin beds, taking off his shoes. One bed, he noticed, had been stripped down; even the mattress had been removed from it. Its bare frame had been shunted aside against the wall, and an accumulation of boxes and other nondescript paraphernalia littered it. The other was in perfect order. He lay back on it and she came in with a cold compress and put it on his head.


Then she sat down beside him, held his hand between both of hers, and pressed it to her cheek. She didn't say anything. He could tell she was afraid, just as he was.


He kept staring at her questioningly. Finally he blurted out: "Virginia, that bottle of rye someone gave me for Christmas--"


"I've still got it," she said in a choked voice. She got up and went out. He had a feeling he was going to need it.


She came back and handed him a glass. He held it clutched tightly, as though his very life might depend in having it within reach. "Virginia, I feel funny. I'm like lost. I don't understand. Maybe it's only that clout on the head. But I've got to hear it from you. There were a couple of little things on the street already, but they don't matter, I'll let them go. The main thing is: what made you do it? What made you move so suddenly without telling me? Why, when I left this morning to go to work--"

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