"No. Please, God. Not this."
The hurt. The humiliation. The unspeakable shame.Not grief, not yet. The shock was too immediate for grief.When she discovered the enigmatic note her husband had left forher propped against a mirror in the bedroom of their honeymoonsuite at the Rainbow Grand Hotel, Niagara Falls, New York, Ariahhad been married twenty-one hours. When, in the early afternoon ofthat day, she learned from Niagara Falls police that a man resemblingher husband, Gilbert Erskine, had thrown himself into the HorseshoeFalls early that morning and had been swept away — "vanished,so far without a trace" — beyond the Devil's Hole Rapids, as the scenicattraction downriver from The Falls was named, she'd been marriednot quite twenty-eight hours.
These were the stark, cruel facts.
"I'm a bride who has become a widow in less than a day."
Ariah spoke aloud, in a voice of wonder. She was the daughter of a much-revered Presbyterian minister, surely that should have countedfor something with God, as it did with secular authorities?
Ariah struck suddenly at her face with both fists. She wanted topummel, blacken her eyes that had seen too much.
"God, help me! You wouldn't be so cruel — would you?"
Yes. I would. Foolish woman of course I would. Who are you, to be sparedMy justice?
How swift the reply came! A taunt that echoed so distinctly inAriah's skull, she halfway believed these pitying strangers couldhear it.
But here was solace: until Gilbert Erskine's body was found in theriver and identified, his death was theoretical and not official.Ariah wasn't yet a widow, but still a bride.
... Waking that morning to the rude and incontrovertiblefact that she who'd slept alone all her life was yet alone again on themorning following her wedding day. Waking alone though she was nolonger Miss Ariah Juliet Littrell but Mrs. Gilbert Erskine. Though nolonger the spinster daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Thaddeus Littrellof Troy, New York, piano and voice instructor at the Troy Academyof Music, but the bride of Reverend Gilbert Erskine, recently namedminister of the First Presbyterian Church of Palymra, New York.
Waking alone and in that instant she knew. Yet she could not believe,her pride was too great. Not allowing herself to think I am alone.Am I?
A clamor of wedding bells had followed her here. Hundreds ofmiles. Her head was ringed in pain as if in a vise. Her bowels were sickas if the very intestines were corroded and rotting. In this unfamiliarbed smelling of damp linen, damp flesh and desperation. Where,where was she, what was the name of the hotel he'd brought her to, aparadise for honeymooners, and Niagara Falls was the Honeymoon Capital of the World, a pulse in her head beat so violently shecouldn't think. Having been married so briefly she knew little of husbandsyet it seemed to her plausible (Ariah was telling herself this asa frightened child might tell herself a story to ward off harm) thatGilbert had only just slipped quietly from the bed and was in thebathroom. She lay very still listening for sounds of faucets, a bathrunning, a toilet flushing, hoping to hear even as her sensitive nervesresisted hearing. The awkwardness, embarrassment, shame of suchintimacy was new to her, like the intimacy of marriage. The "maritalbed." Nowhere to hide. His pungent Vitalis hair-oil, and her coylysweet Lily of the Valley cologne in collision. Just Ariah and Gilbertwhom no one called Gil alone together breathless and smiling hardand determined to be cheerful, pleasant, polite with each other asthey'd always been before the wedding had joined them in holy matrimonyexcept Ariah had to know something was wrong, she'd beenjolted from her hot stuporous sleep to this knowledge.
Gone. He's gone. Can't be gone. Where?
God damn! She was a new, shy bride. So the world perceived herand the world was not mistaken. At the hotel registration deskshe'd signed, for the first time, Mrs. Ariah Erskine, and her cheeks hadflamed. A virgin, twenty-nine years old. Inexperienced with menas with another species of being. As she lay wracked with pain shedidn't dare even to reach out in the enormous bed for fear of touchinghim.
She wouldn't have wanted him to misinterpret her touch.
Almost, she had to recall his name. "Gilbert." No one called him"Gil." None of the Erskine relatives she'd met. Possibly friends of hisat the seminary in Albany had called him "Gil" but that was a side ofhim Ariah hadn't yet seen, and couldn't presume to know. It was likediscussing religious faith with him: he'd been ordained a Presbyterianminister at a very young age and so faith was his professional domainand not hers. To call such a man by the folksy diminutive "Gil" wouldbe too familiar a gesture for Ariah, his fiancée who'd only just becomehis wife.
In his stiff shy way he'd called her "Ariah, dear." She called him "Gilbert" but had been planning how in a tender moment, as in a romanticHollywood film, she would begin to call him "darling" —maybe even "Gil, darling."
Unless all that was changed. That possibility.
She'd had a glass of champagne at the wedding reception, and anotherglass — or two — of champagne in the hotel room the night before,nothing more and yet she'd never felt so drugged, so ravaged.Her eyelashes were stuck together as if with glue, her mouth tastedof acid. She couldn't bear the thought: she'd been sleeping like this,comatose, mouth open and gaping like a fish's.
Had she been snoring? Had Gilbert heard?
She tried to hear him in the bathroom. Antiquated plumbingshrieked and rumbled, but not close by ...Continues...