At seven o’clock on the evening before her wedding day, Margaret Casey finished her packing, locked her suitcase, and sat down on the edge of her bed to catch her breath. Her room was on the top floor of the house in Scarsdale where she had worked as a maid for ten years. She was alone in the house. The phone was shut off, the refrigerator was disconnected, the windows all were locked, and all the beds, except hers, stripped for the summer. The family had early that morning driven off to their cottage in the Berkshires, where they would remain until October. Margaret had dreaded the moment of their departure, fearing her own tears, which fell easily, but at the last minute she smiled brilliantly, and waved, and saw the car disappear out onto the road calmly enough, although for a moment there she felt she must cry after them to come back, come back, if only for an hour, and not leave her by herself at a time like this.
Of course, it was her own idea in the first place to get married the day after they left for the summer. Summer had seemed a comfortable, indefinite time away the night last February that she had given in to Carl’s persistence and given him her promise. She liked Carl, but she wasn’t much inclined to marry him. All that night, she lay awake in a panic, thinking of ways to break with him. It would be heartless to tell him straight out that she had no use for him. Crafty, she decided to do one thing at a time. First she would give Mrs Smith her notice, and then she would just steal away to another town and find a new job and not let Carl know anything about it. But when she went in, when they were having breakfast, and gave her notice, the sight of Mrs Smith’s stricken face was too much for her, and to ease her guilt she blurted out that she was going to marry Carl, and settle down, and stop working, and have a home of her own. Mr and Mrs Smith were astonished and delighted at her good fortune, and their pleasure made her so generous that she embroidered the case a little, describing the house (not yet built) that Carl hoped to buy, and telling about his plan to go into business with his brother someday, not right away. Mrs Smith said she hoped Margaret would let her give a little wedding breakfast here in the house after the ceremony, but Margaret quickly said no, that her plans were made to be married the day after they left for the summer. After some argument, Mrs Smith gave in to her, and laughed, and said that after all Margaret was the bride and it was only right she should have things her way. Back in the kitchen, Margaret sat as astonished as though they had ordered her out of the house. All I wanted to do was give notice, she thought, and here I’ve gone and committed myself.
Still, July seemed a long time off. There would surely be some way to free herself. She could pick a fight with Carl, or she might confide in Mrs Smith and ask her advice. But it grew harder and harder to speak up. Anyway, she found herself growing fond of Carl. It was the first time in her life she had ever had anyone of her own, and he was very considerate of her. He was coming along now in a few minutes to take her out to dinner.
She contrasted this evening with the evening, twelve years ago in Ireland, before her sister Madge was married. That evening, Madge never stopped posturing around in her wedding dress of blue silk, showing off before the neighbours while her mother sat in the middle of the room crying because she was losing her big girl and the family would soon be all scattered. ‘Next thing little Margaret will be leaving me,’ cried the mother, and Margaret had darted to her mother’s side and protested that no, no, she would never leave, and the neighbours nodded approvingly and said that was a good daughter, that one. Still, good daughter and all, it was Madge who was the favourite, and when, after a year, Madge decided to economise by moving back into her old home, Margaret felt very out of place with the perpetual fuss over Madge’s baby and Madge’s husband and Madge’s aches and pains. Margaret was already out working by then, and when her uncle in New York wrote offering to lend her the passage over, she accepted at once, believing up to the last minute before she left that the mother would come to her senses and forbid her to go. But the mother appeared delighted to see Margaret get her ‘chance,’ and there were fewer tears shed over Margaret’s departure for a foreign land than over Madge’s decision to marry a boy she had known all her life.
Margaret had found great satisfaction in the money orders she sent home weekly, knowing the power they gave her mother over the household. After the debt to her uncle was paid off, she sent more and more money home, stinting herself to send as much as she could. She always meant to start saving her fare home, but she really believed that when the time came for her to see her mother again, the money would turn up somehow. She wanted to go back there and best Madge, once and for all. She had a dream of saving up enough to go back and start a little business, enough to support her mother and herself, or to go back with a comfortable nest egg and find some good man to marry. None of her hopes had come true. All of her hopes had turned into regrets; only the hurt, strained feeling in her heart was the same. Everything had turned out wrong. The mother was five months dead now, and there no longer seemed any way to get back at Madge, sitting triumphant there in possession of all the old bits of ornaments and furniture and everything that remained of the old home. Not that Madge had offered to send her anything —not even a few of the old photographs —and it would be too bitter to reveal her jealousy and longing by asking for them. Madge had known what she was doing, all right.
If only God had given Margaret the strength to wait a while longer, something might have turned up. She might have won the Sweep, or some old lady might have turned up who wanted a companion to travel to Ireland with her, or somebody—her uncle, maybe—might have died and left her a legacy. There was no limit to the things that might have happened, if she’d only had patience. But the night she heard her mother was dead, Carl was so sympathetic that she committed herself further than she had ever meant to. It was the way he put his arm around her that undid her, the closeness of his body giving her a warmth she had forgotten since her mother’s lap. How well he knew the time to take advantage of me, she thought angrily. His persistence had put her off the first time she met him. She should have been firm then, and got rid of him for good. That was the German in him, enabling him to hang on until he got what he was after. He would never fit in with the crowd at home. They would laugh at him behind his back and say he was thick. Madge’s cruel eyes would cut clear through the smart American clothes to see the soft, good-natured, easily hurt fellow underneath. Madge would laugh to hear Mr Smith say that Carl was a fine, steady fellow who would always be a credit to the community. Mr and Mrs Smith had been very nice about the whole thing. Mr Smith had given Margaret three months’ salary as a wedding present, and Mrs Smith gave her her wedding outfit. Her dress, a jacket and skirt of navy-blue shantung, hung now in the closet, with the new shoes in a box on the floor underneath and the new hat in a box on the shelf above. Except for her rosary beads, she had nothing old and familiar from Ireland to bring with her into her new home. Madge had stolen everything, and without even lifting a finger.
One time, when Margaret was a little girl, before her father died, her mother and father had gone for a ride in a charabanc, out into the country. When they came back, they talked about the hotel where they’d had tea, and about the woods and rivers they had seen. They promised that Margaret would have a charabanc ride one Sunday, and she believed them and began to go every Sunday to watch the buses fill up with passengers. A lot of young people used to go, laughing and pushing and jostling each other to see who would get the best seat. Margaret had her seat all picked out—the one up in front near the driver—but she never had the chance to ride in it. There was always some excuse to keep her from going. Sometimes one of the charabancs went on a mystery tour. The driver of the charabanc knew where he was going, but the passengers had to guess, and never could be sure of their destination until they arrived there. The people going off on the mystery tours seemed even gayer than the usual charabanc crowds. Margaret longed to go with them, although she had a half fear that the mystery charabancs never came back at all. She might just as well have gone on one and not come back, for all the good she had made of her life.
A joyful shouting came from downstairs, and Margaret ran out onto the landing. It was Carl. He had let himself in by the back door. He was accustomed to back doors, being a plumber. When he reached the second-floor landing, he looked up and saw her.
‘How’s my girl?’ he shouted, as though they were miles apart. His voice was hard in the emptiness of the house. He had been drinking, she could hear it in his voice, but she would say nothing about it this time. He threw his head back and stretched his arms wide, clowning in his unaccustomed happiness, but she was not touched by his emotion. She stared down at him in astonishment and fear.
‘What’s the matter?’ he shouted, throwing himself down on his arms on the banisters. ‘Were you afraid I wasn’t going to come? Were you afraid I might leave you at the church? You can get that idea out of your head. You’re not getting away from me that easy.’ She wanted to scream at him that he was beneath her, and that she despised him, and that she was not bound to him yet and never would be bound to him, but instead she spoke civilly, saying that she would be ready in a minute, and warning him not to come up into the room, because her wedding dress was hanging there and she didn’t want him to see it ahead of time, for fear of bringing bad luck on the two of them.
‘The Bride’ was first published in The New Yorker in August 1953. It is included in The Rose Garden, which was the second collection of Brennan’s stories to be published posthumously, following on from The Springs of Affection. The Stinging Fly Press will publish a new edition of The Rose Garden in 2024 with a new introduction by Brennan’s biographer, Angela Bourke.