From the archive at SciFi.com–well worth exploring.
by John Wyndham
“A most objectionable habit,” declared the Major emphatically.
“I always say,” ventured Rodgers, “that the only way to deal with a man who stares persistently is to stare back at him.”
The Major looked at him unkindly.
“You would. And if he ‘always says’ the same thing, I suppose you continue to glare at one another for hours on end.”
White joined in the conversation.
“It’s not,” he said, “the plain, straight-in-the-face stare which troubles me as much as the oblique method—I mean the kind of stare which looks firmly on to your tie or shoes and stays there. All I can do when I meet it is to wriggle unhappily and wonder whether anything has come adrift.”
“Men don’t like being stared at, but women don’t like not being stared at,” said Rodgers with the air of one making a contribution to philosophy.
· · · · ·
The Major groaned. “There can be few men with such a fund of generalizations, but this time I’m bound to admit that there’s something in it.”
“Undoubtedly most women prefer molestation to indifference,” White agreed.
Berridge’s lazy voice drifted into their talk.
“I know a number of women who don’t care for being stared at, and one who can’t stand it—in fact, she definitely hates it.”
“Of course, there are exceptions,” admitted the Major, “or we should be in the unthinkable position of having Rodgers always right. But you can hardly call this lady normal.”
“Well, if you call hurt pride an abnormality—”
“Let’s have the story,” White suggested.
“It dates from an evening six or seven years ago.The place was New York, and her name is Mary,” Berridge began in his quiet manner.
“She had been to the theatre and to supper with friends. Since her destination was not the same as theirs, she decided to go home alone on the subway—as they call the New York Underground.
“By day the subway is a mass of men and women all apparently ten minutes behind time, but late at night it echoes with a dreary desolation, and the trains seem to rattle and crash indecently through a world more than half dead.”
· · · · ·
“Mary, her mind still full of an indigestible play, could preserve an indifference to the mere sordidness of her surroundings, but she did notice that there were depressingly few travellers scattered around the car she boarded. At each stop there followed a further depopulation until, four of five stations later, she realized suddenly that she was alone save for three men who sat facing her. The middle member of this trio was staring in a fixed manner.
“Now, though Mary was well used to stares and chose to take them as compliments, yet, on this occasion, she was not flattered. The starer was a flashy production, striped hat-band to chrome yellow shoes. His lips hung slightly apart and gave to his whole countenance an unattractive vacancy. But his eyes were piercing. Pupil and iris had combined into a bright blackness to glare out at her from vivid whites.
“Mary hummed a tuneless little tune and tried to find something interesting to look at, but her eyes were drawn back to the man opposite. She assumed a forbidding expression of indignation, which failed to have any effect. Her distaste began to give way to neutral discomfort—she felt somehow as though she were being mentally undressed. His eyes cut into her, and through her. Without a quiver they out-stared her.”
· · · · ·
“The man’s two companions seemed unaware of his rudeness. They sat beside him, each with an arm firmly linked in his, only turning to exchange an occasional word behind his unmoving head. Mary’s decision to alight at the next station was postponed by the entry of a man and a woman, bringing her a new supply of courage. They sat down beside her, and the train continued; so did the stare.
“A minute or two later she became aware that the newcomer was addressing her.
“‘Perhaps,’ he suggested, ‘you would like to look at the evening paper?’
“‘Thank you,’ she replied gratefully. It was a kind thought; a screen from the stare. Not until she raised it did she notice scrawled pencil marks across the columns. The writing was jerky by reason of the trains’ motion, but with difficulty she managed to read:
“‘I think you had better get out with us at the next stop.’
“She looked questioningly at her neighbour, and he gave a slight nod.
“There was apologetic explanation in his tone as they stood on the platform and watched the train recede.
“‘I’m sorry if I alarmed you,’ he said, ‘but my reason was the man opposite to us. Did you notice him?’
“‘Notice him? Why, the creature had been staring at me in a loathsome, horrible way ever since I got in.’
“The man looked at her and shook his head.
“‘No, I’m afraid you are wrong there. You see, I’m a doctor, and I assure you that the man was not staring at you—as a matter of fact, he was stone dead.'”
Berridge paused for a moment, then he added:
“Such a wound in one’s pride is hard to heal—Mary still feels a little foolish when anyone stares at her.”