Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson

  “No,” he said, surprised. “Not tired at all; I’m feeling very well, really.”

  Although she had not intended to view this island, this site of her unexpected holiday, so soon, had meant ever since she stepped into the boat without being allowed a chance of turning around to keep her back steadfastly against the island and not turn, not turn, until she was close enough to touch it, Paula at last forgot her resolution and turned to look; she saw, looming impossibly large over her head and with the red sunset behind, a great black jagged rock, without signs of humanity or sympathy, with only dreadful reaching black rocks and sharp incredible outlines against the sunset and she said (thinking, I can always go back if it’s too awful), “Charles, how do you feel?”

  “I feel fine,” he said sharply.

  “It’s just all too exciting,” Virginia said.

  As the boat came closer it appeared that the island was composed of a single rock instead of many; there were no pebbles or splinters of rock at the edges of the water in the little cove to which the young man guided the boat, and a series of steps leading up to the house above seemed to be carved out of the rock. The sun had gone by now and only a faint impression of the sunset lay in the sky; it had grown much colder and the coming darkness made the rock look blacker and the steps steep and wet.

  “Can we get up there at all?” Paula said, leaning from the boat to look at the steps; realizing that she was expected to stand and move from the boat onto the steps she hesitated and then reflected that she could hardly stay on in the boat unless she chose to go back with the ferryman. I wish for once Virginia would move first, she thought, or Charles, and then rebuked herself with the recollection that after all Virginia could hardly climb over Paula in the end seat to get out, and Charles was ill. The young man stepped easily from the boat onto the rock and held out his hand to Paula, and she remembered that he had helped Virginia into the boat earlier, and took his hand and found herself with less grace than usual almost scrambling onto the rock steps. They were not wet, after all, or slippery, but seemed actually to press back against her feet as though holding firmly against her.

  I like it here, she thought, surprising herself, and found the steps irresistible; before Virginia was even out of the boat Paula had turned and begun to climb. At first she only enjoyed the pressure of the steps under her feet, and then she raised her head and saw the house above her and she began to climb faster.

  “Look at Paula, so far ahead,” she heard Charles saying below her; he sounded cross, and she thought that perhaps he was annoyed with her for having spoken so much of his illness. Ahead of her the windows of the house showed light and then the door opened and someone came into the doorway, looking down and seeming to peer through the darkness.

  “Who is it?” the woman in the doorway called.

  Required to identify herself suddenly, Paula hesitated on the steps and then turned and looked behind her. Charles and Virginia were following her slowly, helping one another, and Paula felt first a small pang that she had not stayed with them, but had gone on so easily herself. Then, past the curve of the rock below her, she saw the boat going back, and was suddenly very frightened when she realized that the boat and the ferryman had never intended to stay with them; how will we ever get back? she wondered, and then smiled at herself, thinking that surely the ferryman must come back several times a day.

  “Are you all right?” she called down to Charles and Virginia. “Shall I come back and help you?”

  “We’re all right,” Virginia called up to her. “The steps are just a little steep for Charles.”

  Paula turned and climbed on up to the house while the woman in the doorway stood watching her. “So you’ve come,” said the woman in the doorway when Paula was close enough for her to speak. “I’d almost given up expecting you.”

  Not a very gracious hostess, Paula thought. “We’ve been late for everything all day,” she explained. “Trains, busses, meals, everything.”

  “You’ll have to take what you can get here tonight,” the woman said. “Dinner’s been done with for an hour, and the dishes washed and put away.”

  “I’m sure we won’t want much,” Paula said. She was displeased, and as she came up onto the last, wider steps which led to the doorway she did not stop to look at the woman, but brushed past her and went inside. The room into which she came seemed to be made of the rock of the island, and for a minute she stood staring, forgetting the landlady behind her. A great fire burned on the far side of the huge room, and flickered against the walls in lines that might have been reflecting mica in rock, ran in light up and down the wide dark walls on which no pictures hung, and shattered itself oddly across and along the floor on which no rug lay. The furniture was huge and wooden, a great trestle table with benches on either side, and a long wooden bench with back and arms which brought the word “settle” to Paula’s mind, and huge square wooden chairs, worn and smooth with use. There were no ornaments of any kind and no light except from the great fire.

  Paula heard the landlady, still behind her in the doorway, calling down to Charles and Virginia that it was only a bit more to come, and then the landlady added very quietly, “You’ll want to put in curtains and such, I daresay.”

  “Were you speaking to me?” Paula asked; there seemed no one else around.

  “And flowers, I suppose.”

  Paula advanced to the fire and stood warming her hands. “It’s a most unusual room,” she said. She was trying to identify her own feelings; over and above everything else was a great despair and impulsive dislike of this house, this woman, this room; she tried to tell herself that it was the usual reaction to finishing a long journey and finding less comfort than she had been dreaming of since she left home. More than this, however, she was discouraged; this did not seem at all the sort of place in which to spend a belated vacation and she was anxious over how Charles and Virginia would feel about it. It’ll be better in the morning when the sun is out, she told herself, and heard Charles and Virginia greeting the landlady.

  “Did our suitcases come?” Charles was asking immediately; he had overseen their departure.

  “This morning,” said the landlady. “They’re in your rooms.”

  “Splendid,” said Charles. He came over to the fire and stood beside Paula. “Chill in the air,” he said.

  “It gets cold nights, this time of year,” the landlady said.

  “This is an extraordinary room,” Virginia said. “It looks as though it’s made out of rock.”

  “It is rock, as a matter of fact,” said the landlady. “Most unusual. The greater part of the house is made of rock; I have a small booklet describing it for tourists, and I have put copies in your rooms. It is regarded as a most unusual house.”

  “It is most unusual,” said Charles. “You are Mrs. Carter, of course?”

  “Mrs. Carter,” said the landlady, nodding. “Mr. and Mrs. Ellison.”

  “And Miss Ellison,” said Charles, indicating Paula.

  “Of course,” said the landlady. “I have your rooms ready.”

  “Splendid,” Charles said; he had taken command again now that there was no physical exertion required, and he looked patronizingly over Paula to say to the landlady, “Any chance of our having something to eat?”

  The landlady waved her head back and forth sadly. “You came so late, you know,” she said. “I can give you cheese, and beer, and perhaps, if you wanted to wait for a broiled chicken . . .”

  “Just some tea for me, thanks,” said Virginia.

  “I should like some tea,” Paula said.

  “Whatever you can find, then, in a minute or so,” Charles said. “Nothing that means any trouble.”

  The landlady nodded politely and went out of the room, and Charles, looking around with an odd smile, said “Well.”

  “Isn’t it wonderful?” said Vi
rginia. “That marvelous old woman, and this house . . .” she gestured at the walls and then, remembering, laughed and turned to Paula. “You know what she said to me, that funny old woman?” she demanded. “When I was just coming in the door, she whispered to me, was the tall woman with our party?” She laughed again. “Meaning you,” she said to Paula.

  “She didn’t seem to like me,” Paula said.

  “These women are unaccountable,” Charles said. “Remember she lives practically alone on this island.”

  “In this wonderful house,” Virginia said.

  * * *

  It was substantially better in the daylight. They had slept in rooms adjoining one another, Charles and Virginia in a huge fourposter bed with curtains, and Paula in a small room with windows overlooking the water almost directly, and in the morning, lying awake in her bed, Paula was for a minute surprised at the moving reflections on the ceiling of her room before she realized that it was only the reflection of the sun on the water, reflected again through her windows. She rose from the bed and went to look out on the water and was shocked to see the steep and immediate fall of the island below her; this was the side of the island away from the steps they had come up the night before, and all this part of the house almost hung over the water. Looking down, Paula thought how in many ways this might be extraordinarily good for Charles after his illness, and good for Virginia and Paula too, since the whole aspect of the island lacked that cloying servitude which they all three hated by now, Charles from receiving it for so long, and she and Virginia from giving it; there was here no sense of heavy luxury and overrich surroundings, but only a very clear and distinct effect of an island out of sight of the mainland, sharp and strong alone on the water, and nothing below but solid rock and nothing more to do, perhaps, than endure the constant and incessant triumphs of water over rock, rock over water.

  “I could spend all day,” she thought, almost speaking aloud, “just standing somewhere watching the horizon, or sitting on a high rock, or walking down to the water and up again.”

  She put on a pair of heavy shoes, since if she were going to climb rocks she must be protected against their animosity, and went down the wide wooden stairs of the house into the stone room, where already this morning a fire was burning and the heavy furniture looked burnished in the sunlight through the windows. A clean napkin lay on the long wooden table and on it a heavy cup like the one she had had her tea from the night before, and a wooden trencher. Paula went to the door which she had learned led to the kitchen, opened it slightly, and called “Good morning.”

  “Well, there,” said the landlady from somewhere within. “With us already?’

  She swung the kitchen door wide and came into the stone room with an earthenware jug which she set down on the table. “Coffee,” she said. “You’ll have eggs, perhaps? And bacon? Fresh-made rolls?”

  “Thank you,” Paula said. Even the landlady seemed more cheerful this morning, and Paula thought that perhaps this was because she herself was not so sullen. “I’ll have anything I may,” she said, smiling. “I never dreamed I could be so hungry.”

  “It’s being near the water,” the landlady said profoundly. “You’ll always have good appetite here. I’ve known them eat a whole chicken at a sitting.”

  “Tell me,” Paula said, coming closer to look at the earthenware jug of coffee, “your dishes are so unusual, and so lovely. Where did you ever find them?”

  “They came with the house,” the landlady said. “I keep them because people seem to think they belong.”

  “They do, indeed,” Paula said.

  “Hard to wash clean,” said the landlady, disappearing again into the kitchen.

  This morning the moving lines of the firelight on the stone walls were caught and pursued by reflections of sunlight, and the broad windows overlooking the sea and the rock glittered until Paula wondered if the island could be seen from the mainland as a bright light on the horizon. She poured herself a cup of coffee from the earthenware jug, admiring its weight and solidity, and stood with her cup by the window, looking out. When the kitchen door opened she said without turning, “What is the rock the island is made of? I’d really swear it was black.”

  “Jet?” said the landlady’s voice, musing, “malachite? I don’t remember, but it’s in the little book.”

  Paula came to the table and sat down, and served herself with eggs and bacon onto the wooden trencher. The landlady stood by, silently, and when Paula began to eat she said, “You’ll see my other guest this morning.”

  “Another guest?” said Paula.

  “You’ll be wanting to meet him as soon as possible,” said the landlady.

  “Who is he?” said Paula, but the landlady was going into the kitchen. She finished her breakfast and lighted a cigarette, and came back to the window with her cigarette and her coffee cup, and pulled one of the great wooden chairs around to sit in, so that she was almost hidden by the back of it and was surprised for a minute by the landlady’s scolding voice until she realized it could not possibly be addressed to her.

  “She’s been and gone, of course,” said the landlady. “You ought to have come an hour ago.” There was the dull sound of the wooden trenchers being stacked together and the landlady’s voice went on, “I can’t after all keep coming to look for you when I want you; there are people here needing food and bedding and attention, and where you’ve gone I can never tell.”

  Since she was eavesdropping, Paula thought that the only thing to do was stand up immediately and go to the table for more coffee as though she had not been listening at all, which turned out to be more difficult than she thought, when she saw the landlady’s surprised face.

  “She’s here again, then,” the landlady said. “This will be the other guest, Miss.”

  I hope she doesn’t fall to addressing all her guests so impertinently, Paula thought, and turned to smile at the other guest; she felt an immediate shock of recognition, as though this were someone she had known all her life, and then realized that she had never seen him before. “How do you do,” she said, and then stopped because she did not know his name.

  “How do you do, Miss Ellison,” he said courteously but in such a low voice that she was not completely sure if he had called her by name. He seemed so frightened of her that she refrained from asking his name, but only smiled again and said, “I was admiring the view of the water from the window.”

  “That’s why I like an island,” he said. His tone and his manner were precisely those of someone excruciatingly shy, who cannot always stop to frame sensible remarks. He was very small, and held his hands in front of him in an attitude of cringing, and the only fact against his being so terribly shy was that he did not avoid looking at her, as a shy person would, but kept his eyes fixed upon her in a sort of hypnotized stare, and, staring back rudely, Paula thought that his eyes must be almost the color and texture of the rock itself.

  “I was waiting for your sister-in-law, actually,” he said.

  “She’ll be down in a while,” said Paula, trying not to smile. Virginia was small and lovely, and shy little men like this always found her reassuring. “She was very tired after our trip yesterday, and I expect she’ll sleep late.”

  “You’ll do, of course,” he said ineptly.

  “Thank you,” Paula said with gravity. “Have you been here long?”

  “Quite a while,” said the little man vaguely. “A very long time, in fact.”

  “I understand that this is quite a popular spot earlier in the year.”

  “Moderately so. Never more than a few people, that is.” He looked at her earnestly. “Not many people feel at home on an island,” he said.

  “I suppose only a certain sort of person would find this stimulating,” Paula said. She glanced out the window again and down to the sea below. “It’s an excellent place for my brother to
be, right now; he’s been very ill, and needed precisely this kind of lonely, stimulating spot.”

  “It will probably do him a great deal of good,” said the little man politely.

  “I hope so,” said Paula. She was thinking of how such a concrete, limited world as an island and the sea might be extraordinarily helpful to Charles, since he would be given no choice except rock or water, and could not waste his mind in a thousand distractions; he might come to see everything, as she sternly hoped, in terms of solidity and fluidity, and learn that the rock was, as a place to live, far preferable to the sea. Perhaps, even, confining Charles to an island for a while would result in his taking an island away with him and being thus enabled to preserve for himself this kind of firm rock to live on always . . . The little man disturbed her by saying, “You mustn’t be entirely sure of the rock, you know.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Well, it’s been here for a number of years, of course . . . and rock is a hard thing to get rid of . . .”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “It doesn’t matter at all,” he said nervously. “Your brother’s illness—it’s given you a good deal of worry?”

  “Of course,” she said; she had mentioned Charles’s illness originally as a sort of warning; it would be wisest, she felt, to let the other guest know immediately that Charles had been very ill indeed and must not be disturbed, and must not, indeed, be allowed to disturb others with vagaries left over from his illness. She had not expected, however, that the conversation might allow this little man to feel that he had any right to ask more personal questions; a polite murmur of sympathy was the most she had felt was required of him.

  “It’s been very difficult for you,” he said.

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