Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

  Family Treasures

  Anne Waite was a most unfortunate girl, although she was, of all the girls living in the small women’s dormitory, the only one who might not be persuaded to agree that she was unfortunate. More than any of the other girls in the house, Anne felt herself to be free and unconfined, accepting the ordinary regulations of institutional community life as a concession to the authorities, rather than as an imposed obligation. The university was large, and Anne was small, yet the university was more strictly bound by iron rules than Anne, and was, on the whole, Anne would have said, more unfortunate. The university authorities had been brought to recognize Anne particularly because of the death of her mother during the last term of her freshman year; Anne, returning to college as a sophomore, was without one surviving relative except for the university. Her college education had been paid for in advance, along with a regular, although small, allowance, that duly provided for—in case the university should not extend its paternal benevolence—the purchase of Anne’s clothes.

  The university provided Anne with a small, fairly well-maintained room in one of its more comfortable living centers, where, as did fifteen other girls, Anne had a bed and a chair and a desk and a dresser. She was required to present herself for breakfast at seven, arrive promptly upon call at fire drill, and be in the house with the front door locked behind her no later than eleven on weeknights, twelve on Saturdays. She was also required to be reasonably friendly with the other girls, a friendship in no cases to extend to extreme devotion, pointed whispering in the dining hall, or sleeping two in one bed; she was expected to rise when the house mother entered the room, and be decently civil to the maids.

  Anne’s mother had died shortly after the end of the football season, and long before the season of spring dances, and although Anne was at that time a shy and rather friendless girl, everyone in the house, from the house mother to the three girls on the first floor who had received permission to set up a darkroom in the first-floor bathroom for developing photographs, had sought Anne out either in the gloomy weather before she had set out for home, or in the bright warm days that followed immediately after her return, to offer both sympathy and a quick, friendly curiosity for details of the funeral. Anne had a vague comprehension, although naturally she could never investigate the fact fully, that several of the girls—Helena, for instance, on the second floor, and Cheryl, who was of course the house president—who had sat with her, choking up and saying “I know how I’d feel if it was my moth—” before dissolving into tears with her, had gone directly from Anne to dates with well-dressed boys who parked their cars, as a matter of hallowed custom, on the hill near the lake, where Cheryl certainly, and Helena probably, had sat laughing, and drinking beer, and what else?, Anne wondered.

  Anne minded none of this particularly; what she did mind, and found insulting, was the immediate decrease of her value in the eyes of the other girls in the house shortly after her mother was buried. It was no longer in good taste to commiserate with Anne, because, as was generally known, Anne was Trying to be Brave. With her bravery clearly established by her anonymity, Anne faded back into the colorless girl on the third floor who lived alone, had no friends, and rarely spoke.

  It was too much to hope, naturally, that Cheryl and Helena would introduce Anne to any of their young men just because her mother had died, or that the three girls on the first floor would allow her to develop pictures in their bathroom darkroom, but Anne had cherished a hope, along with so many other people to whom sudden and unusual things have happened, that after it was all over she might be changed—her face a little prettier, perhaps, or her hair a more decided color, or at least an interesting sadness in her manner, and the ability to think quickly and effortlessly of things to say when she passed the other girls in the hall.

  At the beginning, then, of her sophomore year at the university, Anne was doing as well as might be expected in her studies, had an unblemished record at fire drill, could certainly not be accused of any disproportionate friendships, and was, in fact, very little better off after her mother’s death at all.

  It did not take long for Anne to recognize this, since she was, in her silent and veiled manner, very agile; consequently it was in only about the third week of the school year that Anne stole Helena’s ankle bracelet and hid it in her mother’s trunk. It went under her mother’s books and papers and the ancient fur cape, which was of no value but had become Anne’s in the disposal of Anne’s mother’s private things, during which the bank holding all of Anne’s money had, with the air of an impersonal machine humanizing itself through a sentimental understanding of a small detail, sent it neatly wrapped to Anne as a memento.

  Helena’s ankle bracelet was of solid gold, and had been given to Helena by a young man in whom she no longer had any profitable interest. Anne had seen it during the glorious days of her bereavement, in a blue china trinket box on Helena’s dresser, where it would be difficult to discover its loss casually out of the mess of necklaces and compacts and odd little items donated to Helena by various young men whose names Helena could remember easily when she looked over their honorary insignia in the box on her dresser, although in most cases she had forgotten the occasions when she had received her trophies. The ankle bracelet was neither the greatest nor the least of Helena’s treasures, and Anne, stealing it and hiding it safely away, was confident that in all the mixture of young men’s gifts in the box, Helena would forever be unable to recall the name on the ankle bracelet without its presence to remind her.

  One evening, several days after the ankle bracelet had joined Anne’s mother’s fur cape in the trunk in Anne’s closet, Anne passed Helena’s room, full of noise and chatter, with six or seven girls inside, and after hesitating for a minute in the doorway, she slipped inside and sat down on the floor near the door. Although everyone noticed her and greeted her amiably enough, no one asked her any questions or addressed any particular remarks to her; nor did the tenor of their conversation change materially with her entrance. While Anne was there, Helena several times consulted the trinket box, twice to put things away and once to determine the year in which a young man under discussion had made the university’s scholastic honorary society. Not in all this evening did Helena notice that she no longer had one of her gold ankle bracelets.

  The day on which a notice appeared on the dormitory bulletin board announcing the date of the university’s winter dance, Anne went quietly, in her slippers, into Cheryl’s room while she was in class. In the top drawer of Cheryl’s desk—Anne had seen it before—was an inexpensive black pen-and-pencil set, which, in its particular box, had been awarded to Cheryl when she graduated from high school by the members of her class, whom, as class president, she had inspired to be exactly the same as every other class graduated from that academy. Anne had heard Cheryl telling about the pen-and-pencil set (the pen no longer worked) with becoming modesty: they had voted her most likely to succeed, and given her the pen-and-pencil set, and there were shy little jokes about the great books she had been expected to write with the pen and the great pictures she had been expected to sketch with the pencil but how, as a matter of fact, she used neither, although she was the house president and a member of the senior council of the university. Along with her name, on both the pen and pencil, was written “Voted Most Likely to Succeed.”

  Anne put the pen-and-pencil set with the ankle bracelet, on the bottom of her mother’s trunk, and if Cheryl noticed that it was gone, she said nothing to Anne about it, although Anne had taken of late to joining the other girls in the living room after the house was closed for the night, where, in pajamas and bathrobes, they drank Cokes ordered from a neighboring drugstore and ate sandwiches barely inferior to the college food.

  There was a girl named Maggie, who was accounted a great wit, and from her room Anne stole a stuffed gray bear that Maggie ordinarily kept securely hidden under her pillow; by the time the bear had settled comfortably into Anne’s mother’s
trunk, Maggie had probably discovered her loss but, after a noble battle with herself, had apparently decided to say nothing about it, but to sharpen her sarcasms against the world until her errant bear should return, wending his individual way back as he had taken his secret way of going.

  Anne’s usual method was to watch, pressing herself softly against the slight crack in the door of her third-floor room, or leaning back beside a window with the curtain before her, until the girl whose room she had chosen to violate had left the house. Then, wearing felt slippers and usually a bathrobe over her clothes, and sometimes carrying a bath towel to avert suspicion and to cover any bulky objects, Anne would move softly out of her room, her heart shaking deliciously, biting her lips to keep from smiling. In the early afternoons, when the house was most quiet, Anne could go from one floor to the next by the backstairs, without being seen or attracting attention if she were. If anyone noticed her, she could say that the tub on the third floor was occupied and she had come to the second floor to take a bath, or to the first floor to answer the phone; if she were seen coming out of someone’s room—which never, to her knowledge, had happened—she could say, with perfect truth, that she was looking for something.

  Before the snow had fully melted, in the inexorable round of the university year, Anne had, besides the ankle bracelet and the pen-and-pencil set and the gray teddy bear, a black satin slip she had found on the floor of a closet and washed carefully and folded neatly before setting it away in her mother’s trunk; she had a carbon copy of a sonnet, neatly typed and dated (it had been sent away, Anne knew, to a poetry magazine not long before, but the rejection notice was not attached to the carbon), and a small leather-covered notebook, virgin except for the first page, on which was written largely: “BUY ASPIRIN. WRITE HOME. GET SPANISH ASSGNMT. DRESS FROM CLEANERS.”

  Also by this time, of course, many of the losses had been discovered. Cheryl, going one day to her desk drawer to make a shy point about her own worth, was not able to find her pen-and-pencil set inscribed “Voted Most Likely to Succeed,” and after much thought and consideration, she mentioned the fact cautiously to several of her friends.

  “Not that I think it’s been stolen, or anything,” Cheryl insisted over and over again. “I don’t think anyone in the house steals. I just can’t imagine where my pen-and-pencil set has gone.”

  “Perhaps you left it somewhere,” one of the girls might suggest incautiously, to which Cheryl would reply with indignation, “Naturally I’d never take it anywhere—not with ‘Voted Most Likely to Succeed’ written all over it. But I just know it hasn’t been stolen.”

  When the loss of the black satin slip became a topic of conversation, Cheryl’s apprehensions became “But who around here steals?” and “I just can’t believe it of anyone in the house.” Maggie, who had lost the gray teddy bear, never mentioned it, although she did say she was almost positive that a silver signet ring was gone from her top right-hand drawer, and she was fairly certain that she had seen one of the maids hovering near the dresser shortly before she’d discovered that the ring was gone. The girl whose carbon copy of a sonnet was missing admitted blushingly that she could not say for sure how many copies of the sonnet she had made. One of the girls managed to recall that at one time she had owned a compact with her name on it, which she was no longer able to find; another believed that the yellow blouse she had blamed the laundry for losing had most likely been stolen. Anne softly contributed, during one discussion, the additional fact that she herself had lost a couple of things, but no one noticed particularly, probably on the theory that Anne’s possessions were so anonymous anyway that loss of any of them would be superfluous.

  “I can’t believe it of the maids,” Cheryl was saying by now. “Surely not the maids.”

  “Someone must have come in from outside, then,” said the girl who had lost the black satin slip. “Imagine, if anyone sneaked into the house and went through our clothes.” She shivered delightedly.

  “I don’t think anyone could have come in,” Helena said firmly.

  They circled joyfully around the fact that it might be one of themselves, and eyed one another with pleased suspicion. There was a group, made up of Helena, Cheryl, and several of the others, who believed excitedly that Maggie was doing it, and Cheryl said feelingly, “I can’t believe it of Maggie.”

  “Well,” someone offered hesitantly, “she doesn’t have a lot of money, you know. She could have sold some of the jewelry.”

  “She has a new sweater,” Helena said. “You know—the red one. And you can take my word for it, that sweater cost a lot more than anything Maggie’s ever worn before.”

  “Of course,” Cheryl said thoughtfully, “she wouldn’t dare wear any of those things—you know. But still, I can’t—”

  There was another group, made up of Maggie and several others, including the three girls with the bathroom darkroom, who believed Cheryl was responsible.

  “Of course,” Maggie said charitably, “if it was Cheryl, you couldn’t really blame her. I mean, sometimes people have something wrong with them and they’ve got to steal.”

  “Dipsomania,” one of the darkroom girls contributed knowingly. “It can only be cured by psychoanalysis.”

  The girls moved closer to one another, listening, and someone offered, softly, “Do you suppose her family knows? And let her come back to college?”

  “Her family,” Maggie said, “probably they don’t want her stealing their stuff.”

  There was still another group, of course, with shifting ringleaders, who believed that Helena had done it. “She can’t stand anyone having something she doesn’t have,” one girl said. “It drives her crazy just to see one of us with a new coat or something.”

  “Not that she doesn’t have enough, as it is,” said another. “I can’t really imagine Helena touching anything that didn’t belong to her. Except, of course, she’s really terribly jealous.”

  The remaining girls, who believed that the three girls with the bathroom darkroom had stolen the property, based their case on incontrovertible facts: 1) that people who have permission to turn a first-floor bathroom into a photographic darkroom think they own the world, anyway; 2) no one could really tell whether they were in their darkroom at any given time, no matter what they said; they could be anywhere in the house; and 3) one of the three girls had been heard expressing a most enthusiastic admiration of a china cat on the dresser of another girl in the house, and although the china cat was not missing yet, a pack of cigarettes she had put down next to it was, and anyone could get rattled and grab the first thing she saw.

  No one, for a minute, suspected Anne. Anne, in all of the suspicion and confusion, went from one to another of the little talking groups, offering her disregarded opinions, and at night, when the house was quiet, she took out her treasures and counted them over, setting the teddy bear next to the sonnet and the ankle bracelet next to the leather notebook, weighing the pen-and-pencil set in her hands and regarding its motto until she could have drawn from memory the peculiar angular script of it; trying on the black satin slip and walking silently around her room, with its door never locked.

  Eventually, it was Anne who brought a formal complaint to the house mother.

  It had occurred to Anne that the house mother, whose name was Miss McBride, had worn at various times a pair of dangling jet earrings, which Anne knew were kept in a cardboard box in Miss McBride’s dresser. As a result, one afternoon, in her bathrobe and carrying her towel, Anne approached the quiet, bookless room that Miss McBride had only just vacated to go shopping, and had, fortunately, only just stepped inside when Miss McBride returned unexpectedly. In the still atmosphere of the room Anne was speechless for a minute, as Miss McBride looked at her, and then Anne, making the best of her situation, said urgently, “Miss McBride, I was looking for you.”

  “Yes?” Miss McBride said, not prepared to commit herself. She was a fairly y
oung, well-set-up, incredibly romantic woman, and was fond of the big-sisterly admiration she received from her girls; she was partial to sympathetic smiles and knowing nods, and allowed the rumor to circulate uncontradicted that she had permitted—even encouraged—one of her girls to elope several years before with an extremely wealthy chemistry major. Although she had heard the stories of thievery, and was completely aware of the many rumors going around in her house, she was not yet prepared to commit herself on the subject, and did not intend to take any action until she knew better what kind to take without offending anyone. By telling her precipitately, Anne would force her to do something immediately, and so Miss McBride’s tone when she said “Yes?” again to Anne was cold, and almost ominous.

  “Miss McBride,” Anne said, allowing her words to come almost in a rush, so that later, when Miss McBride questioned her, the easygoing mind would remember only her emotionality, “Miss McBride, I don’t know what to do. Really, it’s awful. I couldn’t have believed it of her,” Anne said, borrowing freely from Cheryl; “it must be some kind of a mental disease, or something,” borrowing freely from Maggie. “I mean, when I saw her I tried to think of something to say, and she looked so guilty. So I came right down to tell you and ask you what to do.” Anne hesitated for a minute, then added plaintively, “Please, can’t we sort of keep it quiet, not have a scandal?”

  “Who?” Miss McBride said, having fastened accurately on the one essential fact.

  Anne dropped her eyes. “I’d rather not say, please, Miss McBride.”

  “You won’t tell me?” Miss McBride’s voice rose. Anne blushed and remained silent.

  “Of course,” Miss McBride said, embarrassed for a minute at her own forwardness. There was no further attempt made by either of them to discuss the thievery. After a few minutes’ thought Miss McBride said, “I’ll post a notice on the bulletin board, for a house meeting tonight.”

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