Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson


  In any case the great-aunt said politely—she was sitting at the other side of the round room, against a window, and she was not very clearly visible—“I am amazed that they told you about me at all. However, since you are here I cannot pretend that I really object to having you; you may come in and sit down.”

  Margaret came obediently into the room and sat down on the stone bench which ran all the way around the tower room, under the windows which of course were on all sides and open to the winds, so that the movement of the air through the tower room was insistent and constant, making talk difficult and even distinguishing objects a matter of some effort.

  As though it were necessary to establish her position in the house emphatically and immediately, the old lady said, with a gesture and a grin, “My tapestries,” and waved at the windows. She seemed to be not older than a great-aunt, although perhaps too old for a mere aunt, but her voice was clearly able to carry through the sound of the wind in the tower room and she seemed compact and strong beside the window, not at all as though she might be dizzy from looking out, or tired from the stairs.

  “May I look out the window?” Margaret asked, almost of the cat, which sat next to her and regarded her without friendship, but without, as yet, dislike.

  “Certainly,” said the great-aunt. “Look out the windows, by all means.”

  Margaret turned on the bench and leaned her arms on the wide stone ledge of the window, but she was disappointed. Although the tops of the trees did not reach halfway up the tower, she could see only branches and leaves below and no sign of the wide lawns or the roofs of the house or the curve of the river.

  “I hoped I could see the way the river went, from here.”

  “The river doesn’t go from here,” said the old lady, and laughed.

  “I mean,” Margaret said, “they told me that the river went around in a curve, almost surrounding the house.”

  “Who told you?” said the old lady.

  “Paul.”

  “I see,” said the old lady. “He’s back, is he?”

  “He’s been here for several days, but he’s going away again soon.”

  “And what’s your name?” asked the old lady, leaning forward.

  “Margaret.”

  “I see,” said the old lady again. “That’s my name, too,” she said.

  Margaret thought that “How nice” would be an inappropriate reply to this, and something like “Is it?” or “Just imagine” or “What a coincidence” would certainly make her feel more foolish than she believed she really was, so she smiled uncertainly at the old lady and dismissed the notion of saying “What a lovely name.”

  “He should have come and gone sooner,” the old lady went on, as though to herself. “Then we’d have it all behind us.”

  “Have all what behind us?” Margaret asked, although she felt that she was not really being included in the old lady’s conversation with herself, a conversation that seemed—and probably was—part of a larger conversation which the old lady had with herself constantly and on larger subjects than the matter of Margaret’s name, and which even Margaret, intruder as she was, and young, could not be allowed to interrupt for very long. “Have all what behind us?” Margaret asked insistently.

  “I say,” said the old lady, turning to look at Margaret, “he should have come and gone already, and we’d all be well out of it by now.”

  “I see,” said Margaret. “Well, I don’t think he’s going to be here much longer. He’s talking of going.” In spite of herself, her voice trembled a little. In order to prove to the old lady that the trembling in her voice was imaginary, Margaret said almost defiantly, “It will be very lonely here after he has gone.”

  “We’ll be well out of it, Margaret, you and I,” the old lady said. “Stand away from the window, child, you’ll be wet.”

  Margaret realized with this that the storm, which had—she knew now—been hanging over the house for long sunny days had broken, suddenly, and that the wind had grown louder and was bringing with it through the windows of the tower long stinging rain. There were drops on the cat’s black fur, and Margaret felt the side of her face wet. “Do your windows close?” she asked. “If I could help you—?”

  “I don’t mind the rain,” the old lady said. “It wouldn’t be the first time it’s rained around the tower.”

  “I don’t mind it,” Margaret said hastily, drawing away from the window. She realized that she was staring back at the cat, and added nervously, “Although, of course, getting wet is—” She hesitated and the cat stared back at her without expression. “I mean,” she said apologetically, “some people don’t like getting wet.”

  The cat deliberately turned its back on her and put its face closer to the window.

  “What were you saying about Paul?” Margaret asked the old lady, feeling somehow that there might be a thin thread of reason tangling the old lady and the cat and the tower and the rain, and even, with abrupt clarity, defining Margaret herself and the strange hesitation which had caught at her here in the tower. “He’s going away soon, you know.”

  “It would have been better if it were over with by now,” the old lady said. “These things don’t take really long, you know, and the sooner the better, I say.”

  “I suppose that’s true,” Margaret said intelligently.

  “After all,” said the old lady dreamily, with raindrops in her hair, “we don’t always see ahead, into things that are going to happen.”

  Margaret was wondering how soon she might politely go back downstairs and dry herself off, and she meant to stay politely only so long as the old lady seemed to be talking, however remotely, about Paul. Also, the rain and the wind were coming through the window onto Margaret in great driving gusts, as though Margaret and the old lady and the books and the cat would be washed away, and the top of the tower cleaned of them.

  “I would help you if I could,” the old lady said earnestly to Margaret, raising her voice almost to a scream to be heard over the wind and the rain. She stood up to approach Margaret, and Margaret, thinking she was about to fall, reached out a hand to catch her. The cat stood up and spat, the rain came through the window in a great sweep, and Margaret, holding the old lady’s hands, heard through the sounds of the wind the equal sounds of all the voices in the world, and they called to her saying “Good-by, good-by,” and “All is lost,” and another voice saying “I will always remember you,” and still another called, “It is so dark.” And, far away from the others, she could hear a voice calling, “Come back, come back.” Then the old lady pulled her hands away from Margaret and the voices were gone. The cat shrank back and the old lady looked coldly at Margaret and said, “As I was saying, I would help you if I could.”

  “I’m so sorry,” Margaret said weakly. “I thought you were going to fall.”

  “Good-by,” said the old lady.

  3

  At the ball Margaret wore a gown of thin blue lace that belonged to Carla, and yellow roses in her hair, and she carried one of the fans from the fan room, a daintily painted ivory thing which seemed indestructible, since she dropped it twice, and which had a tiny picture of the house painted on its ivory sticks, so that when the fan was closed the house was gone. Mrs. Rhodes had given it to her to carry, and had given Carla another, so that when Margaret and Carla passed one another dancing, or met by the punch bowl or in the halls, they said happily to one another, “Have you still got your fan? I gave mine to someone to hold for a minute; I showed mine to everyone. Are you still carrying your fan? I’ve got mine.”

  Margaret danced with strangers and with Paul, and when she danced with Paul they danced away from the others, up and down the long gallery hung with pictures, in and out between the pillars which led to the great hall opening into the room of the tiles. Near them danced ladies in scarlet silk, and green satin, and white velvet, and Mrs. Rhodes, in black with diamonds at h
er throat and on her hands, stood at the top of the room and smiled at the dancers, or went on Mr. Rhodes’s arm to greet guests who came laughingly in between the pillars looking eagerly and already moving in time to the music as they walked. One lady wore white feathers in her hair, curling down against her shoulder; another had a pink scarf over her arms, and it floated behind her as she danced. Paul was in his haughty uniform, and Carla wore red roses in her hair and danced with the captain.

  “Are you really going tomorrow?” Margaret asked Paul once during the evening; she knew that he was, but somehow asking the question—which she had done several times before—established a communication between them, of his right to go and her right to wonder, which was sadly sweet to her.

  “I said you might meet the great-aunt,” said Paul, as though in answer; Margaret followed his glance, and saw the old lady of the tower. She was dressed in yellow satin, and looked very regal and proud as she moved through the crowd of dancers, drawing her skirt aside if any of them came too close to her. She was coming toward Margaret and Paul where they sat on small chairs against the wall, and when she came close enough she smiled, looking at Paul, and said to him, holding out her hands, “I am very glad to see you, my dear.”

  Then she smiled at Margaret and Margaret smiled back, very glad that the old lady held out no hands to her.

  “Margaret told me you were here,” the old lady said to Paul, “and I came down to see you once more.”

  “I’m very glad you did,” Paul said. “I wanted to see you so much that I almost came to the tower.”

  They both laughed and Margaret, looking from one to the other of them, wondered at the strong resemblance between them. Margaret sat very straight and stiff on her narrow chair, with her blue lace skirt falling charmingly around her and her hands folded neatly in her lap, and listened to their talk. Paul had found the old lady a chair and they sat with their heads near together, looking at one another as they talked, and smiling.

  “You look very fit,” the old lady said. “Very fit indeed.” She sighed.

  “You look wonderfully well,” Paul said.

  “Oh, well,” said the old lady. “I’ve aged. I’ve aged, I know it.”

  “So have I,” said Paul.

  “Not noticeably,” said the old lady, shaking her head and regarding him soberly for a minute. “You never will, I suppose.”

  At that moment the captain came up and bowed in front of Margaret, and Margaret, hoping that Paul might notice, got up to dance with him.

  “I saw you sitting there alone,” said the captain, “and I seized the precise opportunity I have been awaiting all evening.”

  “Excellent military tactics,” said Margaret, wondering if these remarks had not been made a thousand times before, at a thousand different balls.

  “I could be a splendid tactician,” said the captain gallantly, as though carrying on his share of the echoing conversation, the words spoken under so many glittering chandeliers, “if my objective were always so agreeable to me.”

  “I saw you dancing with Carla,” said Margaret.

  “Carla,” he said, and made a small gesture that somehow showed Carla as infinitely less than Margaret. Margaret knew that she had seen him make the same gesture to Carla, probably with reference to Margaret. She laughed.

  “I forget what I’m supposed to say now,” she told him.

  “You’re supposed to say,” he told her seriously, “‘And do you really leave us so soon?’”

  “And do you really leave us so soon?” said Margaret obediently.

  “The sooner to return,” he said, and tightened his arm around her waist. Margaret said, it being her turn, “We shall miss you very much.”

  “I shall miss you,” he said, with a manly air of resignation.

  They danced two waltzes, after which the captain escorted her handsomely back to the chair from which he had taken her, next to which Paul and the old lady continued in conversation, laughing and gesturing. The captain bowed to Margaret deeply, clicking his heels.

  “May I leave you alone for a minute or so?” he asked. “I believe Carla is looking for me.”

  “I’m perfectly all right here,” Margaret said. As the captain hurried away she turned to hear what Paul and the old lady were saying.

  “I remember, I remember,” said the old lady laughing, and she tapped Paul on the wrist with her fan. “I never imagined there would be a time when I should find it funny.”

  “But it was funny,” said Paul.

  “We were so young,” the old lady said. “I can hardly remember.”

  She stood up abruptly, bowed to Margaret, and started back across the room among the dancers. Paul followed her as far as the doorway and then left her to come back to Margaret. When he sat down next to her he said, “So you met the old lady?”

  “I went to the tower,” Margaret said.

  “She told me,” he said absently, looking down at his gloves. “Well,” he said finally, looking up with an air of cheerfulness. “Are they never going to play a waltz?”

  *

  Shortly before the sun came up over the river the next morning they sat at breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes at the ends of the table, Carla and the captain, Margaret and Paul. The red roses in Carla’s hair had faded and been thrown away, as had Margaret’s yellow roses, but both Carla and Margaret still wore their ball gowns, which they had been wearing for so long that the soft richness of them seemed natural, as though they were to wear nothing else for an eternity in the house, and the gay confusion of helping one another dress, and admiring one another, and straightening the last folds to hang more gracefully, seemed all to have happened longer ago than memory, to be perhaps a dream that might never have happened at all, as perhaps the figures in the tapestries on the walls of the dining room might remember, secretly, an imagined process of dressing themselves and coming with laughter and light voices to sit on the lawn where they were woven. Margaret, looking at Carla, thought that she had never seen Carla so familiarly as in this soft white gown, with her hair dressed high on her head—had it really been curled and pinned that way? Or had it always, forever, been so?—and the fan in her hand—had she not always had that fan, held just so?—and when Carla turned her head slightly on her long neck she captured the air of one of the portraits in the long gallery. Paul and the captain were still somehow trim in their uniforms; they were leaving at sunrise.

  “Must you really leave this morning?” Margaret whispered to Paul.

  “You are all kind to stay up and say good-by,” said the captain, and he leaned forward to look down the table at Margaret, as though it were particularly kind of her.

  “Every time my son leaves me,” said Mrs. Rhodes, “it is as though it were the first time.”

  Abruptly, the captain turned to Mrs. Rhodes and said, “I noticed this morning that there was a bare patch on the grass before the door. Can it be restored?”

  “I had not known,” Mrs. Rhodes said, and she looked nervously at Mr. Rhodes, who put his hand quietly on the table and said, “We hope to keep the house in good repair so long as we are able.”

  “But the broken statue by the lake?” said the captain. “And the tear in the tapestry behind your head?”

  “It is wrong of you to notice these things,” Mrs. Rhodes said, gently.

  “What can I do?” he said to her. “It is impossible not to notice these things. The fish are dying, for instance. There are no grapes in the arbor this year. The carpet is worn to thread near your embroidery frame,” he bowed to Mrs. Rhodes, “and in the house itself—” bowing to Mr. Rhodes “—there is a noticeable crack over the window of the conservatory, a crack in the solid stone. Can you repair that?”

  Mr. Rhodes said weakly, “It is very wrong of you to notice these things. Have you neglected the sun, and the bright perfection of the drawing room? Have you been recently to the ga
llery of portraits? Have you walked on the green portions of the lawn, or only watched for the bare places?”

  “The drawing room is shabby,” said the captain softly. “The green brocade sofa is torn a little near the arm. The carpet has lost its luster. The gilt is chipped on four of the small chairs in the gold room, the silver paint scratched in the silver room. A tile is missing from the face of Margaret, who died for love, and in the great gallery the paint has faded slightly on the portrait of—” bowing again to Mr. Rhodes “—your great-great-great-grandfather, sir.”

  Mr. Rhodes and Mrs. Rhodes looked at one another, and then Mrs. Rhodes said, “Surely it is not necessary to reproach us for these things?”

  The captain reddened and shook his head.

  “My embroidery is very nearly finished,” Mrs. Rhodes said. “I have only to put the figures into the foreground.”

  “I shall mend the brocade sofa,” said Carla.

  The captain glanced once around the table, and sighed. “I must pack,” he said. “We cannot delay our duties even though we have offended lovely women.” Mrs. Rhodes, turning coldly away from him, rose and left the table, with Carla and Margaret following.

  Margaret went quickly to the tile room, where the white face of Margaret who died for love stared eternally into the sky beyond the broad window. There was indeed a tile missing from the wide white cheek, and the broken spot looked like a tear, Margaret thought; she kneeled down and touched the tile face quickly to be sure that it was not a tear.

  Then she went slowly back through the lovely rooms, across the broad rose-and-white-tiled hall, and into the drawing room, and stopped to close the tall doors behind her.

  “There really is a tile missing,” she said.

  Paul turned and frowned; he was standing alone in the drawing room, tall and bright in his uniform, ready to leave. “You are mistaken,” he said. “It is not possible that anything should be missing.”

 
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