Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

  “Everyone is,” the woman said. She hesitated, and Natalie, who was these days forming estimates about people because she feared speaking to them, imagined that the woman had had a destination and was wondering if it would wait while she helped Natalie; the desire to be helpless and the pride against being helped by a woman who might be, after all, inadequate, made Natalie say dismissingly, “I suppose I’ll get over it.” She pretended to be ready to walk on, but, blessedly, the woman decided suddenly, and turned to walk with her.

  “I was new here recently,” the woman said and smiled. “I’m Elizabeth Langdon,” she said. “My husband teaches English. I used to be a student.” And that’s all she knows to tell me about herself, Natalie thought, and said, “Oh, yes. I believe I’m in one of Mr. Langdon’s classes. At least,” she added doubtfully, for fear of being thought by his wife to have a crush on Mr. Langdon, “I think it’s his class.”

  “Is he short, with a mustache?” the woman asked, as though it were of some importance, “or dark? Curly hair? Blond with glasses?”

  “Dark,” Natalie decided, remembering the slim figure which moved gracefully before the class, speaking with humorous informality of Shakespeare; suppressing quickly and emphatically the recollection of her own vague daydreams (“Miss Waite? I don’t suppose you remember me? Well, I’m Arthur Langdon; I want to tell you that your performance of Portia was . . .”). “Of course, it must be Mr. Langdon. It’s just that, being so new here . . .”

  “Of course.” The woman sounded relieved, still giving the impression that the point had been important. “Has he begun to quote Suetonius yet?”

  Natalie suddenly wanted to make a good impression on the wife of the slim figure who might, at any moment, quote Suetonius. “My father,” she said, “says that people only quote when they can’t make a point any other way.”

  “I see,” said Mrs. Langdon; Natalie thought that perhaps she was storing the remark away to use on her husband later. (“Dear, I understand that people only . . .”) “How do you like it here?” Mrs. Langdon asked.

  It was, of course, not the first time Natalie had been asked; she laughed with embarrassment and then, changing her mind for some reason in midstream, said uncomfortably, “I don’t know yet. I mean, I have so much yet to learn.”

  “Like not running around corners?” said Mrs. Langdon, and paused, smiling, in their walk. “This is where we live,” she said. “It’s a faculty house—observe the architecture, done by a fellow faculty member, since deceased, observe the college stonework and the handy-man air about the drainpipes. Students,” she added soberly, “are to feel free to call upon faculty members for assistance and advice, although it is recommended that they do not visit a faculty home without specific invitations having been issued.” She smiled again, and Natalie smiled back. “No one pays much attention to that sort of thing,” Mrs. Langdon said. “Won’t you come in?”

  “Thank you,” Natalie said; could it be true that she was so casually invited into Arthur Langdon’s house?

  As the door closed behind them Natalie hesitated in the small hallway; the fact that this was certainly the house where Arthur Langdon lived seemed somehow to color the air of it, and was that not a trace of his pipe smoke? It could be that as Natalie stood in the hallway her feet were set precisely in Arthur Langdon’s footprints. It was undeniable, also, that he had at some time touched this doorknob.

  Elizabeth Langdon, her own door closed behind her, had changed, as a bird stepping again inside its cage is no longer a creature of circle and parabola, but a hopping thing; Elizabeth pushed off her hat and slipped her coat from her shoulders and, preceding Natalie into a light living room, dropped her hat and coat on a couch. “Take off your things,” she said with a gesture. Seemingly she had accepted Natalie inside her house as a person, something more than the mere student Natalie had been outside the house. Natalie saw dimly, as she fumbled with the buttons of her coat, a succession of meetings with Elizabeth Langdon outside her house, of formal questions after one’s health and dutiful laughter, of civility and disinterest and courtesy, of Elizabeth Langdon denying politely anything she might ever have said inside.

  “It’s so nice here,” Natalie said. Although she had already glanced quickly around the room (wondering, as she did so, with a fast secret look at Elizabeth Langdon, What is it in here she finds so alarming? Will I be happy here? Will I ever know these things well?), she made now a great performance of looking around, letting her eyes stop suitably long at the Hayter etching over the mantel, taking in gratefully the blended colors of the slipcovers, the curtains, the rug. There were books, and she estimated them and the Langdons by her own secret process (the proportion of bright jackets to dull bindings) and found them dubious—too much yellow and red, too little calf. It occurred to her that she would probably like the Langdons very much, while privately deploring Elizabeth a little.

  “I can offer you a drink, you know,” Elizabeth Langdon said; she had been busied hanging up their coats and now backed out of the closet, her hair rumpled. “Would you like a cocktail? Martini?”

  Natalie realized how very indelicate this all was. She had been in college not more than a month, and this woman had certainly no business offering her cocktails, or even speaking to her so. “Thank you very much,” said Natalie, thinking, She must be terribly lonely. Her problem was illustrated directly with the question of sitting down: as a student, she should certainly not seat herself while a faculty wife stood; as a guest, she certainly could. The only solution was to lift the whole situation into a never-never land where neither rule applied, so Natalie, with dogged informality, followed Elizabeth into the small kitchen.

  “May I help you?” Natalie asked.

  “Nothing to do,” said Elizabeth, her head now buried in the refrigerator. “Arthur keeps a pitcher of martinis already made. I can’t make them,” she added, drawing out her head, “and he’s always too tired when he comes back from class. Olive?”

  “Thank you.”

  “God damn,” said Elizabeth. She leaned back, trying to see the top shelf of the pantry. “No more,” she said, and turned and laughed at Natalie. “We’ve got to have our martinis in fruit juice glasses. There’s only one cocktail glass I haven’t broken and of course I have to give that to Arthur.”

  Natalie, who was not really completely certain of the difference between a cocktail glass and a fruit juice glass, spared a moment to wonder about the oddness of saving the last glass for Arthur, before she said, “Mother never lets me dry the glasses at home because I always drop them.” Why did I say that? she wondered again, it isn’t true. Now I’ll just have to remember it so I won’t tell her in a few minutes that I never break anything.

  They took their cocktails into the living room again, walking cautiously and not speaking. Then, when Natalie had lowered herself tentatively into an overstuffed armchair, with her cocktail correctly on a coaster and a cigarette offered and declined (Natalie was afraid to smoke until she had solved the problem of who was going to light whose cigarette; it was difficult for Natalie to get up from the overstuffed chair and walk across to Elizabeth with a match, but it was unthinkable that Elizabeth should stand up from the couch and walk across to Natalie with a match. It occurred to Natalie that she could light a cigarette after Elizabeth was well started on hers, taking one from her pocket with an absent-minded air, as one who smokes without thinking, and lighting it carelessly, holding the match a trifle too long while she talked), Elizabeth leaned back on the couch, looking at Natalie smilingly, and said, with an air of having all the time in the world to get to more important subjects, “So you’re one of my husband’s students?”

  “I believe I am,” Natalie said cautiously—best not to appear too anxious.

  “Do you like it here?” Elizabeth asked.

  It was still not a question Natalie was entirely equipped to answer. She decided finally that the least she could do wa
s reply again to this determined friendliness in an open manner, and so she looked at Elizabeth and smiled and shrugged. “I don’t really think I like it very much yet,” she said. “No one seems to pay much attention to anyone else.”

  Elizabeth nodded, choosing to take this statement as one of fact. “That’s true,” she said. “You’ll find as you go on that they’ll pay less and less attention to you, and you get used to it. It’s because everyone here is so much interested in themselves and their own concerns, and no one cares about anyone else or education or teaching the young or helping anyone else, but all they care about is getting as much as they can as fast as they can.”

  What did I start? Natalie thought. “I suppose that’s a good description of education,” she said, feeling her way. “Except that even if you learn that much, it’s something.”

  This was lost on Elizabeth; she was staring into her cocktail glass, her long fair hair falling softly down on either side of her face, her eyes intent. When she looked up suddenly, as Natalie finished speaking, she smiled and said, “I suppose I’m more bitter because I used to be a student and now I’m a faculty wife.”

  “I should think that would just give you twice as many friends,” Natalie said, wondering if it was friends they were talking about.

  Elizabeth shook her head; Natalie thought that the motion would spill her drink and then saw that Elizabeth’s glass was empty. Hastily Natalie took up her own glass and sipped. “It means I have almost no friends,” Elizabeth said, now watching Natalie drink. “You can’t, you know. I mean, girls I used to know as students are in their last year now, and it’s very hard for me to talk to them. And of course all the other faculty wives are too old for me.”

  “You didn’t finish college before you married?” asked Natalie with interest, here was an achievement to be envied.

  Elizabeth shook her long hair again. “I never wanted to come in the first place,” she said. “I’m only about three years older than you are.”

  And yet she can sit here and serve cocktails, Natalie thought. “I’m seventeen,” she said.

  “You see?” said Elizabeth. “I was twenty-one my last birthday.”

  Should I tell her she doesn’t look it? Natalie thought. “I think you’re terribly pretty,” she said, shocking herself deeply by this statement, which was not in her usual repertoire.

  Elizabeth smiled again, her smile this time deepening with pleasure, her eyes shining. “I think that’s nice of you,” she said. “Another cocktail?”

  Natalie looked at her half-finished glass. “I’m very slow,” she said.

  “I’ll wait for you,” said Elizabeth, turning her glass in her fingers. She was so obviously planning just to wait, not doing anything else, that Natalie quickly drank down the last of her cocktail, catching the olive in her mouth and holding out her glass with her mouth still full.

  When Elizabeth came back with the drinks, she said, “Try to keep up with me,” as she set Natalie’s glass down on the table.

  “Yes,” she went on, taking up her conversation where she had left it, “I never realized what I was getting into, marrying my English teacher.” She sat down on the couch and regarded Natalie gloomily. “Sometimes I could cry,” she said.

  Natalie, who was unused to drinking at best, and certainly unused to two fast cocktails after a confusing afternoon, was beginning to feel delightfully at home, and friendly, and strong, and sympathetic. She could see clearly by now that Elizabeth was a wonderfully beautiful woman; it no longer seemed strange that a student in college should marry, but only strange that any unhappiness should approach this perfect creature.

  “I wish I could help you,” Natalie said. She was almost certain that there were tears in her eyes.

  “Be my friend,” said Elizabeth. She looked at Natalie earnestly. “Be my friend,” she said. “Don’t ever tell anyone.”

  “Don’t ever tell anyone what?”

  Elizabeth, who had risen at that moment with her empty glass in her hand, stopped, turning slightly toward the door to listen. When there was no sound in the room they could hear voices from outside, calling to one another and laughing. After a minute Elizabeth relaxed, and made a perfunctory movement toward Natalie’s glass.

  “No,” said Natalie, “oh, no, thank you.”

  Without comment Elizabeth turned and went to the kitchen, and came back in a moment with her full glass. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” she said. “No one thinks I’m unhappy, no one even dreams I’m unhappy, and you know once you let them know you’re unhappy then they start wondering why, and then they look at you and they think you’re getting old or something. They were all so jealous anyway. I’m still as pretty as I ever was.” She turned her head proudly on her neck, and Natalie, feeling herself more than ever thin and unformed, nodded admiringly. “You see,” Elizabeth went on, spreading her empty hands in front of her and looking at the fingers, “all the students think I’m friends with the faculty wives and all the faculty wives think I’m friends with the students or with the other faculty wives and all the other faculty wives think I’m friends with the other faculty wives and all the other—” She stopped, her eyes wide. There was a definite step outside the door, then it opened and Arthur Langdon came in.

  He was handsome and tired, and looked, in his worn sports jacket with the elbows patched in chamois, rather as though his mental picture of himself was somewhat more refined than the actual sight of him to others. When he came in through the door his eyes took in, swiftly, his wife, Natalie, and their empty cocktail glasses. Without speaking he set his brief case down just inside the door, and came slowly into the room. After one quick, inclusive glance again at Natalie, he regarded his wife.

  “My dear,” he said cordially, and smiled over his shoulder at Natalie.

  “I only had one,” Elizabeth said. “This girl will tell you, I only had one.”

  “Of course you did,” he said to her, and turned and smiled largely at Natalie. “My wife seems to be reluctant to introduce us,” he said. “I’m Arthur Langdon.”

  Who did he think I thought he was? Natalie wondered. “I’m Natalie Waite,” she said, and, to establish her position immediately (so that he might throw her out if he chose?), she added, “I’m in your freshman English class.”

  “I thought you were,” he said. “Think I could join you in one of those?”

  He took Natalie’s nearly empty glass from her, passed his wife without apparently seeing her glass, and went into the kitchen. After a minute he came back, looked once at his wife, and handed Natalie her full glass. “Here’s luck,” he said, and he and Natalie drank, Natalie very cautiously, and noting that he had taken the one cocktail glass for his drink. “Well,” he said, and sat down on a chair near Natalie, “what do you think of it here?”

  “I like it very much,” Natalie said. “It’s a little strange still, of course.”

  “It will be strange for quite a while,” he said. “It’s taken me four years to get used to it, I know.”

  “I’ve been enjoying your class,” Natalie said, thinking, My father taught me to be more intelligent than this; but Arthur Langdon perplexed her. He was subtly familiar to her, as though his words were meaningful on more than one level, as though there were an established communication between them in the course of five minutes, as though, actually, he were clearly aware that she could talk more intelligently than this, and was waiting indulgently for the strangeness of the environment to wear off before any conversation began. I wonder if he makes everyone feel like this, Natalie thought. The horror of feeling a reaction everyone else might feel led her to say, stumbling, “You reminded me of my father this morning in class.”

  He smiled. “All first-year students find sooner or later that some professor reminds them of their fathers.”

  “Now you remind me of him again,” Natalie said. “He talks like that.”

thur Langdon raised his eyebrows incredulously.

  “He’s a writer,” Natalie said weakly; it crossed her mind that she would not have so much trouble bringing out the words if her father had been a plumber, or even a policeman; unless he asks me who my father is, she thought, I will have to come right out and tell him and then suppose he doesn’t know who I’m talking about and what can I say? “Arnold Waite,” she said.

  “Really?” Arthur Langdon nodded; for a minute Natalie was sure that he had never heard of her father and that she might—with discomfort, with confusion and perhaps even apologies—have to explain, and then Arthur Langdon nodded again and said, “Like to meet him sometime.”

  “I hope you will,” Natalie said politely.

  Elizabeth Langdon, who had been leaning forward with her long hair falling about her face and her empty glass cupped in both hands, staring brightly from her husband to Natalie as each one spoke, now said with an appearance of alert interest, “Isn’t he the writer?”

  Her husband and Natalie both looked at her silently. “I mean,” she said, moving her glass in illustration, “isn’t he Arnold Waite, the writer?”

  “I suppose so,” said Natalie lamely, “although he’s only really written one book.”

  “I was sure he was a writer,” said Elizabeth Langdon with satisfaction. “You remember,” she said nudgingly to her husband, “you gave me some article of his to read in some magazine, and I read it and I thought it was very good.”

  Arthur Langdon said to Natalie, “I hope when your father comes to see you we’ll be able to get together. And when you write him,” he added with a modest laugh, “tell him I’m using some of his stuff in my advanced classes.”

  “I certainly will,” said Natalie thankfully.

  “By the way,” said Arthur Langdon, turning directly to his wife to show that he was speaking to her, “a couple of the girls are going to drop over sometime before dinner.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]