Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson


  As his voice came distantly from another room saying, “Hello?” Vicki said quickly to Elizabeth, “I don’t think you ought to talk to Anne the way you did, Mrs. Langdon. After all, Anne has never—”

  “I’ll bet Anne hasn’t never,” Elizabeth said.

  Vicki gestured helplessly at Natalie. “These women always suspect—” she said directly to Natalie.

  Natalie thought of saying, “I understand,” sympathetically, but decided not to. Further irony would not materially improve this situation, and she was still not irrevocably committed to Elizabeth.

  “Suppose you come to my office,” Arthur Langdon said from the other room.

  Anne glanced briefly at the door beyond which Arthur was somewhere talking into the phone, and said with just the right amount of confused indignation, “After all, Mrs. Langdon, Arthur and I are only—”

  “Mr. Langdon,” said Elizabeth.

  “Mr. Langdon,” said Anne obediently. “We’re only studying together. I mean, since I’m one of his students it’s only natural that we should—” She hesitated admirably. “—Study together,” she said.

  “And remember,” Vicki said, “you were one of his students once, Mrs. Langdon. You must remember what an interest he takes in—”

  “Goodbye,” Arthur Langdon said from the other room, and everyone was silent and did not speak again until he came back. He sat down in his chair again and said to Natalie, “You were telling me about your father.”

  “We must go,” Vicki said. Anne nodded, and rose. Natalie, who had opened her mouth to speak of her father, closed her mouth again and started uncertainly to get out of her chair.

  Vicki looked at her. “Come along with us,” she said finally.

  “We can go to dinner together,” Anne said.

  “I’d love to,” Natalie said, thinking, I’m not an ally, I’m a mercenary. “Thanks very much,” she said to Elizabeth, and to Arthur, “I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.”

  “Come in any time,” Arthur Langdon said, seeming actually to mean it.

  “It was terribly nice of you to have us,” Vicki said to Elizabeth. She did not go over to the couch to say it, but stood near the door, as though she realized perfectly that she had better not get close enough to Elizabeth to let Elizabeth reach her. “Perhaps you’ll be able to come over for a drink with us some day soon?”

  “Thanks,” Elizabeth said.

  “Mrs. Langdon,” Anne said. “Thank you very much.” She and Vicki turned to the door, with Natalie following, and Anne said to Arthur, intimately but somehow very clearly, “Arthur it was so nice.”

  Arthur Langdon looked nervously at his wife, and said, “I hope you’ll come again soon.”

  “We’d love to,” Vicki said.

  They got out the door, the three of them, with Arthur Langdon waving to them as they started down the path. When he had finally closed the door behind them, Vicki laughed, and then was quiet for a minute, she and Anne walking on either side of Natalie and both of them, Natalie felt, observing her and amused. Then Vicki said finally, as though to no one in particular, “How much did she put away before we got there?”

  “I’m not sure,” Natalie said. Should she carry tales? “Three or four drinks.”

  “Someone ought to slap her pretty face for her,” Vicki said. “I wish Arthur had guts enough to do it.”

  Anne stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket and did a little dance step along the path. “I wish I could be there now,” she said, “to hear them fight.”

  Natalie, my child,

  No, indeed, I do not read Shakespeare any more; I have passed the age when such things are felt to be essential, and have reached the age when half a dozen esoteric quotations are all I ever need—those, that is, and a Concordance for any unexpected crisis. I feel very strongly the pull of the middle-aged personality, when a ball game and the evening paper are the food of love.

  Which reminds me that your mother has had a cold and I must (see, here is a quotation, but, I fear, a rather usual one) I must trouble you, I say, once more for congratulations. Some odd little magazine has done me an odd little honor—my own modest way of rephrasing a particular request from them for a series of articles, so you may, if your mother permits, have a new coat this winter.

  I admire your Mr. Langdon. Arthur Langdon, did you say? His name is familiar; ask him if he has ever published. I seem to recollect a series of poems in an arty journal, but perhaps, now that he is an associate professor, he would prefer to forget them? You do not say much about Mrs. Langdon, except that she used to be one of his students—is that the only unusual fact about her? Walk not in the sun, my Natalie, nor reproach your father hereafter for his unlearning. Forgive also the fact that this letter is so short. I am taking time from my writing to keep in touch with you; your letters are, believe me, a very bright center in my life. I sent you to college to enjoy yourself, not to get an education, but, my dear, please hereafter do try not to split infinitives. (“To enthusiastically admire Mr. Langdon” indeed! We neither of us thank you!)

  Your mother insists that I inquire about your health. I tell her that it is no longer our affair, but she feels that maternal interest is evidenced by a scrupulous investigation of your internal workings. Do you have any trouble with your eyes, she wants to know? Your chest? Your feet? Be sure, she says, to keep handy a bottle of cough medicine in the event of that nasty cough you used to have at night . . . when you were three.

  Love,

  Dad

  Somewhere in the world trees were growing, Natalie thought as she walked down the hall of the house where she now lived; her feet on the linoleum floor made a flat sound, as of one walking upon dead earth. And perhaps there were still flowers in the garden at home and her father, glancing from his study window—perhaps her father thought, I wish Natalie were here. On either side of Natalie as she walked toward her own room were doors: perhaps behind one door a girl was studying, behind another a girl was crying, behind a third a girl was turning uneasily in her sleep. Behind a certain definite door downstairs Anne and Vicki sat, laughing and speaking in loud voices whatever they chose to say; behind other doors girls lifted their heads at Natalie’s footsteps, turned, wondered, and went back to their work. I wish I were the only person in all the world, Natalie thought, with a poignant longing, thinking then that perhaps she was, after all. She reached her own door, and wondered again—Is this possible, my own door? Can it be that after so short a time I can recognize one door among many, and call it “my own”? Or is it only from here, in the hall, that it looks so extraordinary—after all, I can only go out one door from my room; it’s coming in that is so confusing.

  Inside, her room was expectant and without interest in her, as though her final decision upon one door was a matter of small concern to the room itself, and she might as well have walked into limbo, or into a well of fire, for all the room cared. The book she had put down over an hour ago had not consumed any more of its own pages, the typewriter had not turned out any literature, the window had not seen any interesting sights since she left. She dropped her books tiredly on the bed and went with method to hang her jacket in the closet before she sat down at the desk. A vague ambition touched her briefly: should she put a sheet of paper into the typewriter, and perhaps even write on it? Should she read, dress, eat her mother’s cookies, sleep? She was staring uncertainly at the window (she might jump out?) when there was a knock at the door.

  “Come in,” she said, thinking as always, Was it really my door they wanted? It was Rosalind, which made it certainly Natalie’s door, above all others, that she wanted.

  “Listen,” Rosalind said without greeting as she came through the door and half-closed it softly behind her, “listen, Nat, want to see something?”

  “What?”

  “Come on, then,” Rosalind said urgently. “Come on.”

  Natalie ro
se and followed Rosalind through the door again, and back down the hall. They reached a door halfway down toward the stairway—it belonged to someone Natalie knew vaguely; perhaps the girl with bangs whose name might have been Winnie Williams or a girl they called Sandy—and Rosalind stopped in front of the door and said very softly, “Wait, I’ll open it, then you’ll see.”

  “Listen—” Natalie began.

  Finger on her lips, Rosalind took hold of the doorknob and turned it, opening the door with a sudden push. She craned her head around and said, “Look, look.”

  Natalie, embarrassed, looked over her shoulder, phrasing apologies (“Sorry, thought it was the john”) in her mind, but there was no one inside.

  “They’ve gone,” Rosalind said, disappointed. “You should have seen them.”

  “Who?”

  Rosalind laughed, and shrugged. “Next time,” she said. “See you later.” She went off down the hall and Natalie, going the other way, went back to her own room.

  * * *

  It was that night that the talk of theft was first openly in evidence. In the basement room where the girls played bridge, where there was a stone floor and one dismal ashtray and a broken couch, and where Natalie sat cautiously in a corner, hoping that someone would notice her, and comment, perhaps, on her professional manner of smoking, the girls gathered noisily, the two or three who always heard news before anyone else raising their voices and insisting.

  “Honestly,” Peggy Spencer said honestly, “I wouldn’t have said a word unless I knew. They are really going to search everybody.”

  “Me?” said Natalie, raising her voice for the first time in that room.

  “Honestly,” Peggy Spencer said, addressing herself for the first time to Natalie across the room. “See, there’s been so much stuff missing . . .”

  Natalie did not know. Because she did not, had not heard, she found that all at once everyone was talking to her as though they knew her, even though one girl did persistently call her Helen and another thought that she lived on the fourth floor (it was here a comfort of sorts to Natalie to know that she had not been so universally observed as she thought), they all spoke directly to her.

  “I lost this evening dress,” one said, her voice riding over the others. “That was really the first. You see, I went out of my room for a minute and the dress was hanging . . .”

  “Someone on the second floor lost forty dollars,” said someone else.

  “It’s been going on for ages,” Peggy Spencer said. “Everyone’s been missing things for about a month, and no one said anything because . . .” She hesitated, searching for a reason why no one had said anything. “Anyway,” she went on, “it finally got so bad that Old Nick heard about it, and then of course when she started asking questions . . .” Peggy shrugged. “Why, then,” she said, “it turned out that nearly everyone had lost something or other. I don’t think,” she added thoughtfully, turning her red head around to look at everyone in the room, “I don’t really think that all those things were really stolen.”

  “My dress is gone—I know I didn’t send it to the cleaners that day because I remember thinking especially—”

  “—and this little cigarette lighter I got from this boy—”

  “—and imagine a pair of shoes. Who could wear anyone else’s shoes?”

  “—and lots of money. There was this girl lost forty dollars, and lots of other people had money that just—”

  “—and someone said a girl on the first floor lost some letters and a lot of jewelry.”

  “A slip, too. Real lace.”

  Natalie, smoking professionally, was checking desperately over her belongings; if she had lost any clothes or jewelry she would hardly have known it, since she had worn the same sweater and skirt for a week, and except for the formality of hanging her jacket on the hook just inside her closet door had not opened her closet since she took out the skirt she was now wearing, but the persistent thoughts rode her mind side by side: first, it would not look well if she had not lost anything, and, second, was she not an obvious thief? She felt her cheek reddening, and turned her head down to watch her foot scuffing out the cigarette; if I had stolen anything, she thought (And had she perhaps not? She was suddenly aware of the excitement of going silently into someone’s room, looking smilingly over someone else’s possessions, reading letters, scrutinizing pictures, fondling jewelry, discarding whatever did not meet her fancy, and then—the most dangerous part; up until this moment her carefully planned excuses would let her off—slipping the roll of bills into her pocket, stuffing the book into the front of her sweater, flinging the real lace over her arm as though it belonged to her, and coming softly out of someone else’s room, closing the door gently, walking boldly down the hall, counting over her new dear ownings behind the tightly locked door of her own room), and she thought that all of them were looking at her, unexpectedly quiet, all thinking at once, Why, it was that girl, of course; I remember now, I saw her coming out of my room, I always said she was . . .

  “Have you lost anything?” Peggy Spencer asked Natalie directly.

  In the small brief silence Natalie said, thinking, “Only some change that I left on my dresser. I put it there when I came in and then I went to take a shower and when I came back it was gone.” All the faces were turned to her now. “I didn’t want to say anything,” she explained, “because then I didn’t know that anything else was missing and I didn’t want to make any trouble for anyone.”

  “That’s the way we all felt,” someone said approvingly.

  “And yet,” Peggy Spencer said earnestly, “if no one ever said anything, whoever it is would just be getting away with it all the time.”

  “That’s true,” Natalie said. “I mean, now that I know about it, I feel differently about it.” Why am I talking, she wondered in shame; who am I convicting, whose soul am I selling, what murder am I helping to commit; why am I here, she thought sadly, pretending that someone else has stolen from me?

  * * *

  After the special trip Natalie had made back to her room to freshen her lipstick and comb her hair, it seemed almost callous of Arthur Langdon not to turn and smile at her when she stood timidly in the doorway of his office, not daring to knock for fear he had already seen her, not daring to enter for fear he had not already seen her; she thought of trying a slight cough, or of saying softly, “Mr. Langdon?” or of going away a step and walking heavily up to the door again, but all these devices were of course only endless vicious circles around the central point, which was that for some reason Mr. Almighty Langdon thought he need not, if he chose not, notice Miss Natalie Waite, and really thought he could keep her waiting uncertainly, endlessly, in the doorway to his office. As she was wondering, then, if a sort of dignified march back down the stairs might not prove that she was something more than this, he looked up at her, blankly for a minute, as one who thinks deeply, and then recognized her with a nod of companionship that said she was to enter but not speak. She moved respectfully into the room, thinking that she was the kind of woman who knows when to keep quiet, and sat docilely in the chair beside the desk, her hands folded, and her eyes discreetly turned away from him, to show that she was not in the least interested in what he was doing. She could see, however, from the corners of her eyes, that he looked tired as he bent his head over the papers on the desk; he’s been fighting with Elizabeth, she thought with new knowledge, and hoped he would notice her quiet sympathy.

  “I wish I were an insurance salesman,” he said abruptly, shoving the papers back on his desk.

  Natalie lost her moment, in the split second during which she realized that he had been hoping that she would notice; she held with herself a seemingly endless debate over what to say and do (“Stop acting like a child, my dear,” her hand gently on his?), and by the time she had finally decided that his remark was to be treated as a joke, he had swung around in his chair to face her
and was saying, “Well, Natalie?”

  She smiled, and the moment became unexpectedly one of excruciating embarrassment. Natalie heard the back of her mind gibbering obscenities, and thought for a mad moment that she might be saying them aloud and not realizing; perhaps, she thought, I am undressing, or in the bathroom, or looking at myself in the mirror, and only pretending that I am here alone with Arthur Langdon; perhaps I am here with Arthur Langdon and pretending that I am dressing and talking really to myself; perhaps I will say something frightful and never know whether I have really said it or not, because of course he would pretend I never said it but he would always remember—a thousand years from now, Arthur Langdon telling Elizabeth for the hundredth time about the girl (Natalie? Helen? Joan?) who had said the shocking thing to him, and Natalie laughed suddenly, bringing herself immediately back to the present in Arthur Langdon’s office, where she certainly was at the moment, and he was saying curiously, “What were you thinking about?”

  “I was thinking about when I would be dead,” Natalie said.

  “Dead?” he said, surprised. “Are we going to die, you and I?”

  “I only worry about how,” Natalie said soberly; unlike most of the things she found herself saying to Arthur Langdon, this was true. “I keep thinking that of course it’s got to happen, and even to me, but then I always think that somehow and someday this interesting person of mine will . . .” She searched for a word. “Subside,” she said finally. “I mean, I will be very suddenly aware of an ending, and that there is not going to be any more for me, and that I am not going to be with myself any longer. And all of that’s all right,” she said, going on quickly as he opened his mouth to speak. “I’m only afraid of being caught unaware, of that terrible fast panic that comes when you’re very very frightened, and of being afraid when it happens. So then, of course, I always think I’ll kill myself before it can happen.”

  She stopped, and Arthur Langdon said, “You have a very original mind, Natalie.”

 
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