Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

  He turned. “Plenty of time,” he said.

  “No,” Elizabeth said insistently. “What time is it? Anyone know what time it is? Because we’ve got to go to the Clarks’.”

  “I know,” Arthur said. “We’ve got to go to the Clarks’. But we can be a little bit late, can’t we?”

  “Are we late?” Elizabeth said. She appealed to Natalie, “Are we late for the Clarks’?”

  “Not at all,” said Vicki. “You have plenty of time.”

  “Time for another drink, anyway,” Arthur said. “Only across campus, after all,” he told Natalie.

  “You’ve had too much to drink now,” Elizabeth said. “You can’t go to the Clarks’ drunk, Arthur darling. You know,” she said to Natalie, “we shouldn’t have come here at all. I wanted to call you and say we couldn’t possibly make it, but he told me, ‘Elizabeth,’ he said, ‘they’ve gone to great trouble and expense just for us,’ he said. And so we came here first, but now we’ve really got to be getting along to the Clarks’.”

  “Suppose I call them and say you’ll be a minute or so late?” Vicki asked brightly. “That way they surely wouldn’t mind.”

  Elizabeth looked at Vicki and then uncertainly at Arthur. “Will we be late?” she asked. “Because the Clarks have gone to great trouble and—”

  “Only a minute or so late,” Vicki said.

  “Time for one for the road,” Arthur said.

  * * *

  At about eight-thirty it became pressingly necessary to dispose of Elizabeth. Arthur Langdon, who seemed to notice only suddenly, got up from the couch and crossed the room to where Elizabeth had been sitting ever since she first came in, and, looking down at her without expression, said, “Why in God’s name does she always have to do this? Can’t we ever go anywhere?”

  “She’s probably just tired,” Anne said tenderly. “Should we take her home?”

  “Nothing else to do,” Arthur said. His voice had become a little bit shrill, and Natalie, watching him as he stood between Vicki and Anne, wondered how she could ever have admired him, or thought of him together with her father. “Why does this always happen?” he demanded.

  “We can see that she gets home,” Vicki said. She glanced at Natalie and Natalie nodded, and said, “Certainly.”

  “Would you?” Arthur said, relieved. “Because I’m really too angry with her to care.”

  “I’m sure she’d go with Nat,” Vicki said. “She’s very fond of Nat.”

  “Who isn’t?” Anne said fondly. “Nat, see if you can get her to stand up.”

  With the infinite superiority and tolerance that comes to a moderately sober person addressing a very drunken one, Natalie said to Elizabeth, “Elizabeth, are you ready to go home?”

  It is really an instinct, the knack of dealing with irrational people, Natalie was thinking; I suppose that any mind like mine, which is so close, actually, to the irrational and so tempted by it, is able easily to pass the dividing line between rational and irrational and communicate with someone drunk, or insane, or asleep. “Elizabeth,” she said severely, “wake up, Elizabeth.”

  “Why does she always have to do this?” Arthur said. He appealed to Anne. “Why?” he insisted.

  “I think she just has no head for liquor,” Vicki said wisely. “It affects some people that way, of course.”

  “But always,” Arthur said, looking as though he were about to cry. “I never have a good time because she’s always doing something like this.”

  “Elizabeth, wake up.” ( . . . and, bending over the maniac, writhing in his bonds, Natalie spoke softly, only a word or two, and he, ceasing at that moment his struggles, opened his eyes and looked lucidly and gratefully up into her face . . . ) “Elizabeth, wake up.”

  “Golly,” said Anne. “She could sleep here. I mean, she could have my bed, and I could take the couch.”

  “She doesn’t deserve a bed,” Arthur said. “She ought to be in a gutter somewhere.”

  “Arthur!” Anne said reproachfully. “Please don’t be so bitter; remember who she is and—”

  “Let’s be sensible,” said Vicki quickly. “If we can’t wake her or get her home, she’s got to sleep here, that’s only common sense. But I really think we can wake her and I know she’ll go home with Natalie because she’s really terribly fond of Natalie.”

  “I don’t remember ever seeing her do this before, after all,” Anne said.

  “Elizabeth,” Natalie said, and Vicki said, “Elizabeth,” and Arthur, his voice at its firmest, repeated, “Elizabeth.”

  Finally, stirring, Elizabeth muttered, and moved, and opened her eyes. “Arthur?” she said.

  “Listen,” Arthur said, leaning down to speak more forcefully. With his face close to hers, he said, “Elizabeth, we’re going to take you home. Now wake up and behave yourself, because we’re going to take you home.”

  “I’m awake,” Elizabeth said crossly. “What’s the matter?”

  “You’re going home,” Arthur said.

  “All right,” Elizabeth said contentedly. She held up her arms to him, and he stepped aside and let Natalie take her. At the touch of Elizabeth’s full, fumbling hands on her arms Natalie recoiled for a minute, but Arthur gave her an ungentlemanly push, and she took Elizabeth around the shoulders and with Vicki’s help hoisted her out of the armchair in which she had sat all evening. Elizabeth stood, speaking incoherently, and reaching her hands toward Arthur. Vicki took one of Elizabeth’s arms and swung it over her shoulder; Elizabeth’s whole weight fell against Natalie, and Natalie, shivering under the pressure of Elizabeth’s legs against her, began half to pull, half to carry Elizabeth.

  “I’d help you,” Arthur said nervously, “if I didn’t think she’d make a scene when she woke up and saw I was here.”

  With Arthur and Anne helping from behind, where they were sure they would not be seen, Vicki and Natalie got Elizabeth out the door and down the stairs. How inglorious, Natalie thought, going down the stairs with the heavy weight of Elizabeth against her, how perfectly abominable it is to be the receiver of such a thing, how dreadful and horrifying it is to have no choice at all about the swinging arms and legs that enwrap you, how sickening to be aware and to know that the unconscious one does not even see that it is you she is embracing, how horrid, how nauseating, how weak . . . Could I let go of her now? Natalie wondered, rounding the curve in the stairs, could I let her fall and kill herself, die perhaps, because I could not bear the holding of her? What obligation do I have toward her, what call has she upon me, that she should be leaning intimately against me, and never knowing it? How does she think I can bear it? Will I ever lean so upon her? Would she care, then, or let me fall?

  “There we are,” Arthur said, at the foot of the stairs. Elizabeth was draped, half-conscious, over the stairpost. “Can you get her home?” he asked Natalie. “I know how fond of you she is.”

  “I’m sure I can,” Natalie said. “She seems to recognize my voice.”

  “She heard Nat when she didn’t even move for the rest of us,” Anne added.

  It was suddenly apparent to Natalie that she was, alone, to get Elizabeth home. “Listen,” she said anxiously, “I’m not sure I can do it without—”

  “She’ll listen to you,” said Vicki over her shoulder; she did not smile, but she was following Anne and Arthur up the stairs. “She likes you,” Vicki said, and disappeared around the turn in the staircase.

  It was obviously impossible to leave Elizabeth. Even as Natalie turned in dismay to look at her, Elizabeth sagged, and began to slip gracefully to the floor. “Elizabeth,” Natalie said, wanting to cry, “oh, damn it.” She remembered, or tried hard to remember clearly, how Elizabeth had been the first person to speak to her kindly on this campus, and how it would be impossible in any case to leave Elizabeth here and join the others, because they would surely ask where Elizabeth had gotten to; a
nd how Elizabeth had told her unmentionable, or almost unmentionable, secrets alone in her house in the afternoons, and how everyone owed it to Vicki and Anne to get Elizabeth home and out of their way, because Vicki and Anne were friends too, and it would be hardly kind of Natalie to ignore such an obligation they had left her, and if she left Elizabeth here it would mean possibly never seeing Vicki and Anne again, and surely not going back to them tonight, and so she might go alone to her own room if she chose, and, after all, she told herself, everyone was mortal and everyone was faulty and everyone was all together in one great world where only one life was vouchsafed to any of us, and there was never enough time to reflect on whether to do a thing or not to do a thing, because when you looked at someone it was someone no more or no less than another mortal, and, after all, who could deny another mortal some small solace in a life on this world, and, in the last analysis, Elizabeth . . .

  “Arthur?” Elizabeth said.

  “It’s me, Natalie,” Natalie said, thinking at last how she should describe this to her father and tell him not to tell her mother.

  “Natalie?” said Elizabeth. She moved a little away, and said again, “Natalie?”

  “Elizabeth,” Natalie said gently. She put her arms around Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s head fell against her shoulder and Elizabeth said, “Natalie,” softly, and Natalie was jubilantly glad that she had not said, “Arthur,” again.

  “Natalie, I want to die,” Elizabeth said.

  “We’re going home,” Natalie said.

  “I want to die,” Elizabeth said.

  “I know you do,” Natalie said tenderly. “Come along home.”

  “Home?” said Elizabeth.

  She was able to walk by herself, although Natalie had to guide her. As they went through the doorway out onto the campus Natalie was thinking, for some reason she never knew, of the trees ahead, of how she and Elizabeth could go from tree to tree across the campus, holding onto each one until they recovered themselves. Once out in the open air, however, Elizabeth recovered amazingly and walked alone, without even help from Natalie.

  “I want to die,” she said once.

  “Don’t be silly,” Natalie. said, and added, “we all want to die, I suppose, from the minute that we’re born.”

  “No,” said Elizabeth, “I want to die.”

  It was difficult for Natalie to think clearly, walking across the dark campus under the trees with Elizabeth. For one thing, it had suddenly come to Natalie that when people were sober they repudiated everything they had done when they were drunk, and when they were drunk they repudiated everything they had done when they were sober. Natalie felt this to be very profound, and she worried over it, thinking, How silly I was to be frightened before, talking to Arthur, and what I should have said was . . .

  “I want to die,” Elizabeth said. “I wish I were Anne.”

  “I wish I were Anne,” Natalie said, and thought, That, I hope, is not true—except that she did wish that she were Anne, and the recollection of Anne bent over, listening intimately to Arthur Langdon speaking, had everything to do with the desire.

  “You know,” said Elizabeth wanderingly, stopping under a tree to point at Natalie, “Anne is a bitch and I used to be a bitch and now I’m not any more.” She began to cry; Natalie could hear her, although it was too dark to see. “Goddam little bitch,” Elizabeth said.

  The Langdons had left a light on in the foyer of their apartment. Natalie could see it and recognize it from halfway across the campus, and she blushed in the darkness to think of how often she had gone past the apartment and thought that Arthur lived there. “Six proud walkers,” she said obscurely.

  “Bed,” Elizabeth said.

  “Bed,” Natalie said. As they approached the apartment Elizabeth began to sag again, and Natalie had to put an arm around her to support her. Suppose I were Arthur, she thought, unwillingly, and suppose I wanted to do this . . .

  “Dark,” Elizabeth said.

  And suppose she were one of my students and I wanted badly to marry her, and suppose we were walking in the darkness just like this and I thought now, no, and suppose just the touch of her shoulder under my arm, so strong and firm across the weak flesh, suppose just that touch and that feeling, and suppose in the darkness she turned slightly toward me so that . . .

  “Natalie?” sid Elizabeth. “Are we nearly in bed?”

  “Nearly,” Natalie said. “Only a little way now.”

  And suppose, suppose, only suppose, that in the darkness and in the night and all alone and under the trees, suppose that here, together, without anyone ever to know, without even so much as a warning, suppose in the darkness under the trees . . .

  “I want to die,” Elizabeth said.

  * * *

  Natalie did not, mercifully, have to undress her. Once in her own home where she had gone staggering to bed alone so often, Elizabeth seemed to know by a molelike instinct what to do, and while Natalie worried in the brightly lighted kitchen over coffee and which burner to use on the stove, Elizabeth disappeared silently into the bedroom and took off her clothes. “Natalie?” she called at last, and Natalie came running, to find Elizabeth, in her own nightgown, in her own bed.

  It was the first time Natalie had ever visited the Langdons’ bedroom, and, while she had never been shocked at the twin beds in the bedroom of her mother and father, she was at this time grieved over the understanding that Arthur Langdon insisted upon—so young, so pretty—maintaining at night a space of floor between himself and Elizabeth.

  “Are you comfortable?” Natalie asked. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

  “Good night,” Elizabeth said, and held up her face for Natalie to kiss her.

  Hesitantly, Natalie moved around the foot of Arthur Langdon’s bed and to the side of his wife’s bed and femininely kissed Elizabeth upon the forehead.

  “Good night,” Natalie said. “Sleep well.”

  “Good night, darling,” Elizabeth said.

  “Good night, darling,” Natalie said. She tiptoed around the foot of Arthur’s bed and stood for a minute looking at Elizabeth already asleep in her bed before she turned out the light.

  * * *

  On her way back across the campus she did not find anything particular in her mind to identify this evening beyond others marked in other ways. There was a strong feeling of triumph and an odd feeling of vengeance, and once when she stopped under a tree and leaned her head against its firm rough trunk she whispered softly, “I know, I know.” But that was all; beyond that she seemed to have nothing to say to herself. Without question she left the tree, satiated with the night and the stars indistinctly seen, and went on to the house where she lived, without ever troubling herself to look back at the light from the foyer of the Langdons’ apartment, which she had left on, after some thought, for Arthur to find his way home again.

  She went back into her own house, and quietly up the stairs, realizing with a shock from the sounds of voices in other rooms that it was still very early, perhaps not more than ten o’clock. She went immediately to the rooms which Vicki and Anne shared and found—as she had known without question, coming up the stairs—that they were dark.

  She went on up the stairs to her own dark room with its locked door, the room which she had left, carefully dressed, at some time in the late afternoon, her own safe dear room, where she might sit by herself without interruption, and, as she entered with her key in her hand, she saw even in the darkness the white paper of the note on the desk.

  “Thanks very much,” it said. “How was Lizzie? V.”


  My dear captive princess,

  It is as much as any knight can do, these days, to keep in touch with his captive princesses, let alone rescue them. For one thing, I find my armor much too tight; it has rusted since I last wore it in combat, and I cannot for the life of me remember where I last sa
w my sword. I think of you, princess, languishing in your tower, peering anxiously forth from the narrow windows, wringing your long white hands and pacing the floor in your long white gown, looking constantly out at the long winding road below, out to where it disappears among the mountains far beyond your tower . . . I keep thinking of you looking, and waiting, with no knight coming. And of course I shall come eventually, with or without armor; perhaps I can find me a reputable tinsmith (although the tinsmiths themselves are not at all what they used to be) who will fashion for me some snow-white armor and a helmet to which I can attach some small insignia of yours—your old hockey stick, perhaps, with which I can also defend myself if need be. Or half a dozen pages from a learned quarterly, which might not prove so fine a means of defense, but would certainly mark me unerringly as a knight errant. (This last is a joke depending entirely upon your knowledge of word roots. I have wasted too many jokes on you to let them pass now without identification.) I am not quite sure, moreover, how to attack the dragon which guards your towers; does he ever sleep? Can he be bribed? Drugged? Enticed away? Or must I fight him, after all? Or, worse still, is there a dragon? You are surely not confined only by magic? I positively will not battle a sorcerer.

  Your mother insists that I include in this letter the statement that she has sent you a black evening dress with, I believe she said, off-the-shoulder-sleeves. She remarks sadly that that was what she always used to want, and I truly believe that it was an entirely goodhearted and unselfish gesture, that your mother honestly has sent you a black evening dress with off-the-shoulder-sleeves because, considering more than she usually does, she thought it the most wonderful gift a mother could possibly send her daughter.

  You have probably found easier ways of evading enchantments than I shall ever learn. It has always been my opinion, you know, that princesses are confined in towers only because they choose to stay confined, and the only dragon required to keep them there was their own desire to be kept. And I further believe, now, that if you erect a tower, princesses will flock to it demanding to be locked up therein. So why do you not gratify your mother and myself, and, I believe, even your brother, by spending a weekend with us soon? If you let me know when you choose to escape the dragon’s ceaseless vigilance, I shall send you train fare, operating upon your mother’s theory that it would be the nicest thing anyone could send me.

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