Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

  “—novel?” the man said.

  This was hopeless; they were too far into their conversation for Natalie to say anything at all without losing all the ground she had gained; she would betray herself utterly if she asked him what he had said; she could hardly pretend she didn’t care, or walk off, or turn her back; she could certainly not go back now and ask him if he were having a nice time. “I didn’t hear you,” she said suddenly, frightening herself almost to tears. “I was thinking about myself instead of listening.”

  Four for the gospel-makers;

  Three, three, rivals,

  Two, two, lily-white boys, clothed all in green-O,

  One is one and all alone and evermore will be so.

  “Thinking what about yourself?” the man asked.

  Said the detective, leaning foward, “Have you given any thought to the extreme danger of your position? What about the knife?”

  “About how wonderful I am,” Natalie said. She smiled. Now I can get up and walk away, she thought, the faster the better. She started to get up, but the man got up first, and took hold of her arm.

  “About how wonderful she is,” he said as though to himself. “Thinking about how wonderful she is.”

  A little chill went down Natalie’s back at his holding her arm, at the strange unfamiliar touch of someone else. Leading her by the arm, he moved to the tray where full glasses stood, took one and handed it to Natalie, and took another for himself.

  Five for the cymbols at your door,

  Four for the gospel-makers,

  people shouted at them as they moved.

  “Come along,” the man told Natalie. “This I intend to hear more about.”

  “And the blood?” the detective said fiercely. “What about the blood, Miss Waite? How do you account for the blood?”

  “One is one and all alone and evermore will be so.”

  “You will not escape this,” the detective said. He dropped his voice and said, so quietly that she barely heard him, “This you will not escape.”

  The strange man led Natalie away from the crowd on the lawn and across the grass; after a minute the people and their voices (“Six are the six proud walkers . . .”) were removed into a background noise, distantly behind them in the night-filled garden. They moved slowly; Natalie was afraid to speak, not trusting her voice in the new silence, perhaps she was still turned to the noise behind and when she spoke it would be in a scream. In those few quick minutes the man walking next to her had changed so rapidly from one shadow, on the lighted lawn, to another shadow, in the dark garden, and her final statement to him had been so conclusive, that past “Are you having a good time?”—which now seemed even less appropriate than before—there was nothing to say.

  He spoke, at last. Without the support of other noise, his voice was weak, and perhaps even older than it had sounded before.

  “Now then,” he said. “Tell me what she thinks is so wonderful about herself.”

  How far wrong, Natalie thought, can one person be about another? Perhaps in that little time I have grown in his mind and he is now talking to some Natalie he thought he had hold of by the arm. She felt the grass under her feet, the soft brush of bushes against her hair, and his fingers on her arm. It was no longer afternoon; the time had slipped away from under Natalie and while she had been behaving in her mind, under the lights, as though it were five o’clock, she found now in the darkness that it was much, much later, long past dinnertime, long past any daylight. She found that she was carefully carrying a glass in her hand, and she brought it up and sipped at it, standing still to do so.

  “Tell me,” he said insistently.

  “I can’t answer that,” Natalie said.

  “Do you realize,” he said, amused, “that you made a perfectly outrageous statement? You can’t refuse an explanation.”

  I wonder what I said, Natalie thought; she tried to remember and found that just as her feet were wandering over the grass, so her mind was wandering over the hundreds of words she had heard and spoken that day; it was not possible, she thought, annoyed, to sort out any one statement from that confusion and answer it; he was asking too much. “Where are we?” she asked.

  “Near some trees,” he said.

  They had come, then, to the trees where Natalie had once encountered knights in armor; she could see them ahead, growing together silently. There were almost enough of them to be called a forest. Natalie could still, before reaching the trees, see the path under her feet; the darkness was then not yet absolute, but the light came by some unknown means, since there was no moon and the lights from the house could not reach this far; Natalie thought briefly that the light came from her own feet.

  “I used to play in here when I was a child,” she said.

  Then they were into the little forest, and the trees were really dark and silent, and Natalie thought quickly, The danger is here, in here, just as they stepped inside and were lost in the darkness.

  What have I done? she wondered, walking silently among the trees, aware of their great terrifying silence, so much more expectant by night, and their great unbent heads, and the darkness they pulled about her with silent patient hands.

  When the man beside her spoke she was relieved: there was another human being, then, caught in this silence and wandering among the watchful trees, another mortal.

  “Let’s sit down here,” he said, and without speaking Natalie sat beside him on a fallen trunk. Looking up as she did immediately, she saw immeasurable space, traveling past the locked hands of the trees, past the large nodding implacable heads, up and into the silence of the sky, where the stars remained, indifferent.

  “Tell me what you thought was so wonderful about yourself,” the man said; his voice was muted.

  Oh my dear God sweet Christ, Natalie thought, so sickened she nearly said it aloud, is he going to touch me?

  * * *

  Natalie awoke the next morning to bright sun and clear air, to the gentle movement of her bedroom curtains, to the patterned dancing of the light on the floor; she lay quietly, appreciating the morning in the clear uncomplicated moment vouchsafed occasionally before consciousness returned. Then, with the darkening of the sunlight, the sudden coldness of the day, she was awake and, before perceiving clearly why, she buried her head in the pillow and said, half-aloud, “No, please no.”

  “I will not think about it, it doesn’t matter,” she told herself, and her mind repeated idiotically, It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, until, desperately, she said aloud, “I don’t remember, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened.”

  Slowly she knew she was sick; her head ached, she was dizzy, she loathed her hands as they came toward her face to cover her eyes. “Nothing happened,” she chanted, “nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened.”

  “Nothing happened,” she said, looking at the window, at the dear lost day. “I don’t remember.”

  “I will not think about it,” she said to her clothes, lying on the chair, and she remembered as she saw them how she had torn them off wildly when she went to bed, thinking, I’ll fix them in the morning, and a button had fallen from her dress and she had watched it roll under the bed, and thought, I’ll get it in the morning, and I’ll face it all in the morning, and, in the morning it will be gone.

  If she got out of bed it would be true; if she stayed in bed she might just possibly be really sick, perhaps delirious. Perhaps dead. “I will not think about it,” she said, and her mind went on endlessly, Will not think about it, will not think about it, will not think about it.

  Someday, she thought, it will be gone. Someday I’ll be sixty years old, sixty-seven, eighty, and, remembering, will perhaps recall that something of this sort happened once (where? when? who?) and will perhaps smile nostalgically thinking, What a sad silly girl I was, t
o be sure.

  How I worried, she would think—would it have happened again by then? “I won’t think about it,” she said. “Won’t think about it, won’t think about it.”

  Get up, she thought, so that someday, as quickly as possible, with infinite speed, somehow, she might get to be sixty-nine, eighty-four, forgetting, smiling sadly, thinking, What a girl I was, what a girl . . . I remember one time; did it happen to me or did I read it somewhere? Could it have happened like that? Or is it something one only finds in books? I have forgotten, she would say, an old lady of ninety, turning over her memories, which would be—please God—faded, and mellowed, by time. “Oh, please,” she said, sitting on the edge of her bed, “oh, please, please.”

  The most horrible moment of that morning, and of that day—horrible in itself by being, horrible with its sidelong (suspicious? knowing? perceiving?) looks from her mother and father, heavy amusement from her brother, horrible with remembered words and impossible remembered acts, horrible with its sunlight and its cold disgusting hours—the most horrible moment of that morning or any morning in her life, was when she first looked at herself in the mirror, at her bruised face and her pitiful, erring body.

  She came down to breakfast dressed unfamiliarly in her old clothes; so much of her life had taken place in the blue dress she wore the day before that her old sweater and skirt seemed strange, the costume for some extraordinary Natalie part, which had lain for weeks in a stockroom, waiting for the chosen actress to put them on.

  Perhaps a gladiator, entering the arena, might notice with some dull interest the sand underfoot, carelessly raked and still showing little hills and scuff marks which registered the brief passage of previous victims; Natalie, approaching her own breakfast table, observed absently that her napkin, folded by herself at breakfast the day before, was pulled carelessly through the ring. Her mother’s face, Natalie saw, was tired and she looked at none of them; her father was red-eyed and frowning. All of us, Natalie thought, and turned her eyes to the table.

  “Good morning, everyone,” she said without cheer.

  “Morning,” said her mother wearily.

  “Natalie,” said her father without enthusiasm.

  “Hi,” said her brother; his voice was outrageously fresh, and Natalie thought briefly, No one ever knows what he’s been doing.

  We are a graceless family, she thought again, cringing away from her own worn mind. “No egg, thank you,” she said civilly to her mother, avoiding in time a look at the plate of fried eggs. “Thanks,” she said to her brother, who passed her the toast without displaying any conspicuous interest in whether or not she starved.

  Her family’s dullness lessened Natalie’s own concern, and she began to lose a little of the feeling that her face showed, as the map of a country passed through by only one traveler and charted with a single destructive route, any of the fears of this morning, although when she relaxed even slightly the “Please, please, please,” still echoed maddeningly through her head.

  “What would she do if she knew what I know?” Natalie asked herself, staring at her mother from under her lashes; “What would she know if she did what I did?” And from far within her head came the echo, “please, please, please.” Mrs. Waite, who had hoped for so long to persuade Natalie of her womanhood with words, having no better weapon at her disposal, sighed deeply, and the silence at the breakfast table, which had been a family silence before, became a family pause, a preparation for speech. Who is going to speak? Natalie wondered; not me, certainly. She knew, incredibly, that if she spoke she would tell them what had happened; not because she so much desired to tell, that she wanted to tell even them, but because this was not a personal manifestation, but had changed them all in changing the world, in the sense that they only existed in Natalie’s imagination anyway, so that the revolution in the world had altered their faces and made their hearts smaller.

  I wish I were dead, Natalie thought concretely.

  Mr. Waite leaned back, so that the feeble sunlight, which had endured for a very long time, touched his hair impersonally. “Your God,” he remarked bitterly to his wife, “has seen fit to give us a black and rotten day.”

  Anything which begins new and fresh will finally become old and silly. The educational institution is certainly no exception to this, although training the young is by implication an art for old people exclusively, and novelty in education is allied to mutiny. Moreover, the mere process of learning is allied to mutiny. Moreover, the mere process of learning is so excruciating and so bewildering that no conceivable phraseology or combination of philosophies can make it practical as a method of marking time during what might be called the formative years. The college to which Arnold Waite, after much discussion, had decided to send his only daughter was one of those intensely distressing organizations which had been formed on precisely the same lofty and advanced principles as hoarier seats of learning, but which applied them with slight differences in detail; education, the youthful founders of the college had told the world blandly, was more a matter of attitude than of learning. Learning, they had remarked in addition, was strictly a process of accustoming oneself to live maturely in a world of adults. Adults, they pointed out with professorial cynicism, were tough things to come upon suddenly. As a result, they concluded—and this may be found still in their catalogues, although much of the original thesis has been modified and watered down by their trustees—going to college must be, for girls and boys, something of a drastic experience.

  Obviously, in any college which begins with the notion of education as experience, a certain amount of confusion must be allowed for before anything can be done about what is going to be taught. Should the student be free, for instance? Should the teacher be free? Or should the concept of freedom be abandoned as an educational ideal and the concept of utility be substituted? Ought the students be allowed sentimental sciences like Greek? Or geometry? Should there be a marriage course? What, precisely, should be the attitude taken by the college with regard to a resident psychoanalyst?

  The college had been in existence for perhaps fifteen years. Its founders had thought they were cutting their problems in half, originally, by eliminating men from the student body and women from the faculty. They had told one another honestly over beer in the clever apartments where the idea of the college had first seen light that they all of them believed in informality, that more information was derived from one casual conversation than from a dozen lectures, that education was after all a thing of give and take and should be a pleasure as well as a duty. Words like “mature” and “sustained” and “life” and “realistic” and “vision” and “humanities” were used lavishly. It was decided to construct the college buildings entirely of shingle and “the original beams”; it was supposed that modern dance and the free use of slang in the classrooms might constitute an aura of rich general culture. It was decided that anyone who wanted to study anything should be accommodated, although gym was not encouraged, and it was regarded as extremely fortunate that no one spoke up for microbiology before the fifth year of the college’s life. It was ardently hoped that moderately odd students—such as perhaps even Negroes, or real Navajo Indians—might desire to enroll. It was unanimously voted that students should be allowed to drink, stay out all night, gamble, and paint from nude female models, without any kind of restraint; this, it was clear, would prepare them for the adult world. Any student was to be allowed to make any suggestion. The faculty members were to be drawn almost entirely from a group which would find the inadequate salary larger than anything they had ever earned; the first legitimately appointed Literature professor was a young man whose series of articles in a political journal had aroused much comment, since they were concerned with the illiberal overtones of a revival of Aristophanes. The music faculty were, to a man, intensely interested in the various usefulnesses of the percussion instruments, and without exception composed drum quartets to accompany the college dancers
. A great deal was said about old English ballads, and one entire course with a large enrollment spent a semester studying “Frankie and Johnny.” It was not believed among the science people that information came before experiment, except in the most extreme cases; “Theory is nothing, experience all,” was a phrase used most effectively in the college prospectus. The people in the town near the college felt strongly that the college community was Communistic, and could not understand, when they thought about it, why so many rich people sent their daughters there.

  Unfortunately, this state of mind, happy as it might be for the future adults of the world, did not in the last analysis profit the college. It was found that certain compromises with conservatism were desirable. Although the college catalogue continued to lean heavily on “expression” and “creative activity,” the practice of both became more restrained, and some required courses were found necessary. Instead, for instance, of being allowed to dance as they pleased, students were now required to dance in patterns. Students who formerly waited on table for the joy of common effort were now paid small wages for their work. Instead of being allowed to gamble and drink freely, they were permitted to do neither on campus without the condoning presence of a faculty member or wife, the young man who resented Aristophanes having been dismissed after two years. The students indeed might stay out all night if their rigid schedules permitted, but only if an accurate address were left with the college officials. It had been found dreadfully necessary to install a sort of house resident in each living center; this person was called a “tenant,” inhabited a faculty apartment, and was expected to exert a semi-official influence over the girls in the house and to invite them in to tea occasionally. These faculty apartments were much sought after, because they were inexpensive compared with what the students in the houses paid for their rooms, and because they were a more comfortable place for single faculty than the living centers devoted to faculty or the unusually perishable faculty houses.

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