Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

  When the manor house was put up for rent it was as though a vital part of the town had slid imperceptibly into the river, and a great coolness arose between the Fielding heirs and the Bartletts, who owned the second oldest house in town. During the worst housing shortages, when the lumber mill was going full blast night and day, the old manor house on top of the hill stayed empty, its white pillars sagging and its driveway choked with dead leaves or smooth with unmarked snow. When we saw it first it looked faintly ridiculous, and even the fences on either side and along the front leaned a little bit away from it, without actually renouncing it, as though they deplored it privately and yet wanted to present a unified front to the world of inhabitants. Sam Fielding was the only one of the Fielding cousins who retained the family name and so it had apparently been felt that he was the logical one to show us the house; he was a small quiet old man with the slow voice of the thoughtful Vermonter, and he stood with us at the foot of the lawn and he and my husband and I stared silently up at the huge pillars, the spread wings, the iron weather vane which stared mutely back at us.

  “That’s it,” said Mr. Fielding undeniably. “I’d like to get some use out of it.” He looked away quickly, as though avoiding an accusing glance from the house. “Good house,” he added.

  “It looks so . . .” I hesitated. “Imposing,” I said finally.

  “Imposing,” Mr. Fielding agreed. He declined a cigarette from my husband and took out a cigarette of his own; it was the same brand, but it was his own. “Clean it up some,” he said, nodding his head at the house.

  “May we go inside?” I asked. “If we were interested in the house, I’d rather like to see the inside.”

  “Door’s open,” Mr. Fielding said.

  We hesitated, my husband and I. Mr. Fielding settled himself comfortably on a tree stump and crossed his legs. “Door’s open,” he said again.

  Together my husband and I made our way to the front door, avoiding just in time the broken step that led onto the porch. Once among the pillars the sense of the house came upon one with a rush; here was a house, as compared with the makeshift McCafferys and Exeters. My husband tried the front door tentatively, and it swung open. Gingerly, watching out for broken floorboards, we went inside, into a wide hall shadowed by the pillars and backed by a straight, lovely, colonial stairway; somewhere to our right were a carpet flooded with red cabbage roses and a harmonium, under dark old pictures which seemed to lean forward a little to watch us, surprised; we went into a kitchen where a monumental ironwork stove threatened to fall on us, and in the kitchen there was a table thick with dust and on it were a dusty cup and a plate with two solid, ancient doughnuts on it. There was a chair pushed a little away from the table.

  “I’m sorry we stayed,” I said to my husband earnestly, my hands shaking as I looked at the two hideous doughnuts, “we interrupted their lunch, let’s leave right away.”

  “If it weren’t the only house in town . . .” he said, but he followed me rapidly outside.

  Mr. Fielding rose to meet us as we came back down between the pillars, and when we were near him he said, “Weather’s closing in. Snow before morning.” He escorted us solemnly to the station, discussing the weather, and as our train came in he remarked, “Fix her up some, then, before you folks come in the spring.”

  “Tell me,” I said, “how long since anyone’s been in that house?”

  “Not since the old man died,” he said. “Four year I figure that might be.”

  “But to straighten it up?” I insisted. “Look over his things, or anything?”

  “Never really figured it would rent,” he said thoughtfully. “No sense rushing things.”

  He waved to us kindly when we got onto the train. During most of that next two weeks I held firmly to the impractical conviction that I didn’t care if it was the last house in the town, or in the world for that matter, and I didn’t care if it meant living in the park, I was not going to live in a house with two petrified doughnuts. The following week, however, we received a letter from Mr. Fielding, saying that the house was being fixed up, and did we feel that fifty dollars a month was too much rent?

  “You seem to have taken the house,” I said unjustly to my husband.

  “It’s probably because we went inside,” he said. “No one else has ever gone inside, and that probably constitutes a lease.”

  A week later we received another letter from Mr. Fielding, saying that the house was all ready for us, except for the outside, which would be painted when the weather opened up. Since we had not answered his last letter, he figured that his rent was too high, and did we think we could manage forty?

  A strong sense of guilt impelled my husband to write back immediately saying that fifty dollars a month was fine; “before he gives it to us,” he told me.

  “But I’m not—” I said, realizing that of course I was.

  I came up on the train, a day after my husband. I brought with me a wildly excited Laurie, and Jannie, in a basket; and all the way up on the train, crushed in between Laurie and the baby’s basket and the suitcases and the sandwiches, I was wondering if anyone had thought to take away the kitchen table and the doughnuts: my husband had promised that if we really couldn’t stand it we could try once more to find something in the city. Mr. Fielding was with my husband to meet us at the station, and when I saw Mr. Fielding again the whole clear sense of the house came back to me and I was ready to turn around and go back right then. He smiled at me cheerfully, said, “Afternoon, young fellow,” to Laurie, and stared gravely at the baby for a minute; she stared back at him, and then he nodded to me and said reassuringly, “Fixed her up some.”

  I knew what he meant when I saw the house. It had been literally scraped clean, down to the wood in the walls. Mr. Fielding had put on new wallpaper, rich with great gorgeous patterns, the windows had been washed, the pillars straightened, the broken step repaired, and a cheerful man in the kitchen was putting the last touches of glittering white paint to the new shelving; there was a brand new electric stove and a new refrigerator, the floors had been repaired and varnished, a hornets’ nest had been removed from the farthest pillar on the right. The lawn was just beginning to show green, and Laurie ran in and out between the pillars, touching every one, and then, shouting, up and down the straight stairway. In her basket Jannie smiled, looking up at the sky over the trees.

  “It’s beautiful,” I said to Mr. Fielding, almost in tears. “I thought it would look like it did before.”

  “Needed some work done,” Mr. Fielding agreed. Then he nodded at the new kitchen stove and said, “Did the old place good.”

  Just then our moving van arrived, and the three muscular, brazen fellows who had looked so natural carrying our furniture out of the apartment became abruptly incongruous carrying our small chairs and tables in between the pillars.

  “Put in some more plumbing, too,” Mr. Fielding said, and departed.

  For the first week or so things were completely at cross-purposes. Our furniture, which had been more than adequate for a city apartment, here spread all too thinly among the echoing rooms of the house, and we had to fill out with odd tables and chairs bought from Mr. Fielding and from nearby second-hand shops. The house had grown enormously, I later learned, from Doctor Ogilvie’s original structure. The Cortlands had added the summer kitchen, but the Fieldings had added on and on, so that the room which had been the summer kitchen, for instance, and hitched on to the back of the house in the first place, was now smack in the middle, tucked in among larger and sturdier rooms, and was no longer a kitchen at all but only a dark little room which was sometimes difficult to find. We had only three beds and we had six bedrooms, so Mr. Fielding sold us, for fifty cents, a bed that had been only recently taken out of the house and put into one of the capacious barns. We tried to buy the harmonium but the Fieldings had sold it to an antique dealer; we did buy the carpet with the cabbage roses,
since it was the only one which would fit into the vast desert of the parlor; we declined, with one voice, the old kitchen table. All these things, the ones that had been in the house before, and other things which had been in similar old houses and knew their ways, fell naturally into good positions in the rooms, as though snatching the best places before the city furniture could crowd in. No matter how much we wanted to set our overstuffed chairs on either side of the living room fireplace, an old wooden rocker that Mr. Fielding had given us insisted upon pre-empting the center of the hearth rug and could not in human kindness be shifted. An old highboy, which was a contemporary of the rocker although it had come from a barn across town, took over the living room corner near the rocker, and the two of them lived there in silent companionship.

  After a few vain attempts at imposing our own angular order on things with a consequent out-of-jointness and shrieking disharmony that set our teeth on edge, we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would. An irritation persisted in one particular spot in the dining room, a spot which would hold neither table nor buffet and developed an alarming sag in the floor when I tried to put a radio there, until I found completely by accident that this place was used to a desk and would not be comfortable until I went out and found a spindly old writing table and set a brass inkwell on it.

  There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched and would latch itself no matter who was inside; there was another door which hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close goodhumoredly for a time when some special reason required it. We had five attics, we discovered, built into and upon and next to one another; one of them kept bats and we shut that one up completely; another, light and cheerful in spite of its one small window, liked to be a place of traffic and became, without any decision of ours, a place to store things temporarily, things that were moved regularly, like sleds and snow shovels and garden rakes and hammocks. The basement had an old clothesline hung across it, and after the line I put up in the back yard had fallen down for the third time I resigned myself and put up a new line in the basement, and clothes dried there quickly and freshly. We stocked the woodshed, since we had four fireplaces, and my husband discovered an odd pleasure in splitting wood, and the sound of an axe in the woodshed echoed agreeably through the kitchen. One bedroom chose the children, because it was large and light and showed unmistakable height-marks on one wall and seemed to mind not at all when crayon marks appeared on the wallpaper and paint got spilled on the floor. We put bookcases in the little dark room downstairs, and after the second week my husband got so he could find it nine times out of ten.

  It was a good old house, after all. Our cats slept on the rocking chair; our friends came to call. We accustomed ourselves to trading at certain stores and we bought our cheese locally and we found a doctor and a dog; Laurie entered the community nursery school and learned, as I had, to identify the house by saying “It’s the old Fielding house—the one with the pillars.” Toward the end of our first year there the painter arrived to do the outside of the house, and he painted it white with green trim, the colors it had always been painted before; indeed, I doubt if he owned any other colors of paint. “Not many houses like this nowadays,” he told me, smiling benignly down at me from the top of his ladder, “don’t find houses built like this any more.”

  I looked from the front porch in through the glass of the front door, seeing the slim line of the stairway and the bright curtains in the dining room. “It’s a good old house,” I said.

  “Can always tell by the cats,” the painter said enigmatically.

  I found that, where in the city I had always been too busy to do anything at all, I was now making odd things like gingerbread and cabbage salad. Laurie started a crude garden out back, and Jannie took her first step in the dining room. Once I left both of them with our next-door neighbor, and went into the city for a wild two-day shopping trip; when I wandered into our old neighborhood and stood in front of our old apartment house I could only think how small and dirty it looked. “No pillars there,” I told myself with deep gratification, and wished I could write our old landlord and tell him.

  So, the house was old when we found it, and noisy when we entered it, and it took very little time for it to fill up. Our children brought in friends and rocking horses and paint brushes, we brought in friends and books and little wheels off things. I learned to make pie crust—although I have not the touch of a born pie-maker, I am afraid. People from the city began driving up for weekends in the nice weather.

  Jannie spoke for a long time about a faraway voice in the house which sang to her at night, and we put the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room where the lights shone at night out between the pillars; we raked leaves on the front lawn and went sledding down the hillside. We began to speak slightingly of city-folk.

  I have, as I say, never found a way of life preferable to this; its only fault—aside from the back-breaking labor and the vicious pie crusts which refuse to brown—is that it goes on and on, without, it seems, any major change at all. I observe my neighbors and it seems to me that they are content to live on, registering and employing each day but not in the least distinguishing one day beyond another, and, although that is obviously the best way of passing time, it makes, I feel, for little or no excitement. Even a major event (like our hurricane, or the time we had the flood, or that terribly heavy snow when all the electricity was out for three days) tends to become, by the next day, only a remembered landmark—“that was two days, I recollect, before the hurricane, because we had all those raspberries to set out . . .”—and even the last trump will, I am afraid, make no more of an impression on our community (“. . . well, now, let’s see; that there bugle blowed around about three in the afternoon, and I remember the day because it was the day I w’s supposed to hammer on the boards on that there gate, and here it’s been maybe six weeks since that ol’ bugle, and there hangs the gate right now . . .”). When I think about it, I can only remember the year Laurie was born because I was waiting to get a new winter coat.

  One of the most unnerving, and least original, observations I have made about my children is that as these years turn and Christmas inevitably follows the fourth of July and the fourth of July inevitably follows Christmas, they tend to grow older. Every October, for instance, Laurie has a birthday. Every November, incredible as it may sound, Jannie has a birthday; the fact that I also have a birthday every December is unfortunately entirely believable but somehow less heartwarming. When we first came to the house in the country, Laurie was something over three years old, and Jannie was six months, and then suddenly—although I had in the meantime grown a year older, and so had my husband, and we wished one another “Happy Birthday” very properly—Jannie was almost two and had become a legitimate member of the family named Jannie (instead of Baby, or The Baby), and Laurie was just short of five and was clamoring for the right to vote on domestic policies.

  The day Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave goodbye to me.

  He came home the same way, the front door slamming open, his cap on the floor, and the voice suddenly become raucous shouting, “Isn’t anybody here?”

  At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled Jannie’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said that we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

  “How was school today?” I asked, elaborately casual.

  “All right,” he said.

  “Did you learn anything?” his father asked.

  Laurie regarded his father coldly. “I didn’t learn nothing,” he said.

  “Anything,” I said. “Didn’t learn anything.”

“The teacher spanked a boy, though,” Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. “For being fresh,” he added with his mouth full.

  “What did he do?” I asked. “Who was it?”

  Laurie thought. “It was Charles,” he said. “He was fresh. The teacher spanked him and made him stand in a corner. He was awfully fresh.”

  “What did he do?” I asked again, but Laurie slid off his chair, took a cookie, and left, while his father was still saying “See here, young man.”

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