The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  “If you want me to, I will do it,” she said.

  “Dear Beth,” and I pressed her hand.

  She opened her eyes, grinning. “I bet you never dreamed I could do Beth so well,” Betsy said.

  • • •

  I know not how I stumbled down the stairs, past Miss Jones halfway; “Is she all right, Doctor?” I believe Miss Jones asked me, and I, shaking my head blindly, made my way somehow to the door, and abandoned that house.

  A general who retreats while his army is strong, and able to fight, is a coward, but who can condemn a warrior who, shorn of weapons, seeing his allies desert him, confronted by a field upon which his adversary reigns triumphant, withdraws from battle? I sat up late that night composing a letter to Miss Jones, resigning her niece’s care; I told her I was old and ill, I explained to her that my strength was inadequate, I described to her my many pressures of business and affairs, I recommended returning to Ryan, and suggested (with what pangs for my lovely Beth) that she seriously consider some good private institution, and I closed, her humble servant, having covered four sides and said everything, except the truth, which I knew to be that I was badly frightened and unwilling to jeopardize my own health in the service of a girl who had misled me; I had placed my faith on Beth and been deceived, and although I could hardly condemn her for being no more than a weak pawn, my trust in her was gone. I wrote late, as I say, and very well (indeed, I have saved the letter, and it is before me now), but I might have slept that night, and saved my inadequate words.

  In the morning, as I turned wearily from my writing desk, Miss Jones telephoned me again. In the levellest tones, as one who endeavors not to judge prematurely and unfairly, she told me that her niece had gone. Suitcase secretly packed, her clothes hastily assumed in the dead of night, our enemy had deceived us; Betsy had carried off Miss R. and Beth, we knew not when or where.



  Everything was going to be very very very good, so long as she remembered carefully about putting on both shoes every time, and not running into the street, and never telling them, of course, about where she was going; she recalled the ability to whistle, and thought, I must never be afraid.

  She knew that the bus left at twelve; she had planned this more carefully than they ever suspected. She had been extremely clever about packing her suitcase softly and with tiny steps from the closet to the bed, and because she had known that she was going, by then, she had chosen only the most correct clothes for wearing outdoors and on a bus; she had taken a great deal of money from Aunt Morgen’s pocketbook, she had tricked the doctor roundly. Even when they discovered she had gone, it was going to take them quite a while to learn all about the suitcase and the money and the bus; she had covered her tracks exceedingly well. Whistling, she came to the corner and thought, they will never expect that I know how to get on a taxi by myself, and it will take me to the bus station in time, too. “Take me to the bus station, please,” she said to the taxi driver; these were the first free words she had ever spoken, but the taxi driver only nodded and took her to the bus station. She gave him a dollar bill from her pocketbook, he gave her back change, and she said “Thank you,” and “Good night,” when she closed the door of the taxi. No one turned, no one shouted, no one stopped to point at her and burst into laughter; everything was going to be very very very good.

  She had eleven single dollar bills in her pocketbook, and the rest, some hundred-odd dollars she had taken from Aunt Morgen’s wallet, was carefully hidden in the pocket of her suitcase, since under no circumstances must she be thought careless or a fool, and the loss of all her money, besides indicating that she was not entirely able, might put her into the uncomfortable position of having to ask strangers for help. She had determined with precision that as soon as she got off the bus again she would go to a hotel, where of course in a room of her own she would be able to open her suitcase in private and take out whatever money she wanted.

  Since she had both money and time, she was able to have a cup of coffee in the bus station while she was waiting, and she bought herself, also, a magazine; she did not care to read, generally, but she was attracted by the bright cover and had observed that nearly all the people standing in the station carried magazines or books, and she must on no account be thought strange or different. She had a book in her suitcase, a large dictionary for use in case she needed help in talking or writing or spelling; in any case, since she intended eventually to dispose of all her possessions, the book, which was large and solidly printed, might be a source of money sometime if she needed it, but she must remember to cross out Lizzie’s name on the first page. At present, it was perfectly safe with her money in the suitcase and was hardly worth removing just to seem to be reading on the bus. She finished her coffee and set the cup back into the saucer just as everyone else did, and got down from the stool and picked up her pocketbook and suitcase and went to the ticket window. Ahead of her a woman was telling the clerk, “One way to New York, please,” and, since the clerk neither looked up nor laughed, this must be the usual manner of getting a ticket; she felt a deep grateful satisfaction for the clerk and for the woman ahead and for the man who sold coffee and to the taxi driver and for all this wholly strange world; “One way to New York, please,” she said, careful to get the right inflection, and the clerk neither looked up nor smiled, but passed her her change wearily. “How soon does the bus go?” she asked the clerk boldly, and he glanced at the clock and told her, without surprise, “Twelve minutes, side door.”

  Wondering what to do for twelve minutes, since it would certainly be remarked upon if she had another cup of coffee so soon after the first, she noticed a rack of picture postcards, and the idea of a farewell message came to her; they would naturally perceive that she had left them, but she could not forego the pleasure of telling them that they had driven her away. She chose two postcards, regretting that there were no pictures of the museum; she addressed the one with a picture of the monument to Aunt Morgen, writing with the pen which Lizzie always carried in the pocketbook. “You will never see me again,” she wrote. “I am going to parts unknown. I hope you are sorry.” And then, since the postcard seemed so unfeeling, and Aunt Morgen had, after all, never done her any active harm, she added, “Love, from E. R.”

  The other card she addressed, having saved this particular satisfaction for the last, to Doctor Wright, and for a minute she thought, pen in hand, of how most clearly and vividly in this small space reserved for messages, to say what Doctor Wright needed to be told; the recollection of the imminent departure of the bus stirred her at last, and finally she wrote quickly, “Dear Doctor Wrong, never try to find me. I will never come back. I am going somewhere where people love me, and not like you. Yours very sincerely, Betsy.” This message did not particularly please her, but there was no time to try another because the man was calling, “Bus to New York, side door, leaving in three minutes, bus to New York, side door, leaving in three minutes, bus to New York, side door. . . .”

  She hurried out, following the woman who had been ahead of her in the ticket line, and climbed into the bus, marveling for a moment at its size and deep comfort, compared with the smaller busses Lizzie used to ride on her way to work at the museum. After hesitating for a minute inside the door she sat down next to the woman who had been ahead of her in the line, and then got up again to put her suitcase into the rack overhead, as she observed other people doing, because of course she must not seem to be different in any way, and must not have her suitcase on the floor next to her if everyone else had their suitcases in the rack over their heads. Once settled, her magazine and pocketbook in her lap, she leaned back and sighed, and turned her head slightly to see that the woman in the seat next to her was staring at her (had she done something to be stared at? Too slow with her suitcase? Too quick, leaning back?) and so she said hastily, “How long a trip do we have?”

  “Where are you going?” asked the woman, raising
her eyebrows.

  “To New York, same as you.”

  The woman frowned, glanced forward at the driver, and then said, “How did you know I was going to New York?”

  “I heard you buy a ticket, so I bought a ticket the same way.”

  “Oh?” said the woman, raising her eyebrows again and looking sideways.

  It is not going to be safe to rely on anyone, Betsy thought with quick sad clarity, not anyone at all. This woman was old, as old as Aunt Morgen, looking tired and as though she did not much relish this night trip on a bus instead of a sleep at home in bed; it was not fair that a woman as old as Aunt Morgen and looking so tired should be untrustworthy as well. Perhaps even more than wishing she was young again and full of life, the woman wished to be trusted by Betsy, because she turned now and made a big smile for Betsy alone, and said, “So you’re going to New York?” and nodded, and turned her whole face and body at Betsy as though promising a home, and safety. Does she think that I am going to think that she is young again? Betsy wondered, and said, “I guess so. I mean, I have a ticket for New York, but I might decide to go somewhere else. Is New York exciting?”

  “Not very,” the woman said. She glanced again at the driver, and then leaned closer to Betsy. “No place is very exciting unless you have dear ones there,” she said, and nodded again. “For me, New York is nothing—nothing. My dear ones are beyond.”

  Betsy looked past her at the dark window of the bus and thought suddenly that it was not, after all, impossible that they would not come after her; could that be Aunt Morgen’s face peering in blindly through the glass, or the doctor gesturing imperiously from the station doorway? “How soon do we start?” she asked the woman, and the woman put a hand in a black glove over Betsy’s hand, and said, “One longs to join them, dear, yearning for dear ones is sometimes almost a pain, a pain here,” and she took her hand off Betsy’s long enough to touch herself lingeringly on the breast, and then she put her hand down on Betsy’s again.

  But, Betsy thought, even if they knew now about the suitcase and the money and the bus (could that be Aunt Morgen, running, calling out, waving her handkerchief frantically?) they would never look for her talking to a dismal woman in black gloves, never look under the woman’s hand to see if Betsy’s hand lay there, and she sat back again, and turned her head courteously to the woman; they were two ladies engaged in conversation, and the bus stirred, and groaned. The driver nodded reassuringly at the station, the doors of the bus closed, and then the bus moved hugely out of the station and into the street (the doctor, was it? Stepping from a taxi, shaking his umbrella?) and then gathered speed toward the edge of town. “I guess we’ve started,” Betsy said happily.

  “—very fortunate,” the woman said. “I, you see, have no dear ones awaiting me in New York. A child like yourself can never understand—”

  Goodbye, goodbye, Betsy thought, turning to see the town behind them. Goodbye.

  “Beyond, if only I might reach them.”

  “Why can’t you reach them?” Betsy turned back and looked curiously at the woman who still had her hand over Betsy’s and was now using the other hand to wipe at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Where are they?”

  “In Chicago. I am unfortunately absolutely without means of traveling farther than New York. A child like yourself, unsuspicious, happy, free—a child like yourself, with an ample allowance—”

  “I haven’t got an allowance,” Betsy said, and giggled. “All I have is what I got from Aunt Morgen.”

  “Perhaps a small loan—”

  “Thank you anyway, but I have enough,” Betsy said. “It’s in my suitcase.”

  The woman glanced up, briefly, and then pressed Betsy’s hand. “Such a sweet child,” she said. “What is your name, dear?”


  “Is that all?”

  Suddenly, perhaps because Betsy had been listening and looking through the window at the moving lights, or perhaps even just because she had allowed herself to become excited and interested—Lizzie got out, and she looked coldly at the woman while Betsy, caught completely off guard, struggled and tried to catch control again, and Lizzie said, “I beg your pardon?” and then looked wonderingly around the bus.

  “I only said ‘What is your name?’” the woman said, drawing back.

  “Elizabeth Richmond, madam. How do you do?”

  “How do you do?” said the woman weakly, and then Betsy caught onto a deep breath and put Lizzie under again, and said as politely as she could, “I don’t want to talk any more now, thank you. You’ve been very nice, but I would rather not talk any more.”

  Without, she hoped, being particularly rude, she got up and went to an empty seat at the back of the bus; she could hardly try to take down her suitcase with the bus moving so quickly, but it was more important to be where she need not talk to anyone, and she could watch her suitcase easily from here. The woman with whom she had been sitting turned once, and looked at her, and then, shaking her head a little, glanced up at the suitcase and then opened her book to read. That’s good, Betsy thought; perhaps she didn’t even notice Lizzie speaking up like that; perhaps she has a Lizzie of her own.

  Although Betsy did not sleep, and did not think she ever had, it was of course necessary for Elizabeth to sleep; ever since Betsy had been a prisoner she had watched while Elizabeth slept, lying far back in her own hidden corner of the mind, inert and almost helpless, looking as though up through a dizzying fog at the world of Elizabeth’s dreams, seeing the dim figures of Elizabeth’s world when Elizabeth’s eyes were open, and the screaming phantoms of Elizabeth’s nightmares when Elizabeth’s eyes were shut; she had lain there crying out, soundless and numb, helpless to move Elizabeth’s hands or feet, frantic for motion, for sight, for speech, paralyzed and wrapped in agonizing silence; now, riding the surface of Elizabeth’s mind, she indulgently permitted Elizabeth to dream, and luxuriated in the picture of Elizabeth down there, dumb and helpless and waiting. Beyond Elizabeth, in the far kingdom of the mind, Beth lay, moving drowsily, unaware, not watchful, lost in soundless shadows. Betsy could feel that they were beneath, ready to rouse, as she had been, to any sharp sight or sound calling them awake. Now, Elizabeth slept, and frowned a little, and turned uncomfortably in the soft seat of the bus, and swayed with the movement of the bus, and Betsy lay back against the soft cushion of Elizabeth’s dreams, planning what she was going to do, now that she was free.

  She knew that she was going to get off the bus in New York, and follow everyone else out of the bus station into the street (it would be a street, she supposed, much like that she had left behind; she must not let her fears of strangeness carry her into imaginary difficulties; she must be prepared to assume a certain steadiness upon the part of the world outside) and then take a taxi, as she had done to get to the bus station—only now, she supposed, it would be daylight, and consequently easier to find a taxi, and she could look out the windows as they traveled. She would then go to a hotel. Aunt Morgen had stayed once at a hotel named Drewe; this, since she knew from Aunt Morgen’s staying there that it must be a proper place and suitable for a lady traveling alone (Aunt Morgen had surely been traveling alone?) would be the best place for her to go at first. Later, when she had had time to unpack her suitcase and perhaps look around a little and get to know the city, she would move to another hotel whose name Aunt Morgen would not know; she could not remember whether Doctor Wrong had ever mentioned being familiar with the names of any hotels in New York, but thought she might safely assume that he would not be acquainted with the names of hotels suitable for ladies traveling alone. I have been very strictly brought up, she thought with satisfaction, and I shall be very well-behaved. Particularly she recalled that she had told both Aunt Morgen and Doctor Wrong that they would not be able to find her, so very likely they would not think of looking in New York, because in New York they might find her. A thought struck her, and she giggled—
Elizabeth turning in her sleep—perhaps, she thought, she should have sent postcards to Lizzie and Beth, telling them goodbye; I’ll do that first chance I get, she promised herself, I’ll write them each a nice card from the hotel, it’s no more than they deserve. Elizabeth stirred again, and groaned, and Betsy was still, wanting Elizabeth to stay asleep.

  All during the dark hours of the night the bus moved on, going smoothly and rocking Elizabeth gently; because it was important not to seem wakeful when everyone else was sleeping Betsy closed her eyes, and a kind of wonder came to her, at herself going alone through the night. She was for the first time in the indifferent hands of strangers, entrusting her person to the tenderness of the bus driver, her name to the woman napping in the seat far ahead; she was going to spend the rest of her life in a room belonging to someone else and she would eat at a stranger’s table and walk streets she did not recognize under a sun she had never seen, waking, before. Soon no one would even know her face; Doctor Wrong would forget and Aunt Morgen would be looking for Elizabeth; from this moment on no eyes which looked upon her would ever have seen her before; she was a stranger in a world of strangers and they were strangers she had left behind; “Who am I?” Betsy whispered in wonder, and not even Elizabeth heard, “where am I going?”

  It was, then, urgently important to be some person, to have always been some person; in all the world she was entering there was not anyone who was not some particular person; it was vital to be a person. “I am Betsy Richmond,” she said over and over quietly to herself, “I was even born in New York. And my mother’s name is Elizabeth Richmond, Elizabeth Jones before she was married. My mother was born in Owenstown, but I was born in New York. My mother’s sister is named Morgen, but I never knew her very well.” Invisible in the darkness of the bus, Betsy grinned. “My name is Betsy Richmond,” she whispered, “and I am going alone to New York because I am easily old enough to travel alone. I am going to New York on a bus by myself and when I get to New York I am going to a hotel in a taxi. My name is Betsy Richmond, and I was born in New York. My mother loves me more than anything. My mother’s name is Elizabeth Richmond, and my name is Betsy and my mother always called me Betsy and I was named after my mother. Betsy Richmond,” she whispered softly into the unhearing movement of the bus, “Betsy Richmond.”

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