The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  “Your mother?”

  “They probably haven’t been here very long. They wanted to be all by themselves, and hide. But she’s my mother.”

  The man at the desk smiled. “The rose room?” he suggested significantly.

  “Yes,” said Betsy, “the rose room.”

  “Miss Williams,” said the man, leaning back in his chair to speak to the girl at the telephone switchboard. “Anyone in, in 372?”

  “I’ll check, Mr. Arden. That would be our rose room?”

  “I believe so, Miss Williams. This young lady is inquiring.”

  “Number 372 is busy, Mr. Arden. There must be someone there, since they’re using the phone. In our rose room, Mr. Arden.”

  “The rose room,” said Mr. Arden tenderly. “Miss Williams, did the management send up champagne?”

  “I’ll check, Mr. Arden. Champagne and a rose corsage. Compliments and congratulations. This morning, Mr. Arden.”

  “Splendid, Miss Williams. And now this young lady is inquiring.” He turned and smiled on Betsy. “A little ceremony,” he explained. “Compliments of the establishment. The . . .” he hesitated. “The personal touch,” he said, and blushed visibly.

  “Can I go right there?” Betsy asked.

  “Are you expected?” he asked in return, raising his eyebrows.

  “Of course,” Betsy said. “They’re waiting for me.”

  “Well,” said Mr. Arden, and turned one hand eloquently. “Are you sure?”

  “Of course,” said Betsy. “And I’m late now.”

  Mr. Arden bowed. “Miss Williams,” he said, “take the young lady up to our rose room.”

  “Certainly, Mr. Arden. Will you come with me, please, miss?”

  There were no fish painted on the walls of the elevator and that was a very very good sign, and the walls upstairs were pale green and not at all like sea water, even though pale green was a color for deepness and going down and losing and fading and sinking and failing; “Our rose room is very popular,” Miss Williams said walking softly as they left the elevator. “The management invariably sends up champagne and a corsage of roses for the bride. Compliments of the hotel, of course. Such a charming custom.”

  “They’d be wanting to hide,” Betsy said.

  “Right down here. Last room on the left. Privacy, you know.” Miss Williams giggled, but very softly.

  “Here?”

  “No, no,” said Miss Williams. “Let me knock, if you please.” She giggled again. “Always knock twice on the door of our rose room,” she said, and giggled.

  “Someone said to come in,” Betsy said.

  “Good evening,” Miss Williams said, opening the door. “Here’s a young lady you were waiting for, Mr. Harris.”

  “Good evening, Betsy,” said Robin, grinning hideously from across the room.

  “No, no,” said Betsy, stumbling back against Miss Williams, “not this one, not Robin again?”

  “I beg your pardon?” said Miss Williams, staring, “I beg your pardon?”

  “I won’t let you, not ever any more,” Betsy said to Robin, “and neither will my mother.” She turned and struggled violently past Miss Williams in the doorway, broke free, and ran. “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Harris,” Miss Williams said behind her, “in our rose room . . . I didn’t dream . . .”

  “It’s perfectly all right,” he said. “A mistake of some kind.”

  And she could hear him after her, down the hall and down the stairs, praying not to stumble, not Robin again, it wasn’t fair, not after all she’d done, not after all she’d tried, not Robin again, it wasn’t fair, no one could do that again, praying to move quickly enough, to be safely out of it and away before he could touch her, to be safely out of it; “Robin,” she said, “Robin darling, call me Lisbeth, Lisbeth”; was he following? To be out of the light and invisible, to be easily around the corner and gone, to lose him long behind . . . was he below? In the doorway? Waiting grinning with his arms wide to catch her, could she go any faster? There was the end of the stairway ahead, and the door leading out, and she threw herself against the opening and it opened and there he was, as always, waiting for her always, and she said “No, no more, please,” and went under his hand and sobbed and hurried for the door; “Thief,” someone called in a loud voice, and someone else cried, “Help?” and beside her she heard him laughing as she hurried and she put her arms up to hide her face and ran and nearly stumbled on the low low step which went up and down; there were lights, and she opened her eyes a little and never dared to look behind her because she heard him coming.

  “Robin,” she said, “Robin, call me Lisbeth, Lisbeth, call me Lisbeth, Robin darling, call me Lisbeth.” And fell, and fell, and could not be caught, and fell.

  • • •

  She was in the hotel room, and trying to pack into her suitcase what fragments of clothing seemed worth taking with her. She had ripped and torn at the clothes and the curtains and the bedpillows because she was angry, but now she had the pocketbook and the key, and felt only a pressing need for hurry, because—and she knew clearly where her great danger lay—Betsy might come back at any moment. It was on the desk, among the broken pens and spilled ink, that she discovered the highly important paper which she knew was to be hidden among her things and delivered to someone as yet unidentified. Although she did not understand how anything of vast importance could be written on such a tiny slip, she knew perfectly that it must not fall into Betsy’s hands; she had the swift impression that it was an artificially valuable thing, like the thimble in hide-the-thimble or the handkerchief in drop-the-handkerchief, of value only so long as the game went on, and then of interest to no one. Besides, she could not read it. It resembled the hundreds of small papers which come into people’s hands every day, enclosed in packages of laundry, for instance, recommending dry-cleaning of curtains for the spring, or the labels which certify that Easter eggs are pure, or the slip of paper enclosed in the theatre program pointing out that there was an inadvertent mistake on page twelve, where Miss Somebody’s name had been mistakenly rendered as Miss Something Else; at any rate, she could not read it.

  She had no idea who had written it, or why, or who it was supposed to be given to, or how, or when, but she put it into her pocketbook anyway, since if Betsy was not to see it that in itself was sufficient reason for her to conceal it and make every effort to see that it was properly delivered. She wasted precious time attempting to read it, and, puzzling, could only decide that it seemed to contain numbers of some kind, and words which, while clear and distinct to any passing glance, turned into meaningless markings when she brought it close enough to read. Because she was so sure of its desperate importance she decided to pin the paper into the money in her wallet; she knew she would not take out a bill to pay for candy or magazines or the taxi to the bus station without considering very carefully, and so ran no chance of losing the little paper.

  There was not much she could find to put in her suitcase. It was irritating to reflect that if Betsy had been sensible and given up the key without trouble none of this would have happened and her good clothes, which, after all, cost money, need not have been ruined, but Betsy was a dangerous, scheming girl, and was, besides, a wastrel; consider, for one thing, this hotel room, which must surely have been an unnecessary expense and would have to be paid for with other people’s money. She badly wanted to be paid up and out of the hotel before the hotel people found out about the damage to the room; it had been Betsy’s fault, after all, and they would almost certainly expect her to pay as well for the mirror which Betsy had broken.

  When she had packed the suitcase with everything she thought could be mended, or patched together, or used for something else, she snapped the suitcase shut and stood up to look around the room for anything she might have overlooked. Then, moving quickly, she slipped into her coat and took up her pocketbook and the suitcase. Then s
he stopped and stood perfectly still; Betsy was coming back.

  There was no time now for the suitcase, and she dropped it and scrambled the key out of her pocketbook and ran for the door. Just as she touched the key to the keyhole Betsy found her and with a furious shout snatched at her hand and bit it until she dropped the key and Betsy grabbed for it as it fell. If Betsy once got a hand on the key there was no hope of escape; wildly, she got a hand in Betsy’s hair and pulled, and dragged her back away from the key, and it lay there on the floor while both of them, panting, stood back and waited for one another like two cats circling. Then, with unbelievable speed, Betsy went for the key again, the tips of her fingers just touching it, and she put her foot down hard on Betsy’s hand and held it there.

  Nothing could pain Betsy, she knew; no kind of hurt could register on that black mind, and so she could only try to overpower Betsy physically, and force her down; with quiet slow strength she put her hand almost gently around Betsy’s throat and tightened her fingers as slowly and surely as she could; she made no sound, because she needed all her breath, but Betsy screamed, and gasped, and then ripped at her hand with sharp, cutting nails, and kicked out, and screamed again, sinking; the heel of Betsy’s shoe caught in the light cord and brought the lamp smashing down; the noise will bring someone, she thought. She felt Betsy’s nails rake the side of her face, and then Betsy called out “Mother!” and was vanquished.

  She took her hand from Betsy’s throat and, sobbing for breath, rolled over on the floor and got the key in her hands. Then, moving slowly and with pain, she stood up, got the key into the door, and turned it.

  • • •

  “Well,” said the nurse with great enthusiasm, “you have had quite a sleep. Feeling all chipper now?”

  Many rooms have white walls and many beds have white covers, but only hospitals have white walls and white covers and a bed table with a glass of water and a glass bent straw and nurses who speak with quite that quality of enthusiasm; “Where?” she said, and it hurt her achingly to talk.

  “Mustn’t chatter,” said the nurse, holding up a playful finger. “We’ve got a pretty sore throat there, haven’t we? But we’re not going to think about it at all; we’re going to have a nice wash-up and then Doctor will be here and give it a look-see. And we’re not going to talk and we’re not going to get excited and mostly we’re not going to think about what happened, because after all it was pretty horrid, wasn’t it? Let’s just turn our head a little, so I can go over those scratches on your cheek without hurting. Now.” The nurse stood back and beamed with wholehearted simplicity, “Soon be just as pretty as ever,” she said gaily.

  “Where?”

  “Where what? You do say the silliest things.” The nurse laughed, and held up her finger again. “We’re going to be in trouble,” she said, “if Doctor comes in and finds us talking. And won’t he be pleased to see how nice we look today, after the way we looked yesterday! And I must say that we were a pretty smart girl to be carrying around that little paper, we were indeed.” She turned, and almost curtsied, her jolly air replaced immediately by one of extreme gravity. “Good morning, Doctor,” she said.

  “Good morning. Good morning, Miss Richmond. How’s the throat this morning?”

  “Hurts.”

  “I imagine it does,” said the doctor. He hesitated, and then went on, “I don’t want you to talk any more than you have to, but I’d like you to try and give me some idea of how it happened. Do you know who tried to choke you?”

  “No one.”

  “Miss Richmond,” said the doctor, “someone has had a hand around your throat, making those violent bruises. Do you mean that you don’t know who did it?”

  “She scratched me.”

  “Who?”

  “Doctor,” said the nurse, coming forward in an ardent little rush, “Miss Richmond’s doctor is here, just outside.”

  “Bring him in, by all means. Miss Richmond, thanks to the memo we found in your pocketbook, we have been able to locate your aunt and your doctor and get them here quickly.” He rose, and went to the door, where she could hear him speaking quietly. “Since last night,” she heard him say, and another voice speaking, questioning. “—an eye on her in the hotel,” the doctor said.

  The nurse came over and looked down on her with vast kindliness. “You’ve been a lucky girl,” said the nurse enigmatically.

  “—self-inflicted, but it’s impossible that—”

  “Aunt Morgen?” she asked the nurse.

  “Downstairs,” said the nurse. “Came to take her girl home.”

  The door opened wide, and the doctor came back, with another, smaller man, who walked with small steps and seemed pale and worried. “A paper with my name and address,” he was saying as he walked, seemingly in confirmation of what had just been said, and the doctor nodded; they both came and stood looking down at her from the two sides of the bed, and the nurse stepped hastily back. “I wish she could talk more,” the doctor said. “She can’t seem to tell us who did it.”

  “I know who did it,” the little man said absently; he was looking down at her gravely, and then he reached out and touched the scratches on her face briefly and withdrew his hand. “Poor child,” he said. “We were worried about you,” he told her.

  She looked up at him, perplexed. “Who in sin are you?” she said.

  4

  DOCTOR WRIGHT

  Since I do not anticipate making the history of Elizabeth R. into my life’s work—although I can conceive of lives spent on less—I do not think it necessary to enter into as much professional detail in what I now see as the second, and concluding, stage of her treatment at my hands. On the one side, I feel strongly that although the layman cannot be too well instructed in the uses and values of the several therapeutic methods employed, too detailed an examination of such a case as Miss R.’s may in some respects lessen the efficacy of similar treatment in further cases, the patient being already too well familiarized with the slow progressive steps and prepared for them, as it were; on the other side, my own feelings about the case are mixed, and I am most unwilling to complicate my account with unnecessary detail. Moreover, I strongly suspect that readers today (what, still with me, my friend? Our numbers have grown no larger since we last saw eye to eye; literature is—and I insist upon it to you, sir—a diminishing art) will not sit docilely under a description of a piece of work carefully and painstakingly done; with little patience to lavish upon their own performances, they have none for the work of others.

  In any case, I shall curtail my presentation of Miss R.’s case, and go as quickly as I can to my conclusion. I believe I may have given my reader the notion that I am not an even-tempered man by nature; few are, in truth, I believe. I was hugely annoyed by Miss R.’s abduction at the hands of Betsy, and hardly less aggravated at being called upon, some three days later, to travel to New York—a spot which I particularly loathe—and by airplane, which is, to my thinking, a mode of travel only slightly less nauseating than riding camelback. I traveled with Miss Jones, the venerable aunt of Miss R., and Miss Jones’ company did not materially improve my voyage. She was alternately enormously amused at my discomforts in the airplane, and reproachful over what she deemed my “letting the child escape”—which, since it was I alone who kept Betsy under so long as she did stay, seemed to me both ungrateful and uningratiating; I have, altogether, rarely undertaken a less rewarding journey.

  We found our young lady substantially the worse for her holiday. No one knows, even now, the entire story of what had happened to her, and my most astute questioning, since, has not uncovered all the facts, by any means; we knew, of course, from the phone call which told us she was in hospital, that she had been taken unconscious from the floor of a hotel corridor, that she had been beaten, scratched, and half-strangled, and that she seemed to be suffering from what the New York doctors called, with unshakable assurance, partial amnesia
. I myself came into her hospital room with some misgivings, having reason to doubt the cordiality of my reception by Betsy, and found upon the bed a girl whom I would unhesitatingly have denounced as an imposter, had I not, in the past, seen the facial changes produced when Elizabeth R. became Beth, and then Betsy. This girl—she impressed me as considerably younger than either Elizabeth or Beth, Betsy of course being physically ageless—seemed slighter, somehow, and almost frail; even allowing for the probable harrowing effect of her miserable days in New York, she did not impress me as a young woman of robust health. She resembled Elizabeth strongly, but her face was sharper and of a more cunning turn; I thought she had a sly look.

  At any rate, she and I were strangers. She addressed me civilly enough, but was surprised that I should have come so far to see her, and concluded of her own accord that it was done in duty to her aunt, in whose name she thanked me courteously. Her medical attendant, she further informed me, was Doctor Ryan, and she supposed that if I called at his office upon my return to Owenstown he would be willing to oblige me with any future bulletins with regard to her health, should my interest in her continue so long. She spoke very lamely because of the painful condition of her throat, but we none of us, the attendant physician, the nurse, or myself, had any difficulty whatsoever in determining that Doctor Wright’s services were superfluous to the present Miss R.

  I confess I felt a momentary pang of sympathy for whoever had gotten a hand around her throat, but bowed in silence and retired with what grace I could muster, amused privately at the chagrin of the hospital doctor, who had summoned me in haste because a slip of paper containing my name and address was found in Miss R.’s pocketbook. I assured Miss Jones that her niece was in most capable hands; then, very willingly, I abandoned Miss R. to her aunt to bring home, and a pleasant trip I wished them both. I myself returned by train, a longer but less unsettling mode of travel, and reached my own office and my good fire with an aching head and a deep desire never to hear more of either Miss R. or her aunt. I felt, not to put too fine a point on it, that Miss Jones would probably be completely satisfied with the girl we had found in New York, that my own Miss R. was gone, probably for good, and that I had undertaken a wild goose chase for nothing more than to be mocked in a hospital room by an impudent girl, and to risk my life in an airplane with her fright of an aunt; I found in myself nothing but a kind of sublime impatience with Miss R. and all her family.

 
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