The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  Two things I knew which I do not believe anyone else suspected: that Beth had written the note with my name and address and tucked it into Miss R.’s pocketbook, and that the bruises on Miss R.’s throat were made by the fingers of Betsy; I believe they would have thought me mad in New York had I proposed either as a clue to Miss R.’s condition. I contented myself, therefore, with my anger, and did well with it.

  I was not, nevertheless, altogether dumfounded when, two days after her return, Miss R. came to my office; Miss Hartley, of course, announced her only as Miss R., and it was a genuine pleasure to me to find myself greeting Elizabeth who, timid and hesitant as always, sat down as though she thought she had an appointment, and indeed, upon questioning, it developed that she really thought she had. The poor girl knew of nothing that had passed, and assumed, in all innocence, that she was merely continuing her regular series of visits! I was touched, and perhaps a little guilty over my anger with the poor creature, and so it was with great cordiality that I affected to act as though nothing untoward had occurred since our last meeting.

  “Have you completely recovered your recent illness, my dear Elizabeth?” I asked her. “You look extremely well.” There were still dark bruises on her throat, which she had tried to cover with a silk scarf under her collar, and the scratches on her face had not entirely faded, but there is no doubt but what she looked better than she had the last time I had seen her—or the time before that, for that matter.

  “I feel better,” she said. “I have been sick a long time, I think.”

  “You caused your aunt much concern.” With a genuine sense of well-being I opened the desk drawer and took out the notebook which I used for recording my conversations with Miss R., and smiled at her rueful face when she saw it. “We have a good deal of time to make up,” I told her. “How long has it been since we last talked together?”

  “About a week?” She was doubtful.

  “It seems to have done you good, at any rate. Now, let us begin with our usual catechism. Headaches?”

  “None, except for a slight one a day or so ago, when I woke up from a bad dream.”

  “I assume,” I said, “that since you woke up, you had been asleep, and from that I deduce that your insomnia has not been so troublesome as before?”

  “I have been sleeping soundly. Except . . .” She faltered. “Except . . . I have had very bad dreams.”

  “Indeed? Can you recall anything of them?”

  “I was standing,” she said reluctantly, “and I was looking at myself. There was a big mirror—it went as high as I could see. And even though I don’t want to speak unkindly of anyone I think it is cruel of Aunt Morgen to lock my door at night. I am no longer a child, you know.”

  My eyes were on my notebook, but I heard the curious change in her voice, and asked, without looking up, “Did you write my name and address on a slip of paper?”

  “You did see it, then?” Her voice was delighted. “I was so frightened, and I tried to telephone you, because I knew that you would always come to help me, but the man wouldn’t call you to the phone, and I was so frightened.”

  I looked up at her; it was surely Beth, come to me voluntarily without hypnosis, pale and tired and brutally disfigured by her scratched face, but my own lovely girl nevertheless. “If you hadn’t written that note,” I told her, “we could not have rescued you.”

  “Rescued me?” she asked wonderingly.

  “I will explain it in good time. Let me only say that you were most wise to make that note. There are a great many things I am anxious to discuss with you, but I fear that you are not entirely well even yet, and I think you should rest.” I had not until now met Beth face to face, and—just as when I first saw Betsy with her eyes open I recognized suddenly that she was an independent personality, a being whole and apart from any other, rather than a mere angry manifestation engendered solely in my office—I saw that Beth now, looking about her and drawing herself together, was endeavoring to form herself, as it were; let my reader who is puzzled by my awkward explanations close his eyes for no more than two minutes, and see if he does not find himself suddenly not a compact human being at all, but only a consciousness on a sea of sound and touch; it is only with the eyes open that a corporeal form returns, and assembles itself firmly around the hard core of sight. This was, at any rate, my impression of Beth’s growing consciousness; she had been at first no more than a voice and a look, but as she hardened into an individual the separation between her and the other personalities grew visibly greater; it was impossible, for instance, to look now at Beth, as I was doing, and believe her the same person as Elizabeth, who had been sitting in that chair not ten minutes earlier; except that they wore the same clothes, and their faces, although subtly different, wore the same ugly scratches, they were two entirely different girls. Thus, my growing clumsiness with Beth; I can only say again, helplessly, that there is a world of difference between a wraithlike shadow and a real girl. So, I stumbled and got through my stiff sentences, and made a note which read—I swear it; I have it in my notebook still—“Elizabeth Beth brillig; o borogrove” and then Beth said primly, “Do you know that I have never seen you before, doctor?” and I thought that perhaps my own expression had been fairly fatuous, being accustomed to dealing with Beth sightless. I asked her if she felt well enough after all, to talk with me for a while, and she was eager to stay, adding that Aunt Morgen was “so cross all the time now.”

  I was not very much surprised at that, to be sure, and asked her what her aunt thought of her continuing to visit my office.

  “She said I could come,” Beth said. “When I go out she wants to know where I am going and when I am coming back, as though I were a baby still.”

  I wondered at this; from what I had seen of Aunt I would have expected her to keep her runaway niece chained to the bedpost, but I suppose that actually, short of a legitimate confinement in an institution, she could hardly endeavor to keep her niece under constant supervision; she knew only the hospital’s diagnosis of “amnesia” and so imagined, I suppose, that her niece had forgotten that she ran away, and why, and might be assumed to be fairly safe from another attempt. I sighed, and Beth said quickly, “It is you who are tired, and I have stayed too long.”

  “No, no indeed,” I said. “I am only perplexed.”

  “I know,” she said. “You are worried about me, and wondering over my health, and hoping I will be well.” She thought. “Are you going to put me to sleep?” she asked.

  I most certainly did not want to attempt hypnosis; indeed, I wanted only to send her home until I might prepare myself more adequately for returning to her case. But she had come to me faithfully, and I was still her physician. “I shall,” I said steadily. “If you wish it, we shall resume our regular treatments now.”

  Perhaps because she was excited she was most difficult to subdue into a deep hypnotic slumber this afternoon; with her eyes closed and lying back in her chair she more nearly resembled the Beth I remembered, the girl who had once been only R2! I had never before put Beth under further hypnosis without arriving at Betsy, and perhaps that thought, too, delayed our achievement of her hypnotic trance; time after time she would open her eyes and smile at me and I, smiling back, would begin again, patiently. At last her eyes closed and she began to breathe evenly and I, hardly daring to speak above a whisper, said, “What is your name?”

  Her eyes snapped open, and she scowled at me. “Monster,” she said, the scratches showing red on her face, “wicked man.”

  “Good afternoon, Betsy. I trust you are rested from the fatigues of your journey?”

  She turned her face away sullenly, and I repressed a great jubilation at seeing her so chastened; here was no wild laughter and tormenting teasing, but only a vicious creature trapped and held fast. “Betsy,” I said, abandoning my ironic tone, “I am truly sorry for you. You treated me unfairly, but I am sorry, nevertheless, to see
you so miserable, and I still offer to help you in any way I can.”

  “Let me go, then,” she said, to the wall.

  “Where can you go?”

  “I won’t tell,” she said sullenly. “You haven’t any right to know.”

  “Then, Betsy, will you tell me where you went, when you ran away? We found you in New York, you know—did you go there directly?”

  She shook her head mutely.

  “Why did you run away, Betsy?” I asked her, most gently.

  “Because you wouldn’t let me be free and happy. And when I was in New York I was happy all the time, and I had lunch in a restaurant and I went on a bus and everyone I met was nice, not like you or her or Aunt Morgen.”

  I confess I could have found it in my heart to feel sorry for the young sinner; a giddy day or so, a few hours of freedom, a taste of luxury—they would appeal to the best of us. But, I told myself sternly, the best of us would not thereby jeopardize the lives of Beth and Elizabeth, and so I went on, “And in the hospital?”

  “I wasn’t there,” she said, and it was a cry of agony, “I wasn’t even there!”

  “You mean you were inside?”

  She shook her head. “I was gone,” she said. “I didn’t even know about it, and I always know everything, what Lizzie does and what Beth does and what they say and think and what they’re dreaming and now I know about the hospital just because I heard her talking to Morgen, and I wasn’t even there—”

  “Her?”

  “Her,” Betsy said with loathing.

  “Then,” I said, with an attempt, at geniality, “it was not you who denied me in the hospital.”

  Betsy grinned. “I heard about it,” she said. “She said that you—”

  “The subject is not worth discussion,” I said. “We have more important things to worry about, and primary among these is the question we were working on before Elizabeth fell ill; I mean, of course, the death of your—of Elizabeth’s mother.”

  “I won’t talk to you,” she said, sullen again. “You don’t like me.”

  “I don’t,” I agreed readily. “You have been most unfair to me. But I believe that I should like you a good deal more if you answered my questions sensibly.”

  “I won’t talk to you,” she said, and made the same answer to everything I said, and finally would not speak at all.

  I found in her sullenness the conviction that she knew she was beaten, and, much heartened by this taming of the villain of our piece, I gave up my questions, and wondered if I might untangle my hypnotic snarl by awakening her, but I found this almost as difficult as I had found hypnosis in the first place. Again and again I found Betsy’s hating eyes fixed on mine, and I began to suspect that matters among these several personalities were coming to a head, as it were, and that instead of slipping from one to another easily through hypnosis, they were each of them enough aware of individuality to resist being pushed under, and were clinging tenaciously to the surface, each in hope of finally establishing dominance. It seemed reasonable to assume that power was closely coordinated with conscious control, and the more time any personality spent governing the others, the stronger that personality would be, bleeding the others of their precious consciousness. I already knew that here knowledge was surely power, and the personality most basic in Miss R. was the one to whom the mind was most open; Elizabeth had lost, and was losing, a large portion of her conscious life, with no conception of what was going on when she was under, and my poor Beth was very little better off; Betsy had, so far, with her ability to comprehend both Elizabeth and Beth, seemed easily the most basic of the ones I had met, and yet how unwilling I was to admit it! Now, however, Betsy’s dark hints of a “she,” to whose mental workings Betsy did not have constant and easy access gave me hopes that perhaps Miss R. might be coming to herself again, although I trusted that the girl I had met in the hospital was not to be the entire final form of the personality; I could have wished her a little of Beth’s sweetness!

  I finally put Betsy aside, then, and awakened, as I thought, my friend Beth; she opened her eyes, looked around, sighed and sat up at once. “Again?” she said, as though to herself, and then her eyes fell on me. For a long minute she looked at me, and then she said deliberately, “I thought I asked you not to bother me any more. If you will not leave me alone I will tell my aunt.”

  It may be imagined that I was not overly complimented by this address; I resisted a strong impulse to rise and show her the door, and said only, “My name is Victor Wright. I am a doctor and you have been, miss, my patient for upwards of twenty months.”

  “I? Impossible.”

  “I thank you,” I said stiffly. “It is not quite so impossible as you think; there are, in fact, those in this town who could, if they would, point to me as a man of science and integrity. However, madam, it is not my credentials which are in question, but your own. Can you tell me who you are?”

  She flashed a look of dislike upon me. “If I have been your patient for as long as you say,” she told me arrogantly, “then you must have found out my name by now.” And she gave a short laugh which reminded me disagreeably of her aunt.

  “Your name,” I said flatly, “is Elizabeth R., although in any future conversation between us I am going to surprise you by calling you Bess.”

  “Bess?” she said, more nettled than surprised. “But why?”

  “Because I choose to,” I said, just like Betsy. I believe that if she had not reminded me of her aunt (a picture which will always remind me in turn, most vividly, of my experiences in the airplane) I should have not been so brusque; I ought to have spoken to her kindly and patiently, and brought her slowly to an acceptance of myself, but even a man of science cannot always be impartial, and sensible, and invulnerable, and she had antagonized me hopelessly.

  She was not stupid; she perceived this at once, and perhaps had some inkling of future favors to be gained from me, for she changed her tone and said more civilly, “I am sorry to be rude. I have not been myself since my mother’s death; I have been very nervous, and I may say things I never really mean to. I was very much affected by my mother’s death.” She seemed to consider this a most handsome apology, and flounced and simpered at me to show that she bore me no ill-will for having insulted me twice before.

  I thought her tawdry, and artificial, and mincing, and I did not at all care for her obvious attempts to sound refined; how, I wondered, could Elizabeth and Beth speak like quietly-educated girls, and this one speak so lispingly, and then thought that the mind behind this one was surely faulty, although strong, and must be securely incorporated with Elizabeth and Beth to manufacture a final endurable personality. As soon as I felt that I might answer her with composure, I said, “I am not surprised, of course, that you felt grief at your mother’s death; it would be unnatural if you had not. But surely, in this length of time . . .”

  I paused, and she lifted her handkerchief to her eyes.

  “After all,” I continued, when it appeared that she was too much “affected” to speak, “your aunt was also devoted to your mother, and she has succeeded in overcoming her loss.”

  “Aunt Morgen has no fine feelings at all.” This coincided very nearly with my own view of Aunt Morgen, but I said nothing; after a minute she went on, “Besides, Aunt Morgen is old and fat and foolish, and I am young and” (she simpered) “attractive and rich; surely it is a shame that sorrow should—”

  “Blight?” I suggested ironically.

  She gave me another look of dislike, and continued, “Many people have told me that I look very much like my mother when she was younger, except that my hair has a better color than hers did, and my ankles are narrower.” She regarded her ankles with pleasure, and I could not resist saying, “Then let us hope that those scratches do not leave scars on your face.”

  She looked up at me and for a minute she was as badly frightened as anyone I
have ever seen. Then she said, with a false smile, “They won’t, thank you for asking. I checked with Doctor Ryan.”

  “Did you tell him how you got them?” I asked.

  “I fell,” she said quickly, still desperately afraid. “I don’t know why you keep asking about them, it isn’t polite and it doesn’t matter anyway.”

  “And Betsy?”

  She stood up, trembling, and said ferociously, “There isn’t any such thing as Betsy, and you know it, you want to frighten me again and I won’t have it!” She stopped, caught her breath, and then went on more quietly. “I told you that I have not been myself since my mother’s death. I sometimes . . . imagine things. I am a very nervous person by nature.”

  “I see,” I said. “And how long did you say it had been, since your mother died?”

  She lifted the handkerchief again. “Three weeks,” she said.

  “I see,” I said. “Most distressing. But your aunt has completely gotten over it?”

  “To tell you the truth,” she said, sitting down again and obviously relieved that we had gotten away from the scratches on her face, “Aunt Morgen and I don’t get on very well. I expect to be moving out on her soon.”

  I did not envy Aunt the graceless society of this young lady, and would have liked to send her home Miss R. in the form of Elizabeth, as a gesture of common humanity, but I could not really see my way clear to proposing soberly to Miss R. that I put her into an hypnotic trance, so I only said, “I trust your agitation will have abated somewhat, Miss Bess R., by our next appointment.”

 
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