The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  “Let me see,” I asked her. “How long ago was it? Your mother’s death?”

  “Three weeks,” she said.

  “Still three weeks?” I asked. “Surely, a good time ago, you told me—”

  “I guess I know when my own mother died,” she said flatly.

  “Of course,” I said. “And the nature of this nervousness of yours?”

  “You mean, why do I think I’m nervous? I’ve always been nervous; I was a very nervous child.”

  “I meant, what particular causes do you have, to worry about your health? Headaches, for instance, or insomnia?”

  “I . . .” She hesitated, and then said rapidly, “I’m just frightened, all the time. Someone is trying to kill me.”

  “Really?” I asked, thinking of three people who would have enjoyed killing Bess if they could, “why do you imagine such a thing?”

  “Because they are. They want my money.”

  “I see.” I thought. “Why?” I asked.

  “Because she hates me, and the day before yesterday I was coming down the stairs and she caught my foot and I almost fell, and then today when I was cutting tomatoes for sandwiches for lunch she turned the knife right around in my hand and c-cut me.” I thought she was about to cry; she held out her left hand, inadequately bandaged in a handkerchief. I came round the desk and took away the handkerchief and examined the cut; it was neither deep nor serious, but must have bled freely and to Betsy’s satisfaction. “It could hardly have proved fatal,” I told her. “Betsy would not—”

  “Betsy?” she cried out. “Who says it was Betsy? There isn’t any such thing.”

  “Then who do you think is trying to harm you—your aunt?”

  She could not pretend to believe that, and she dropped her eyes and slowly rewound the handkerchief around her hand. “I’m left-handed,” she said. “This is very awkward for me.”

  This was of some interest to me; Elizabeth and Beth and Betsy were all right-handed. I said to her gently, “I think a great deal of your fear would be dissipated if you could bring yourself to face the reality of Betsy. You could at least give up thinking, then, that your life is in danger; Betsy could not harm you without harming herself.”

  “There isn’t any Betsy.”

  “Very well. Did you put spiders in your own bed?”

  She stared at me. “Who told you that?”

  “Betsy did,” I said blandly.

  She dropped her shoulders and looked away resignedly, and I felt for her. She was taking a bold stand on Betsy, and perhaps by steadfastly refusing to admit the existence of any other personality to Miss R., she might have succeeded eventually in eliminating Elizabeth and Beth, but Betsy was made of stronger stuff and poor Bess was fairly cornered; she had either to bow to the fact of Betsy’s existence, and admit that she was not the only Miss R., or explain to herself why it had come about that—say—she had gotten into a bed full of spiders, or cut her own hand, or pushed herself downstairs.

  “Look,” she said earnestly at last, leaning forward as though she wanted to avoid being overheard, “I get the money, no one can take it away; Aunt Morgen even admits that the money is mine. And I’m not going to let any Betsy or anyone come along and pretend she’s me and try to take it all away.”

  “But surely the money is not that important; consider—”

  “Of course the money is important,” she said, interrupting me sharply. “You idealists always think you can invent something better, but I notice that when it comes to paying the rent—”

  “Young lady,” I said, interrupting in my turn, “I do not care to be called names by a person who has only the vaguest idea of what her words entail. I am not interested in whose money it is, or what Aunt Morgen says; I am only interested in—”

  “I know you say that,” she said coolly, “but what you’d better know is, if you’ve made some arrangement with Aunt Morgen, say, about this Betsy of yours, and you’re trying to fix up something to run me out so’s I have to give up the money—well, what I want to say is that whatever Aunt Morgen or this Betsy or anyone has promised you, the money is mine, and I’ll make you a better offer than any of them, and I’m the one can back it up.”

  “Good heavens,” I said, hearing her through because I lacked words to speak to her, “Good heavens, my dear Miss R.! What a deplorable . . . I mean to say, how outrageous!” And I believe I was almost struck dumb; I gasped, and floundered, and have no doubt I turned purple in the face; she apparently accepted my shock as genuine, because she had the grace to hesitate before she continued, “Well, if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to say I’m sorry, doctor. But I do think you ought to get it clear that I’m the only one really able to offer you anything. Because after all, if you were taken in by someone who said they’d pay you, I’m just doing you a favor by making sure you know they won’t. Because the money—”

  I believe that only my knowledge of the fear behind her words saved me from an apoplexy; in spite of my speechless fury, I noted that under her brazen assurance, her lip was trembling, and beyond her arrogant gestures her right hand moved constantly over to touch the bandage on her left hand, to tug at it and fold it back, to move and turn and clench itself, as though it held. . . . My anger gone, scarcely attending to her unending financial monologue, I carelessly slid a pad of paper across the polished surface of the desk, and sent my pencil after it. When the pencil touched her arm her fingers seized it, and then—poor Bess continuing all this time about the obligations of wealth, and the luxuries she had had to forego because of her aunt’s extravagances—Bess’ right hand, without her knowledge, took to scribbling on the pad, while I drew a deep sigh and sat back in my chair, smiling and nodding like a great idol who has just seen a whole calf roasted at his altar. (I am not an irreligious man, but I suspect myself occasionally; here the analogy is irresistible, and I think it is because this present satisfaction was utterly worldly, almost akin to spite, and I do not, certainly, find human pettiness an aspect of the Almighty; thus, perhaps, the pagan conception.) At any rate, I eyed the scribbling pencil with far more attention (although disguised, surely) than I gave to Miss R. and her large, if diaphanous, plans for endowing hospitals and setting up charitable institutions for the poor.

  “Certainly,” I said occasionally, and nodded, and sometimes I said, “By all means,” or “Not at all.” I have no notion of what I may have agreed to, but I do not think she was listening in any case, any more than she was attending to the earnest labors of her own hand with a pencil. At length, seeing the top page of the pad entirely filled with writing, I reached forth again casually—although I believe I might have snatched the page, without noticeably withdrawing Bess from her monetary devotions—and took off the top page, her hand holding back while I did so, as though waiting to start another.

  “Do you not think I have a case, my dear doctor?” Bess asked me just then, and I looked up, and shook my head with great deliberation, and told her I hardly knew what to think, and she sighed, and said it was very hard for a young woman alone, and so went on, and I bent my gaze ardently to the page of paper.

  “doctor wrong,” it read, “aunt m lawyers stop money poor bess ask her ask her where is mother what aunt m says ask her ask her she is not saying true ask her i am here and i am here and she is not no money poor bess laughing betsy”

  And thus ended my page, but the pencil wrote on and on. I put my hand down firmly and flat on the page I held, and lifted my head, and said, into a pause where Bess stopped to draw breath, “My dear Miss R., what did you do to your mother?”

  There was a dead silence, and then she said, whimpering, “You’re angry again, Doctor Wright; what have I done?”

  “Nothing, nothing,” I said, as to a fretful child, “nothing, Beth.”

  “You don’t always call me the way you used to. I think you don’t like me any more, and I think that now you’d rather tal
k to Bess, and I never thought you’d like her better than you do your own Beth, but I guess that if you’d rather—”

  “Oh, Beth,” I said, and sighed. “I only want Bess to tell me about your mother’s death.”

  “If I’m in your way,” Beth said, “you just don’t need to call me again. You can spend all your time with Bess; I’ll never know. I thought you liked me, though.”

  “Oh,” I said in weary desperation, “I’d rather have Betsy.”

  “Fine,” she said, grinning. “I never thought, my dearest doctor, my dearest dearest Doctor Wrong, that I would hear you calling upon Betsy as you would call upon—”

  “Stop,” I said, “no blasphemy; is it not enough that I am driven and tormented by all of you; must I be blamed, too?”

  She giggled maliciously. “You were clever to give me the pencil,” she said. “I couldn’t get out until you drove her away.” She added more seriously. “Aunt Morgen made her come see you today.”

  “I rather imagined that there had been some crisis; Bess would not have risked a consultation fee without grave provocation.”

  “Well,” said Betsy, consideringly, “first of all, she was scared. She cut her hand, you know,” and the imp glanced at me demurely. “But it was really Aunt Morgen deciding to write to the lawyers that made her come—I told you, with the pencil.”

  “I don’t really understand it, however; it has to do with her precious money, I assume?”

  “Indeed it does; Aunt Morgen wants to tell the lawyers that she can’t have the money because . . .” Betsy hesitated, with a long, innocent face “. . . because she has been so very nervous since her mother died,” said Betsy. Then she asked me bluntly, “Are you going to let her pay you money for telling the lawyers and everyone she’s all right?”

  “Certainly I am not going to become involved in any such foolishness. I don’t want any money, or at least not hers, and I have no intention of discussing her with lawyers or anyone else, and I am furthermore prepared to abandon the subject of this infernal financial lunacy forever; I am neither an accountant nor a bank clerk, and I am heartily tired of dealing with a ledger when I am concerned with a flesh-and-blood—”

  “Fiddle-dee-dee,” said Betsy, “fiddle-dee-dee. The mouse has married the bumblebee.”

  “And,” I said roundly, “I fully intend to discover what hand you, Miss Betsy, had in all this mischief.”

  “Me?” said Betsy. “Fiddle-dee-dee.”

  “Did you, for instance,” I wondered aloud, “hint to your aunt of some irrational behavior over expenditures . . . did you, perhaps, demonstrate some such silliness?”

  “Fiddle-dee-dee,” said Betsy, eyes cast heavenward in innocence.

  “I should not be surprised if you had—say—torn up, or burned, some large bill in your aunt’s presence—”

  “You mean,” Betsy asked, “like lighting a cigarette with a ten-dollar bill? Fiddle-dee-dee.”

  “I see,” I said.

  “I did,” Betsy continued with great candor, “put a little notion into Beth’s head about how you were always talking to her these days. I thought maybe when you heard how bad it made Beth feel you’d be a little nicer to us all.”

  “That was unkind,” I said.

  “Tell Beth,” said Betsy, grinning, and turned to me Beth’s tearful face.

  “I don’t want to talk to you any more,” Beth said.

  “Beth,” I told her with irritation, “I tell you that I have not seen Bess for weeks until this afternoon when she walked into my office. I did not invite her here, and I assure you that I view her with the most sincere dislike. There is no reason in the world for you or anyone else to be upset; I am a doctor and in order to make any progress upon this case—”

  “If you don’t like her,” said Beth sullenly, “then why do you talk to her all the time instead of me?”

  “Oh, Betsy, Betsy,” I cried, in despair.

  “She’s just jealous,” Betsy said. “She’ll get over it. Fiddle-dee-dee,” she added, with a giggle.

  “If I could only persuade you to behave,” I said wearily.

  “Do you know,” said Betsy, falling suddenly back into her familiar sullenness, “do you know that if you had left me alone I could be free now? I would be with . . .” She stopped abruptly, and when I looked up questioningly she was turned away.

  “Tell me about it, Betsy,” I said.

  “No. Besides, if I told you about Robin you’d be angry with me and hate me worse than you do now, even, because that was a bad thing. And I wouldn’t tell you about the rest of it because then you’d find out about Robin.”

  “And suppose I promise not to be angry?”

  She laughed. “Fiddle-dee-dee,” she said. “Said the mouse, ‘Dear bee, will you marry me, will you marry me, sweet bumble-bee?’ Can you sing, Doctor Wrong?”

  “Poorly,” I said. “Betsy, I am persuaded that in all of this, even including your nonsense, there is a pattern of sorts to be discovered, and I am determined that it shall not remain hidden. At every crucial point of Miss R.’s life one or another of you steps forward to confuse and bewilder me; you tell me meaningless trifles when I require absolute facts, you babble nonsense at me when I come close to home, you mock me.”

  “Fiddle-dee-dee. I treat you very nicely, I think.”

  “And,” I continued, “I have observed that whenever I am speaking to you or to Bess, and my searching becomes too sharp for comfort, you withdraw and send Beth with her tenderness and her tears, and evade my questions. I think that you and Bess between you can tell me my story, and I fully intend that you shall. Therefore—”

  “Beth won’t come, anyway,” Betsy interrupted, giggling. “Beth’s mad and I’m glad and I know what will please her; a bottle of wine, to make her shine, and Doctor Wrong to—”

  “Betsy,” I said, “in heaven’s name!”

  “Now who’s blaspheming?” she said pertly.

  “I want you to take a note to your aunt,” I said in sudden decision. “I’ll tell you what I shall write, since I expect you would read it in any case. I shall ask Miss Jones to call here at my office, at any time convenient to her, to discuss the progress of her niece’s case.”

  Although I had serious misgivings about entrusting such an errand to Betsy, I felt that I had no choice; I disliked addressing Miss Jones through the common post, and could not endeavor to communicate through Elizabeth, who would most probably not be allowed to remain conscious long enough to carry a message, or through Beth, who was in the same state of subjection, and angry at me besides, or through Bess, who would surely find the message of ominous import to her security. I might have telephoned Miss Jones, indeed, but, to own it frankly, I was very reluctant to converse with the lady on any grounds but my own, safe in my own office with my own books and my good stout desk before me. I dreaded her mockery, and it was a delicate subject I brought her.

  All of these doubts passed swiftly through my mind as I wrote a quick note to Miss Jones, asking only that she call on me to discuss the health of her niece, while Betsy sang to herself in her chair; I then thought to fortify the safe delivery of my message by remarking, as I handed the folded note across the desk, “I expect that you will keep this from Bess.”

  “I will,” she said, and added slowly, “if I can.” And then, in a rush of words that seemed born of a terror not until now acknowledged, “I think she is getting stronger all the time.”

  I glanced up at her frightened face, and said easily, “I believe we shall have her down yet. Don’t be afraid of her.”

  “Mother’s Betsy mustn’t cry,” she said, and turned and left me quickly.

  Well, then, I sent my note, and had my answer, and my exasperation for my pains; a letter reached me two days later, and a staggering surprise it was—although my reader must do me credit, and suppose that I was not, after the first mo
ment, altogether taken in—to read: “My dear Doctor Wright: I don’t think you seriously meant what you said in your letter, and if you did, you should be horsewhipped. I am a poor lone woman but you are a bad old man. Sincerely yours, Morgen Jones.” This odd document, laboriously composed, had an air unmistakable, and even though it caused me some honest amusement, I was acutely aware of my own folly in supposing that Betsy’s seeming friendliness was to be trusted for a moment; I had been taken in by her cheerfulness and seeming cooperative spirit. When I thought, finally, of what nonsense might even now lie in Miss Jones’ hands, purporting to be from me, I was inclined to berate myself for a madman. I do believe, however, that this superlative insolence of Betsy’s put the final stamp upon my conviction that matters must be brought to a head as soon as possible; I perceived that my present policy of tactful patience had been shortsighted, in allowing Betsy to wander almost freely, and Bess to establish herself almost firmly; knowledge is power, I told myself, and determined to seek my knowledge from Miss Jones, and, armed with my knowledge, lead an unscrupulous flank attack upon her niece.

  I was, moreover, deeply concerned at the blatant tricks Betsy seemed willing to employ in order to avoid a meeting between her aunt and myself; I wondered that Betsy so much feared her aunt. That these obstructions came from Betsy I had no reason to doubt, and any question in my mind concerning the author of the letter I received was banished when I discovered, on the afternoon of the same day, that although Elizabeth came in resigned misery to my office, and turned shortly to Beth, from whom I had ten minutes of reproaches and tears, I was not able, that afternoon, to bring Betsy by any ingenuity. I asked her politely to come, I called her, I scolded and entreated, and the best I could do was Bess, who fell immediately to lamenting her aunt’s criminal activities with regard to the bank account.

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