The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  It was thus relatively easy for Miss Jones to guarantee that her niece would be absent during our interview, and my cold tone and insistence upon my entire preoccupation with business had, I think, the effect of persuading her that she was entirely secure in both honor and reputation (oh, that I knew what Betsy had written her in my name!) in permitting me to visit her alone in the evening. Indeed, I felt as I set down the telephone that my disagreeable task was half done.

  • • •

  Betsy, unchastened still, made one more attempt to prevent my seeing her aunt, although I do not believe that she was aware that our appointment had already been settled. I had half-expected to see Betsy on the afternoon following my conversation with her aunt, but I reached my office late, after having been unavoidably detained by a most disagreeable session at the dentist’s, and found upon my desk a note, written in a childish, unformed hand. This note was from poor Beth, and it said, “Dearest dearest Doctor, I did think you liked me in spite of everything and I didn’t ever think you would really want me gone, but if you want to there isn’t anything poor Beth can do. I guess there’s no one in the world who likes me any more now that you have given me up. I guess I will just be lonely and sad all the time. Your own Beth.”

  I was grieved, and a little perplexed, at this epistle, and at a loss how to reassure the poor child until, happening to glance into the wastebasket to see if my pen had accidently fallen within, I took out several sheets of my office paper. The top one was a note of my own, left on my desk when I went out, and meant to tell Betsy that I would be a few minutes late that afternoon, because of an unavoidable appointment elsewhere. Below this, on the same sheet was scrawled, in the stylish handwriting which Bess affected, “Dear Doctor, just dropped by to say hello. Sorry I missed you. Elizabeth R.”

  On another sheet, and written with my pen instead of the pencil which the others had used, I found Betsy’s characteristic blind scrawl: “i wont go i will stay you cant make me remember i can tell” and, again, “i will write what i please you cant hurt me i will tell him about what you did”

  And, on still another sheet, in what seemed an attempt at imitating my own handwriting—an attempt, I must confess, which would delude no one but the sillier Miss R.’s—but the same attempt, I reflected wryly, that Miss Jones might have read—was written the following composition:

  “Miss R., although I have been patient with you for a long time, and put up with a good deal of your nonsense, I will not stand for your bad habits any longer. This is therefore my final and only notice that I am giving up your case, permanently and for ever. Do not come to my office again, if you please. Notify your aunt. Yrs. very truly, Victor J. Wright.”

  Even allowing for the execrable literary style of this masterpiece, I found it one of Betsy’s more entertaining pranks, and amused myself in endeavoring to plot out what had taken place: I imagined that Bess had for some (probably financial) reason come to my office, and found my note. She had, reasonably enough considering that it was Miss Hartley’s day off and the office was therefore empty, jotted down a note telling me she had called, and, of course, once Betsy got the pen between her teeth (oh dear; I am trying to learn to do without metaphors, and would have said I was getting on nicely, but see what comes up here to plague me!) she was off into a conversation with Bess, taunting and tormenting, and driving Bess closer toward that dark area where Bess felt herself in danger and was easily overcome, until, once dominant, Betsy could hold her precarious position for a while. Then, with what malicious gigglings I could only imagine, I thought that Betsy had with loving care composed the pseudo-letter from me in which I so blithely gave up Miss R.’s case. Betsy would then retreat, bring Beth forward, and lie back in delight while Beth remained long enough to read the unkind letter (which by a positive effort of silliness she might believe was actually from me) and write her plaintive answer.

  I later learned that my recapitulation was largely correct, although Betsy had, in the refinement of her wickedness, first allowed Elizabeth out to read the letter of dismissal, before she summoned Beth, thus, if I may be permitted to phrase it so, killing two birds with one stone; Elizabeth had been too shocked and hurt to do anything but retreat silently, and Betsy, returning, had with great delight gathered up and thrown away all but Beth’s final sad cry, and left that one for me.

  It is a kind of practical joke of which I must warn the reader to beware, involving as it does the swift and almost certainly bewildering shift in identity of the joker—although if, as in this case, successful, an alarmingly thorough kind of prank! I should call it, as a matter of fact, a completely practical practical joke, not for the general order of person, but most effective if one just happens to have four warring personalities, and one pencil.

  • • •

  Having been so roundly dismissed, I dined pleasantly, and then, donning a dull necktie and a forbidding medical scowl, and forgetting my overshoes, I made for Miss Jones’. My steps were labored, for I went rehearsing the sounding phrases with which I intended to bring Miss Jones to an understanding of the precarious situation of her niece; withdrawn as I tried to hold myself, I could not help an involuntary feeling that we were all “choosing sides,” as the children call it, and Miss Jones was too powerful a figure in our game to remain long unsolicited.

  I dare not, in my capacity as writer, essay an attempt at describing either Miss Jones or the house in which she lived with her niece. My feelings with regard to Miss Jones are, I fear, too strongly tinged with prejudice to enable me to picture her with absolute accuracy, and, as for her house, I thought it an abomination. Let me only say, then, that I regard Miss Jones as a singularly unattractive woman, heavy-set and overbearing, with a loud laugh and a gaudy taste in clothes, as much unlike the prettier aspects of her niece as could be conceived, although it must be admitted that Betsy bore a strong family resemblance to her aunt. The house where they lived, in a neighborhood generally regarded as the most exclusive in our town, had, I thought, been put together by some family eccentric whose taste found its most perfect expression in the bleak, pudding-colored style so popular not too long ago among our grandparents, when taste and financial security were felt to be most surely expressed by a kind of ruthless ornamentation. I do not mean to say merely that Miss Jones’ home was ugly; to my mind it was hideous. It had been freely embellished outside with many of the small details which so depress a lover of the classic in architecture; it was heavy with wooden lace and startling turrets, and gave the impression (and here I confess I am malicious) of having been assembled by the same unartistic hand as Miss Jones.

  Miss Jones was, I should think, an accurate heir of the designer of the house, for she had assumed its aesthetic education in much the same state of mind as must have fired the dream which first envisaged those turrets, and Miss Jones had at her disposal fashions more repelling than were dreamed of a hundred years ago. (And, before Madam approaches me with a fire in her eye and a swatch of turkey-red in her fingers, let me hasten to admit that I, a peace-loving man, spend my leisure hours in a room executed by a woman’s taste: my late wife, whose silken dreams were luckily limited by her means; I am still however, in undisputed possession of my worn leathery old chair, sir—are you?) Where the original Mrs. Jones had hung brocade at the narrow windows of her new house, the present Miss Jones had substituted a calico kind of thing, with great hideous “modern” designs; she had tried to compensate for the turrets outside by an equally fungoid growth within, a kind of embellishment which I have heard her describe as “art”; in the front hall, where one of my pedestrian generation would fully have expected to find, say, a marble urn, or a hatrack, or even a mirror (and I am persuaded, myself, that Mrs. Jones kept there some sort of inlaid table which held some sort of beaded and painted card tray)—in the front hall Miss Jones had settled a lifesize (I presume that it was lifesize) figure of black wood, unclad, and exhibiting much the same random unbeautiful physique as Miss Jones
(and I have caught myself forcibly withdrawing my mind from the irresistible sense that it may very well have been a representation of Miss Jones; in that case it would have been only just barely lifesize, but I have no grounds whatsoever for this supposition which, as I say, I have steadfastly refused to entertain; for one thing, the statue had no hair and Miss Jones had). Beyond the hall, the stairway, once certainly handsome and sweeping, was now utterly vulgarized by a series of paintings on the wall supporting it, which I am not willing to suppose the work of Miss Jones’ own hand. I used to shudder when I remembered those paintings, and think of the many Misses Jones who must have come as brides, blushing and smiling beneath their veils, decked in the pearls which I am positive good Mr. Jones hung about the necks of his daughters on their wedding days, down that staircase to pause and toss a bridal bouquet, and then I would try to picture a contemporary bride, perhaps our own Betsy, grinning like a jackanapes, turning under those unmaidenly paintings to hurl her flowers into the hall, where they would be caught, surely, by the black outstretched hand of the wooden figure below.

  Oh, well. I have taken a roundabout way to get me to Miss Jones’ house, but I have outgrown the minor vices of my youth, and am unwilling to find them painted on people’s walls today. Enough; I have brought myself with laggard steps (and without my overshoes!) from my own fireside and into Miss Jones’ front hall, and am regarding the black wooden figure with misgivings while Miss Jones gallantly takes my hat and coat and throws them, with an incomparable air, roughly over the end of the balustrade; and I, all unmanned, must needs follow her into her living room, a spot uninhabitable for human creatures. I wondered irreverently at the comparative mildness of Miss R.’s mental illness, looking at the great mounds and masses of bright colors, the overlarge furniture (overlarge for me, overlarge for Miss R., but of course suited nicely to Miss Jones), the great splashing decorations, of which the “modern” design upon the curtains was not the least, the bizarre ornaments. I sat myself down timidly upon a chair covered over with orange peacocks and found at my elbow a shivering creation composed entirely of wire and bright metals; as I breathed this airy creature moved and fluttered, swung half around and back, and continued pendulum, while I hesitated to breathe again, for fear I should send it lofting altogether out of sight and lose Miss Jones a precious object. I had hoped briefly that there might be some spot in it for a man to lay his pipe, but no: the ashtray was a hand, reaching out avariciously as though to snatch away my pipe—and indeed, my pouch and matches, too—in its porcelain grasp, and I thought, again in wonder, of how everything in this house seemed to have an air of seizing at a person, and I put my pipe away. It is a fine pipe, and I should hate to have it taken from me, but I had then perforce to accept a cigarette from Miss Jones and allow her to light it for me. During all this time—since she was of course not utterly insensate—she had kept up a kind of conversation, wanting to know how I did, and how I liked the weather, and did I find my chair to my taste, and would I take brandy?

  When, thoroughly wound about with spider webs, I consented to a glass of brandy, she poured me a generous share in a goblet which, it pleased me to fancy, the grandfather of the patriarchal Jones had brought home in his piratical loot, and I set it upon the table next me, where it provoked my airy acquaintance into a frenzy of oscillation. Miss Jones, then, composed herself with her own brandy and the bottle with it, onto a sofa of radiant pink and green, which did not become her; “Well?” she said squarely, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

  “Madam,” I said (and I had upon her very step concluded upon addressing her as “Madam”; I feared that too free an address might defeat my end, and mark me as much interested in “Miss Jones” as “Miss R.’s aunt”; “Madam,” therefore, I began), “I cannot imagine that you have gone for this long time in entire ignorance of your niece’s deteriorating mental health.” (Thinking, you see, that by an implied reproach over lack of interest I might compel her to listen to me respectfully, since surely no one could accuse me of lack of interest, or of ignorance on the subject!) She signified slightly that she conceded the first point—if I may so call it—to me, and I continued as delicately as I could manage in my formal, prepared speech: “I have been most anxious to discuss these matters with you, since it is now apparent to me that Miss R. is approaching a climax in her illness, and one of which we must take immediate advantage. I propose, if you will allow me, to lay before you the full history” (the devil; I had absolutely decided to use some such phrase as “ensure that you have been fully informed,” in order to drive home the point about her lack of interest, and even hint that her niece may not have been entirely truthful with her always; but it was done now, and I continued fairly smoothly) “of the various manifestations of Miss R.’s illness during this period when she has been my patient, and to see if you will agree with me in my outline for further treatment” (should we have at Bess, all together, I was asking her, but hardly liked to phrase it so) “and to ask, naturally, for your assistance in bringing about a complete and final cure.”

  There, I thought; she cannot complain of a lack of polish in me; surely she has not for a long time sat patiently under such a well-turned speech, or one, I must admit in honesty (and you thought, reader, that I did not know it?) so entirely meaningless.

  There was a short silence, during which Miss Jones, apparently in meditation, sipped of her brandy, and touched her necklace, and regarded the floor, and nodded slowly, and then she raised her eyes candidly to me, and began with a grave inclination, “My dear doctor, in the past few years with my niece, I have frequently thought of—and even suggested—her taking professional advice. Believe me, I should not have recommended what is for me such an extreme step (and you will forgive me, I know, for this attitude, understandable in a layman) if I had not felt that a person better qualified would better understand and assist my niece than one who, like myself, has had little or no experience with the mentally ill. Except,” Miss Jones continued reflectively, “with her goddamned mother. But certainly I believe that your superior judgment must be consulted first, and I shall of course be prepared to follow through on any course of action suggested by yourself.”

  Score one for Miss Jones, I thought, a veritable tiger among women; I myself would have shaded the ironic inflection upon “layman,” but it is of course a matter of taste; we all have our preferences and I would be the last to deny my own; now I said smilingly, “Then you will not prevent me from describing to you what gives me a good deal of understandable satisfaction—my own conduct of Miss R.’s case so far?”

  “Indeed not,” she said. “More brandy?”

  I permitted her to refill my glass, and most generously, too, and then launched—having come already prepared with my notebooks—into a detailed account of Miss R.’s case, omitting only those factors which might prove distressing to Miss R.’s own aunt—an occasional off-color reference in Betsy’s activities, and of course the greater part of her animadversions upon myself, and various slighting remarks upon her aunt and, naturally, all reflections upon the unfortunate dead woman who had been mother to the one, and sister to the other. As I spoke—and I spoke well, having so thoroughly rehearsed myself, and having my notes besides—Miss Jones listened attentively, with every appearance of great fascination; she interrupted me once with a question about Betsy’s early appearance—whether it was possible that Betsy had been able to express herself briefly and violently before my first awareness of her; she recounted to me the incidents of an evening spent by herself and her niece at a friend’s house, which had directly influenced her in seeking medical assistance. I listened to her with patience, since of course all facts are vital, but during her interruption I was strongly afraid of losing the thread of my own narrative, and its perfect balance, and had at last to cut her off in order that I might continue. Again, she asked and insisted on a more detailed and simpler description of the dissociated personality, as described by Doctor Prince, and aga
in I must break off and give it her. We were wasting time, I thought, since I knew the subject perfectly and she need not know any more than she did, and always present in my mind was the approaching return of Miss R., so I said at last, “Then, Miss Jones, you agree with me that an attempt must be made to force these various personalities into assimilation?”

  “Your superior judgment . . .” she murmured. “More brandy?”

  I had by his time taken so much of Miss Jones’ keen potations: her flattery, her brandy, her stimulating intelligence, that I was perhaps a little heady; at any rate, I permitted her to fill my glass again, and I continued, “My dear,” and then stopped, with my face no doubt as scarlet as I felt it to be, “I beg your pardon,” and I stumbled. “I am afraid that I was assuming, most unintentionally, the tone and manner which I employ for your niece. I do beg your pardon.”

  The amiable woman laughed outright. “It is not an address which I hear often,” she said. “By all means feel free to honor me as your dear.”

  I laughed in turn, and felt most comfortable; we were beginning to understand one another better, I felt, and was moved to say in a kind of sadness, “Our generation, madam, yours and mine, was a kinder one as regards the small graceful ways of life . . .”

 
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