The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  “Now, please, both of you.” She turned, holding out her hands prettily to her aunt and to me. “I know how worried you both are over my health, and I would be the first to admit that I haven’t been entirely certain of myself, but now you must both stop fretting yourselves; you are two dear people, and I love you both very much, and it makes me very happy to know that I can promise you both that there isn’t going to be any more trouble. I’m all well now.”

  “My God, she looks like her mother,” Miss Jones said to me. “All these years I’ve been trying to make her see what her mother was like, and now she looks like her.”

  “My mother was your sister,” her niece said reprovingly, “and you’re not going to talk like that any more, with her only three weeks dead. Morgen, will you leave us, please?”

  “Now you see her,” Miss Jones said to me. “Help me.”

  “Not I,” I said, honest to the last; I would not have given her the aid of my hand for worlds; I was seeing defeat as possible for the first time, and knew it; I had no strength to spare for another dragon. “Indeed, madam,” I said, “we must leave her.”

  “I defy—”

  “Not me, Morgen.”

  “Betsy,” I said wildly, “Betsy.”

  “Please.” Her voice was quiet, and contained; I should not, even without the brandy, have recognized it; I am a man deeply afraid of failure, and yet I would not even have recognized her voice. “This is going to be the end of it,” she said. “I tried to be nice about it, and yet here is Aunt Morgen shouting at me and calling me names, when I would have treated her kindly and never said a word against her, and here are you, doctor, and I thought better of you, I admit, but now you’re after me again. I am going to tell you both, finally and flatly, that I do not need anything from either of you. I,” and her voice grew very cold, “am going to get along very much better without you two.”

  I looked at Morgen; speech—although she had denied it me, when in full possession of the room and the air in it—seemed now to be my prerogative, and I knew that if I spoke, defeat for me was certain, for I was genuinely and honestly and sincerely angry; I had been insulted in my profession, my manhood, and my associates, and was in no temper to submit quietly to this impertinent girl; I can, however, neither justify nor explain myself by admitting that I knew in advance that submission at the moment was my wiser course; all the cures for all the Miss R.’s in the world would not, I think, have at that moment moderated my rage. “My dear young lady,” I said then, in a voice full as measured as her own, “I assure you that this kind of childish insolence will gain you nothing save further misery; you will not speak again in my presence unless it be an apology; consider that it is only through my misguided sufferance that you continue to exist at all. This temporary power, this brief and insecure dominance, will not endure; take thought now of the months of preparation which brought you into being, kept you safe when you could not defend yourself, preserved you without harm until this moment; do you think that you may with impunity bring your pert words to bear against a power like that? If I relinquish you—and I am going to; I tell you now, Miss Bess, you have made your last charge against me—how long do you think you will survive, alone, without a guide or a friend or an ally? You are at best, young lady, only a slight, only a poor and partial creature, and for all your fine words, you will not stay long; I am leaving you in the entire conviction that without my aid you will only for a while be suffered to trouble your friends with your arrogance; I promise you, here and now, that you as a person will, with the knowledge of you I have, cease, absolutely and finally and without possibility of petition, cease, I tell you, unalterably cease to exist!”

  Surely—I can see it now—a very substantial and well-rounded diatribe for a doctor dedicated to quiet and stealth; I confess to a little adjusting at this distance—surely no one, possessed of such an opportunity for such a fine speech, could resist altering a period here and there—but in truth I was very angry, angrier than I believe I have ever been before, and rendered reckless besides. I stormed out of the house—had I ever left it in peace?—and the black figure in the hall caught my coat sleeve as I passed.

  I thought to myself as I came into the cool evening air that I would be repentant soon enough, and I believe the first coherent thought I knew reached me as I came off the Jones walk onto the street; I heard clearly the name of my wicked enchanter, to enrich whom I had slain so many dragons—it was Victor Wright. Thus comforted, I could spare a pang for poor Bess, blundering through another girl’s life inadequately equipped; had I the temper, I thought, I might have stayed by her, coaxing her back into Betsy, and been impervious to her clawed words; she, on her side, had no such recourse, and could only, by calling my name, bring an even more unsympathetic, if less brandied, Doctor Wright.

  Understand, then, reader—if you have stayed with me, cheek unreddened, all this while—I, too, repudiate all of this; it was a shameful scene for a quiet man whose pipe had been forcibly taken from him; I am now, thinking of it, still embarrassed at the picture of myself standing, eyes blazing and posture threatening, against these two women, one of whom I loathed and the other of whom I often dominated; I cannot believe that I so stood, and declared myself, and laid myself low; I hope—I appeal it to you—that you cannot so see me, driven by anger into outrage and repudiation.

  We are all measured, good or evil, by the wrong we do to others; I had made a monster and turned it loose upon the world and—since recognition is, after all, the cruelest pain—had seen it clearly and with understanding; Elizabeth R. was gone; I had corrupted her beyond redemption and in the cool eyes which now belonged entirely to Bess I read my own vanity and my own arrogance. I reveal myself, then, at last: I am a villain, for I created wantonly, and a blackguard, for I destroyed without compassion; I have no excuse.

  5

  AUNT MORGEN

  Breakfast, never at all an auspicious meal for Morgen Jones, was never less ingratiating than the morning after her talk with Doctor Wright, only half-remembered in this cold spring sunlight, but disagreeably vivid in many aspects; Morgen recalled, for instance, that the doctor had left in a rage, nearly toppling the Nigerian ancestor figure in the hall, that someone had been making a good deal of noise, and that her niece had been insolent again. Her intended breakfast this morning had included warm sweet buns and butter, somehow reminiscent in spiced richness of the impractical meals she might have if she were—say—living alone on a tropical island, tasting fruit hot from the sun, or lying upon cushions in a tented harem, accepting lazily of comfits from a sandaled eunuch; the doctor had been poor company last night, she thought, and set aside her cinnamon buns, unwarmed. In her most optimistic recollections she could not believe that the interview had gone well; even before the doctor had become so unaccountably angry there had been a flavor of disagreeable insistence about the evening. Morgen had spoken at length about her sister Elizabeth, when, actually, Elizabeth was easily the least interesting subject to be taken up; at the thought of the untraveled countries of their conversation Morgen sighed, and looked at the clock to see if she might safely have three more aspirin. The sight of her niece entering the kitchen was not calculated to brighten Morgen’s breakfast, and she watched with a cold and resentful eye as her niece poured a cup of coffee at the stove and then sat down at the table. She avoided her aunt’s eye and did not speak, and at last Morgen—knowing that surely, as the day bore on, she would get to further aspirin and an eventual return of her good humor—said darkly into her coffee, “Thought of putting out four cups. One,” she explained with care, “for each of you.”

  Her niece looked at her speculatively. “He likes to hear himself talk,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d get taken in by it, though.”

  “Then do me a favor,” Morgen begged. “I promise to keep it a secret, but I’ve got too bad a headache for arithmetic this morning. Just tell me how many of you there really are.”


  “Me. Your niece Elizabeth.”

  “Well, now, there’s something doesn’t take me in.” Morgen said, setting down her cup to nod, and then regret it. “Something I know,” she went on, holding her head still, “is, you’re not Elizabeth, anyway.”

  “Don’t be silly, Aunt Morgen. Just because I used to—”

  “You used to be well-behaved and a lady; no matter what other damn fool things you did, you knew how to behave. And now, you sweet baby, you act like your mother.”

  “I refuse to discuss my mother with you. I am still too deep in grief—”

  “Oh, shut up,” said Morgen. “I can get awful sick of hearing you blabber about your grief. Anyway, the doc says you’re only a splinter named Bess.”

  “Well,” said Bess, stung, “he called you Madam and you’re—”

  “Common civility is as much beyond your infantile comprehension,” Morgen said grandly, “as . . . as . . . oh, hell. Anyway,” she went on, amused, “maybe I am a Madam, for all you know. I’ve got a house full of nice girls.” And she laughed in spite of her headache.

  “I don’t know how you can talk like this,” Bess said viciously, “with your sister just dead, in a house of mourning, and me an orphan.”

  “Look,” Morgen said, “I’m going to go right on talking however I please, and it’s my house and there’s no mourning in it, for your mother or anyone else, and I would like to take this unparalleled opportunity of letting you know that, orphan or not, I have been for the past six years feeding you and dressing you and doing everything but wiping your nose and all of a sudden you turn around and try to tell me I don’t know what year it is and you’re an orphan. Orphan!”

  “I tell you this,” said her niece, pointing a butter knife at her aunt, “it may be a good story about feeding and dressing me and spending my money for me, but pretty soon you and a lawyer are going to have a little talk about what’s been happening to that money since my father died. Because I’m going to get a lawyer to make you give it all back.”

  Morgen snorted. “You’re going to get a spanking, better,” she said. “And stop fidgeting with the silverware, because it’s mine.”

  “Nothing is yours,” said Bess, “and if I don’t see an accounting of my—”

  “You know,” said Morgen, leaning back with some pleasure, “if you don’t watch yourself with all that wild talk one of these days Auntie is going to get really mad and let you have it. And if you don’t stop scrabbling that butter knife around right now my headache is liable to get worse and then I will take that thing out of your hand and slice off your fingers one by one.”

  She giggled. “You scare her with that kind of talk,” she said. “She hates people talking about hurting her.”

  “Hello,” said Morgen agreeably. “You’re supposed to be another one, aren’t you?”

  “Betsy,” she said. “I’m the one you like best.”

  “Well, keep mighty quiet, then. Auntie feels like hell.”

  “Too bad,” Betsy said. “I don’t ever feel bad; I don’t even know what it’s like to feel bad.”

  “Dandy,” said Morgan heartily. “I wish it was you instead of me.”

  “Poor Morgen.”

  “That damned doctor,” Morgen said. “Why couldn’t he stay where he belongs?”

  There was a silence, and then Betsy said fearfully, “You mean Doctor Wrong? Was he here?”

  “Last night. We had a long heart-to-heart-to-heart-to-heart little talk. Oh, lord,” said Morgen, putting her hand over her eyes.

  Betsy was quiet for so long this time that Morgen uncovered her eyes to see if Betsy was still there. “What’s the matter, kiddo?” Morgen asked. “You don’t like him either?”

  “He doesn’t want anyone to enjoy themselves,” Betsy said. She leaned forward across the table and said persuasively, “Look, Morgen, first thing you know he’ll be lecturing and ranting at you, too. Don’t you talk to him any more.”

  “Couldn’t if I wanted to,” Morgen said, remembering. “He’s not coming back any more. He doesn’t like any of us much.”

  “Who cares?” said Betsy. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

  “I wish he’d gone before he came,” Morgen said. “I do feel sad.” She closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of her chair.

  “I know,” Betsy said brightly, “I’ll send you someone feels worse than you do.” Her eyes fell, and lifted timidly and the smile died on her face, and she looked up apprehensively at her aunt. “Hello,” she said. “Aunt Morgen.”

  Aunt Morgen opened her eyes, and closed them again. “No,” she said. “Go away, child. Auntie loves you but she’s already got troubles enough. Just go away.”

  “I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said falteringly.

  “God almighty holy God almighty go away,” Morgen said. “You make a big horrible muddy dirty black cloud come down over the whole goddam world when you give me that long face; go away go away go away go away go—”

  “All right,” said Betsy, coming back laughing. “Now don’t you like your nice Betsy?”

  “You just stay around for a while,” Morgan said earnestly, “and don’t leave me with that clam again.”

  “Be nice or I’ll send Beth,” Betsy said. “She’s the one who calls you ‘Auntie darling’ and says you’re all she has in the world and do you still love her?”

  Morgen groaned.

  “Tell you about that doctor,” Betsy said conversationally, “what he wanted to do was set Bess up as me, and let her go on pretending to be me all the time, so’s they could share up all that money.”

  “I’m going to give that money to a home for stray cats,” said Morgen. “So help me.”

  “Well, I don’t want it,” Betsy said.

  “That one,” said Morgen, as one to whom a vast injury has been done, “that puny white-faced slimy bitch, she doesn’t think Auntie ought to take a glass of brandy after meals. Account for every penny!” She glared at her niece. “Me!” she said.

  “I wouldn’t do that,” Betsy said. “I don’t want the money at all.”

  “Look,” Morgen said with great reasonableness, “I’m a simple character. All I want is to be comfortable, and sleep and eat and drink and talk the way I always have, the way I like to eat and drink and sleep and talk. For a long time I got along fine. I had this niece, and she wasn’t much good to anyone, but I liked her fine, and I thought she liked me, and we used to talk to each other and she listened to me when I got sounding off and maybe I wasn’t always careful to be so delicate with her, but I always thought things were going along all right. I just thought that if I liked her and she liked me and we got along together it didn’t matter if maybe some people thought she was lacking a little, so long as I kept an eye out for signs that she was going like her mother. Because one thing I did know,” said Morgen with a sigh, “was that there she needed watching. But I wasn’t bright enough to see how things were going till it was too late, so now I’ve got you. I’m not complaining, and I brought it on myself, and anyway you’re a little brighter than she—you—used to be, but I spent a long time with her. The way I see it, no matter what the doc says or you say or old moneybags says, you’re all of you still my niece, and I’m responsible for you. But I’m not used to being teased and defied and coaxed and whined at, and I like people to keep their voices down when I have a headache, and I don’t like having people’s problems dumped in my lap, and one thing I’ve got to say for the old Elizabeth I had for so many years—she never had any problems I knew about, except how to sit down in a chair without falling off the seat.”

  “Well,” said Betsy, with something of embarrassment, “of course, a lot of that was me. I guess she would have gotten along a little bit better if it hadn’t been for me.”

  “Don’t tell me about it,” Morgen said. “You kids can fight your own battles. I don’t care i
f there are twenty of you, what you all boil down to is still my niece Elizabeth, and you can play all the games you want with yourself, so long as you lay off me.”

  “Perhaps,” she said sweetly, “if I were dead?”

  Aunt Morgen raised her eyes briefly, and then dropped them again. “If you were dead,” she said, “I could maybe get a little quiet to drink my coffee. In case you care.”

  “I don’t,” she said. “And don’t you think for a moment that I was joking about that lawyer. Because if I don’t get an accounting—”

  “Why was I ever born?” Morgen asked rhetorically, and got up and left the table. “I am going back to bed,” she said over her shoulder. “Soak your head in the coffee pot.”

  Left alone, Bess poured herself out a fresh cup of coffee, and sat down again at the table. After a minute she got up again to search for a pad of paper and a pencil in a corner of the kitchen counter, and then sat down again and tried to figure, starting with the estimated amount of her father’s fortune and, trying to remember all she could about interest and capital, and puzzling over what it might cost Morgen to run this house, and feed and clothe both of them, and how much Morgen had probably used of her own money, and how much from her niece’s inheritance. The terms of her inheritance were not at all clear to Bess, and she had been unsuccessful in any attempt to learn more from her aunt; she knew only that what sounded like a vast sum of money was waiting for her, and that Aunt Morgen had probably helped herself freely by pretending to buy clothes and food for her niece; Bess had been vainly hoping to make Aunt Morgen give her a lot of money in advance, but Aunt Morgen was quite unreasonably stubborn about allowing her niece access to liquid funds since they had come back together from New York, and the best Bess had been able to manage was the ability to buy whatever she pleased from the stores in town on her aunt’s accounts. Lately, however, since various small silly things had been happening—like the time Aunt Morgen had walked in and found Bess taking money from Morgen’s pocketbook, although Bess had surely no intention of stealing, and had, in fact, no actual consciousness of being anywhere near Morgen’s room—anyway, lately, Morgen had closed all the accounts and hidden her household cash, and now Bess couldn’t buy the smallest thing unless she got permission first, and couldn’t even have carfare unless she begged it from Morgen. It was no way to treat a nineteen-year-old girl who was going to have all the money she wanted someday. Bess sat back and looked at her page scribbled with figures. They looked like money, all with dollar signs in front, and decimal points; a good lawyer would know what to make of them. Suddenly, with curiosity, Bess switched the pencil to her right hand and held it over the pad.

 
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