The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  W. That will do, please. I am going to send you away now.

  By. (suddenly sober) Please, may I stay a minute longer? I have decided to tell you why Aunt Morgen locked Lizzie in her room.

  W. Very well. But no more nonsense.

  By. First, you promised me more candy.

  W. One more, only. We should not care to make Elizabeth sick.

  By. (carelessly) She is always sick, anyway. I never thought of a stomachache, though.

  W. Do you make her head ache?

  By. Why would I tell you that? (impudently) If I told you everything I know, then you would be as wise as I am.

  W. Then tell me why Elizabeth was locked in her room.

  By. (emphatically) Because she frightened her mother and Aunt Morgen said they all went together to find a bird’s nest.

  W. I beg your pardon?

  By. May I open my eyes now?

  W. How did she frighten her mother?

  By. She put her in a pumpkin shell. Silly silly silly silly. . . .

  I dismissed her, more distressed than I can say by the odd, hinted stories she brought me, although far less inclined to credit them than to see Betsy herself as a wicked and mischievous creature, bent on making trouble, and with what fearful designs in that black heart I could not begin to imagine. When Elizabeth awakened, seeing me disturbed, she asked with some anxiety whether she had been talking foolishly while asleep, and I bade her leave me, reassuring her with the not-entire falsehood that I was not well. The next morning—a Tuesday—when I reached my office, there was on my desk a message, put there by Miss Hartley, who had taken it by phone from Miss R.’s aunt, to the effect that Miss R. had a touch of the influenza and so would not be able to keep her appointments for at least the rest of the week, and very possibly the week following. I noted on my appointment book my intention of dropping in upon Miss R. and her aunt within the next day or so, ostensibly to make a polite inquiry after Miss R.’s health, actually to determine if her recovery might not be hastened by a brief treatment from myself; I was of course aware that in such a case the attending physician would be Doctor Ryan, and had no doubt of securing a half hour or so alone with my patient.

  I do not, as I believe I have before indicated, see many patients these days, and so found myself relieved by Miss R.’s illness of my greatest concern; I feel myself greatly favored by fortune in that, in the prime of life, I am, although a widower, luckily enough circumstanced to be able to avoid the pushing and scrambling which accompanies the work of many medical men, in their efforts to make a living in a field where the emphasis is upon conformity rather than upon genius (how often have I sighed over the cynicism of the old saw that a good doctor buries his mistakes!) and which is overcrowded at the mediocre level, and unfortunately not crowded at all at the top. Thackeray tells me that any stupid hand can draw a hunchback, and write Pope underneath; calumny, I know, succeeds to misunderstanding in the hearts of the best-intentioned. No one who desired my services was deprived of them, although many who needed my services were discouraged from visiting me; had I been more a crusader, I suspect, I might have had my waiting room filled from morning till night, but it has never been my way to seek out quarrels, and push an issue to a disagreement; I have been content to sit back and, knowing full well my own worth, made no effort to force it upon others. This, I submit meekly, is not modesty, a virtue with which I am not abnormally endowed (and you, sir?), but earnest common sense.

  Thus, although Miss R. was much upon my mind during the next day or so, so was Thackeray, and the old gentleman and I spent many an amiable hour together with the office door closed and Miss Hartley outside, no doubt supposing that I was busied upon some abstruse problem of research or else—Miss Hartley is a rare humorist—napping.

  On Wednesday morning I telephoned Miss R.’s residence and spoke, as I was told, to her aunt, a Miss Jones. Our conversation was brief and matter-of-fact; I identified myself and inquired after Miss R.’s health, Miss Jones told me that Miss R. felt most unwell, was running a high temperature and had been, her aunt said, delirious upon waking in the middle of the night. I was concerned, and inquired after Ryan’s treatment, fearing that he regarded this illness more lightly than he should, but Miss Jones reassured me, telling me that Ryan appeared at Miss R.’s bedside twice a day, etc., and I was forced to ring off, after expressing my hopes for a swift return of Miss R.’s health. It seemed most unlikely that a personal visit from myself would be of any value at the moment, nor, indeed, could I reasonably contemplate hypnosis, with its possible unsettling effect upon Miss R. in her present condition. As a result, then, I spared a moment to wonder wryly what conceivable form Miss R.’s delirium might take which could be more frightening than what I had already met here in my office, and to hope that my next word of her might be more encouraging; I then resigned myself to hearing no further news of her for a few days and returned, with complacency, to Thackeray.

  It was, then, not until Thursday evening that the blow fell. I had spent a quiet evening at home and retired and was, indeed, asleep, when the telephone at my bedside rang and, having for the last few years become unaccustomed to middle-of-the-night emergency calls, I was at first startled and then frightened and angry when I heard Miss Jones’ voice, controlled but showing agitation nevertheless, asking me most urgently to hurry to her house. “My niece,” she said, in that strained voice which so often accompanies terror under iron control, “insists upon seeing you at once; she has been calling your name for over an hour.”

  “Have you not called Doctor Ryan?” I asked, determined to keep to my warm bed.

  “She won’t let him in,” Miss Jones said; she seemed, in her anxiety, to be unable to stop talking and I could not hush her. “She has locked the door against us,” Miss Jones continued, her voice rising hysterically.

  I sighed, and told her without enthusiasm that I should be with her directly. Even so, she persisted—as frightened relations so often do—in keeping me by urging me to hurry! “For a long time,” she said, “we couldn’t imagine what doctor she wanted; she kept calling for Doctor Wrong.”

  I hung up the telephone while she still talked on, and dressed with more speed than I have ever done in my life; childbirth, surgery, accidents—all these can bear to wait for the ten seconds it takes for the doctor to dash cold water on his sleepy eyes, but now I delayed for no such indulgence; there was, I knew to my sorrow, only one person in the world who called me Doctor Wrong.

  And she was waiting for me behind the locked door of Miss R.’s bedroom; I could hear her shouting as Miss Jones opened the house door for me, and, hesitating only to mutter my name at Miss Jones, I brushed past her and, still in my coat and hat, took the stairs two at a time—an exertion, indeed, at my age, and one I could ill afford at the moment—and so came to the door from behind which came Betsy’s voice shouting a song which surprised me only in that I could not imagine how she came to learn the words during Miss R.’s limited experience. “Betsy,” I said, tapping on the door, “Betsy, open this door at once; it is Doctor Wright.”

  I was aware of my own hard breathing as I stood with my head against the door, listening to the voice inside; Betsy had broken off her song when she heard my voice and appeared now to be talking softly to herself. “Is it really the old fool?” she asked—meaning me, of course—and, “I think it is Ryan again, come to tease me.”

  Miss Jones was coming up the stairs behind me, and I wanted badly to be into Miss R.’s room with the door closed before there was any question of Miss Jones’ joining us; “Betsy,” I said, “let me in immediately, I tell you.”

  “Who is it?”

  “It is Doctor Wright,” I said impatiently, “open the door.”

  “It is not Doctor Wright at all; it is Doctor Ryan.”

  “I,” I said in a fury, “am Doctor Victor Wright, and I command you to open this door.”

  “Commands?
” Her voice lingered mockingly. “To me, Doctor Wrong?”

  “Betsy,” I said as emphatically as I could; Miss Jones was rounding the landing.

  “Then tell me who you are,” said Betsy.

  “I am Doctor Wright.”

  “Indeed you are not,” said Betsy, laughing.

  I took a deep breath and thought briefly and lovingly of punishments for Miss Betsy; “I am Doctor Wrong,” I said, and very softly, too.

  “Who?”

  “Doctor Wrong,” I said.

  “Who?” I could hear her laughing.

  “Doctor Wrong.”

  “Oh, of course,” she said, and I heard the key in the lock. “If you had told me who you were sooner, my dear doctor, I would have let you in at once.” And the wicked girl opened the door and stood aside as I slipped quickly in, and then she shut the door behind me, full in her aunt’s face. “Poor dear,” she said loudly, “did Aunt Morgen attack you?”

  “Miss R.,” I said, “this is intolerable. I will not be treated so.”

  “And I,” she said, “will not be treated at all, and I am surprised that you finally came to visit me professionally instead of as my dear friend.” She turned a languishing glance upon me, and for the first time I met Betsy face to face, with her eyes open, the pair of us meeting as equals without the protective barriers of my office and hypnosis and sightlessness, and I perceived, looking at Betsy, that she was as fully and acutely aware of this as I was.

  “Well?” she said, amused.

  I took a deep breath, endeavoring to resume my control of myself, and said as quietly as I could manage, “I see that you have your eyes open.”

  She nodded, and hugged herself, and laughed, and grinned, and widened her eyes to show me, and turned herself around gaily. “I told you, I told you, I told you,” she chanted, and then, coming close to me and looking slyly into my face, “and what are you going to do about it, old eye-closer?”

  I surmised that for all her posturing and bravado she was still honestly in awe of me and upon that surmise—indeed, the only hope left us—I decided to base my own actions. Smiling back at her placidly, I seated myself upon the edge of the bed and took out my pipe. “I understood that you were ill,” I said conversationally.

  “She was; I am never ill.”

  “Then,” I said ironically, “a good doctor like myself ought rightly to allow you to remain until the course of Miss R.’s infection has run itself out.”

  She laughed. “I believe I have done her good,” she said complacently. “If she hadn’t been weak and sick, I couldn’t have gotten out, and if I hadn’t gotten out, she would still be weak and sick.” She spread her hands as one who demonstrates an utterly reasonable point. “So you see I am good,” she said. She seated herself on the chair next the bed and looked at me soberly. “Doctor Wright,” she said—and I have never seen Betsy so demure—“don’t you think that now I am out, I should be allowed to stay?”

  She must have mistaken my silence for a hesitation as to whether or not I should agree with her, for she went on persuasively, “You can see that I am healthier and happier than she is, and I have been very patient for a long time, and it’s only fair to give me a chance. Besides,” she went on as I started to speak, “all that I used to say about wanting to do you harm and wanting to hurt her was only because I was so tired of being a prisoner and I just wanted to get out and be happy and not be a prisoner any more, and—”

  “Betsy,” I said gently, “how can I let you stay? Think of Elizabeth, think of Beth.”

  “Why should I think of them just because you care more for them than you do for me, and you expect me to give up just because you decide you’d rather have them?”

  I repressed a smile at her impulsive self-interest, and told myself again that she was in actuality little more than a child, and so I said tolerantly, “Well, Betsy, suppose I make a bargain with you? Suppose I agree to let you stay tonight?”

  “Let me have a week, then,” she said. “A week, and no one to bother me.”

  “But Miss R. is ill.”

  “She will be well,” said Betsy grimly, and then looked at me, all innocence. “At least,” Betsy said, “she will not be delirious any more.”

  “Of course,” I said, realizing. “It was you.”

  “I had a lovely time,” Betsy said. “And poor Aunt Morgen outside the door, wringing her hands and trembling.”

  I could not point out to Betsy the callousness of this, any more than I could explain to her childish mind the impossibility of letting her take over, as it were, the whole personality of Miss R.; all I could do, as one does with a difficult child, was to pretend to fall in with her plans, reserving privately the right to determine with my own—and, I must say, my superior—judgment, what was best for all of us. Consequently, I continued blandly, “So, my dear Betsy, are we agreed, then? If I consent to your staying out for a day or so, will you then co-operate with me in helping to heal Miss R.?”

  “I will,” she said earnestly, and I do believe she thought she meant it. “I will do all I can, if I can only be free, sometimes, and be happy for a little while.”

  “That does not sound unreasonable,” I conceded. “Now will you go back into bed and go quietly to sleep?”

  “I never sleep,” she told me. “I lie there inside all the time.”

  Again I must repress my amusement; how many children have we heard, who declare absolutely that they do not sleep, that they never sleep, that they would not know how to sleep if they tried? However, I only said, “Will you let Elizabeth come back, very briefly, then, so that I may put her under hypnosis for a minute and tell her to feel better?”

  She considered, chin on hands. “Even if you do not sleep,” I added solemnly, “Elizabeth must rest, and I propose a brief suggestion or two from myself to effect that. There is nothing in any case for you to do tonight unless you decide to keep your unfortunate aunt wringing her hands outside your door again, and so, if you want any freedom at all, you would be most wise to help Miss R. regain her health.”

  “She’s no use to me sick,” said Betsy agreeably. “Even if I feel well Aunt Morgen wouldn’t let her go anywhere.”

  “That’s true,” I said, thanking heaven for the dragon downstairs. “But you must also promise,” I added, “that while you are free you do not in any way attempt to harm Miss R. By stuffing her with sweets, for instance, or damaging her in the eyes of her friends.”

  “Or making her walk in front of a train,” said Betsy, grinning. “You must think I’m crazy,” she said, and giggled.

  I stood up from the bed, and attempted to smooth the tumbled sheets. “Now hop into bed like a good girl,” I said, with a heavy and most reluctant attempt at heartiness. I patted her shoulder as she climbed into the bed, thinking how extraordinarily different Betsy was from Elizabeth or Beth; I felt like an uncle putting a bad child to bed, and even Miss R.’s grown-up person did not detract from the strong avuncular feeling. I pulled the blankets up under her chin, and then sat on the bed beside her. “Now show me how you let Miss R. come back,” I said, and then, as I spoke, I saw her eyes turn on me dully, and knew that without my perceiving it Betsy had withdrawn herself swiftly and completely and Miss R. lay there before me, wide-eyed and startled, as any young girl might be, who wakes up from what must have seemed a heavy sleep to find a man, albeit her doctor, sitting familiarly upon the edge of her bed and apparently continuing a conversation with her.

  “Doctor Wright!” she said, recognizing me, and she attempted to sit up, but I put her gently back.

  “It’s all right,” I told her soothingly. “You have been ill, and your aunt has sent for me.” She lay back, still uneasy, and I spoke to her gently, telling her that she had called out for me in her sleep, and that her aunt had felt that I might be able to help her, so there I was, and I was planning to “put her to sleep” for onl
y a minute or so. I could see that she had been very ill; her face was substantially thinner in even the few days since I had seen her, and she was pale and so weak that she could not protest hypnosis; I subdued her easily into a light trance, and then, speaking hastily, and dropping my voice for fear Miss Jones might be listening outside, I said, “Beth—Beth, is it you?”

  She stirred, and smiled, and said, “My dear friend, I have been longing to hear your voice.” My poor Beth, too, was wasted and pale, and it saddened me to see her sweet face worn by illness and hear her soft voice so tired; “Dear Beth,” I said, taking her hand, “I am sorry you have been so unwell, but we will soon have you better.”

  “I am better now,” she said, “with you here.”

  “But, Beth, you must do something for me, something extremely important; do you think you can? It will help me, and help you to be well much sooner.”

  “I can do whatever you tell me to.”

  I hesitated only a minute, debating how most forcefully to drive home my point; then I said urgently, “This is what you must do; you must insist, constantly and as strongly as you know how, that you are recovered from your illness; you must watch constantly for signs of weakness and absent-mindedness; keep insisting upon your own strength and control. Try to keep your aunt near by as much as possible. And, most important, resist absolutely any actions not usual to you. Be vigilant. If you feel yourself compelled to misbehave before your friends, or to consume quantities of sweet things, or to throw yourself before a train, or to do any of a hundred things which would ordinarily not occur to you, fight against the impulse. Now, can you promise me all this?”

  “I promise,” she said, whispering.

  “I will help you all I can, and stay as close to you as possible. It is more important than I can tell you now, but someday I will explain it all to you.”

 
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