The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “If your needs are what they seem to be,” Miss Inverness said, not altogether mollified, “I assure you that my sister and myself must refuse, most firmly, to be included in any way whatsoever.”

  “Caroline, dear,” Miss Deborah said gently.

  “I am sorry,” Miss Ogilvie said. “I should never have said anything at all. It was only because one so rarely meets congenial persons, really congenial, and I thought it would be a shame to lose Miss Inverness and Miss Deborah as friends. I am sure they have always been most respectable, and it will be sad to think of them after they are gone.”

  “Our mother brought us up to be respectable, I hope, Miss Ogilvie. I will get your Boy Scout Handbook.”

  Still contrite, Aunt Fanny selected half a dozen novels, the blue poodle for Fancy, and a shell ashtray for Essex. Miss Deborah made everything into a neat package, which was left in the shop for Julia to gather in later when she came back with the car. Miss Inverness was cool in her farewell to Aunt Fanny, and gave Miss Ogilvie only a small bow; Miss Deborah accompanied them to the door of the shop, troubled and civil, and opened the door for them, the faint musical tinkle of the door-bells for a moment overriding her voice before her sister called her sharply.

  On the sidewalk outside the shop Miss Ogilvie said, “Well, I’m happy to think that we will probably never go in there again. I think Miss Inverness has gotten very crotchety.”

  “Like her mother,” Aunt Fanny said. “Candles,” she said, “candles. I forgot candles.”

  “Then I’ll just run in and have a cup of coffee, dear,” Miss Ogilvie said. “In the drug store, because they look at you so strangely in the Inn when you only order coffee.”

  “Don’t talk to anyone,” Aunt Fanny said. “Put out of your mind any ideas except that we have come into the village for a morning’s shopping. I will meet you here in fifteen minutes, and I beg of you to be silent about the future.”

  “Naturally,” Miss Ogilvie said placidly. “It’s so difficult for me to describe, anyway.”

  The drug store, like every other store in the village, sold an enormous variety of goods; no storekeeper in the village found himself able to exist on the marketing of any single commodity; the grocer sold light bulbs and paper supplies, the antique shop carried a sideline of homemade candies and jellies, the hardware store sold toys and newspapers, and the drug store sold them all, besides cigarettes, paperback books, and an unending series of chemicals at its soda fountain. Miss Ogilvie, easing herself gracelessly onto a high stool at the soda fountain, found herself alone in the store except for the soda fountain clerk, a young man with poor hair and pimples, leaning listlessly against a sign showing a tempting chicken salad sandwich adorned with pickles and potato chips; “You want something?” the young man said, picking at his cheek.

  Miss Ogilvie sighed happily. “Peach pie,” she said, “with chocolate ice cream on top.” It was only half-past ten, and luncheon at the big house was not served until one. Miss Ogilvie made a series of small wriggling gestures in order to straighten out her skirt under her, and set her pocketbook on the counter next to her and cleared away an obtrusive ashtray and a container of paper napkins. When the young man set the peach pie with chocolate ice cream on top in front of her Miss Ogilvie smiled at it, and then, congratulatingly, at the young man.

  “One of the things I am going to miss,” she said confidentially, “is fancy food.”

  The young man let his eye rest briefly on the peach pie, and retired to lean once more against the chicken salad sandwich. “Don’t care much for pie, myself,” he said. “Cake’s more my line.”

  Miss Ogilvie snapped her fingers in sudden irritation. “I forgot,” she said, “I completely forgot; I was so sure I was going to remember to tell Aunt Fanny to get lots and lots of those prepared cake mixes. They’re so much easier, and it’s hard to think how we’d get any baking done, otherwise.”

  “Or cookies,” the young man said. “Lots of people like cookies.”

  “And blueberry muffins,” Miss Ogilvie said. “Dear heavens, I hope I remember to remind Aunt Fanny when I see her.”

  “Working in a place like this,” the young man said, “you’d think I’d be crazy about ice cream. Wouldn’t you?”

  “Well, that’s one thing we can’t take,” Miss Ogilvie said. “It would melt,” she explained. “Since I suppose the electricity will all go off, and then the refrigerator won’t stay cold.”

  “The electricity don’t go off,” the young man said. “This time of year, with no storms, the electricity stays on without any trouble. My brother’s on the lines, he’d tell me.”

  “But of course,” Miss Ogilvie said, wide-eyed, “that night the buildings will be gone. The places they send the electricity from, I mean. And of course the wires.”

  “What night?” the young man asked idly.

  “I’m not supposed to talk about it, but I guess it’s all right to tell you, so you can tell your brother that it won’t be any use.” Miss Ogilvie swallowed a piece of peach pie. “Aunt Fanny told us all about it. It’s coming very soon. Fire and floods and sidewalks melting away and the earth running with boiling lava and all the poor people trying to get away.” She sighed, and looked down at her pie with sympathy. “All over the world,” she said, “everywhere. And in the morning there will be nothing left. I suppose it’s very hard for you to picture it, but there will be simply nothing; we will look out of the windows—that’s all of us, in the big house, not you, I am afraid, and I am really terribly sorry. But we will all look out the windows and in all the world there will be nothing but drying earth, with the grass beginning to grow. All the houses and people and automobiles and everything will be just melted away.” She sighed again. “I just don’t know how we’re going to make our coffee that first morning,” she said. “I suppose we will have to build a little fire somehow. Kindling,” she said. “I will tell Aunt Fanny to get kindling.”

  “You want to be careful, starting fires,” the young man said. “It’s pretty dry this time of year.”

  Miss Ogilvie stared. “You don’t understand,” she said. “There won’t be anything left to burn.”

  The young man thought deeply. “You saying,” he asked at last, “that the day of Armageddon is coming? Like that?”

  “I think so,” Miss Ogilvie said uncertainly.

  “Like where it says in the Bible the day of Last Judgment? The final trump?”

  “I think that’s different,” Miss Ogilvie said. “I mean, the rest of you—”

  “My ma, she talks like that. She’s got this club, the True Believers, they call theirselves. They all talk like that. Got people coming over from the city to meet with them, they talk like that too.”

  “You mean there are others?” Miss Ogilvie said, barely breathing.

  “The True Believers is what they call theirselves. I listen sometimes, me and my brother, the one I was telling you about; he’s on the lines. He says to me, ‘Don’t you believe it, bud, I see enough electricity to know it’s scientifically impossible. Scientifically impossible. Let them talk,’ he says, ‘they got nothing else to do. But don’t you get taken in, because them scientific fellows have proved that the world didn’t start the way they say, and it ain’t going to end the way they say either. Protons and neutrons—that’s the answer. Electric force.’”

  “These True Believers,” Miss Ogilvie asked anxiously, “how many of them are there?”

  “Ten, maybe. They meet and get messages from the spirit world. Ma’s got a control named Liliokawani, used to be a Egyptian queen. Tells her things.” He laughed richly. “Liliokawani,” he said. “Boy, did they use to live it up, those Egyptian queens.”

  Miss Ogilvie pushed her peach pie away suddenly. “Ten more,” she said. “I better go right away and find Aunt Fanny and tell her. I’m not sure she’s going to be pleased. We thought,” she explained, “that it was just
going to be us, just our little circle. We really get along quite well together, so congenial and all, and so refined and everything, and now strangers . . .” She slid hastily off the stool.

  “I’ll tell Ma you was asking,” the young man said. “That’ll be a quarter for the pie and fifteen more for the ice cream.”

  _____

  “My father,” said Aunt Fanny, “was beyond all things a democratic man. He believed in encouraging the villagers in every possible manner, although I do not recall that he ever mingled among them socially. I cannot picture him visiting this young man’s mother. She may easily have been deceived.”

  “The young man himself was quite positive about it,” Miss Ogilvie said miserably. “But really—ten extra people, and we had counted so on being alone.”

  “I do not see that we need bother about it further,” Aunt Fanny said. “I am quite positive that my father would agree with me.” Her voice went vague; she was looking across the street toward the spot where the bus stopped, bringing Harriet Stuart’s visitors, or an occasional traveller interested in dining at the Carriage Stop Inn, or an elderly person come to count the number of people still alive in the village. Mr. Devers, the postman, had gotten off the bus today, because as everyone in the village knew he had gone yesterday to the city to see his only son off for the army, and now Mr. Devers was standing on the corner with his suitcase talking to a stranger. Aunt Fanny was looking at the stranger.

  _____

  Yes, the stranger agreed over tea and sandwiches at the Carriage Stop Inn, yes, he was a stranger. His tone implied that in faraway villages all over the world he was well-known, and a stranger in this village only. He hinted at himself striding recognized down exotic streets, walking in sandals through dust, moving slowly behind an oxcart or a rickshaw or a dog-sled, kicking aside the encumbrance of a cashmere robe, a furred cloak, shading his eyes from the sun, sheltering his head from the snow, regarding unmoved typhoon and flood, seeing with familiarity such scenes as the quiet eye could not envisage, laughing and looking easily and speaking intimately in strange tongues; yes, he agreed, he was a stranger. It was not possible even for Aunt Fanny to ask where he was from, but Aunt Fanny asked where he was going, as if she had not known when she saw him standing by the bus.

  He was genuinely surprised when Aunt Fanny asked him to visit the big house, as though the invitation should not have come quite so soon, as though he had been caught unaware with his persuasions and insidious compliments unexpectedly useless; “Don’t you even want to know my name?” he asked blankly.

  “I suppose I shall have to introduce you to my brother,” Aunt Fanny said. “Although I don’t believe any name you might give would be important.”

  He looked from Aunt Fanny to Miss Ogilvie and back again. “How about my references?” he asked.

  “I expect they would be forged,” Aunt Fanny said agreeably. “My mother once hired a butler who gave forged references, because he had been a convict.”

  “I see,” said the stranger.

  “My father suspected something in the way he walked. Naturally, when I invite you to my house as a guest I would hardly ask for references.”

  “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” said the stranger.

  Miss Ogilvie, blushing, said to Aunt Fanny, “He seems to me to have something of a military bearing.” She spoke as though the stranger, being so very strange indeed, could not hear her.

  “Captain Scarabombardon,” said Aunt Fanny unexpectedly.

  “At your service,” said the stranger, who was clearly extremely bewildered.

  “In any case,” Miss Ogilvie said, “we will all stand as one when the time comes. Cleansed. Pure.”

  “I do not recall that my father mentioned anything of our standing as one, Miss Ogilvie. You are a very fortunate man, Captain Scarabombardon.” She picked up her gloves. “Julia should be coming with the car,” she said. “Come along, Captain.”

  _____

  “Well,” said Julia, when the stranger handed Aunt Fanny into the car, “and who might you be?”

  “He is the captain,” Miss Ogilvie explained eagerly. “He is coming home with us, Aunt Fanny invited him.”

  “Captain?” said Julia, who was not at all that bright, “captain of what?”

  “I wish I knew,” said the captain.

  _____

  “Captain Scarabombardon?” said Essex, “am I to be an Harlequin now? I had dreamed of something more heroic. Did I ever tell you,” he asked Mrs. Halloran, “of my trip to the moon?”

  “Captain,” Mrs. Halloran said, “will you have wine?”

  _____

  The True Believers did not delay; perhaps the shortness of their time encouraged haste; at any rate Mrs. Halloran received, at the breakfast table the next morning, a letter written on violet paper with brown ink. The letter was heavily scented with carnation, and Mrs. Halloran read it aloud, holding it at arm’s length.

  Dear Fellows in Trust and Faith:

  It is with the utmost joy that we here in our humble Society of True Believers, being as far as we knew until now the only select group to be chosen to carry the torch of mankind salute you. If we had known there was any other group like ours we could of gotten together sooner, but it is not yet too late. If you are of genuine faith and truly deserve the higher levels and will repent and sincerely follow the path of true teaching and never turn aside. Our leader will give herself the pleasure of calling upon you very soon and she will of course be able to tell right off whether you are on a spiritual level high enough to join our humble little band. In all life there is hope but of course it will not last much longer. Be prepared.

  (Mrs.) Hazel Ossman, Secretary.

  Mrs. Halloran folded the letter and put it carefully back into its envelope. “I assume,” she said at last, “that someone will offer me a rational explanation of this. I am most reluctant to believe that I am going mad.”

  “It’s that boy in the drug store,” Miss Ogilvie said helpfully, anxious that Mrs. Halloran should not believe that she was going mad. “We were talking, yesterday, while Aunt Fanny was shopping.”

  “Aunt Fanny went shopping? I had not heard.”

  “I believe that I may go into the village, Orianna, without troubling to ask your permission. I have been accustomed to the village since I was a child, and I cannot remember ever having to ask permission to go there.”

  “How did you get there, Aunt Fanny? Did you walk?”

  “Certainly not. Julia took a car from the garages.”

  Mrs. Halloran turned her eyes on Julia, who flushed and said defiantly, “No one told me not to.”

  “Besides,” Aunt Fanny added maliciously, “how did you think the captain got here? We brought him back with us.”

  “I had done you the courtesy of assuming, Aunt Fanny, that the captain was another of your ghostly manifestations.”

  “Now wait a minute,” the captain said. “I understood I was welcome here, and if I’m not I certainly know what to do about it,” but he made no move to rise from the breakfast table.

  “Captain,” said Mrs. Halloran, “Aunt Fanny is kind enough to allow me to entertain my friends here; I can hardly refuse her the same civility. Julia, if you ever again touch anything belonging to me I shall send you away from this house. I leave it to your mother to point out to you what you would then forfeit. Aunt Fanny, you are surely right: you have never had to ask anyone’s permission to go into the village, and I am sure that the villagers are used to you by now.”

  “My father took a great interest in the village. I have always tried to carry on his plans.”

  “Some of your father’s activities in the village, Aunt Fanny, were luckily discontinued with his death. But I see no reason why you should be kept away from your subjects; next time please ask me for a car and I will send a reliable driver with you. Miss Ogilvie, I will expect you to rece
ive these people with me, since you clearly know them better than I.”

  “I don’t know them at all,” Miss Ogilvie cried, “they are certainly not friends of mine.”

  “They may very well become friends of yours, however, and perhaps even closer than that; perhaps fellow survivors. We must not be overselect, Miss Ogilvie.”

  “Aunt Fanny,” cried Miss Ogilvie pathetically, but she was abandoned; Aunt Fanny was speaking to Essex.

  _____

  The leader of the True Believers was a lady of indeterminate shape, but vigorous presence, perhaps fortified by the silent support of Liliokawani, queen in Egypt. She swept into Mrs. Halloran’s ballroom with the air of one testing the floor for durability; she was wearing a purple dress which presumably fit her, and a fur boa of color and fluff. Behind her came a second, also purple, lady, whose hair was red, and, behind her, a man whose determined majesty was most convincing; he had magnificent hair, which suffered a little by comparison with the leader’s fluffy fur, and he wore, perhaps out of deference, a white waistcoat. At the very last came a withered little lady, peering.

  “I am Edna,” said the leader. “Our committee. Hazel, who is also our secretary. Arthur. Ah . . . Mrs. Peterson.”

  “Mrs. Peterson,” said Mrs. Halloran majestically. She had been wise in her choice of the ballroom; beneath the sweeping carved ceiling and the white and gold candle sconces these four little people looked toylike; not so much out of place as decorative.

  “We have come,” said Edna, not faltering, “to inquire into your present position with regard to supernatural visitations. Prophecies. The end of the world, in fact. Someone told us, down in the village, and being as we’re in much the same line . . .” She spread her hands eloquently.

  “Dreadful are the hopes of man,” said Mrs. Peterson drearily.

  “Naturally,” Edna continued, “we thought we might like to get together with you folks, if your ideas go along with ours. We don’t take converts, as a rule, but naturally if you folks got to believing by yourselves I guess we got no choice. Anyway,” she finished, “we got to get a place to meet.”

 
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