The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “You talk of our living among green meadows and flowers and trees,” Essex went on insistently; “What—” and he held his breath “—what about this house? It will be here, full of valuables in this world and that.”

  “I have been thinking about that, too,” said Aunt Fanny, and gave a kind of little laugh. “It has seemed to me that this house will become a kind of shrine, for our children and for their children. Living in the fields and woods as they do, living under a kindly sun and a gentle moon, with all their wants supplied from nature, they will have no thought of houses, and a roof will become to them synonymous with an altar; we may yet live to see our grandchildren worshipping in this house.”

  “I should hope so,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “I am—instructed, as I said, by my father—arranging to accumulate in this house all those items of practical value we might otherwise leave behind. There are things which may be useful to the innocents of that other world, and they will find them here, in the shrine of their gods. Tools, for instance. Jewels, which may seem almost magical to them. The lovely lines of the stairway; we must not let a sense of beauty vanish from the world.”

  “My silver service,” Mrs. Halloran said drily.

  “Possessions of the gods,” Aunt Fanny said. “My father would like that.”

  “Not in my lifetime,” Mrs. Halloran said. “They are legally willed to me.”

  “I think,” Gloria said unexpectedly from a dark corner of the room, and her tone silenced them, “I think they will come, those far-off people, moving fearfully into this house and not daring to touch anything, looking at the furniture and walls and floors the way we look at cave paintings or catacombs or ancient palaces; I think they will come on a kind of pilgrimage. They will come in little groups, walking on carefully designated paths so that they will not touch anything or brush against the walls or jar any furniture, and they will walk very softly the way people do when they are walking in the footsteps of many many dead people and are afraid of wakening them or angering them; I think they will not understand much of what they find in this house, but they will tell stories about it, and about us. I think it will be a sacred and terrible and mysterious place for them.”

  “I forbid all this,” Mrs. Halloran said loudly and suddenly. “I will not leave this house in my lifetime. The rest of you may live in trees with my blessing.”

  “Your blessing will count for so little,” Aunt Fanny murmured, “afterward.”

  8

  “‘I had, as I hinted before,’” the nurse read, going slowly in her flat voice, “‘a parcel of money, as well gold as silver, about thirty-six pounds sterling; alas! there the nasty, sorry, useless stuff lay; I had no manner of business for it, and I often thought with myself, that I would have given a handful of it for a gross of tobacco-pipes, or for a hand-mill to grind my corn; nay, I would have given it all for six-penny worth of turnip and carrot seed out of England, or for a handful of pease and beans, and a bottle of ink.’”

  Daily Julia and Arabella and Maryjane brought in armfuls of heavy, rich roses for the silver bowls in the drawing room and the dining room. The sundial stood out more whitely against the deep green of the lawn; there were apricots on the breakfast table. Aunt Fanny, in her mother’s diamonds, listened always, and late one night Mrs. Willow, aroused by what she thought was someone after the silver, found Aunt Fanny at the head of the great stairway in her nightgown, rapt and still and smiling; “The time is drawing closer,” she said, when Mrs. Willow roused her.

  Although Gloria was most unwilling, Mrs. Willow was not a patient woman, and disliked the vagueness of Aunt Fanny’s appointments; she insisted that Gloria look into the mirror again. “You’re used to it,” Mrs. Willow explained, “you know it by now. We don’t want to keep starting new people at it. Besides, no one but you will do it.”

  Reluctantly, Gloria sat again before the mirror where the oil ran and shivered, and leaned her face down to look. “I hope I see something pleasanter this time, that’s all,” she said. “If I see any more of those terrible things you can just get someone else to look, and I don’t care whether they get mixed up or not on the other side.”

  “I wonder what nonsense we would be engaged in, if we were not doing this,” Mrs. Halloran remarked.

  “We are the gods,” Essex said, “sitting on the front porch of Olympus, regarding the doings of men. It is probably just as well that we have some nonsense to occupy us; think of the harm we could do if we were bored.”

  “Well, don’t all keep watching me,” Gloria said. “You make me nervous.”

  Mrs. Willow and Aunt Fanny moved back a little, eyeing one another.

  “We’ll just wait,” Mrs. Willow said comfortably. “You let us know when you see something.”

  “I hate it when it starts to move,” Gloria said. She stirred uneasily in her chair. “It’s like being seasick—everything kind of churns around, and you think you can’t last another minute, because you’re sinking into this horrid moving whirling twirling curling—I see a country. It’s clear. I see a country, a nice country.”

  “What country, dear?” Mrs. Willow was making notes, in a notebook she had bought for the purpose and into which she had copied all of her previous records of Aunt Fanny’s statements.

  “Just a countryside. Trees, and grass, and flowers. Blue sky. Nice birds.”

  “People?”

  “No people. No houses. No fences or roads or television aerials or wires or billboards. No people. There’s a hill, with trees on it, and . . . it’s like a meadow. Soft.” She hesitated. “There aren’t any . . . separations in it, that’s what I’m trying to say. Nothing like walls or fences, just soft green countryside going off in all directions. Perhaps that’s a river over there.”

  “Presumably every prospect pleases,” Essex said.

  “Wait . . . I can see someone coming, over the hill; Essex, it looks like you, only you aren’t dressed . . . you haven’t got any . . .” Gloria turned scarlet and put her hands against her cheeks, but she did not sit back.

  “Go ahead, dear,” Mrs. Willow said. “We’re not squeamish.”

  “You might try to get me into a lion skin or a pair of bathing trunks,” Essex said. “I probably don’t know there are peeping toms around.”

  “You are . . . could you be hunting?”

  “Hunting for what, in God’s name?” said Mrs. Halloran.

  “Almost certainly for a pair of bathing trunks,” Essex said. “Couldn’t I please stand behind a bush?”

  “Be quiet,” Mrs. Willow said. “This is quite serious.”

  “It’s so lovely,” Gloria said.

  Essex opened his mouth to speak, but Mrs. Willow gestured violently at him and he was quiet.

  “It’s such a beautiful country. Essex is gone; there are just soft hills and trees and that blue blue sky.”

  “Thank God I am out of sight,” Essex said irrepressibly. “I was beginning to have that feeling of being stared at.”

  “Look,” Gloria said, “oh, look,” and she laughed. “It’s changing,” she said, “it’s like a little painting of a landscape, and it’s changing so I can see over the hill and through the trees and now there are people, very far away. They’re . . . dancing, I think; the sun is so bright. Yes, dancing.”

  “Dressed?” asked Essex, who was enjoying himself enormously.

  “I can’t tell, it doesn’t matter anyway. They’re very far away, and so tiny, and the trees are so tall around them; I really think they are dancing. And I can see the flowers and grass moving a little, as though there were just the smallest breeze, and now I see a . . . is it a deer? And birds. And a rabbit.”

  “Our ark has landed,” Mrs. Halloran said to Essex.

  “Tell me, dear,” Mrs. Willow said, “if we ask you questions do you think you can see the answers?”

  Gloria closed her eyes. “I?
??ll try,” she said, sitting back. “That was pretty.”

  “It really gives me quite an odd feeling,” Essex said. “I shall probably never hunt again.”

  “It seems to me,” Mrs. Willow said, “that Gloria really sees in the mirror what we want her to. Be quiet, Essex. What I mean is that before, when she saw all horrible things, it was because we were all frightened and confused. Now that we know pretty well what to expect, it seems to me that they are showing her more of what we want to see. Maybe I’m not making myself clear.” She looked over at Miss Ogilvie, who nodded mutely. Mrs. Willow sighed. “Gloria, dear,” she said, “we don’t want you to dwell on destruction and fear. We like your pretty pictures much much better. Now I have a good idea here; I’m going to ask you to look into the mirror and try to see the people in this house, just one month from today. That would be the end of June. Now think about the people in this house, and look into the window and see a picture of what we will be doing one month from today.” She turned to the others. “Trying to find out how much time we have left,” she explained. “Go along, Gloria.”

  Gloria leaned forward, her elbows on the table and her chin between her hands. She looked steadily into the mirror, and her long hair fell on either side of her face, almost touching the table. “Roses,” she said at last. “Roses on the table in the dining room. Pink.”

  “That would be the rambler,” Aunt Fanny said. “My mother’s favorite. They planted six bushes for her, and it’s true, they come into bloom about the last of June.”

  “All of us are there,” Gloria said, and giggled. “It’s funny,” she said, “I’m there, too. It’s like a little picture, only the people are moving. We’re tiny. We’re having breakfast. Essex . . .”

  “What am I wearing?” Essex asked prudently.

  “A white shirt, I think. You’re telling a story, and we’re all laughing. I’m wearing my blue and white cotton dress; it must be very warm.”

  “Then I believe that we can assume that nothing will have happened before the end of June,” Mrs. Willow said. “Gloria, think now. Try the end of July. Try to see all of us near the end of July. The end of July, Gloria.”

  “We’re playing tennis,” Gloria said almost at once. “We’re all at the tennis courts. Julia and the captain are playing against Arabella and me.”

  “I might have known,” Arabella said, with a cross look at her sister.

  “All the rest of you are sitting out on white chairs and benches and there is a green and orange and yellow umbrella and a little table; you’re drinking; it must be terribly hot because we’re wearing light dresses and shorts. I’m wearing a pair of blue-striped shorts and it’s funny, because I don’t own such a thing.”

  “I’ll lend you mine,” Julia said helpfully.

  “We use that same umbrella by the tennis courts every summer,” Mrs. Halloran said, “but how does Gloria know about it, or its colors? It is packed away in the carriage house, and has been since long before she came here.”

  “I can see it,” Gloria said.

  “The important thing is that what she sees shows us that nothing has happened yet,” Mrs. Willow said. “Naturally there will not be tennis courts or colored umbrellas afterwards.” She leaned forward and put her hand again on Gloria’s head. “Look again, dear. Look and see what we are doing at the end of another month. What are we doing, in the mirror, around the last of August?”

  Gloria frowned, leaning closer to the mirror. “It’s hard,” she said, “because it’s so dark. All the windows are closed. I don’t know who’s there, they’re all like shadows. The sun is gone.”

  “What are they doing?”

  “I think . . .” Gloria said hesitatingly, “I think they’re trying to push something . . . maybe the big hall chest. Maybe a big sofa or something like that. They’re going to push it against the door. The candles are lighted, but it’s still very dark. They’re in the big hall, I can see the tiles on the floor. They’re . . .” she shivered “. . . barricading themselves in, I think. It’s very dark.”

  “Can you see any faces?”

  “I can see Fancy, I think. Maybe it only looks like Fancy because it’s smaller . . . no, it is Fancy, she just came near a lighted candle. She’s . . . laughing.”

  “Laughing? While we barricade the doors?”

  Essex spoke softly to Mrs. Halloran. “Edna’s True Believers said the end of August, you know.”

  “If that crackpot has the date right I will eat a Martian,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “Try to move a little farther, Gloria,” Mrs. Willow said. “Try to see the end of that night; try to see the next morning.”

  “I can’t,” Gloria said. “It’s going away.” She sat back and looked at the mirror, which showed the faulted reflections of the cupids on the ceiling. “It scares me,” she said.

  _____

  “Aunt Fanny proposes, Gloria disposes,” Mrs. Halloran said. She touched the sundial gently. “We will not count many more hours here,” she said.

  “It still does not surprise you to know how easily we all capitulated?” Essex asked.

  “I am not wholly convinced yet, Essex.”

  “You let the library go.”

  Mrs. Halloran laughed. “Perhaps I am an instinctive book-burner.”

  “I think you had a reason for encouraging Aunt Fanny to burn the books.”

  “Surely, Essex, Aunt Fanny is not so young as she was; I can hardly refuse her these small pleasures. In any case, opposition to Aunt Fanny is not part of my general plan; in our better, cleaner world I will come to grips with Aunt Fanny.”

  “The captain and Julia have been whispering together in corners,” Essex said. “Mrs. Willow is always watching them.”

  “We cannot afford to lose the captain,” Mrs. Halloran said. “If Aunt Fanny is right, Essex, your own tasks would without the captain approach the superhuman.”

  “You forget,” Essex said. “I am to be the huntsman.”

  After a minute Mrs. Halloran said, “That did not please me. I am beginning to dislike that girl, Gloria. And I suspect her visions.”

  “You can easily assure yourself of her truthfulness, however; I have a small scar on my left thigh.”

  _____

  “Does the old lady keep much cash around the house?” The captain’s voice was soft, and Julia only nodded. They were sitting in the summer house, from which they could see into the secret garden behind and down the long lawn ahead of them; far away Mrs. Halloran and Essex bent over the sundial.

  “I don’t know how much longer I can stand it,” the captain said.

  “My mother keeps watching us,” Julia said.

  The captain laughed. “I don’t mind your mother,” he said. “She’s not as bad as the rest; even the old party in the corner . . .”

  “Miss Ogilvie.”

  “Miss Ogilvie. She’s not too bad. But the crazy one . . . Aunt Fanny, I mean . . . she was around knocking on my door last night when everyone was asleep; ‘Captain,’ she says, ‘let me in, let me in, I’m only forty-eight years old.’ God.” He shivered. “I was going to shove all the furniture in the room against the door and lean on it.”

  Julia laughed. “One of these nights you’ll forget to lock your door.”

  “Not me; catch me taking a chance like that. How can we get away? The gates are locked, and she sent me and Essex to make sure no one could climb over the wall.”

  “Worse than that, we’d have to have some kind of a car. We can’t walk all the way to the village and even if we get to the village there’s only two fool busses each day. They’d catch us in half an hour.”

  “What makes you so sure they want to catch us?”

  Julia grinned wickedly. “Not me,” she said. “It’s not me they want. They’d let me go and gladly, even my mother. I am not the father of future generations.”

 
“My God,” the captain said. “Can we try for it today?”

  “We’re not in prison,” Julia said, “and I’m not going to be treated as though we were . . . you know, trying to sneak out in a delivery truck or something like that. I wonder if we could just tell her we want to leave?”

  “Not me,” said the captain. “I personally wouldn’t be surprised if they had a dungeon in the cellar.”

  _____

  “Mother?”

  “What is it, Belle?”

  “Julia’s out in the summer house with the captain again.”

  “I know it.”

  “You know what I bet they’re doing?”

  “Yes, I know what you bet they’re doing. But they’re not. It’s my guess they’re planning to run for it.”

  “You mean Julia’s going to leave this house? With the captain?”

  “I think so.”

  “That’s not fair. There are only two men in the house, after all, and the other one is Essex. You can’t let him leave.”

  “I don’t know how I could stop them.”

  “Well, it’s not fair. You’ve always liked her better than me.”

  _____

  “Aunt Fanny, they’re there again. Out in the summer house. Whispering in each other’s faces.”

  Aunt Fanny smiled obscurely. Miss Ogilvie peered through the curtains of the little sitting room where she and Aunt Fanny spent their mornings sewing. “Sitting close together,” Miss Ogilvie said.

  “I hope they will not be too disappointed,” Aunt Fanny murmured.

  “Well, they certainly don’t look like they might be disappointed. I think Mrs. Halloran ought to put a stop to it. It’s not healthy for Fancy, having things like that going on right in public.”

  “I believe their paths will not always run side by side,” Aunt Fanny said. “For the present, perhaps, but the briefest consideration of the future, Miss Ogilvie, should point out to you their differing roles.”

 
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