The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “What’d I say?” he demanded, whining. “All I said was I got to do what Mrs. Halloran tells me. Where’d I get if I didn’t do what Mrs. Halloran tells me? Now you get in like a good girl and we let bygones be bygones.”

  There was only one place in the car for Julia to sit, and that was in front next to the driver. The back of the car, seatless, seemed to be filled with old bottles and pieces of chain, which rattled and clanked disturbingly as the car began a slow crawl away from the main gates of the house.

  “Better tell you right off,” the driver said, “this is going to cost you twelve dollars.” He had clearly started to say “ten” and then changed his mind, and the sharp break in the word seemed to amuse him, as though he had no need for dissimulation. “Twelve,” he repeated enjoyably. “Don’t go into the city this time of night for nothing, you know.”

  “Mrs. Halloran will pay you.”

  The man sneaked a sideways look at her. “Mrs. Halloran, she said something funny about that. She said she had left money for you, and you would pick it up and be the one paying me.”

  “Oh.” The car picked up speed reluctantly, shaking itself as though ready to balk and throw its riders, but the big man held it down firmly and after a moment they went more evenly along the road. Julia intended that there should be no further conversation between herself and the unattractive driver, but he spoke chattily, raising his big voice without effort over the clatter of the motor, “What you going to the city for?”

  “Because I choose to,” Julia said childishly. She turned pointedly as though she were going to look out of the window, although there was no window on her side at all, and the wind came disagreeably in on to her face; she could feel the first stinging raindrops. She turned her jacket collar up and hunched her shoulders around her ears, in a feeble defense against the rain on one side and the conversation on the other. “Going to take the money I get from you,” the big man said placidly—he smelled musty, Julia thought, and foul—“and buy me some chickens. Got a little place for them out back of my house. I live in the village, of course.” He waited for some comment from Julia, and then went on, “Going to sell the eggs, maybe bring ’em up to the big house, sell ’em to old lady Halloran.” They were moving steadily upward, and Julia remembered the soft lines of hills visible from the windows of the big house; not long ago, while she was in her room packing, she had seen the hills from her window and told herself joyfully that beyond them lay the city; “Tonight I will be there myself,” she had thought, hugging herself ecstatically.

  Peering through the rain, Julia thought she could distinguish a cleft in the line of the hills and although she did not want to speak she finally asked, “Is that where we’re going? Through that sort of pass?”

  “That’s right,” said the driver. “City’s on the other side. Funny thing about that pass,” he continued affably, “always full of fog. Down here, rain or hot or sunshine, but up there it’s always fog. Something to do with the hills.”

  “Is it far?”

  “Another five miles, maybe. Then another seven, eight, miles to the city. They call it Fog Pass,” he added, as one explaining something uniquely reasonable. When Julia was silent again he went on. “Caught a rabbit up there once. It got so mixed up in the fog it didn’t even see me coming. Stood right there on the road watching me like it didn’t know what I was. Ran smack over it with the car.”

  Julia turned slightly and let the wind drive the rain against her face. “Funny thing about rabbits,” he said. “Most people think they’re lucky. That one wasn’t lucky,” and he laughed. He had clearly reached a subject very dear to his heart, because he went on contentedly, “Killed some kittens once, my old lady had a cat always having kittens and this time I told her I’d get rid of the things for her. Cut off their heads with my pocket knife.”

  Julia, thinking: I will go to the biggest lightest hotel and telephone my mother, was silent.

  “Got rid of some puppies by pouring kerosene on them and lighting—”

  “Please don’t,” Julia said violently, and he laughed.

  “Didn’t know you’d be bothered,” he said. “Folks do things like that all the time. Why, I knew an old man once lived up in these hills about a mile and he used to catch rats and—”

  “Please,” Julia said.

  “I could tell you things I saw in the army,” he said. “Everybody knows about them, pretty funny, too, sometimes. You just touchy or something?”

  “I don’t like to hear about it,” Julia said.

  “Well, if you don’t have to watch, I wouldn’t guess you’d mind.” He seemed to be puzzled. “Why,” he said, “my old lady was right there when I cut up them kittens. She didn’t mind.”

  “How much further is it to the pass?”

  “Mile or so. You’re anxious to get to the city, I guess?”

  “I certainly am.”

  “What you going there for?”

  “I have an appointment,” Julia said wantonly.

  “Who with?”

  “A friend.”

  “That so? What about that feller you thought was coming with you? The one Mrs. Halloran told me not to take? Where’s he come in?”

  “Look,” Julia said, turning to look at him, “I’m sick and tired of answering your questions and listening to your dirty talk. You just leave me alone.”

  “Did I touch you?” he asked, indignant. “I’ll leave you alone all right, dearie, Mrs. Halloran she didn’t say nothing to me about not leaving you alone, I wouldn’t touch you with a ten foot pole. Or maybe,” he went on slyly, “you was asking? Because I got no reason to be coming back tonight. I kind of like the city.” He thought, grinning to himself. “Oh, it wouldn’t cost you any more,” he assured her. “I might even buy you a beer or maybe two.” Turning her back to him coldly, Julia put her face into the rain from the window. “Once I get that twenty bucks from you—” he said.

  “You told me twelve,” said Julia, startled into speech.

  “Must of misunderstood me,” he said calmly. “Happen to know it’s a twenty dollar fare to the city. Might even be twenty-five before we get there,” he said, and laughed. “You want to stop for a little while?”

  “No,” Julia said.

  He laughed again. “You’d maybe rather walk?” he asked.

  They turned a curve, still going uphill and came suddenly into fog; it was not fog like any Julia had ever seen, but rather an impenetrable, almost tangible, weight of darkness pressing down upon them. She could smell its faint smoky atmosphere, even over the odors of filth and decay coming from the man next to her, and he slowed the car down until it was barely moving. “Got to take it easy along here,” he said. “Hills on one side, downhill on the other. Go off the road that way, you run into a hill, go off the road that way, you’ll likely hit a tree or something, and just end up in the river way down below.”

  “Are you sure you know the road?”

  “Do it blindfold.” He chuckled. “Doing it blindfold,” he said. “Right here’s where I run over the rabbit. Fog lifted a minute and there he was.” He laughed again. “Did you say you’d rather get out and walk?” he asked.

  When Julia did not answer, he suddenly put his foot down and the car stopped. “Now,” he said, and his voice was still friendly, “now you give me the money or we don’t go no further. We maybe don’t go no further anyway,” and he touched her on the back with his great dirty hand.

  Julia caught her breath. “Don’t be silly,” she said sharply. “Do you think I’m going to let you get away with anything?”

  “Fierce,” he said approvingly. “Ever tell you what I done with a dog bit me once?”

  “Mrs. Halloran—” Julia began.

  “What she don’t know won’t hurt her. And anyway, you don’t matter to her. She won’t care, don’t worry.”

  “When I tell Mrs. Halloran—??
?

  “Now who’s being silly?” He reached across her and opened the car door on her side. “You don’t want to pay for your ride?” he asked, “you don’t get no ride. And I’ll tell the old lady all about it.”

  Julia hesitated, looked at him, saw him grinning dimly in the fog, and, terror-stricken, slid out of the car on her side. When she turned back to look at him she thought that the look on his face was one of dismay that she had called his bluff, and, standing on the road, she said, “I’ll just walk along the road until some other car comes by. You’ve just lost yourself some money, mister.”

  “You get back in the car,” he said. “Pay me my money and there won’t be no trouble.”

  “Find someone else to steal from,” Julia said. “Go home and tell Mrs. Halloran you didn’t get the money. Go home and torture your cats and dogs and leave decent people alone.” She slammed the car door and turned away from the car. For a minute she thought he was going to get out of the car and follow her, but he leaned forward and said anxiously, “Listen, miss, you better get back in the car.”

  He’s frightened, Julia thought. She smiled and said, “I will give you exactly one dollar to drive me to the city.”

  “Now you know you’re asking for trouble,” he said, and this time he opened the door of the car as though prepared to get out. Thoughts of the rabbit and the kittens were vivid in Julia’s mind, and she backed up and moved away from the car. Clinging to her pocketbook, stumbling a little, she ran, thinking as she did so that it was ludicrous for someone who had been not an hour ago in the big house to be so taken in, to be running in frantic terror down a lonely, foggy road. Behind her she heard him calling “Miss?” and she stood still, afraid to make another sound.

  It came to her then with a pang of elementary fear that it was only necessary to step a few feet in any direction to disappear completely into the fog. She turned, almost ready to make a compromise somehow with the driver, and found that the road and the car had gone into the fog and that although she knew precisely in which direction she had moved, her faulty feet and blind eyes would not lead her back. She called carefully, “Mister?” and then thought, the fog muffling her voice and coming into her mouth, that perhaps he might yet find her by her voice, come silently up behind her in the fog and never give her a chance to tell him that he might have all her money if he wanted. She stood perfectly still, listening, and then turned to see if he was behind her. When she saw nothing she began to move cautiously. Better to take a chance on another car coming by, she thought, sooner or later someone will come along. She tripped over a rock and hurt her ankle and the noise held her motionless until she was sure that he had not heard her, was not moving softly through the silent fog.

  A vague idea of her surroundings stayed with her; in back of her, approximately, was the road and on it the car; she was perhaps ten feet to the side of the road—too close, perhaps, to the sharp drop down to the river, but only just far enough from the driver for safety. There should be about fifteen feet on the side of the road before the slope down to the river became really steep, and on the other side—she hoped suddenly and fervently that it was the other side—there was a fairly wide space before the sharp rise of the hills.

  Her shoes, which were destined for the soft levels of a dance floor in a nightclub in the city, twisted and turned and hurt her feet brutally over these unseen stones, and her silk skirt was fouled with burrs. Wait, she told herself with her teeth set, wait till I get somehow into the city and to a telephone; my mother will let Mrs. Halloran know what we think of this kind of treatment; what a rotten way to treat a guest. Wait until I wander into the city from the hills, bedraggled and tattered, telling of having been abandoned and robbed on the road; wait, she said over and over again through her teeth, wait till I can get even with all of them.

  An abrupt sound startled her, the sound of wheels upon the road, and she turned toward it. The noise was bewilderingly loud for a minute, and then began to fade away. Although she had moved involuntarily away from the sound she realized in that minute that it had been much farther away than it should have been; had come, in fact, from the left of her instead of the right—or should it have been on the right? Was she then on the wrong side of the road and going perhaps steadily away from it? She turned and started sharply left, and almost immediately felt the ground begin to slope away under her feet; have I turned around in the fog? she wondered, and saw ahead of her a tree shape blurred in the fog. The trees, she thought, the trees were on our left as we came—toward the river? Moss grows on the north side of the trees, the drop down to the river is slow at first and then sharp, but, by the time she had thought, she had lost the tree and had no idea whether she was going toward it or not.

  A small feeling of genuine apprehension came slowly upon her. This was not, could not possibly be, a small unimportant delay in her getting to the city; no matter how she stumbled and struggled along, she was lost; it was very possible that she would not get to the city tonight at all, would not reach a telephone, would not sleep in a hotel; she might even find herself, with embarrassment and relief, embracing the first of the search party to reach her; it might be that she would be sought for generally, over the hills, with men calling to one another and listening for her voice in reply, led by the intrepid driver of the car, perhaps even laughing when they found her, asking her if she’d ever do that again, telling their wives when they got home that yes, they’d found the fool woman, scared to death and half-crazy . . . if, indeed, it occurred to the driver to send anyone to look for her?

  She shook her head violently to rid her mind of this cloudy nonsense, and caught her foot on a rock or a root and fell heavily. In the fog there was no one to see if there were tears in her eyes, and for a minute she lay on the ground saying “Oh, damn, damn damn” over and over again to herself, and almost aloud. No, she thought, it was really too much; she had not deserved this of anyone, it was too much. It occurred to her that she might just lie here without moving until someone found her and the thought brought her to her feet again hurriedly. For heaven’s sake, she informed herself, imagine lying on the ground with a circle of men looking down with flashlights and dogs nosing at your shoes and probably they’d want to carry you back, and what would you look like then? It seemed that she had probably sprained her ankle and it hurt just enough for her to lose some perspective on her position. I shall not be lost, she said grimly, perhaps again aloud, and stamped on, putting her weight down firmly on her hurting ankle. If I hear one dog baying or one man shouting I will climb into a tree and hide, if I can find a tree, and she laughed wildly.

  The sound of her own laughter in the fog startled her and for a minute she stood still. What on earth? she thought, and, is this possible? for me?

  In order to find out more clearly where she was she brought both hands to her face and first rubbed her eyes and then bit sharply on her fingers, without knowing why. Then she said, still aloud, “Now, my girl, now, Julia, my fine creature, suppose you just get a goddam hold of yourself. What would they say if they saw you now? That bastard captain? Or even Arabella? They’re all laughing at me now,” she assured herself wisely, “Arabella’s got the captain, and they’re sitting in the light and laughing at me, but they can’t, they can’t.” Blaze a trail, she thought, pile rocks together in a signal of distress, write messages and set them afloat in bottles . . .

  “Now listen here,” she said. She was moving slowly, almost aimlessly; her hand brushed against a large rock and she did not lose her balance, but leaned peacefully against the rock and looked out blindly into the solid fog. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said to the rock, “now we’re making some progress. Just got to be a little careful not to fall down the hillside into the river, that’s all. Only thing we need to worry about—otherwise everything is fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine . . .” I got out of the car and turned right, she thought, or left, went uphill or down, and hurt my ankle and walked. ?
??Close your eyes, my sweet baby,” she said aloud, “you can see better with your eyes closed, close your eyes and take my hand and I will show you the way home.”

  She closed her eyes and with one hand resting against the rock began to walk; it was more than a rock, although she did not actually care, it was a wall, and she went awkwardly and clinging along beside it, following the line of the wall through weeds and rocks and falling through ditches. There now, she thought, as the ground under her feet seemed to be going a little uphill, there now, all I needed to do was sit down and think it out. I do hope that man is frightened because he lost me; see, I am thinking clearly because I can remember how I got here; I was not always walking in this fog, not at all.

  She hit her foot against another rock and stumbled, and twisted against a tree; this is really too much, she thought, tears in her eyes, and stepped ahead and knew as she put her foot down that it was a mistake; she was over the edge into the river because her foot went down and down and never found the ground and she fell and rolled wildly downhill; this is really more than I can endure, she thought deliberately, and fell unendingly, wracked and bruised, lying against the great iron gates with the elaborate H worked into the scrollwork on either side.

  _____

  “Good morning, Julia,” said Mrs. Halloran at the breakfast table. “I heard that you had come back to us. I am only sorry that you had such miserable weather. We had a singularly clear, bright night.”

  “Go to hell,” Julia said distinctly through her cut mouth.

  “Julia, behave yourself,” Mrs. Willow said.

  “If I had been there,” the captain said, helping himself to elderberry jelly, “I would have given that fellow a bad time.”

  “You’re really terribly bruised,” Arabella said. “After breakfast will you tell me what he really did to you?”

  “All of you go to hell,” Julia said.

 
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