The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “Odd that the gardeners should have been out so early,” Mrs. Halloran said. “Of course, you were there quite a while, as it was. But I would not have expected the gardeners to find you so early.” She nodded to the captain. “Coffee, Captain? When you go upstairs,” she continued to Julia, “be sure to put the money back on my dressing table, since you had no chance to spend it. Strange, is it not, how one can manage to cling to some unimportant trifle at a time of strain? Julia kept her pocketbook as someone, running from a burning house, might carry out a worthless vase, or an old newspaper.”

  “Go, go, go to hell,” Julia said.

  “My dear,” Mrs. Halloran said, “if you continue uncooperative I shall not let you go to the city again.”

  10

  On the morning of Sunday, June thirtieth, Gloria, in the middle of her breakfast, suddenly stood up, spilling Miss Ogilvie’s coffee, and stood, her hands over her face. “It’s true,” she said faintly, “it’s all true.”

  “Gloria, you have upset Miss Ogilvie’s coffee,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “Look,” Gloria said. She took her hands down from her face and pointed. “The pink roses,” she said, “we’re having breakfast.”

  “The pink roses are from the rambler,” Aunt Fanny said. “It was my mother’s favorite, and there were six bushes planted for her in the rose garden. Not one of them, I am pleased to say, has died; I have made a particular point of looking after them, and—”

  “Don’t you see?” Gloria said. “There are the pink roses on the breakfast table, and I’m wearing my blue and white dress and a minute ago we were all laughing at something Essex said—don’t you see? It’s all exactly the way I saw it, before, when I was looking into the mirror.”

  “Well, of course,” Mrs. Willow said comfortably, “it had to happen sometime, didn’t it?”

  _____

  Twice during the month of June large trucks had delivered further shipments for Aunt Fanny, which had been stored in the library. Only one wall of books still stood and because the ashes of books—unlike the ashes of cloth, flesh, or even tea leaves and coffee grounds—are not healthy for growing things the gardeners had twice emptied the barbecue pit and taken the ashes to the village dump, which was just beyond the cemetery. Most of the property now stored in the library was in cartons, items purchased by Aunt Fanny in quantity and neatly packed. There was a carton of anti-histamine preparations, in addition to the carton of first-aid kits. There were cartons of plastic overshoes and rubbers, in assorted sizes, of instant coffee, of cleansing tissue and sunglasses. Suntan lotion, salted nuts in cans, paper napkins, soap, both bar and flaked, toilet paper (four cartons). Two complete tool boxes, with a keg of nails, since the bags of nails which Robinson Crusoe brought from the ship had proved so comforting; mindful of Robinson Crusoe, Aunt Fanny had added a grindstone, and, with some embarrassment, several shotguns and an assortment of hunting knives. At Miss Ogilvie’s suggestion the library stock also included a small portable cooking stove, with several cans of fuel, and an entire carton of folders of matches. Maryjane proposed the citronella for mosquitoes—there was a great roll of mosquito netting standing in a corner—and several remedies for bee stings, sunburn, and snake bite. Essex and Mrs. Halloran added as many cartons of cigarettes as Aunt Fanny would allow them room, and from the cellars of the house Mrs. Halloran brought up a representative selection of wines, although she confessed that she was puzzled by her own gesture. Foreseeing the day when their cigarettes would run out, Essex bought a pamphlet on the growing of tobacco, and thoughtfully laid in a gross of corncob pipes. Arabella suggested needles, thread, pins, hair curlers, deodorants, perfumes, bath salts, and lipsticks. Mrs. Willow, naming herself as the only really practical person in the house, insisted upon blankets, a wheelbarrow, reels of nylon rope, axes, shovels, rakes, and a barometer. It was Gloria’s conceit to begin a file of daily newspapers, which she planned to continue until their last publication. The captain supervised the storage of eight bicycles in the cellar, but voted against the addition of a motor bike, since a motor bike would require gasoline and he felt that in anticipation of a general holocaust the storage of gasoline in the cellar would be unwise. Julia, who continued sullen, asked for and was granted the inclusion of a carton of knitting needles and several cartons of variously colored yarns. “So I will have something to do with my time,” she explained disagreeably.

  The only books to be included were Aunt Fanny’s Boy Scout Handbook, the encyclopedia, Fancy’s French grammar—so that Miss Ogilvie could keep Fancy from forgetting the little she had gained—and a World Almanac. No writing materials of any kind were included, and gradually these books came to be called “unburnables” in order to differentiate them from the rest of the books in the library, which were absolutely burnable.

  “In Tibet,” Essex remarked idly one morning, while moving over a carton of canned tunafish in order to make room for a carton of tennis balls, “in Tibet, arsenic is used in the preparation of paper pulp. In Tibet, the paper is highly poisonous, and lingering in a Tibetan library is consequently a matter of considerable danger. As a matter of fact, in Tibet curling up with a good book is frequently fatal.”

  _____

  Early in July Miss Ogilvie found one of Mrs. Halloran’s handkerchiefs near the summer house. It had been tied around the neck of a dead garter snake, and the snake had been draped over a branch of a cypress tree. Miss Ogilvie, concerned, told the captain, who told Mrs. Halloran, who told him to dispose of it, and the captain dug a hole at the farther end of the rose garden and buried the snake and the handkerchief.

  _____

  According to the notes carefully kept by Mrs. Willow, it was on July tenth that Gloria again looked into the mirror. She reported then that she saw fruit trees, heavy with fruit, small figures, at some distance, bathing along the edge of a stream, and a pack of horses running in a glorious wild freedom. When pressed, she saw that on August twenty-seventh the people in the big house were gathered in the dining room for dinner as usual. On August twenty-eighth they sat, talking, in the drawing room. On August twenty-ninth they were dancing, she thought, on the lawn. On August thirtieth there was nothing; the mirror was dark. Pressed further, for August thirty-first, for September first, for September second, Gloria caught again one glimpse of the soft untouched green world she had seen before, asked to return to August thirtieth, she first saw only darkness and then fell back, screaming that her eyes were burned, and had to be put to bed with a damp cloth over her face and one of Maryjane’s sleeping pills.

  “Thus it seems,” Mrs. Willow wrote in her notes, “that August thirtieth is to be the day, the last this world will ever know.” And then—quite out of character, actually, and in a shaken hand, she added, “God help us all.”

  _____

  “But I insist that the house must be barricaded,” Aunt Fanny said, adding, with a kind of inspiration, “It is like a child hiding its head under a blanket. We have absolute faith in my father, of course, but even though his protection applies to the house and to everyone in it, I can see strong reasons for covering the windows and blocking the doors.”

  “As I see it,” the captain said, “it sounds like we’re hoping no one will notice us. With absolute faith in your father, of course,” he told Aunt Fanny.

  “I am not happy about barricading the house,” Mrs. Willow said slowly. “Seems to me it sounds like not believing in Aunt Fanny’s father, sort of. I mean, either he protects us or he doesn’t.”

  “He told us to barricade the house,” Aunt Fanny said, nettled. “I think of it as cooperating with him—showing him, as it were, that we are willing to go halfway to ensure our own survival, rather than wait passively for him to do it all.”

  “Well, a blanket over the window is really not much protection,” Mrs. Willow said bluntly.

  “Perhaps,” Essex said, “it was planned to give us something to do while we are waiting.”


  “The human animal burrows instinctively in times of danger,” Mrs. Halloran said. “I find Aunt Fanny’s picture of the child under the blankets not an inept one.”

  “We would feel safer, I’m sure,” Essex said.

  “Perhaps,” Gloria said softly, “the blankets over the windows are just to keep us from looking out?”

  _____

  “I am a rake,” Essex said. “I should have been born into a time when it was easier for a young man to borrow money. Or, of course, I should not have been born at all.”

  “Silly,” Gloria said. “The sun is shining, and the sky is blue, and here we are, sitting quite close together on a bench all alone, and of all the things in the world to talk about you choose yourself.”

  “We are more intelligent than Julia and the captain,” Essex said. “We could leave here. We could go into the village—I assume that having climbed over the gate once you could do so again—and walk, if need be, to the city. Or we could wait for the bus, sitting in the lobby of the Carriage Stop Inn. If we did not choose to stay in the city—and I do you the credit of assuming that you would want to get farther away than that—we could go on, as far as we could manage, and then settle down temporarily in another hotel, or inn, or rooming house; at any rate, some kind of a furnished room to live in. All the furnished rooms I have ever seen had wicker furniture, and a painting of the Bridge of Sighs on the wall. We would have to find money somehow. One of us, in short, would have to work.”

  “That’s not hard,” Gloria said. “I can work.”

  “I expect it would have to be you, anyway. I would sit in the furnished room and pretend I was a writer, perhaps. When you came home in the evening after a long day ushering in the movie theatre—”

  “—selling jewelry in the five and ten—”

  “—I would expect to be asked at once how the writing went today. I ought to get some paper and a pencil, so I would look authentic.”

  “And how did the writing go today, dear?”

  “Very poorly, my love. One ballade, three villanelles, a kind of triolet thing, and an outline for a learned article on Freud. Gloria,” Essex said, turning to look at her; “I have never loved anyone in my life until now.”

  “I know,” Gloria said. “I know perfectly.”

  “I want to mate with you in a brave new world, all clean and shining, and yet I want to be your husband in this world, and live along in the kind of grimy squalor married people live in. I want a furnished room and jobs and dirty diapers in the corners and poor food—can you cook?”

  “Admirably.”

  “You would have to cook poorly, to meet my ideal. I want the kind of dismal future only possible in this world. I could put up with your long hours at the five and ten—”

  “—ushering at the movie theatre—”

  “I could put up with your inferior cooking—”

  “I am an excellent cook.”

  “And your poor housekeeping—”

  “I keep a lovely house.”

  “And your squalling children—”

  “They are lovely, clean children, and all in bed asleep.”

  “—but I would always be afraid. Or at least for as long as always lasted.”

  “Afraid of Aunt Fanny, you mean?”

  “Afraid of Aunt Fanny.”

  Gloria was silent.

  “If Aunt Fanny is right,” Essex went on after a minute, “and I ask your pardon for profaning this bright summer morning with Aunt Fanny’s name; if Aunt Fanny is right, we shall, putting it into the baldest of terms, find ourselves in a situation of strong comic possibilities. Imagine, if you can, Aunt Fanny’s new world.”

  “I have been trying to imagine it for quite a while,” Gloria said.

  “Fresh, untouched, green, lovely. Untrammeled, except by ourselves. A lifetime of warmth and beauty and fertility. The kind of life and world people have been dreaming about ever since they first began fouling this one. I can sometimes catch glimpses of what it will be like, and they are tantalizing—”

  “I have seen it, you forget,” Gloria said. “In the mirror. It is more beautiful than you can believe.”

  “I am afraid so. Aunt Fanny must not be wrong. That world must exist.” He sat forward, anxious, holding his hands tightly together and scowling with earnestness. “It must; we cannot be promised such a thing, like children, and see it withdrawn. Oh, Gloria,” he said, “I couldn’t stand not being there.”

  “I could,” Gloria said, “and I have seen it.”

  He sighed, and relaxed. “Put it, then,” he said, “that if I have one I cannot have the other. I want to live with you in a room furnished in wicker, with a picture of the Bridge of Sighs, and your bad cooking—”

  “Superlative cooking.”

  “—and your job at the five and ten—”

  “—the movie theatre—”

  “—and the children, and the struggles and the cheapness and all the things we can get for ourselves in this world; I never dreamed of wanting these things. But I want the green and gold world more.”

  “You haven’t tried either one.”

  Essex shivered. “I have tried one,” he said. “How do you suppose I have been captured by Aunt Fanny?”

  “I wouldn’t care, you see,” Gloria said. “I can believe in either one, for myself. I would be happy enough if the end of the world caught me sitting in our wicker chair looking at the Bridge of Sighs. Unless, of course, I should happen to be still at work at the five and ten. A miserable way to go.”

  “But then we would lose everything,” Essex said. He looked at her curiously. “You see,” he went on, as one explaining glibly something better left unexplained, “you see, in Aunt Fanny’s new world, we will at least be . . . alive . . . together. We could not possibly, of course, be . . . well, living in our own room with the wicker furniture; we would not be . . .”

  “Dying romantically, in one another’s arms?”

  Essex shivered again. “I don’t want to die,” he said, and Gloria laughed. “But I don’t,” Essex said, and Gloria laughed again. “I should have expected you’d never understand,” Essex said.

  “But I’m afraid I do,” Gloria said.

  “None of you is serious about this,” Essex said, and then added, making his voice light, “Poor Gloria—had we but world enough.”

  “Essex,” she said, but he was standing.

  “I must go and find Aunt Fanny,” he said. “We are burning another ten shelves of books this afternoon.”

  _____

  Gloria sat on alone for a minute or so, thinking that the sun was warm and the sky blue, and wondering if the sky would be bluer if Aunt Fanny had never been born. The end of the world, Gloria thought concretely, the whole world, all of it, my father, our house, our friends, gone in one bad night, and here I am among strangers, and willing to dare it all for one more strange than the rest; but I wouldn’t, she thought, I am intoxicated by the tradition of romantic love. Assume myself and Essex, with suitcases, endeavoring to climb over the gate secretly; I could only do it when I wanted to get in. When I came here, she thought, when I came here I would have laughed at such ideas as these. When I left home and came here I would have thought that these people were lunatic, and the gates locked to keep them from getting out; I wish I had a chance to say goodbye to my father.

  “He’s gone to tell my grandmother,” Fancy said suddenly from behind her.

  Gloria, startled, was annoyed. “You little sneak,” she said.

  “He’s gone to tell every word both of you said. She makes him.”

  Fancy came around the end of the bench and sat down where Essex had been.

  “Who told her he was here?” It occurred to Gloria that with Fancy everyone found themselves saying things they would rather not have said; perhaps it was because Fancy looked at one so directly, and spo
ke so clearly herself. “Did you tell?”

  “The captain. She’s had him following you two around. Like she had Essex following the captain and Julia.”

  “Why?”

  “So she can make Essex tell her what you were saying. She likes to hear things like that.”

  “She’s a terrible old woman.”

  Fancy laughed. “You sound like my mother. I like her.”

  “Spying on people.”

  “She doesn’t spy, the rest of you spy, on each other,” Fancy said flatly. “Did you make it up, what you saw on the mirror?”

  “No.”

  “I think you did.”

  “I did not.”

  “You did.”

  “How can anyone know what they are really seeing?”

  “I know. Essex wouldn’t run away, anyway, because he’s scared of my grandmother.”

  “She can’t hurt him. He can’t stand the thought that he might die.”

  “He talks more about dying than Aunt Fanny, even. The captain’s been in danger of his life and reason a hundred times and more and he doesn’t talk about dying. Only Essex and Aunt Fanny.”

  “I think the captain tells lies.”

  “So does Essex.”

  “He does not.”

  “He does so.”

  Gloria laughed again and after a minute Fancy laughed with her. “I like everything,” Fancy said.

  “And if Aunt Fanny—”

  “I heard so much already about Aunt Fanny and her lousy dreams I think I’m going to throw up,” Fancy said. “I wish she’d only shut up for a while. It used to be bad enough, Aunt Fanny snuffling all the time, but now that people listen to her it’s awful.”

  “We can’t afford not to listen.”

  “Well, I just don’t get it myself.” Fancy thought, and gestured at the garden which lay before them. “Look,” she said, “don’t any of you just plain like things? Always worrying about the world? Look. Aunt Fanny keeps saying that there is going to be a lovely world, all green and still and perfect and we are all going to live there and be peaceful and happy. That would be perfectly fine for me, except right here I live in a lovely world, all green and still and perfect, even though no one around here seems to be very peaceful or happy, but when I think about it this new world is going to have Aunt Fanny and my grandmother and you and Essex and the rest of these crazy people and my mother and what makes anyone think you’re going to be more happy or peaceful just because you’re the only ones left?”

 
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