The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “That’s because you’re not very grown up yet,” Gloria said, sedately. “When you get older you’ll understand.”

  “Will I?” asked Fancy innocently. “Right now I’m not allowed to play with the children in the village because my grandmother says we are too good a family for me to play with the children in the village and so later on I won’t be allowed to play with the children in the village because there won’t be any village, and we’ll certainly be too good a family because we’ll be the only family. And what will there be left for me to understand when I grow up?”

  “You make it all sound foolish. Fancy, tell me. What is going to happen? Do you know?”

  “Well,” Fancy said slowly, “you all want the whole world to be changed so you will be different. But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world. And anyway that world isn’t any more real than this one.”

  “It is, though. You forget that I saw it in the mirror.”

  “Maybe you’ll get onto the other side of that mirror in the new clean world. Maybe you’ll look through from the other side and see this world again and go around crying that you wish some big thing would happen and wipe out that one and send you back here. Like I keep trying to tell you, it doesn’t matter which world you’re in.”

  “Essex—”

  “I’m sick and tired of Essex.” Fancy tumbled off the bench and rolled like a puppy in the grass. “You want to come and play with my doll house?”

  11

  At four-thirty on the afternoon of July thirtieth, Julia and the captain defeated Gloria and Arabella at tennis, Gloria wearing blue-striped shorts borrowed from Julia, and Mrs. Halloran, Aunt Fanny, Miss Ogilvie, Mrs. Willow, and Essex watching from under the beach umbrella set up near the court. Maryjane, who thought the hot sun beneficial to her asthma, lay on a rug on the grass, and Fancy played at some random game, singing to herself and smiling.

  In the shaded porch outside his room, where Richard Halloran spent the late afternoons when the sun was cooling, the nurse read levelly, “‘I cannot express the confusion I was in, though the joy of seeing a ship, and one which I had reason to believe was manned by my own countrymen, and consequently friends, was such as I cannot describe; but yet I had some secret doubts hanging about me, I cannot tell from whence they came, bidding me to be on my guard.’”

  _____

  After dinner Mrs. Halloran walked with Essex, going toward the sundial with her arm against his, relishing his even strength and sympathetic deference; “Tell me again,” she said, standing over the sundial.

  “‘What is this world?’” Essex said obediently, “‘What asketh man to have? Now with his love, now in his colde grave, Allone, with-outen any companye.’”

  “I do not care for it,” Mrs. Halloran said, caressing the W in WORLD.

  “Orianna,” Essex said. “Do you think that we will be happy there?”

  “No,” Mrs. Halloran said. “But then, we are not happy here.”

  “Aunt Fanny specifically promised us happiness.”

  “Aunt Fanny will promise anything to get her own way. How would she know what happiness is, say, to me?”

  “How could anyone know?” asked Essex politely.

  “Least of all my dearest and closest friends. Well,” Mrs. Halloran said, “we have not long to wait, and I think I will begin to plan my personal future.”

  _____

  The fire in the drawing room was still lighted of an evening because Richard Halloran felt the chill of the drawing dark in his old bones. When Mrs. Halloran had come in with Essex and given him her shawl to put away, she went directly to stand by her husband’s wheel chair and face the room. Looking around at them, at Aunt Fanny and the captain, at Mrs. Willow and Julia and Arabella, at Miss Ogilvie and Essex and Maryjane, Mrs. Halloran said, “I want to speak to all of you. You will be astonished, I think: I want to ask your assistance. No, be still; do not reassure me—I think I know what I may count on from any of you. I require only your willing presence.”

  “Certainly,” Aunt Fanny said softly, “what you require, we—”

  “Be still, Aunt Fanny. I want to speak to all of you. The books burning away in the barbecue pit have put me in mind of it; it has come to me that we must—I say advisedly, we must—give a celebration for the village; you may call it a farewell party, if you like, Aunt Fanny; it will certainly be the last gesture they will ever see from the big house.”

  “A farewell party is a pretty idea,” said Miss Ogilvie. “It becomes Mrs. Halloran to have thought of it.”

  Mrs. Halloran lifted one hand and set it on the shoulder of her husband, who stirred. “It may be in order to choose some occasion for this party,” she said, “since clearly we cannot publicly announce it as a farewell; I thought of a golden wedding anniversary.”

  “Who for?” Maryjane demanded, and Aunt Fanny echoed, “Not Richard’s?”

  “The village,” Mrs. Halloran said, “will not care particularly how many years Richard and I have been married—beyond marvelling at my youthful appearance—and I am sure that my good friends will not quarrel with my desire to do honor, one last time, to the husband of my choice and . . .” she hesitated, “. . . the joy of my life. In other words, I choose to hold a celebration, and I do not care how it may be justified; the burning of the books in the barbecue pit has put me in mind of a public barbecue—”

  “A witch-burning?” said Gloria, but no one heard her.

  “And it is my pleasure that the populace be invited for the afternoon and early evening of August twenty-ninth, for a barbecue, dance, celebration, and farewell.”

  “Well, now,” Mrs. Willow said, moving in heavily, “You’re two years older than I am, Orianna, and if you’ve been married to that Richard of yours any more than twenty-eight years I’ll be hogtied and thrown in the fishpond. Willow never lasted till our tenth year, but I guess I know how long I would have been married by now, as if I cared.”

  Mrs. Halloran touched her husband’s shoulder caressingly, and said, “In any case, I have decided that August twenty-ninth will be the occasion of the celebration of our golden nuptials; let me be sentimental, Augusta, before I have no time left.”

  “If Willow had lasted—”

  “You would be as eager as I to celebrate any anniversary of your union.”

  “Richard,” said Aunt Fanny darkly, “ought to celebrate in sackcloth and ashes. It was the blackest day of my life.”

  “No doubt,” said Mrs. Halloran, “and I count on you, Aunt Fanny, to enhance the general joy on the occasion. I thought that—since there is really no purpose in trying to preserve the grounds of the house from the people of the village, when they are to be so wholly revised on the night of August thirtieth—we might throw all the grounds open to our visitors; let them wander in the secret garden and lose themselves in the maze; let them fall into the pool and pick fruit from the orchard. So long as not one of them comes into the house.”

  “It would be most unfortunate if anyone should stray into the library,” Mrs. Willow agreed.

  “We will set up a barbecue around by the kitchen garden, although, as I say, we will burn charcoal in it this once. Captain, I will ask you to take charge of the barbecue and supervise the cooking. Essex, you will arrange for a pavilion of some sort, where other refreshments will be served. Julia, Arabella, Maryjane, I have a particular fancy for japanese lanterns; will you see to them, please? Assorted colors, and I think in festoons. Miss Ogilvie, you will of course make the salad dressing, as always. Aunt Fanny and Mrs. Willow, you will oblige me by making a careful examination of the gardens and lawns, to determine what improvements or additions need be made by the gardeners; this is, after all, the last formal entertainment ever to be held here, and I should like to think that everything was looking its best.”

  “When is this . . . farewell party . . . to take place?” Mrs. Willow asked.
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  “Since we have only until August thirtieth, as I say, I believe that August twenty-ninth would be the most proper day. We will invite the entire village—subject, of course, to certain unavoidable omissions—to come at five. They will dine upon barbecued beef, and whatever else we plan to offer, and should leave us, I imagine, by eleven in the evening, after having properly admired the japanese lanterns. We will then be able to retire early, in anticipation of a busy day on August thirtieth, and very likely, I should think, a sleepless night. I have, by the way, promised the servants that they will have an unexpected holiday; after the labor and confusion of the garden party, I have told them, they will have the next afternoon and evening off. In the late afternoon of August thirtieth, two of the cars will take the entire staff into the city, planning to return here the next morning.”

  “As I supposed,” said Miss Ogilvie, nodding. “I thought we should have to make our own breakfast that morning.”

  “Several more unimportant items,” Mrs. Halloran continued. “Essex can hint to the villagers that a country dance of some kind, celebrating our fifty years of happy marriage, would be supremely appropriate.”

  “By the villagers,” Essex said, “I assume you mean the twenty-odd assorted young ladies who attend Mrs. Otis’s dancing classes? I daresay they could do a tap dance on the terrace.”

  “Suppose I leave that in your hands, Essex. I had also thought of some testimonial from the younger children—a pretty little girl, perhaps, tendering me an armful of flowers? You will see that flowers are provided, Essex, and perhaps a short, badly-scanned poem in honor of the occasion.”

  “Bad scansion I will not descend to,” Essex said. “I will find some little girl to give you flowers, and see that her face is washed.”

  “We can ring the bells over the carriage house,” Richard Halloran said, inspired.

  “Richard,” Aunt Fanny said, “you know that you have not been married to Orianna for fifty years.”

  “I have been married to Orianna for a very long time,” Richard Halloran said to the fire.

  “I have no objection to your mingling with the villagers, any of you; Miss Ogilvie, you may mingle freely with the villagers. I have also given some considerable thought to my own costume for the occasion; it is going to be in shocking bad taste, but of course it is for my last public appearance. I think to sit on the terrace under a gold canopy.”

  “Disgraceful,” Aunt Fanny said.

  “I want my people to have their last remembrance of me—if they have time to give me a thought at all—as truly regal, Aunt Fanny; I plan to wear a crown.”

  “Orianna, you old fool,” Mrs. Willow said.

  “A crown,” Mrs. Halloran said firmly. “In shocking bad taste, as I said, and probably no more than a small tiara, but it will be in my mind a crown. I have always fancied myself wearing cloth of gold, and bowing.”

  “Seems to me,” Arabella said suddenly, “you ought to be giving us pretty dresses, too. Not crowns if you don’t want to, but some kind of pretty dress.”

  “Oddly enough, Arabella, I find the idea entirely suitable. I think we should all go, that last day, newly clothed and fresh.”

  “Well, not gold for me, please. I’m much better in blue, with my eyes. Julia wears the red tones.”

  “I do not.” Julia scowled at her sister. “She wants me to look hideous,” she said, “just because she thinks it makes her look prettier. I want green, if you don’t mind.”

  “I like a flowered chiffon, myself,” Mrs. Willow said. “Something bright; my size, it doesn’t matter anyway. The gels should be in light colors, Orianna, a bevy of beauty around you, if I do say it myself. I can run into the city and if I can’t find what I’ve got in mind I can buy the material and we can put them together here. At least my gels and I are handy with our needles, for so many years of making things do and patching things together.”

  “I wore the patches,” Julia said spitefully. “Arabella never had any trouble in just making do with any old thing so long as it was brand new and cost twice what we could afford.”

  “You—” Arabella began, but Mrs. Willow interrupted smoothly. “No squabbling, girls; at least this time we don’t have to worry about what it costs; what about you, Miss Ogilvie?”

  “I always worry about what things cost, thank you, Mrs. Willow; I formed an early habit—”

  “No, no, dear; what will you wear to Orianna’s party?”

  “Oh, dear.” Miss Ogilvie looked anxiously at Richard Halloran. “Pink?” she suggested hopefully.

  “I should think a nice dove grey,” Maryjane said.

  “I’d like pink,” Miss Ogilvie said.

  “If anyone cares, I shall wear black,” Aunt Fanny said. “To mark my sense of the occasion.”

  “It sounds like I shall have to do a lot of shopping,” Mrs. Willow said happily. “I’ll go into the city one day next week, and that will give us plenty of time to take things back if we don’t like them. What about you, Orianna—shall I look for your golden gown for you?”

  “I have already ordered my dress, thank you. And my crown.”

  “I can’t help feeling,” Mrs. Willow said, “that you will look like something of a fool, you know. Wearing a crown.”

  “You have not perceived, then, Augusta, that I wear a crown on August twenty-ninth to emphasize my position after August thirtieth.” Mrs. Halloran smiled obscurely. “I shall probably never remove the crown,” she said, “until I hand it on to Fancy.”

  12

  On the third floor of the big house, near the end of the right wing, was a great room which Mrs. Halloran had never visited, although she surely knew of its existence. It occupied almost all of the top floor of the right wing, sharing it only with the little room which the first Mr. Halloran had wanted to make into an observatory from which he could watch the stars. Because the big house was so extremely big the great room on the third floor was rarely remembered, and visited only by Aunt Fanny; in it were the worldly possessions of the first Mrs. Halloran—not the diamonds which Aunt Fanny wore, nor the satin sheets and tiny golden chairs from the bedroom where she died, but the solid, well-chosen, and real possessions which the first Mrs. Halloran had known she owned, and had meant when, dying, she whispered, “Take care of my things,” to her husband.

  When the first Mr. Halloran brought his wife and his two small children to live in the big house he had built for them, he brought them from a bleak and uncomfortable top-floor apartment in a two-family house, and he made the change for them without a very adequate preparation. The first Mrs. Halloran died without ever seeing the greater part of the furnishings in the big house, and during the long days of her illness took great consolation from the knowledge that her real possessions were safely stored away in an attic room somewhere above her head.

  Aunt Fanny, who loved the big house, had always known somehow that the core of it was in the big attic room. Over a period of years she had, quite by herself, reestablished the four-room apartment where she had been born; the attic room was easily large enough for the furniture to be set in order, and Aunt Fanny had been astonished at her own memories, which set furniture and even ornaments into a pattern almost agonizing in its growing familiarity.

  The great ugly living room suite, patterned in dark red and blue brocade, which had been a source of such enormous pride to the first Mrs. Halloran, Aunt Fanny had set up first, the heavy couch facing the two deep armchairs. This furniture had been built to endure, and endure it would. Between the couch and the armchairs was crammed an imitation-mahogany bric-a-brac table, and on that—Aunt Fanny had gone into carefully packed cartons, dislodging mothballs—were a dark blue imitation velvet fringed tablecover, a small music box which had been a candy dish, and played the first phrases of “Barcarolle,” a model of the Statue of Liberty, since the first Mrs. Halloran had come to New York on her honeymoon, and a photograph album b
ound in blue imitation leather. Aunt Fanny had turned the pages of the photograph album, looking in some bewilderment at the yellowed snapshots of the first Mrs. Halloran as a girl, somehow ludicrously innocent, in middy blouse and spreading tie; as a bride, looking up at an unrecognizable tall man; as a mother, holding a pig-faced creature which might have been either her son Richard or her daughter Frances; in company with friends who had by now very likely forgotten even her name. In these pictures Aunt Fanny could not find her mother, who was dead, but only a girl in a book, whose story was tragically swift, from girl to wife to mother, and dull, since nothing had ever happened to her from the day she had her picture taken laughing and long-haired in the middy blouse, to the day when, photographed for the last time before the high steps of the two-family house, she smiled uneasily into the camera, her face barely discernible under the odd hat. Aunt Fanny sometimes wondered, turning the pages of the photograph album, how much her mother had ever realized of that life which went by so quickly; had she known, standing for her picture in front of the house where she had lived with her husband, had she known that it was for the last time, that no furniture record of her would exist? Had she known earlier, then, in the middy blouse, that she was going to die? Equally, then, did the faces which looked out from the other pages of the album, the faces of small Franceses and Richards, hold also that sweet indefinable reassuring knowledge? Did the Richard in wide collar and velvet trousers know that he was going to die?—he knew it now. Could the truth be read in the tiny Frances who sat, toothless, on a blanket in the sun? “Some day I will be with my mother,” Aunt Fanny would think, turning the pages, “I am with her in this book, no one can separate us here. Some day we will all be together again.” The last pages of the book were empty, because the album had been packed carefully away years ago with everything else in the small apartment and had been stored in the attic of the big house; “Is my furniture all right?” the first Mrs. Halloran had asked the maids, “are you taking good care of my furniture? Are all my boxes of things in a safe place?” Nothing from the attic room had ever been permitted out into the big house; the four-room apartment was intact.

 
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