The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

  Thus the gilded and elegantly presented suggestions on many of the walls of Mr. Halloran’s house; ineffectual, certainly—in spite of the framed copy of Kipling’s “If,” Mr. Halloran continued all his days to accumulate nothing except money—but to the people living in the big house it had become a matter of indifference that they dined, exhorted to “Let none save good companions grace this festive board” or slept, assured “Get up, get up for shame, the blooming morn Upon her wings presents the god unshorn,” or even “Hated by fools, and fools to hate, Be that my motto and my fate,” or mounted the stairs reading, “When shall we live if not now?”

  When the student, carried away in a kind of Strawberry Hill intoxication, suggested that Mr. Halloran cause a grotto to be constructed on the grounds of the big house, Mr. Halloran’s first anxiety—before even making any definite attempt to determine what a grotto might be, or might be for, or might require in the way of furnishings, since if it existed he meant to have it—was to ensure that proper and suitable mottos would be charmingly placed upon its walls. Mr. Halloran’s dim notion of a grotto held that a grotto was enticingly cool in the oppressive warm weather, and his determination upon a grotto-motto followed eagerly; “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” the grotto was to say in some manner, and upon this Mr. Halloran was firm.

  The student maintained, maligning Horry Walpole mercilessly, that a grotto was no grotto at all unless it overlooked a lake, and Mr. Halloran, who had already an ornamental pool on the garden front of his house, set his builders doggedly to work to construct a lake at the far end of the grounds; at two points, in fact, it touched the wall. The grotto was built of rock near the lake, earth heaped over it, and grass and flowers trained to grow on top in sweet wild profusion, and on the rock wall of the grotto inside was written, in letters of blue touched with gilt, “Fear no more the heat of the sun.” The entire air of the grotto was faintly that of a Strawberry Hill confection, and it would have been vastly improved by the presence of a party of ladies, resting there after their saunter through the shrubbery (“La, what a love of a wilderness we have covered,” the air just breathed; “hark; are the gentlemen back from their riding?”); or at the very least a dainty repast of fruits and ices, with vine leaves for plates and the entire chorus from the King’s Theatre to float, fairylike and singing, in pleasure boats over the small waves.

  Perhaps not all of this was apparent to Mr. Halloran. He did not care for his grotto, after all, because it was damp, and the lake was an irritation to him, reminding him always of how messy it had been to construct, and he had never been able to bring his wife there and write her name among the rocks. Worst of all, after the swans which originally swam in the ornamental pool had bitten young Richard and two housemaids they were sent to endure a lonely disgrace on the grotto-lake, where they bred and quarrelled, and were an unending annoyance and menace to the gardeners.

  As a child, Aunt Fanny, who had wandered unceasingly and with deep incoherent love over every part of the grounds enclosed by the wall, had spent some amount of time in the grotto, watching the water of the lake move under the soft wind, hiding from the swans, and catching any number of head-colds. Now, older and more susceptible to influenzas and grippes, she came to the grotto less often, and yet every now and then she was irresistibly moved to walk in that direction. During the later days of July, in fact, Aunt Fanny made a kind of pilgrimage to all of her favorite haunts, to admire once more her father’s handiwork and hope, somehow, to engrave upon her memory the well-loved spots which were so soon to dissolve utterly.

  It should perhaps be recorded that the young master from Columbia University, who had hoped for so much from Mr. Halloran’s grotto and had even led himself to believe that Mr. Halloran would be of some use to him in return, in furthering his chosen career, the writing of plays in blank verse, did succeed in reading half of one scene of one play to Mr. Halloran and was rewarded by the offer of a position as file clerk in Mr. Halloran’s organization, from which he subsequently rose to the position of chief clerk, and got married.

  Aunt Fanny came to the grotto in late July; it had been perhaps six months since she had last seen it, and she was struck at once with its air of mournful neglect; the roses still grew on its head, and the lake still moved gently under the soft wind, but the walls inside, which had been painted blue and green and gold, were faded, and the paint had chipped. A rock had cracked away from the entrance; “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” had almost gone. The little rustic benches and tables which had been in the grotto were broken and rotted. Far out over the lake the swans, wholly wild now, moved in distant patterns and Aunt Fanny, hoping that they would not notice her moving, ducked quietly into the grotto and—as had been her custom long ago—set two or three of the rustic chairs and tables across the entrance so that the swans, if they pursued her, could not get in.

  Aunt Fanny was really quite angry, angrier than she had ever been before in her life. She was angry at her sister-in-law for planning to wear a crown, and angry at her brother for not preventing it and for letting his wife look like a fool before the villagers. She was angry at Miss Ogilvie and Maryjane and Essex for their passivity and their humble subjection to Mrs. Halloran’s every whim. She was most particularly angry, far and beyond any anger she had ever known before, at Mrs. Halloran, for having that morning given Aunt Fanny a carbon—and a carbon, Aunt Fanny thought furiously, not even the first copy—of a typewritten page headed INSTRUCTIONS and composed by Mrs. Halloran herself, with no reference to Aunt Fanny.

  Sitting in the grotto, Aunt Fanny took out the paper and read it again.


  We all know what is going to happen on the night of August thirtieth. Certain measures must be taken for the general good, and each of us must preserve carefully this page of instructions as a constant reference. ANY DEVIATION FROM THESE RULES WILL BE SUBJECT TO PUNISHMENT.

  1. No person is to leave the big house, for any reason whatsoever, after four o’clock in the afternoon on August thirtieth.

  2. Under no circumstances is any person from outside to enter the house after that time.

  3. Since the servants and staff will be leaving the house by noontime, it is expected that no special demands will be made for their services, after midnight on August twenty-ninth.

  4. Due to the unusual conditions which will be existing outside the house on the night of August thirtieth, it has been decided that precautions must be taken to protect windows, etc. All persons remaining in the house will begin work immediately after the departure of the servants at noon to board up, cover with blankets, and in all possible fashions barricade all windows and doors. Mrs. Halloran will make herself responsible for explaining this action to Mr. Halloran.

  5. The entire assembly will gather in the drawing room at four o’clock on the afternoon of August thirtieth, for a light meal, and last-minute instructions from Mrs. Halloran.

  6. No one is to leave the drawing room during the night of August thirtieth.

  7. It is expected that all persons remaining in the big house will so attire themselves as to greet the morning suitably, although a certain consideration of the probable fluctuations in temperature, etc., must be observed. No one except Mrs. Halloran may wear a crown.

  8. When the morning arrives, Mrs. Halloran will lead the way to the door, everyone following in sober procession. Mrs. Halloran will be the first to step outside.

  9. Since, for all practical purposes, the present calendar will lose all significance after the night of August thirtieth, the following morning will be referred to, from this time on, as The First Day.

  10. On The First Day, depending entirely upon circumstances at present only imperfectly understood (the state of vegetation, for instance, or the availability of water) tasks will be assigned by Mrs. Halloran as necessary.

  11. No one is to leave the general vicinity of the house on The First Day, and no one is
to alter, pick, eat, or in any way deface existing conditions, until the various prohibitions have been determined.

  12. Mates will be assigned by Mrs. Halloran. Indiscriminate coupling will be subject to severe punishment.

  13. On The First Day, and thereafter, wanton running, racing, swimming, play of various kinds, and such manifestations of irresponsibility will of course not be permitted. It is expected that all members of the party will keep in mind their positions as inheritors of the world, and conduct themselves accordingly. A proud dignity is recommended, and extreme care lest offense be given to supernatural overseers who may perhaps be endeavoring to determine the fitness of their choice of survivors.

  “Father,” Aunt Fanny said into the cool dim underwater light of the grotto, “Father, what have you done to me?”


  Aunt Fanny, moving in fear, pressed herself back against the painted wall of the grotto; the blue and green and gold swam and curled around her, and she knew at once who was standing in the doorway.


  “But I don’t want to see anything,” Gloria insisted crossly. “You can just get someone else to try, that’s all. I’m simply not interested in gawking into that silly mirror any more.”

  “Dear,” Mrs. Willow said soothingly, “try to be calm. Naturally you can’t see anything anyway when you’re so excited; try to relax and think of the rest of us.”

  “Perhaps the lovely countries of the future have lost their savor for Gloria,” Mrs. Halloran said. “Perhaps Gloria is dreaming still of a world of wicker furniture and a job ushering in a movie theatre; perhaps Gloria longs to repudiate all of us.”

  Gloria turned, astonished, to stare at Essex, and he smiled a little, and shrugged.

  “That was nasty,” Fancy said to Gloria, “but I told you he would.”

  “Essex is primarily a politician,” Mrs. Halloran said smoothly, smiling at Gloria. “His interest is thus in the good of the community as a whole; individual whims cannot be allowed to interfere, I think, with our general future.”

  “Essex is a pig,” Fancy said, and put her hand into Gloria’s. “Didn’t I tell you, Gloria?”

  “Essex,” Mrs. Halloran said, “tell Gloria that she must look into the mirror, or risk my displeasure.”

  “Gloria?” said Essex, looking aside.

  “There’s nothing in there,” Gloria said sullenly. “It’s just a dirty old mirror covered with oil.”

  “Orianna, we will all see this country soon enough,” Aunt Fanny put in. “It is not necessary to force Gloria to look again.”

  “I insist,” Mrs. Halloran said, “that Gloria look into the mirror. I will not abide childish temperament, and I can hardly be expected to plan for all of us without adequate information. Gloria must see.”

  “I’m sick and tired of hearing you bully everybody,” Fancy said flatly to her grandmother, and there was a long, waiting moment of silence. Then Maryjane spoke, weakly but stubbornly, “Fancy’s right,” she said. “You can just stop bossing me around, for one.”

  “Always so difficult to know what to do,” Aunt Fanny murmured.

  “Family quarrels,” Miss Ogilvie agreed.

  “Well, the way I see it,” Mrs. Willow swept nobly into the fray, “everyone’s gotten kind of on everyone else’s nerves, and pretty soon if we don’t look out we’re all going to be sniping at each other—what I used to say to my gels, when they were young things pulling hair over some toy—what I used to say, birds in their little nests agree, and what I’d like to know—are we or are we not a pack of goddamned little birds stuck in the fanciest nest in town?”

  “Such a gift for the apt phrase,” Mrs. Halloran said. “I personally deplore this evidence of frayed nerves; we do not have much longer to wait, after all, and perhaps if we cannot contain ourselves we had better remain decently apart.” She looked at Gloria. “I will only point out once more that I have undertaken a tremendous responsibility in arranging to lead you all into this new world, and I expect complete cooperation; Maryjane, I do not think you can rightly call it bossing you around when I ask that you exert your dubious talents to the utmost to ensure our mutual safety?”

  “Just don’t try always bossing me, is all,” Maryjane said sullenly.

  “Well, I guess we all know where we stand now,” the captain said heartily. “Mrs. Halloran, we all know the little lady didn’t mean to disobey you by not looking into the mirror for you; got to make allowances for a little female jealousy,” and he winked at Arabella, who giggled and said “Honestly!”

  “I am satisfied,” Mrs. Halloran said. “In consideration of the captain’s sensible explanation of your motives, Gloria, we will excuse you for tonight.”

  Gloria stood up and crossed the room to face Essex, who leaned against the back of Mrs. Halloran’s chair. “Essex,” she said, “I want to ask you once more, in front of everybody. There’s still time. They couldn’t stop us if we really wanted to go. We would have two weeks at least.”

  “Don’t be silly, Gloria.” Essex stared down at his hands on the back of Mrs. Halloran’s chair. “I wouldn’t leave for anything in the world,” he said.

  “I think you have been fairly answered, Gloria,” Mrs. Halloran said amiably. “Goodnight.”


  “I think you must be really crazy,” Fancy said. She was sitting on the foot of Gloria’s bed, looking like a small demon in red pajamas. “I never saw my grandmother so close to really mad.”

  “She’s a terrible old woman. But you were nice to speak up for me, Fancy.”

  “And what do you think of Essex now?” Fancy giggled. “He’s a kind of a poor fish,” she said. “And I told you so.”

  “Poor Essex,” said Gloria unreasonably.

  “What I can’t figure,” Fancy said, pulling at a tuft in the blanket, “is why you tell me it’s so terrible outside and then make such a fool out of yourself asking Essex to come away with you, right in front of everybody.”

  “Maybe I didn’t really want him to leave. Maybe I only wanted him to say he would.”

  “Well, you know now,” Fancy said unsympathetically. “She wouldn’t let him go any more than she let the captain go.”

  “I’ve been wondering.” Gloria sat up in bed and leaned forward to speak to Fancy earnestly. “All the time your grandmother keeps telling us how hard and how serious and how tremendous it is, our waiting here till it all happens, and how careful we’ve got to be, and how much responsibility she’s got for seeing that we don’t get ourselves into trouble and how we only have her to direct us and we have to do what she says and how we can’t run and play and be happy in that nice country—”

  “Well? We don’t any of us know what it’s going to be like, do we?”

  “I do,” Gloria said. “I’ve seen it in the mirror. And in the mirror it wasn’t like that at all. In the mirror, your grandmother hasn’t ever even been there.”


  Essex spoke boldly. “I believe, Orianna,” he said, “that you have made a very grave mistake. I would never have believed that you could be so much in error.”

  “Are you positive that I am in error? Might you not have mistaken my motives?”

  “I doubt it,” Essex said with some irony. “You have seriously compromised your authority.”

  “By suppressing that girl’s insolence? You had your choice, Essex; you had only to agree to accompany her.”

  “You tried to turn me out of the house once, I recall. Perhaps, having stayed then, I lost the ability to go.”

  Mrs. Halloran smiled, almost wistfully in the dusk of the garden. “It has already begun,” she said. “Some months ago I told you that, once committed to the belief in Aunt Fanny’s bright world, I was committed absolutely, but I would not go second to Aunt Fanny or to anyone else.”

  “Where will you be when you can no
longer turn us out of your house?”

  “It is my house now, and it will be my house then. I will not relinquish one stone of it in this world or any other. Everyone must be made to remember that, and to remember that I will not relinquish, either, one fraction of my authority. Perhaps,” she added drily, “just as you have lost the ability to leave, I have lost the ability to serve.”

  “I assume then, that you have no real faith in the fondness any of the rest of us may feel for you?”

  “None,” said Mrs. Halloran.


  Mrs. Halloran breakfasted with her husband the next morning, in order to explain to him the plans for the last day and night. When Gloria came into the breakfast room where the others were sitting, she was flushed, and bright-eyed, and almost running. “Listen,” she began, as she came through the door, “I’ve got to tell you right away; I never expected anything like it. I was combing my hair just now—and I never even finished—look,” and, laughing a little, she pushed her hands through her tangled hair, “I was combing my hair and looking in the mirror, naturally, and looking at myself and then without any kind of warning my own reflection just vanished from the glass and I was looking through again, and this time I was walking. I was right inside, you see; I was at the top of a little hill and down below I could see great fields of flowers, the red flowers I saw before, I think, and bluebells, and what must have been the same little stream, sparkling and bright and clean—”

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