The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

  Mrs. Halloran put a little wistful smile on her face and came around the wheel chair to look at her husband. “Dear Richard,” she said. “This is not healthy for you. I know that Lionel loved you better than anyone in the world.”

  “That’s not proper,” Mr. Halloran said. “Lionel has a wife and child, now, and his father must no longer come first. Orianna, you must speak to Lionel. Tell him that I will not have it. His first, his only duty is to the good woman he married, and his sweet child. Tell Lionel . . .” He stopped uncertainly. “Is it Lionel who died?” he asked after a minute.

  Mrs. Halloran moved around to the back of the wheel chair and permitted herself to close her eyes tiredly. Lifting her hand with deliberation, she put it down softly onto her husband’s shoulder, and said, “His funeral went off very well.”

  “Do you remember,” the old man said, “we rang the bells over the carriage house when he was born?”


  Mrs. Halloran set her wine glass down very quietly, looked from Essex to Miss Ogilvie and said, “Aunt Fanny will be down for dessert?”

  “Adding the final touch of jubilation to a day of perfect happiness,” Essex said.

  Mrs. Halloran looked at him for a minute. “At such a remark,” she said finally, “Lionel would have found it necessary to remind you that you were not here to be ironic, but to paint murals in the breakfast room.”

  “Orianna dear,” said Essex with a little false laugh, “I had not suspected you of fallibility; the one painting murals in the breakfast room was the last young man; I am the young man who is supposed to be cataloguing the library.”

  “Lionel wouldn’t have known,” Miss Ogilvie said, and turned pink.

  “But he would have suspected,” Mrs. Halloran said agreeably, and then, “Aunt Fanny is at the door; I hear her little cough. Essex, go and let her in, or she will never bring herself to turn the doorknob.”

  Essex opened the door with a flourish; “Good evening, Aunt Fanny,” he said. “I hope this sad day has agreed with you?”

  “No one needs to worry over me, thank you. Good evening, Orianna, Miss Ogilvie. Please don’t bother, really; you know perfectly well Aunt Fanny is not one to worry over. Orianna, I shall be glad to stand.”

  “Essex,” said Mrs. Halloran, “set a chair for Aunt Fanny.”

  “I’m sure the young man would rather not, Orianna. I am accustomed to taking care of myself, as you have surely discovered.”

  “A glass of wine for Aunt Fanny, Essex.”

  “I take wine only with my equals, Orianna. My brother Richard—”

  “Is resting. He has had his dinner, Aunt Fanny, and his medicine, and I promise you that nothing will prevent your seeing him later in the evening. Aunt Fanny, sit down at once.”

  “I was not brought up to take orders, Orianna, but I suppose you are mistress here now.”

  “Indeed I am. Essex.” Mrs. Halloran turned easily in her chair and leaned her head back comfortably. “I want to hear how you wasted your youth. Only the scandalous parts.”

  “The path gets straighter and narrower all the time,” Essex said. “The years press in. The path becomes a knife edge and I creep along, holding on even to that, the years closing in on either side and overhead.”

  “That’s not very scandalous,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “I am afraid,” Aunt Fanny said, “that this young man did not have what we used to call ‘advantages’. Not everyone, Orianna, was fortunate enough to grow up in luxury and plenty. As of course you know perfectly well.”

  “The statistics scratch at your eyes,” Essex said. “When I was twenty, and could not see time at all, the chances of my dying of heart disease were one in a hundred and twelve. When I was twenty-five and deluded for the first time by a misguided passion, the chances of my dying of cancer were one in seventy-eight. When I was thirty, and the days and hours began to close in, the chances of my dying in an accident were one in fifty-three. Now I am thirty-two years old, and the path getting narrower all the time, and the chances of my dying of anything at all are one in one.”

  “Very profound,” said Mrs. Halloran, “but still not altogether scandalous.”

  “Miss Ogilvie,” said Essex, “treasures in an ebony box stolen from the music room and hidden under the handkerchiefs in the top right hand drawer of her dresser the small notes Richard Halloran wrote her four years ago, before, although it is perhaps rude to mention it, he took to his wheel chair. He left one every evening for her, under the big blue cloisonné vase in the main hall.”

  “Good heavens,” said Miss Ogilvie, pale. “That could not be what she means by scandal.”

  “Do not trouble yourself, Miss Ogilvie,” Mrs. Halloran said, amused. “In his capacity as librarian Essex has become accustomed to spying on all of you. He brings me very entertaining stories, and his information is always accurate.”

  “A moment of truth,” said Aunt Fanny tightly. “Coarse and vulgar I said then, and coarse and vulgar I say now.”

  “I would not have stayed on—” Miss Ogilvie began with difficulty.

  “Of course you would have stayed on. Nothing could have dislodged you; your mistake,” Mrs. Halloran said kindly, “was in supposing you could dislodge me. Aunt Fanny’s mistake, in a word.”

  “This is needless and disgusting,” Aunt Fanny said. “Orianna, if I might have your gracious permission to retire?”

  “Stay and finish your wine, Aunt Fanny, and Essex will think of more scandalous stories for you.”

  “The path gets narrower all the time,” Essex said, grinning. “Does Aunt Fanny remember the evening when she drank Lionel’s birthday champagne and asked me—”

  “I believe I am going to be ill,” Aunt Fanny said.

  “You have my gracious permission,” Mrs. Halloran said. “Essex, I am not pleased. You must be above suspicion, even if Aunt Fanny is not. Fanny, if you are going to make some demonstration, please get it over with; I want to have my walk before we play backgammon, and my schedule has already been much disturbed today. Miss Ogilvie, have you finished your wine?”

  “You are going to play backgammon?” demanded Aunt Fanny, distracted. “Tonight?”

  “It is my house now, Aunt Fanny, as you have reminded me. I see no reason why I should not play backgammon in it.”

  “Coarse is coarse,” Aunt Fanny said. “This is a house of mourning.”

  “I am sure that Lionel would have foregone dying, Aunt Fanny, if he thought his funeral would interfere with my backgammon. Miss Ogilvie, have you finished your wine now?” Mrs. Halloran rose. “Essex?” she said.


  The character of the house is perhaps of interest. It stood upon a small rise in ground, and all the land it surveyed belonged to the Halloran family. The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not. The first Mr. Halloran, father to Richard and Aunt Fanny—Frances Halloran she was then—was a man who, in the astonishment of finding himself suddenly extremely wealthy, could think of nothing better to do with his money than set up his own world. His belief about the house, only very dimly conveyed to the architect, the decorators, the carpenters and landscapers and masons and hodcarriers who put it together, was that it should contain everything. The other world, the one the Hallorans were leaving behind, was to be plundered ruthlessly for objects of beauty to go in and around Mr. Halloran’s house; infinite were the delights to be prepared for its inhabitants. The house must be endlessly decorated and adorned, the grounds constructed and tended with exquisite care. There were to be swans on the ornamental lake before the house, and a pagoda somewhere, and a maze and a rose garden. The walls of the house were to be painted in soft colors with scenes of nymphs and satyrs sporting among flowers and trees. There was to be a great deal of silver, a great
deal of gold, much in the way of enamel and mother-of-pearl. Mr. Halloran did not care much for pictures, but conceded a certain few to the decorator; he did, however, insist upon one picture of himself—he was a practical and a vain man—to be hung over the mantel of the room the architect, inventing madly, was calling “your drawing room.” Mr. Halloran did not care for books, but he bowed to the incredulous smiles of the architect and decorator, and included a library, which was properly stocked with marble busts and ten thousand volumes, all leather-bound, which arrived by railroad and were carried carton by carton into the library and unpacked with care and set in order on the shelves by people hired to do the work. Mr. Halloran set his heart upon a sundial, and it was ordered from a particular firm in Philadelphia which was very good for that kind of thing, and Mr. Halloran himself selected the spot where it would go. He had half hoped that the inscription on the sundial—left to the discretion of the people in Philadelphia who knew so much about that kind of thing—would be “It is later than you think,” or perhaps even “The moving finger writes, and having writ,” but through the fancy of someone in Philadelphia—and no one ever knew who—the sundial arrived inscribed WHAT IS THIS WORLD? After a while Mr. Halloran quite fancied it, having persuaded himself that it was a remark about time.

  The sundial was set into place with as much care as the books had been put into the library, and properly engineered and timed, and anyone who cared to ignore the little jade clock in the drawing room or the grandfather clock in the library or the marble clock in the dining room could go out onto the lawn and see the time by the sun. From any of the windows on that side of the house, which was the garden front looking out over the ornamental lake, the people in the house could see the sundial in the middle distance, set to one side of the long sweep of the lawn. Mr. Halloran had been a methodical man. There were twenty windows to the left wing of the house, and twenty windows to the right; because the great door in the center was double, on the second floor there were forty-two windows across and forty-two on the third floor, lodged directly under the elaborate carvings on the roof edge; Mr. Halloran had directed that the carvings on the roof be flowers and horns of plenty, and there is no doubt that they were done as he said.

  On either side of the door the terrace went to the right for eighty-six black tiles and eighty-six white tiles, and equally to the left. There were a hundred and six thin pillars holding up the marble balustrade on the left, and a hundred and six on the right; on the left eight wide shallow marble steps led down to the lawn, and eight on the right. The lawn swept precisely around the blue pool—which was square—and up in a vastly long lovely movement to a summer house built like a temple to some minor mathematical god; the temple was open, with six slim pillars on either side. Although no attempt had actually been made to match leaf for leaf and branch for branch the tended trees which bordered the lawn on either side, there were four poplars, neatly spaced, around the summer house; inside, the summer house was painted in green and gold, and vines had been trained over its roof and along the pillars supporting it.

  Intruding purposefully upon the entire scene, an inevitable focus, was the sundial, set badly off center and reading WHAT IS THIS WORLD?

  After the first Mr. Halloran had his house, painted and paneled and brocaded and jeweled and carpeted, with sheets of silk on the beds and water colored blue in the pool, he brought his wife, the first Mrs. Halloran, and his two small children to live there. Mrs. Halloran died there within three months, without ever having seen more of the sundial than the view from her bedroom window; she did not go to the center of the maze nor visit the secret garden, she never walked into the orchard to pick herself an apricot, although fresh fruit was brought her every morning in a translucent blue bowl; roses were brought her from the rose garden and orchids and gardenias from the hothouses, and in the evenings she was carried downstairs to sit in a chair before the great fire in what Mr. Halloran was by now frankly calling the drawing room. Mrs. Halloran had been born in a two-family house on the outskirts of a far-off city where most of the year seemed wintry, and she felt that she had never been warm in her life until she sat before the great fire in her drawing room. She could not bring herself to believe that in this house she would never see winter again, and even the eternal summer in her room, of roses and gardenias and apricots, did not reassure her; she died believing that snow was falling outside the window.

  The second Mrs. Halloran was Orianna, Richard’s wife, who had made a particular point of behaving with appreciation and docility while her father-in-law was alive. “I believe,” she told Richard once, after they had returned from their honeymoon in the Orient and settled down in the big house, “I believe that it is our duty to make your father’s last years happy ones. After all, he is your one living relative.”

  “He is not at all my one living relative,” Richard pointed out, puzzled. “There is my sister Frances, and my Uncle Harvey and his wife in New York and their children. And I am sure I have other second and third cousins.”

  “But none of them has any control over your father’s money.”

  “Did you marry me for my father’s money?”

  “Well, that, and the house.”


  “Tell me again,” Mrs. Halloran said, looking down at the sundial in the warm evening darkness.

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

  “I dislike it.” Standing in silence, Mrs. Halloran reached out and touched a finger to the sundial; there were faint noises of leaves stirring and a movement in the water of the pool. In the darkness the house seemed very far away, its lights small, and Mrs. Halloran, touching the sundial, moved her finger along a W, and thought: without it the lawn would be empty. It is a point of human wickedness; it is a statement that the human eye is unable to look unblinded upon mathematical perfection. I am earthly, Mrs. Halloran reminded herself conscientiously, I must look at the sundial like anyone else. I am not inhuman; if the sundial were taken away I, too, would have to avert my eyes until I saw imperfection, a substitute sundial—perhaps a star.

  “Are you warm enough?” Essex asked. “You shivered.”

  “No,” said Mrs. Halloran. “I think it has turned quite chilly. We had better go back to the house.”

  Walking, Mrs. Halloran caressed with her soft steps the fine unyielding property she walked upon; she was not unable to perceive the similar firmness of Essex’ arm under his sleeve, and she felt the very small tensing of his muscles as equally a response to her perfection and a little gesture of protection; this is all mine, she thought, savoring the sweet quiet stone and earth and leaf and blade of her holding. She remembered then that she had decided to send Essex away and thought, smiling a little, poor Essex, unable to comprehend that the essence of the good courtier must be insecurity. Now I own the house, she thought, and could not speak, for love of it.


  In the big drawing room Richard Halloran sat by the fire in his wheel chair, and Miss Ogilvie sat, pointedly remote, at a table far away with Aunt Fanny. Miss Ogilvie was holding a book and Aunt Fanny was playing solitaire; she had clearly not felt herself entitled to turn on an adequate light, and both she and Miss Ogilvie bent, squinting.

  “Orianna,” said her husband, when Mrs. Halloran and Essex came in through the tall doors from the terrace, “I was thinking about Lionel.”

  “Of course you were, Richard.” Mrs. Halloran gave her scarf to Essex, and went to stand behind her husband’s wheel chair. “Try not to think about it,” she said. “You’ll have trouble sleeping.”

  “He was my son,” Richard Halloran said, patiently explaining.

  Mrs. Halloran leaned forward. “Shall I move you away from the fire, Richard? Are you too warm?”

  “Don’t badger him,” Aunt Fanny said. She lifted a card to hold it pointedly to
ward the light and look at it. “Richard was always perfectly capable of making his own decisions, Orianna, even about his own comfort.”

  “Mr. Halloran has always been such a forceful man,” Miss Ogilvie added fondly.

  “We rang the bells over the carriage house for his first birthday,” Mr. Halloran explained across the room to Aunt Fanny and Miss Ogilvie. “My wife thought we might ring the bells again today—as a sort of farewell, you know—but I thought not. What do you think, Fanny?”

  “By no means,” Aunt Fanny said firmly. “In deplorable taste. Naturally.” She looked at Mrs. Halloran, and said “Naturally,” again.

  “Essex,” said Mrs. Halloran, not moving. “I wonder if we should have them ring the bells, after all.” Essex, crossing the room with the soundless step of a cat, stood beside her attentively, and Mr. Halloran nodded and said, “Thoughtful. He would have liked it. We rang the bells over the carriage house,” he told Miss Ogilvie, “for his first birthday, and then every birthday after that, until he asked us not to do it any more.”

  “I am afraid, however, that it is too late to ring the bells tonight,” Mrs. Halloran told her husband gravely.

  “You are right, my dear, as always, Poor Lionel would not hear them, in any case. Perhaps tomorrow will not be too late.”

  “Lionel was a fine man,” Miss Ogilvie said, drooping mournfully. “We will miss him.”

  “Yes, you must get someone to cut down the hedges,” Mr. Halloran said to his wife.

  “His father was always everything a boy could desire,” said Aunt Fanny. “Richard, are you too warm by the fire? You always disliked being overheated. Although,” she added, “the fire is not very high, apparently. At least, it gives almost no light.”

  “Essex,” said Mrs. Halloran, “go and turn on the lamp for Aunt Fanny.”

  “Thank you, no,” Aunt Fanny said. “It is never necessary to consult my comfort, Orianna. You are perfectly aware that I ask for nothing at your hands. Or,” she added, glancing at Essex, who stood by her, “at the hands of a hired—”

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