The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “Now come on everybody,” came the great voice of Mrs. Willow, who had tasted champagne before, “fill up your cups, and then eat hearty—it may be the last meal you ever get.” People laughed, and asked one another what was in the salad dressing, and handed around plates; someone gave the schoolteacher a full plate of meat and salad and rolls and two little chocolate cupcakes and the schoolteacher, giggling and swaying, held it precariously for a minute or so and then set it down on a chair and went after more champagne.

  “That’s a good piece of meat,” Mr. Straus said to Mrs. Willow, and Mrs. Willow slapped him on the shoulder and said richly, “You’ll never eat better again, so go at it, my boy.”

  “Delicious,” said Miss Inverness, tasting delicately of her potato salad. She and her sister held identical plates, with tiny servings at which they were nibbling with tiny bites. “Everything always tastes so much better out of doors,” said Miss Deborah. She sighed, changing her plate from one hand to the other, and glanced longingly at the lighted windows of the big house.

  It was growing darker; faces which had a few minutes ago been clearly visible were fading, so that only in the light of the great barbecue fire was an occasional countenance familiar, reddened and in many cases dirty. Mr. Straus hung lovingly over the man who, white-jacketed and sober, went on endlessly carving thin curling slices of meat onto a huge wooden platter; beyond him the fires flared and spattered when the barbecue sauce went onto the coals, and beyond the fires the silent darkness of the rose garden and the farther trees descended, hiding successfully the youngest Watkins boy and Julia Willow, who had taken a bottle of champagne and decided to skip dinner.

  “Cuts like butter,” Mr. Straus said, watching the carver with splendid approval.

  _____

  On the terrace Mrs. Halloran stirred wearily, eyeing her untouched plate. “I have no appetite,” she said. “Being a queen is a very public penance.”

  “Perhaps I could get you a little something from the kitchen?” Miss Ogilvie, hovering solicitously, made little futile dabs at her own plate, clearly unwilling to seem to be enjoying her food.

  Mrs. Halloran sighed. “Run along and get yourself some champagne,” she said. “Dream of pressing your own grapes.”

  When Miss Ogilvie had gone scurrying down toward the champagne tent, where some few revellers still lingered, Mrs. Halloran rose. She looked once down the long fine sweep of the lawn, where the sundial was still faintly visible, white against the dark grass, and glanced at the pale shape of the tent, where faint laughter persisted. From the barbecue pit she could hear voices raised, the sounds of fire, and the touching of forks against plates; over it all Mrs. Willow urging, “Eat hearty, friends, you’ll never see as good again.” Mrs. Halloran set down her plate and opened the great door; she had set her chair against it as though guarding the house. She went into the black and white tiled entrance hall; “When shall we live if not now?” she read over the staircase, and it seemed all at once an echo of Mrs. Willow. Moving quickly, Mrs. Halloran went into the right wing where Mr. Halloran sat before his fire. His dinner tray was on the small table near him, untouched; “Nurse?” Mr. Halloran said, not turning around, “Nurse, I have not had my dinner yet.”

  “Good evening, Richard,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “Orianna?” said Mr. Halloran, peering uncertainly around the wing of his chair. “Orianna, I have not been given my dinner yet. Nurse has not given me my dinner.”

  “She has probably been tempted by the party outside,” Mrs. Halloran said, “but do not distress yourself, Richard; I am perfectly able to give you your dinner, and we will let Nurse celebrate while she can.”

  “I don’t want oatmeal,” Mr. Halloran said pettishly. “If it’s oatmeal you must send it back and have them make me something else.”

  Mrs. Halloran lifted the silver cover from a bowl; “It’s two splendid soft-cooked eggs,” she said. “And I believe a nice hot broth, and a pretty little pudding.”

  “But Nurse is not here to feed me,” Mr. Halloran said crossly.

  “Then you will see how well I can do it.” Mrs. Halloran tied the napkin under his chin, and opened the eggs carefully. Then she moved the nurse’s low stool beside him, and sat down with the tray beside her. “Eggs first?” she asked.

  “I want the broth,” Mr. Halloran said.

  “I think the broth may be too warm, Richard.” Mrs. Halloran took up a little of the broth and blew on it to cool it. “Now,” she said, and put the spoon to her husband’s mouth. He accepted it obediently, and swallowed, and Mrs. Halloran took another spoonful and held it ready.

  “It’s too hot,” Mr. Halloran said. “Nurse always gives me my eggs first.”

  “Then we’ll try the eggs,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “I want the pudding,” Mr. Halloran said at once.

  “Then we’ll try the pudding.”

  “Why was I not sent oatmeal? They knew I wanted oatmeal tonight.”

  “They sent up a very pleasant dinner, Richard. Eggs, and broth, and pudding.”

  “Then feed it to me,” Mr. Halloran said. “Nurse is never this slow.”

  “Open your mouth, then.”

  “Are they having a party?” Mr. Halloran said, when he had finished his mouthful.

  “A big party,” Mrs. Halloran said. “Ready with another spoonful.”

  “Why am I not going to the party?”

  “If you eat every bite of your dinner, Richard, I will tell you about it, what everyone is doing.”

  “Are they going to ring the bells? Over the carriage house?”

  “A splendid idea. Open your mouth, Richard. I think we must really ring the bells.”

  “Who has come to this party?”

  “All the people from the village. The party is for them, a treat. Right now they are around the barbecue pit, having their dinners just as you are having your dinner, and they are drinking champagne; later, after you finish all your dinner, I will bring you a glass of champagne as a treat for you, too.”

  “No more egg,” Mr. Halloran said. “I want pudding.”

  “Pudding, then. We have strung lanterns back and forth across the long lawn, little colored lights along the lawn. There is a corner of the terrace where we are going to put musicians, musicians I brought all the way from the city, and all the people will be dancing out on the grass under the lanterns.”

  “And drinking champagne.”

  “And drinking champagne. Since the night air is far too cool for you, I thought I would bring you into the drawing room and you may sit by the big window and watch. There, now, the pudding is gone; you ate your pudding very nicely, Richard.”

  “It reminds me of when Lionel died, and we rang the bells all night.”

  “More egg now? You will hear the bells, I promise you. And you will sit in the drawing room and drink a glass of champagne and watch the villagers dancing under the colored lights.”

  “I think not.” Mr. Halloran sighed tiredly. “I would rather stay here. I can hear the bells, you know, and I think colored lights would be too bright for my eyes.” He hit his hand irritably against the arm of his chair. “I wish Nurse would come back,” he said. “Do you know, I have not had my dinner yet? Nurse went off without giving me my dinner, and I do not think that is in any way proper. You must find Nurse at once and tell her I want my dinner.”

  _____

  “Mr. Essex.” Miss Inverness bore down heavily, glass in hand. “Mr. Essex, I must really ask an explanation from you. This distressing story which my sister has repeated to me—”

  “Distressing indeed, Miss Inverness. I cannot tell you how we all deplore it.”

  “I think it most thoughtless and—yes, even tasteless—of Mrs. Halloran. One does not expect to meet, in nice houses, people of unsuitable background; I have permitted my sister to become intimate with Miss Ogilvie, even help her wi
th small purchases in our little emporium. I think it very hard that we were not told of Miss Ogilvie’s character.”

  “Surely not a story for general circulation,” Essex murmured.

  “Certainly not. I assure you that I will be the last to repeat it. But, Mr. Essex, ladies should know. One assumes, all too frequently, that the mere presence of a woman in a respectable family is enough to ensure that her reputation is above reproach. It will be very difficult, now, to know how to speak to Mrs. Halloran.”

  “It has always been difficult,” Essex said, “to know how to speak to Mrs. Halloran.”

  “All I can say, Mr. Essex, is that Mrs. Halloran Senior would never have allowed a person of questionable character to enter her house. This is all very hard on her memory, and I shall tell Mrs. Halloran so when I say goodnight; naturally, my sister and I cannot remain at this delightful party. We stayed only long enough to take a little refreshment, in courtesy to our hosts.”

  “I hope you will not find it necessary to say anything to Miss Ogilvie.”

  “We were brought up ladies, Mr. Essex. My mother was not one to reproach an erring sister for her misfortunes. But further association will be, of course, out of the question.”

  “I believe, on the whole, that it will,” Essex said.

  “Good night, Mr. Essex.”

  “Before you leave,” Essex said, lowering his voice, “there is something more I really must tell you. Since your association with this house is to be so irrevocably severed, you will want, I think, to hear the unsavory truth about Aunt Fanny? As you know, like Miss Ogilvie, she has never married.”

  Miss Inverness gasped. “Not Miss Halloran too?”

  “Similar, although the circumstances were different,” Essex said gravely. “I myself find Aunt Fanny’s story the more pitiable. Do you recall the year that Aunt Fanny spent abroad? It was given out that she was in Switzerland.”

  “I remember,” said Miss Inverness faintly.

  “In actuality,” Essex said, “she had been captured by pirates off the Mediterranean coast. It was upwards of seven months before a British man of war tracked them down and wrested Aunt Fanny from their clutches. A most horrible fate.”

  Miss Inverness sipped from her glass, her hand shaking. “Horrible, indeed,” she said weakly; in the darkness she peered at Essex, leaning forward and almost whispering. “The worst,” she said. “I suppose it happened?”

  “Alas,” Essex said. “May I bring you more champagne?”

  Miss Inverness drained her glass. “I think yes,” she said. “We must leave, my sister and I, but at the moment I think I am slightly ill.”

  _____

  “Aunt Fanny,” Essex said, coming up beside her where she stood in the darkness outside the champagne tent, “Aunt Fanny, will you do me a favor?”

  “Essex? Yes, certainly, my dear.”

  “If Miss Inverness asks you whether you were ever captured and held prisoner by pirates off the Mediterranean coast, I want you to say yes.”

  “To say what? Yes? All right, surely, Essex. I think that will be splendid. Has anyone seen my brother tonight?”

  “He was to have been moved into the drawing room, so he could watch the party.”

  “I daresay his wife forgot. I must really go and see to it.”

  _____

  “A known murderer,” Essex said happily to Miss Deborah. “Mrs. Halloran has been sheltering him from the law, or, worse, the outraged relatives of his victims. ‘Captain’ is of course an assumed name.”

  “Who—” gasped Miss Deborah.

  “Whom did he kill? Old women, mostly. Mutilated them in a most shocking fashion.”

  “A . . . a sex murderer?”

  Essex shrugged. “One can hardly ask,” he said.

  _____

  “Now the proper carving of meat is an art,” Mr. Straus said heavily. “It takes a love of flesh. I’ve seen a man carve a roast of beef as though he hated every inch of it, and you can’t tell me that meat made fair eating.”

  “Drink, brother?” asked Mrs. Willow.

  “I have done too well already, ma’am. But yes, another small drop. If you see a man take up a piece of meat with care and fondness like he was lifting a baby, now, that man can carve meat. I remember a fellow—married man, of course—we used to have in the shop many years ago—”

  _____

  Hidden in the rose garden, Julia began to cry drunkenly. “I just don’t know why it’s got to end,” she said.

  “What’s got to end?” The youngest Watkins boy handed her a lighted cigarette and laughed. “I never been in here before,” he said. “Look at those roses; I bet it costs plenty to keep this place going. But now I know the way,” he said to Julia, “I figure I could get back here sometimes. Nights, sometimes. And you can always sneak off and get down to the village. So what’s got to end?”

  Lying in the grass under the roses, Julia laughed, and cried, and laughed.

  _____

  “Captain,” said the schoolteacher, moving up to him with a wavering intensity, “I hope you won’t think me bold?”

  “Not at all,” said the captain. He glanced over his shoulder to the entrance of the champagne tent, clearly decided that it was too far to make in one leap, and submitted to the schoolteacher’s firm clutch on his sleeve.

  “I want to hear about your adventures.”

  “Adventures?” said the captain.

  The schoolteacher laughed giddily. “For someone like me, little me,” she said, fumbling, “you know, reading nothing but books? It really means something to man a meet who’s had real adventures. Real real real real real real real real adventures,” and she sighed.

  “But I am afraid that I—”

  “Like carrying struggling maidens across your saddle—across your horse’s saddle, I mean, across your saddle across your horse across some desert. Screaming and struggling and begging to get away because she knows what’s going to happen, and screaming fruitlessly for help and struggling and begging and scratching at you with her fingernails and pleading—”

  “Rarely,” said the captain. “Most of my ladies come willingly. I have little use for any other kind.”

  “—and keeping her prisoner for long moonlight nights in a satin tent, with cushions.” The schoolteacher sighed. “Turkish delight,” she said. “Shishkebab. Ropes of pearls.”

  “Yes,” the captain said, edging sideways. “Always ropes of pearls.”

  “The desert moon,” the schoolteacher said, but he had gotten away.

  _____

  “I was what?” Miss Ogilvie demanded, her mouth open.

  Miss Deborah leaned over, and whispered.

  “What?” said Miss Ogilvie.

  “I’m sure you won’t mind my mentioning it, dear. I only hoped—”

  “Why,” said Miss Ogilvie, her eyes shining, “how perfectly marvelous!”

  _____

  “Well, of course, I didn’t know who he was,” Maryjane said earnestly. She and Arabella were sitting in a quiet corner of the terrace, not far from the spot prepared for the musicians, who were having their dinner. Maryjane and Arabella had set their empty dinner plates down on the stone floor and occasionally they stopped Mrs. Willow, who was by now travelling luxuriously among the guests with a bottle of champagne under each arm, and asked her to fill their glasses; “Here,” Mrs. Willow was shouting, “Cupbearer of the gods!”

  “And he didn’t say anything?” Arabella asked.

  “Well, what could he say? It was just like a movie, honestly. He came into the library one day and of course I was there at the desk and I thought the minute I saw him that he looked kind of unusual and sort of . . . well, not the least bit like the kind of fellows who used to be pestering me all the time for dates and things.”

  “I saw a movie where—”

  “And I said
to myself,” Maryjane went on overwhelmingly, “that this was certainly the most gentlemanly fellow I had seen for a long time even though his name kind of put me off at first—Lionel, you know, and when he said Lionel I honestly thought at first I would have died, because after all how many men are called Lionel? But of course when it turned out he only wanted to use the reference books I was sure because who else would be looking things up? You see a lot of people in a library and if I do say so myself you get kind of particular, because naturally they were always around asking me for dates and things.”

  “But if it was love at first—”

  “Well, of course no, dear. When you get married you’ll know more about these things, I always think. We just kind of got to talking, because it turned out they were binding the volume he wanted—and remind me someday to tell you about the cute fellow from the bindery, because he was one you had to see to believe, honestly—and I said why didn’t he come back in a day or so, never thinking he would, of course. He wanted to be a poet then, you know, but of course we came right back here when we were married, because of course I wouldn’t dream of alienating his family; after all, I always think, what are families for? So of course he did come back the next day and the first thing I knew he was asking me to go roller-skating with him and I said—”

  _____

  Mr. Atkins of the hardware store, and Mr. Peabody who kept the Carriage Stop Inn, and Mr. Armstrong the postmaster, sat on folding chairs in a little group somewhat aside from the general crowd. They still held plates on their knees, and they ate slowly and methodically.

  “That was when my father had the shop.” Mr. Atkins said. He waved generously with his fork. “Nothing here then,” he said.

  Mr. Peabody nodded. “The Inn was a real carriage stop those days,” he agreed.

  “I remember them digging the foundations,” Mr. Atkins said, “me, just a little kid. I used to hang around up here watching.”

 
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