The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “There was a fellow got killed, wasn’t there?” asked Mr. Peabody.

  “Got run over by a wagon. I was here—just a little kid. I remember the old man come over and looked down at this fellow lying there and he said—I swear I can hear him now—he said, ‘Get him out of the way,’ he said, ‘this is where the terrace has got to go.’ I can hear him now.”

  “He wasn’t one who cared a lot about other people getting in his way,” Mr. Peabody said.

  “I remember,” Mr. Atkins said, “there was a little carnival came to town, two or three little wagons and a pony ride, maybe it was, and a fortune teller and what not; well, they set up their kind of little camp right down there where that rose affair is now, and folks were coming around, buying tickets and looking at the fortune teller—come to think of it, there was a tattooed man along with them—and they were giving the kids a pony ride, and he comes raging out with his gang of bullies and chased the whole pack right off down the road. ‘Let ’em stay off my land,’ he says, ‘let ’em stay off my land.’”

  “And then he built the wall,” Mr. Peabody said.

  “There was some around here didn’t care much for that wall,” Mr. Atkins said, grinning, and Mr. Armstrong, the postmaster, shook his head with a tired old anger.

  “Once,” he said, “I could walk you all around there where my father’s fences used to be. My father’s farm, and then one morning my father turned around and there was his farm, inside the old man’s wall, and here my father always supposed it was going to be outside. ‘Oh, no,’ says the old man, ‘it’s my land now—leastways, it’s inside my wall, and try and get it back.’ My father thought he ought to take it to the law, and my mother thought so too, but come to find out, there wasn’t a lawyer anywhere around wasn’t working for the old man, and so all my father could do was sneak in sometimes and walk around what used to be his farm, checking away on his fences, and then the old man, he had to have a lake, and there’s my father’s farm now, under ten feet of water. ‘Take it back, for all I care,’ the old man says once to my father, ‘I don’t want it any more. Just go take it back. Course, it’ll take some draining.’ Then he figured to make it all up by sending me to high school in the city.” Carefully Mr. Armstrong speared a piece of meat on his fork and put it into his mouth.

  “Mr. Armstrong,” said Aunt Fanny, coming up with quick little steps, “Mr. Peabody, Mr. Atkins—do you all have everything you want? You mustn’t hesitate to ask for anything—we would be very much offended if you went away hungry, you know. My father always hated to see anyone leave his table with an appetite, and, after all, this party is in your honor; my father would be the first to say that you deserved a good treat.”

  “He was a fine man,” said Mr. Armstrong tiredly.

  “A fine man,” Mr. Peabody agreed.

  “Oh, yes,” said Mr. Atkins. “A very fine man.”

  _____

  Fancy slipped softly through the great doorway and sat herself quietly down on the step beside her grandmother. “Is it nearly over?” she asked.

  _____

  “About half,” said Mrs. Halloran.

  “They look like pigs and weasels and rats,” Fancy said.

  “They will be soon gone.”

  “Why do you bother to give them all that good food and stuff to drink?”

  “One last indulgence. Now we can remember them as being happy and carefree.”

  “How much longer is there?”

  “An hour or so, I expect.”

  “Not the party,” Fancy said.

  “Oh, I see. About twenty hours, I imagine. Perhaps a little less.”

  “Do you think they will know what is happening?”

  “I doubt it. For a minute, perhaps, no longer.”

  “Will it hurt them?”

  “I trust not.”

  “Will they be frightened?”

  “I suppose they will, for a minute or so; there will not really be very much time, I hope, for being frightened. In any case, people are not really frightened until they know what is happening to them, and I hope all of this will be quick enough for them not to know.”

  “Does it happen quickly?”

  “I can hardly say; it has never happened before, to my knowledge. I can only believe, in mercy, that it will not take very long.”

  “Do they know now?”

  “I hardly think so.”

  “What would they do if they did know?”

  “From what I have seen of them, I suspect nothing. They would stand with their jaws hanging, looking at each other and grinning in a foolish fashion.”

  “I wish we could watch it when it happens.”

  “I think, on the whole, that it is not the kind of sight fit for our eyes, or any others. I cannot imagine living on, with that picture before me.”

  “When can I have your crown?”

  Mrs. Halloran turned slowly and looked at Fancy. From down among the crowd, over the beginning sound of the music, came Mrs. Willow’s voice, no longer shouting anything intelligible; on the outskirts of the crowd a small group was singing, unrecognizably; there were still sounds of activity around the barbecue pit, and from the champagne tent great bursts of laughter.

  “When I am dead,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  _____

  Miss Inverness was crying miserably in a corner of the champagne tent onto the shoulder of Mr. Straus, the butcher. She had been brought up a lady, Miss Inverness was wailing, and taught the right way of doing things and how to comport herself in a ladylike fashion, and where was her mother now? “She was the finest woman who ever lived,” said Miss Inverness, sobbing, and Mr. Straus nodded sympathetically and patted her gently on the back. “You’re fine, too,” Miss Inverness said, “I can always tell, always tell. You’re the finest woman who ever lived.”

  _____

  Miss Deborah had the captain by one arm and the schoolteacher, somehow still navigating, had him by the other.

  “You’re a wicked wicked man,” Miss Deborah screamed joyfully, “you’re a pirate and I have been taken prisoner and I bet you won’t ever let me go!”

  “Screaming and begging and pleading in a silken tent,” the schoolteacher said, rolling out the words gloriously. “Screaming and pleading to be saved from a fate worse than death!”

  “Ladies—” said the captain.

  “Is it worse than death?” asked Miss Deborah, conversationally, leaning around the captain to look at the schoolteacher. “I always wondered.”

  “Ladies,” said the captain helplessly, and they swung him between them out onto the lawn and around in great circles, beginning a dance which caught up the others, moving and cavorting and shouting behind them; Mrs. Otis, who taught dancing, attempted a complicated step with Mr. Atkins, and both of them fell, laughing and struggling, onto the grass, and Miss Ogilvie, dancing along behind in a lonely complex waltz, fell over them; in the champagne tent Mr. Straus stirred to the sound of the music and laughter, and Miss Inverness, her face buried in his shoulder, hiccuped. “I never knew how fine she was,” Miss Inverness said. “Now, I could kill myself.”

  Under the colored lights they moved in a great circle, leaping, howling, hurling glasses, embracing. Essex slipped down into the darkness of the crowd and joined hands with Gloria; silently they followed the pulls of other hands against theirs, turning in a great unending circle. “Dance, brothers, dance,” Mrs. Willow shouted, and Aunt Fanny, her hair down over her eyes, took hands with the youngest Watkins boy. Maryjane and Arabella ran down from the terrace, laughing, and fell into the crowd; Julia was doing a cakewalk with Mr. Peabody. “Drink, sisters, drink,” Mrs. Willow yelled, and they went around and around, trampling the grass and shattering cups and glasses under their feet; “Repent, children, repent,” Mrs. Willow howled, and the dance caught her up and she whirled and kicked, holding a champagne bottle under each arm.


  On the terrace Mrs. Halloran in her great chair, and Fancy on the step below her, watched in indulgent silence.

  _____

  Suddenly Miss Ogilvie broke from the dance, and threw herself up the terrace steps. “I don’t want them to go,” she said wildly, “they’re kind and nice and they’re happy and you can’t let them go.” She held out her arms to Mrs. Halloran, and Mrs. Halloran laughed and shrugged. “Please let them come with us,” Miss Ogilvie begged, and Mrs. Halloran laughed. “You can’t, you can’t, you can’t,” Miss Ogilvie said, her voice breaking, and then, turning suddenly, she held up her arms; the music was silenced and the dancers hesitated and then, seeing Miss Ogilvie, turned their faces to her and waited.

  “My dear dear dear friends,” Miss Ogilvie said, “please listen to me, please please listen. You are going away from here tonight to a dreadful and terrible catastrophe and none of you will live unless you stay here with us, you will die; please please stay. Believe me, I beg of you—how can I make you believe me? It is too late now to repent or change your ways or find another place to hide; we have let things go most miserably—can any of you believe me?” Briefly, there was a little scatter of applause. “No,” Miss Ogilvie said, more softly, “will you just trust me? I don’t want to see you die, not any of you, and you just simply will not understand and how can I tell you? It was even hard for me to believe at first, and how can I begin to tell you?”

  Below, on the lawn, people stirred restlessly, and spoke among themselves, and then Julia, calling from the crowd, said, “Come on, everyone, we want to dance.”

  “Please, please listen,” Miss Ogilvie said, but Mrs. Halloran said “Music,” to the little orchestra, and the music began again.

  “But you must not go,” Miss Ogilvie cried, and Mrs. Halloran, laughing, said to Fancy, “I have known hostesses like this, who could not bear to see the end of their parties.”

  _____

  “Dance, brothers,” Mrs. Willow called. “Tomorrow we’ll be sober!” The circle went round and round, hands joined, voices raised in what might have been song, feet tangling and slipping, and Mrs. Willow was drinking champagne out of the bottles she carried. On the terrace Mrs. Halloran sat silently. Then, without warning, it was finished. The dancers stopped, wondering at one another, pushing back their hair, gasping now for breath. People began to look for one another, and speak of going home; around the circle went a whisper about the time. Someone found Miss Inverness asleep in a corner of the champagne tent, her pocketbook beside her and her wide hat thrown over her, and carried her charitably to a car to drive her home. Miss Deborah, giggling wildly and clinging to the captain, was pried away and taken with her sister. Julia and the schoolteacher, saying goodnight tearfully to one another, were parted. The guests departed swiftly, melting around the corner of the terrace to the entrance front where their cars were parked, moving in the darkness with a sudden shocking recollection of where they were. Not one of the villagers said goodbye to Mrs. Halloran.

  16

  The sundial showed no hours at night. Thanks to the champagne, Mrs. Willow slept soundly, her dreams untroubled save for a certain buried nagging anticipation of illness in the morning. Julia cried herself to sleep, railing at the cruelty which afflicted her young life. Arabella and Maryjane put their hair up together, took each a sleeping pill, and dreamed jointly of tall dark handsome men. Fancy slept with the exquisite sleep of a child; Miss Ogilvie, determined to meet the new world clean, washed out her underwear and stockings, inefficiently because of the champagne, and finally fell into bed fully dressed. Aunt Fanny sat by her window, wearing her mother’s diamonds, and looked with grief and longing at the garden by night. Essex and the captain sat very late in the library, telling lies about themselves and confessing long-forgotten sins. Mrs. Halloran, her crown set in its case on her dressing table, was unable to compose herself for sleep. She went once around the house, nodding to Essex and the captain in the library, opening the door upon Mr. Halloran sleeping fitfully and calling on his nurse. Finally, she sat down at her desk to straighten out her last few accounts, looking over bills she would never pay, adding debts she would never collect.

  During the night the wind rose, although it was still very hot. There was a strong sense of thunder in the air, and the wind, increasing toward dawn, swept freely down the great lawn of the house and tangled the wires on which the japanese lanterns swung wildly. By a quarter to seven the rose garden was swept bare, and the hot wind carried with it a freight of bruised and torn rose petals. Far off, by the lake, the water was whipped into waves which beat restlessly against the shore, and even washed the floor of the grotto where the swans cowered.

  In the secret garden a statue swayed, and fell, crashing through the flowers and cracking in half as it hit the ground. One of the empty arms of Anna-in-the-maze caught a flying branch, and comforted and rocked it. At seven Mrs. Halloran dressed herself and came downstairs, to meet Aunt Fanny in the breakfast room. Because Mrs. Halloran had been anxious for the servants to make an early start on their holiday, the house was already awake, and in the breakfast room the sound of the wind was lessened by the indoor sounds of activity. What had been left overnight of the party was now cleared, although the japanese lanterns were hopelessly tangled and the tents had been turned by the wind into live flying monsters; the barbecue pit had been cleaned, the dishes used by the villagers had been washed and sterilized in the electric dishwashers, and the breakfast coffee awaited Mrs. Halloran and Aunt Fanny at the table.

  “Good morning, Aunt Fanny.”

  “Good morning, Orianna. Did you notice the wind?”

  “Certainly. I confess it frightens me a little.”

  Aunt Fanny contemplated her grapefruit. “Strange,” she said, “How one’s mind insists upon noticing only small things; I daresay it will be long enough before I see another grapefruit, tamed and cut.”

  “Do you think to tear fruit from the trees and sink your teeth into it?”

  “Probably. We never know how pagan we may be. The wind does not frighten me, exactly; I only know that I cannot bring myself to think of how it will be later.”

  “Yes,” Mrs. Halloran said. “I thought of it a good deal during the night, hearing the wind rising and trying to understand that this time it would not die down. It is an ominous, almost unbearable thought, this realization that a state of weather we would ordinarily regard without unusual fear will this time not subside as it always has before, but will increase and finally—”

  “Be still, Orianna. The servants are still here. And in any case the prospect sickens me.”

  Mrs. Halloran and Aunt Fanny took toast, and eggs, and bacon, and coffee; with small glances at one another and both thinking, without saying, that a last quiet breakfast, prepared for them and served daintily in colored porcelain and silver, was something to be dwelt on and cherished; they both sat longer over their food than usual, and certainly longer than they would before have spent in one another’s presence. Once, looking at her heavy silver fork, Mrs. Halloran found tears in her eyes; what use will this be to me tomorrow? she was thinking, and she made no attempt to hide her tears from Aunt Fanny.

  “My father will be here,” Aunt Fanny said softly. “I have perfect faith in him.”

  While Mrs. Halloran and Aunt Fanny lingered, Arabella came downstairs, in curlers and housecoat, to say that Mrs. Willow was ill, and might she have, please, a tray with only coffee, tomato juice, and a bottle of aspirin. Mrs. Halloran instructed that the tomato juice be fortified with raw egg and worcestershire sauce; “It would not suit us to have your mother ill today,” she told Arabella. Arabella carried up her mother’s tray, and returned shortly, dressed, with her hair combed; by then Fancy had come to breakfast, and Gloria, and shortly afterward, Maryjane and the captain. Mrs. Halloran and Aunt Fanny sat on at the breakfast table, drinking coffee, and no one spoke. Miss Ogilvie, looking most unwell, came to breakfast, and re
fused with unusual vehemence Mrs. Halloran’s offer of tomato juice with raw egg and worcestershire sauce; “It’s the wind,” Miss Ogilvie said, whimpering, “I think the wind will drive me out of my mind.”

  “It’s hideous,” the captain said.

  Essex and Julia, the last to reach the breakfast table, found the others sitting in subdued silence, listening to the distant sounds of the wind. “Our own little coven, waiting together,” said Essex in a tone of some strain, and Julia said, her voice only barely controlled, “I wish it would stop, I wish it would stop.”

  “Well,” the captain said, “it won’t.”

  The breakfast room was meant to be delightfully bright and lit with early morning sun, so it had tall glass doors opening out over the garden; even though the noise of the wind was muffled here, they sat at the table and could see the darkening of the sky. Slowly, over the farthest trees in the garden, the clouds moved, and the room grew dim, and the reflections on the silver coffeepot were greyed and dull.

  “It’s going to storm,” said Julia, and began to giggle hysterically.

  _____

  By noon Mrs. Halloran, oppressed now by the driving wind into an urgent sense of haste, had seen the servants off in the two station wagons; Mr. Halloran’s nurse was reluctant to leave, believing that she ought to give up her holiday in case the oppressive weather should trouble Mr. Halloran unduly, but Mrs. Halloran insisted, almost raising her voice, and the nurse went with the others. When the two station wagons had gone down the driveway Mrs. Halloran took a deep breath.

  “Now,” she said, “we must search the house carefully to make sure that there is no one left; I assure you that I checked the servants carefully, but I should not like to find a drunken villager asleep in some corner. On Miss Ogilvie’s invitation.” Her eyes turned briefly on Miss Ogilvie, who winced, and made a repudiating gesture.

  Fancy was sent to sit with her grandfather while the rest searched the house, and she told him “Peter Rabbit” and “The Three Bears,” which he enjoyed hugely.

 
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