The Sundial by Shirley Jackson


  “The house is so empty,” Essex said to Maryjane, meeting her in an upstairs hallway. “Somehow you never realize how many people there actually were in it, before.”

  “I don’t mind this part so much,” Maryjane said, and shivered. “This is like a game, hide and seek, or murder, or something. It’s what is coming later that I think I am going to mind.”

  “At least, up here you can’t hear the wind,” Essex said.

  When they reassembled in the drawing room Mrs. Halloran, assured that they were now alone in the house, said, speaking loudly over the rising noise of the wind, “I urge you all, most earnestly, to take a glass of sherry before lunch; we have a great deal still to do, and, I need hardly tell you, we need all the courage we can muster.”

  “We must have complete faith,” Aunt Fanny said. “My father has given me his word. Anyway,” she added vaguely, “it’s too late now.”

  “I don’t think I will be able to stand it,” Julia said; her lips were trembling and she had trouble speaking.

  “This is final.” Mrs. Halloran’s voice seemed to echo, now, in the big drawing room; although the weather outside was hotter than it had been for months, perhaps years, there was a chill and a kind of dampness over everything in the big room, and the people in it gathered closer together before the empty fireplace. “This is final,” Mrs. Halloran said. “We have no time now, and certainly no patience, for hysteria or panic. We have all known about this coming day and night for many weeks, and we know, too, what we shall see tomorrow morning. Any one of you—and I mean you, Julia, particularly—who provokes or indulges in any emotional outburst, will be shut in a closet and kept there by force, if I find it necessary. You are my people,” she went on more gently, “and I must bring you safely through this unbelievable experience; trust me.”

  “My father—”

  “I want to go outside,” said Julia, barely articulate. “I don’t want to stay in here any more.”

  “We must try to think of ourselves,” Mrs. Halloran went on, “as absolutely isolated. We are on a tiny island in a raging sea; we are a point of safety in a world of ruin. Think,” she said urgingly, “today, right now, out there in the world, people are beginning to wonder. They notice the weather, of course, and perhaps even feel the first apprehensions already; there must be some people, even this early, who are beginning to fear for their homes and their property, and perhaps into one or two minds the thought of death has already entered. But it is the people out there who have to be afraid; we, inside here, are safe. Julia, at the risk of sounding like Miss Ogilvie, I beg you to listen to me. This is safety. During all the rest of this day and this night, in the face of all your fears—and I believe that we will be called upon to steel ourselves beyond belief; one does not survive a cataclysm easily; I think we none of us know how deep our fears will be before morning—but, I insist, in the face of all your fears, remind yourselves, say it over and over again: the peril is for others: we are safe.”

  “My father—”

  “It’s too soon,” Julia said helplessly. “There’s so much I wanted to see again, and do again . . .”

  “I never wrote to my father,” Gloria said. “I wish now I had said goodbye to him.”

  “Well, it’s a world well lost, if you ask me,” said Mrs. Willow bluntly. “I’ve seen all of it I can take, and that’s no lie.”

  “I wish we’d managed to get some roses from the garden, to wear in our hair,” Arabella said to Maryjane, and Maryjane said resentfully, “If she hadn’t sent the servants off in such a hurry . . . do you know,” she went on to Arabella, “no one made my bed this morning?”

  “It seems to me,” Mrs. Halloran said, “that we would be wise to barricade the house as soon as we can. There does not seem to be any immediate danger, and as you all know we do not anticipate the full fury of the elements until tonight, but on the one hand it will spare us work we may not be able to find time for later, and on the other hand it will serve in some manner to muffle the noise of that wind. It seems to drive right through the house. After the house is as secure as we can make it—”

  “And we know it will stand,” Aunt Fanny said.

  “—we will gather for lunch, and then retire to dress, to reassemble here at four o’clock. You will recall, of course, that we are to be together in the drawing room from four o’clock on.”

  “Action,” said the captain. “Everyone get moving—that’s the secret; no panic if you’re busy.”

  “Blankets over the windows, and particularly the glass doors,” Mrs. Halloran said. “The furniture is to be pushed as well as possible against outer doors, to prevent their blowing open in the wind. Save a few blankets, of course, for our own use during the night; we have no conception of the extremes of temperature we may be called upon to endure.”

  “Candles,” said Essex, moving close to her. “The electricity may go soon.”

  “Look at the chandelier,” Julia said, and giggled crazily. “You will never see an electric light again.”

  “Now there’s a thought,” the captain said. “While we work, let’s have on every light in the house—no need to worry about bills now,” and he laughed. “And a couple of you ladies better use our last few kilowatts to brew up some coffee and hot soup to put in thermos bottles, and anything else you can think of; it’s going to be cold eating for the rest of the night.”

  “And radios,” Arabella said. “Turn on all the radios.”

  “No,” Julia said violently. “Not radios, please. There will be announcements and warnings and descriptions . . .” She shivered.

  “True,” Mrs. Halloran said. “We don’t want to see any of it, and we don’t want to hear about it, either.”

  “Containers of water,” the captain said. “Best get plenty of water; the mains will be going, you know, and I can tell all of you right now that I, for one, am not going to be particularly anxious to stand outside and catch raindrops in a pail.”

  “I will oversee the coffee and the water, then,” Mrs. Halloran said. “I suppose,” she said, hesitating in the doorway, “that the blankets will have to be nailed over the windows?”

  “I’m afraid so,” Essex said. “Tight.”

  “The woodwork?” said Mrs. Halloran wonderingly. “The lovely window frames? They were carved especially for the house.”

  “The house is not so important today, Orianna.”

  “The house is always important, Essex. But I must reconcile myself, I see, to nail holes in the window frames. I suppose they will be repaired later?”

  “At least,” the captain said unsympathetically, “if you’re making the coffee you won’t have to watch. Belle, you get out the candles. This room is our headquarters, so put plenty of candlesticks in here. I suppose a fire would be a mistake?” he said to Essex.

  “Most unwise, I should think,” Essex said. “We can be sure the chimneys will go.”

  “And we can’t call the fire department.” Julia’s voice was high, and she giggled when she spoke.

  The captain glanced to be sure that Mrs. Halloran had left the room. “It seems to me,” he said, dropping his voice, “that we haven’t either the manpower or the equipment to make any try at covering the top floors—I’d be prepared to let those windows go, even it it means a chance of losing the furniture and what not up there. We just can’t barricade the whole house, and after all, everything we need is stored away in the library.”

  “If we’re going to keep everyone in the drawing room, I agree with you,” Essex said. “I want the windows covered, not so much for protection as invisibility; I mean, we don’t want to have to look outside. It’s not anything any of us ought to be watching. Besides,” he added, “we know the house will stand.”

  “That big window in the drawing room is going to take a lot of covering. But I don’t want to see it any more than you do.”

  They started
together up the great curving staircase, which was already shivering slightly under the impact of the wind, and the captain grinned up at WHEN SHALL WE LIVE IF NOT NOW. “You know,” the captain said, “if the old boy had known what this house was going to go through, he might have built it some different.”

  “He built it solid, anyway,” Essex said. “We can be thankful for that.”

  _____

  By three o’clock that afternoon the great windows downstairs, sparkling clean and shining, were covered entirely. Essex and the captain, with help from Gloria and Maryjane, had used blankets, bedspreads, tablecloths, sheets, and finally the huge canvas cover from the barbecue pit, which it cost them a struggle to bring in through the roaring wind. During all this time Julia had sat huddled in a big chair in one corner of the drawing room, crying a little and watching the big chandelier feverishly. The lights were still on, and several of them had remarked that it was no darker now, with the windows covered, than it had been before, with the sky black and furious outside. Fancy and her grandfather were playing checkers in his room. Mrs. Halloran had brought out a second bottle of sherry to accompany their cold lunch, but the captain, Essex, and a somewhat recovered Mrs. Willow were drinking whisky. Every available container in the house had been filled with water, and on the long drawing room table there was a line of thermos bottles, brought from the supplies in the library, each filled and labelled “Coffee” “Soup” or “Tea.” Blankets were piled neatly on a corner table in the drawing room, candles were in all the candlesticks, and extra boxes of candles on the mantel, with packages of matches. Mrs. Halloran, with half-hearted assistance from Mrs. Willow, had made plates of sandwiches and covered them with wax paper; they sat on the drawing room table with the row of thermos bottles. Under advice from Essex, who liked his whisky with ice, Mrs. Halloran had also filled two insulated ice buckets and, amused, informed Essex that so long as the refrigerator kept running, he need not drink his whisky warm. “I plan to drink a lot of it tonight,” said Essex. “And I am with you,” Mrs. Willow said.

  Except for Julia, most of their original apprehension had faded into a kind of grim humor. They had done all they could; they were almost used to the crash of the wind against the sides of the house; they were excited and festive, with a kind of picnic air.

  “My hangover is gone,” Mrs. Willow announced once with deep pleasure.

  Maryjane laughed. “I am never going to have any more asthma,” she said. “Do you know,” she told Aunt Fanny, “I have been better today than any time since Lionel passed on.”

  “That,” said Aunt Fanny sternly, “is because you got up and did a little hard work for a change. And I promise you, you will be active enough from now on.”

  “I am going to dress,” Mrs. Halloran said. “I do not know how much longer the lights will stay on, and I am sure I would detest dressing by candlelight.”

  “Better take a candle with you anyway,” the captain said.

  Mrs. Halloran rose and stood in the center of the room. “Before I go,” she said, “we must be sure that all instructions are clearly understood. I have already told you that I expect all of you to be here, in this room, suitably dressed, by four o’clock, and that no one is to leave this room after that time. I recommend that you dress yourselves as well as possible, with, of course, due attention to warmth and safety, but with an eye to our appearance tomorrow morning and the good impression we must create. When I step out of this house tomorrow morning, I want to know that I am bringing with me into that clean world a family neat, prepossessing, and well-groomed. Remember,” and for a minute Mrs. Halloran hesitated, because her voice shook; she put one hand against her lips, and said, “Remember, this—this is the end we have waited for so long.”

  “Very true,” Aunt Fanny said, bustling. “We must all look our very best.”

  “And hurry, too,” Arabella said. “Julia, stop moping and hurry.”

  “The light is dimmer,” Julia said.

  “More reason to hurry,” Aunt Fanny said, and Julia rose wearily.

  “Fancy?” Maryjane called down the corridor. “Fancy? Come and put on your party dress; it’s time.”

  “My father always liked to see his daughter sweet and clean, although a pinafore until the party actually starts—”

  “It irks me,” Essex said to the captain, “to be required to greet our free bright world in a jacket and a tie.”

  “Feel a little out of place?” the captain asked.

  “Like a businessman from the city walking into a summer camp,” Essex said.

  “I suppose we’ll be allowed to dress informally now and then,” the captain said. “Anyway, from what I heard, your hunting costume was most informal.”

  “Come along, my gels,” Mrs. Willow said, shepherding Julia and Arabella, “you’ll be the belles of the ball, and this is going to be a party, this is; Julia, you’ll be more cheerful in your fine clothes; Belle, a lady must not linger on her way to her toilette; Aunt Fanny, take my candle, since I see you are without, and I shall use Belle’s; do come, my beauties.”

  “Oh, dear,” Miss Ogilvie said, wavering, “ought I to dress, too, Mrs. Willow? Am I to have a candle? Perhaps I am only expected to wait here? Or Mr. Halloran—I could perhaps go to Mr. Halloran?”

  “Miss Ogilvie,” Mrs. Willow said sternly, “you are to inherit with the rest of us, and you must not be remiss in your dress. Mr. Halloran will be well enough for half an hour, and Mrs. Halloran would be very much displeased if you were not here at four o’clock in your better clothes. It is like going to church, Miss Ogilvie, precisely like going to church—one dresses decently, you know. Although, sadly, unlike going to church to be married, Miss Ogilvie, although I expect you will not perceive the fine difference in degrees of felicity; Miss Ogilvie, I must stress our very great need for haste.”

  “If you would just step out of the doorway,” Miss Ogilvie said with dignity, “perhaps I could get through.”

  _____

  The lights went out at last while they were dressing, and there was so much noise of laughter and running from one room to another and remarks shouted down the dark hallways that it was difficult to hear even the wind, much less the sound of Mrs. Halloran going down the staircase. At any rate, they all appeared considerably surprised when, gathering with their candles upon the wide landing, festively dressed, eager and excited beneath WHEN SHALL WE LIVE IF NOT NOW? they saw, all at once, Mrs. Halloran lying in her golden gown, crumpled at the foot of the great staircase. In the weak light of the candles the stuff of the golden gown shimmered richly; “Mrs. Halloran?” Miss Ogilvie called down anxiously, but Mrs. Halloran did not answer and, further, did not move.

  “Good heavens,” Miss Ogilvie said to the rest of them, and then called again, “Mrs. Halloran? Are you all right?”

  “I expect somebody pushed her down the stairs,” Mrs. Willow said. She nodded profoundly and added, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”

  “I wonder how it could have happened,” Aunt Fanny said. “Poor Orianna was always so careful of her footing.”

  “Somebody pushed her, of course,” Mrs. Willow said.

  “I was certainly wondering about all those instructions and rules of hers,” Arabella said. “I kept thinking maybe she was going to a different place than ours. And so of course I was right, wasn’t I?”

  “My crown!” Fancy said suddenly, and bolted down the stairs.

  “Fancy dear, be careful—you’ll trip and fall,” Maryjane called, but Fancy leaped down the last two steps, avoiding Mrs. Halloran, and tugged at the crown. “It’s stuck,” she said.

  “One minute there.” The captain came heavily down the stairs and bent over Mrs. Halloran. For a minute he looked at her carefully, taking her wrist to feel her pulse, and then he stood up, shaking his head. “Poor old lady,” he said. And then, to Fancy, “I guess it’s your crown all right.” Gently he moved Mrs. Ha
lloran’s head and took off the crown to set on Fancy’s head.

  “My crown, now,” Fancy said, pleased.

  The rest were coming down the stairs, going carefully from one step to the next, with a certain tendency to eye with suspicion whoever was walking in back of them. “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” Mrs. Willow kept saying. They gathered around Mrs. Halloran, looking down in silence for a minute, and then Gloria said, “I can’t believe it. I am so sorry that I was rude to her.”

  Aunt Fanny smoothed the hair which had been disarranged when the captain took off the crown. “I am going to miss her,” she said with some surprise.

  “Well, somebody pushed her down the stairs,” Mrs. Willow said. “She never fell by herself.”

  “That hardly matters, does it?” Aunt Fanny said. “Poor Orianna.”

  “She wouldn’t like having all of us standing around staring at her,” Gloria said, and they all moved back a little, looking away.

  Essex sat on the bottom step of the staircase and said, looking at Mrs. Halloran, “She said she would either come with us as a ruler, or not at all. I wish,” he said, looking helplessly at the others, “that she had been able to change her mind.”

  “She was always a very firm woman,” Aunt Fanny said. She sighed. “I am going to miss her.”

  “Perhaps,” the captain suggested, with the air of one looking on the bright side, “perhaps she wouldn’t have liked it anyway. Tomorrow, I mean.”

  “She might have felt very out of place,” Arabella added.

  Essex leaned down and touched Mrs. Halloran’s cheek gently. Then he stood up and turned away. “Look at my crown,” Fancy said insistently, capering up to him, “Essex, look at my crown!”

  “It looks very nice on you, Fancy,” Maryjane said.

  “But vanity is out of place in a young girl,” Aunt Fanny said. “Try to remember, Fancy, that earthly possessions do not make a noble soul; just because you have a crown you are not any better than other girls your age.”

 
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