The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson

 

"It was the custom, rigidly adhered to," Luke said, turning the brandy in his glass, "for the public executioner, before a quartering, to outline his knife strokes in chalk upon the belly of his victim—for fear of a slip, you understand."

I would like to hit her with a stick, Eleanor thought, looking down on Theodora's head beside her chair; I would like to batter her with rocks.

"An exquisite refinement, exquisite. Because of course the chalk strokes would have been almost unbearable, excruciating, if the victim were ticklish."

I hate her, Eleanor thought, she sickens me; she is all washed and clean and wearing my red sweater.

"When the death was by hanging in chains, however, the executioner…"

"Nell?" Theodora looked up at her and smiled. "I really am sorry, you know," she said.

I would like to watch her dying, Eleanor thought, and smiled back and said, "Don't be silly."

"Among the Sufis there is a teaching that the universe has never been created and consequently cannot be destroyed. I have spent the afternoon," Luke announced gravely, "browsing in our little library."

The doctor sighed. "No chess tonight, I think," he said to Luke, and Luke nodded. "It has been an exhausting day," the doctor said, "and I think you ladies should retire early."

"Not until I am well dulled with brandy," Theodora said firmly.

"Fear," the doctor said, "is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway."

"I was wondering earlier," Eleanor said, feeling she had somehow an apology to make to all of them. "I thought I was altogether calm, and yet now I know I was terribly afraid." She frowned, puzzled, and they waited for her to go on. "When I am afraid, I can see perfectly the sensible, beautiful not-afraid side of the world, I can see chairs and tables and windows staying the same, not affected in the least, and I can see things like the careful woven texture of the carpet, not even moving. But when I am afraid I no longer exist in any relation to these things. I suppose because things are not afraid."

"I think we are only afraid of ourselves," the doctor said slowly.

"No," Luke said. "Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise."

"Of knowing what we really want," Theodora said. She pressed her cheek against Eleanor's hand and Eleanor, hating the touch of her, took her hand away quickly.

"I am always afraid of being alone," Eleanor said, and wondered, Am I talking like this? Am I saying something I will regret bitterly tomorrow? Am I making more guilt for myself? "Those letters spelled out my name, and none of you know what that feels like—it's so familiar." And she gestured to them, almost in appeal. "Try to see," she said. "It's my own dear name, and it belongs to me, and something is using it and writing it and calling me with it and my own name…" She stopped and said, looking from one of them to another, even down onto Theodora's face looking up at her, "Look. There's only one of me, and it's all I've got. I hate seeing myself dissolve and slip and separate so that I'm living in one half, my mind, and I see the other half of me helpless and frantic and driven and I can't stop it, but I know I'm not really going to be hurt and yet time is so long and even a second goes on and on and I could stand any of it if I could only surrender—"

"Surrender?" said the doctor sharply, and Eleanor stared.

"Surrender?" Luke repeated.

"I don't know," Eleanor said, perplexed. I was just talking along, she told herself, I was saying something—what was I just saying?

"She has done this before," Luke said to the doctor.

"I know," said the doctor gravely, and Eleanor could feel them all looking at her. "I'm sorry," she said. "Did I make a fool of myself? It's probably because I'm tired."

"Not at all," the doctor said, still grave. "Drink your brandy."

"Brandy? "And Eleanor looked down, realizing that she held a brandy glass. "What did I say?" she asked them.

Theodora chuckled. "Drink," she said. "You need it, my Nell." Obediently Eleanor sipped at her brandy, feeling clearly its sharp burn, and then said to the doctor, "I must have said something silly, from the way you're all staring at me."

The doctor laughed. "Stop trying to be the center of attention."

"Vanity," Luke said serenely.

"Have to be in the limelight," Theodora said, and they smiled fondly, all looking at Eleanor.

4

Sitting up in the two beds beside each other, Eleanor and Theodora reached out between and held hands tight; the room was brutally cold and thickly dark. From the room next door, the room which until that morning had been Theodora's, came the steady low sound of a voice babbling, too low for words to be understood, too steady for disbelief. Holding hands so hard that each of them could feel the other's bones, Eleanor and Theodora listened, and the low, steady sound went on and on, the voice lifting sometimes for an emphasis on a mumbled word, falling sometimes to a breath, going on and on. Then, without warning, there was a little laugh, the small gurgling laugh that broke through the babbling, and rose as it laughed, on up and up the scale, and then broke off suddenly in a little painful gasp, and the voice went on.

Theodora's grasp loosened, and tightened, and Eleanor, lulled for a minute by the sounds, started and looked across to where Theodora ought to be in the darkness, and then thought, screamingly, Why is it dark? Why it dark? She rolled and clutched Theodora's hand with both of hers, and tried to speak and could not, and held on, blindly, and frozen, trying to stand her mind on its feet, trying to reason again. We left the light on, she told herself, so why is it dark? Theodora, she tried to whisper, and her mouth could not move; Theodora, she tried to ask, why is it dark? and the voice went on, babbling, low and steady, a little liquid gloating sound. She thought she might be able to distinguish words if she lay perfectly still, if she lay perfectly still, and listened, and listened and heard the voice going on and on, never ceasing, and she hung desperately to Theodora's hand and felt an answering weight on her own hand.

Then the little gurgling laugh came again, and the rising mad sound of it drowned out the voice, and then suddenly absolute silence. Eleanor took a breath, wondering if she could speak now, and then she heard a little soft cry which broke her heart, a little infinitely sad cry, a little sweet moan of wild sadness. It is a child, she thought with disbelief, a child is crying somewhere, and then, upon that thought, came the wild shrieking voice she had never heard before and yet knew she had heard always in her nightmares. "Go away!" it screamed. "Go away, go away, don't hurt me," and, after, sobbing, "Please don't hurt me. Please let me go home," and then the little sad crying again.

I can't stand it, Eleanor thought concretely. This is monstrous, this is cruel, they have been hurting a child and I won't let anyone hurt a child, and the babbling went on, low and steady, on and on and on, the voice rising a little and falling a little, going on and on.

Now, Eleanor thought, perceiving that she was lying sideways on the bed in the black darkness, holding with both hands to Theodora's hand, holding so tight she could feel the fine bones of Theodora's fingers, now, I will not endure this. They think to scare me. Well, they have. I am scared, but more than that, I am a person, I am human, I am a walking reasoning humorous human being and I will take a lot from this lunatic filthy house but I will not go along with hurting a child, no, I will not; I will by God get my mouth to open right now and I will yell I will I will yell "STOP IT," she shouted, and the lights were on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and disheveled.

"What?" Theodora was saying. "What, Nell? What?"

"God God," Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, "God God—whose hand was I holding?"

 

 

Chapter 6

I am learning the pathways of the heart, Eleanor thought quite seriously, and then wondered what she could have meant by thinking any such thing. It was afternoon, and she sat in the sunlight on the steps of the summerhouse beside Luke; these are the silent pathways of the heart, she thought. She knew that she was pale, and still shaken, with dark circles under her eyes, but the sun was warm and the leaves moved gently overhead, and Luke beside her lay lazily against the step. "Luke," she asked, going slowly for fear of ridicule, "why do people want to talk to each other? I mean, what are the things people always want to find out about other people?"

"What do you want to know about me, for instance?" He laughed. She thought, But why not ask what he wants to know about me; he is so extremely vain—and laughed in turn and said, "What can I ever know about you, beyond what I see?" See was the least of the words she might have chosen, but the safest. Tell me something that only I will ever know, was perhaps what she wanted to ask him, or, What will you give me to remember you by?—or, even, Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me; can you help? Then she wondered if she had been foolish, or bold, amazed at her own thoughts, but he only stared down at the leaf he held in his hands and frowned a little, as one who devotes himself completely to an absorbing problem.

He is trying to phrase everything to make as good an impression as possible, she thought, and I will know how he holds me by what he answers; how is he anxious to appear to me? Does he think that I will be content with small mysticism, or will he exert himself to seem unique? Is he going to be gallant? That would be humiliating, because then he would show that he knows that gallantry enchants me; will he be mysterious? Mad? And how am I to receive this, which I perceive already will be a confidence, even if it is not true? Grant that Luke take me at my worth, she thought, or at least let me not see the difference. Let him be wise, or let me be blind; don't let me, she hoped concretely, don't let me know too surely what he thinks of me.

Then he looked at her briefly and smiled what she was coming to know as his self-deprecatory smile; did Theodora, she wondered, and the thought was unwelcome, did Theodora know him as well as this?

"I never had a mother," he said, and the shock was enormous. Is that all he thinks of me, his estimate of what I want to hear of him; will I enlarge this into a confidence making me worthy of great confidences? Shall I sigh? Murmur? Walk away? "No one ever loved me because I belonged," he said. "I suppose you can understand that?"

No, she thought, you are not going to catch me so cheaply; I do not understand words and will not accept them in trade for my feelings; this man is a parrot. I will tell him that I can never understand such a thing, that maudlin self-pity does not move directly at my heart; I will not make a fool of myself by encouraging him to mock me. "I understand, yes," she said.

"I thought you might," he said, and she wanted, quite honestly, to slap his face. "I think you must be a very fine person, Nell," he said, and then spoiled it by adding, "warmhearted, and honest. Afterwards, when you go home…" His voice trailed off, and she thought, Either he is beginning to tell me something extremely important, or he is killing time until this conversation can gracefully be ended. He would not speak in this fashion without a reason; he does not willingly give himself away. Does he think that a human gesture of affection might seduce me into hurling myself madly at him? Is he afraid that I cannot behave like a lady? What does he know about me, about how I think and feel; does he feel sorry for me? "Journeys end in lovers meeting," she said.

"Yes," he said. "I never had a mother, as I told you. Now I find that everyone else has had something-that I missed." He smiled at her. "I am entirely selfish," he said ruefully, "and always hoping that someone will tell me to behave, someone will make herself responsible for me and make me be grown-up."

He is altogether selfish, she thought in some surprise, the only man I have ever sat and talked to alone, and I am impatient; he is simply not very interesting. "Why don't you grow up by yourself?" she asked him, and wondered how many people—how many women—had already asked him that.

"You're clever." And how many times had he answered that way?

This conversation must be largely instinctive, she thought with amusement, and said gently, "You must be a very lonely person." All I want is to be cherished, she thought, and here I am talking gibberish with a selfish man. "You must be very lonely indeed."

He touched her hand, and smiled again. "You were so lucky," he told her. "You had a mother."

2

"I found it in the library," Luke said. "I swear I found it in the library."

"Incredible," the doctor said.

"Look," Luke said. He set the great book on the table and turned to the title page. "He made it himself—look, the title's been lettered in ink: MEMORIES, for SOPHIA ANNE LESTER CRAIN; A Legacy for Her Education and Enlightenment During Her Lifetime From Her Affectionate and Devoted Father, HUGH DESMOND LESTER CRAIN; Twenty-first June, 1881."

They pressed around the table, Theodora and Eleanor and the doctor, while Luke lifted and turned the first great page of the book. "You see," Luke said, "his little girl is to learn humility. He has clearly cut up a number of fine old books to make this scrapbook, because I seem to recognize several of the pictures, and they are all glued in.

"The vanity of human accomplishment," the doctor said. sadly.

"Think of the books Hugh Cram hacked apart to make this. Now here is a Goya etching; a horrible thing for a little girl to meditate upon."

"Underneath he has written," Luke said, "under this ugly picture: 'Honor thy father and thy mother, Daughter, authors of thy being, upon whom a heavy charge has been laid, that they lead their child in innocence and righteousness along the fearful narrow path to everlasting bliss, and render her up at last to her God a pious and a virtuous soul; reflect, Daughter, upon the joy in Heaven as the souls of these tiny creatures wing upward, released before they have learned aught of sin or faithlessness, and make it thine unceasing duty to remain as pure as these."'

"Poor baby," Eleanor said, and gasped as Luke turned the page; Hugh Cram's second moral lesson derived from a color plate of a snake pit, and vividly painted snakes writhed and twisted along the page, above the message, neatly printed, and touched with gold: "Eternal damnation is the lot of mankind; neither tears, nor reparation, can undo Man's heritage of sin. Daughter, hold apart from this world, that its lusts and ingratitudes corrupt thee not; Daughter, preserve thyself."

"Next comes hell," Luke said. "Don't look if you're squeamish."

"I think I will skip hell," Eleanor said, "but read it to me."

"Wise of you," the doctor said. "An illustration from Foxe; one of the less attractive deaths, I have always thought, although who can fathom the ways of martyrs?"

"See this, though," Luke said. "He's burnt away a corner of the page, and here is what he says: 'Daughter, could you but hear for a moment the agony, the screaming, the dreadful crying out and repentance, of those poor souls condemned to everlasting flame! Could thine eyes be seared, but for an instant, with the red glare of wasteland burning always! Alas, wretched beings, in undying pain! Daughter, your father has this minute touched the corner of his page to his candle, and seen the frail paper shrivel and curl in the flame; consider, Daughter, that the heat of this candle is to the everlasting fires of Hell as a grain of sand to the reaching desert, and, as this paper burns in its slight flame so shall your soul burn forever, in fire a thousandfold more keen.'"

"I'll bet he read it to her every night before she went to sleep," Theodora said.

"Wait," Luke said. "You haven't seen Heaven yet—even you can look at this one, Nell. It's Blake, and a bit stern, I think, but obviously better than Hell. Listen—'Holy, holy, holy! In the pure light of heaven the angels praise Him and one another unendingly. Daughter, it is Here that I will seek thee.'"

"What a labor of love it is," the doctor said. "Hours of time just planning it, and the lettering is so dainty, and the gilt—"

"Now the seven deadly sins," Luke said, "and I think the old boy drew them himself."

"He really put his heart into gluttony," Theodora said. "I'm not sure I'll ever be hungry again."

"Wait till lust," Luke told her. "The old fellow outdid himself."

"I don't really want to look at any more of it, I think," Theodora said. "I'll sit over here with Nell, and if you come across any particularly edifying moral precepts you think would do me good, read them aloud."

"Here is lust," Luke said. "Was ever woman in this humor wooed?"

"Good heavens," said the doctor. "Good heavens."

"He must have drawn it himself," Luke said.

"For a child?" The doctor was outraged.

"Her very own scrapbook. Note Pride, the very image of our Nell here."

"What?" said Eleanor, starting up.

"Teasing," the doctor said placatingly. "Don't come look, my dear; he's teasing you."

"Sloth, now," Luke said.

"Envy," said the doctor. "How the poor child dared trans- gress…"

"The last page is the very nicest, I think. This, ladies, is Hugh Cram's blood. Nell, do you want to see Hugh Cram's blood?"

"No, thank you."

"Theo? No? In any case, I insist, for the sake of your two consciences, in reading what Hugh Cram has to say in closing his book: 'Daughter: sacred pacts are signed in blood, and I have here taken from my own wrist the vital fluid with which I bind you. Live virtuously, be meek, have faith in thy Redeemer, and in me, thy father, and I swear to thee that we will be joined together hereafter in unending bliss. Accept these precepts from thy devoted father, who in humbleness of spirit has made this book. May it serve its purpose well, my feeble effort, and preserve my Child from the pitfalls of this world and bring her safe to her father s arms in Heaven.' And signed: 'Thy everloving father, in this world and the next, author of thy being and guardian of thy virtue; in meekest love, Hugh Cram."'

Theodora shuddered. "How he must have enjoyed it," she said,

"signing his name in his own blood; I can see him laughing his head off."

"Not healthy, not at all a healthy work for a man," the doctor said.

"But she must have been very small when her father left the house," Eleanor said. "I wonder if he ever did read it to her."

"I'm sure he did, leaning over her cradle and spitting out the words so they would take root in her little mind. Hugh Cram," Theodora said, "you were a dirty old man, and you made a dirty old house and if you can still hear me from anywhere I would like to tell you to your face that I genuinely hope you will spend eternity in that foul horrible picture and never stop burning for a minute." She made a wild, derisive gesture around the room, and for a minute, still remembering, they were all silent, as though waiting for an answer, and then the coals in the fire fell with a little crash, and the doctor looked at his watch and Luke rose.

"The sun is over the yardarm," the doctor said happily.

3

Theodora curled by the fire, looking up wickedly at Eleanor; at the other end of the room the chessmen moved softly, jarring with little sounds against the table, and Theodora spoke gently, torment- ingly. "Will you have him at your little apartment, Nell, and offer him to drink from your cup of stars?"

Eleanor looked into the fire, not answering. I have been so silly, she thought, I have been a fool.

"Is there room enough for two? Would he come if you asked him?"

Nothing could be worse than this, Eleanor thought; I have been a fool.

"Perhaps he has been longing for a tiny home—something smaller, of course, than Hill House; perhaps he will come home with you."

A fool, a ludicrous fool.

"Your white curtains—your tiny stone lions—"

Eleanor looked down at her, almost gently. "But I had to come," she said, and stood up, turning blindly to get away. Not hearing the startled voices behind her, not seeing where or how she went, she blundered somehow to the great front door and out into the soft warm night. "I had to come," she said to the world outside.

Fear and guilt are sisters; Theodora caught her on the lawn. Silent, angry, hurt, they left Hill House side by side, walking together, each sorry for the other. A person angry; or laughing, or terrified, or jealous, will go stubbornly on into extremes of behavior impossible at another time; neither Eleanor nor Theodora reflected for a minute that it was imprudent for them to walk far from Hill House after dark. Each was so bent upon her own despair that escape into darkness was vital, and, containing themselves in that tight, vulnerable, impossible cloak which is fury, they stamped along together, each achingly aware of the other, each determined to be the last to speak.

Eleanor spoke first, finally; she had hurt her foot against a rock and tried to be too proud to notice it, but after a minutes her foot paining, she said, in a voice tight with the attempt to sound level, "I can't imagine why you think you have any right to interfere in my affairs," her language formal to prevent a flood of recrimination, or undeserved reproach (were they not strangers? cousins?). "I am sure that nothing I do is of any interest to you."

"That's right," Theodora said grimly. "Nothing that you do is of any interest to me."

We are walking on either side of a fence, Eleanor thought, but I have a right to live too, and I wasted an hour with Luke at the summerhouse trying to prove it. "I hurt my foot," she said.

"I'm sorry." Theodora sounded genuinely grieved. "You know what a beast he is." She hesitated. "A rake, she said finally, with a touch of amusement.

"I'm sure it's nothing to me what he is." And then, because they were women quarreling, "As if you cared, anyway."

"He shouldn't be allowed to get away with it," Theodora said.

"Get away with what?" Eleanor asked daintily.

"You're making a fool of yourself," Theodora said.

"Suppose I'm not, though? You'd mind terribly if you turned out to be wrong this time, wouldn't you?"

Theodora's voice was wearied, cynical. "If I'm wrong," she said, "I will bless you with all my heart. Fool that you are."

"You could hardly say anything else."

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