We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  “What’s funny?” Constance asked, turning to see.

  “I was thinking that you might make a gingerbread man, and I could name him Charles and eat him.”

  “Oh, Merricat, please.”

  I could tell that Constance was going to be irritable, partly because of me and partly because of the gingerbread, so I thought it wiser to run away. Since it was a free morning, and I was uneasy at going out of doors, it might be a good time to search out a device to use against Charles, and I started upstairs; the smell of baking gingerbread followed me almost halfway to the top. Charles had left his door open, not wide, but enough for me to get a hand inside.

  When I pushed a little the door opened wide and I looked in at our father’s room, which now belonged to Charles. Charles had made his bed, I noticed; his mother must have taught him. His suitcase was on a chair, but it was closed; there were things belonging to Charles on the dresser where our father’s possessions had always been kept; I saw Charles’ pipe, and a handkerchief, things that Charles had touched and used dirtying our father’s room. One drawer of the dresser was a little open, and I thought again of Charles picking over our father’s clothes. I walked very softly across the room because I did not want Constance to hear me from downstairs, and looked into the open drawer. I thought that Charles would not be pleased to know that I had caught him looking at our father’s things, and something from this drawer might be extraordinarily powerful, since it would carry a guilt of Charles. I was not surprised to find that he had been looking at our father’s jewelry; inside the drawer was a leather box which held, I knew, a watch and chain made of gold, and cuff links, and a signet ring. I would not touch our mother’s jewelry, but Constance had not said anything about our father’s jewelry, had not even come into this room to neaten, so I thought I could open the box and take something out. The watch was inside, in a small private box of its own, resting on a satin lining and not ticking, and the watch chain was curled beside it. I would not touch the ring; the thought of a ring around my finger always made me feel tied tight, because rings had no openings to get out of, but I liked the watch chain, which twisted and wound around my hand when I picked it up. I put the jewelry box carefully back inside the drawer and closed the drawer and went out of the room and closed the door after me, and took the watch chain into my room, where it curled again into a sleeping gold heap on the pillow.

  I had intended to bury it, but I was sorry when I thought how long it had been there in the darkness in the box in our father’s drawer, and I thought that it had earned a place up high, where it could sparkle in the sunlight, and I decided to nail it to the tree where the book had come down. While Constance made gingerbread in the kitchen, and Uncle Julian slept in his room, and Charles walked in and out of the village stores, I lay on my bed and played with my golden chain.

  “That’s my brother’s gold watch chain,” Uncle Julian said, leaning forward curiously. “I thought he was buried in it.”

  Charles’ hand was shaking as he held it out; I could see it shaking against the yellow of the wall behind him. “In a tree,” he said, and his voice was shaking too. “I found it nailed to a tree, for God’s sake. What kind of a house is this?”

  “It’s not important,” Constance said. “Really, Charles, it’s not important.”

  “Not important? Connie, this thing’s made of gold.”

  “But no one wants it.”

  “One of the links is smashed,” Charles said, mourning over the chain. “I could have worn it; what a hell of a way to treat a valuable thing. We could have sold it,” he said to Constance.

  “But why?”

  “I certainly did think he was buried in it,” Uncle Julian said. “He was never a man to give things away easily. I suppose he never knew they kept it from him.”

  “It’s worth money,” Charles said, explaining carefully to Constance. “This is a gold watch chain, worth possibly a good deal of money. Sensible people don’t go around nailing this kind of valuable thing to trees.”

  “Lunch will be cold if you stand there worrying.”

  “I’ll take it up and put it back in the box where it belongs,” Charles said. No one but me noticed that he knew where it had been kept. “Later,” he said, looking at me, “we’ll find out how it got on the tree.”

  “Merricat put it there,” Constance said. “Please do come to lunch.”

  “How do you know? About Mary?”

  “She always does.” Constance smiled at me. “Silly Merricat.”

  “Does she indeed?” said Charles. He came slowly over to the table, looking at me.

  “He was a man very fond of his person,” Uncle Julian said. “Given to adorning himself, and not overly clean.”

  It was quiet in the kitchen; Constance was in Uncle Julian’s room, putting him to bed for his afternoon nap. “Where would poor Cousin Mary go if her sister turned her out?” Charles asked Jonas, who listened quietly. “What would poor Cousin Mary do if Constance and Charles didn’t love her?”

  I cannot think why it seemed to me that I might simply ask Charles to go away. Perhaps I thought that he had to be asked politely just once; perhaps the idea of going away had just not come into his mind and it was necessary to put it there. I decided that asking Charles to go away was the next thing to do, before he was everywhere in the house and could never be eradicated. Already the house smelled of him, of his pipe and his shaving lotion, and the noise of him echoed in the rooms all day long; his pipe was sometimes on the kitchen table and his gloves or his tobacco pouch or his constant boxes of matches were scattered through our rooms. He walked into the village each afternoon and brought back newspapers which he left lying anywhere, even in the kitchen where Constance might see them. A spark from his pipe had left a tiny burn on the rose brocade of a chair in the drawing room; Constance had not yet noticed it and I thought not to tell her because I hoped that the house, injured, would reject him by itself.

  “Constance,” I asked her on a bright morning; Charles had been in our house for three days then, I thought; “Constance, has he said anything yet about leaving?”

  She was increasingly cross with me when I wanted Charles to leave; always before Constance had listened and smiled and only been angry when Jonas and I had been wicked, but now she frowned at me often, as though I somehow looked different to her. “I’ve told you,” she said to me, “I’ve told you and told you that I won’t hear any more silliness about Charles. He is our cousin and he has been invited to visit us and he will probably go when he is ready.”

  “He makes Uncle Julian sicker.”

  “He’s only trying to keep Uncle Julian from thinking about sad things all the time. And I agree with him. Uncle Julian should be cheerful.”

  “Why should he be cheerful if he’s going to die?”

  “I haven’t been doing my duty,” Constance said.

  “I don’t know what that means.”

  “I’ve been hiding here,” Constance said slowly, as though she were not at all sure of the correct order of the words. She stood by the stove in the sunlight with color in her hair and eyes and not smiling, and she said slowly, “I have let Uncle Julian spend all his time living in the past and particularly re-living that one dreadful day. I have let you run wild; how long has it been since you combed your hair?”

  I could not allow myself to be angry, and particularly not angry with Constance, but I wished Charles dead. Constance needed guarding more than ever before and if I became angry and looked aside she might very well be lost. I said very cautiously, “On the moon . . .”

  “On the moon,” Constance said, and laughed unpleasantly. “It’s all been my fault,” she said. “I didn’t realize how wrong I was, letting things go on and on because I wanted to hide. It wasn’t fair to you or to Uncle Julian.”

  “And Charles is also mending the broken step?”

  “Uncle Julian should be in a hospital, with nurses to take care of him. And you—” She opened her eyes wide suddenly, as
though seeing her old Merricat again, and then she held out her arms to me. “Oh, Merricat,” she said, and laughed a little. “Listen to me scolding you; how silly I am.”

  I went to her and put my arms around her. “I love you, Constance.”

  “You’re a good child, Merricat,” she said.

  That was when I left her and went outside to talk to Charles. I knew I would dislike talking to Charles, but it was almost too late to ask him politely and I thought I should ask him once. Even the garden had become a strange landscape with Charles’ figure in it; I could see him standing under the apple trees and the trees were crooked and shortened beside him. I came out the kitchen door and walked slowly toward him. I was trying to think charitably of him, since I would never be able to speak kindly until I did, but whenever I thought of his big white face grinning at me across the table or watching me whenever I moved I wanted to beat at him until he went away, I wanted to stamp on him after he was dead, and see him lying dead on the grass. So I made my mind charitable toward Charles and came up to him slowly.

  “Cousin Charles?” I said, and he turned to look at me. I thought of seeing him dead. “Cousin Charles?”


  “I have decided to ask you please to go away.”

  “All right,” he said. “You asked me.”

  “Please will you go away?”

  “No,” he said.

  I could not think of anything further to say. I saw that he was wearing our father’s gold watch chain, even with the crooked link, and I knew without seeing that our father’s watch was in his pocket. I thought that tomorrow he would be wearing our father’s signet ring, and I wondered if he would make Constance put on our mother’s pearls.

  “You stay away from Jonas,” I said.

  “As a matter of fact,” he said, “come about a month from now, I wonder who will still be here? You,” he said, “or me?”

  I ran back into the house and straight up to our father’s room, where I hammered with a shoe at the mirror over the dresser until it cracked across. Then I went into my room and rested my head on the window sill and slept.

  I was remembering these days to be kinder to Uncle Julian. I was sorry because he was spending more and more time in his room, taking both his breakfast and his lunch on a tray and only eating his dinners in the dining room under the despising eye of Charles.

  “Can’t you feed him or something?” Charles asked Constance. “He’s got food all over himself.”

  “I didn’t mean to,” Uncle Julian said, looking at Constance.

  “Ought to wear a baby bib,” Charles said, laughing.

  While Charles sat in the kitchen in the mornings eating hugely of ham and potatoes and fried eggs and hot biscuits and doughnuts and toast, Uncle Julian drowsed in his room over his hot milk and sometimes when he called to Constance, Charles said, “Tell him you’re busy; you don’t have to go running every time he wets his bed; he just likes being waited on.”

  I always had my breakfast earlier than Charles on those sunny mornings, and if he came down before I finished I would take my plate out and sit on the grass under the chestnut tree. Once I brought Uncle Julian a new leaf from the chestnut tree and put it on his window sill. I stood outside in the sunlight and looked in at him lying still in the dark room and tried to think of ways I might be kinder. I thought of him lying there alone dreaming old Uncle Julian dreams, and I went into the kitchen and said to Constance, “Will you make Uncle Julian a little soft cake for his lunch?”

  “She’s too busy now,” Charles said with his mouth full. “Your sister works like a slave.”

  “Will you?” I asked Constance.

  “I’m sorry,” Constance said. “I have so much to do.”

  “But Uncle Julian is going to die.”

  “Constance is too busy,” Charles said. “Run along and play.”

  I followed Charles one afternoon when he went to the village. I stopped by the black rock, because it was not one of my days for going into the village, and watched Charles go down the main street. He stopped and talked for a minute to Stella, who was standing in the sunlight outside her shop, and he bought a paper; when I saw him sit down on the benches with the other men I turned and went back to our house. If I went into the village shopping again Charles would be one of the men who watched me going past. Constance was working in her garden and Uncle Julian slept in his chair in the sun, and when I sat quietly on my bench Constance asked, not looking up at me, “Where have you been, Merricat?”

  “Wandering. Where is my cat?”

  “I think,” Constance said, “that we are going to have to forbid your wandering. It’s time you quieted down a little.”

  “Does ‘we’ mean you and Charles?”

  “Merricat.” Constance turned toward me, sitting back against her feet and folding her hands before her. “I never realized until lately how wrong I was to let you and Uncle Julian hide here with me. We should have faced the world and tried to live normal lives; Uncle Julian should have been in a hospital all these years, with good care and nurses to watch him. We should have been living like other people. You should . . .” She stopped, and waved her hands helplessly. “You should have boy friends,” she said finally, and then began to laugh because she sounded funny even to herself.

  “I have Jonas,” I said, and we both laughed and Uncle Julian woke up suddenly and laughed a thin old cackle.

  “You are the silliest person I ever saw,” I told Constance, and went off to look for Jonas. While I was wandering Charles came back to our house; he brought a newspaper and a bottle of wine for his dinner and our father’s scarf which I had used to tie shut the gate, because Charles had a key.

  “I could have worn this scarf,” he said irritably, and I heard him from the vegetable garden where I had found Jonas sleeping in a tangle of young lettuce plants. “It’s an expensive thing, and I like the colors.”

  “It belonged to Father,” Constance said.

  “That reminds me,” Charles said. “One of these days I’d like to look over the rest of his clothes.” He was quiet for a minute; I thought he was probably sitting down on my bench. Then he went on, very lightly. “Also,” he said, “while I’m here, I ought to go over your father’s papers. There might be something important.”

  “Not my papers,” Uncle Julian said. “That young man is not to put a finger on my papers.”

  “I haven’t even seen your father’s study,” Charles said.

  “We don’t use it. Nothing in there is ever touched.”

  “Except the safe, of course,” Charles said.


  “Yes, Uncle Julian?”

  “I want you to have my papers afterwards. No one else is to touch my papers, do you hear me?”

  “Yes, Uncle Julian.”

  I was not allowed to open the safe where Constance kept our father’s money. I was allowed to go into the study, but I disliked it and never even touched the doorknob. I hoped Constance would not open the study for Charles; he already had our father’s bedroom, after all, and our father’s watch and his gold chain and his signet ring. I was thinking that being a demon and a ghost must be very difficult, even for Charles; if he ever forgot, or let his disguise drop for a minute, he would be recognized at once and driven away; he must be extremely careful to use the same voice every time, and present the same face and the same manner without a slip; he must be constantly on guard against betraying himself. I wondered if he would turn back to his true form when he was dead. When it grew cooler and I knew that Constance would be taking Uncle Julian indoors I left Jonas asleep on the lettuce plants and came back into the house. When I came into the kitchen Uncle Julian was poking furiously at the papers on his table, trying to get them into a small heap, and Constance was peeling potatoes. I could hear Charles moving around upstairs, and for a minute the kitchen was warm and glowing and bright.

  “Jonas is asleep in the lettuce,” I said.

  “There is nothing I l
ike more than cat fur in my salad,” Constance said amiably.

  “It is time that I had a box,” Uncle Julian announced. He sat back and looked angrily at his papers. “They must all be put into a box, this very minute. Constance?”

  “Yes, Uncle Julian; I can find you a box.”

  “If I put all my papers in a box and put the box in my room, then that dreadful young man cannot touch them. He is a dreadful young man, Constance.”

  “Really, Uncle Julian, Charles is very kind.”

  “He is dishonest. His father was dishonest. Both my brothers were dishonest. If he tries to take my papers you must stop him; I cannot permit tampering with my papers and I will not tolerate intrusion. You must tell him this, Constance. He is a bastard.”

  “Uncle Julian—”

  “In a purely metaphorical sense, I assure you. Both my brothers married women of very strong will. That is merely a word used—among men, my dear; I apologize for submitting you to such a word—to categorize an undesirable fellow.”

  Constance turned without speaking and opened the door which led to the cellar stairs and to the rows and rows of food preserved at the very bottom of our house. She went quietly down the stairs, and we could hear Charles moving upstairs and Constance moving downstairs.

  “William of Orange was a bastard,” Uncle Julian said to himself; he took up a bit of paper and made a note. Constance came back up the cellar stairs with a box which she brought to Uncle Julian. “Here is a clean box,” she said.

  “What for?” Uncle Julian asked.

  “To put your papers in.”

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