We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


  “Now it looks like a tomb,” the other woman said.

  “Shh,” the first woman said, and gestured toward the house with her head. “I heard,” she said loudly, “that they had a staircase which was very fine. Carved in Italy, I heard.”

  “They can’t hear you,” the other woman said, amused. “And who cares if they do, anyway?”

  “Shhh.”

  “No one knows for sure if there’s anyone inside or not. The local people tell some tall tales.”

  “Shh. Tommy,” she called to one of the children, “don’t you go near those steps.”

  “Why?” said the child, backing away.

  “Because the ladies live in there, and they don’t like it.”

  “Why?” said the child, pausing at the foot of the steps and giving a quick look backward at our front door.

  “The ladies don’t like little boys,” the second woman said; she was one of the bad ones; I could see her mouth from the side and it was the mouth of a snake.

  “What would they do to me?”

  “They’d hold you down and make you eat candy full of poison; I heard that dozens of bad little boys have gone too near that house and never been seen again. They catch little boys and they—”

  “Shh. Honestly, Ethel.”

  “Do they like little girls?” The other child drew near.

  “They hate little boys and little girls. The difference is, they eat the little girls.”

  “Ethel, stop. You’re terrifying the children. It isn’t true, darlings; she’s only teasing you.”

  “They never come out except at night,” the bad woman said, looking evilly at the children, “and then when it’s dark they go hunting little children.”

  “Just the same,” the man said suddenly, “I don’t want to see the kids going too near that house.”

  Charles Blackwood came back only once. He came in a car with another man late one afternoon when we had been watching for a long time. All the strangers had gone, and Constance had just stirred and said, “Time to put on the potatoes,” when the car turned into the driveway and she settled back to watch again. Charles and the other man got out of the car in front of the house and walked directly to the foot of the steps, looking up, although they could not see us inside. I remembered the first time Charles had come and stood looking up at our house in just the same manner, but this time he would never get in. I reached up and touched the lock on the front door to make sure it was fastened, and on the other side of the doorway Constance turned and nodded to me; she knew, too, that Charles would never get in again.

  “See?” Charles said, outside, at the foot of our steps. “There’s the house, just like I said. It doesn’t look as bad as it did, now the vines have grown so. But the roof’s been burned away, and the place was gutted inside.”

  “Are the ladies in there?”

  “Sure.” Charles laughed, and I remembered his laughter and his big staring white face and from inside the door I wished him dead. “They’re in there all right,” he said. “And so is a whole damn fortune.”

  “You know that?”

  “They’ve got money in there’s never even been counted. They’ve got it buried all over, and a safe full, and God knows where else they’ve hidden it. They never come out, just hide away inside with all that money.”

  “Look,” the other man said, “they know you, don’t they?”

  “Sure. I’m their cousin. I came here on a visit once.”

  “You think there’s any chance you might get one of them to talk to you? Maybe come to the window or something, so I could get a picture?”

  Charles thought. He looked at the house and at the other man, and thought. “If you sell this, to the magazine or somewhere, do I get half?”

  “Sure, it’s a promise.”

  “I’ll try it,” Charles said. “You get back behind the car, out of sight. They certainly won’t come out if they see a stranger.” The other man went back to the car and took out a camera and settled himself on the other side of the car where we could not see him. “Okay,” he called, and Charles started up the steps to our front door.

  “Connie?” he called. “Hey, Connie? It’s Charles; I’m back.”

  I looked at Constance and thought she had never seen Charles so truly before.

  “Connie?”

  She knew now that Charles was a ghost and a demon, one of the strangers.

  “Let’s forget all that happened,” Charles said. He came close to the door and spoke pleasantly, with a little pleading tone. “Let’s be friends again.”

  I could see his feet. One of them was tapping and tapping on the floor of our porch. “I don’t know what you’ve got against me,” he said, “and I’ve been waiting and waiting for you to let me know I could come back again. If I did anything to offend you, I’m really sorry.”

  I wished Charles could see inside, could see us sitting on the floor on either side of the front door, listening to him and looking at his feet, while he talked beggingly to the door three feet above our heads.

  “Open the door,” he said very softly. “Connie, will you open the door for me, for Cousin Charles?”

  Constance looked up to where his face must be and smiled unpleasantly. I thought it must be a smile she had been saving for Charles if he ever came back again.

  “I went to see old Julian’s grave this morning,” Charles said. “I came back to visit old Julian’s grave and to see you once more.” He waited a minute and then said with a little break in his voice, “I put a couple of flowers—you know—on the old fellow’s grave; he was a fine old guy, and he was always pretty good to me.”

  Beyond Charles’ feet I saw the other man coming out from behind the car with his camera. “Look,” he called, “you’re wasting your breath. And I haven’t got all day.”

  “Don’t you understand?” Charles had turned away from the door, but his voice still had the little break in it. “I’ve got to see her once more. I was the cause of it all.”

  “What?”

  “Why do you suppose two old maids shut themselves up in a house like this? God knows,” Charles said, “I didn’t mean it to turn out this way.”

  I thought Constance was going to speak then, or at least laugh out loud, and I reached across and touched her arm, warning her to be quiet, but she did not turn her head to me.

  “If I could just talk to her,” Charles said. “You can get some pictures of the house, anyway, with me standing here. Or knocking at the door; I could be knocking frantically at the door.”

  “You could be stretched across the doorsill dying of a broken heart, for all of me,” the other man said. He went to the car and put his camera inside. “Waste of time.”

  “And all that money. Connie,” Charles called loudly, “will you for heaven’s sake open that door?”

  “You know,” the other man said from the car, “I’ll just bet you’re never going to see those silver dollars again.”

  “Connie,” Charles said, “you don’t know what you’re doing to me; I never deserved to be treated like this. Please, Connie.”

  “You want to walk back to town?” the other man said. He closed the car door.

  Charles turned away from the door and then turned back. “All right, Connie,” he said, “this is it. If you let me go this time, you’ll never see me again. I mean it, Connie.”

  “I’m leaving,” the other man said from the car.

  “I mean it, Connie, I really do.” Charles started down the steps, talking over his shoulder. “Take a last look,” he said. “I’m going. One word could make me stay.”

  I did not think he was going to go in time. I honestly did not know whether Constance was going to be able to contain herself until he got down the steps and safely into the car. “Goodbye, Connie,” he said from the foot of the steps and then turned away and went slowly toward the car. He looked for a minute as though he might wipe his eyes or blow his nose, but the other man said, “Hurry up,” and Charles looked back onc
e more, raised his hand sadly, and got into the car. Then Constance laughed, and I laughed, and for a minute I saw Charles in the car turn his head quickly, as though he had heard us laughing, but the car started, and drove off down the driveway, and we held each other in the dark hall and laughed, with the tears running down our cheeks and echoes of our laughter going up the ruined stairway to the sky.

  “I am so happy,” Constance said at last, gasping. “Merricat, I am so happy.”

  “I told you that you would like it on the moon.”

  The Carringtons stopped their car in front of our house one Sunday after church and sat quietly in the car looking at our house, as though supposing that we would come out if there was anything the Carringtons could do for us. Sometimes I thought of the drawing room and the dining room, forever closed away, with our mother’s lovely broken things lying scattered, and the dust sifting gently down to cover them; we had new landmarks in the house, just as we had a new pattern for our days. The crooked, broken-off fragment which was all that was left of our lovely stairway was something we passed every day and came to know as intimately as we had once known the stairs themselves. The boards across the kitchen windows were ours, and part of our house, and we loved them. We were very happy, although Constance was always in terror lest one of our two cups should break, and one of us have to use a cup without a handle. We had our well-known and familiar places: our chairs at the table, and our beds, and our places beside the front door. Constance washed the red and white tablecloth and the shirts of Uncle Julian’s which she wore, and while they were hanging in the garden to dry I wore a tablecloth with a yellow border, which looked very handsome with my gold belt. Our mother’s old brown shoes were safely put away in my corner of the kitchen, since in the warm summer days I went barefoot like Jonas. Constance disliked picking many flowers, but there was always a bowl on the kitchen table with roses or daisies, although of course she never picked a rose from Uncle Julian’s rosebush.

  I sometimes thought of my six blue marbles, but I was not allowed to go to the long field now, and I thought that perhaps my six blue marbles had been buried to protect a house which no longer existed and had no connection with the house where we lived now, and where we were very happy. My new magical safeguards were the lock on the front door, and the boards over the windows, and the barricades along the sides of the house. In the evenings sometimes we saw movement in the darkness on the lawn, and heard whispers.

  “Don’t; the ladies might be watching.”

  “You think they can see in the dark?”

  “I heard they see everything that goes on.”

  Then there might be laughter, drifting away into the warm darkness.

  “They will soon be calling this Lover’s Lane,” Constance said.

  “After Charles, no doubt.”

  “The least Charles could have done,” Constance said, considering seriously, “was shoot himself through the head in the driveway.”

  We learned, from listening, that all the strangers could see from outside, when they looked at all, was a great ruined structure overgrown with vines, barely recognizable as a house. It was the point halfway between the village and the highway, the middle spot on the path, and no one ever saw our eyes looking out through the vines.

  “You can’t go on those steps,” the children warned each other; “if you do, the ladies will get you.”

  Once a boy, dared by the others, stood at the foot of the steps facing the house, and shivered and almost cried and almost ran away, and then called out shakily, “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” and then fled, followed by all the others. That night we found on the doorsill a basket of fresh eggs and a note reading, “He didn’t mean it, please.”

  “Poor child,” Constance said, putting the eggs into a bowl to go into the cooler. “He’s probably hiding under the bed right now.”

  “Perhaps he had a good whipping to teach him manners.”

  “We will have an omelette for breakfast.”

  “I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.”

  “I doubt if I could cook one,” said Constance.

  “Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”

  “Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”

  “Jonas and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”

 


 

  Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  (Series: # )

 

 


 

 
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