We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  “Oh, no,” she said. “No, thank you. No sugar.”

  I thought, looking at her, that she had dressed to come here today; Constance and I never wore black but Mrs. Wright had perhaps thought it was appropriate, and today she wore a plain black dress with a necklace of pearls. She had worn black the other time, too, I recalled; always in good taste, I thought, except in our mother’s drawing room. I went back to Constance and took up the plate of rum cakes and brought them to Mrs. Wright; that was not kind either, and she should have had the sandwiches first, but I wanted her to be unhappy, dressed in black in our mother’s drawing room. “My sister made these this morning,” I said.

  “Thank you,” she said. Her hand hesitated over the plate and then she took a rum cake and set it carefully on the edge of her saucer. I thought that Mrs. Wright was being almost hysterically polite, and I said, “Do take two. Everything my sister cooks is delicious.”

  “No,” she said. “Oh, no. Thank you.”

  Helen Clarke was eating sandwiches, reaching down past Constance to take one after another. She wouldn’t behave like this anywhere else, I thought, only here. She never cares what Constance thinks or I think of her manners; she only supposes we are so very glad to see her. Go away, I told her in my mind. Go away, go away. I wondered if Helen Clarke saved particular costumes for her visits to our house. “This,” I could imagine her saying, turning out her closet, “no sense in throwing this away, I can keep it for visiting dear Constance.” I began dressing Helen Clarke in my mind, putting her in a bathing suit on a snow bank, setting her high in the hard branches of a tree in a dress of flimsy pink ruffles that caught and pulled and tore; she was tangled in the tree and screaming and I almost laughed.

  “Why not ask some people here?” Helen Clarke was saying to Constance. “A few old friends—there are many people who have wanted to keep in touch with you, Constance dear—a few old friends some evening. For dinner? No,” she said, “perhaps not for dinner. Perhaps not, not at first.”

  “I myself—” Mrs. Wright began again; she had set her cup of tea and the little rum cake carefully on the table next to her.

  “Although why not for dinner?” Helen Clarke said. “After all, you have to take the plunge sometime.”

  I was going to have to say something. Constance was not looking at me, but only at Helen Clarke. “Why not invite some good people from the village?” I asked loudly.

  “Good heavens, Mary Katherine,” Helen Clarke said. “You really startled me.” She laughed. “I don’t recall that the Blackwoods ever mingled socially with the villagers,” she said.

  “They hate us,” I said.

  “I don’t listen to their gossip, and I hope you don’t. And, Mary Katherine, you know as well as I do that nine-tenths of that feeling is nothing but your imagination, and if you’d go halfway to be friendly there’d never be a word said against you. Good heavens. I grant you there might have been a little feeling once, but on your side it’s just been exaggerated out of all proportion.”

  “People will gossip,” Mrs. Wright said reassuringly.

  “I’ve been saying right along that I was a close friend of the Blackwoods and not the least bit ashamed of it, either. You want to come to people of your own kind, Constance. They don’t talk about us.”

  I wished they would be more amusing; I thought that now Constance was looking a little tired. If they would leave soon I would brush Constance’s hair until she fell asleep.

  “Uncle Julian is coming,” I said to Constance. I could hear the soft sound of the wheel chair in the hall and I got up to open the door.

  Helen Clarke said, “Do you suppose that people would really be afraid to visit here?” and Uncle Julian stopped in the doorway. He had put on his dandyish tie for company at tea, and washed his face until it was pink. “Afraid?” he said. “To visit here?” He bowed to Mrs. Wright from his chair and then to Helen Clarke. “Madam,” he said, and “Madam.” I knew that he could not remember either of their names, or whether he had ever seen them before.

  “You look well, Julian,” Helen Clarke said.

  “Afraid to visit here? I apologize for repeating your words, madam, but I am astonished. My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visiting here now.”

  Mrs. Wright made a little convulsive gesture toward her cup of tea and then set her hands firmly in her lap.

  “It could be said that there is danger everywhere,” Uncle Julian said. “Danger of poison, certainly. My niece can tell you of the most unlikely perils—garden plants more deadly than snakes and simple herbs that slash like knives through the lining of your belly, madam. My niece—”

  “Such a lovely garden,” Mrs. Wright said earnestly to Constance. “I’m sure I don’t know how you do it.”

  Helen Clarke said firmly, “Now, that’s all been forgotten long ago, Julian. No one ever thinks about it any more.”

  “Regrettable,” Uncle Julian said. “A most fascinating case, one of the few genuine mysteries of our time. Of my time, particularly. My life work,” he told Mrs. Wright.

  “Julian,” Helen Clarke said quickly; Mrs. Wright seemed mesmerized. “There is such a thing as good taste, Julian.”

  “Taste, madam? Have you ever tasted arsenic? I assure you that there is one moment of utter incredulity before the mind can accept—”

  A moment ago poor little Mrs. Wright would probably have bitten her tongue out before she mentioned the subject, but now she said, hardly breathing, “You mean you remember?”

  “Remember.” Uncle Julian sighed, shaking his head happily. “Perhaps,” he said with eagerness, “perhaps you are not familiar with the story? Perhaps I might—”

  “Julian,” Helen Clarke said, “Lucille does not want to hear it. You should be ashamed to ask her.”

  I thought that Mrs. Wright very much did want to hear it, and I looked at Constance just as she glanced at me; we were both very sober, to suit the subject, but I knew she was as full of merriment as I; it was good to hear Uncle Julian, who was so lonely most of the time.

  And poor, poor Mrs. Wright, tempted at last beyond endurance, was not able to hold it back any longer. She blushed deeply, and faltered, but Uncle Julian was a tempter and Mrs. Wright’s human discipline could not resist forever. “It happened right in this house,” she said like a prayer.

  We were all silent, regarding her courteously, and she whispered, “I do beg your pardon.”

  “Naturally, in this house,” Constance said. “In the dining room. We were having dinner.”

  “A family gathering for the evening meal,” Uncle Julian said, caressing his words. “Never supposing it was to be our last.”

  “Arsenic in the sugar,” Mrs. Wright said, carried away, hopelessly lost to all decorum.

  “I used that sugar.” Uncle Julian shook his finger at her. “I used that sugar myself, on my blackberries. Luckily,” and he smiled blandly, “fate intervened. Some of us, that day, she led inexorably through the gates of death. Some of us, innocent and unsuspecting, took, unwillingly, that one last step to oblivion. Some of us took very little sugar.”

  “I never touch berries,” Constance said; she looked directly at Mrs. Wright and said soberly, “I rarely take sugar on anything. Even now.”

  “It counted strongly against her at the trial,” Uncle Julian said. “That she used no sugar, I mean. But my niece has never cared for berries. Even as a child it was her custom to refuse berries.”

  “Please,” Helen Clarke said loudly, “it’s outrageous, it really is; I can’t bear to hear it talked about. Constance—Julian—what will Lucille think of you?”

  “No, really,” Mrs. Wright said, lifting her hands.

  “I won’t sit here and listen to another word,” Helen Clarke said. “Constance must start thinking about the future; this dwelling on the past is not wholesome; the poor darling has suffered enough.”

  “Well, I miss them all, of course,” Constance said. “Things have been m
uch different with all of them gone, but I’m sure I don’t think of myself as suffering.”

  “In some ways,” Uncle Julian sailed on, “a piece of extraordinarily good fortune for me. I am a survivor of the most sensational poisoning case of the century. I have all the newspaper clippings. I knew the victims, the accused, intimately, as only a relative living in the very house could know them. I have exhaustive notes on all that happened. I have never been well since.”

  “I said I didn’t want to talk about it,” Helen Clarke said.

  Uncle Julian stopped. He looked at Helen Clarke, and then at Constance. “Didn’t it really happen?” he asked after a minute, fingers at his mouth.

  “Of course it really happened.” Constance smiled at him.

  “I have the newspaper clippings,” Uncle Julian said uncertainly. “I have my notes,” he told Helen Clarke, “I have written down everything.”

  “It was a terrible thing.” Mrs. Wright was leaning forward earnestly and Uncle Julian turned to her.

  “Dreadful,” he agreed. “Frightful, madam.” He maneuvered his wheel chair so his back was to Helen Clarke. “Would you like to view the dining room?” he asked. “The fatal board? I did not give evidence at the trial, you understand; my health was not equal, then or now, to the rude questions of strangers.” He gave a little flick of his head in Helen Clarke’s direction. “I wanted badly to take the witness stand. I flatter myself that I would not have appeared to disadvantage. But of course she was acquitted after all.”

  “Certainly she was acquitted,” Helen Clarke said vehemently. She reached for her huge pocketbook and took it up onto her lap and felt in it for her gloves. “No one ever thinks about it any more.” She caught Mrs. Wright’s eye and prepared to rise.

  “The dining room . . . ?” Mrs. Wright said timidly. “Just a glance?”

  “Madam.” Uncle Julian contrived a bow from his wheel chair, and Mrs. Wright hurried to reach the door and open it for him. “Directly across the hall,” Uncle Julian said, and she followed. “I admire a decently curious woman, madam; I could see at once that you were devoured with a passion to view the scene of the tragedy; it happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night.”

  We could hear him clearly; he was apparently moving around our dining-room table while Mrs. Wright watched him from the doorway. “You will perceive that our table is round. It is overlarge now for the pitiful remnant of our family, but we have been reluctant to disturb what is, after all, a monument of sorts; at one time, a picture of this room would have commanded a large price from any of the newspapers. We were a large family once, you recall, a large and happy family. We had small disagreements, of course, we were not all of us overblessed with patience; I might almost say that there were quarrels. Nothing serious; husband and wife, brother and sister, did not always see eye to eye.”

  “Then why did she—”

  “Yes,” Uncle Julian said, “that is perplexing, is it not? My brother, as head of the family, sat naturally at the head of the table, there, with the windows at his back and the decanter before him. John Blackwood took pride in his table, his family, his position in the world.”

  “She never even met him,” Helen Clarke said. She looked angrily at Constance. “I remember your father well.”

  Faces fade away out of memory, I thought. I wondered if I would recognize Mrs. Wright if I saw her in the village. I wondered if Mrs. Wright in the village would walk past me, not seeing; perhaps Mrs. Wright was so timid that she never looked up at faces at all. Her cup of tea and her little rum cake still sat on the table, untouched.

  “And I was a good friend of your mother’s, Constance. That’s why I feel able to speak to you openly, for your own good. Your mother would have wanted—”

  “—my sister-in-law, who was, madam, a delicate woman. You will have noticed her portrait in the drawing room, and the exquisite line of the jawbone under the skin. A woman born for tragedy, perhaps, although inclined to be a little silly. On her right at this table, myself, younger then, and not an invalid; I have only been helpless since that night. Across from me, the boy Thomas—did you know I once had a nephew, that my brother had a son? Certainly, you would have read about him. He was ten years old and possessed many of his father’s more forceful traits of character.”

  “He used the most sugar,” Mrs. Wright said.

  “Alas,” Uncle Julian said. “Then, on either side of my brother, his daughter Constance and my wife Dorothy, who had done me the honor of casting in her lot with mine, although I do not think that she anticipated anything so severe as arsenic on her blackberries. Another child, my niece Mary Katherine, was not at table.”

  “She was in her room,” Mrs. Wright said.

  “A great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper. But she need not concern us.”

  I laughed, and Constance said to Helen Clarke, “Merricat was always in disgrace. I used to go up the back stairs with a tray of dinner for her after my father had left the dining room. She was a wicked, disobedient child,” and she smiled at me.

  “An unhealthy environment,” Helen Clarke said. “A child should be punished for wrongdoing, but she should be made to feel that she is still loved. I would never have tolerated the child’s wildness. And now we really must . . .” She began to put on her gloves again.

  “—spring lamb roasted, with a mint jelly made from Constance’s garden mint. Spring potatoes, new peas, a salad, again from Constance’s garden. I remember it perfectly, madam. It is still one of my favorite meals. I have also, of course, made very thorough notes of everything about that meal and, in fact, that entire day. You will see at once how the dinner revolves around my niece. It was early summer, her garden was doing well—the weather was lovely that year, I recall; we have not seen such another summer since, or perhaps I am only getting older. We relied upon Constance for various small delicacies which only she could provide; I am of course not referring to arsenic.”

  “Well, the blackberries were the important part.” Mrs. Wright sounded a little hoarse.

  “What a mind you have, madam! So precise, so unerring. I can see that you are going to ask me why she should conceivably have used arsenic. My niece is not capable of such subtlety, and her lawyer luckily said so at the trial. Constance can put her hand upon a bewildering array of deadly substances without ever leaving home; she could feed you a sauce of poison hemlock, a member of the parsley family which produces immediate paralysis and death when eaten. She might have made a marmalade of the lovely thornapple or the baneberry, she might have tossed the salad with Holcus lanatus, called velvet grass, and rich in hydrocyanic acid. I have notes on all these, madam. Deadly nightshade is a relative of the tomato; would we, any of us, have had the prescience to decline if Constance served it to us, spiced and made into pickle? Or consider just the mushroom family, rich as that is in tradition and deception. We were all fond of mushrooms—my niece makes a mushroom omelette you must taste to believe, madam—and the common death cup—”

  “She should not have been doing the cooking,” said Mrs. Wright strongly.

  “Well, of course, there is the root of our trouble. Certainly she should not have been doing the cooking if her intention was to destroy all of us with poison; we would have been blindly unselfish to encourage her to cook under such circumstances. But she was acquitted. Not only of the deed, but of the intention.”

  “What was wrong with Mrs. Blackwood doing her own cooking?”

  “Please.” Uncle Julian’s voice had a little shudder in it, and I knew the gesture he was using with it even though he was out of my sight. He would have raised one hand, fingers spread, and he would be smiling at her over his fingers; it was a gallant, Uncle Julian, gesture; I had seen him use it with Constance. “I personally preferred to chance the arsenic,” Uncle Julian said.

  “We must go home,” Helen Clarke said. “I don’t know what’s come over Lucille. I told her before we came not to mention this subject.”

  “I am going to put up wild strawberries this year,” Constance said to me. “I noticed a considerable patch of them near the end of the garden.”

  “It’s terribly tactless of her, and she’s keeping me waiting.”

  “—the sugar bowl on the sideboard, the heavy silver sugar bowl. It is a family heirloom; my brother prized it highly. You will be wondering about that sugar bowl, I imagine. Is it still in use? you are wondering; has it been cleaned? you may very well ask; was it thoroughly washed? I can reassure you at once. My niece Constance washed it before the doctor or the police had come, and you will allow that it was not a felicitous moment to wash a sugar bowl. The other dishes used at dinner were still on the table, but my niece took the sugar bowl to the kitchen, emptied it, and scrubbed it thoroughly with boiling water. It was a curious act.”

  “There was a spider in it,” Constance said to the teapot. We used a little rose-covered sugar bowl for the lump sugar for tea.

  “—there was a spider in it, she said. That was what she told the police. That was why she washed it.”

  “Well,” Mrs. Wright said, “it does seem as though she might have thought of a better reason. Even if it was a real spider—I mean, you don’t wash—I mean, you just take the spider out.”

  “What reason would you have given, madam?”

  “Well, I’ve never killed anybody, so I don’t know—I mean, I don’t know what I’d say. The first thing that came into my head, I suppose. I mean, she must have been upset.”

  “I assure you the pangs were fearful; you say you have never tasted arsenic? It is not agreeable. I am extremely sorry for all of them. I myself lingered on in great pain for several days; Constance would, I am sure, have demonstrated only the deepest sympathy for me, but by then, of course, she was largely unavailable. They arrested her at once.”

  Mrs. Wright sounded more forceful, almost unwillingly eager. “I’ve always thought, ever since we moved up here, that it would be a wonderful chance to meet you people and really find out what happened, because of course there’s always that one question, the one nobody has ever been able to answer; of course I hardly expected to talk to you about it, but look.” There was the sound of a dining-room chair being moved; Mrs. Wright had clearly decided to settle down. “First,” she said, “she bought the arsenic.”

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