We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


  “You had dinner here last night and woke up alive this morning,” Constance said; I was laughing but she suddenly looked almost cross.

  “What?” Charles said. “Oh.” He looked down at his fork as though he had forgotten it and at last he picked it up and put the piece of pancake into his mouth very quickly, and chewed it and swallowed it and looked up at Constance. “Delicious,” he said, and Constance smiled.

  “Constance?”

  “Yes, Uncle Julian?”

  “I think I shall not, after all, begin chapter forty-four this morning. I think I shall go back to chapter seventeen, where I recall that I made some slight mention of your cousin and his family, and their attitude during the trial. Charles, you are a clever young man. I am eager to hear your story.”

  “It was all so long ago,” Charles said.

  “You should have kept notes,” Uncle Julian said.

  “I mean,” Charles said, “can’t it all be forgotten? There’s no point in keeping those memories alive.”

  “Forgotten?” Uncle Julian said. “Forgotten?”

  “It was a sad and horrible time and it’s not going to do Connie here any good at all to keep talking about it.”

  “Young man, you are speaking slightingly, I believe, of my work. A man does not take his work lightly. A man has his work to do, and he does it. Remember that, Charles.”

  “I’m just saying that I don’t want to talk about Connie and that bad time.”

  “I shall be forced to invent, to fictionalize, to imagine.”

  “I refuse to discuss it any further.”

  “Constance?”

  “Yes, Uncle Julian?” Constance looked very serious.

  “It did happen? I remember that it happened,” said Uncle Julian, fingers at his mouth.

  Constance hesitated, and then she said, “Of course it did, Uncle Julian.”

  “My notes . . .” Uncle Julian’s voice trailed off, and he gestured at his papers.

  “Yes, Uncle Julian. It was real.”

  I was angry because Charles ought to be kind to Uncle Julian. I remembered that today was to be a day of sparkles and light, and I thought that I would find something bright and pretty to put near Uncle Julian’s chair.

  “Constance?”

  “Yes?”

  “May I go outside? Am I warm enough?”

  “I think so, Uncle Julian.” Constance was sorry, too. Uncle Julian was shaking his head back and forth sadly and he had put down his pencil. Constance went into Uncle Julian’s room and brought out his shawl, which she put around his shoulders very gently. Charles was eating his pancakes bravely now, and did not look up; I wondered if he cared that he had not been kind to Uncle Julian.

  “Now you will go outside,” Constance said quietly to Uncle Julian, “and the sun will be warm and the garden will be bright and you will have broiled liver for your lunch.”

  “Perhaps not,” Uncle Julian said. “Perhaps I had better have just an egg.”

  Constance wheeled him gently to the door and eased his chair carefully down the step. Charles looked up from his pancakes but when he started to rise to help her she shook her head. “I’ll put you in your special corner,” she said to Uncle Julian, “where I can see you every minute and five times an hour I’ll wave hello to you.”

  We could hear her talking all the time she was wheeling Uncle Julian to his corner. Jonas left me and went to sit in the doorway and watch them. “Jonas?” Charles said, and Jonas turned toward him. “Cousin Mary doesn’t like me,” Charles said to Jonas. I disliked the way he was talking to Jonas and I disliked the way Jonas appeared to be listening to him. “How can I make Cousin Mary like me?” Charles said, and Jonas looked quickly at me and then back to Charles. “Here I’ve come to visit my two dear cousins,” Charles said, “my two dear cousins and my old uncle whom I haven’t seen for years, and my Cousin Mary won’t even be polite to me. What do you think, Jonas?”

  There were sparkles at the sink where a drop of water was swelling to fall. Perhaps if I held my breath until the drop fell Charles would go away, but I knew that was not true; holding my breath was too easy.

  “Oh, well,” Charles said to Jonas, “Constance likes me, and I guess that’s all that matters.”

  Constance came to the doorway, waited for Jonas to move, and when he did not, stepped over him. “More pancakes?” she said to Charles.

  “No, thanks. I’m trying to get acquainted with my little cousin.”

  “It won’t be long before she’s fond of you.” Constance was looking at me. Jonas had fallen to washing himself, and I thought at last of what to say.

  “Today we neaten the house,” I said.

  Uncle Julian slept all morning in the garden. Constance went often to the back bedroom windows to look down on him while we worked and stood sometimes, with the dustcloth in her hands, as though she were forgetting to come back and dust our mother’s jewel box that held our mother’s pearls, and her sapphire ring, and her brooch with diamonds. I looked out the window only once, to see Uncle Julian with his eyes closed and Charles standing nearby. It was ugly to think of Charles walking among the vegetables and under the apple trees and across the lawn where Uncle Julian slept.

  “We’ll let Father’s room go this morning,” Constance said, “because Charles is living there.” Some time later she said, as though she had been thinking about it, “I wonder if it would be right for me to wear Mother’s pearls. I have never worn pearls.”

  “They’ve always been in the box,” I said. “You’d have to take them out.”

  “It’s not likely that anyone would care,” Constance said.

  “I would care, if you looked more beautiful.”

  Constance laughed, and said, “I’m silly now. Why should I want to wear pearls?”

  “They’re better off in the box where they belong.”

  Charles had closed the door of our father’s room so I could not look inside, but I wondered if he had moved our father’s things, or put a hat or a handkerchief or a glove on the dresser beside our father’s silver brushes. I wondered if he had looked into the closet or into the drawers. Our father’s room was in the front of the house, and I wondered if Charles had looked down from the windows and out over the lawn and the long driveway to the road, and wanted to be on that road and away home.

  “How long did it take Charles to get here?” I asked Constance.

  “Four or five hours, I think,” she said. “He came by bus to the village, and had to walk from there.”

  “Then it will take him four or five hours to get home again?”

  “I suppose so. When he goes.”

  “But first he will have to walk back to the village?”

  “Unless you take him on your winged horse.”

  “I don’t have any winged horse,” I said.

  “Oh, Merricat,” Constance said. “Charles is not a bad man.”

  There were sparkles in the mirrors and inside our mother’s jewel box the diamonds and the pearls were shining in the darkness. Constance made shadows up and down the hall when she went to the window to look down on Uncle Julian and outside the new leaves moved quickly in the sunlight. Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could reseal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased.

  “Charles is a ghost,” I said, and Constance sighed.

  I polished the doorknob to our father’s room with my dust cloth, and at least one of Charles’ touches was gone.

  When we had neatened the upstairs rooms we came downstairs together, carrying our dust cloths and the broom and dustpan and mop like a pair of witches walking home. In the drawing room we dusted the golden-legged chairs and the harp, and everything sparkled at us, even the blue dress in the portrait of our mother. I dusted the wedding-cake trim with a cloth on the end of a broom, staggering, and looking up and pretending that the ceiling was the floor and I was sweeping, hovering bus
ily in space looking down at my broom, weightless and flying until the room swung dizzily and I was again on the floor looking up.

  “Charles has not yet seen this room,” Constance said. “Mother was so proud of it; I ought to have showed it to him right away.”

  “May I have sandwiches for my lunch? I want to go down to the creek.”

  “Sooner or later you’re going to have to sit at the table with him, Merricat.”

  “Tonight at dinner. I promise.”

  We dusted the dining room and the silver tea service and the high wooden backs of the chairs. Constance went every few minutes into the kitchen to look out the back door and check on Uncle Julian, and once I heard her laugh and call, “Watch out for the mud down there,” and I knew she was talking to Charles.

  “Where did you let Charles sit last night at dinner?” I asked her once.

  “In Father’s chair,” she said, and then, “He has a perfect right to sit there. He’s a guest, and he even looks like Father.”

  “Will he sit there tonight?”

  “Yes, Merricat.”

  I dusted our father’s chair thoroughly, although it was small use if Charles was to sit there again tonight. I would have to clean all the silverware.

  When we had finished neatening the house we came back to the kitchen. Charles was sitting at the kitchen table smoking his pipe and looking at Jonas, who was looking back at him. The pipe smoke was disagreeable in our kitchen, and I disliked having Jonas look at Charles. Constance went on out the back door to get Uncle Julian, and we could hear him say, “Dorothy? I was not asleep, Dorothy.”

  “Cousin Mary doesn’t like me,” Charles said again to Jonas. “I wonder if Cousin Mary knows how I get even with people who don’t like me? Can I help you with that chair, Constance? Have a nice nap, Uncle?”

  Constance made sandwiches for Jonas and me, and we ate them in a tree; I sat in a low fork and Jonas sat on a small branch near me, watching for birds.

  “Jonas,” I told him, “you are not to listen any more to Cousin Charles,” and Jonas regarded me in wide-eyed astonishment, that I should attempt to make decisions for him. “Jonas,” I said, “he is a ghost,” and Jonas closed his eyes and turned away.

  It was important to choose the exact device to drive Charles away. An imperfect magic, or one incorrectly used, might only bring more disaster upon our house. I thought of my mother’s jewels, since this was a day of sparkling things, but they might not be strong on a dull day, and Constance would be angry if I took them out of the box where they belonged, when she herself had decided against it. I thought of books, which are always strongly protective, but my father’s book had fallen from the tree and let Charles in; books, then, were perhaps powerless against Charles. I lay back against the tree trunk and thought of magic; if Charles had not gone away before three days I would smash the mirror in the hall.

  He sat across from me at dinner, in our father’s chair, with his big white face blotting out the silver on the sideboard behind him. He watched while Constance cut up Uncle Julian’s chicken and put it correctly on the plate, and he watched when Uncle Julian took the first bite and turned it over and over in his mouth.

  “Here is a biscuit, Uncle Julian,” Constance said. “Eat the soft inside.”

  Constance had forgotten and put dressing on my salad, but I would not have eaten anyway with that big white face watching. Jonas, who was not allowed chicken, sat on the floor beside my chair.

  “Does he always eat with you?” Charles asked once, nodding his head at Uncle Julian.

  “When he’s well enough,” Constance said.

  “I wonder how you stand it,” Charles said.

  “I tell you, John,” Uncle Julian said suddenly to Charles, “investments are not what they were when Father made his money. He was a shrewd man, but he never understood that times change.”

  “Who’s he talking to?” Charles asked Constance.

  “He thinks you are his brother John.”

  Charles looked at Uncle Julian for a long minute, and then shook his head and returned to his chicken.

  “That was my dead wife’s chair on your left, young man,” Uncle Julian said. “I well recall the last time she sat there; we—”

  “None of that,” Charles said, and shook his finger at Uncle Julian; he had been holding his chicken in his hands to eat it, and his finger sparkled with grease. “We’re not going to talk about it any more, Uncle.”

  Constance was pleased with me because I had come to the table and when I looked at her she smiled at me. She knew that I disliked eating when anyone was watching me, and she would save my plate and bring it to me later in the kitchen; she did not remember, I saw, that she had put dressing on my salad.

  “Noticed this morning,” Charles said, taking up the platter of chicken and looking into it carefully, “that there was a broken step out back. How about I fix it for you one of these days? I might as well earn my keep.”

  “It would be very kind of you,” Constance said. “That step has been a nuisance for a long time.”

  “And I want to run into the village to get some pipe tobacco, so I can pick up anything you need there.”

  “But I go to the village on Tuesday,” I said, startled.

  “You do?” He looked at me across the table, big white face turned directly at me. I was quiet; I remembered that walking to the village was the first step on Charles’ way home.

  “Merricat, dear, I think if Charles doesn’t mind it might be a good idea. I never feel quite comfortable when you’re away in the village.” Constance laughed. “I’ll give you a list, Charles, and the money, and you shall be the grocery boy.”

  “You keep the money in the house?”

  “Of course.”

  “Doesn’t sound very wise.”

  “It’s in Father’s safe.”

  “Even so.”

  “I assure you, sir,” Uncle Julian said, “I made a point of examining the books thoroughly before committing myself. I cannot have been deceived.”

  “So I’m taking little Cousin Mary’s job away from her,” Charles said, looking at me again. “You’ll have to find something else for her to do, Connie.”

  I had made sure of what to say to him before I came to the table. “The Amanita phalloides,” I said to him, “holds three different poisons. There is amanitin, which works slowly and is most potent. There is phalloidin, which acts at once, and there is phallin, which dissolves red corpuscles, although it is the least potent. The first symptoms do not appear until seven to twelve hours after eating, in some cases not before twenty-four or even forty hours. The symptoms begin with violent stomach pains, cold sweat, vomiting—”

  “Listen,” Charles said. He put down his chicken. “You stop that,” he said.

  Constance was laughing. “Oh, Merricat,” she said, laughing through the words, “you are silly. I taught her,” she told Charles, “there are mushrooms by the creek and in the fields and I made her learn the deadly ones. Oh, Merricat.”

  “Death occurs between five and ten days after eating,” I said.

  “I don’t think that’s very funny,” Charles said.

  “Silly Merricat,” Constance said.

  6

  The house was not secure just because Charles had gone out of it and into the village; for one thing, Constance had given him a key to the gates. There had originally been a key for each of us; our father had a key, and our mother, and the keys were kept on a rack beside the kitchen door. When Charles started out for the village Constance gave him a key, perhaps our father’s key, and a shopping list, and the money to pay for what he bought.

  “You shouldn’t keep money in the house like this,” he said, holding it tight in his hand for a minute before he reached into a back pocket and took out a wallet. “Women alone like you are, you shouldn’t keep money in the house.”

  I was watching him from my corner of the kitchen but I would not let Jonas come to me while Charles was in the house. “Are you sure
you put everything down?” he asked Constance.

  “Hate to make two trips.”

  I waited until Charles was well along, perhaps almost to the black rock, and then I said, “He forgot the library books.”

  Constance looked at me for a minute. “Miss Wickedness,” she said. “You wanted him to forget.”

  “How could he know about the library books? He doesn’t belong in this house; he has nothing to do with our books.”

  “Do you know,” Constance said, looking into a pot on the stove, “I think that soon we will be picking lettuce; the weather has stayed so warm.”

  “On the moon,” I said, and then stopped.

  “On the moon,” Constance said, turning to smile at me, “you have lettuce all year round, perhaps?”

  “On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All the locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.”

  “I wish I could go to your moon. I wonder if I should start the gingerbread now; it will be cold if Charles is late.”

  “I’ll be here to eat it,” I said.

  “But Charles said he loved gingerbread.”

  I was making a little house at the table, out of the library books, standing one across two set on edge. “Old witch,” I said, “you have a gingerbread house.”

  “I do not,” Constance said. “I have a lovely house where I live with my sister Merricat.”

  I laughed at her; she was worrying at the pot on the stove and she had flour on her face. “Maybe he’ll never come back,” I said.

  “He has to; I’m making gingerbread for him.”

  Since Charles had taken my occupation for Tuesday morning I had nothing to do. I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings; would the people in the village be waiting for me, glancing from the corners of their eyes to see if I was coming, nudging one another, and then turn in astonishment when they saw Charles? Perhaps the whole village would falter and slow, bewildered at the lack of Miss Mary Katherine Blackwood? I giggled, thinking of Jim Donell and the Harris boys peering anxiously up the road to see if I was coming.

 
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