We Have Always Lived in the Castle (17 page)

“I think he was annoyed,” she said. A few minutes later she said, “It will take a great deal of scrubbing to get that hall clean again,” and sighed. I was pleased that she thought of the house and forgot the people outside.
“Jonas?” I said to her; “where is he?”
I could see her smile a little in the darkness of the vines. “He was annoyed, too,” she said. “He went out the back door when I took Uncle Julian in to get his papers.”
We were all right. Uncle Julian might very well forget that there was a fire at all if he became interested in his papers, and Jonas was almost certainly watching from the shadow of the trees. When they had finished putting out Charles' fire I would take Constance back inside and we could start to clean our house again. Constance was quieter, although more and more cars came down the driveway and the unending patter of feet went back and forth across our doorsill. Except for Jim Donell, who wore a hat proclaiming him “Chief,” it was impossible to identify any one person, any more than it was possible to put a name to any of the faces out in front of our house, looking up and laughing at the fire.
I tried to think clearly. The house was burning; there was fire inside our house, but Jim Donell and the other, anonymous, men in hats and raincoats were curiously able to destroy the fire which was running through the bones of our house. It was Charles' fire. When I listened particularly for the fire I could hear it, a singing hot noise upstairs, but over and around it, smothering it, were the voices of the men inside and the voices of the people watching outside and the distant sound of cars on the driveway. Next to me Constance was standing quietly, sometimes looking at the men going into the house, but more often covering her eyes with her hands; she was excited, I thought, but not in any danger. Every now and then it was possible to hear one voice raised above the others; Jim Donell shouted some word of instruction, or someone in the crowd called out. “Why not let it burn?” a woman's voice came loudly, laughing, and “Get the safe out of the study downstairs”; that was Charles, safely in the crowd out front.
“Why not let it burn?” the woman called insistently, and one of the dark men going in and out of our front door turned and waved and grinned. “We're the firemen,” he called back, “we
got
to put it out.”
“Let it burn,” the woman called.
Smoke was everywhere, thick and ugly. Sometimes when I looked out the faces of the people were clouded with smoke, and it came out the front door in frightening waves. Once there was a crash from inside the house and voices speaking quickly and urgently, and the faces outside turned up happily in the smoke, mouths open. “Get the safe,” Charles called out wildly, “two or three of you men get the safe out of the study; the whole house is going.”
“Let it burn,” the woman called.
I was hungry and I wanted my dinner, and I wondered how long they could make the fire last before they put it out and went away and Constance and I could go back inside. One or two of the village boys had edged onto the porch dangerously close to where we stood, but they only looked inside, not at the porch, and tried to stand on their toes and see past the firemen and the hoses. I was tired and I wished it would all be over. I realized then that the light was lessening, the faces on the lawn less distinct, and a new tone came into the noise; the voices inside were surer, less sharp, almost pleased, and the voices outside were lower, and disappointed.
“It's going out,” someone said.
“Under control,” another voice added.
“Did a lot of damage, though.” There was laughter. “Sure made a mess of the old place.”
“Should of burned it down years ago.”
“And them in it.”
They mean us, I thought, Constance and me.
“Say—anybody
seen
them?”
“No such luck. Firemen threw them out.”
“Too bad.”
The light was almost gone. The people outside stood now in shadows, their faces narrowed and dark, with only the headlights of the cars to light them; I saw the flash of a smile, and somewhere else a hand raised to wave, and the voices went on regretfully.
“Just about over.”
“Pretty good fire.”
Jim Donell came through the front door. Everyone knew him because of his size and his hat saying CHIEF. “Say, Jim,” someone called, “why don't you let it burn?”
He lifted both his hands to make everyone be quiet. “Fire's all out, folks,” he said.
Very carefully he put up his hands and took off his hat saying CHIEF and while everyone watched he walked slowly down the steps and over to the fire engine and set his hat down on the front seat. Then he bent down, searching thoughtfully, and finally, while everyone watched, he took up a rock. In complete silence he turned slowly and then raised his arm and smashed the rock through one of the great tall windows of our mother's drawing room. A wall of laughter rose and grew behind him and then, first the boys on the steps and then the other men and at last the women and the smaller children, they moved like a wave at our house.
“Constance,” I said, “Constance,” but she had her hands over her eyes.
The other of the drawing-room windows crashed, this time from inside, and I saw that it had been shattered by the lamp which always stood by Constance's chair in the drawing room.
Above it all, most horrible, was the laughter. I saw one of the Dresden figurines thrown and break against the porch rail, and the other fell unbroken and rolled along the grass. I heard Constance's harp go over with a musical cry, and a sound which I knew was a chair being smashed against the wall.
“Listen,” said Charles from somewhere, “will a couple of you guys help me with this safe?”
Then, through the laughter, someone began, “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” It was rhythmic and insistent. I am on the moon, I thought, please let me be on the moon. Then I heard the sound of dishes smashing and at that minute realized that we stood outside the tall windows of the dining room and they were coming very close.
“Constance,” I said, “we have to run.”
She shook her head, her hands over her face.
“They'll find us in a minute. Please, Constance dearest; run with me.”
“I can't,” she said, and from just inside the dining-room window a shout went up: “Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?” and I pulled Constance away a second before the window went; I thought a chair had been thrown through it, perhaps the dining-room chair where our father used to sit and Charles used to sit. “Hurry,” I said, no longer able to be quiet in all that noise, and pulling Constance by the hand I ran toward the steps. As we came into the light she threw Uncle Julian's shawl across her face to hide it.
A little girl ran out of the front door carrying something, and her mother, behind her, caught her by the back of the dress and slapped her hands. “Don't you put that stuff in your mouth,” the mother screamed, and the little girl dropped a handful of Constance's spice cookies.
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.”
We had to get down the steps and into the woods to be safe; it was not far but the headlights of the cars shone across the lawn. I wondered if Constance would slip and fall, running through the light, but we had to get to the woods and there was no other way. We hesitated near the steps, neither one of us quite daring to go farther, but the windows were broken and inside they were throwing our dishes and our glasses and our silverware and even the pots Constance used in cooking; I wondered if my stool in the corner of the kitchen had been smashed yet. While we stood still for a last minute, a car came up the driveway, and another behind it; they swung to a stop in front of the house, sending more light onto the lawn. “What the holy devil is going
on
here?” Jim Clarke said, rolling out of the first car, and Helen Clarke, on the other side, opened her mouth and stared. Shouting and pushing, and not seeing us at all, Jim Clarke made his way through our door and into our house, “What the holy goddam devil is going
on
here?” he kept saying and outside Helen Clarke never saw us, but only stared at our house. “Crazy fools,” Jim Clarke yelled inside, “crazy drunken fools.” Dr. Levy came out of the second car and hurried toward the house. “Has everyone gone crazy in here?” Jim Clarke was saying from inside, and there was a shout of laughter. “Would you like a cup of tea?” someone inside screamed, and they laughed. “Ought to bring it down brick by brick,” someone said inside.
The doctor came up the steps running, and pushed us aside without looking. “Where is Julian Blackwood?” he asked a woman in the doorway, and the woman said, “Down in the boneyard ten feet deep.”
It was time; I took Constance tightly by the hand, and we started carefully down the steps. I would not run yet because I was afraid that Constance might fall, so I brought her slowly down the steps; no one could see us yet except Helen Clarke and she stared at the house. Behind us I heard Jim Clarke shouting; he was trying to make the people leave our house, and before we reached the bottom step there were voices behind us.
“There they are,” someone shouted and I think it was Stella. “There they are, there they are, there they are,” and I started to run but Constance stumbled and then they were all around us, pushing and laughing and trying to get close to see. Constance held Uncle Julian's shawl across her face so they could not look at her, and for a minute we stood very still, pressed together by the feeling of people all around us.
“Put them back in the house and start the fire all over again.”
“We fixed things up nice for you girls, just like you always wanted it.”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
For one terrible minute I thought that they were going to join hands and dance around us, singing. I saw Helen Clarke far away, pressed hard against the side of her car; she was crying and saying something and even though I could not hear her through the noise I knew she was saying “I want to go home, please, I want to go home.”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
They were trying not to touch us; whenever I turned they fell back a little; once, between two shoulders I saw Harler of the junk yard wandering across the porch of our house, picking up things and setting them to one side in a pile. I moved a little, holding Constance's hand tight, and as they fell back we ran suddenly, going toward the trees, but Jim Donell's wife and Mrs. Mueller came in front of us, laughing and holding out their arms, and we stopped. I turned, and gave Constance a little pull, and we ran, but Stella and the Harris boys crossed in front of us, laughing, and the Harris boys shouting “Down in the boneyard ten feet deep,” and we stopped. Then I turned toward the house, running again with Constance pulled behind me, and Elbert the grocer and his greedy wife were there, holding their hands to halt us, almost dancing together, and we stopped. I went then to the side, and Jim Donell stepped in front of us, and we stopped.
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you'll poison me,” Jim Donell said politely, and they came around us again, circling and keeping carefully out of reach. “Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?” Over it all was the laughter, almost drowning the singing and the shouting and the howling of the Harris boys.
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
Constance held to me with one hand and with the other hand she kept Uncle Julian's shawl across her face. I saw an opening in the circle around us, and ran again for the trees, but all the Harris boys were there, one on the ground with laughter, and we stopped. I turned again and ran for the house but Stella came forward and we stopped. Constance was stumbling, and I wondered if we were going to fall onto the ground in front of them, lying there where they might step on us in their dancing, and I stood still; I could not possibly let Constance fall in front of them.
“That's all now,” Jim Clarke said from the porch. His voice was not loud, but they all heard. “That's enough,” he said. There was a small polite silence, and then someone said, “Down in the boneyard ten feet deep,” and the laughter rose.
“Listen to me,” Jim Clarke said, raising his voice, “listen to me. Julian Blackwood is dead.”
Then they were quiet at last. After a minute Charles Blackwood said from the crowd around us, “Did she kill him?” They went back from us, moving slowly in small steps, withdrawing, until there was a wide clear space around us and Constance standing clearly with Uncle Julian's shawl across her face. “Did she kill him?” Charles Blackwood asked again.
“She did not,” said the doctor, standing in the doorway of our house. “Julian died as I have always known he would; he has been waiting a long time.”
“Now go quietly,” Jim Clarke said. He began to take people by the shoulders, pushing a little at their backs, turning them toward their cars and the driveway. “Go quickly,” he said, “There has been a death in this house.”
It was so quiet, in spite of many people moving across the grass and going away, that I heard Helen Clarke say, “Poor Julian.”
I took a cautious step toward the darkness, pulling Constance a little so that she followed me. “Heart,” the doctor said on the porch, and I went another step. No one turned to look at us. Car doors slammed softly and motors started. I looked back once. A little group was standing around the doctor on the steps. Most of the lights were turned away, heading down the driveway. When I felt the shadows of the trees fall on us, I moved quickly; one last step and we were inside. Pulling Constance, I hurried under the trees, in the darkness; when I felt my feet leave the grass of the lawn and touch the soft mossy ground of the path through the woods and knew that the trees had closed in around us I stopped and put my arms around Constance. “It's all over,” I told her, and held her tight. “It's all right,” I said, “all right now.”
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