When I had moved the shopping bag inside, I carefully locked the gate again, and tested the padlock to make sure it held. Once the padlock was securely fastened behind me I was safe. The path was dark, because once our father had given up any idea of putting his land to profitable use he had let the trees and bushes and small flowers grow as they chose, and except for one great meadow and the gardens our land was heavily wooded, and no one knew its secret ways but me. When I went along the path, going easily now because I was home, I knew each step and every turn. Constance could put names to all the growing things, but I was content to know them by their way and place of growing, and their unfailing offers of refuge. The only prints on the path were my own, going in and out to the village. Past the turn I might find a mark of Constance's foot, because she sometimes came that far to wait for me, but most of Constance's prints were in the garden and in the house. Today she had come to the end of the garden, and I saw her as soon as I came around the turn; she was standing with the house behind her, in the sunlight, and I ran to meet her.
“Merricat,” she said, smiling at me, “look how far I came today.”
“It's too far,” I said. “First thing I know you'll be following me into the village.”
“I might, at that,” she said.
Even though I knew she was teasing me I was chilled, but I laughed. “You wouldn't like it much,” I told her. “Here, lazy, take some of these packages. Where's my cat?”
“He went off chasing butterflies because you were late. Did you remember eggs? I forgot to tell you.”
“Of course. Let's have lunch on the lawn.”
When I was small I thought Constance was a fairy princess. I used to try to draw her picture, with long golden hair and eyes as blue as the crayon could make them, and a bright pink spot on either cheek; the pictures always surprised me, because she
look like that; even at the worst time she was pink and white and golden, and nothing had ever seemed to dim the brightness of her. She was the most precious person in my world, always. I followed her across the soft grass, past the flowers she tended, into our house, and Jonas, my cat, came out of the flowers and followed me.
Constance waited inside the tall front door while I came up the steps behind her, and then I put my packages down on the table in the hall and locked the door. We would not use it again until afternoon, because almost all of our life was lived toward the back of the house, on the lawn and the garden where no one else ever came. We left the front of the house turned toward the highway and the village, and went our own ways behind its stern, unwelcoming face. Although we kept the house well, the rooms we used together were the back ones, the kitchen and the back bedrooms and the little warm room off the kitchen where Uncle Julian lived; outside was Constance's chestnut tree and the wide, lovely reach of lawn and Constance's flowers and then, beyond, the vegetable garden Constance tended and, past that, the trees which shaded the creek. When we sat on the back lawn no one could see us from anywhere.
I remembered that I was to be kinder to Uncle Julian when I saw him sitting at his great old desk in the kitchen corner playing with his papers. “Will you let Uncle Julian have peanut brittle?” I asked Constance.
“After his lunch,” Constance said. She took the groceries carefully from the bags; food of any kind was precious to Constance, and she always touched foodstuffs with quiet respect. I was not allowed to help; I was not allowed to prepare food, nor was I allowed to gather mushrooms, although I sometimes carried vegetables in from the garden, or apples from the old trees. “We'll have muffins,” Constance said, almost singing because she was sorting and putting away the food. “Uncle Julian will have an egg, done soft and buttery, and a muffin and a little pudding.”
“Pap,” said Uncle Julian.
“Merricat will have something lean and rich and salty.”
“Jonas will catch me a mouse,” I said to my cat on my knee.
“I'm always so happy when you come home from the village,” Constance said; she stopped to look and smile at me. “Partly because you bring home food, of course. But partly because I miss you.”
“I'm always happy to get home from the village,” I told her.
“Was it very bad?” She touched my cheek quickly with one finger.
“You don't want to know about it.”
“Someday I'll go.” It was the second time she had spoken of going outside, and I was chilled.
“Constance,” Uncle Julian said. He lifted a small scrap of paper from his desk and studied it, frowning. “I do not seem to have any information on whether your father took his cigar in the garden as usual that morning.”
“I'm sure he did,” Constance said. “That cat's been fishing in the creek,” she told me. “He came in all mud.” She folded the grocery bag and put it with the others in the drawer, and set the library books on the shelf where they were going to stay forever. Jonas and I were expected to stay in our corner, out of the way, while Constance worked in the kitchen, and it was a joy to watch her, moving beautifully in the sunlight, touching foods so softly. “It's Helen Clarke's day,” I said. “Are you frightened?”
She turned to smile at me. “Not a bit,” she said. “I'm getting better all the time, I think. And today I'm going to make little rum cakes.”
“And Helen Clarke will scream and gobble them.”
Even now, Constance and I still saw some small society, visiting acquaintances who drove up the driveway to call. Helen Clarke took her tea with us on Fridays, and Mrs. Shepherd or Mrs. Rice or old Mrs. Crowley stopped by occasionally on a Sunday after church to tell us we would have enjoyed the sermon. They came dutifully, although we never returned their calls, and stayed a proper few minutes and sometimes brought flowers from their gardens, or books, or a song that Constance might care to try over on her harp; they spoke politely and with little runs of laughter, and never failed to invite us to their houses although they knew we would never come. They were civil to Uncle Julian, and patient with his talk, they offered to take us for drives in their cars, they referred to themselves as our friends. Constance and I always spoke well of them to each other, because they believed that their visits brought us pleasure. They never walked on the path. If Constance offered them a cutting from a rosebush, or invited them to see a happy new arrangement of colors, they went into the garden, but they never offered to step beyond their defined areas; they walked along the garden and got into their cars by the front door and drove away down the driveway and out through the big gates. Several times Mr. and Mrs. Carrington had come to see how we were getting along, because Mr. Carrington had been a very good friend of our father's. They never came inside or took any refreshment, but they drove to the front steps and sat in their car and talked for a few minutes. “How are you getting along?” they always asked, looking from Constance to me and back; “how are you managing all by yourselves? Is there anything you need, anything we can do? How are you getting along?” Constance always invited them in, because we had been brought up to believe that it was discourteous to keep guests talking outside, but the Carringtons never came into the house. “I wonder,” I said, thinking about them, “whether the Carringtons would bring me a horse if I asked them. I could ride it in the long meadow.”
Constance turned and looked at me for a minute, frowning a little. “You will not ask them,” she said at last. “We do not ask from anyone. Remember that.”
“I was teasing,” I said, and she smiled again. “I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I.”
“I remember when you used to want a griffin,” she said. “Now, Miss Idleness, run out and set the table.”
“They quarrelled hatefully that last night,” Uncle Julian said. “I won't have it,' she said, âI won't stand for it, John Blackwood,' and âWe have no choice,' he said. I listened at the door, of course, but I came too late to hear what they quarrelled about; I suppose it was money.”
“They didn't often quarrel,” Constance said.
“They were almost invariably civil to one another, Niece, if that is what you mean by not quarrelling; a most unsatisfactory example for the rest of us. My wife and I preferred to shout.”
“It hardly seems like six years, sometimes,” Constance said. I took the yellow tablecloth and went outside to the lawn to start the table; behind me I heard her saying to Uncle Julian, “Sometimes I feel I would give anything to have them all back again.”
When I was a child I used to believe that someday I would grow up and be tall enough to touch the tops of the windows in our mother's drawing room. They were summer windows, because the house was really intended to be only a summer house and our father had only put in a heating system because there was no other house for our family to move to in the winters; by rights we should have had the Rochester house in the village, but that was long lost to us. The windows in the drawing room of our house reached from the floor to the ceiling, and I could never touch the top; our mother used to tell visitors that the light blue silk drapes on the windows had been made up fourteen feet long. There were two tall windows in the drawing room and two tall windows in the dining room across the hall, and from the outside they looked narrow and thin and gave the house a gaunt high look. Inside, however, the drawing room was lovely. Our mother had brought golden-legged chairs from the Rochester house, and her harp was here, and the room shone in reflections from mirrors and sparkling glass. Constance and I only used the room when Helen Clarke came for tea, but we kept it perfectly. Constance stood on a stepladder to wash the tops of the windows, and we dusted the Dresden figurines on the mantel, and with a cloth on the end of a broom I went around the wedding-cake trim at the tops of the walls, staring up into the white fruit and leaves, brushing away at cupids and ribbon knots, dizzy always from looking up and walking backward, and laughing at Constance when she caught me. We polished the floors and mended tiny tears in the rose brocade on the sofas and chairs. There was a golden valance over each high window, and golden scrollwork around the fireplace, and our mother's portrait hung in the drawing room; “I cannot bear to see my lovely room untidy,” our mother used to say, and so Constance and I had never been allowed in here, but now we kept it shining and silky.
Our mother had always served tea to her friends from a low table at one side of the fireplace, so that was where Constance always set her table. She sat on the rose sofa with our mother's portrait looking down on her, and I sat in my small chair in the corner and watched. I was allowed to carry cups and saucers and pass sandwiches and cakes, but not to pour tea. I disliked eating anything while people were looking at me, so I had my tea afterwards, in the kitchen. That day, which was the last time Helen Clarke ever came for tea, Constance had set the table as usual, with the lovely thin rose-colored cups our mother had always used, and two silver dishes, one with small sandwiches and one with the very special rum cakes; two rum cakes were waiting for me in the kitchen, in case Helen Clarke ate all of these. Constance sat quietly on the sofa; she never fidgeted, and her hands were neatly in her lap. I waited by the window, watching for Helen Clarke, who was always precisely on time. “Are you frightened?” I asked Constance once, and she said, “No, not at all.” Without turning I could hear from her voice that she was quiet.
I saw the car turn into the driveway and then saw that there were two people in it instead of one; “Constance,” I said, “she's brought someone else.”
Constance was still for a minute, and then she said quite firmly, “I think it will be all right.”
I turned to look at her, and she was quiet. “I'll send them away,” I said. “She knows better than this.”
“No,” Constance said. “I really think it will be all right. You watch me.”
“But I won't
“Sooner or later,” she said, “sooner or later I will have to take a first step.”
I was chilled. “I want to send them away.”
“No,” Constance said. “Absolutely not.”
The car stopped in front of the house, and I went into the hall to open the front door, which I had unlocked earlier because it was not courteous to unlock the door in a guest's face. When I came onto the porch I saw that it was not quite as bad as I had expected; it was not a stranger Helen Clarke had with her, but little Mrs. Wright, who had come once before and been more frightened than anyone else. She would not be too much for Constance, but Helen Clarke ought not to have brought her without telling me.
“Good afternoon, Mary Katherine,” Helen Clarke said, coming around the car and to the steps, “isn't this a lovely spring day? How is dear Constance? I brought Lucille.” She was going to handle it brazenly, as though people brought almost strangers every day to see Constance, and I disliked having to smile at her. “You remember Lucille Wright?” she asked me, and poor little Mrs. Wright said in a small voice that she had so wanted to come again. I held the front door open and they came into the hall. They had not worn coats because it was such a fine day, but Helen Clarke had the common sense to delay a minute anyway; “Tell dear Constance we've come,” she said to me, and I knew she was giving me time to tell Constance who was here, so I slipped into the drawing room, where Constance sat quietly, and said, “It's Mrs. Wright, the frightened one.”
Constance smiled. “Kind of a weak first step,” she said. “It's going to be fine, Merricat.”
In the hall Helen Clarke was showing off the staircase to Mrs. Wright, telling the familiar story about the carving and the wood brought from Italy; when I came out of the drawing room she glanced at me and then said, “This staircase is one of the wonders of the county, Mary Katherine. Shame to keep it hidden from the world. Lucille?” They moved into the drawing room.