We Have Always Lived in the Castle (7 page)

“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.”
“To kill rats,” Constance said to the teapot, and then turned and smiled at me.
“To kill rats,” Uncle Julian said. “The only other popular use for arsenic is in taxidermy, and my niece could hardly pretend a working knowledge of that subject.”
“She cooked the dinner, she set the table.”
“I confess I am surprised at that woman,” Helen Clarke said. “She seems such a quiet little body.”
“It was Constance who saw them dying around her like flies—I do beg your pardon—and never called a doctor until it was too late. She washed the sugar bowl.”
“There was a spider in it,” Constance said.
“She told the police those people deserved to die.”
“She was excited, madam. Perhaps the remark was misconstrued. My niece is not hard-hearted; besides, she thought at the time that I was among them and although I deserve to die—we all do, do we not?—I hardly think that my niece is the one to point it out.”
“She told the police that it was all her fault.”
“Now there,” Uncle Julian said, “I think she made a mistake. It was certainly true that she thought at first that her cooking had caused all this, but in taking full blame I think that she was over-eager. I would have advised her against any such attitude had I been consulted; it smacks of self-pity.”
“But the great, the unanswered question, is
why
? Why did she do it? I mean, unless we agree that Constance was a homicidal maniac—”
“You have met her, madam.”
“I have what? Oh, my goodness yes. I completely forgot. I cannot seem to remember that that pretty young girl is actually—well. Your mass murderer must have a reason, Mr. Blackwood, even if it is only some perverted, twisted—oh, dear. She is such a charming girl, your niece; I cannot remember when I have taken to anyone as I have to her. But if she
is
a homicidal maniac—”
“I'm leaving.” Helen Clarke stood up and slammed her pocketbook emphatically under her arm. “Lucille,” she said, “I am leaving. We have overstayed all limits of decency; it's after five o'clock.”
Mrs. Wright scurried out of the dining room, distraught. “I'm so sorry,” she said. “We were chatting and I lost track of time. Oh, dear.” She ran to her chair to gather up her pocketbook.
“You haven't even touched your tea,” I said, wanting to see her blush.
“Thank you,” she said; she looked down at her teacup and blushed. “It was delicious.”
Uncle Julian stopped his wheel chair in the center of the room and folded his hands happily before him. He looked at Constance and then raised his eyes to gaze on a corner of the ceiling, sober and demure.
“Julian, goodbye,” Helen Clarke said shortly. “Constance, I'm sorry we stayed so long; it was inexcusable. Lucille?”
Mrs. Wright looked like a child who knows it is going to be punished, but she had not forgotten her manners. “Thank you,” she said to Constance, putting her hand out and then taking it back again quickly. “I had a very nice time. Goodbye,” she said to Uncle Julian. They went into the hall and I followed, to lock the door after they had gone. Helen Clarke started the car before poor Mrs. Wright had quite finished getting herself inside, and the last I heard of Mrs. Wright was a little shriek as the car started down the driveway. I was laughing when I came back into the drawing room, and I went over and kissed Constance. “A very nice tea party,” I said.