Constance was perfectly composed. She rose and smiled and said she was glad to see them. Because Helen Clarke was ungraceful by nature, she managed to make the simple act of moving into a room and sitting down a complex ballet for three people; before Constance had quite finished speaking Helen Clarke jostled Mrs. Wright and sent Mrs. Wright sideways like a careening croquet ball off into the far corner of the room where she sat abruptly and clearly without intention upon a small and uncomfortable chair. Helen Clarke made for the sofa where Constance sat, nearly upsetting the tea table, and although there were enough chairs in the room and another sofa, she sat finally uncomfortably close to Constance, who detested having anyone near her but me. “Now,” Helen Clarke said, spreading, “it's good to see you again.”
“So kind of you to have us,” Mrs. Wright said, leaning forward. “Such a lovely staircase.”
“You look well, Constance. Have you been working in the garden?”
“I couldn't help it, on a day like this.” Constance laughed; she was doing very well. “It's so exciting,” she said across to Mrs. Wright. “Perhaps you're a gardener, too? These first bright days are so exciting for a gardener.”
She was talking a little too much and a little too fast, but no one noticed it except me.
“I do love a garden,” Mrs. Wright said in a little burst. “I do so love a garden.”
“How is Julian?” Helen Clarke asked before Mrs. Wright had quite finished speaking. “How is old Julian?”
“Very well, thank you. He is expecting to join us for a cup of tea this afternoon.”
“Have you met Julian Blackwood?” Helen Clarke asked Mrs. Wright, and Mrs. Wright, shaking her head, began, “I would love to meet him, of course; I have heard so muchâ” and stopped.
“He's a touch . . . eccentric,” Helen Clarke said, smiling at Constance as though it had been a secret until now. I was thinking that if eccentric meant, as the dictionary said it did,
deviating from regularity,
it was Helen Clarke who was far more eccentric than Uncle Julian, with her awkward movements and her unexpected questions, and her bringing strangers here to tea; Uncle Julian lived smoothly, in a perfectly planned pattern, rounded and sleek. She ought not to call people things they're not, I thought, remembering that I was to be kinder to Uncle Julian.
“Constance, you've always been one of my closest friends,” she was saying now, and I wondered at her; she really could not see how Constance withdrew from such words. “I'm going to give you just a word of advice, and remember, it comes from a friend.”
I must have known what she was going to say, because I was chilled; all this day had been building up to what Helen Clarke was going to say right now. I sat low in my chair and looked hard at Constance, wanting her to get up and run away, wanting her not to hear what was just about to be said, but Helen Clarke went on, “It's spring, you're young, you're lovely, you have a right to be happy. Come back into the world.”
Once, even a month ago when it was still winter, words like that would have made Constance draw back and run away; now, I saw that she was listening and smiling, although she shook her head.
“You've done penance long enough,” Helen Clarke said.
“I would so like to give a little luncheonâ” Mrs. Wright began.
“You've forgotten the milk; I'll get it.” I stood up and spoke directly to Constance and she looked around at me, almost surprised.
“Thank you, dear,” she said.
I went out of the drawing room and into the hall and started toward the kitchen; this morning the kitchen had been bright and happy and now, chilled, I saw that it was dreary. Constance had looked as though suddenly, after all this time of refusing and denying, she had come to see that it might be possible, after all, to go outside. I realized now that this was the third time in one day that the subject had been touched, and three times makes it real. I could not breathe; I was tied with wire, and my head was huge and going to explode; I ran to the back door and opened it to breathe. I wanted to run; if I could have run to the end of our land and back I would have been all right, but Constance was alone with them in the drawing room and I had to hurry back. I had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher which waited on the table; it had been our mother's and I left the pieces on the floor so Constance would see them. I took down the second-best milk pitcher, which did not match the cups; I was allowed to pour milk, so I filled it and took it to the drawing room.
“âdo with Mary Katherine?” Constance was saying, and then she turned and smiled at me in the doorway. “Thank you, dear,” she said, and glanced at the milk pitcher and at me. “Thank you,” she said again, and I put the pitcher down on the tray.
“Not too much at first,” Helen Clarke said. “That
look odd, I grant you. But a call or two on old friends, perhaps a day in the city shoppingâno one would recognize you in the city, you know.”
“A little luncheon?” Mrs. Wright said hopefully.
“I'll have to think.” Constance made a little, laughing, bewildered gesture, and Helen Clarke nodded.
“You'll need some clothes,” she said.
I came from my place in the corner to take a cup of tea from Constance and carry it over to Mrs. Wright, whose hand trembled when she took it. “Thank you, my dear,” she said. I could see the tea trembling in the cup; it was only her second visit here, after all.
“Sugar?” I asked her; I couldn't help it, and besides, it was polite.
“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
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 friendsâthere are many people who have wanted to keep in touch with you, Constance dearâa few old friends some evening. For dinner? No,” she said, “perhaps not for dinner. Perhaps not, not at first.”
“I myselfâ” 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.
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.”
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
kind, Constance. They don't talk about
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
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 perilsâgarden plants more deadly than snakes and simple herbs that slash like knives through the lining of your belly, madam. My nieceâ”
“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 acceptâ”
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 mightâ”
“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
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
it really is; I can't bear to hear it talked about. ConstanceâJulianâwhat 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 much different with all of them gone, but I'm sure I don't think of myself as suffering.”