Merricat can’t let the family eat dinner without her. When she returns, she and Jonas stand looking at the house with love. Merricat thinks it is almost clean of Charles’s influence. He’s still angry at her when she goes in, and Merricat can tell that Constance is tired of his anger. Uncle Julian is mashing his food up and eating with a napkin under his chin. Constance tells Merricat to tidy herself before she comes to dinner, and Charles says that they’re thinking of a good punishment for her.
This will be the last time that Merricat sees the house whole—it’s ironic that she looks on it so fondly, since she’s about to destroy it. If Constance is tired of Charles’s anger, it means that she hasn’t yet given into his influence entirely. Charles incessantly reminds Merricat that he’s going to punish her without ever actually doling out a punishment, which is unwise, as Merricat so resents punishment.
Merricat goes upstairs and creeps into Charles’s room. Constance has cleaned the dirt out and now it looks very empty, because Merricat moved everything else to the attic. She can tell that Charles has been lying on the bed, and she imagines him trying to find something familiar in the room. He’s left his pipe smoldering in an old saucer on the side table. Constance brought these saucers out specially for him and said that they must have come from some great-grandmother’s dowry. Merricat felt that they belonged in their place in the pantry.
Charles puts his pipe, a symbol of masculinity, on a saucer that has been passed down through the female Blackwood line. This seems to represent his desire to control the Blackwood women, as well as years of Blackwood men demanding service from Blackwood women. The fact that Merricat feels that Charles has no right to use the saucers in this way can be read as a feminist statement.
Merricat brushes the pipe and the saucer into the wastebasket, and they fall onto newspaper. One of her eyes is seeing shades of orange and the other is seeing shades of blue and green, and she wonders about this. She almost forgets to tidy herself before she returns to the dinner table. She requests that Constance make her a cake. When Charles threatens her with the prospect of a long talk, Merricat says the Latin name for deadly nightshade. Uncle Julian is eating more than usual and feeling much better, partly because he’s been so impolite to Charles.
If her narration is to be believed, Merricat doesn’t seem to premeditate setting a fire, and she doesn’t seem to understand that the pipe will set the newspaper on fire. In fact, she doesn’t even seem to recognize the shades of orange that her eye is seeing as fire. If she’s able to commit an act of such impact almost unconsciously, then it’s possible that she was in a similar state of mind when she poisoned her family. It’s also equally possible that her narration is deliberately unreliable so as to suggest false innocence.
Suddenly Charles smells smoke. Constance checks the kitchen and Charles the hall. He suspects that Merricat is somehow the cause of the smoke, but then Constance reminds him of his pipe, and he runs upstairs. Merricat asks whether it would start a fire. Charles screams from upstairs and tells them all to run because the house is on fire. Uncle Julian remains calm and goes to retrieve his papers. Charles flees to get help, telling Constance to put the money from the safe in a bag.
When Charles briefly places the blame on Merricat for the smoke, it’s the only time in the whole book that anyone other than Constance recognizes her capacity to do such things as poisoning her family or setting her house on fire. However, she seems sincere in wondering whether the pipe could start a fire. Charles shows that he cares more about money than about the family getting out safely.
Constance helps Uncle Julian to his room while Merricat looks upstairs. She can see the fire in her father’s room. The fire doesn’t seem in a hurry, so she doesn’t hurry either. She wants to shut the door to her father’s room to keep the fire confined to Charles’s things, but it’s already coming outside the room. Everything belonging to Charles must be burnt by now. Constance returns, saying that Uncle Julian is getting his papers. Merricat suggests they shelter on the porch. Constance seems angry with the house for burning.
Merricat acts as though the fire has a mind of its own, which perhaps helps her pretend that the house burning isn’t her fault. She also doesn’t understand that shutting a door against fire most likely would not keep it in Charles’s room—in trying to chase Charles out, she’s going to end up burning down her own life, too. Constance, meanwhile, seems to think of the house as something alive and conscious.
Merricat guides Constance onto the porch just as fire engines roar into the driveway. Constance covers her face. Jim Donell runs into the house first, and the sisters hide behind vines growing on the porch as the rest of the firefighters drag hoses in and light up the front of the house. Charles is yelling for the men to get the safe. Constance is worried that people might be able to see her. Merricat looks out to find that the entire village is watching.
Merricat and Constance are consistently more afraid of the villagers than of the fire. In this light, Merricat’s arson initially seems to backfire by bringing more men and strangers to her house than ever before. Even though Charles doesn’t know where the sisters are, he’s still more worried about the money than about their safety.
Someone asks where the sisters and Uncle Julian are, but Charles says they’re fine. Merricat thinks Uncle Julian must have gotten out the back door, but in any case the fire seems confined to the bedrooms upstairs. Constance says that Uncle Julian was more annoyed than frightened, as was Jonas, who went out the back door. She remarks how much scrubbing she’ll have to do to get the hall clean. Merricat thinks everything is all right, and once the fire is out, they’ll go inside and clean.
Even when other people bring up the family inside, Charles shows no concern for them—at the very least, Merricat has succeeded in exposing his true colors. Merricat and Constance take a very skewed view of the fire, worrying more about the cleaning they’ll have to do than about Uncle Julian’s life. This is in accordance with the strange reality they live by.
Merricat can’t distinguish any faces in the crowd in the yard. She thinks of the fire as belonging to Charles and marvels at the firemen’s ability to destroy it. She can hear the fire and the voices of the firemen and the crowd. One woman suggests that they let the house burn, and Charles is still saying to get the safe out. The firemen insist that they have to put the fire out. The smoke obscures the faces of the villagers.
With the faces of the crowd indistinguishable, the villagers begin to become a mob—it’s clear that they’re thinking as a unit and wanting to punish the Blackwoods. In their official capacity, the firemen feel that they must do their duty and put the fire out. However, it soon becomes clear that they’re not immune to mob rule.
Merricat is tired and hungry and wonders how long the firemen will make the fire last, because she wants dinner. Soon the light begins to dim and the voices inside sound more satisfied. Those outside sound disappointed. The villagers wish the house had burned down with the Blackwoods inside. When Jim Donell emerges, someone asks him why he couldn’t let it burn. He puts his hat that says “chief” in the fire engine. Then he picks up a rock and throws it through the drawing room window.
Though Merricat was just impressed with the firemen’s ability to quench the fire, she suddenly thinks that they’re making the blaze continue. While this isn’t literally true, it becomes metaphorically prophetic: Jim Donell switches from being a fireman to a villager when he begins to contribute to the destruction of the house.
The villagers laugh and begin to storm the house. They shatter the windows and break the Dresden figurines and the harp, laughing all the while. Charles tries to get someone to help him with the safe. The villagers begin to chant the rhyme about Constance poisoning Merricat. As they approach the sisters’ hiding place, Merricat tells Constance they need to run, but Constance is afraid. The window behind them is smashed. Merricat pulls Constance to the porch steps. A little girl runs out the front door and her mother stops her from eating a handful of Constance’s spice cookies.
The villagers, who have always hated the Blackwoods, finally have their chance to punish them, perhaps feeling that they’re serving justice since the law didn’t punish anyone for the poisoning. Though the sisters have long avoided the villagers, the villagers are now ruining their one safe haven. Even in the midst of the madness, the villagers are still fixated on the Blackwoods’ food and are ridiculously sure that it’s all poisoned.
Merricat and Constance have to run through the headlights of the cars to get to the woods. While they hesitate, two more cars arrive, and Jim Clarke and Helen Clarke get out of one. Jim Clarke goes inside, enraged at what’s happening, but his words have no effect on the villagers inside. Dr. Levy gets out of the other car and follows him in, asking where Uncle Julian is. No one sees the sisters.
The Clarkes are always the most objectively “normal” people in this book, and Dr. Levy, too, shows the most rational concern yet—Uncle Julian’s safety should have been taken care of much earlier. However, no one seems terribly concerned about what’s happened to the sisters.
Merricat helps Constance down the steps. Someone sees them and shouts, and then the villagers surround them, pushing to see them better and taunting them. Helen Clarke is crying against her car. The villagers don’t want to touch the sisters, and so Merricat and Constance run towards the woods. People keep blocking their path no matter where they turn, chanting the rhyme and laughing. Merricat worries that Constance might fall, so she stands still.
The villagers are in such a frenzied state of communal violence that they act almost as one, never pausing to think about the awful things they’re doing. Though Helen Clarke has said she wants to help the sisters, she’s completely useless now. Ironically, the villagers’ chant reiterates over and over the falsehood that Constance was the poisoner.
From the porch, Jim Clarke announces that the fun is over, because Uncle Julian is dead. The villagers fall silent. Charles asks whether Constance killed him, and the crowd moves away from the sisters. Dr. Levy says that Uncle Julian’s heart failed. Jim Clarke pushes the villagers towards their cars, and they go. Merricat pulls Constance into the trees. No one sees them. When they reach the path Merricat hugs and soothes Constance.
Real, objective tragedy strikes and the villagers are forced to confront their own temporary madness. Charles reveals the depths of his dishonesty, as he must never have really trusted Constance in the whole time he’s been pretending to help and love her. He effectively reveals himself to be more of a villager than a family member.
As Merricat leads Constance to her shelter by the stream, she thinks how glad she is that she can keep Constance safe. She’ll tell her stories and bring her berries. She brings Constance to a pile of leaves and a blanket in the corner. Jonas is already there. Merricat covers the entrance with branches and looks up at the stars peering through. Thinking of their mother’s broken Dresden figurine, she tells Constance that she’s going to poison everyone. For the first time since it happened, Constance acknowledges that she knows Merricat poisoned their family, and Merricat admits that she did.
Merricat’s shelter is a place all her own, where no one has ever challenged her perspective on the world. By taking Constance there now, Merricat takes the first step towards their new life where Merricat’s reality will reign. Finally, Merricat confirms what the reader has most likely suspected about her role in the poisoning. In speaking aloud about their mutual knowledge of this secret, Merricat and Constance enter into a new level of intimacy and collusion.