Merricat feels compelled to return for dinner, insisting that Constance, Uncle Julian, and Charles not sit at the table with her place empty. As she arrives, Charles is still angry, talking to Constance about Merricat. Constance tells Merricat to clean herself up for dinner, which is unlike her. As she goes upstairs, Merricat sees that Constance has cleaned Charles’s room, and pushes his pipe into a wastebasket. She comes to sit at the table, where Charles continues to scold her. Uncle Julian is more cheerful and hungry than usual, which Merricat attributes to him being rude to Charles.
Suddenly, Charles says he smells smoke; his pipe has started a fire. Uncle Julian insists on gathering his papers, while Charles tells Constance to gather the money. Merricat and Constance go outside, while Charles calls for help from the village. Constance is afraid to be outside of the house, especially once villagers appear to watch the fire and put it out. Merricat calls the fire “Charles’ fire” and says she can hear it sing as Constance covers her eyes to hide the strangers from her sight. Charles repeatedly urges the villagers to get the safe out of the fire, while a woman calls to let the fire burn.
Merricat doesn’t seem to understand the severity of the fire, waiting impatiently to go back inside and have dinner. The villagers are somewhat disappointed to hear that the Blackwoods survived the fire, and Merricat hears laughter, as well as the familiar “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” rhyme. She dreams of being on the moon. She pulls Constance away from the burning house, while Constance is terrified of the nearby villagers, who have begun looting the house. The sisters try to flee to the woods, but the villagers manage to surround them. Constance covers herself with Uncle Julian’s shawl to stop them from seeing her, while they urge the sisters to go back in the burning house and taunt them.
Jim Clarke, the fireman, announces that Uncle Julian has died. “Did she kill him?” Charles calls out, but the doctor says no. Jim Clarke disperses the crowd. As the villagers leave, Merricat comforts Constance. Merricat then takes Constance to her hiding place by the river and tells her that she wants to poison the villagers’ food and watch them die, “the way I did before,” revealing that Merricat was actually the one that poisoned her family, and that Constance is aware of this. Merricat says this instance is the first time the sisters have spoken of the matter.
According to Merricat’s narration, she doesn’t seem to intend to set the house on fire in a premeditated manner—in fact, it’s unclear whether she even realizes the consequences that moving the pipe will have, or if she simply wants to cleanse the room of Charles. Indeed, it’s unclear why Merricat would want to risk destroying the house she loves so much, even if it would rid her of Charles. If her actions were truly unpremeditated, that suggests that the murders may have occurred similarly as an impulsive form of punishment. Yet Merricat’s narration is unreliable, and she may simply be trying to minimize her guilt. Her deeming the fire “Charles’ fire” shows the extent to which she separates the fire from her guilt in causing it—in her mind, Charles is more to blame than anyone.
The sisters don’t seem to understand the extent or severity of the fire, demonstrating themselves to be far more afraid of the villagers. Charles, too, is more concerned with the money in John Blackwood’s safe than with the safety of anyone involved. In fact, he shows even less concern for his relatives than the villagers, who loathe them, exposing his true nature. Constance joins in Merricat’s strange mental priorities by worrying more about the cleaning the fire will force them to do than about Uncle Julian’s life. Even when it’s announced that he’s dead, the sisters’ response is very muted.
Symbolically, Merricat’s hiding place by the river is a place where her fantasy world and mind rule. By taking Constance there, Merricat allows her into her fantasy world, but also begins the dominance of this world over reality. Merricat finally confirms what the reader likely knows by now: she is the true poisoner. Perhaps more notable is how easily Constance seems to have accepted that her sister is a murderer, despite her deep love for her.
Uncle Julian’s shawl serving as a form of protection for Constance further shows the ways in which he is aligned with the Blackwood sisters’ feminine power rather than the men’s masculine authority. A shawl is a gender neutral garment, and in his death, he is able to protect the sisters—as well as pave the way for Merricat’s dream of living only with Constance becoming a reality.