There is no one here, Louisa. But it didn’t seem that way. Somehow, incredibly, she didn’t feel alone, but as if she were being watched. As if someone was there, waiting in the shadows. A feeling of alarm skittered over her skin and then was silenced by a thought. There is nothing here, Louisa. It’s simply that you have always disliked dark places. They make you feel unnerved. That is all it is. She discounted the fact that she’d not been afraid of the dark since she was a child.
Ever since she was eight and had come to live at Bainbridge Hall, she’d explored Hodge’s Hill and the surrounding countryside. But this afternoon, the sun had gleamed just right on the outcropping of rock, illuminating the shadows behind it, and the stone entrance that opened up to become this large, very dark, and previously unknown cave. As a child she would have willingly explored it, she thought, then stopped herself as truth washed over her again. As a child, she had been timid and shy. She would have run from the spot and not asked a soul about it. Even now, so many years later, the echo of that child’s voice resounded in her mind as she stood in front of it. It’s dark and dirty and bats live there. Not to mention spiders. Maybe even worse. You’ll soil your dress and muss your hair and people will know you’ve been somewhere you shouldn’t have been.
She waved her hand in the air in front of her as if to banish so many admonitions. She was no longer a child and dark places didn’t really scare her anymore, and it was so odd to see something nearly hidden from view and then to magically come upon it. Almost like a plain rock that turns out somehow to be a diamond. The cave lured her to investigate, to take one step and then one more into the solitary silence of a place she’d never known existed.
Perhaps she should not have explored this place on her own. It was not as if she had meant to, after all. She had left Bainbridge Hall with her drawing materials under her arm, intent upon a little solitude and promising her maid, her Abigail, her grandfather’s secretary and all the other assorted persons she’d met that she would be quite fine, that she was only going as far as Hodge’s Hill. They had reluctantly refrained from accompanying her, granting her a precious gift of time.
“I know you’re there. Why aren’t you answering?” Another step. She stood there in the silence, absorbing all the sounds she heard. Somewhere, water dripped, the wind soughed loudly as if it rushed through a chimney hole. Another sound, unexpected and yet not totally so.
“I can hear you breathe.”
Silence again, and then the voice came.
“Are you always so intransigent?” The tone of it was decidedly annoyed.
She could not blame him, of course, she herself had sought privacy often only to have it interrupted by yet another well meaning soul. No one in the world was more cared for, cosseted, confined, and concerned about than Louisa Patterson. Very rich young ladies normally are, she was told.
“No,” she answered honestly. “I do not believe I am. But I’m very good at hiding from others, which is probably why I knew you were here. If you truly wish me to leave, I shall.”
There was no response to that statement.
“If you’re trying to be unmannerly, you’re succeeding quite well.” The darkness of the cave was pervasive. All she could see was blackness, the color of night at its loneliest.
Why on earth had she come in here? Curiosity, it seemed, had gotten her into a dilemma, one from which she could not politely extricate herself. After all, she could not simply turn and walk away. Could she?
“You are not going away, are you?”
“I was just thinking how I could accomplish that with more manners than you’ve evinced so far.” She frowned into the darkness.
“Is it entirely mannerly to lecture me on deportment , then?” The voice held a distinct note of amusement now. Louisa felt her cheeks flush.
“I am sorry. My grandfather says I tend to think first and use reason only later.”
“A lamentable habit.”
“I did not say that I agreed with him.” She touched her lips with her fingers, more than a little surprised that such a thought had actually been said. Despite her grandfather’s claims, there were few times in which she actually transgressed socially. She was Arthur Patterson’s granddaughter, a position about which she was reminded daily, if not hourly. She owed a duty to her grandfather, one of love and affection and strict attention to propriety.
“Ah, a woman with an opinion. How utterly rare.”
“Did you know that sarcasm is the pediment of fools?”
“Are you quoting, or is that, perhaps, a sentiment you’ve learned from someone?”
“By that remark, am I to infer that it is your belief that women cannot maintain a thought of their own?”
“Did you come in here to argue with me, then? Is there no one at Bainbridge Hall to perform the chore with you?”
Surprise held her rigid for a moment. It was too good to be true, then, this anonymity.
“Then you know who I am?”
“There is not much that goes on around here that I’m unaware of, Miss Patterson.”
“And, I suppose, you shall mention to my grandfather how dreadfully unmannered I’ve been.”
“You really must not sound so disconsolate. I have never exchanged a word with your grandfather. Nor am I likely to. I simply am aware of a place not too far removed from my own, much humbler, abode.”
“You cannot mean you live here?”
It was not silence between them then, the air carried too many sounds, a soft shifting noise that might have been a footfall, a breath, a brush of fabric. All these things seemed magnified and compressed in the darkness.
“You disapprove, I take it?”
She clasped her drawing pad closer to her chest.
“Come, you must have a thousand or more questions. I can almost hear them popping from beneath your bonnet. Does your grandfather know of my existence, or even this place? How can a man live among rock and stone? Why, above all, would I choose such a place in which to make my home? Are you not suffused with curiosity?”
It might be advisable to simply turn and leave after all. But the alternative was to return to Bainbridge Hall and it was so lonely there lately.
“Yes,” she sighed, trapped in honesty. “For the answer to each and every one of them.”
“A truly honest woman, then. Why did you come in here?”
“I have never seen the cave before. I wanted to see it.”
“And discovered a hermit in residence, and a surly one at that.”
“Is that what you are?”
“Surely not a reason to sound so absurdly gleeful.”
“Well, it is because I have never met one. My own life is too filled with people.”
“You are young and unmarried. Such a circumstance is normal. As is this meeting between us is not.”
“Oh, but this cave is part of Hodge’s Hill and therefore part of my dowry.”
“So, you claim ownership to my home. Does that fact demand an invitation? Even outside the bonds of propriety, then?”
“No,” she said slowly. “You are correct of course.” It is just that my entire life is comprised of being ever mindful of what other people say and what people think of me. It had been refreshing to spend a few moments simply not caring.
“Sit down,” he said, and his voice was so close to her that she jumped, startled. The impenetrable blackness was like a murky fog, shielding everything. “Did I frighten you?”
“Yes,” she said, too discomfited for politeness.
Something brushed her hand, and she jerked it back, startled. It had been like touching a spider’s web, something felt but not seen.
“Sit down, then, and I shall endeavor to be a host.”
“I cannot stay.” She fumbled with her drawing materials, grateful for something to place between her and the deep shadows in front of her.
“Then go.” The voice was annoyed again, and did she imagine it, or was there a tinge of disappointment there? Don’t be a silly goose, Louisa.
She really should not have said the next words, they were hideously improper. “May I come again?”
“Perhaps I shall not be here.”
“If you are, may I visit you?”
There was no answer to her question, and long moments later, in the silence, she turned and left the cave.