I returned to the intersection of the tunnels, resolving not to dawdle, for my candle was almost half gone. A lamp was what I needed for future exploration. I was certain that my father would allow me neither to possess my own lamp, nor to wander through the walls of Withywoods with a borrowed one. I wondered if he would notice it if I took the one from my mother’s sewing room. He had avoided that room since her death. I felt a pang of conscience at the thought of going behind his back to get what I needed, but not a large one. I was quite certain that he considered me far less capable than I was. Did that mean I should limit myself to what he thought I could do? I didn’t think so.
I chose a path at random and followed it. It wound for quite a way through the walls, and twice I negotiated what would have been very tight corners for an adult. I went down some crude steps, then up, and a short time later down a longer slant. I encountered more evidence of vermin and halted once when I heard small feet scampering away from me. I do not care for rats and mice. Rats do not stink as badly as mice do, but I do not like their beady eyes. The droppings along the wall edges grew thicker and the urine stink stronger. I found two gnawed holes in the passage: Obviously the rodents had discovered this safe and easy passage and had been using it, by which I deduced that this one would lead to the pantry.
And it did. My candle was now just a quarter of its length, and I resolved that I should exit the passage here before it guttered out and left me in darkness. The lever to open the panel was obvious, and though it was stiff, I heaved on it until I heard a click in the wall. I pushed at what I judged was the door, but it moved only a handspan. It was designed to swing out, and when I put my hand out through the opening, I clearly felt that sacks of something, peas or beans, had been stacked against it. I pushed against them, but they were heavy and unyielding. I would not get out that way.
It was time to leave my warren. I closed the secret panel to the pantry and headed back the way I had come, feeling both chilled and sleepy. I walked into a heavy cobweb and had to stop to clear it from my eyes. My robe, I noticed, was now very dusty and coated in webbing. I wondered if I could clean it myself and avoid the questions, for I was certain my father would not approve of this solo exploration.
I reached the intersection and turned to go back to my father’s study. My feet were chilled, and cold was starting to creep up my legs. I felt a tickling on my neck and nearly dropped my candle. I set it down, and with my fingers combed spiderweb from my hair. I did not find the spider despite several moments of futile searching. I took up my candle and walked on. The dimness of the passage seemed to make my eyelids feel heavier. It would be good to be back in my room and under my blankets.
I set my candle down again to clear more cobwebs from my path. I continued down the corridor and turned a corner before it occurred to me that there should no longer be spiderwebs in my way if I were retracing my steps. I halted where I was, lifted my candle, and peered ahead down the narrow way. No. There was no sign that I had passed this way earlier. The cobwebs were undisturbed, as was the dust on the floor. I turned back, pleased to note that my footprints and the drag of my robe were obvious here. Finding my way back was no trick at all now, and I stepped up my pace.
The candle was down to a stub in the holder when I reached the intersection. I thought angrily of how I had left my other candle at my little desk in the first spyhole. Well, it was not so far to go, and soon I would be back in my father’s study. I thought longingly of the fireplace and hoped that the log I had put on the hearth was still burning. I hurried along, following my own tracks. The dark-planked walls seemed to lean in closer as my candle faltered. I tipped it a little to allow some of the wax to run off in the holder. Now the wick stood taller and the flame longer, but I could also see the bottom of the melted wax. A wandering draft from the masonry wall nearly blew it out. I set my hand to shelter the flame and then stood stock-still, wondering. Had I turned the wrong way? Wasn’t the masonry wall on the way to the pantry entrance? Or had it been along the passageway that led to the peephole in my bedroom? I blinked my weary eyes and suddenly could not remember. My tracks in the corridor were no help. The mouse skeleton! Where had I seen the mouse skeleton?
I stood staring at my dying flame. “Next time,” I said to the gathering darkness. “Next time I shall bring chalk and mark where each passage goes.” The draft from the masonry wall was fingering its way through my robe. I turned back the way I had come. I could not hurry now, for the flame was a dancing mite on the last bit of wick. Once I reached that first intersection, I promised myself, I would be fine. Even if my candle went out, I could find my way back to the secret cubby by touch. Couldn’t I? I banished from my thoughts any fear of rats. My light had chased them away, and surely they never ventured this far from the kitchens. Rats stayed where there was food.