“Shush!” I warned him. I suspected I had very little time until my father returned. I needed to hide my cloak, reward and banish the cat, and be back in my room before I was missed. I returned the narrow panel to its place, gritted my teeth, and edged around the contaminated bed. When I leaned on the displaced wall panel, it swung in. I stepped inside, pushing the cat back with my foot. “Don’t go out here! There’s no water here,” I warned him. He growled but backed away. I tucked the cloak under my arm, set down my candle, and used every bit of my strength to pull the bed back into place. That done, I stepped into the secret corridor and pushed the concealed door closed behind me.
Cat first, I decided, and he was pleased that I did so. “Take us back to the pantry,” I suggested in a whisper. “To the fish!” Stripy led and I followed. Twice he stopped so abruptly that I nearly trod on him. But he knew the way and we reached the concealed door in the pantry and together emerged there. I had to pile up boxes to reach a fine string of sausages hung out of our reach. Again, I wished for a belt-knife. I had to bite two of the sausages free of their fellows. The cat called piteously, reminding me it was water he craved most.
Together we ventured into the kitchen where I found water for him. He drank and drank while I examined my butterfly cloak. The fabric seemed to be much sturdier than its light weight would indicate. When Stripy had finished drinking, I rewarded him with the sausage and let him carry it out into the kitchen yard. He was padding away into the night when I called after him, “What about the rats? Did you kill any?”
He had killed several, and discovered and made an end of two nests of babies.
“Will you come back tomorrow?”
It wasn’t likely. He hadn’t liked being confined with no water. He was accustomed to coming and going as he pleased. He trotted away, tail high, into the cold night. I could scarcely blame him. I’d left him trapped and waterless for hours. But his discovery of two nests of baby rats was something I could not ignore. I would have to find a feline ally, and soon.
I heard a whisper of sound from the house and suddenly recalled that I needed to hurry. I darted back into the pantry just as I heard someone come into the kitchen. I pinched my candle out and by touch found my way back into the secret corridor. I drew the door shut behind me. The dark became absolute. I promised myself that I now knew my way well enough that I needed no light. I tried not to think of any rats Stripy had not killed.
It took me a time but I groped my way back to the small cubby that looked down into my father’s study. A tiny beam of light was coming in the peephole. I peered out and I saw my father move to close the study doors. In a moment, he’d open the door.
In the dark I shook out my butterfly cloak and then refolded it so that the invisible side was out. I could not see what I was doing. I hoped I had left no betraying edge of color showing. As I heard him open the panel door, I hid my cloak on the shelf behind the candle supply.
The dance of his candlelight preceded him. Light and liquid shadows flowed and spread. They came around the corner like a wave of water and engulfed me. I sat quietly, my extinguished candle in hand, until he reached me. As the light touched me and he saw me, I heard the sigh of relief he expelled.
“I thought I might find you here,” he said gently. Then, as he looked at me, “Oh, my dear, did your candle go out, too? Such a night it has been for you. My poor little cub.”
He had to crouch to be in my hidey-hole. When I stood, he bent deeper to kiss me where my hair parted. He was still for a moment as if he were smelling me. “Are you all right?”
“Is this where you want to come when you are frightened?”
That I could answer truthfully. “Yes. This place is mine, more than anywhere else in Withywoods.”
He straightened and nodded back at me. “Very well.” He tried to roll his shoulders but could not in the cramped space. “Come with me now. We both need to get some sleep before dawn.”
He led the way and I followed him out of the secret corridors and back into his den. I watched him close the panel and open the tall doors. I followed his candle as we went back to the main part of Withywoods. At the foot of the grand staircase, he halted. He turned and looked down at me. “Your room will need to be thoroughly cleaned before you can sleep there again. And my room is too untidy. I suggest we sleep in your mother’s sitting room, where you were born.”
He did not wait for me to agree. I followed him as we went to the pleasant chamber that had once served as a nursery for me. It was cold and dark. My father lit a branch of candles and left me there while he went to get a scoop of coals from another hearth to start a fire. While he was gone, I brushed cobwebs from my new red nightdress. I stared about my mother’s dimly lit room. We had not spent much time here since she had died. Her presence was everywhere, from the candles ready in their holders to the emptied flower vases. No. Not her presence. It was her absence that I felt here. Last winter the three of us had gathered here almost every night. My mother’s workbasket was still by her chair. I sat down in her chair and set it on my lap. I pulled my feet up under my nightgown and hugged the basket to me.