Throughout my survey, silence crept upon my skin — except when it was replaced with the creaking caused by my steps.
Then, when I stood still to ascertain that the shapes beneath the cloths were indeed the forms of beds, tables, and chairs, a return to that hovering hush was a relief, like a break from pain.
I inspected — to the best of my ability — the breadth of both wings, and the atmosphere in every room was the same: dark, still, and frozen in time.
There was, however, on the south wing a single apartment that I did not penetrate, for its door was shut.
I paused before the portal and listened.
There was silence, which I did not disturb, in case the chamber belonged to Mrs. Jameson.
Thus I uncovered nothing but saturnity — and a profusion of recesses that I could not espy in mere candlelight.
In a last effort to summon Mrs. Jameson, I rang the bell in the sitting room she had prepared for me.
For several minutes I paced the room, believing it possible that she would appear in response to my call, but she did not materialize.
I deemed it feasible that she slept soundly behind the closed door down the hall, oblivious to the ring of my bell.
But it seemed more likely, given the closed-up feeling throughout the manor, that she did not reside in the house.
She was, indeed, quite elderly, and likely not up to the tasks required of a full-time housekeeper.
As the house had been vacant of a tenant until today, she was conceivably in the habit of coming but once a week to do her work.
It was likely that she lived in a nearby cottage, with Mr. Jameson, perhaps.
She probably forgot to close the door when she left for the day.
In the morning I would have to remind her of the importance of closing and locking the door.
It should be admitted that, having drawn the conclusion that Mrs. Jameson did not reside in the house, I did not return to the south wing to explore beyond the closed door.
You may say, dear reader, that perhaps I should have.
But I was tired.
I was cold.
I was overwhelmed with the evening’s events.
Certainly I considered taking the Admiral back to Mrs. Vane’s, returning him to her sister, and resuming my prior mode of living.
Such an act would have been seamless: In future this evening would have seemed like a strange interlude, a distant dream.
But when I eased into the armchair and gazed at the cheerful fire, the good Admiral took his place in my lap, and Emma (for so I had christened the spaniel) settled at my feet.
I admired the leather-bound volume in my hand and was again filled with a sense of peace, which defused any anxiety I might otherwise have felt over the sound of gnarled branches scratching against the windowpanes.
I loved the house, and I would not abandon its beauty — or its mystery.