Whisper Falls 01By: Elizabeth Langston
For Norah and Charlie…
We have not forgotten.
A DEN OF VICE
I perched on a stool in the dining room’s corner, the mending basket at my feet, a torn pair of breeches draped across my lap. It was good that I had to sit with my back to the family. If my master couldn’t see my hands, he couldn’t tell they were idle.
Knuckles rapped for attention on the table. “Come, Jedidiah,” my master said, “it’s time for your lessons. Deborah and Dorcas, you may join us. Bring your stitching.” Chairs, benches, and shoes thumped as the Pratts adjourned to the parlor.
I tossed the breeches into the basket and hurried to clear the table, anxious to complete my evening chores. Amidst the clatter of dishes, Mr. Pratt’s voice rose and fell with his reading from the Holy Bible. As I tiptoed past the parlor door, my master paused, his gaze going from me to his elder son, a silent message passing between them.
Tonight, I would be followed.
The sun had already begun its descent when I crossed the yard to the kitchen building. In no time, I had the dishes scrubbed, the floor swept, and the fire banked. Tomorrow’s meals cooked in pots nestled among the coals on the hearth.
Was it possible I had finished my work before my master’s son finished his? I cast a glance toward the main house.
“Susanna?” a voice rasped from the rear door of the kitchen.
I whipped around, my heart sinking. In my rush to leave, I had forgotten the slave. How thoughtless. “Hector, have you come for your supper?”
He nodded and gave me a shy smile.
“I’m sorry, it isn’t ready. I’ll prepare your meal now.” As I cut the cornbread, I pondered what else to serve him. The Pratts had eaten all of the stew.
“What’s cooking?” he asked. “It smells mighty good.”
“Chicken.” It had been many days since Hector had had meat. I should have liked to give him some tonight, but had the chicken simmered long enough? I lifted the heavy lid of the pot, pinched a sample, and tasted. Yes, it would do nicely. I added a chicken wing and a boiled sweet potato to the wooden trencher and handed it to Hector. “Here you are.”
He smiled again, backed down the steps, and ran to the barn.
I could finally take my evening break, but no longer held out hope I would go alone. Jedidiah had certainly completed his Latin lesson by now and lurked somewhere in the shadows.
With only an hour of daylight left to guide me, I raced along the faint trail through the woods and made straight for Whisper Falls. Behind me, twigs snapped and leaves rustled with an unnatural rhythm.
After arriving at the top of the bluff, I dropped to my knees, crawled behind a boulder, and then swung over the ledge, my hands and feet scrabbling at the rock wall. It took only a moment to reach the bottom. I slipped into the cave behind the waterfall, my heart pounding so wildly it shook my frame.
Above me, Jedidiah crept through the tall grasses, the shushing of his shoes faint, the pace stealthy. I shrank into the cave’s musty depths, pressed myself against the damp wall, and strained to track his progress.
The shushing stopped.
There were no sounds besides the murmur of forest creatures and the whisper of the falls. What was he doing?
Perhaps he’d seen me disappear over the edge of the bluff. It would be my first mistake in the many weeks we’d been playing this terrible cat-and-mouse game. Was he waiting even now for my next move?
I would wait longer.
Pebbles showered down, cracking like gunshot against the granite cliff before plopping into the creek near my toes. I clapped a hand over my mouth to stifle a gasp.
“Susanna!” His frustrated groan floated past me on the warm May breeze.
He didn’t know where I was.
Relief threatened to loosen my limbs, but I fought the feeling. It was too early to celebrate, although the wait would be over soon. Jedidiah feared the woods after dark.
I held my breath. Truly, for his own good, he should go home.
His shoes shuffled on the rocky ledge.
We listened for each other, neither admitting defeat.
An owl hooted.
Jedidiah made a panicked squawk. Footsteps thundered down the trail leading to the village. I released my breath on a hiss, inched closer to the mouth of the cave, and peered out. His blond head bobbed in the distance, merging into the trees.
My legs gave way, and I sank onto a moss-covered boulder. That had been too close. I could finally relax and enjoy my break—blissfully alone. My master had never understood why I should want an hour of silence, an hour with no demands or duties. He believed I must have a secret beau, and nothing I said could convince him otherwise. Indeed, Mr. Pratt would be furious if he discovered how easily I evaded my chaperone. Not that his son or I would ever tell. By unspoken agreement, Jedidiah never mentioned my talent for hiding, and I never mentioned his incompetence as a spy.