Alice looked up from her embrace with Judith Wychwood. The corridor appeared to be empty, its dark silent and untroubled by any presence, spirit or flesh. The way to escape was clear.
"Quick, Judith," Alice whispered, suddenly feeling the need to restore the cloak of secrecy to their actions. "Let us make our way toward the entrance. Surely we will be able to slip out that way."
The two joined hands and began to walk as quickly and as quietly as they could manage, most of the worry on the side of Alice, who was after all the only one who made any sound. At any moment, Alice feared, someone might pop out and rudely demand where she thought she was going. She very nearly worried that her heart might give them away, pounding away as it did in her bosom very like a little hammer.
It put her in mind of the blacksmith in the village, which set up a kind of metallic clanging echo in her head that in turn fueled the sense of panic even more, like coals on a fire.
They paused at the top of the stairs. "Do you hear anyone, Judith?"
Miss Wychwood bent her insubstantial frame toward the foyer below. "I do not hear a peep," she whispered to Alice, though the sound would not have been much should she have chosen to speak aloud.
Cautiously Alice began to tread down the stairs, hoping there would not be much in the way of creaking. The whole process suddenly reminded her of the stairs that led down from the nursery and how the third one, no matter how carefully she might step, would always give a lamentable groan that alerted her tutor Miss Travers (as she then was, Alice reminded herself, finding she had a kind thoughts in absentia even of the disappointing Mr. Martin who had married that tutor), who would then recall a new lesson that Alice ought to be learning while she tried to nap a little longer or whatever it was that her tutor did when not occupied in tuition.
Sometimes Alice suspected her of writing a three-volume novel, but it was only in mischievous fits of mild unkindness.
The two escapees could be forgiven for their growing confidence that their flight would remain undetected. After all they had made it nearly to the bottom of the considerable staircase without mishap when at last the penultimate step groaned heavily beneath Alice's dainty foot.
Pausing mid-step in an attempt to curtail the unfortunate sound, Alice was alarmed to hear the groan turn into a horrendous crack and leapt to the parquet as the rotten wood gave way. Miss Wychwood and she embraced once more, their faces masks of horror.
"Oh dear!" Miss Wychwood said helplessly.
Alice gasped, for in the same moment she heard footsteps coming from a not inconsiderable distance. "I fear we have been discovered!" The two young women clasped hands and turned to face the danger together. Whatever might happen, Alice thought with a surge of grateful warmth, they were not alone.