A rainy evening.
October 24th, 1917.
My dearest Castile,
I must confess I have been reluctant to write to you. I hope you will not think this rudeness is owed to any action on your part; rather, Father has been imploring me to answer your last letter so insistently that I resisted out of stubborn impulse. You know how agitating he can be at times.
My hope is that he will not ask to see this letter before it is sent. Because I must decline, Castile. You have been a true and dear friend to me, and I am forever grateful for the support you have given my family in the wake of Mother’s death, but I cannot marry you. You have always encouraged me to seek my own happiness, independent of my reputation or the opinions of others. I wish I could offer a happier verdict, but my happiness, Castile, does not ultimately lie with you.
I will not leave it there. You deserve a form of explanation, and I intend on making it absolutely clear that my rejection of your proposal is not in any way a rejection of your character.
You see, I could never live in that place - with you or under any other circumstance. The air at the estate is heavy, Castile, in a way I cannot explain. I have spoken to you many times of the godly solitude of the mountains, of my love for the woods and the sky and the trees that lean in lovingly upon me as I walk beneath them. I always felt a kinship with the forests here, felt cherished by them, in a way.
There is an event which occurred on my last visit to the estate, one which I did not mention as, at the time, I did not imagine it was of any particular significance. Indeed, even now I could not bring myself to tell anyone but you, as you alone, I believe, will take me upon my word and not dismiss my story as the ramblings of a silly, frightened girl.
You recall the time of my last visit? I came with Father and my sister and we stayed in the guest suite under the hospitality of your father, Mr. Madigan. Perhaps you will also remember the walk we took, after dinner on the second evening, along the grounds and gardens about the estate.
As dusk fell, I excused myself to take a turn about the old creek-fed millpond, begging a moment of solitude to enjoy the evening. Summer evenings in these mountains have always been special favorites of mine, and I relished the chance for a few minutes walking alone under the warmth of the setting sun, the buzz of crickets and cicadas soft in my ears and the breeze playing gently in my hair.
The path there takes a turn away from the pond and ventures a little way into the woods, losing sight very briefly of the water before it curves back again and loops around.
I followed this turn just as the day faded into the embracing blue of twilight, and as I lost sight of the pond, every pleasant sensation I had enjoyed on my walk vanished all at once. The cicadas ceased their chorus. The wind went still. I was abruptly, starkly aware of my own solitude, my smallness against the encroaching night and the depth of the spaces between the trees that surrounded me.
I am not given to spells of unfounded terror, but, for no reason at all, the hairs rose on the back of my neck. My sister had mentioned at dinner that black bears were known to come onto the grounds sometimes, and I wondered if one might be roving nearby, if perhaps it could smell the recently-eaten meal in my stomach, the residue of meat on my fingers.
Of course, there was no bear. But as I quickened my pace, eager to reach the open path along the pond again, I began to get the strangest feeling that the trees were leaning in upon me. Though there was no wind, the branches creaked. Their leaves rattled overhead. And from all around me came that deep and earthly groan of straining wood.
Castile, it felt for all the world like a warning.
I hurried quickly along the path until I reached the water’s edge. Nothing came after me. But Castile, for the whole remainder of our walk and our return to the house afterward, I could not dispel the sensation that I was being watched. It was so powerful, so visceral a fear that I was near trembling when we arrived back at the house, and I’m sure you noticed my quiet and the lull in my mood. But there was nothing, nothing at all to be afraid of, so how could I impress upon you my feelings?
And still, Castile, that sensation has not left me. When my sister and I departed the following morning, I avoided looking out the carriage window at the trees as we passed beneath them. I nearly shouted at Alethe when she asked me why I was so jumpy. I felt for all the world like I was losing my mind.
Something happened in that brief turn into the woods, on the north side of the Mill Pond, and for the life of me I cannot tell you what it was. I cannot venture into the woods anymore, and I cannot look on the trees without shuddering. How can I convince you that I was right to be afraid, when there was nothing there to fear? Alas, you will have to take me at my word.
There are other reasons I would not be happy at the Madigan Estate. I cannot abide the look of the gardener, or the way he drifts silently from place to place, never announcing himself. I do not like the ceaseless mutterings of the servants. And your father, frankly, has a sternness about him I find disquieting. But it was this incident by the pond that cemented my dislike of your home.
If I thought you would consider, even for a moment, leaving the estate to begin a new life with me, I might agree to your proposal. For I care deeply for you, Castile, but I am no fool. You belong to the estate as surely as you belong to your own blood, and I know you will never leave it.
I used to believe that my love of the forest lay in the silent, watchful power of the trees. I thought I was comforted by a fanciful notion that they cared for me, a little creature walking in their shadows. I realize now the opposite is true. I was drawn to the forest because of its uncaring and indifference. I felt free and easy on my walks, because as I beheld the wonder of nature I never felt as though it wanted to possess me.
Not until that evening.
I pray for your happiness, Castile, and I pray that someone other than me can provide it to you. Neither you nor the forest may have me.