The Spare Room
All the doors up there were supposed to be locked. And they all were.
Except the spare room.
Once a month it was Prudence’s turn to watch through the night, walking the halls below stairs and up in the attics, making sure no one was sneaking about, getting into the pantry, coming in after hours. They each took it in turn. It was one of the duties that came with the job, and common enough for kitchen and house staff in the larger homes.
Mostly it was fine. Boring, and at times difficult to stay awake, but otherwise harmless. Except once a night the upper attics had to be checked. A few of these small rooms tucked away in the upper-most reaches of the house were used for storage: furniture, crates packed with straw to cushion forgotten contents, gathering dust. Most were empty, the rooms unneeded for household staff, numbers being smaller nowadays due to the war. With so many young men off fighting the Germans in His Majesty’s army, and women needed as nurses or in the factories, there just weren’t enough people to staff the grand manor houses like they used to.
Used or not, all the attic rooms were meant to be closed and locked at all times.
But at the far end of the hall, one door was always open.
Just an inch or two.
The gap was small. But she’d heard things.
Breathing. Ragged panting, like someone in pain.
When she peered at that small, black gap, trying to see who could be inside, she’d seen only a pair of shining eyes staring back at her. They seemed mad, evil, malicious, and she’d scurried away as quickly as she could.
And once she’d heard a low, oily chuckle as she walked away, followed by the creek of hinges.
She did not look back, nor pause to find out if the door was closing or opening. She ran all the way downstairs.
“You’re looking ragged this morning,” Mrs. Hankins said as she filled Prudence’s teacup.
Ellie Smythe, Prudence’s roommate, walked into the dining hall just in time to hear the comment.
“And no wonder,” she exclaimed. “She had the night watch last night. Up all hours roaming the empty halls,” she leaned sideways and poked Pru in the ribs. “Did you see anything in the Spare Room this time?”
“Tch!” Mrs. Hankins rapped her knuckles against the table and gave Ellie a hard look. “I’ll not have such talk in this house.” She reached for a platter of eggs and passed it down the table as other servants joined them for the morning meal. “That’s the kind of nonsense that causes trouble and has no truth to it.” She crossed her arms and added, “This is a Christian house, and there’ll be no wicked rumors started below stairs while I have anything to say about it!” She turned on her heel and bustled out of the room.
Groggy morning greetings were exchanged as the staff tucked into their breakfasts. Prudence had the morning off, as was customary after being on night watch, and so she lingered over an extra cup of tea as the others hurried off to their various tasks, answering to bells and hurrying so as to avoid the ire of Mrs. Hankins, should they be late. At last it was just herself and old Joseph, the head groundskeeper, sitting in amicable silence. Joseph had been born on a nearby farm, come to work as a boy in the stables, and though his job had changed over the years, he never left the estate. He was old now—some claimed he was almost 90, though no one knew for sure—and allowed to go at a slower pace. Even so, he still made sure to check on the work of the lads who worked under his supervision, and the grounds were kept very well.
“Hankins doesn’t like to hear of it,” he croaked suddenly from the far end of the table, startling Prudence, “but there’s some as seen things in that Spare Room.”
Prudence felt suddenly wide awake. “Have you, Mr. Joseph?”
He took a long sip of tea before answering. “Haven’t been up there since the last Earl died,” he said at last, “but before then I took my turn at night’s watch, same as everyone. We all knew there was sommat up there. Some saw more’n others.”
“What is it?” Prudence clasped her hands and leaned forward. “Every time I’m up there I can feel it…and sometimes I have heard….sounds…” She’d tried to talk to some of the others about it, but they’d all dismissed her as being a foolish child, and warned her not to let Hankins hear her talk.
“It’s usually the children,” Joseph said, leaning back in his chair and producing a pipe from his pocket. Mrs. Hankins had strict rules about smoking in the house, but Prudence suspected that old Joseph was as exempt from that as he was from most other rules. He struck a match and pulled on the pipe until small puffs of smoke plumed out. “In the old days we had many more young ’uns coming into service, age 7, 8, 9.”
“I’m eleven,” Prudence said quietly. Her mother couldn’t work, and with both her brothers and father gone to war, she was the only one able to provide an income for her mother and younger brother and sister, until the relief checks started to come. She’d been sorry to leave school, but there were no other options. She knew was lucky to have the job at all.
“Aye, I thought as much.” Joseph puffed away. “But those who started young and stayed on, we still felt things, saw things.”
“Oh, I ‘spect you know well enough,” he squinted at her through a haze of fragrant smoke. “But I know how it is: you want to hear that someone else has seen it, too, so you know you’re not crazy.” He nodded and chuckled. “They used to make us older’n swear not to tell the young ones…until they came askin’. Then we could tell ’em everything.”
Prudence merely blinked at him, almost holding her breath, hoping he would say more.
“My first night up there, I were only six. I saw the door open, and tryin’ to be a good lad, I went to close it. Soon as I got near I heard a breathing so heavy and wet, it sounded like someone might be dying. Instead of closing it, I pushed the door wide, and saw nothing, but I felt it, all around.”
“Like the air was thick, you mean?” Prudence had almost felt frozen in place one night, unable to push away from the dreaded room.
“Aye,” Joseph nodded. “And my feet felt stuck. Then I heard a wicked laugh from somewhere behind me—behind the door, in the darkest corner, as I thought at the time. I screamed, because I was young, and I fell over.” He tamped some new tobacco into his pipe’s bowl, lit it, and puffed a few times before continuing. “’Twas Maisy who found me lying there, stone cold unconscious, next morning. I didn’t wake for two days, and they feared I was a goner.” He cackled and winked at Pru. “Not me! I came back and got mad, for I was ashamed, even as a small boy, at fainting like a woman! I asked to be on the very next night watch.”
There was a sound of feet in the hall and voices of passing servants, louder than usual and sounding perturbed and rushed. It reminded Prudence that she would be expected upstairs at 1:00. She glanced at the clock, and saw that she still had 5 hours. Although she yearned for sleep, she wanted to hear more.
“Did you ever….see anything?” The recollection of shining eyes peering at her across the inky blackness of the room haunted her dreams.
“Aye,” Joseph nodded. “Me ’n others. I mostly just heard things---the breathing, the laughter. But once I saw a shadow move across that open door. Brave as I tried to be, when I thought it was coming out toward me I ran away.” He winked again, and went on. “Trevor from the North Country saw more ’n the rest of us. Eyes, he said, evil eyes peering at him from within the room. And one time he swore he saw a phantom bed appear in a shaft of moonlight, when the moon was full and shining in the window as he passed by. Worst of all,” he leaned toward Prudence and dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper, “there was sommat in the bed, moving, thrashing about, making great animal convulsions, while the evil laughter carried on and on.”
Prudence realized she was trembling, and wrapped her arms around herself. “Was anyone ever hurt by the…whatever it is up there?”
Joseph appeared to give a great deal of thought to her question, taking the time to refill his pipe a second time, before answering. At last he said, “No, not in the way you mean. Many of us had a good scare, but nothin’ worse than nightmares afflicted us.”
Pru had the sense that he was holding something back. “But what, then? Who was hurt?”
“Well,” Joseph took a long, deep draw on his pipe and blew the smoke out in rings that floated into the air above his head, “it’s the stories we heard about the room I’m thinking of.
“In the days before I came, three Earls ago and longer, when Queen Victoria sat on the throne, all of those attics were filled with servants, sometimes two to a room. In those days the estate was busy as a beehive, and the Earl was beloved.
“That room, though, was kept empty, as a place for visitors who turned up occasionally. Sometimes it was someone applying for work but yet to be hired and assigned a place. Sometimes a family member of one of the staff would stop over, and were accorded a single night’s lodgings as a courtesy of the Estate.
“It was a golden time, but like all such times it came to an end. The next Earl was born with a stain on his face, red and mottled and horrible. His mother was of a weak constitution, and seeing her deformed child drove her mad. Had to be locked up half the time, she did, and the old Earl died of grief over it---although in truth, he married very late, and it might just have been his time,” Joseph seemed almost to be speaking to himself now. “In any event, for a time the Estate was in the hands of his mad widow. She turned out all but the most essential staff, shuttered the windows, locked the rooms, refused visitors, shunned the world. Her deformed son, so the story goes, she kept in the attics—in the spare room.” Now he looked Prudence in the eye as he went on. “It was whispered that she visited him nightly, and those servants who remained would hear horrible sounds from the spare room, though none had the courage to go and see what she did up there.
“Things went on like that for ten years or so, until one morning a grounds man—the only one left, my old master William, who taught me everything he knew before he left this world—found the poor mad woman hanging from a tree in the oak grove. He cut her down, carried her inside, and he and the housekeeper and head butler realized they would need to check the spare room and see what there was to see at last.”
Prudence was gripping her own elbows and hugging herself tightly. “What did they find, Mr. Joseph?”
“It was a pitiable, sickly thing, miss,” Joseph said, shaking his head sadly. “Such life as it had been given was marred by deformity and isolation, and it was lying in a bed there, the bolster over its face.” His pipe had gone out again, but rather than refill it, Joseph set it on the table and dropped his hands into his lap. “The three of them vowed never to reveal what they found, so as not to smear the family name. It was let out that the boy had always been sickly and died, and his death broke the heart of his poor mother, who died right after. Murder and suicide are not stains any family wants attached to their name, miss.”
Prudence had gasped when Joseph described the scene in the spare room, and now she nodded her head vigorously. “Of course not, sir. Of course not.”
Joseph gave a small stretch and pushed his chair away from the table. “The local doctor confirmed the situation, the family were notified, and soon enough a cousin was found who was next in line…under him the house was restored and eventually I came along. And even more eventually, you came along.”
“But Mr. Joseph, why do we see these things up there?” It was a tragic story, but Pru couldn’t figure out why such tortured souls would return to reenact their own misery.
“Who knows, miss? Guilt? Madness? Misery? Who can tell what laws govern spirits in the next world? Now,” he reached for his pipe and placed it back in his pocket, “Hankins will not hear tell of this, and what with our world today, few are the folk who notice anything anymore. It’s your youth, I’d wager, that makes you more sensitive, and I thought you deserved to know about it. But I’d advise you not to tell others, nor mention your experiences again if you wish to keep your post.” He turned and began to walk away from the table, pausing to say over his shoulder, “I’ve got to be getting along now, but if you should see something again, come find me and tell me about it, I’ll be around the place.” He winked kindly at her. “That way you won’t feel so frightened or alone with it preying on your mind.” And with those words he left her alone at the table.
Prudence sighed deeply, all at once overcome with fatigue. She found her way to her room and fell onto her bed, asleep almost before her head touched the pillow, without bothering to undress.
It was several hours later, long past when she had been due for work, that Ellie wakened her.
“Pru! Prudence! Wake up, you sleepy thing! What are you thinking, sleeping without setting your alarm and missing your duty?!”
Wide awake now, Prudence jumped up. “Oh no! Oh Ellie, am I in trouble? Is Hankins looking for me?”
Ellie wagged a finger in her young roommate’s face. “No, but you’ve benefited from someone else’s misfortune. The entire household was thrown out of order today.”
“Because Old Joseph, that ancient groundskeeper—you know who I mean?—they found him dead today! He wasn’t in any of his usual haunts. One of the underkeepers needed something from him, and went looking---anyway, they found him in his room, lying on is cot, just as if he were asleep, except he was dead. The doctor said he must’ve passed sometime in the night.” Ellie crossed herself without thinking, and Prudence was surprised to see the gesture from a young woman who always seemed so sensible and modern. “We’ve all been put onto different tasks all day, and the Earl has been deeply affected, as old Joseph has been on the estate for 80 years, so no one’s noticed that you were missing.”
“But he couldn’t have died last night. I was talking to him just this morning!”
“Nonsense,” Ellie shook her head. “You stayed behind in the kitchen when the rest of us went to work, and then you went to bed---Joseph was cold and dead already when we were all eating together. Brrr,” she shivered and rubbed her arms, “gives me the chills just to think about it.”
Prudence felt the hairs rise on the back of her arms and neck. For a moment she thought she could smell the faint, sweet smell of pipe tobacco.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, snoobearWrite a Review