“Welcome to A—’s,” said the head clerk with an arm-pumping handshake and congenial smile.
I’m certain I felt far more relief than he, although I endeavoured not to show it. After a nerve-racking drought of no occupation and even less income, I anticipated this new employment eagerly. The clerk shared with me, somewhat indiscreetly, that an extraordinary number of candidates had applied for the position, and I was assured that the excellence – if I may say so – of my curriculum vitæ recommended me so highly above the others that I secured the post with very little delay or trouble.
The institution in which I was to advance my career was housed in a building of some age. It bore an imposing air, both without its thickset stone walls and about its high ceilings and dark panels within. The atmosphere in the two greatest rooms, in particular, was redolent with more than a century’s use: beeswax and worn carpet, old oak and falling plaster. Here and there, the soft floorboards underfoot heaved disconcertingly, and the clock tower, which was crumbling and therefore off limits to all but the custodian, sent down the occasional shower of peeling paint and bat droppings.
The portion of the building in which I was to attend my duties was of newer vintage by about sixty or seventy years, and was erected as a narrow two-storeyed wing. The addition consisted in its upper part of a corridor of considerable length, lending access on both sides to a series of office and boardroom chambers, with a set of stairs at each end. This area was brighter than the older parts, to be sure, as daylight streamed cheerfully in by morning through large sash windows. However, after midday when the sun took to the west, the rooms began to gain a perceptible gloom.
The central hallway, a place untouched by natural beams, was the dreariest of all, darkening so much that a light was needed, even in the fullness of day, to traverse its length safely.
I had been about my duties for less than a fortnight. Although I was eminently familiar with institutions of this kind, my employer had unique and somewhat eccentric methods of business, so I spent considerable time discovering its particulars, and as such did not generally take much notice of my daily surroundings.
There was, however, a recent occasion which convinced me rather acutely of the peculiarities of my place of business. One early November evening after my colleagues had retired and the office floor was empty, I took advantage of the blessed quiet to give the rather complicated accounts my undivided attention.
A glance at the clock, however, informed me that it was gone seven, and that if I did not consolidate my papers and down my pen at once, I was in danger of missing supper. As I tucked some files into my briefcase, intending to continue my work at home, a small scrabbling at the baseboard alerted me to an extra presence in the room. Shrugging on my coat from the stand, and tipping my hat, I sketched a gallant bow and wished the mouse, a nightly visitor whose antics afforded some amusement, a ‘Good e’en.’ I patted my pockets for my torch – necessary for navigating the long corridor leading to the back stairs – found my keys, turned down the gas and let myself out of the office, giving only passing glance to the next door: chambers once belonging to Mr. A— the younger, I’d been told, but now vacant.
Here I must explain that, in the process of seeking employment, I had by means of a pamphlet obtained from the library educated myself as to the company history. The founder, the first Mr. A—, was descended from a line of businessmen, but, although he may have been possessed of abundant financial acumen and the profits thereof, the same could not be said of his years. He died suddenly in middle age, leaving a thriving business, a fine Queen Anne townhouse, and a wife and two grown sons most bitterly bereaved. This tragedy left the eldest in a position to inherit all, which he did only briefly before being delivered to his heavenly reward by some unnamed ailment. There the pamphlet, which described only the firm’s founding and first quarter-century of operation, ended.
There seemed no reason to give either doorway a second glance. I knew my solitude to be absolute, as I myself had been the one to light my colleagues along the back passage and down to the street, locking all doors, including those to the second storey, before returning to my cubbyhole. Other than the occasional shifting of timbers, the settling sounds made by all old buildings after nightfall, there had been no sign that any other soul still presided.
Yet, when I pocketed my key and took a step away down the corridor, I felt a compulsive urge to look over my shoulder, thinking someone to be there.
The space into which I peered was a dim corner formed by the corridor’s sharp right-turning. Beyond, the hallway continued to a rarely-used stairwell; it was a flight of steps I’d descended but once, as the light there was out, and I didn’t like to use it. It was possible that someone had remained in the building, or was returned to retrieve a mislaid brief or forgotten set of gloves. But I knew the sound of the company’s keys, and in the evening’s stillness had heard no door at the ends of the corridor.
The torch, bright when I’d locked my office, dimmed with a sudden sputter, then winked out. I felt for the wall, waiting for my eyes to accustom to the murk. At last, streetlight from a windowed room across the hall grew more apparent, enough at least to discover shapes in the gloom. Although determined to feel my way as soon as possible down the corridor toward the back stairs – and lamplight, and freedom! – I found that I could not turn away from whatever was in the corner.
For there was something there. A spectre, looming about the height and form of a man, but blackly shadowed and veil-thin so that I sensed, rather than saw, the wall behind it. The figure stood faceless yet facing me for some seconds.
I was going to call out, wanted to call out, but found my mouth a desert and my lips clamped tight. The shape detached itself from the corner and glided toward me a few paces, as it cannot be said to have possessed feet. I heard myself scream, yet knew I made no sound, and was rooted to the spot as deeply as the ancient courtyard yews. The spectre moved mercilessly toward me, a hell-shadow advancing – how could such a thing be visible, in this darkness? – until it halted a hand’s-breadth away.
My veins were an icy river; my feet leaden. I could do nothing but watch, stricken, as a black limb, claw-like and wizened, stretched from the shadow to point at my chest, which had as its only protection the briefcase, clutched in terror. A toothless hole where the mouth should have been worked in a silent agony, as soundless as I.
Very soon after, the shadow retreated as smoothly as it had come, back toward the corner wall, until I could no longer discern it. In a few moments, I heard the quiet disengagement of the lock at the top of the disused stairs, and a faint chink as the door slowly swung shut again.
After that, I heard nothing, for I either ran pell-mell toward the back steps, or swooned.
I did not return to that place of business the next morning, or ever after. When, after a week’s bedrest I sent word to the clerk of my change of heart (just how changed it was, he would never know, for its weakened state caused me pain and chronic faintness for the rest of my days), he sent a boy to collect the company keys and the papers I had shoved in my briefcase that awful night.
As I pulled the folders out and handed them over, a few scraps of paper slipped from between them and fluttered to the breakfast room floor. The boy seemed not to notice; I rescued the things when he’d gone, and examined them over tea, my cup rattling from time to time most disconcertingly in its saucer.
They were newspaper clippings, yellowed and brittle, bearing a November date some years past, thereby picking up the firm’s story where the pamphlet had left off. The articles offered, in lurid detail, a rather more complete account of Mr. A—’s relations with his sons – his youngest, in particular – and the singular circumstances in which all three had died.
I have outlined that the father and his first son were taken from this earth too soon, and without warning. The elder Mr. A—, it seems, was a practical sort whose hobby was to work alongside his carpenters on the maintenance of his prized townhouse. On a day in November, he’d suffered a sheer and precipitous fall from an upper storey, breaking his neck on the stones below. The ladder was subsequently observed by the investigating constabulary to be weakened, likely rotten, in one or two of the topmost rungs. His death was followed some weeks later by that of his heir, from a sudden fever (the article cited other symptoms too grisly to recount here), the cause of which was never determined by the attending physician or coroner.
The remaining son was, by these sensational reports, over-fond of the tables and drink, and had no demonstrable head for business. After receiving his inheritance, he elbowed his way to the presidential position, abusing it and his fortune, running the company down and nearly causing its bankruptcy by insisting on a very costly addition.
The final account was most shocking, and, therefore, most interesting. The very night the new wing opened – a date, it advised, coinciding with that of his father’s long-ago passing – the wayward president moved into his new chambers on the upper floor. Soon after, the report reads, he “experienced a most unexpected fate. Having mistook his footing in the second-storey stairwell (it is thought he may have been disoriented by a pervading aura of dimness present), there in a tumbled ruin at the foot of the steps did Mr. A— meet his maker.”
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“The Second Storey” Copyright © 2018 by Valerie J. Barrett. All rights reserved by the author.