He reaches the end of the hall with slowing steps of trepidation. Tired torches burn from their sconces, the stone walls behind them charred from years of smoke and fire. With his footfalls echoing down the long corridor, he knows before he turns, before he sees, that the door just around the corner will be closed. Late at night, when the manor is quiet and empty, the servants retired to their chambers for the evening, he’s heard the thumps of thick oak and the squealing of iron hinges.
While the living servants rest, one restless servant stirs.
He holds his breath, though not by choice. In the passing weeks, it’s taken more and more effort for him to approach his study at night. First it was the rumors, the other servants whispering amongst themselves, laying claim to unsettling sights and sounds. Then the whispers turned to startled gasps. Then to screams. He hadn’t seen the ghostly visage himself, but the horror in his servants eyes when they told their stories made it clear others had.
Running his fingers along granite walls, he rounds the corner. Before him, the large, oak door to his study stands closed. Expectations met, he lets out an unsteady sigh.
He wonders if this is the night when his fears are confirmed. He wonders if this is the night when his mortal vessel comes face to face with the wandering dead, with a lost soul. Cold air prickles his skin. His breath shortens.
He steps forward.
For weeks he feigned disbelief, always striding toward the closed doors with an air of confidence and throwing them open without regard. As if the act of bravery could dispel a lingering presence. As if a meddling spirit would be impressed by such trivial things. But as the presence grew stronger, as the chilled air grew icier, the pitiful mask of his bravery crumbled. Beneath the ruins of courage, only timid fear remained.
He approaches the door, silence hanging, and grabs hold of a large, iron ring. Wrapping his fingers around the metal, he feels the cold soak into his skin. His breath fogs. He breathes in, sets his feet and pushes against wood bounded by metal.
Hinges singing, the doors swing open.
As they part, he waits for a pale phantom to appear before him. He waits for a psychotic wail or reaching fingers or a hate-filled breath to whisper into his ear. The tales have been shared a dozen times each, so often that his servants no longer tend to their duties along the south wing. The legend of the dead servant has become very real.
But instead of those things, a feeling far more horrific finds him. Pushing against those heavy doors, he suddenly feels them swing open as if someone assisting with his entrance were pulling from the other side. The iron rings fly from his hands, and he stumbles forward into his study, landing on his knees beside a large, cherry-stained desk. He whirls and looks back, desperately scanning the room, a frightened scream already waiting in his lungs, begging to be released.
But the room is empty.
Around him, oil lamps burn a dull yellow. Books line the walls. Silence floods the room, and with it, a heavy feeling of unseen eyes watching his every move.
Unsure, he mutters the only words his mind can muster. “Arthur,” he asks, speaking the name of his deceased servant. “Is it true? Is it you?”
He stands in frightful observation, waiting for a book page to turn on its own, for charts and maps to leap from the table, for his large globe to spin so quickly it finally topples over. All events that have happened before, he thinks. But the room sits still in its waiting. The feeling of watching eyes presses down.
“Arthur, you mustn’t worry,” he says, trying to shake his fear. “Your days of service have ended. I’ll always be grateful for your efforts, old friend. You’ll never be forgotten.”
The room seems to sigh, long and steady. Then slowly, the heavy, oak doors begin to close.
He watches in horror, hearing the iron hinges scream, hearing the telling creaks and thumps of those doors going closed, sounds he’s heard night after night from the distance of his bed chamber. His eyes grow wide as an iron locking bar slides in place and engages.
“Arthur?” he asks, his voice trembling. “It isn’t true, what happened between me and your daughter.”
Along the wall, an oil lamp goes dark.
“It isn’t true, I swear it,” he begs. “I loved her as one of my own. As one of my own.”
Another lamp dims, the feeble flame inside dwindling down to the tiniest wink of light, then goes dark.
“She was a beautiful girl, Arthur,” he says, his voice on the verge of weeping. “A wonderful, beautiful girl. I would never hurt her. Could never hurt her.”
Rounding the room, another lamp falls victim to an unseen hand and succumbs to darkness. A single source of dull, yellow lingers in the corner, a small island in a sea of horror.
“Lord above, have mercy,” he mumbles, clutching his hands to his chest. “Lord, please, I beg of thee, protect your humble servant in his time of need.”
The frozen silence in the room is broken by whisper so quiet it’s barely heard. “Servant,” someone scoffs.
The final lamp is put to rest, and the study falls to absolute darkness.