‘And this is the haunted staircase,’ she said, unlocking the door and opening it for the guests to peer through, down the worn oak treads into the gloom below, open-mouthed like baby birds, waiting to be fed the stories they were hungry for.
‘As you may have heard, the original owner of the Old Hall was Sir Roger de Vance, a notoriously violent and cruel man. He is known to have beaten one of his tenants almost to death because the man couldn’t pay his rent.
‘One night, Sir Roger went too far. A young woman had taken his fancy, but was engaged to Sir Roger’s friend James Morley. That did not stop Sir Roger from making unwanted advances to the lady, which might have ended badly for her, but for Morley arriving on the scene and driving Sir Roger off.
‘A few days later Sir Roger invited Morley to the hall to extend his deepest apologies, he said. Morley was never seen again.
‘Sir Roger’s story was that after a long and heartfelt talk Morley had accepted his apologies and left the Hall at a few minutes before midnight. None of the servants at the Hall could be persuaded to say anything that contradicted this story, but rumours flew about the village, and beyond. Nothing was ever said to Sir Roger’s face, but he must have been aware of the local opinion. He tried to visit Morley’s fiancée, but she would not receive him.
‘He lasted six months under the assault of these rumours of murder, after which he left for London, and never came back again. He was killed in a duel on Hampstead Heath two years later, and was generally unmourned.
‘Sir Roger returned to the Hall after his death, though. It is said that he can be heard almost nightly, dragging the body of James Morley down these stairs, thump, thump, thump, to be disposed of we know not where.’
‘Has anyone ever seen him?’ asked one of the guests.
‘No, we only hear him going up and down these stairs, dragging something heavy.’
‘Will we be able to hear him?’
‘If your rooms are close by, you may well. It happens about one o’clock in the morning.’
They looked down the narrow servant’s staircase again with a delicious, shivery anticipation. The ghost of a real aristocratic murderer still bound to drag the evidence of his crime downstairs night after night.
The Old Hall was a hotel and wedding venue now. The manager enjoyed giving the little ghost tour to any guests who wanted it, and many of them did. She shooed them back off the staircase and locked the door behind her.
‘Why do you keep it locked? To keep the ghost from getting out?’
‘No, sir. Servant’s staircases were built into small awkward spaces, and this one is especially cramped. The steps are narrow and very unevenly spaced. We don’t use that particular staircase very much at all because it is so hazardous.’
At about one o’clock that night the guests in the Blue Room were woken by a muffled thump, thump, thump. Being avid ghost hunters they tiptoed out to the staircase door and listened to the ghost of Sir Roger go up the stairs and come back down again, dragging something heavy from step to step, and sometimes a breathy groan.
It was a great story to tell, even though one of them did wonder if it was a member of hotel staff behind that door, pretending for the amusement of the guests. She never did say anything about her doubts, though.
He was shouting down the stairs, angry as usual.
‘Coming, coming,’ Alice murmured. No-one would hear her response, but that was fine. She did not want Sir Roger to know that she could speak at all.
Cloths stuffed into her apron, a scrubbing brush under her arm and a big bucket of water to carry made those stairs difficult to climb at any speed, but she went as fast as she could. Every now and then her arms became too tired and she put the bucket down for a moment, thump, for a fleeting rest.
Scrub, scrub, mop, mop, rinse and squeeze, not thinking at all about what she was cleaning up, nor what was in that dreadful bundle the stable boys were carrying away. Just work, show no signs of thinking, knowing or being human. A machine for cleaning. Do the job and get out, unnoticed, unharmed.
Back down the stairs, dragging the pail of bloody water and the wet, reddened cloths, thump, thump, thump. Forever.