Fiction by Louisa Baldwin (1845 – 1925)
I used to work the passenger-lift in the Empire Hotel, that big block of building and lines of red and white brick like streaky bacon, that stands at the corner of — Street. I’d served my time in the army, and got my discharge with good conduct stripes; and how I got the job was in this way. The hotel was a big company affair with a managing committee of retired officers and such-like; gentlemen with a bit o’ money in the concern, and nothing to do but fidget about it, and my late Colonel was one of ’em. He was as good-tempered a man as ever stepped when his will wasn’t crossed, and when I asked him for a job, “Mole,” says he, “you’re the very man to work the lift at our big hotel. Soldiers are civil and businesslike, and the public like ’em only second best to sailors. We’ve had to give our last man the sack, and you can take his place.”
I liked my work well enough and my pay, and kept my place a year, and I should have been there still if it hadn’t been for a circumstance — But don’t let me anticipate. Ours was a hydraulic lift. None o’ them rickety things swung up like a poll parrot’s cage in a well staircase that I shouldn’t care to trust my neck to. It ran as smooth as oil, a child might have worked it, and safe as standing on the ground. Instead of being stuck full of advertisements like an omnibus, we’d mirrors in it, and the ladies would look at themselves, and pat their hair, and set their mouths when I was taking ’em downstairs dressed of an evening. It was a little sitting-room, with red velvet cushions to sit down on, and you’d nothing to do but get into it, and it ‘ud float you up or float you down light as a bird.
All the visitors used the lift one time or another, going up or coming down. Some of them was French, and they called the lift the “assenser,” and good enough for them in their language, no doubt; but why the Americans, that can speak English when they choose, and are always finding out ways of doing things quicker than other folks, should waste time and breath calling a lift an elevator, I can’t make out.
I was in charge of the lift from noon till midnight. By that time the theatre and dining-out folks had come in, and anyone returning late walked upstairs, for my day’s work was done. One of the porters worked the lift till I come on duty in the morning; but before twelve there was nothing particular going on, and not much till after two o’clock. Then it was pretty hot work with visitors going up and down constant, and the electric bell ringing you from one floor to another like a house on fire. Then came a quiet spell while dinner was on, and I’d sit down comfortable in the lift and read my paper, only I mightn’t smoke. But nobody else might neither, and I had to ask furren gentlemen to please not smoke in it, it was against the rule. I hadn’t so often to tell English gentlemen, they’re not like furreners that seem as if their cigars was glued to their lips.
I always noticed faces as folks got into the lift, for I’ve sharp sight and a good memory, and none of the visitors needed to tell me twice where to take them. I knew them and I knew their floor as well as they did themselves.
It was in November that Colonel Saxby came to the Empire Hotel. I noticed him particularly, because you could see at once that he was a soldier. He was a tall, thin man about fifty, with a hawk nose, keen eyes, and a grey moustache, and walked stiff from a gun-shot wound in the knee. But what I noticed most was the scar of a sabrecut across the right side of the face. As he got into the lift to go to his room on the fourth floor, I thought what a difference there is among officers. Colonel Saxby put me in mind of a telegraph-post for height and thinness; and my old Colonel was like a barrel in uniform, but a brave soldier and a gentleman all the same. Colonel Saxby’s room was number 210, just opposite the glass door leading to the lift, and every time I stopped on the fourth floor number 210 stared me in the face. The Colonel used to go up in the lift every day regular, though he never came down in it till — But I’m coming to that presently. Sometimes, when he was alone in the lift, he’d speak to me. He asked me in what regiment I’d served, and said he knew the officers in it. But I can’t say he was comfortable to talk to. There was something stand-off about him, and he always seemed deep in his own thoughts. He never sat down in the lift. Whether it was empty or full he stood bolt upright under the lamp, where the light fell on his pale face and scarred cheek.
One day in February I didn’t take the Colonel up in the lift, and as he was regular as clockwork I noticed it, but I supposed he’d gone away for a few days, and I thought no more about it. Whenever I stopped on the fourth floor the door of 210 was shut, and as he often left it open, I made sure the Colonel was away. At the end of a week I heard a chambermaid say that Colonel Saxby was ill; so, thinks I, that’s why he hasn’t been in the lift lately.
It was a Tuesday night, and I’d had an uncommonly busy time of it. It was one stream of traffic up and down, and so it went on the whole evening. It was on the strike of midnight, and I was about to put out the light in the lift, lock the door, and leave the key in the office for the man in the morning, when the electric bell rang out sharp; I looked at the dial, and saw I was wanted on the fourth floor. It struck twelve as I stepped into the lift. As I passed the second and third floors, I wondered who it was that had rung so late, and thought it must be a stranger that didn’t know the rule of the house. But when I stopped at the fourth floor and flung open the door of the lift, Colonel Saxby was standing there wrapped in a military cloak. The door of his room was shut behind him, for I read the number on it. I thought he was ill in his bed, and ill enough he looked, but he had his hat on, and what could a man that had been in bed ten days want with going out on a winter midnight? I don’t think he saw me, but when I’d set the lift in motion, I looked at him standing under the lamp, with the shadow of his hat hiding his eyes, and the light full on the lower part of his face, that was deadly pale, the scar on his cheek showing still paler.
“Glad to see you’re better, sir,” said I; but he said nothing, and I didn’t like to look at him again. He stood like a statue with his cloak about him, and I was downright glad when I opened the door of the lift for him to step out in the hall. I saluted as he got out, and he went past me towards the front door.
“The Colonel wants to go out,” I said to the porter who stood staring, and he opened the door and Colonel Saxby walked out into the snow.
“That’s a queer go!” he said.
“It is,” said I. “I don’t like the Colonel’s looks, he doesn’t seem himself at all. He’s ill enough to be in his bed, and there he is gone out on a night like this.”
“Anyhow he’s got a famous cloak to keep him warm. I say, supposing he’s gone to a fancy ball, and got that cloak on to hide his dress,” said the porter, laughing uneasily, for we both felt queerer than we cared to say, and as we spoke there came a loud ring at the door-bell.
“No more passengers for me!” I said; and I was really putting the light out this time, when Joe opened the door, and two gentlemen entered that I knew at a glance were doctors. One was tall, and the other was short and stout, and they both came to the lift.
“Sorry, gentlemen, but it’s against the rule for the lift to go up after, midnight.”
“Nonsense!” said the stout gentleman; “it’s only just past twelve, and a matter of life and death. Take us up at once to the fourth floor,” and they were in the lift like a shot; so up we went, and when I opened the door, they walked straight to number 10. A nurse came out to meet them, and the stout doctor said: “No change for the worse, I hope?”
And I heard her reply: “The patient died five minutes ago, sir.”
Though I’d no business to speak, that was more than I could stand. I followed the doctors to the door and said: “There’s some mistake here, gentlemen, I took the Colonel down in the lift since the clock struck twelve, and he went out.”
The stout doctor said sharply: “A case of mistaken identity. It was someone else you took for the Colonel.”
“Begging your pardon, gentlemen, it was the Colonel himself, and the night porter that opened the front door for him knew him as well as me. He was dressed for a night like this, with his military cloak wrapped round him.”
“Step in and see for yourself,” said the nurse.
I followed the doctor into the room, and there lay Colonel Saxby looking just as I had seen him a few minutes before. There he lay, dead as his forefathers, and the great cloak spread over the bed to keep him warm that would feel heat and cold no more. I never slept that night. I sat up with Joe, expecting every minute to hear the Colonel ring the front door bell. Next day, every time the bell for the lift rang sharp and sudden, the sweat broke out on me and I shook again. I felt as bad as I did the first time I was in action. Me and Joe told the manager all about it, and he said we’d been dreaming; but, said he, “Mind you don’t talk about it, or the house’ll be empty in a week.”
The Colonel’s coffin was smuggled into the house the next night. Me and the manager and the undertaker’s men took it up in the lift, and it lay right across it, and not an inch to spare. They carried it into number 210, and while I waited for them to come out again, a queer feeling came over me. Then the door opened softly, and four men carried out the long coffin straight across the passage, and set it down with its foot towards the door of the lift, and the manager looked round for me.
I can’t do it, sir,” I said. “I can’t take the Colonel down again. I took him down at midnight yesterday, and that was enough for me.”
“Push it in,” said the manager, speaking short and sharp, and they ran the coffin into the lift without a sound. The manager got in last, and before he closed the door he said, “Mole, you’ve worked this lift for the last time, it strikes me.” And I had, for I wouldn’t have stayed on at that Empire Hotel after what had happened, not if they’d doubled my wages; and me and the night porter left together.