Tucked away at the far end of the Downton servants' corridor, there is a white-panelled door with a brass knob. From the outside it looks the same as all the others, but when opened it reveals not a servant's room, but a flight of stairs leading up to another door, and from there to the vast storage attic that takes up most of the space under the great house's sprawling roof. At the top of these stairs stands Phyllis Baxter, who has just pulled the cord to switch on the lights.
Downton has been fully wired for electricity since not long after the Titanic sank, but in the lesser-used parts of the house, the elegant table lamps and glittering chandeliers give way to naked bulbs dangling from the ceiling. This is the situation in the storage attic, where the bulbs cast a harsh, unfiltered glare over the array of wooden packing cases and sheet-draped furniture below. From faded oil paintings, the eyes of Crawley ancestors who never saw an electric light in their lives watch disapprovingly as Phyllis picks her way through the maze of trash and treasure with a large pasteboard box clasped to her chest.
Earlier in the evening, Lady Grantham and Lady Mary had taken a fancy to look at old photographs from the Levinson side of the family, and so Phyllis, who is in charge of storing and retrieving all the countess' things, had been dispatched up the attic stairs to fetch the box of tintypes and daguerrotypes, some of them seventy years old or more. Mother and daughter had spent hours going through the photos, heads close together, leaving Phyllis free to make an uninterrupted start on her nighttime work. It had been pleasant for everyone.
This part, though—the part where she has to go back up to the storage attic alone, with the whole house asleep—is not pleasant at all.
Phyllis isn't particularly bothered by the dark stairs, but she is not at all fond of the attic's creaking floorboards and close, oppressive atmosphere, and she would much rather wait until morning and do this task then, when the sun is streaming through the east windows and she can hear other people moving about below. But that would mean keeping the box in her room overnight for safety's sake, and Phyllis would sooner go down to the station and throw herself in front of an oncoming train than be caught with any of Lady Grantham's possessions in her room, even for the most innocent reason. So she carries the box carefully and kneels in front of the old steamer trunk where it belongs—a heavy, iron-banded thing plastered with peeling labels for New York and Paris and London and Cairo—and she puts it back in its place and snaps the latches shut.
She is still there on her knees when all the lights go out, suddenly and completely, without a flicker of warning.
For a moment she's too startled to be frightened. It's what she imagines suddenly dropping dead would be like—one moment going about your business, and the next plunged into eternal blackness—and she even wonders at first if that's what has happened. Then her heart, which seems to have stopped temporarily from the shock, takes a wild leaping beat and starts to race, and she realises she's still alive, just in the dark.
Power cuts are no rare occurrence in the country, of course, and in the main part of the house, they're no more than an annoyance; the gas fixtures are all long gone, but there are plenty of candles scattered about, and Mr Carson, traditionalist that he is, still has a few oil lamps on the shelves in his pantry. But here in the attic, Phyllis has no way to make a light, and even if she could, it would be dangerous to have an open flame in such a packed, dusty space. She imagines being forced to stay here until the sun comes up, and the idea of spending the next six or seven hours here in the stifling attic makes her feel dizzy. Folding her arms on the closed lid of the steamer trunk, she leans forward and buries her face between them for a moment, eyes closed.
This calms her a bit, and she thinks that the best thing is just to sit still and not go crashing about, trying to find the door and probably falling down the stairs to her death. Either the lights will come back on in a few minutes, or they won't, and then she can think what to do next. Screaming for help is out of the question; not only are the rest of the staff asleep and no doubt unaware the electricity has gone, but she closed the door at the bottom of the stairs before coming up, as Mrs Hughes has admonished them all to do. She could scream her throat raw and no one would hear.
Trying not to linger too long on that thought, she turns herself around, sits on the floor with her back against the trunk, and tucks her skirt carefully under her legs, as if there is any possibility of someone seeing what ought not to be seen. It surprises her sometimes that the ingrained modesty she was taught in childhood has returned, after all the immodest things she did with Peter Coyle (and it was nearly always her doing them; she still isn't sure whether Coyle had been too selfish, too lazy, or too lacking in any real desire for her to return the favours he was given), but somehow it has. At least, Phyllis thinks with a touch of wry weariness, there can't be anything in this attic that is worse than he was.
She is feeling much more in command of herself now, despite the dark, and she thinks her eyes may even be adjusting a bit to that: there's a greyish quality to it, a vague lightening that seems to be coming from somewhere to her right. She remembers a great hulking wardrobe being there, when she could still see, and she wonders if perhaps the windows are behind it and the moon is beginning to rise. It would only take a very little moonlight for her to find her way back to the door, and from there to the safety of the servants' corridor, where there are all the candles and matches and people she could possibly want.
She hesitates, not quite sure she dares to leave her place, but then imagines the relief of seeing another human soul—Mrs Hughes or Mrs Patmore or perhaps Mr Molesley—and pushes herself onto her knees again, then stands up, hands out in front of her to prevent collisions. In this fashion, she edges forward, gropes where she thinks the wardrobe may be, and is rewarded by the feel of its hard wood under a protective draping of cloth.
There's definitely a faint light on the other side. She isn't imagining it.
Holding onto the edge of the wardrobe, she peers around it and comes face to face with a ghost.