Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost
Mrs. Alexander Bennington Claiborne ran her delicate fingers over the cushion of the parlor settee. “The Weatherlys said their upholstery was imported from London, but I do believe this Parisian damask is far superior. The French imbue such a vibrancy to the colors that simply cannot be replicated by anyone else.”
She angled her hand so that the light from the front window caught the facets of her diamond ring and noted how the blue and gold fabric complemented the stone against its band.
Her husband sat opposite her in the wingback chair—the one that hadn’t been reupholstered. She would have insisted except that apparently the wingback had belonged to his great-grandfather, and the story was that Benjamin Franklin himself had once sat in that chair, thereby gracing it with a sort of historical immortality (though the threadbare armrest certainly seemed to lack any semblance of permanence).
She turned away from her husband, who was buried in his newspaper, and glanced through the window at the Weatherlys’ home across the street. “Those peonies, though, are absolutely gorgeous. Darling? Is it too late in the season to plant peonies? Back in Baltimore they’d have dropped all their petals by now.”
Her husband grunted in reply.
She’d have to remember to speak to the man who took care of the garden about peonies. Since the parlor furniture was done and the new china had been ordered, upgrading the garden was certainly the next step.
Mrs. Claiborne smoothed her skirts and turned to her husband once again. “Since the Weatherlys were kind enough to invite us to their dinner party last night, I do believe we ought to reciprocate. In fact, we must invite several of the other Powelton couples. After all, we’ve been married over three months now, and I still have yet to meet all of your friends. I do consider myself somewhat of a social butterfly, you know. Back in Baltimore I attended dinner parties nearly every weekend. Like the one at which we first met.” She smiled and batted her lashes as she had done that evening a little over a year ago, but her husband was deep inside the politics section.
“In addition to the Weatherlys, we ought to invite the Ravenfields and the Binghamtons. And we must do it before they all leave the city for the summer. Also, I’d like to meet the Hallidays. Mrs. Weatherly says they’re terribly hard to get a hold of, what with his duties in court, but we simply must try. Imagine dining with a judge! I know you see him all the time at the club, but he must be terribly interesting.”
Her husband turned the page of his newspaper and adjusted his left leg over his right.
“Let’s have a look at the society page, shall we?” She crossed the parlor to the Benjamin Franklin wingback chair. “We wouldn’t want to schedule our dinner party on the same evening as some wedding or debutant ball.” She reached over her husband’s shoulder and flipped the pages to the back section.
Mr. Claiborne frowned. “I don’t see why they need to print such things in the papers. It’s all a bunch of frivolous gossip.”
Mrs. Claiborne ran her finger down the page. “Let’s see, birth announcements, engagements, illnesses. Oh, now here’s something interesting. The Ravenfields have reported a haunting in their house.” She scanned the notice. “Candles are mysteriously snuffing themselves out, and objects have been appearing in different rooms without anyone moving them!”
Mr. Claiborne chuckled. “Now they’re publishing ghost sightings on the society page. Ridiculous! I’m sure they just have drafty windows and an old servant who’s suffering from dementia.”
“I don’t know about that. Why—weren’t the Weatherlys just talking about a ghost? They’ve been hearing strange noises in their attic, and Mrs. Weatherly is convinced it’s the ghost of her former house maid. And now the Ravenfields have one?”
“The Weatherlys probably just have squirrels coming in through the eaves. But I suppose if she wants to blame it on ghosts, that’s her prerogative. Better than admitting they have a rodent problem.”
Mrs. Claiborne crossed back to the settee, deep in thought. She glanced through the window at the Weatherlys’ house once more, no longer taken by the peonies. If ghosts were suddenly taking up residence in all the fine homes of Powelton, why hadn’t any appeared in their house? She smoothed her skirts. How exciting it would be to have a ghost. It would add just a touch of gothic mystery to their pretty little home. And it might even be enough to entice the Hallidays to come.
“How does one go about getting a ghost, I wonder? I suppose we could find one lurking around the cemetery at night.”
Mr. Claiborne had turned back to the politics section once more, and his only response was to cross his right leg over his left.
“I’m not sure I’d want the ghost of an old servant though. I’d prefer a little girl ghost. Wouldn’t that be lovely? She could wear a shimmering white nightdress and have long blond ringlets and blue eyes . . . blue hollow-looking eyes with dark shadows under them—she is a ghost after all.” Mrs. Claiborne clasped her hands together. “Oh, she’d be the sweetest thing! My heart is just bursting at the thought of her. But little girl ghosts probably aren’t so easy to come by. They might even be in demand. Perhaps we would need to pay a visit to the children’s ward at the hospital and see who has potential. I’m sure if we talk to one of them, she would be happy to agree to spend the afterlife here in our home rather than wherever it is that she’d otherwise go.” She dropped her hands to her lap. “Though hospitals are so full of pestilence and miasmas. It wouldn’t be wise to visit.”
Mr. Claiborne finally folded the paper onto his lap and looked over at his wife. “You don’t actually believe in ghosts, do you? It’s all just flight of fancy and imagination. And even if ghosts were real, I don’t think you could simply invite one into your home. It’s not like you can go to a ghost orphanage and just pick one out.”
Mrs. Claiborne sighed a great heavy sigh that, had her father been still alive, would have sent him searching the four corners of the globe for the perfect blond little girl ghost. Her husband merely opened the paper again to a new page and crossed his left leg back over his right.
Mrs. Claiborne slumped back against the Parisian damask and gazed through the window once more.
As the weeks passed, Mrs. Claiborne orchestrated a number of improvements to the garden. Though late in the season, peonies were planted, and a pretty little path of slate stepping stones was put in that led from the front entrance all the way around the side yard to the back. The pièce de résistance, however, was a pair of sculpted stone lions that now flanked the steps leading to the front door. But still Mrs. Claiborne couldn’t get the idea of a ghost out of her head. The Ravenfields and the Weatherlys had one, and now there were rumors that the Bingamtons had one too. If they didn’t get a ghost soon, they’d be the only house in Powelton without one! But where on earth were these families getting them from? Mrs. Claiborne rang for her house maid.
In a few moments, a slight girl of no more than sixteen hastened into the parlor. She curtsied quickly, her eyes never leaving the floor.
“Sarah, you know the Bingamtons’ girl, don’t you?” Mrs. Claiborne asked her.
“Yes, ma’am.” Sarah’s voice was little more than a whisper, and Mrs. Claiborne had to lean forward just to hear her. “Em’s her name. We grew up together over in Greenville.”
“Is it true they’ve got themselves a ghost over there?”
Sarah’s eyes widened as she lifted them from the floor. “In Greenville, ma’am?”
“No, no. At the Bingamtons’.”
Sarah made the sign of a cross over her chest. “I don’t know nothing about that, ma’am.”
Mrs. Claiborne sank back on the settee again. She tapped her fingers on her skirt as ideas shuffled through her head like playing cards. “Will you be seeing Em anytime soon?”
The young house maid’s eyes once again fell to the floor. “I don’t rightfully know, ma’am. Sometimes we run into each other at the market, but it’s never planned.”
“I see. Well, what if you had an hour or two off? Would you want to drop in on her sometime? You’re old pals after all.”
Sarah swallowed hard and, if possible, her voice dropped even lower. “I don’t know, ma’am. The Bingamtons surely wouldn’t like it if Em had visitors dropping by.”
Mrs. Claiborne sprang from the settee, startling poor Sarah, and hurried to the writing desk. “I’ll send a letter along with you explaining that it’s a highly urgent matter.” She dipped the pen in the ink pot and dashed off a quick note.
“Urgent matter, ma’am?”
“Yes, of course. You must find out how they got their ghost. But only speak to Em about it. It wouldn’t do for the Bingamtons to find out we’ve been asking about it.” Mrs. Claiborne thrust the note toward Sarah. “Your friend’s trustworthy, yes?”
Sarah cowered from Mrs. Claiborne’s outstretched hand. “’Scuse me, ma’am. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I simply can’t. I don’t want to have nothing to do with ghosts.” She crossed herself again and scurried out of the room.
Mrs. Claiborne closed her eyes and sighed. If only they had one of those sturdy French house maids like the Weatherlys had. A French maid would surely not be so faint of heart when it came to ghosts. Perhaps she’d speak to her husband about that.
On Saturday afternoons, when the weather permitted, Mr. and Mrs. Claiborne would enjoy a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, where they were bound to run into other couples out and about in search of fresh air and spontaneous encounters. Mrs. Claiborne made sure to dress in her finest day clothes and insisted that Mr. Claiborne’s shoes and walking stick were freshly polished. This Saturday was a particularly fair day, and they had hardly crossed half a block when they met the Weatherlys. Mrs. Claiborne launched into a flurry of compliments over Mrs. Weatherly’s fine silk parasol, after which Mrs. Weatherly remarked on the Claiborne’s charming lions, though she noted what a shame it was that the lion on the left looked a little downcast. Mrs. Claiborne was trying to think of the best way to ask about their ghost, without being too obviously inquisitive, when the two gentlemen tipped their hats to one another and bid farewell with a jovial, “See you at the club,” at which point the couples parted ways.
Once out of earshot of the Weatherlys, Mrs. Claiborne broached the topic of a dinner party once again with her husband. She clutched his arm at the elbow and smiled up at him. “Darling, now that the garden is in order, I do think it’s time we held our dinner party.”
Mr. Claiborne frowned. “Dinner parties. What a lot of fuss they are. The household goes into a frenzy of preparations for a dull evening of uncomfortable clothes and gossip. Bah!”
“Yes, but it is customary for newly married couples to host a dinner party. It’s a way of introducing a lady to society. And it’s been nearly four months now. I can’t imagine what people must be thinking. Back in Baltimore it would be unheard of to wait this long. Besides, the staff will take care of all the arrangements, so you won’t have to lift a finger. Just entertain the gentlemen for a bit and enjoy a fine meal. It won’t take more than a few hours and—good heavens! Look at the Ravenfields’ place.”
Upon turning the corner, the handsome Ravenfield house had come into view with its gables and turrets and dormered windows. But now, surrounding the house was a gleaming wrought iron fence the likes of which Mrs. Claiborne had never seen before. Between each fence post were decorative iron rods, hand-twisted together in overlapping spirals. Each post was topped with a curled finial, and the whole thing gleamed a shiny black, almost as if the paint were still wet.
“It’s breathtaking,” Mrs. Claiborne exclaimed, clutching her hands to her heart. “We must have a fence!”
Mr. Claiborne, however, was not looking at the fence. He was tipping his hat to a man crossing the street—a man who, Mrs. Claiborne noted, was not even wearing a hat at all. And to her dismay, her husband was now waving him over. She pulled the brim of her own hat down and angled her head in such a way that she’d be unrecognizable if the Ravenfields happened to be looking out through one of their dormered windows as this unkempt person joined them on their walk.
The two men launched into a leisurely conversation about cigars and whiskey parings as Mrs. Claiborne attempted to hurry them past the Ravenfields’ toward the leafy shelter of the park. Once there, she claimed that the heat was getting to her and excused herself to the nearest shaded bench. Every few minutes, she peeked out from under her hat in the hopes that the two men had parted ways.
It was on one of these furtive glances that Mrs. Claiborne spied the most haunting little girl sitting alone on a picnic blanket, playing with her dolls. Her silky hair was the color of butterscotch and was tied back with light blue ribbons. Her dress was the purest white, and her expression had just a hint of sadness. Mrs. Claiborne’s heart skipped, for she was the spitting image of her ideal ghost. And here she was in the flesh! Overcome with the notion that the young girl might disappear at any moment in a misty haze (despite the brightness of the day), Mrs. Claiborne rose from the bench and approached the little girl for a closer look.
The little girl glanced up, and Mrs. Claiborne clasped her hands in front of her and gave her a wide smile.
“Hello, young lady. Aren’t you a pretty thing.”
The girl clutched her dolls closer and stared.
“I’m Mrs. Alexander Bennington Claiborne. Surely you’ve heard of my husband?”
The girl made no indication of recognition, but Mrs. Claiborne didn’t mind, for the ribbons in the girl’s hair perfectly matched the blue of her eyes.
“Well, I’m sure your parents have. Do you live close by? Are your parents here?”
The girl’s eyes darted around the park, searching, and Mrs. Claiborne scanned the park as well. Who would leave such a picturesque child sitting here all alone? Perhaps they’d abandoned her. Perhaps her perfectly pale skin indicated a tragic incurable illness and her parents could no longer care for her. Perhaps they’d left her with a tearful goodbye, with only the comfort of her dolls to usher her into the next life. And from the fearful look on the girl’s face, perhaps death was only a few heartbeats away. Any moment now her spirit might leave her lovely, sickly body for good and be free to roam as it pleased, possibly looking for a fine house to inhabit for all of eternity.
Mrs. Claiborne dropped to her knees on the picnic blanket and grasped the little girl’s arms in adoring pity. “Your spirit is welcome to stay with me. When your time upon this Earth comes to a close, remember to seek out the home of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Bennington Claiborne on Hamilton Avenue. It’s the one with the stone lions.”
The next thing Mrs. Claiborne knew, the girl had wrenched herself from her grip with a strength quite surprising for one supposedly so sick. She sprinted toward a young woman—a governess or nursemaid judging by her dress—who was escorting a toddling child back from the path on the other side of the rose garden. The little girl flung herself into this woman’s arms and buried her face in her apron.
Mrs. Claiborne stood and smoothed her skirts. “What a rude little child,” she exclaimed, then quickly headed back to her husband who had finally left the company of the hatless man.
By the time they arrived home again, Mr. Claiborne had completely changed his mind about the dinner party. Apparently the hatless man they had run into was a cigar sommelier at Mr. Claiborne’s gentleman’s club and had offered to bring a preview of his latest shipment of super premium maduros the following Saturday. What better excuse for a dinner party than an exclusive cigar sampling with some of the other gentlemen? Mrs. Claiborne wasn’t quite sure what a sommelier was, but it sounded impressive—French even—and if it allowed her to have their dinner party then she was all for it.
But there was much work to be done. Mrs. Claiborne insisted on having an iron fence put in. She picked one out that was much more detailed than the Ravenfields’ fence. It featured a grapevine motto with intricate curlicues and delicate bunches of grapes and leaves. Each fencepost would be topped with an impressive fleur-de-lis that would rise like an arrow shooting up through the bed of peonies. She learned that cast iron lent itself to a much more detailed design than wrought iron ever could, which was what the Ravenfields had. Then there was the menu to plan. With thoughts of fleurs-de-lis and the mysterious sommelier in her head, Mrs. Claiborne decided on a French-themed cuisine—a first course of vichyssoise followed by boeuf bourguignon, potatoes dauphinoise, and a cherry clafoutis for dessert.
Now there was only the lack of a ghost that needed to be addressed, so early Monday morning Mrs. Claiborne put on her dark plum dress—the one she had worn to her father’s funeral—along with a black veiled hat that obscured her face. She slunk down the front steps, past the silent gaze of the stone lions, before even the workmen showed up to begin installation of the cast iron fence. Less than a mile away, where the main thoroughfares met in a cluster of inns and taverns in Greenville, there was a fortune teller by the name of Madame Arinya. Mrs. Weatherly had spoken highly of Madame Arinya when she had sought her advice last year on whether to summer in the mountains or at the seashore. Madame Arinya had steered them toward the mountains, and of course at summer’s end, the less-fortunate Bingamtons had returned from their summer at the seashore complaining of great swarms of horseflies.
Now Mrs. Claiborne slipped hastily past the grand houses of Powelton toward the crammed-together buildings of Greenville. She descended the steps to Madame Arinya’s basement quarters below the print shop and the butcher’s, checking behind her several times to ensure she hadn’t been seen.
The door to Madame Arinya’s opened at once, as if she’d been expected, and a middle-aged woman welcomed her inside. Mrs. Claiborne had imagined someone much more exotic. A young, dark-haired gypsy in colored scarves or an ancient, wrinkly old hag with sightless eyes. But this woman was nothing if not ordinary. The only noteworthy thing about her appearance was a large collar of lace draped over her otherwise plain gray frock.
“Are you Madame Arinya?”
“In the flesh,” the woman said, stepping aside to let Mrs. Claiborne in. She indicated a small table draped in clean cloth with two simple wooden chairs arranged across from one another. “Please have a seat. I’ll get some tea.”
Mrs. Claiborne noted a slight accent. Perhaps she was French, which would have been fortuitous; however, it was not quite the same accent as that of the fine French ladies she’d met while traveling abroad with her father years ago.
She took a seat at the table, and Madame Arinya crossed to the stove where she retrieved a copper kettle and teacups. The few candles that penetrated the dimness of the room illuminated nothing remarkable. No crystal balls or colorful decks of cards. Mrs. Claiborne was beginning to rethink her visit. Perhaps there was nothing extraordinary about Madame Arinya after all. But there was really no polite way to extract herself at this point, and in a moment, Madame Arinya placed a chipped cup of dark tea in front of her. The scent of bergamot immediately filled her nostrils, and her hands, which she realized had been clenched, relaxed and reached for the cup.
Madame Arinya took the seat across from Mrs. Claiborne and smiled, her eyes calm and soothing. “What may I do for you this morning, my dear?”
Mrs. Claiborne added a teaspoon of sugar to her tea and gave it a vigorous stir before adding a second teaspoon and launching into speech.
“I have a terrible dilemma,” she began. “I’m hosting my first dinner party this Saturday. I’ve been married nearly four months, you see, and I’ve still not met all the ladies but it’s all planned out now. There’s a sommelier and Parisian upholstery and soon there will be a grapevine fence with fleurs-de-lis . . .” Mrs. Claiborne took a breath, realizing her words must have sounded like complete nonsense. She took a sip of her tea and started again. “What I mean is, everything is nearly perfect. The parlor, the garden, the dinnerware. But I’m afraid there’s one thing I don’t have yet. Something that will truly secure my rightful place in Powelton. Something I haven’t the slightest idea how to go about getting.”
Madame Arinya waited while Mrs. Claiborne took another sip of tea and dabbed at her lips with her handkerchief.
“Simply put, I am in desperate need of a ghost by Saturday.”
The fortune teller smiled, and Mrs. Claiborne was instantly reminded of her childhood governess, who’d had an annoying habit of patting her on the head in response to simple requests. She dropped her gaze and sighed that great heavy sigh that had always worked on her father.
“It’s just that the Weatherlys have one and the Ravenfields as well, and if I wait any longer we’ll be the only house in Powelton without one.”
Madame Aryina stood and crossed to the stove. “I am afraid that spirits and souls are not my specialty. I deal in prognostication and portent.”
“But it’s all part of the supernatural, isn’t it? There must be some connection. Can’t you see the dead when you see into the future?”
“That’s not quite how it works, my dear. Once a person ceases to live, they are beyond my sight. But you must understand, a spirit who is unable to journey from this earthly realm is a soul that is lost. Trapped between this world and the next, like a butterfly trapped in a net. It often has unfinished business or a strong connection or desire, and that is the net that keeps them anchored to this realm.”
“But there must be some way of summoning one. A seance or something. If it can’t be done by you, perhaps you know of someone who can.”
Madame Arinya stoked the fire with a poker. “My dear, the only people around here who claim to be able to commune with the dead are charlatans. Monsters who prey on those who are grieving. One can’t simply call forth a spirit.”
“But then, perhaps one can be trapped. Before it moves to . . . whatever lies beyond. Like the butterfly in the net.”
Madame Arinya cleared the teacups from the table. “Even if there were such a net, to trap one—to stop a soul from traveling beyond—would be cruel and heartless. They must be allowed to find their way home.” She glanced at the dregs of Mrs. Claiborne’s teacup and then looked up with that smile that wasn’t quite a smile. “But don’t worry. You’ll find your ghost. Though perhaps not the way you expect.”
Mrs. Claiborne left Madame Arinya’s with more questions than answers. If only her father were living. He’d have scoured every cemetery, hospital, and morgue to bring her the perfect ghost. Then she had a thought. Perhaps the ghost of her father could make an appearance himself! Oh, but she really had her heart set on a little girl, and though she loved her father, he wouldn’t be a very impressive ghost.
By the following Saturday the silver was polished, the table was laid, the cast iron fence was in place, and the kitchen was a flurry of French cooking. While the servants readied the rooms, Mrs. Claiborne flitted about the house offering unhelpful instructions and generally getting in the way. She wore a new silk gown of pink with embroidered green leaves that perfectly matched the blooming peonies outside. She’d all but given up on her quest for a ghost and just wanted the dinner party to be perfect, but then Sarah, who was running to and fro with a feather duster, lost her cap in the mayhem. Her fine smooth hair fell to her shoulders in golden ringlets.
Mrs. Claiborne stopped short. “Why, Sarah! Your hair!”
Sarah scrambled for her cap, desperate to replace it in her rush to return to her duties, but Mrs. Claiborne stayed her hands. Sarah stood blinking, her chest rising and falling with quickened breaths. “Ma’am?” she squeaked.
Mrs. Claiborne gently twisted a lock of Sarah’s hair in her finger then stepped back to take a good look at her. Her demure stature and round face made her look much younger than she was. Dark shadows under her eyes exposed the demands of the week’s work, but her irises were a clear blue and her skin pale and smooth. And that hair—it was the color of butterscotch! Madame Arinya’s parting words suddenly made perfect sense.
“Come with me,” Mrs. Claiborne said, taking Sarah’s hand. And what could Sarah do but follow?
The guests were expected at five o’clock but it was nearly a quarter to six when the first couple, the Weatherlys, arrived. This would have been unheard of back in Baltimore, where punctuality at a dinner party was of utmost importance. But when the guests finally did arrive, and Mrs. Claiborne had settled her nerves with a series of deep breaths, the parlor at last was filled with the jovial chatter of the ladies, while cigar smoke wafted in from where the gentlemen convened in the hall. Even the Hallidays were in attendance, Mr. Halliday being most eager to sample the exclusive offerings of the sommelier. In the parlor a tray of gougères was brought for the ladies, and the conversation volleyed about the room so quickly that Mrs. Claiborne could hardly keep up. To her disappointment, no one remarked upon the damask upholstery, and Mrs. Claiborne saw several of her guests eye the tattered wingback with distaste. She attempted several times to bring up the chair’s historical significance, but the other ladies’ familiarity with one another leant itself to such rapid discourse that Mrs. Claiborne had no chance whatsoever of remarking upon the significance of the chair in respect to the late Benjamin Franklin’s derrière.
Dinner was more of the same, though now the gentlemen held court. The sommelier had taken his leave (thank goodness!), after ensuring there was an ample supply of maduras in the humidor on the hall table for after dinner. With nary an opportunity to interject herself into the conversation, Mrs. Claiborne took solace in chewing her boeuf bourguignon and stealing quick glances at the dining room clock.
After the meal, the ladies returned to the parlor while the gentlemen lingered at the table with several bottles of cognac. Mrs. Claiborne was finally able to capture the attention of Mrs. Weatherly by inquiring whether they planned to return to their summer home in the mountains this year. She hoped to broach the topic of a summer home with her husband soon and wanted to find out as much as she could before making her case. But as Mrs. Weatherly chittered away about rustic lake houses with rowboats and hand-drawn water pumps, she couldn’t help overhear Mrs. Ravenfield discussing the superiority of wrought iron over cast iron with Mrs. Halliday.
“You see, wrought iron is hand forged and built to last decades. Cast iron is pretty, but much more brittle. I’d be surprised if it lasted three winters.”
Mrs. Claiborne’s cheeks grew hot and she stole another glance at the clock. Sarah was her last hope.
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Weatherly, but will you please excuse me?” Mrs. Claiborne said, rising from the settee. “I must check on something. I’ll only be a moment.” She rushed out of the parlor, down the hall, past the dining room where the gentlemen sipped their cognac, and into the pantry. Sarah sat waiting on a stool in the corner, her face powdered to a bright white glow, her eyes unnaturally wide, and her golden ringlets tied with blue ribbons that cascaded down her back. She was dressed in Mrs. Claiborne’s long, white nightdress and held a single candle, unlit.
“Oh, thank heavens you’re ready! It’s nearly time. Now, remember, I need you waiting outside the parlor door, and the moment you hear the clock strike eight you must glide past the doorway with your candle. Don’t make a sound or look at any of the guests. We must convince them you are a spirit from beyond the grave! Then once you’re out of sight again, you’ll sneak out the front door, extinguish your candle, and make your way down the path to the back of the house where you can enter through the kitchen unseen.”
Sarah writhed in anguish. “With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t know that I can do this. All this powder makes me want to sneeze. I could be of much more use serving the tea or clearing the dishes.”
“Nonsense! If you were to serve the tea or clear the dishes they’d see you, and you wouldn’t be able to fool anyone. Besides, this is extremely important. Now, it should only take a few minutes. You’ll be back in the kitchen in no time and can wipe away the powder and assist with the washing up. Remember, as soon as the clock strikes eight. The chime will draw everyone’s attention to the parlor door and they’ll see you glide by—not too slowly, mind you—we don’t want them to have too good a look at you. Just enough for you to cast your ghostly appearance upon them. Oh, it’s almost time! Hurry now! Light your candle. I must get back to the parlor!”
Slightly out of breath, Mrs. Claiborne inserted herself back on the settee as if she’d never left. And it would seem that the ladies hadn’t even missed her. They were deep in conversation about the Buntings, who apparently were the proud owners of a new pair of peacocks. Peacocks! Where does one go to acquire peacocks? Mrs. Claiborne had never even heard of the Buntings, but the other ladies were extremely excited. Mrs. Claiborne fanned herself and kept glancing at the clock. The hour was quickly approaching and she could barely pay attention as the ladies spoke of plummages and tail feathers and whatever it was that peacocks ate and when they would get to visit the Buntings and see these marvelous peacocks for themselves. And then finally—finally!—the clock began to chime. But it was at this very moment that Mrs. Ravenfield announced to the room that she couldn’t possibly visit the Buntings and their peacocks because of her delicate condition, to which there was a great exclamation of ooohs and ahhhs and squealing and grasping hands, and that’s when Sarah scurried past the parlor door in her white nightdress and candle—scurried rather than glided—and the ladies, not a single one of them, had seen her. As they all fawned over Mrs. Ravenfield and poked at her waistline, all desire for peacocks forgotten, Mrs. Claiborne sprang from the settee. She had to go after Sarah! Had to get her to come through again! And she had to hurry before she wiped away all the powder!
With a calming deep breath, Mrs. Claiborne, the picture of poise, excused herself once more and slipped out of the parlor into the hallway. Once out of the room, however, she dashed for the front door, intent on reaching Sarah before she made it back to the kitchen to do the washing up. In her haste, though, Mrs. Claiborne knocked the humidor from the hall table. It hit the floor, and the maduras spilled out over the parquet. As she flung open the front door, one of the maduras rolled under her shoe, causing her to lose her footing and stumble over the threshold. Her gown caught under her feet, and before she could catch herself, she careened past the lions, down the front steps, and impaled herself onto one of the cast iron fleurs-de-lis. Blood soaked through her pink silk gown, and she cried out just as some particularly loud squeals emanated from the parlor window. With her head a bit woozy, she managed to push herself up from the fencepost, but before she could stumble around the side of the house in search of Sarah, she collapsed into the peonies. The flickering lights of the parlor were barely visible through the dense green leaves and full pink blossoms. She turned her head from the window and her eyes met the downcast gaze of the lion on the left.
The peonies did a marvelous job hiding Mrs. Claiborne’s body from view as the dinner party guests left that evening. It wasn’t until the wee hours of morning that the dark red stain on the cast iron fence post caught the attention of a lone passerby, one unremarkable middle-aged woman dressed in a plain gray frock with a large collar of lace.
And though Mrs. Claiborne’s lifeless body was removed way before the neighborhood began to stir, somehow Mrs. Claiborne remained, not quite a spirit, for no one ever saw her ghostly visage, but more of an essence, like the odor of a premium cigar that permeates the fabric of an old wingback chair that can’t be gotten rid of.
Laura Parnum is a freelance writer and copyeditor, an elementary school library assistant, and the assistant regional advisor for the Eastern PA chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She also manages the EasternPennPoints blog. Laura lives in Philadelphia with her family along with a pet turtle that bites and a pet snake that doesn’t. You can follow her on Twitter (@LauraParnum) and find out more about her at her website.