Chapter Three: The Seventh Guest
All of us stared blankly for a moment. We who had been coming to Miss Maw's weekly dinners knew that there were absolutely no entrances to her mansion on the second, third, or fourth floors. Therefore, there was no way a “seventh guest” could have arrived unless he or she was a...
The strange creaking noises continued. We—er—living guests continued not saying anything.
Miss Maw winked, her hands folded in her lap. “Would you like to come upstairs and meet him?”
This brought Bagaht's power of speech back. “Hmph! We Dwarves don't believe in ghosts. Once we die, whether we are male or female, we return to the Stone from whence we came. However, our womenfolk stay up top to guide those of us who aren't adults yet. Isn't that right, Acantha?”
His wife nodded, although I could tell she was rather displeased at being called “womenfolk”!
“How about you, Luriel?” asked our hostess. “'Tis only my nephew, Silas, who made his living as a humble portrait photographer. When the War Between the States broke out...” She trailed off.
The Elf shook her head. “Nay. We Elves do not place our faith in such spirits, either. When our fleshly bodies pass away—which we do, for we are not immortal, no matter what the legends say!—our souls enter the Immortal Realms, where we remain for all eternity. We do not come back from them to revisit the living, and so Elves say there's no such things as ghosts. Of course...”
“Of course, what?” asked Miss Maw.
“Of course, they could exist, but not in Elven form.” Luriel smirked, and I saw Miss Maw's thin eyebrows furrow. It was clear that she believed, but it was also clear that no one else in the room did. As for me, I was skeptical. After all, Miss Maw wasn't known as an 'eccentric' for nothing!
“Penny, dear. Will you come up? I think that Silas sorely wants some company,” she said.
“I agree with our fellow guests, and don't really believe in ghosts,” I answered. “However, I am curious to see what those strange noises coming from upstairs might be. There's probably a mouse in the attic, or maybe a rat. All the same, I'm not scared. If someone would please help me up the stairs...” I looked around. No one else seemed willing to volunteer. Miss Maw would have done so if she could have, but she was an elderly woman of eighty-five, and her balance was on par with mine! As for Bagaht, Acantha and Luriel, they simply looked at me like I was crazy.
I resented that. I'd provided a perfectly logical explanation for the noises, and here they were—!
All of a sudden, Dolf stood up. “I will,” he said in his deep voice. “I'll help you, Miss Per-dan-te.”
I was startled for a moment, and then smiled. That Ogre always surprised me in marvelous ways!
Everyone looked at Dolf like he was crazy, too, except for Miss Maw and myself. We headed towards the long spiral staircase that led towards the upper floors, brave and bold (somewhat)! Walking upstairs might seem like an ordinary thing for everyone to do with no great trouble, but do you know what it's like to accomplish such a task when your arms and legs just don't work correctly? They don't work together, like normal arms and legs do. However, the doctors who frequented the Mencken Home for Orphaned Children said the trouble was all in my head. “Cerebral paralysis”, they called it, meaning that the parts of my brain that controlled my large muscles were damaged. How they frightened me with that news! I was only seven years old, and before then, my parents had believed that I was merely a clumsy child! If only that were true...
Anyway, it seemed to me that the higher we climbed, the spookier and more decrepit Miss Maw's mansion became. On the lavishly-decorated second floor were the bedrooms, naturally, for the mistress of the house, her late nephew Silas, and a few guest rooms. Even though the gas lamps on this floor illuminated everything quite well, its atmosphere of silence and vacancy scared me a little. Had these rooms been occupied, or even cleaned, any time recently? I didn't think so.
As Dolf gripped my arm more tightly, preparing to lead me up another flight of stairs—this one made of iron—toward the third floor, I asked, “Miss Maw? If Silas' bedroom is up here, then why don't we take a peek?” In truth, those iron stairs looked a tad too steep and rickety for my taste!
Miss Maw shook her head. “He's not in there. Silas spent most of his time in his studio on the third floor, and only went to his bedroom to sleep. Not that he did that often, either...” Stifling a slight chuckle, she went in front of Dolf and me as we climbed the iron stairs. My sense of unease grew.
“Don't worry,” said Dolf as I tried not to look down. “I here.” I swallowed hard, glancing upward...
The third floor was even more desolate-looking than the second. Up here, there were only two bedrooms—one for Dolf and one for a formerly-employed maid, I supposed—and Silas' studio. “It's so dark in here,” I mumbled as we all went in, and that was why Miss Maw turned on one of the cobwebbed, gas-lit fixtures. Instantly, a rat bolted out right in front of us, and I screamed!
The Ogre promptly crushed it with his heel. “Ha!” he cried, pumping his fist in the air in victory.
I giggled nervously. “See? I told you it was only a rat. Can we go back downstairs now?”
“Not so fast,” cautioned Miss Maw, quickly gesturing toward the dusty mirror and dresser in the studio. As I turned to look at it, my jaw fell slack. The word HELLO was slowly being printed in capital letters in the grime upon the glass. I couldn't believe it! No one was near that mirror...
“Hello, Silas,” Miss Maw said warmly. “I'm sorry I haven't been up to see you in such a while.”
The ethereal letter-printing continued: NO HARM DONE. WITH YOU?
“This is my dear friend, Miss Penny Maxim, who has been coming to my Thursday-night dinners.”
I SEE. HELLO, PERDY!
I almost fainted. Silas' ghost had not written PENNY, but PERDY—Perdante--my nickname!
“Well, say hello,” prompted our hostess with a bit of irritation. “It seems he knows you already.”
“H-hello,” I stammered, waiting to see what the apparition would write next.
Before he could, however, our Ogre companion spoke up: “What going on? I very confused.”
IT'S ALL RIGHT, OGRE, came the mysterious lettering. PLEASE BE STILL.
“Huh?!” Dolf scratched his bald pate. “No one over there, Mistress, but all the words still there...”
“And they're written by a spirit,” explained Miss Maw. “I'd like you to meet my late nephew, Silas.”
Dolf guffawed. “Ha, ha, ha! There no one there. There no Silas, except if he a—g-g-gho-o-oost!”
YES, MY GOOD MAN, came the lettering in the dust. I'VE COME BACK TO SEE MY AUNTIE.
“That's it,” grumbled Dolf, his massive frame quivering. “Dolf go back downstairs right now!”
“You'll still help Miss Perdante down, won't you?” asked Miss Maw. “Er—I mean, Miss Penny?”
Remembering me, he nodded. “Yes, yes, Let's go, Miss Penny. Dolf not like it very much up here.”
I could see why. I was feeling very queasy and uneasy myself! “If it's all right with you, I'm leaving,” I told our hostess. “Thank you for allowing me to meet Silas, Miss Maw, but I must go...”
More letters appeared on the mirror: WAIT.
“Oh, dear me,” said Miss Maw. “I do believe my nephew has run out of dust in which to write!”
Indeed, the mirror was completely full of words, almost on top of words! However, something within me pulled me forward, as if I were on a leash or string, towards the dresser. The top of it was also covered with a thick layer of dust, and I waited to see if Silas would use this as his new writing surface. After a moment, he did. The words he penned within the grime made me shiver:
Silas took ten full seconds between each word to summon his thoughts, and perhaps his courage.
“Well, Penny?” asked our hostess. “What does it say? What's Silas trying to tell us?”
In the blink of an eye, I wiped the words away ferociously. My hand became covered with dust!
“Ah, nothing,” I replied quickly. “Simply adieu, and fare-thee-well.” I brushed my dirty, sweaty palm off on my skirt, earning a slight frown and a suspicious gaze from the elderly lady nearby.
She then smiled slowly. “Adieu, and fare-thee-well, Silas. Until next time, my dear nephew!”
As we walked back downstairs, I couldn't help but feel Miss Maw's gaze on the back of my neck...