A Dwindled Dawn
‘Lucas Budge at your service, sir.’ The young man on his front step was dressed in mourning black with his hat in one hand and a large suitcase at his feet.
‘Please, yes, come in,’ he said. ‘You were quick. Considering the hour.’
‘Time is of the essence, Mr Coulishaw, sir,’ Budge replied and stepped inside. The lamp light of the foyer revealed the young man’s small eyes and high Slavic cheekbones. ‘Every moment counts.’
As Coulishaw shut his front door on the chilly Melbourne dawn, a scrawny, sallow-skinned young woman scurried inside through the closing gap. She skulked into the corner and said nothing.
‘Oh,’ he harrumphed.
‘My sister, sir. Henrietta,’ Budge said. ‘Don’t mind her. She helps me out. Come along, Hen.’
‘Your assistant?’ Coulishaw squinted. The girl fidgeted and would not meet his eyes.
‘Of sorts, sir,’ Budge said. ‘Where shall I set up?’
‘This way.’ Coulishaw ushered the young man and his mute sister across the parquetry. They passed the hallway mirror covered with a black cloth. Like Budge, the house was already draped in mourning attire.
Archie Lennox, a fellow member of the Canterbury Club, was the man who first made Coulishaw aware of Budge’s services. Coulishaw had committed Budge’s name to memory, but at the time uttered a prayer under his breath and pleaded with the Lord that he may never need the young man’s services.
‘Have the flowers arrived, sir?’ Budge asked as the three mounted the ornate carved staircase to the first floor.
‘Not ten minutes ago.’
‘Lovely, sir,’ Budge said. ‘We’ll be in and out before you know it.’
With pursed lips, Coulishaw nodded and led them over the forest-green carpet to the bedroom of his daughter, girding himself as he approached the door.
She lay on top of her lacy eiderdown, her hands clutched at her breastbone and her once rosy skin fading to oyster-shell grey. Gwendolyn’s eyelids were closed in a peaceful sleep, but her rest was eternal.
Perched by her side, his wife Eleanor brushed their daughter’s long chestnut hair into smooth waves and cooed lullabies under her breath. Their stocky, dark-haired maid, Bethan, bustled about, encircling Gwendolyn with fresh white lilies and pink roses. Coulishaw’s heart shrivelled. With her shiny hair rippling over her chest and resting on a bed of flowers, his beloved daughter looked as lovely as a portrait of a medieval maiden.
‘My condolences, Mrs Coulishaw,’ Budge said with a curt bow.
Eleanor glanced up with dewy eyes. ‘Thank you, Mr…’
‘Budge, Lucas Budge. My, she does look beautiful. And peaceful. It will be an honour to capture her last moments for you.’
The simpleton Budge sister loitered in the doorway, her eyes faraway and unsettling.
‘Come on, Hen.’ Budge whirled around and unlocked his case. ‘Let’s unpack.’
From the suitcase, the young man and his sister produced a bulky camera, tripod stand, and a black cloth. While they slotted and clicked the equipment into place, Eleanor rubbed a dab of rouge on her daughter’s cheeks and clasped a silver necklace with a large penny-sized pearl around her neck.
Coulishaw stood out of the way of the activity by the wall, his heart as heavy as a blanket left out in the rain.
‘Sir,’ Budge said. ‘Did you have a particular tableau in mind? Your daughter alone? Or would you like to pose with her? A final family portrait?’
Coulishaw pursed his lips. ‘Both, I think. Eleanor, my dear?’
‘Yes,’ his wife sniffled.
‘Other clients have dressed in their Sunday best,’ Budge said with a sly smile.
Coulishaw frowned at his underhand impertinence, but Eleanor nodded with a weary sigh. ‘This is our last chance to be immortalised together. We must look our best.’ She smoothed back her greying hair and straightened her spine. ‘I must look a fright. Bethan, lay out my midnight blue damask, please.’
With a curtsey, the maid scooted out of the room and Eleanor rose from the bed. She kissed her fingers and dabbed her fingertips onto Gwendolyn’s forehead. ‘I will be back soon, my dear,’ she said and walked away with a swish of stiff skirts.
Coulishaw gazed back at his daughter, an angel waiting for God, and his heart shattered once more. Damned typhoid. He clenched his fists and a fierce craving for whiskey hit him like an errant wave. He left the death photographer for his study downstairs.
The warm amber liquid slithered down his throat. Their daughter was gone, her little brother taken by diphtheria six years earlier. Now only Eleanor remained, and a dark cloud would hang over the Coulishaw house forever more. His glass was dry before he knew it, he poured another and the second disappeared down his gullet.
With a third measure in hand, he trudged back upstairs, wondering whether Eleanor would ask him to change his attire. Although, he was already in his second best suit, dressed for an important business meeting at his Club yesterday. A meeting interrupted by a message from Dr. Smythe that Gwendolyn was at death’s door.
Returning to the room, he spied Budge’s silent assistant looming over his daughter. Blood roared like a house fire through his veins.
‘Get away,’ he shouted and the girl flinched, her fingers darting away from his darling Gwendolyn. ‘Get away from her!’
Tearing aside the black curtain, Budge surfaced from behind his camera. ‘Sir?’
‘How dare you!’ Coulishaw’s nostrils flared, he whirled around to face the photographer. ‘She had her thieving fingers on my daughter’s necklace. If I hadn’t walked in when I did…’
The mute girl shook her head vehemently and slinked into the shadows.
Budge held up his hands. ‘I’m sure Henrietta wasn’t doing anything untoward…’
‘I saw her!’ Coulishaw spat. ‘Don’t tell me what I saw with my own eyes!’
‘How dare you come in here and steal from a grieving family. Out! Out! I want you out!’
‘Pack your things and go. Not another word.’
The young man squeezed his lips closed, then dismantled his apparatus as he was asked. As Budge unscrewed the tripod legs, Coulishaw caught him murmuring to his sister. He swore Budge said, ‘is it done?’
From his position, Coulishaw could not see the girl’s face or hear her reply, but the young man’s question made his vision turn red. He should have known this was all a ruse. There would be stern words for Archie Lennox next time they crossed paths.
‘Faster! I want you out! Now!’
The two charlatans bundled the last piece of equipment into their case and closed the lid with a snap of locks.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but believe me…’
‘I don’t want to hear your excuses, you devils. Go!’
The young thieves thumped away down the stairs and a few seconds later the front door closed. He frowned. He should have escorted them onto the street to ensure the cursed Budges didn’t steal anything else from him.
All alone, he dropped to his knees and wailed. His empty glass slipped through his fingers to the floor and rolled away. ‘My poor little Gwendolyn. What will I do without you?’
The sky was dark violet and the new day was trickling in from the east when my brother rapped on the door of the two-story terrace on Cardigan Street. A lanky, thick-bearded man in a navy frock coat answered. At first, I thought nothing of Mr Coulishaw’s grim expression; he was grieving after all. However, when he caught a glimpse of me, he stopped short and curled his lips into a pompous sneer. I knew what he was thinking, and he was not the first.
Perhaps it was my face or the way I never listened to their nonsense, but people never expected much of me. After a quick once-over, they made their assumptions and I let them. Unlike my brother, always wanting to prove his worth to the world, I preferred to blend into the wallpaper. Even our mother presumed I was useless, until the day when the truth inside my head was revealed.
Once inside the polished wooden entry, Lucas launched into his salesman banter and I stood back to soak in the mood of the house. Recently departed spirits often smelled like burnt matches or snuffed out candles, and as expected, the aroma of fresh death hung in the air. I was right to accompany my brother. While they may not know it, the Coulishaw family needed my help.
We followed the dour man past the shrouded hall-stand mirror and up the stairs into the bedroom where the corpse lay, into the strong scent of cooling candle wax and the perfume of lilies and roses. The deceased was of a similar age to me. Her nose was too wide to be pretty but she was far fairer than I.
Jealousy slapped me across the cheeks, I coveted everything in the room; the lace bedding, the curtains, and the shiny waxed furniture. I was most envious that the deceased had all this space to herself, while I shared a flea-ridden bed with my two sisters in a rowdy, stinky North Melbourne tenement. No wonder I rarely spoke, my only escape was inside my head.
Above the bed, the girl’s spirit shimmered in an amethyst cloud. I said a silent prayer and waited for her to notice me. Crisp air crept in through an open window where outside the day was budding, and the retreating darkness was studded by a sparkle of light - the morning star. With a secret smile, I nodded in its direction, my own small reverence to Lady Venus.
As Marvellous Melbourne bustled and grew, it seemed destined to share the same fate as London. Ghosts of the dead, trapped between worlds, confused and hurt, layered the city streets. The in-between spirits acted out like mischievous children, soothing their own frustrations by torturing their living loved ones.
My first encounter with a trapped spirit happened ten years earlier, when a spooked horse bucked and trampled his owner on Swanston Street, mashing the man into the dirt not ten feet from me. While agog and horrified, my eyes saw past the blood to watch his spirit lift from his mangled body like steam from a kettle. Rather than ascend to heaven as I’d been taught, his spirit lingered over the heads of the worried crowd, which no one noticed except for eight-year-old me. Too young to understand, I brushed off what I’d seen, yet when the next death came knocking, old rheumy-eyed Cedric from across the tenement landing, I felt drawn to try my clumsy best to help.
I don’t know how to describe this power I have, and I use the words God and heaven for the want of better terms. However these descriptors are like ill-fitting shoes, they keep off the mud but they pinch.
After old Cedric, I practised when I could, on dogs and infants, then guiding our mother when her time came. After her passing, I confessed my gift to Lucas. At first, he didn’t understand. But when he caught wind of the death photography fad, it was as though our paths were destined. Here was a way we could both help the bereaved and the dead. And put bread on our table.
I helped Lucas unpack the heavy camera and tripod.
‘Gwendolyn,’ I said again in my mind.
The vaporous girl was circling overhead like a flummoxed seagull. ‘What is happening?’ she said. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Listen to me, Gwendolyn. This is hard to hear but it’s time for you to travel to the next world.’
‘I’m dead? How can I be dead?’
The young ones always needed the most help.
‘Gwendolyn. Don’t be afraid.’
‘Look at Mama. She’s crying. Is that grandmother’s pearl around my neck? The necklace she promised to give me only on my wedding day?’
‘Let me help you. I can show you the way to peace. Do you want to linger over your parents, haunt them for the rest of their lives?’
‘Of course not,’ she sobbed. ‘I don’t understand. How can my life be over so soon?’
‘I wish I could explain. All I know is I can show you the way to somewhere wonderful.’
‘Will Percy be there? In heaven?’
I squeezed my eyes tight, drawing my senses inwards, scouring the house room by room.
‘He died here? Your younger brother?’
‘Yes,’ she gulped.
‘Percy,’ I called. ‘Come. Join your sister.’
A waft of fog emerged from the wallpaper, a pale green cloud of fear and sorrow in the shape of a six-year-old boy.
‘Percy!’ Gwendolyn cried.
‘Gwennie,’ the little ghost boy said. ‘How I’ve missed you.’
The two clouds embraced and I hid a smile from the living. Lucas was making the final adjustments to his equipment, while Mrs Coulishaw had retired to change her dress and her husband moped by the door.
‘Now,’ I instructed the spirit siblings. ‘Take hold of one another’s hands and I will guide you.’
Behind me, Coulishaw grunted something unintelligible, then left Lucas and I alone with Gwendolyn.
‘Quick,’ Lucas hissed.
‘I know,’ I said and hurried over to Lucas’s open case. With a vial of spring water and a sprig of rosemary in my grasp, I rushed back to Gwendolyn’s cold body.
I lay my palm over her un-beating heart. ‘Oh Lord, keep my lamp burning, turn my darkness into light.’
‘I won’t be able to go,’ Gwendolyn cried.
‘There’s no need to be afraid, you will be welcomed warmly. Turn towards the window. See Venus, she will show you the way. The morning star has been guiding souls since the dawn of time.’
Footsteps thumped up the stairs.
‘Hurry,’ Lucas spat.
Gwendolyn’s spirit hung tethered over her body like a dirigible.
‘Please Gwendolyn, try.’
‘Come on, Gwennie.’ The little boy’s haze hovered by the open sash window. ‘Let’s go.’
‘I am impure,’ the ghost girl wailed. ‘He will not take me.’
‘No, you will be welcomed.’
‘They will send me to the underworld. My skin will be flayed from my muscles and hot iron pokers will be stabbed into my eyes and ears. I’ll be punished for all eternity.’
‘He’s coming, Hen,’ Lucas said. ‘Get a wriggle on.’
‘I’m trying,’ I exclaimed, then turned to Gwendolyn. ‘I was like you once but now I know these stories are untrue. Spiteful lies spread by cruel tyrannical men.’
‘I laid with a boy,’ she cried. ‘We weren’t even engaged.’
‘Did you love him?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes. I did. I still do.’
‘Love is all that matters,’ I replied with a gentle tone.
The mist which was once Gwendolyn choked with relief. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Get away!’ Coulishaw bellowed from the doorway.
I flinched and spun around.
Her father’s face was as fierce as a hot northerly wind, a tumbler of whiskey clutched in his hand.
‘Please Gwendolyn, quick,’ I whispered in my head as Coulishaw berated me and Lucas leaped to my defence.
The ghost girl let go and drifted across the room. Then the twin fogs, one pale green and one amethyst, glided out of the window towards Venus. As soon as the siblings were on their path to the next world, the candle wax smell was gone. The house was clear of death and two less souls would haunt the streets of Melbourne.
Then the furious Coulishaw called us charlatans and kicked us out. Lucas fumed as he packed away his equipment and we scampered away into the wintry dawn.
Out in the fresh air as the city woke from her sleep, I beamed up at the fading morning star.
Then Lucas turned to me with a scowl. ‘Next time Hen, can we at least get paid first?’
Madeleine D'Este is a Melbourne-based writer of dark mysteries. Her supernatural mystery novel The Flower and The Serpent was nominated for the Australian Shadow Award for Best Novel 2019, and her Australian gothic novella Radcliffe was released by Deadset Press in August 2023. Find Madeleine at www.madeleinedeste.com or on Twitter @madeleine_deste