Dreams of the Dead

St Pancras, London  – November 1856


The first ghost that Mary de Morgan ever saw was her dead sister, Alice.

She was a cold breath on the back of Mary’s neck, a shiver like a goosey walking over a grave. Sometimes Mary felt sure she had seen her, a flash of something white in the corner of her eye.

Mary did not remember her sister. She had been only three when Alice had died.  She did, however, remember her death. It had been dark and bleak and cold. Bare tree branches rattled against the window-panes. A fire had been lit in the drawing-room, and the air smelt fresh with the cent of the fir-tree that stood in its barrel in the corner. It had been decorated with gilded fir cones and bright bonbons and tiny red candles. Their flames danced in the icy draught from under the door. Alice had been carried down from her bedroom. She lay on a couch near the fire. She was very thin. Shadows in the hollows of her temples and cheeks, and between her knuckles. Her white nightgown hung loosely from the bones of her shoulders, showing the knobbles of her collarbones. Her mother had tucked her up in a warm blanket, but Alice was hot and restless and kept putting the blanket aside with a weak hand, only for her mother to tuck her up again. The family was gathered around the fire, the boys dressed in their best suits with frilled white collars, the girls in stiff frocks over pantalettes. It was the night before Christmas Eve. The older children were torn between excitement at the coming celebration, and solemnity at the sight of Alice, who had been absent from their games and arguments for well over a month. All they had known of her was the constant hollow cough that sounded through the house all day and night. 

Alice had had an attack of the measles in early November, and afterwards her cough only got worse. Then the fever had come. The chills. The sweats. The blood-stained handkerchiefs. The abrupt wasting away of her flesh. Acute phthisis, the doctor called it. The maids called it galloping consumption. Mary had imagined a big black horse, racing away with Alice clinging to her back. She thought sometimes she heard the heavy hooves in the middle of the night, and felt them striking her in the chest.

Fire and darkness wrestled through the room. Mary remembered the gleam of golden light on her shiny black shoes, and the glimpse of snow-shaken black branches in the shadowy mirror.  Mrs de Morgan gave them all hot mulled apple cider to drink, and William – who was fifteen – cracked walnuts for them all, while their father read them The Christmas Carol. Alice’s breathing had been harsh and labored. Her mother lifted her up so she could have a sip of the cider. It seemed to help. As her father read on, Alice’s breathing eased. 

As Professor de Morgan read, the room grew silent. Even the crackling of the flames seemed to lessen. The wind outside hushed. The tree-branches ceased rattling, their branches weighted now with white.  He reached the final page, and read, ‘God bless us, everyone!’ He shut the book, smiling.

Mrs de Morgan bent to kiss her daughter’s brow. There was a moment, just a moment, when everyone was still warm and content and at ease, the story glowing through them. Then Mrs de Morgan began to scream. It was that moment Mary remembered. The piercing sound of her mother’s scream. The darkness rushing closer.

Things had been different after Alice died. Their father did not play bear with them anymore, or whistle merry tunes. Their mother dressed in black, and spent most of her evenings in a shadowed room, listening to the spirits rap. It was Alice she was listening for, and so Mary began to listen for her too.

Alice’s ghost came most often in the winter months, in the time around her death. Someone would hear footsteps where no-one trod, or the harsh rattle of breath in an invisible throat. Once Mary saw a girl dressed in a white nightgown standing out in the midwinter dusk, in the shadows under a tree. Yet when Mrs de Morgan ran out, heedless of the cold, there was no-one there. Just two faint impressions in the snow that might have been made by ghostly feet. 

Sophia de Morgan had always believed that spirits could reach out from the Hereafter. When she was only ten, William Blake had been pointed out to her as a man who saw ghosts and angels. Her father told her that Blake believed God had looked through his nursery window when he was only four, and spoken to him. Blake had screamed, but ever since had seen all kinds of strange visions. Sophia had been fascinated by Blake’s story, and had badly wanted to see such things herself.  When her neighbour was dying, she begged him to visit her and tell her What Lay Beyond. The night of his death, she had been roused from sleep by strange knockings and breathings. Her white curtain had floated high and fluttered, although there had been no wind. She felt a presence hovering beside her. Sophia had not been afraid. Her neighbor had been a kind old man, and she could not think why his ghost would wish to hurt her.  

Even before Alice got sick and died, Mary’s mother had liked to go to séances. She had first attended one by the famous Mrs Hayden. Mary had often heard her mother tell the story. They had sat in a circle in a poorly lit room, hands flat on the table, for a very long time. Slowly the table began to hum. Soft pattings were heard, like hands groping through darkness. ‘They are coming,’ the medium had said in a voice of rising excitement. Then the spirit had refused to rap for anyone but Mrs de Morgan. It had been the ghost of her sister Harriet, who told her, by rapping out the letters: ‘I am happy here with our mother and father.’ 

The ghosts of Mrs de Morgan’s family had often visited her after that, bringing her great comfort.  

In the winter of Mary’s sixth year, her sister’s spirit visited her in a dream. Mary had followed a dove through a dark archway. Her sister had been waiting for her in the curve of another arch carved with gold. Alice had shown her four balls, two dark and two bright. In the dark balls, Mary had seen beasts. One had been trying to claw its way out of darkness up a steep precipice; the other had been trying to escape the light. In the first of the bright balls, a girl had been standing at the foot of the precipice, staring upwards. In the second bright vision, the girl had been dancing in the light at the top of the cliff with other children. 

In the morning, Mary told her mother about her dream. Mrs de Morgan was sure it was a message from Alice, telling her she was safe in heaven. She questioned Mary again and again about all she had seen.

‘Are you sure it was Alice?’ she begged.

Mary nodded her head, putting her thumb in her mouth. She knew what her sister had looked like. Her mother had two photographs of Alice that she treasured. One showed a little girl, dressed in white with a black velvet hat, her hand entwined with her mother’s. Her brown hair hung loose, and her eyes looked as pale and uncanny a blue as Mary’s own. 

The other showed her as a blur of white, hovering behind her mother’s shoulder in a photograph. Mary’s mother was convinced the white streak was her beloved daughter’s ghost, though Mary’s father thought it was some kind of double exposure. Mrs de Morgan would not agree. That photograph was even more precious to her that the photograph of Alice alive.

Mrs de Morgan had asked Mary to draw what she had seen, and Mary had done her best. After that, Mary had to tell her mother her dreams every single morning. On the days when she could not remember her dreams, her mother was sad and wan. On the days when Mary had dreamt of Alice, her mother was joyous and warm. So Mary did her best to remember. Sometimes, she made a dream up. 

She did not think it would do any harm.  


‘Dreams of the Dead’ is an early chapter that was cut from my novel Beauty in Thorns – originally I had imagined the story told partly through the eyes of Mary de Morgan, the Victorian fairy tale teller, but my early ideas changed as I discovered my story and so this scene was excised. Maybe one day I will write a novel about Mary de Morgan … 

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