An Eye For Detail, by Karen Carlisle (short story)

Viola opened the window shutter, allowing the light to enter. It slowly danced across the room, chasing away the dark. While she waited for her eyes to adapt to the change, she drank in the warmth on her skin. Outside, the playful sounds of children drifted up from the street. Happy sounds. Soothing sounds. For Viola, they also brought sorrow. It was doubtful that she would have children now. Her plans had changed abruptly since her husband’s death over a year ago. Viola looked down to the street, hoping to see the source of the children’s excitement, and saw a man in a grey suit and bowler hat, passing out apples which the children took eagerly.
“Gutter-snipes!,” declared a woman’s voice behind her. “I am so sorry you have to deal with them Doctor Stewart,” she continued.
Viola turned back toward the voice’s owner, a well-dressed middle aged woman who sat in the large chair at the other side of the room. She was dressed smartly in the latest magenta silk and velvet with an astonishing array of passmenterie, for an afternoon dress. She sat precariously on the chair as her dress also boasted the now fashionable bustle. This amused Viola, lifting her from her melancholy and necessitating a deft movement of her hand to hide her slight smile.
Though the woman’s skirts were voluminous, both she and her magnificent dress appeared small in comparison to the room, the size of which was accentuated by its sparseness. Aside from the currently occupied chair, the room boasted only a tall wooden stool cushioned in leather, and a reasonable sized desk which boasted assorted instruments and cases, a bookshelf and a small locked cupboard. To the side of the chair was a strange looking contraption, with a large metal board facing the woman, shielding her from its workings on the opposite side. These consisted of a brass cylinder and a small brass lamp with a long, thin glass chimney. Below this was a small table with a selection of glass lenses arrayed in a small, velvet lined box and a small, spherical concave reflector which was pierced with a small hole.
The woman shifted in the chair, adjusting to make her bustle more comfortable. Her brunette hair was carefully plaited in an ornate fashion, in stark contrast to the half-circular metal frames that were perched on her nose. Viola pointed towards the letter chart at the opposite side of the room, as she crossed the room to the woman. The now open window provided additional illumination on the chart’s letters.
“Is that better, Lady Calthorpe?” she inquired. Lady Calthorpe squinted slightly and nodded noncommittally. Viola reached out her hand and span a metal-rimmed lens that lay in the frame.
“Ah yes, Doctor Stewart!” she smiled. “That is a much greater improvement.”
Viola removed the frames, examined the lenses and wrote down some numbers in her notebook.
“I will send a note when they are ready Lady Calthorpe, if that is acceptable to you.”
“Yes, yes. That would be perfectly acceptable,” she replied as she stood and began to straighten the wrinkles from her skirt. “I shall only wear them when absolutely required, of course.”
Viola smiled. Ladies and their vanity, she thought but spoke otherwise. “One day they too will become fashionable, my Lady.”
For a second Lady Calthorpe smiled sweetly then shook her head in disbelief. She retrieved her bonnet and carefully pinned it on her head, obliging herself of the wall mirror thoughtfully placed there. Lady Calthorpe carefully re-arranged her hair so it was acceptable for public view.
“Good day, Doctor Stewart.”
Once she had heard Lady Calthorpe leave the front room, Viola leaned through the doorway.
“Was that the last for the day, Miss Blake?” she asked.
Miss Blake was a short, young woman in a sensible dress of blue linen. Her hair was blonde, set in a practical fashion. She finished writing in a large book and looked up.
“Yes, Doctor Stewart.” Miss Blake closed the book and stood, straightening her skirts. “Tea?”
Viola nodded in agreement.

Usually, Viola was confronted by the street children when she returned from her late afternoon walk. Today, all was quiet outside the townhouse. She missed the comforting sounds that would herald her arrival home. A lone girl with long blonde braids, sat on the step. Viola recognized the girl; many times, she had seen her playing in the street. She looked up with tear filled eyes, at Viola.
“What happened?” Viola asked.
“It’s Elly,” she replied wiping the tears away. “The grey man took her away.”
Though Viola had no children of her own, her maternal instincts were already in full flight. What men? What happened? Before she could ask the questions, Viola saw the crowd gathering at the entrance to the nearby alley. She reached into her pockets, retrieved a small plump orange and handed it to the young girl who took it gratefully.
“Don’t worry Lucy,” she replied. Viola pulled her gloves up, straightened her skirts and joined the crowd.
In the alley lay the body of a small girl, partially obscured by one of the Constables who were in attendance. On her head was a hessian bag. Viola moved closer. The second Constable was asking for possible witnesses or anyone who may have known the girl. He did not seem to be too insistent.
“Gutter-snipe,” he whispered to the first Constable.
“Better remove the body then. Nothing much more to learn here,” came the reply.
Little Elly’s body was quickly covered and, as it was carried past, Viola caught a familiar sweet aroma. She had smelt it regularly in her late husband’s surgery. It was the unmistakable odour of chloroform.
The spectators began to crowd the area where Elly had lain. Viola heard the faint tinkling noise of glass over stones. Turning her head towards the noise, she saw a faint glint of light beyond the main crowd. Once retrieved, Viola returned to Greater Marylebone Street to examine the trinket under the street lighting. In the soft gas lighting, the item was instantly recognizable. She worked with them daily. It was a small convex shaped lens similar to the many in her instrument case and to those used to view the retina of the eye. There was a dusting of a black powder on one edge. Curious, she thought. It obviously did not belong to the child and it was unlikely it was stolen from her equipment; they had all been accounted for earlier that day. Viola surmised that there was a high possibility that it must have belonged to the murderer.
As the Constables had already left to return the child’s body to the station, she wrapped the lens in her lace handkerchief and placed it in her pocket for safekeeping. Time for a visit to my dear friend Doctor Collins in the morning, she thought. He may find this interesting.

The next morning was overcast and brought with it a continuous drizzle of rain, necessitating the ordering of a cab to travel to Marylebone Police Station. Viola was disappointed as she loved long walks. Having had Miss Blake rearrange her morning appointments, Viola had plenty of time to visit Doctor Collins.  He preferred to conduct Police business in the mornings as his skills were usually required in the afternoons for his practice on Harley Street. This suited Viola as she was usually busy with appointments in the afternoons; Upper class women did take such a long time to ready themselves for viewing.
Viola was greeted by a fresh faced, unfamiliar Constable at the Division Station.
“Good morning Constable,” she smiled. “I have some information with respect to last night’s murder off Greater Marylebone Street.”
“No need ma’am. All is in hand. You can return to your family,” The Constable did not even bother to look up from his paperwork.
“Excuse me?” Viola was indignant.
Fortunately for the young Constable, Doctor Collins emerged from the office door and entered the waiting room, obviously delighted to see Viola.  He was tall and dark, with piercing blue eyes and had a habit of neatening his fashionably wax-tipped moustache. Those eyes were currently staring at the Constable waiting to hear his reply but having heard part of the conversation and recognising the tone growing in Viola’s voice, decided to rescue the Constable.
“Constable Jones, may I present Doctor Viola Stewart of Greater Marylebone Street.” The Constable nodded briefly in reply. There was nothing like formalities to bring order back into any situation and Constable Jones appeared to be in great need of formality.
Introductions complete, Viola followed Doctor Collins into the examination room. She noted the small size of the body on the table and frowned.
“Her name was Elly and she was an orphan who frequented the area,” Viola said simply, trying not to betray her sadness. Doctor Collins removed the coverings to reveal the girl’s now pale face. It would have been a pretty face but for the left eye that had been pulled partially out of the socket. Viola had a strange feeling that there was something familiar about it; something she could not quite remember.
“I have another one like it,” he said calmly. Viola caught Doctor Collins’ brilliant blue eyes as if to question him.
“Two days ago. Another orphan,” he continued. “The eyes were intact but the face was covered by a similar hessian bag and there was the smell of…”
“Chloroform!” Viola nodded. “I smelt it too.” The memory triggered, Viola explained her reason for attending, revealed the small lens and handed it to the doctor. “I found this, not far from her body. The Constables did not bother to search the area. There is a black substance on the edge.” The two doctors exchanged knowing glances, sighed and began to examine the lens for any further information that would be helpful.

Two days later Viola was examining Mrs Cogswell following an episode of ‘lights in her vision’.  While she stood at the window she looked down to the street which had been unusually quiet. As she closed the shutter, she saw Lucy playing a game of ‘knuckle-bones’. A red-headed man, wearing a grey suit and bowler was playing cricket with the boys. Viola could feel the loneliness of poor lonely Lucy whose friend had been murdered. Viola wished that sometimes the shutter would close off the world as easily as it shut out the light.
She returned to Mrs Cogswell and moved the stool as close as she could, considering both were wearing corsets, bustles and several layers of frilled skirts. Her patient’s pupils were large and dark. The atropine has done its work well, Viola thought. Mrs Cogswell winced slightly, as Viola turned up the small brass lamp on the opposite side of the metal board, just to the left of her chair. Mrs Cogswell’s pupils remained fixed and dilated.  Perhaps too well, she thought as she apologized for the light source and adjusted it down slightly.
Viola raised one of the lenses in her left hand, and moved it slightly to focus while she peered through the hole of her ophthalmoscope. Before long she could see the blood vessels at the back of the eye. All seemed clear until the lens clouded over. Unexpectedly, Viola thought she had seen the blurry, grey figure of a man in place of the vessels. Viola gasped and dropped the lens to the floor. Mrs Cogswell gasped as the room flooded with light.
“I am sorry Doctor Stewart, Mrs Cogswell. Doctor Collins said it was urgent Police business.” Miss Blake explained as she swooped into the room, retrieved the lens which had rolled under the desk and placed it on the bookshelf for safe-keeping. Viola turned to see Doctor Collins standing in the doorway. His grey plaid suit was perfectly tailored to fit his tall frame and matched his bowler which he was now holding in his hands. Seeing Viola had a patient, he apologized and closed the door.
“I am sorry for the interruption Mrs Cogswell,” Viola began. She returned her stool and turned off the small brass lantern. “The good news is that there appears to be no damage.” Mrs Cogswell smiled, relieved to hear good news.
“Miss Blake will see you out.” Viola led Mrs Cogswell to the door, arranging a veil over her face to reduce the light’s intensity. “If you have any other problems, please contact me.” Mrs Cogswell nodded to Viola and then to Doctor Collins as he entered the examination room, apologizing again to Mrs Cogswell and closed the door behind her as she left.
“Good afternoon Doctor Stewart. I must apologize for the intrusion at such a late hour and without an appointment but I was sure you would want to hear the information now in my possession.”  He awaited a reply, however Viola was distracted following her own train of thought. She picked up the loose lens and replaced it in the case, on the table by the lantern. Doctor Collins continued. “The substance on the lens was indeed silver oxide which is used in making photographic plates. The Constables are checking on photographers in the area.” Not sure he had Viola’s attention, he approached her and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned suddenly, a look of terror on her face. Doctor Collins dropped his hand immediately, and apologized for such intimacy. Viola shook her head.
“You don’t understand,” she replied. “I know why he is covering the head or removing the eyes!” She explained the incident with the reflection in the lens. This had reminded her of a superstition she had heard as a child; In cases of violent death, the last images were fixed permanently to the retina of the eye. Recent scientific papers had reported German physiologist Kühne had done some experiments on optograms in an effort to prove the theory. “He does not want to be identified.” Viola turned to Doctor Collins and looked him in eye. “There was a man in a grey suit. Lucy said she saw a man in a grey suit take Elly. She saw him!” Her eyes widened. There was a shiver of realization. “Henry!” she whispered. “There was a man in grey suit with the children just now.
Both doctors rushed through the door and into the street. By now it was empty but for one boy and a cricket bat. “The man in the grey suit,” Doctor Collins demanded. “Where is he?”
“And where is Lucy?” insisted Viola, seeing no sign of the girl. Some of Lucy’s knuckle-bones lay scattered on the ground. “Where is she?”
The boy pointed towards High Street, in the opposite direction to which Elly had been found. Before Doctor Collins could respond, Viola had sped towards High Street as fast as her skirts would allow, leaving Doctor Collins to ensure the Constabulary were informed of the unfolding events. A shiny penny sent the boy to the Marylebone Station with the message while Doctor Collins followed in Viola’s wake.
Viola had found herself at High Street with early evening shadows being cast by the rooftops. But which way to turn? Her heart racing, not knowing which way they had gone, she spied one of Lucy’s knuckle-bones on the ground. Clever girl, she smiled and headed south. A few more knuckle-bones led her into Marylebone Lane and into Cross Keys Close, further away from the street lighting and deeper into the growing shadows of evening. Viola found herself alone at the end of the Close with no lamplight to guide her. As she slowed, letting her eyes adapt to the increasing shadows, her foot knocked against something. Crouching down, she could make out the outline of a small girl. Both eyes were missing. She was too late.
As Doctor Collins turned the corner, he could see no sign of Viola. He paced a few steps in either direction, crushing a knuckle-bone underfoot. He remembered seeing some near Doctor Stewart’s rooms. In the fading light, he headed south in search of more breadcrumbs.
Viola fought back the tears. She could still smell the chloroform used. Her imagination was playing tricks on her; the smell was growing stronger. Viola stood and turned to see a red-headed man in a grey suit, just before all went dark…

Slowly the light began to return and the haze that encompassed Viola’s head began to dissolve. Her thoughts and vision began to clarify. She had a horrendous headache, unlike she had ever felt before.  As she breathed, there was still a faint sweet smell. In the darkened room, a figure wiped his hands, placed the cloth into a basket, pulled down his sleeves and walked closer. Viola sat upright, realizing she no longer wore a corset nor bustle. She grasped to her side, her hand searching for a weapon. All the while she kept an eye on the approaching figure. Her fingers found a kidney dish and wrapped themselves around the scalpel she found there. Finally the figure came into focus. Viola found herself staring into the most piercing blue eyes she had ever remembered.
“You won’t be needing that,” Doctor Collins’ soft voice informed her. Viola dropped the scalpel but missed the kidney dish.
“Lucy?” she asked fearfully. Doctor Collins shook his head.
“The Constables have made an arrest but we only just found you in time.”
Viola tried to focus on her friend. She was having problems focusing and judging distances. Her eyes ached. Obviously I am still recovering from the chloroform, she thought. A slight dizzy spell necessitated her holding her head where she felt bandages covering her eye.
“Viola,” Doctor Collins said calmly. “I have something to tell you.”


Karen Carlisle’s blog:


The Australian Literature Review

This entry was posted in auslit, australian fiction, australian fiction writer, australian literature, short fiction, short stories, short story and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Eye For Detail, by Karen Carlisle (short story)

  1. Pingback: June 2013 Short Story Competition Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

  2. Pingback: I only do Eyes… | karen carlisle / off the artboard

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