Three Photographs by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

“Photograph all the prisoners? But why?” demanded Sir Felix Felix-Williams. Old Canon Kempe shrugged his shoulders; Admiral Trewbody turned the pages of the Home Secretary’s letter. They sat at the baize-covered table in the Magistrates’ Room–the last of the Visiting Justices who met, under the old regime, to receive the Governor’s report and look after the welfare of the prisoners in Tregarrick County Gaol.

“But why, in the name of common-sense?” Sir Felix persisted.

“I suppose,” hazarded the Admiral, “it helps the police in identifying criminals.”

“But the letter says ‘all the prisoners.’ You don’t seriously tell me that anyone wants a photograph to identify Poacher Tresize, whom I’ve committed a score of times if I’ve committed him once? And perhaps you’ll explain to me this further demand for a ‘Composite Photograph’ of all the prisoners, male and female. A ‘Composite Photograph!’–have you ever seen one?”

“No,” the Admiral mused; “but I see what the Home Office is driving at. Someone has been persuading them to test these new theories in criminology the doctors are so busy with, especially in Italy.”

“In Italy!” pish’d Sir Felix Felix-Williams.

“My dear Sir Felix, science has no nationality.” The Admiral was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and kept a microscope to amuse his leisure.

“It has some proper limits, I should hope,” Sir Felix retorted. It annoyed him–a Chairman of Quarter Sessions for close upon twenty years–to be told that the science of criminology was yet in its infancy; and he glanced mischievously at the Canon, who might be supposed to have a professional quarrel with scientific men. But the Canon was a wary fighter and no waster of powder and shot.

“Well, well,” said he, “I don’t see what harm it can do, or what good. If the Home Secretary wants his Composite Photograph, let him have it. The only question is, Have we a photographer who knows how to make one? Or must we send the negatives up to Whitehall?”

So the Visiting Justices sent for the local photographer and consulted him. And he, being a clever fellow, declared it was easy enough– a mere question of care in superimposing the negatives. He had never actually made the experiment; his clients (so he called his customers) preferring to be photographed singly or in family groups. But he asked to be given a trial, and suggested (to be on the safe side) preparing two or three of these composite prints, between which the Justices might choose at their next meeting.

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This was resolved, and the resolution entered in the minutes; and next day the photographer set to work. Some of the prisoners resisted and “made faces” in front of the camera, squinting and pulling the most horrible mouths. A female shoplifter sat under protest, because she was not allowed to send home for an evening gown. But the most consented obediently, and Jim Tresize even asked for a copy to take home to his wife.

The Admiral (who had married late in life) resided with his wife and young family in a neat villa just outside the town, where his hobby was to grow pelargoniums. The photographer passed the gate daily on his way to and from the prison, and was usually hailed and catechised on his progress.

His patience with the recalcitrant prisoners delighted the Admiral, who more than once assured his wife that Smithers was an intelligent fellow and quite an artist in his way. “I wonder how he manages it,” said Mrs. Trewbody. “He told baby last autumn that a little bird would fly out of the camera when he took off the cap, and everyone allows that the result is most lifelike. But I don’t like the idea, and I think it may injure his trade.”

The Admiral could not always follow his wife’s reasoning. “What is it you dislike?” he asked.

“Well, it’s not nice to think of oneself going into the same camera he has been using on those wretched prisoners. It’s sentiment, I daresay; but I had the same feeling when he stuck up Harry’s photograph in his showcase at the railway station, among all kinds of objectionable persons, and I requested him to remove it.”

The Admiral laughed indulgently, being one of those men who find a charm, even a subtle flattery, in their wives’ silliness.

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“I agree with you,” he said, “that it’s not pleasant to be exposed to public gaze among a crowd of people one would never think of knowing. I don’t suppose it would actually encourage familiarity; at the same time there’s an air of promiscuity about it–I won’t say disrespect– which, ahem! jars. But with the prisoners it’s different,–my attitude to them is scientific, if I may say so. I look upon them as a race apart, almost of another world, and as such I find them extremely interesting. The possibility of mixing with them on any terms of intimacy doesn’t occur. I am aware, my dear,” he wound up graciously, “that you women seldom understand this mental detachment, being by nature unscientific, and all the more charming for your prejudices.”

At the next meeting of Justices Smithers the photographer presented himself, and produced his prints with a curious air of diffidence.

“I have,” he explained, “brought three for your Worships’ selection, and can honestly assure your Worships that my pains have been endless. What puzzles me, however, is that although in all three the same portraits have been imposed, and in the same order, the results are surprisingly different. The cause of these differences I cannot detect, though I have gone over the process several times and step by step; but out of some two dozen experiments I may say that all the results answer pretty closely to one or another of these three types.” Mr. Smithers, who had spent much time in rehearsing this little speech, handed up photograph No. 1; and Sir Felix adjusted his spectacles.

“Villainous!” he exclaimed, recoiling.

The Canon and the Admiral bent over it together.

“Most repulsive!” said the Admiral.

“Here indeed,”–the Canon was more impressive,–“here indeed is an object-lesson in the effects of crime! Is it possible that to this Man’s passions can degrade his divinely inherited features? Were it not altogether too horrible, I would have this picture framed and glazed and hung up in every cottage home in the land.”

“My dear fellow,” interrupted Sir Felix, “we cannot possibly let this monstrosity go up to Whitehall as representative of the inmates of Tregarrick Gaol! It would mean an inquiry on the spot. It would even reflect upon us. Ours is a decent county, as counties go, and I protest it shall not, with my consent, be injured by any such libel.”

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Mr. Smithers handed up photograph No. 2.

“This looks better,” began Sir Felix; and with that he gave a slight start, and passed the photograph to the Canon. The Canon, too, started, and stole a quick glance at Sir Felix: their eyes met.

“It certainly is singular”–stammered Sir Felix. “I fancied–without irreverence–But you detected it too?” he wound up incoherently.

“May I have a look?” The Admiral peered over the Canon’s hand, who, however, did not relinquish the photograph but turned on Smithers with sudden severity.

“I presume, sir, this is not an audacious joke?”

“I assure your Worship–” protested the photographer. “I had some thoughts of tearing it up, but thought it wouldn’t be honest.”

“You did rightly,” the Canon answered; “but, now that we have seen it, I have no such scruple.” He tore the print across, and across again. “Even in this,” he said, with a glance at the Admiral, who winced, “we may perhaps read a lesson, or at least a warning, that man’s presumption in extending the bounds of his knowledge–or, as I should prefer to call it, his curiosity–may–er–bring him face to face with–“

But the Canon’s speech tailed off as he regarded the torn pieces of cardboard in his hand. He felt that the others had been seriously perturbed and were not listening: he himself was conscious of a shock too serious for that glib emollient–usually so efficacious–the sound of his own voice. He perceived that it did not impose even on the photographer. An uncomfortable silence fell on the room.

Sir Felix was the first to recover. “Put it in the waste-paper basket: no, in the fire!” he commanded, and turned to Smithers. “Surely between these two extremes–“

“I was on the point of suggesting that your Worships would find No. 3 more satisfactory,” the photographer interrupted, forgetting his manners in his anxiety to restore these three gentlemen to their ease. His own discomfort was acute, and he overacted, as a man will who has unwittingly surprised a State secret and wishes to assure everyone of his obtuseness.

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Sir Felix studied No. 3. “This appears to me a very ordinary photograph. Without being positively displeasing, the face is one you might pass in the street any day, and forget.”

“I hope it suggests no–no well-known features?” put in the Canon nervously.

“None at all, I think: but see for yourself. To me it seems–although hazy, of course–the kind of thing the Home Office might find helpful.”

“It is less distinct than the others.” The Admiral pulled his whiskers.

“And for that reason the more obviously composite–which is what we are required to furnish. No, indeed, I can find nothing amiss with it, and I think, gentlemen, if you are agreed, we will forward this print.”

No. 3 was passed accordingly, the photographer withdrew, and the three Justices turned to other business, which occupied them for a full two hours.

But, I pray you, mark the sequel.

Mr. Smithers, in his relief and delight at the Magistrates’ approbation, hurried home, fished out a copy of No. 3, exposed it proudly in his shop window, and went off to the Packhorse Inn for a drink.

Less than an hour later, Mrs. Trewbody, having packed her family into the jingle for their afternoon’s ride with Miss Platt, the governess, strolled down into the town to do some light shopping; and, happening to pass the photographer’s window, came to a standstill with a little gasp.

A moment later she entered the shop; and Mrs. Smithers, answering the shop bell, found that she had taken the photograph from the window and was examining it eagerly.

“This is quite a surprise, Mrs. Smithers. A capital photograph! May I ask how many copies my husband ordered?”

“I’m not aware, ma’am, that the Admiral has ordered any as yet; though I heard Smithers say only this morning as he hoped he’d be pleased with it.”

“I think I can answer for that, although he is particular. But I happen to know he disapproves of these things being exposed in the window. I’ll take this copy home with me, if I may. Has your husband printed any more?”

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“Well no, ma’am. There was one other copy; but Lady Felix-Williams happened to be passing just now, and spied it, and nothing would do but she must take it away with her.”

“Lady Felix-Williams?” Mrs. Trewbody stiffened with sudden distrust. “Now, what would Lady Felix-Williams want with this?”

“I’m sure I can’t tell you, ma’am: but she was delighted. ‘A capital likeness,’ she said; ‘I’ve never seen a photograph before that caught just that expression of his.’”

“I should very much like to know what she has to do with his expression,” Mrs. Trewbody murmured to herself, between wonder and incipient alarm. But she concealed her feelings, good lady; and, having paid for her purchase, carried it home in her muff and stuck it upright against one of the Sevres candlesticks on her boudoir mantel-shelf.

And there the Admiral discovered it three-quarters of an hour later. He came home wanting his tea; and, finding the boudoir empty, advanced to ring the bell. At that moment his eyes fell on Smithers’ replica of the very photograph he had passed for furtherance to the Home Secretary. He picked it up and gave vent to a long whistle.

“Now, how the dickens–“

His wife appeared in the doorway, with Harry, Dicky, and Theophila clinging to her skirts, fresh from their ride, and boisterous.

“My dear Emily, where in the world did you get hold of this?”

He held the photograph towards her at arm’s length, and the children rushed forward to examine it.

“Papa! papa!” they shouted together, capering around it. “Oh, mammy, isn’t it him exactly?”

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