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me Mr. Stead. How did you, such a respectable man, come to witness
Mrs. Argyle paused, unsure if she possessed the vocabulary necessary
to finish this question. Silence prevailed, during which time Mrs.
Argyle decided that, despite the words lurking in her mouth, she
was graced with too much decorum to use them.
with this response, Mr. Stead began to tread the boards of his office
until the sweat of satisfaction that had been crawling down his neck
was swallowed up by his crisp, white collar.
I understand your curiosity and surprise madam, but you are asking
the impossible for a journalist to reveal his sources. All I
will say is that by tomorrow morning, when you have read the plight
of poor Emily Waton in full, you will not care how the information was
gathered, only that the facts were discovered and the public rightly
informed. This country is rotten at the core Mrs. Argyle. You know it,
I know it. England needs to know it. By tomorrow the blackest disease
of all will be revealed in all its iniquity. He stopped,
wondering whether a similar arrangement of words would serve as a head-line.
Not nearly juicy enough. Not
Oh Mr. Stead, how terribly exciting. I mean, how dreadful. Parents
selling their only daughter for
Once again her unfailing
decorum, not her vocabulary, stopped her sentence short. Quickly, she
But will people believe Mr. Stead. Even with such a reliable eye
witness as yourself - so well respected.
Reputation is a wonderful inviter of trust madam, replied
Mr. Stead with a twitch of a smile.
And, he continued, those sceptical enough and foolish
enough to doubt the truth of such matters can always be persuaded by
other means. I have pictures
This bait, dangled in front of Mrs. Argyle had the desired effect. Her
eyes widened black, as if her pupils were invading the mottled green
of her irises which had surrendered so completely to curiosity. Her
gaze embraced the man standing before her. It caressed him from head
Patience Mrs. Argyle, patience
What these pictures promised was beyond even Mrs. Argyles imagination.
Thats where Mr. Stead came in. He was the man with the moral courage
to print social depravity as fact not fiction. Of course she loathed
scandal and indecency, she always avoided those awful populist Wilkie
Collins novels, which she was told, were quite wicked. But as a decent
English citizen (one of the few), she had the moral obligation to open
her eyes to the depravity around her. This, she told herself, was the
source of her secret pleasure when she read about the Whitechapel murders
and other such gruesome tales. It was the duty of a decent woman.
I trust I need not remind you that, as always, this must be kept
in the strictest confidence until tomorrow. Few editors would
employ someone as indiscreet as Mrs. Argyle. But Mr. Stead was a professional.
Like any successful journalist he knew his audience and knew that even
more than her love of gossip, Mrs. Argyle loved to please him.
No reminder is necessary sir, she answered. Mr. Stead turned
his back and began to walk out the room when he stopped short. Without
turning he called,
One more thing Mrs. Argyle
how do you like the title
Maidens Soul Sold to Modern Babylon? He heard a sharp
intake of breath, like a razor being dragged swiftly across dry skin.
Thank you Mrs. Argyle, he called as he continued to walk
away. Youve told me everything I need to know.
Not twenty-four hours later, over breakfast the country was digesting
the printed image of the shadowy figures exchanging a six year old girl
for money. Whispers smouldered in the brisk December air - who was the
merciless woman selling her daughters soul to the nameless vagabond?
It was reported that her dress was dirty and shabby,
unmistakably that of the lowest class and that the facial features had
reflected this. The report stated that the two figures were living
proof of Lombrossos theory which claimed that the shape
and angles of the face could betray criminal tendencies. After studying
the murky pictures closely, the more perceptive reader could indeed
recognise criminality inscribed distinctly on the black, faceless silhouettes.
But as for their actual identities, this remained very much unclear.
The paper had simply informed the public that information was gathered
under cover and to reveal any personal facts about the people involved
would put more than one life at risk. This small warning, laced with
all the virtuous drama of the best tabloid journalism, was enough to
quiet demanding questions. The fact that this child had been rescued
due to the brave and shrewd actions of the gallant Mr. Stead was enough
to silence them for good whilst riveting their eyes on to the black
shameful figures now parading throughout England. Anonymity ensured
that these figures were everywhere in every department store,
park or busy street. Imaginations were set free, spawned by horror and
the overwhelming desire to be involved; to walk by or perhaps even boast
an (unwelcome) acquaintance with the guilty. Contemplating such thoughts,
Mr. Stead sprawled back in his chair, pipe in one hand, brandy in the
other. He closed his eyes, re-playing in his head the merry melodrama
he had so perfectly directed.
He was interrupted from his day dream by a loud banging at his door.
As it continued he heard the shrill tones of Mrs. Argyle Sir,
I dont know what you think youre doing! You cant just
barge into Mr. Steads office like this.
You wait nsee if I cant
If he dont open
this door in five seconds
Before Mr. Stead had time to place
his brandy beside him and pull his shirt down over his protruding belly,
the man with a voice like falling rubble was in front of him.
Wheres my girl? he growled. His short but decidedly
stocky frame loomed over a dumb-struck Stead. I said where is
she? bellowed the stranger.
girl? stuttered Stead, unable to disguise his
trembling hands as they fumbled at his shirt. He stood hesitantly. All
but his eyes met his interrogator.
My girl, hissed the man. The one you bought off my
A small crowd of spectators had gathered at Mr. Steads door. Not
one of them broke the aching silence. Stead was forced to leap to his
Dont be ridiculous. He half sang this repost. Ive
never met you before. I dont know what youre talking about.
His words seemed to crack under the alto pitch his voice unwittingly
My name is Will Trapper. Youve never met me, but youve
met my bitch of a wife. Youve met Joe Briggs, a Deptford beggar
who you paid to be photographed with her. And youve met my girl.
Now, for the last time where is she?
Like a bad case of writers block, Mr. Stead was lost for words.
Unable to summon sound or sentence, he began to back slowly away from
his accuser. Just as Will Trapper had cornered him, another voice broke
through the doorway.
Break it up now the lot you. A constable complete with helmet
and truncheon squeezed his way through the ever growing crowd of spectators.
He forced a gap between the lion and his prey while two other policemen
accosted the former, and dragged him out, lashing and cursing as he
Officer! Thank God! This lunatic is accusing me of buying his
So I hear Sir, replied the policeman running his eyes up
and down the breathless fat man he had just saved. Weve
all read the article. In fact we knew about this mans claim over
a week ago. Came to the station ranting and raving about some muck-raking
journalist taking his little girl he did.
Absurd, snorted Stead, tucking in his shirt and clearing
his throat so that the last traces of crippling fear were dispelled.
Thats what we said. Some hungry urchin planning on demanding
compensation for his child. In this job you see all kinds but this was
odd to say the least. The police man chuckled and Stead joined
in so that they laughed in unison. Of course, the oddest thing
is that he never asked for any money. It just seemed like a random claim.
The laughter slowly died.
Must be out of his mind, poor fellow. Still, plenty of places
for his kind to go, eh?! Stead followed his statement with another
bout of laughter. The constable smiled but made no attempt to join in
with the fat mans cackle. Stead felt the sweat begin to gurgle
hungrily under his skin.
Of course todays article rang a few bells with us and of
course you are the man responsible for its publication. The sweat
had erupted through his pores and was eating away at Steads upper
lip and temples. Any doubts we had were laid to rest. Your reputation
for immoral intolerance precedes you sir, but we feared Trapper may
be genuinely under the misapprehension that you were guilty so we followed
him here in case he targeted you. Stead breathed. It felt like
his first proper breath for fifteen minutes.
Thank you, officer. Good work. You never know, this could prove
excellent material for a future article on the plague of lunatics in
Britain. Again he laughed and this time the constable laughed
with him along with the band of spectators.
One more thing, Sir. The constables voice broke through
the laughter. Trapper insisted we get a search warrant. Ridiculous I
know, but other papers keen to discredit your success may give him publicity.
Much better to put the whole thing to rest now than risk any more upset.
Stead, along with the laughter, felt his heart stop.
But thats ludicrous. Who would believe him? Listen to him?
Several people already have I assure you, including the magistrate.
Now I know a journalist must protect his sources so a search warrant
is much more practical.
How about a cheque, just to keep his stupid fancies to himself.
I mean, he continued grasping at the pretence of pride and dignity,
a search warrants an invasion of mans privacy.
Like I told you Sir, whispered the policeman, bending in
towards the trembling damp flab, hes not interested in money.
Mrs. Argyle, do you not agree
But Mrs. Argyles
head vanished behind the doorway. The policeman put his arm round Steads
disbelieving shoulder ready to lead him out.
Please dont make this difficult sir. You have your reputation
Callan February 2008
Emma is studying for her masters in creative writing at the University
was thirty four years old when I died. Id never thought about
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