“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.
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.