Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
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author

"Is this my work: Am I somehow the author of this horror?"

The Hungry Eye, Episode 2
Joshua Brown

Episode 1: Chapter I | II | III | IV
Episode 2: V | VI | VII
Episode 3: VIII | IX | X
Episode 4: XI | XII | XIII


Editing II

What Little Waddley lacked in height and age he more than made up for in ambition. To Peleg Padlin's mind, his junior colleague's aggressive good humor and eagerness to plunge, pencil to the fore, into the gruesome realm of the sensational masked a calculating and morbid soul. Stealth was what Padlin read in that cherubic face, its tiny eyes hugged tightly by buttock-like cheeks, his pinched mouth disarmingly offset by an aspirant goatee. Waddley's bulging package of a body always lingered around Mr. Leslie when he made his daily survey of the artists' work. He was forever the first to volunteer for the most odious assignments, strenuously voicing (in that annoying treble that fondled his Teutonic pronunciation) his willingness to serve, fully aware that Quidroon, the true republican, believed in equally distributing the onerous tasks. And Waddley, unlike the silent Padlin, consistently accepted his editor's every criticism, responding to each correction with a store of continental gratuities--"Quite so, sir"s and "I stand corrected"s (carefully rolling the canine letter)--that enunciated surrender while implying his acquiescence was due to a greater, if unworthy, force.

Waddley was equally adroit at accepting praise, releasing a viscous stream of self-abnegation that only a fool like Quidroon could believe, not to mention relish. Indeed, Quidroon appeared to enjoy Waddley's embroidered modesty--in equal proportion, it seemed, to how much he hated Padlin's silence. No doubt it was this behavior that prompted Quidroon to choose Waddley to doctor Padlin's drawings over some other less obsequious member of the art staff. Certainly, as far as Padlin had been able to discern, it wasn't due to any particular talent--beyond the talent for doing exactly what his superior wanted--that designated Waddley for the duty.

When Padlin returned from the morgue and proceeded to ignore his editor's greeting, his queries about the grisly assignment, and finally his request to see the sketches, it was not too surprising that the (by then) nearly apoplectic Quidroon summoned Little Waddley to his side. Ordering the rotund youth to follow him, Quidroon marched over to Padlin who sat hunched over his sketches, staring at his miserable, albeit preliminary, rendition of the dead girl's face.

"Mr. Waddley," Quidroon said, "what do you see before you?"

"Peleg Padlin, sir," snapped the ever vigilant lad, quickly embossing his answer with: "My esteemed colleague, Peleg Padlin."

"Mr. Padlin has just returned from the morgue. I wonder if he will do us the honor of showing us his drawings."

"I would be most pleased to see what he has recorded, sir," Waddley said as he and his editor pressed around Padlin. "I have learned, even in my short time in these premises, how much I can learn from his skill and sharp eye."

"'Skill,' you say, Mr. Waddley? Is that how you would characterize Mr. Padlin's efforts at representing this grim scene?"

"Most assuredly, sir. The sketch," Waddley took in a breath, rolling one hand like he was winding a mechanism for oration, "it projects a . . . dampness that reminds me, if I may say so, of the Rhine when it floods its banks."

"What about the face of that young woman--it is a face, isn't it, Padlin? Would you call that an example of skill, Mr. Waddley?"

"I don't have much experience in matters of death, sir, but I would say that Mr. Padlin has caught the mark of the grim reaper."

"Curious, though, how the girl's face is not unlike the face of the corpse behind her. And the corpse behind that one."

"I see your point, sir," Waddley eagerly nodded. Then, eyeing Padlin, he added: "But the mustache on the second face clearly denotes a male."

"You hear that, Padlin?" Quidroon remarked into Peleg's ear, "Mr. Waddley praised your efforts. I think such generosity of spirit deserves a reward, don't you?"

No, Padlin didn't think so. He just stared at his drawing, at his inadequate rendition of the girl's contorted face, thinking: Was this Kit Burns's work? And underneath that thought, like a rivulet seeping, eating away at its construction, emerged a more dangerous idea: Is this my work: Am I somehow the author of this horror?

"Padlin!" Quidroon's shout sent heads turning, silencing the gouging of gravers into wood, the prattle of reporters exchanging ribald jokes.

Peleg nodded.

"Are you planning to do something here or have you decided to merely grace us with your presence?"

Padlin graced Quidroon with his full face. He contemplated the dome of his editor's head, glistening with perspiration.

"Well?"

Padlin looked at the expectant Waddley, the predator whose gaze was fixed on his prize, his possession, his sketch.

"Yes," he said and, with more ceremony than he intended, Padlin reached up and lifted his hat off his head. With uncharacteristic daintiness, he placed it at the head of his desk where it wouldn't block the light.

Quidroon's mouth remained twisted in exasperation, but his eyes followed the hat's unprecedented journey. He gazed at it for a few moments, seeming to consider the pits and bald spots that marred its columnar sheen.

"Do it, then," Quidroon snapped. "Make it a full page."

The editor swiveled and marched off. A few moments later Padlin heard his bark emanate from the composing room, castigating one of the slower typesetters; shortly thereafter, from a different direction, a lounging reporter was the object of his abuse. There would be a chain of assaults, distributed arbitrarily, until Quidroon's ire abated, a standard feature after one of his altercations with Padlin: one more reason why Padlin was not a popular figure in the publication's office.

But Padlin wasn't bothered by the perpetuation of his infamy; rather, he was puzzled by Quidroon's gesture, his bow to Padlin's proprietorship over his morgue sketch. Puzzlement was as far as Padlin would permit himself to venture: a faint tremor of elation tickled the corners of his mouth, but it was best to keep that at bay. As for Waddley, he remained for a short while, blinking, trying, like Padlin, to discern the turn of events. Then he abruptly headed back to his own perch.

Padlin knew there was little time to spare. He went over to the engraving department where he chose a large rectangular block of boxwood, about one inch thick. Taking it in his hands, he examined its polished and unblemished surface: cut across the grain, it was solid and unyielding to the touch. His fingers traced the bolts and nuts sunk into the reverse side; in fact, the block was really twenty pieces of wood attached together to cover the dimensions of a full page. He returned to his desk, set the block down, and with a fine lead pencil began to trace out his morgue sketch on the smooth surface, working out a mirror image, everything reversed. It was a good block, the constituent pieces meeting evenly so his moving pencil barely sensed their borders.

Padlin enjoyed this part of the work, his mind roaming over how he might instruct the engravers to treat his sketch. Picking up a brush, he began to emphasize his pencil work with India ink, making precise outlines to guide the cuts. When the figures and objects were clearly delineated, he began to suggest the lighting with watercolor tones. He wanted to leave as little as possible to chance, aware that, in the end, the engravers decided how his work appeared in the published pages of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. When Padlin was done, the block would be unbolted and distributed to several of them. The engraving department was staffed largely by a squad of lank-haired and slouching youths, obstreperous in the office, ranging wildly in the dexterity of their craft (Leslie got what he paid for), and irresponsible in their attitude toward the sanctity of the sketch artist's work. Grimacing and cursing, the lads would hunch over their magnifying lenses, squinting down at Padlin's efforts, their cupped palms pressing the gravers into the wood.

click to enlarge

The clearer the path set out for them, the more likely it was they would only gouge away the surface around your lines and properly transform your watercolor tones into gradient cuts. When the engravers had done their worst, the finished pieces would be rebolted, a master craftsman would etch the lines across the borders of the smaller pieces, and something akin to Padlin's vision would go to the presses. It was a fast and efficient process, the marvel of the age: visual news presented to the public in a matter of days. For once, Padlin felt he had some control.

And, as he worked, as he mastered his memory of the scene, Padlin grew calmer. His earlier dreadful thoughts dispersed with his treatment of the wood, the logic of his hand's movement diminishing the guilt that had poisoned his mind. There was no way that his inaction could have precipitated the girl's fate: true, she had gone to confront the (no doubt) terrible Kit Burns. But the incident had occurred--what?--weeks ago. Her death, her wretched, rigid remains, could not have resulted from that moment. Something had happened in the interim, something horrible to contemplate, but it most likely had nothing to do with her dog or Kit Burns or Sportsmen's Hall or himself.

Now his mind had no more room for doubts or recriminations. He had saved the girl's face for last, and he could no longer put off the challenge. Padlin looked at his insubstantial sketch and tried to will her face into a palpable vision, a map to pilot his hand. He pulled sheets of paper from his desk drawer, experimenting, starting with an oval, tracking out lines for the brows, the end of her nose, her mouth, then working out the features. This time, he thought, this time I will get it right. With an effort, he banished the vision that always clouded his work. The woman's face broke through into his mind's eye, he grasped its horrific stare, his fingers seemed to be moving correctly--but then it all fell apart.

Emitting an exasperated grunt, Padlin swiped the paper off the block and tried again. And again. And again. The light outside diminished, the gas jets were lit, and in their wavering, ochre light Padlin made no progress. The old familiar panic took hold of him, but he fought it, forcing himself to try one more time . . . and then one more time again. He'd stay all night if he had to; he'd remain crouched over his work until he got it right.

"It's time, Mr. Padlin."

Quidroon stood over his shoulder, examining the latest rendition, examining the shuffle of papers surrounding Padlin's desk. He was wearing a long coat, his top hat in one hand, his watch in the other. Quidroon didn't look irritated, he didn't look forlorn. He appeared, in fact, quite content. Padlin realized that his editor had provided him with a generous length of rope.

Quidroon gazed over his spectacles at Waddley, sitting alert and beady-eyed like an expectant barnyard cock, his short legs dangling, shoes shaving the floor in anticipation.

"Mr. Waddley," Quidroon called, "it's your turn."

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