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Cynthia Capley

Lesson Four

The Rail Magnate’s Photographer (working title)

Cynthia Capley

Victorian Romance



June 1860

Elizabeth Ashton looked toward the sky and frowned. The clouds lingered. There was, at least for the moment, sufficient light to penetrate the narrow street. She adjusted the tripod before gazing through the camera.

Before her, Bertha Langham sat on a crate with her two young boys. The woman gazed steadily at the camera through blue eyes lacking sparkle. A layer of grime covered the trio. Their clothes were worn thin and had been patched numerous times. Life had not been kind to this family, even the boys’ eyes were dull. Hope had left them long ago.

“I will be a moment to prepare the plate. Please don’t move.”

“Oh, we’re not goin’ anywhere without the coin ye promised.” Bertha smiled, revealing a few missing teeth.

Elizabeth turned toward her assistant, Mr. Appleton. “Please watch over the equipment.”

He shot her a resentful look and without a word moved to stand by the camera. Mr. Lester, the editor of The Illustrated Telegraph had assigned the surly Mr. Appleton to assist her. He’d protested at the assignment and didn’t hide his displeasure at having to take orders from a woman. Well, the editor hadn’t been pleased at having to assign her something besides her weekly gossip column.

Whether Mr. Appleton disliked her or not they had work to do. She shook her head as she stepped into the tent to prepare the plate for exposure. After a few minutes she stepped out, made the final adjustments to the focus, placed the plate holder in the camera, then gazed up at the sky to assess the lighting a final time.

“Hold still, please.” Feeling satisfied, she pulled on the dark slide of the plate holder, removed the lens cap and counted, then replaced the cap.

“I have to go back in the tent to develop the plate before it dries out.” She nodded at Bertha and hurried into the tent.

She emerged minutes later and held the plate up to the sky. She smiled at Bertha and the children. “It turned out well. Come look.”

Bertha and the children gathered around Elizabeth.

“Look ’ere. ’Tis you two.” Bertha pointed at the image of her boys in the plate.

The boys gazed opened-mouthed.

Putting the plate in a holder to keep it from getting damaged, Elizabeth pulled a few coins from her pocket and placed them in Bertha’s hand. “Thank you for your time.”

As Bertha looked expectantly at Mr. Appleton, he turned away and began fiddling with a piece of equipment.

Bertha closed her hand over the coins. “Thank you, Miss. If you want ta take our photograph again, I’m always ’ere. I’ve lost me job and have no’ been able to find a new one.” She walked away with her two small children following in her wake.

“I hope this article makes a difference,” Elizabeth said, her eyes on Bertha’s retreating back.

Mr. Appleton grabbed the camera and placed it into its case. “Can’t say it will.” He picked up the tripod and folded it, tucked it into its holder then stood. He placed his hands on his hips as he eyed her. “The rail is progress and the future.”

Elizabeth stopped in front of her tent and gaped at him. “At the cost of the people.”

She gestured at the alley teeming with people, the scent of their unwashed bodies filling the air, and children running barefoot playing amongst the rubbish. “Look around you. How they’ve been crammed into this slum because they had no choice? The railway construction continues unabated, displacing the poor, while railway owners like Mr. Rennmarle line their pockets.”

Mr. Appleton crossed his arms over his chest. “Ah, Mr. Rennmarle, your favorite villain. And the one person your attentions have been unduly focused on.”

“My attentions are not unduly focused.” She huffed. “He owns the largest of the railway companies and is the most prolific builder of rails in London.”

He waved a hand in dismissal. “That explains all the caricatures of Mr. Rennmarle you create for your little gossip column.”

“Little gossip column!” Her face heated. “That little column, as you say, is popular among many readers.”

“But it’s not real news. It doesn’t even carry your name,” he muttered as he turned his eye toward her tent. “Let’s finish packing. This day has already been long enough.”

Mr. Appleton’s words stung. Her column was written anonymously as she’d requested when she’d started. She went into her tent without saying a word to pack up the rest of her supplies.

She’d practically begged the editor for months to allow her to report on the people being displaced by the railway construction. When he’d refused, she’d dedicated her column to those who were doing the displacement—the railway owners. Her column had become more popular as a result but that success had come at a cost—she was not considered seriously by other employees at the paper. She’d only gotten this assignment—her first—after threatening to leave the paper. This article featuring Bertha and her two boys required her best efforts to establish her as a serious journalist.


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