Evelina Maplin was a figure shrouded in mystery and Turkish tobacco smoke.
Hector Maplin, former owner of the once-respectable Maplin’s Printmaker’s, had died over a decade ago, and even he had outlived his business. But his daughter and heir, Evelina, still found a use for his clanking old steam powered press. She was the author of some sixty-eight printed works of a political and dissident nature, under the pseudonym of Everard Cartouche. What’s more, these were not the intellectual musings of the bourgeoisie suffering from chronic ennui – far from it. These were pure vitriol: outlandishly anti-establishment raving, often accompanied by viciously-scrawled satirical cartoons, from an utterly degenerate working-class, unmarried, formally uneducated woman of loose moral character, who, despite her almost legendary standing amongst her supporters, simply could not be tracked down by the appropriate authorities.
I, however, took it upon myself to discover this singular woman, and give her the place she deserved among the chronicles of the poor. My project was not an easy one, but it was my life’s work, and I could not bear to see it published without at least a perfunctory article on this typewriting- troublemaker. It had taken over a year and much careful probing of the most knowledgeable (and lucid) inhabitants of the more dilapidated boroughs even to discover that the name Everard Cartouche was a nom-de-plume, and that, indeed, the writer of these monstrous attacks on the hierarchy were in fact the work of a hand belonging to a member of the fairer sex. After three tireless years of questioning and trawling birth registers and old police records, I was able to patch together a vague profile of this girl, and only a matter of days ago, a name and an address. And finally, there I stood, upon the doorstep.
Her headquarters were the dingy attic above her father’s out-of-business print shop, though to this day I never discovered her permanent abode. The street was as narrow as they come, the buildings on each side leaning toward each other like two infants exchanging a sheepish, tiptoed kiss. The blacked-out windows belied the lively history of political dissent and rabble-raising that was once achieved in this ancient printing quarter, on rickety wooden machines punching out elaborate pamphlets challenging religion and royalty, society and science.
The front door was firmly padlocked, but on closer inspection of the premises I found a passage leading to a back courtyard, with an ancient and (I hoped) out of use privy, and a few lines of sorry laundry, floating on a weak breeze. The sun was setting, and the yard, with its weeded clutter of cobbles, was filled with a ruddy, stifled light.
The door to the old print shop was ajar, leading to a wormy wooden staircase which climbed into the thick darkness. The scent of tobacco could already be detected, and this is what I followed to the object of my several years of study. I climbed as quietly as I could manage, though the rickety boards groaned and shuddered with every step. As I grew nearer to the top floor, I could see a dim yellow light around the frame of the trapdoor leading to the attic, and I could hear a furious clacking sound amidst a cacophony of whirring and hissing. Abandoning my usual courtesy, I decided it best not to knock, lest I startle my prey into locking the door and hiding herself away. Instead, I quietly raised the trapdoor and climbed the dusty ladder.
Miss Maplin had her back to the entrance, and she was tapping at the keys to a monstrous typewriter – the beast had to be some twenty or thirty years out of date – whilst an equally gargantuan steam printing press chuntered behind what can only be described as a mountain of miscellaneous pages, both loose and cheaply bound, forming almost a half-wall in the centre of the room. She had not heard me enter, but, alas, my figure created an eerie shadow in the light of her single oil lantern, and she ceased her typing and whirled about, causing the fat cigarillo she held to spray a flutter of ash onto the desk at which she worked. A lick of flame erupted on a stray page, and quickly spread to a large stack nearby. Stifling a scream, she attacked the fire with a moth-eaten shawl, but her in her panicked state she knocked the lantern off the desk, and a new, greater blaze emerged as the burning oil spread over the piles of dry paper – perfect kindling. Cursing like a sailor, Miss Maplin attempted to put out the flames with her foot, but envisioning the disaster if her petticoats were set alight, I intervened, dragging her away from the growing inferno.
“We must leave, Miss Maplin!” I pleaded, and half-carried her through the trap-door, kicking and screaming.
Once we had fled the building, which was fast filling up with smoke, I caught my breath and attempted to address the terrible misfortune of my visit to the clandestine malcontent. Before I could muster a word of comfort, she throttled me:
“That’s my life work!” She shrieked. “Up in flames! Who are you? Saboteur!!”
“I am…a fellow writer, Miss Maplin.” I panted. “A journalist. A chronicler of the poor, to be precise. I…I simply wanted to meet you, to learn about your business…to write about you, for – for posterity. I never meant…”
“Well…” She spat. “That’s all very well then. For the poorhouse is where I’ll be going after this.”
What were your prompts?: Curiosity, Introvert/ink