Magick7's Moonlight Stories Index

 

 

 

 

Any Little Girl

Loring Brent

 

 

 

Reporter Harry Eltonhead writes an article about a fictitious girl, only to have her appear.

Argosy , February 2, 1918

I.

MOTION-PICTURE directors, should they give the matter the slightest thought, would tell you in a flash that nine hundred and ninety-nine girls out of a thousand who harbor the notion that they are fitted for a career before the camera, are harboring nonsense. The remaining girl is usually ignorant of the fact that she is harboring sense, and she is usually discovered accidentally, for example, as Laura Corrigan was discovered.

Without going far into the technical explanation and not even mentioning certain events, there is every reason to believe that Laura Corrigan was a perfect screen type. Her features were well defined without being prominent. In effect, you recalled her easily. Her eyes were dark brown and clear, with the merest suggestion of the hypnotic in them. Through them was revealed the most priceless possession of any artist—personality.

That is rather a cold-blooded way of contemplating Laura Corrigan, but it is appropriate and vital in view of the problem that confronted her. How her problem was solved is an issue that must be taken up at some length, later.

The problem itself was rather complex. For two years Laura Corrigan and the office adding-machine had occupied an identical position in the affections of the established old firm of Blake & Blake, dealers in automobile accessories.

Laura performed her duties as stenographer with such well concealed fidelity, with such machinelike accuracy and dependability, that the firm, whose collective mind was always fixed upon novelty and originality, had come to look upon her as a cog that never required attention.

In demanding additions and subtractions from the adding-machine you pressed a variety of red and black buttons; the machine did the rest. In demanding intelligent transcriptions of your thoughts by Laura Corrigan you pressed the pearl button at the edge of your desk, and Laura, prompt as the next clock-tick, appeared noiselessly at your elbow. You spoke your thoughts; Laura did the rest.

Laura Corrigan believed that the supreme duty of the stenographer was to remove all possible irksome detail from the busy shoulders of the firm. Perhaps she made the mistake of not being aggressive enough, of submerging her identity too deeply.

On the anniversary of her second consecutive year with the firm, Laura took stock of herself and was not exactly gratified at the inventory. The unpleasant revelation was made that she, Laura Corrigan, was hard and fast in a rut.

When the buzzer over her desk sounded that morning, and the annunciator needle indicated that the elder Mr. Blake desired her presence, the expression of doubt vanished from her face and her bright eyes seemed to lose a portion of their luster; whereupon she drew her lip between her teeth and arose, sighing, no longer a pretty, determined young woman, but a mechanism. Squaring her slender shoulders, Laura Corrigan passed the adding-machine and softly entered Mr. Blake's office.

Mr. Blake did not even glance up.

“Take this letter,” he barked.

He was not addressing an individual of breath and blood; he was addressing a machine. Laura poised her pencil meekly. While waiting for Mr. Blake to assemble his thoughts, she reflected:

“I wonder if it's true that men do fall in love with their stenographers.”

II.

HOW Laura was discharged by Mr. Blake in an irate moment, thereby gaining what she most desired, must be taken up in what may appear to be a roundabout way.

A few mornings later, Harry Eltonhead, general reporter on the New York Evening Item, was called before Champlain, the city editor, to answer to charges of general inefficiency.

“Eltonhead,” said Champlain in his whining voice, squinting his eyes as if the light bothered him. “I think it's about time you brought back a story. You haven't brought back a single thing on your last three assignments.”

Harry Eltonhead, who was guilty of the charges on every count, held back the very excellent and plausible excuses for his apparent inability, and nodded his head gravely.

When pressed to the delicate point of firing negligent reporters. Champlain was without gentleness, without ire, without heart. Usually he would squint his eyes and remark in his nasal voice. “I think you'd better call at the cashier's window on your way out.”

Eltonhead, to whom pride of profession meant a great deal, held that offhand remark in respect, with which there was mingled not a small trace of fear. He was receiving a good salary, and the war had placed scores of good reporters on the waiting list.

Fortunately the city editor did not feel inclined to utter that feelingless remark just then. Instead, he opened a copy of the first edition of another afternoon newspaper, the Evening Star, and said:

“Eltonhead, read this story over, go out and see the girl, bring back all the details— and a good photograph. You see, the Star hasn't got a photograph. Now, Eltonhead, if I were you I'd bring back something this time.”

Eltonhead saw that the address was Brooklyn, so he caught a subway train for that city and read the story on the way over. It was a typical Evening Star story, but it was even a more typical Champlain story, a story that the city editor could revel in. Such stories had given the Evening Item its vast circulation.

It was the story of Jean Auburn, a Brooklyn stenographer who could not hold a position longer than a few days because each succeeding employer made love to her more violently than the last. The case represented, said the Evening Star in high editorial indignation, “a cross section of the vileness which is shot through and through New York business methods. It is a case that deserves an immediate and thorough investigation. Thousands of poor girls are in a similarly helpless position.”

Eltonhead's well-developed nose for news rapidly sensed the possibilities awaiting him in the person of Jean Auburn, the pretty, mistreated stenographer. He read on.

 

Poor little Jean Auburn has been forced to leave nine different employers in the last two weeks. To an Evening Star reporter she declared that she was afraid to seek further, and her money is nearly gone.

“I dressed very modestly,” said Miss Auburn, “because I disapprove of stenographers flaunting thin shirt-waists in the faces of their employers. I wore long skirts, and I—I tried—” Here she paused, unable to proceed.

“In other words, you tried to appear unattractive so that you would not be annoyed?” questioned the Evening Star's woman reporter.

“Oh, yes! I did! I did!” cried the poor girl, on the verge of tears. “I wore dark colors and high shoes. But—but—”

 

Eltonhead lifted his eyes from the paper with a dreamy look.

“She must be a wonder,” he said, “if any of this description is true—and of course it's well colored.”

The Evening Star had not published poor little Jean Auburn's photograph, probably, thought Eltonhead, because their woman reporter was unable to secure it. He made up his mind he would bring back a photograph of the lovely Miss Auburn if he had to attack her entire family single-handed. He knew of tricks for securing photographs from families who dislike publicity, and he was quite prepared to steal the portrait from its probable place on the mantel, if such a drastic course was necessary.

Leaving the subway at the Brooklyn Borough Hall Station, he climbed to the elevated and shortly afterward descended in a neighborhood with which he was only vaguely familiar. He glanced at the Evening Star again, to be sure of Jean Auburn's address, and after a short walk arrived in the approximate vicinity of her home.

He estimated, from the house numbers, that Jean Auburn lived about two blocks away. As he approached the neighborhood, he began having doubts. The neighborhood was not the probable abiding place of any stenographer, no matter how sorely oppressed. The children playing in the streets were gamins. Noisy, disheveled women bawled to each other from doorways. Further along the houses became hovels.

Eltonhead examined the address in the Evening Star again, as if there might be some mistake. There was no doubt of his being in the right street, and there could be no error on the Evening Star's part, for the address was printed twice.

In the distance loomed the dusty, austere framework of a city gas-tank, the giant steel cylinder elevated to some height above the surrounding dwellings.

The revelation came to Eltonhead and made him dizzy. It was a fake story. The Evening Star had played one of its usual tricks on its unsuspecting readers. But with the thoroughness of the good reporter, Eltonhead inquired at every house in the vicinity for Jean Auburn. No one had ever heard of her. There was irony in the fact that the gas-tank was poor little Jean Auburn's address.

Eltonhead circled the tank, making inquiries of every one he met. Jean Auburn simply did not exist. She was a mythical character.

The humor of the situation did not appeal to Eltonhead in the least. He was irritated and resentful. His sensitive mouth set itself in hard lines. His dark eyebrow fairly bristled. His gray eyes took on a look that meant trouble. Only for a moment did he experience the feeling of weakness which comes over a reporter who has allowed a story to slip through his fingers. He knew quite well what his fourth consecutive return from an unsuccessful assignment would mean. Indeed, he could plainly hear Champlain saying, in his detestable whining tone:

“Eltonhead, I think you'd better call at the cashier's window on your way out.”

His thoughts became intensely profane for an instant; then his face brightened, his shoulders lost their droop, and he smiled, revealing two lines of perfectly white teeth.

“Jean Auburn,” he declared, “you're not dead yet. I'm going to make you the most talked about girl in New York.”

He recalled having passed a photographer's shop near the elevated station, and as he retraced his steps he laid the foundation of a sob story built around Jean Auburn that would make all New York go to bed that night with tears in its eyes.

The photographer's place was not unlike that to be seen on the main street of any small town. The windows were burdened with photographs of all shapes and sizes of thoroughly uninteresting people. Babies with unintelligent eyes stared at him. A bride and groom, with the veil still wrinkled, smirked from a huge panel. There was not a photograph of a pretty .girl in the window, but he decided to take the chance anyway, so he entered.

He heard the photographer doing something with plates in the dark room. Eltonhead's entrance had attracted no one's attention, for which he was more grateful than can be recorded. He examined the walls and show-cases with eagerness.

The same motley assortment greeted him. The portrait of a stout, middle-aged negro woman caused him to smile as the thought reared itself of a humorous “come back” to the Evening Star's story. But the rest of the collection made him despondent. He examined the portrait of a muscular Pole, stripped to the waist to reveal a complex design in tattoo, for a moment in morbid interest, and then gave himself over to an inventory of a pile of photographs on the counter.

As the third portrait slid into the light he could have fainted from sheer happiness. It was the face of a girl. She was beautiful. She was wonderful! Dark hair was piled attractively above a high, white forehead. Long, arched eyebrows gave that portion of her countenance another touch of contrast.

The view was semiprofile, and he was given the opportunity to exclaim to himself that her nose was exquisite. Her lips, dainty and fine, were curved in a half smile. He forgot for a minute that he was a news ferret, that he was on his last assignment if he failed to produce results, and just stood there, an intense, imaginative young man with his mouth twisted into a smile of rapture.

A clicking sound in the dark room brought him back to the realities of life, and, checking an impulse to announce his presence, he laid a one-dollar bill on the counter, rearranged the pile of photographs, stuffed the portrait of the ravishing brunette into his inside pocket and retreated from the store, if not in haste at least in a remote resemblance of it.

III.

GLEEFULLY—nay, triumphantly— Eltonhead thrust the photograph under the vulpine nose of Champlain, exclaiming:

“There, Mr. Champlain, there you are!”

“Eltonhead,” whined Champlain, “tell me, who is this girl?”

“Why, she's Jean Auburn, the stenographer who can't hold a job longer than five minutes because all her bosses make love to her. Isn't she a beauty!”

“See here, Eltonhead” —the city editor drew forth the third and latest edition of the Evening Star— “somebody has made a mistake. The Star's picture of Jean Auburn shows a blonde—a blonde, Eltonhead. How do you account for that?”

“H-m,” grunted Eltonhead, thinking for dear life, because not only his job but his reputation rested upon it. Part of a reporter's stock in trade is the ability to meet such emergencies as this without flinching. An easy laugh issued from his lips.

“Well, if they aren't up to their old tricks!” he declared. “You know how deceitful the Star is, Mr. Champlain,” he rushed on without a trace of nervousness but eagerly, as a reporter will, who has stumbled upon a whale of a story. “They keep that morgue of theirs stocked full of any little girl's photographs. When this Jean Auburn story broke, they grabbed the very first picture off the shelf, and—and there you are,” he finished triumphantly.

“That's right; that's right, Eltonhead,” agreed Champlain, unable to suppress his own delight at the remarkable photograph on the desk before him.

“Eltonhead,” he whined, handing back the photograph with another long stare, “turn it over to the art department; tell them to touch it up a little, to get some of the sorrow of the great city about her mouth, and make it three columns for the next edition. Hurry!”

Eltonhead fairly leaped to his typewriter, seized a pad of copy paper and proceeded to chronicle one of the most amazing accounts that ever delighted a New York subway strap- hanger.

Fiction? Of course it was fiction, every line of it. But to Eltonhead, Jean Auburn became a thing of breath and blood. She radiated before him. Her sweet presence inspired him to splendid written thoughts. In after days; this imaginative and dramatic ability would bring to him the plaudits of all Broadway, of all the nation and a greater part of the penetrated world, where celluloid tin cans brings cheer to dreary peoples.

Jean Auburn, except for the new drive on Verdun, was the most important figure in the news that day: New York devoured Jean Auburn with intensity and understanding.

Copy boys carried the story of Jean Auburn's fitful young life back to the composing room. It was clean copy. It was beautifully done. Eltonhead did it all with his two forefingers, for he never had cultivated the touch system. Toward the end, his face became feverish, his tongue dry, his eyes burning. The pure wave of genius created those outward expressions of emotion.

By the time the last sheet was jerked from the typewriter Eltonhead was not only a wreck, he was in love, completely, dangerously, foolishly in love with the creature of his imagination. The sweet face had glanced back at him from every typed page—timidly, blushingly—rapturously!

A few minutes later the homegoers' edition of the Evening Item was on the streets. Homegoers promptly turned over the front page, dismissing Verdun at a glance, whereupon their jaded eyes fell upon the sweet, sad young face of Jean Auburn. They devoured every line of it—hook, line and sinker!

For days Jean Auburn was the talk of the town. Stenographers as a whole were raised a notch in public opinion. The poor, dear young things! So this was the life they led! These were the insults they faced as they bravely earned their daily bread! Indifferent, bored New York became somewhat incensed: at all events, temporarily concerned.

For days, I repeat, Jean Auburn was on every tongue. She was shuttled across breakfast tables. She was uncorked in cabarets. She was roared above the grinding of the subway. Stenographers, especially the very youthful ones, held their pretty heads a little higher, and certainly many unoffending young employers were unnecessarily glared at.

But that was before another afternoon newspaper, deadly rival of the Item, set its reporter-sleuths on the elusive trail of Jean Auburn and exposed the whole affair as an unmitigated fraud. Even then New York refused to discard Jean Auburn. No expose, however brutal, could crush that lovely creature back to earth again. She was alive. She was vital. You passed her on the street every day. You saw her in the lunch-rooms. You stumbled over her dainty foot in the elevated jam.

But an important occurrence has been neglected. On the afternoon following the appearance of Eltonhead's Jean Auburn in the columns of the Evening Item the Superphotodrama Corporation called Champlain, the city editor, on the phone and wanted to know where they could get in touch with this girl. Indeed, the Superphotodrama Corporation seemed only to want Jean Auburn, when it would be entirely contented to depart from this life.

The Superphotodrama Corporation, Director Tawnley speaking, was referred to Eltonhead, who exuded cold sweat, stammered, hawed and said he would get in touch with the girl immediately.

“There's five hundred in it for you,” said Director Tawnley in staccato accents, “if you can bring her around to the office, and two hundred and fifty a week for Jean Auburn on a year's contract.”

Even while Eltonhead limply replaced the receiver his thoughts became angry. His Jean Auburn go to work for a motion-picture company for $250 a week! It was ridiculous. It was a slur upon her personality. She was worth every cent of $750, and he wouldn't let her sign for a full year either. Why, Jean Auburn would be worth every cent of $1,000 a week within six months!

And even while Eltonhead's luxuriant imagination was chasing itself thus in circles the sounds of a commotion at the city editor's desk began penetrating the first line of his consciousness. Champlain was whining in a key that gave the situation the highest color of seriousness. Something other than a whale of a story was breaking in the region of Mr. Champlain: it was Mr. Champlain's righteous fury.

“Eltonhead,” he finally managed to shriek, “come here at once. You are a double-barreled liar, Eltonhead, and on the way out I want you to stop at the cashier's office.”

“Wha—what's the matter?” groaned the reporter, his air castles tumbling in pitiful heaps.

“Eltonhead,” whined Champlain, fiercely grasping both ends of a long ruler, “that story of yours—Jean Auburn—was a fake—a fake, Eltonhead! Here is the young lady whose photograph you stole. Eltonhead, you're not only a liar—you are a thief! This young woman has lost her position because of the notoriety you gave her-her photograph. Eltonhead, this young lady never had but the one position in her life. She's been working for two years-in the same place. Eltonhead, you've spoiled her future—you—you—”

But to Eltonhead the righteous wrath of the city editor was as hailstones upon the flanks of a submarine. His thoughts were far afield, for he was gazing now upon the countenance of the creature of his creating.

“Jean Auburn,” he murmured softly, caressingly.

The girl who was not Jean Auburn looked back at him with an expression of understanding and pity,

“I—I lost my position,” said Laura Corrigan gently. “Otherwise I wouldn't have cared.”

“Jean,” whispered Eltonhead, as if doubting his eyes. “You're real! Why, you're real!”

“H-m,” commented Champlain, detecting the germ of an even better story.

“Miss Auburn,” declared Eltonhead, withdrawing his head from the clouds, “I can secure a position for you now. To-morrow morning! For seven hundred and fifty dollars a week!”

“Heavens!” gasped Laura, supporting herself on the edge of the desk. “It makes me dizzy. What—what is it?”

“In the movies,” said Eltonhead, “They want you—bad. You'll go, won't you? You— you'll be simply wonderful on the screen!”

Laura swayed and caressed her lips with the tip of her tongue.

“But I—I don't know what to do. What shall I do?” Laura looked dazed and very small and helpless as she stared first at Eltonhead and then at Champlain. “Will you help me?” she pleaded. “Won't you be—what is it?—my manager?”

“I—I'm out of a job now,” said Eltonhead huskily. “Why, sure I will, Jean!”

“What a whale of a story,” whined Champlain, squinting at the clock, “what a bear-cat!”


EText from pulpgen.com - 2007 Blackmask Online.