ANSWER IN THE NEGATIVE
FRIDAY AFTERNOON, when I came into the office I shared with Peg Clayton, I felt glum. I put the Graphlex on the desk, sank back in my chair, and stared through the window at the tower of the Empire State.
After a while Peg lifted her head from a report sheet. Her eyes were puzzled; the harlequin glasses seemed to give them a Chinese slant. “Trouble with handball?” she asked.
For the past hour I’d been taking shots of two bO-year-old bankers playing handball at a Park Avenue club; the pictures had been ordered by a health magazine. “No,” I said. “It went all right. They stayed on their feet.”
“So what’s wrong?”
“Who said anything’s wrong?”
Peg studied me. Finally she shrugged. “Something you ate, no doubt,” she said, and went back to the report sheet.
I kept looking out at the Empire State. My thoughts became bleaker and bleaker. In less than 24 hours I’d be facing a crisis with Madge, and I still didn’t know what to do about it. I said to myself, “Nuts!”
Peg took off the horn-rimmed glasses. This time she sounded impatient. “If there’s one thing I can’t take,” she said, “it’s a man sulking around my office.”
“I’m not sulking,” I said. “I’m thinking. I’ve got problems.”
All of a sudden it seemed silly to make a secret of it. “The truth is,” I said, “I’m in a jam. With my girl.”
Peg became more interested. “Which girl? The redhead?”
The way she spoke, as if she were referring to number B244 in a fat file, annoyed me. “The girl who dropped in last Saturday to pick me up for lunch,” I said. “And she’s no redhead. It’s a kind of auburn color. When I shoot it with a red filter, it photographs—”
“All right,” Peg said. “I don’t wear red filters, so I could be wrong.”
“Name is Madge Worden,” I said.
“What about the jam?”
I fidgeted. “It’s just that we’ve haduh—what you might call a difference of opinion. About this job of mine. I mean, there’s a point on which we don’t see eye to eye.”
“Madge has a blind spot?”
I said, “You’ve put your finger right on it. She thinks what I do here isn’t important enough. It has no—well, no social significance.”
Peg’s grey eyes widened in mock astonishment. “No!”
“What does a photographer like me contribute to society?” I said. “Nothing. Do I build anything? No. Apart from satisfying somebody’s vanity now and then, do I produce any real happiness? No.”
For an instant I thought Peg was going to laugh. But she didn’t. She kept her face very solemn. “Imagine that!” she said. “No social significance! And all the time I thought—”
“That’s Madge’s point of view,” I said. “I think what she says is a lot of hoopla. Me, I like the work. It’s honest, and I don’t take anything away from orphans. Some day maybe I’ll run my own agency. Meanwhile I like it here and I intend to stick.”
“But Madge says you’ll either quit, or else.” “Something like that.”
“What does she want you to do?” Peg asked. “For humanity, I mean.”
I said with irritation, “What she wants me to do doesn’t matter, because I don’t plan to do it anyway. Look. Don’t get the idea she’s the reformer type. Not in anything else, see? It’s just that her crowd has been doing a lot of thinking about how most people waste their lives on petty, meaningless drudgery—”
“Like covering news events with a camera.”
“And she feels I ought to be doing something more vital, more important—”
Peg’s telephone rang; I had to stop. She got into a conversation with a dress house that wanted pictures of a fashion show it was going to run; and that gave me a chance to frown back at the Empire State and do some more thinking.
JUST why I had talked so much, I didn’t know. I’d never before discussed my problems with Peg. Our desks faced each other in this little office of Ajax Picture Service, Inc. On mine there was a sign which said, “Arthur Wells, Sports.” On hers a similar sign said, “Margaret Clayton, Fashions.” Usually our talk concerned the business, which was hustling around with cameras for pictures the firm sold to advertising agencies, magazines, commercial houses, or anybody else who wanted to buy them. It was a pretty big outfit, and I’d been on its payroll almost a year.
Frankly, I was sold on the job. It was exciting and it got me around. Also I liked seeing Peg’s dark head and serious face every time I lifted my eyes in the office. She was a hard worker; her brows were generally drawn together in concentration. But sometimes, when her glance met mine, she’d smile in a quick, unexpected way—and the smile packed a wallop. It sort of made you catch your breath. A couple of times, after it had hit me like that, I’d been so dazed that. I’d mumbled something about, “Hey, what do you say to having lunch with me?”
But no more than that, you understand. Nothing beyond an occasional lunch. Right from the start, when they’d put my desk in her office, I’d said to myself, Steady, Art. Business is business, and fun is fun. Don't get them mixed up, or you're sunk. So I’d left Peg strictly alone; had to keep my mind on my work.
With Madge, though, it was different. Madge wasn’t part of the business. Even so, she made it pretty hard for me to work with a clear head.
What bothered me most was the way she’d say, “Oh, Art, you know how I feel about the work you do!” As if I were printing counterfeit bills or selling pencils out of a tin cup.
I’d been hearing that line for weeks. Weeks? It seemed years. Yet it was only two months since the boss had sent me out to get pictures of a horse show on Long Island. Madge Worden, in a beautifully tailored habit, had been riding a blue ribbon winner, and I got a few good shots of lier on a black mare. I didn’t know her then, but she looked wonderful on a horseslim, straight, young. After she’d posed she bent to pat the mare’s neck.
“I hope the pictures come out well, Mr. Grant,” she said.
I took a long look at her smile. “What was that you called me?”
“Aren't you Cary Grant?”
“My family did its best,” I said, “but it didn’t work out that way.”
“They managed a good facsimile,” she said. “Do I get copies of the pictures?”
I drew a deep breath. Her face was really something to see. “If I can bring them out in person,” I said, “a dozen of each.”
“I couldn’t think of anything nicer.”
“The day after tomorrow?”
She laughed. “I’ll be waiting.”
So that was how it started; and when I drove out there, near Glen Cove, I was relieved to find she wasn’t a millionaire’s daughter or the owner of a steamship line or something like that. They had a fairly modest place—just five acres or so. Her father, it turned out, was the vice-president of a small Long Island bank. He wasn’t poor by any means, but he wasn’t so far out of my financial
It was only a routine photograph, but it reshuffled a number of lives ... including the photographer’s
class that I had to consult my conscience before asking Madge for a date.
We went dancing at some local yacht cluh. The minute I took her into my arms and got my nose into the perfume of her fluffy auburn hair, it was clear to me that, if I had any luck, my bachelor days were almost over. This was it. A man need look no farther.
Only, of course, I couldn’t foresee that first night the unreasonable way she’d feel about my working for Ajax Picture Service, Inc. That one caught me on the chin and sent me to the ropes. I couldn’t believe it. Still, as long as she held to such an attitude, there was no sense bringing up the matter of marriage more seriously than the hint or two I’d thrown out. Before all else we had to get this job question out of the way . . .
Peg put down her telephone. She leaned back and went on talking to me as if there had been no interruption at all; and she really sounded interested.
“So you want to make Madge yell hooray for photography.”
“My problem,” I said, “is to convince her this job is important, not only to me, but in general. The trouble is there’s no one thing I can point to and say, ‘There! Doesn’t that show I’m contributing to human happiness?’ ”
Peg almost smiled. “How about giving her a book?”
“I know one that says, right on page one, Tt, has been said that the pen is mightier than the Hword and that a good picture is worth ten thousand words.’ That ought to show her how important a picture can be. And on the same page it goes on, ‘Nature has a way of dulling the pain of sorrow with time, but, by the same token, the memory of happy events must fade.’ If you pointed out that a good picture can keep the memory of happy events alive and bright—”
I waved a discouraged hand. “I’ve given her all that.”
“And no soap?”
“She just listens and shakes her head.” Peg became thoughtful. She picked up the harlequin glasses and stared at them. “You know what, Art?” she said. “I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think your Madge loves you at all.”
“Now wait a minute—”
“If she did, she’d grab you, no matter what kind of job you had.”
That made me squirm. “You don’t understand Madge,” I said. “She wants to see me get into something big—”
“What does she do?”
“Well, she doesn’t work,” I said. “She’s interested in a lot of welfare campaigns. Gives them a lot of time.”
Peg nodded, very thoughtful. She was looking at the glasses in her hand.
“She’s picking me up for lunch again tomorrow,” I said, and I sounded pretty hopeless. “We ought to get this thing settled then.” What 1 didn’t add was that, though we hadn’t discussed it quite so frankly, Madge and I both tacitly knew the matter of our getting married depended on hou> we settled the thing. Anyhow, I knew it.
Peg put the glasses on again. “I wish I could help you, Art,” she said.
“You can’t,” I
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Answer in the Negative
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said. “Nobody can. Finish up what you’re doing, and let’s go find a drink.”
BY NOON next day I wasn’t any better off. Peg had gone to cover a fashion luncheon at the Waldorf, and I waited for Madge in a rotten mood. All morning I’d been in our darkroom, and now there was a lot of work waiting on the desk; but my efficiency was crippled.
When she came promptly at twelve, Madge looked likeoneof Peg’s pictures. There was a feather on her hat, and her grey suit was molded to her curves. Her shoes, gloves, and bag all seemed made from the same strip of brown leather. I took both her hands and led her to Peg’s chair.
“You’ve never looked better,” I said. “Thank you, Art, you’re sweet,” Madge said. “Am I much too early?” “No. If you’ll give me five minutes, I’ll get these letters out of the way.”
I left her in Peg’s chair and went around to my own to sign a few papers. I felt low. Madge lit a cigarette, then picked up a magazine and began to glance through it.
The telephone rang as I signed the last letter.
“There’s a Mrs. Miller out here to see you, Mr. Wells,” the receptionist sind. “She’s been sent by Vagabond Magazine.”
I looked at the clock. “I was on my way out to lunch,” I said. “But if she wants to come in for just five minutes, all right.” When I put the telephone down I told Madge, “Some woman from a magazine. I’ll try to rush it.” “Want me to step outside?”
“Oh, no. Stay where you are.”
Mrs. Miller turned out to be middleaged. Her manner was anxious, half fearful. There was a copy of Vagabond Magazine under her arm—a travel journal that was carrying a two-page spread of color pictures I’d made at the Grand Canyon.
“Mr. Wells?” she said.
I nodded, puzzled.
She started opening the magazine. Her fingers fumbled. “Mr. Wells, I’ve come to you with—with a sort of prayer in my heart!” She sounded so emotional that I stared. So did Madge. Mrs. Miller spread the magazine on the desk, then pointed to a shot of a dozen men and women on mules. I’d caught them as they were about to leave for the ride to the bottom of the Canyon. It was a remarkably clear picture, and the people in it all looked happy. The woman pointed to the man at the head of the fine. “Mr. Wells, did you by any chance know him? Did you talk to him?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“He—he’s my husband!”
“I haven’t seen him in seven years!” Mrs. Miller said. Her voice was a thing of muted agony. “He disappeared— —amnesia, everybody said. I’ve never been able to find him. And then I see this picture of him!”
I blinked a little. “Well, what do you know!”
“Could you possibly remembéT the exact date you took that picture?” Mrs. Miller asked, almost pleading. “The editors of Vagabond said you were the only one who could help me. I thought if I knew the date, we could look at the registers of the hotels around the Grand Canyon, and maybe some clerk will remember my husband from this picture. If only I could find out the name he used and the address he gave—”
I could easily let her know when I took the picture, I said in awe. While Madge watched, as astonished as I felt myself, I dug out a record book.
“July 12,” I said. “The people on the mules were a crowd of tourists from the El Tovar Hotel.”
“Oh, Mr. Wells!” Mrs. Miller all but sobbed. “You don’t know what this may mean to me!”
“If there’s anything further I can do—”
“I’ll be everlastingly grateful to you as it is!” Mrs. Miller said.
When she had gone I still felt dazed. “What do you know about that?” I said to Madge, as if we’d witnessed a miracle. And then, like a wallop, it hit me. Maybe, by the grace of heaven, this was the proof I needed to show Madge how significant my work could be to all sorts of people! I wanted to cry out, but something inside cautioned me to go easy, to play it right. So I said with dignity, “Those are the things that give a man a sense of satisfaction and pride in his work. Makes you feel like—well, almost like an instrument of fate.”
Madge’s eyes were full of wonder. “I—I’d never thought about it quite like this, Art,” she said. “I mean—”
“If she finds her husband, I’ll bet they’ll keep that picture for the rest of their lives.”
She reached slowly for my hand. It seemed to me I could see a trace of revelation in her face. The eyes were almost misty—happy too. I had a feeling that everything was going to be fine. A dramatization—that’s what Madge had needed. I felt wonderful as I took her hand. I knew now there wouldn’t be much argument over lunch. Any job that could reunite families couldn’t be called insignificant.
The telephone rang again, and I picked it up with a sigh.
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“Mr. Wells,” the receptionist said, “there’s a detective out here to see you. Sergeant Weber.”
I stared. “A detective?"
“He says it’s important to see you right away. For just a minute. I’ll send him in, Mr. Wells.”
I said to Madge with some uneasiness, “Sorry about this. I hope it won’t take long.”
“Want me to leave?’’
Sergeant Weber came in—a heavy man in a brown tweed suit, with a copy of Vagabond Magazine rolled under his arm. As he put down his hat he nodded to Madge and nodded to me. I had a sudden crawly sensation, part horror and part suspicion—staggering suspicion—especially when he opened the magazine to the spread of my Grand Canyon pictures. He put it down on the desk.
“The editors sent me around to see you, Mr. Wells,” he said. “You took these pictures, didn’t you?”
He tapped a finger on the shot of the people on mules, indicating the middle man in the line. “Happen to know anything about this guy? Who he was? What name he gave?”
I swallowed hard, not daring to look at Madge. “I—I didn’t know any of them. They were just some tourists I snapped. Why? What’s wrong?” “We’ve been hunting that face for three years,” Sergeant Weber said. “The guy’s wanted for murder. If you could tell me the date you took that picture—”
“July 12,” I said.
He glanced up, as though surprised by the promptness of the answer. “You sure of that, Mr. Wells?”
“Positive. I—I just had occasion to look it up.”
“July 12, eh? Well, that’s fine, that’s fine.” He closed the magazine, put it back under his arm. “Would you, by any chance, know where the guy had been staying?”
“All those people were guests at the El Tovar. That’s on the south rim of the canyon.”
“Good.” Sergeant Weber shook my hand. “I have a hunch your picture has given us the lead we need. Thanks a lot, Mr. Wells. I may call on you again about this.”
When he was gone, my mouth was dry. The suspicion was stronger than ever. And I found Madge watching me with narrowed eyes, also suspicious. “Art,” she said, “what is all this?” “Mm?”
“I was perfectly willing to believe the woman,” she said. “In fact, I did believe her. But to expect me to believe that lightning can strike twice on the same picture—especially at the very moment I’m here to see it happen—” She stopped. “Ought I to be laughing?” she said. “Is this act supposed to be a joke?”
“Why, no-o,” I said. “I’m as surprised as you are. It’s no act—”
“You actually think I’m stupid enough to believe—”
Once more the telephone rang. Though I didn’t really jump this time, I stared at the instrument as if a fuse were sputtering on it. There was no point in letting it ring again and again. I picked it up and said in a husky voice, “Yes?”
The receptionist said, “There’s a Mrs. Farragut to see you, Mr. Wells. She says the editors of Vagabond sent her over about some picture. I’ve told her to go in—is that all right?”
My face must have been very grim as I put down the telephone. My thoughts were on Peg, and I was thinking, What a pal, what a pal, with a good deal of bitterness. I glanced at
Madge without saying anything; then Mrs. Farragut was with us.
Short, breathing hard, she spread the Grand Canyon pictures on the desk. I felt savage enough to do battle with wildcats, but I was no longer surprised; not even when she pointed to two of the people on the mules.
“Mr. Wells, could you possibly tell me when you took tins picture?” she asked.
“Because that man—the fat one— he’s my husband. And that girl in front of him—she’s his secretary. When he went west last summer, the girl was supposed to be having her vacation up in Maine. But there they are together! At the Grand Canyon! My lawyer says I should get the date and—”
“You needn’t finish, Mrs. Farragut,” Madge interrupted. Her voice was low, icy, with a strange quality of danger in it. Her eyes had a new brightness made up of fury and resentment. “Art, am I supposed to believe this too?”
I spread my hands in desperation. “Madge,” I said, “I swear—”
“Yes? You swear what?”
I could have made a joke of the whole tiling, and maybe I’d have got away with it. Or I could have said we were witnessing a sample of Peg’s wit, and Mrs. Farragut would have confirmed it. And maybe we’d have gone out to lunch and laughed over it.
But I didn’t. I shook my head and said, “I hoped to find some way of showing you how important pictures can be.” I gave Mrs. Farragut a silent, imploring look and she hustled out.
“Well, you’ve certainly made your point,” Madge said. “To you pictures are far more important than any humiliation you might cause me in the eyes of these stooges. What were you trying to show them—that I have the mentality of a two-year-old? Were they supposed to leave here and laugh at me?”
“Now wait, Madge—”
“1 see nothing to wait for.” She was at the door, her face white with anger. “It was all very funny, Art, very funny indeed. Good-by!”
But that was alL She was gone.
1SAT alone in the office, wondering with a dull kind of amazement why I didn’t feel worse about Madge’s going. All I could feel was a sense of resignation. Slap-happy, I thought. I just sat there.
At a quarter to two Peg came in, bright and full of good spirits. Sitting down, she didn’t bother to take off her hat. She said, “Thought you had a lunch date.”
“Uh-huh,” I said dully. “I had.” With her eyes on a letter, Peg put on the harlequin glasses. She didn’t speak. It was as if she’d forgotten me.
“Peg,” I said, “why did you do it?” She didn’t take her eyes off the letter. “Well,” she said, “I thought maybe a few dramatized cases would do the trick for you. So I called on some of my friends.”
I looked at her, knowing I should have been infuriated. The queer thing was that all of a sudden the whole idea struck me as funny. I wanted to sit back and laugh. Slap my knee and howl. It was as though I’d been watching a play, with myself as one of the characters; and I knew exactly why, at the climax of the play, I hadn’t done anything to keep Madge in my office. It was because my mind had been on Peg then, and the thing she had done, and Madge hadn’t seemed very important one way or the other.
“You know what you did?” I said. “You ran Madge right out of my life.” “No!” Peg didn’t sound shocked.
“And T’ve been thinking,” I said, “how nice it would be if I thought you’d done it because you were a wee bit jealous. Because you wanted to get her out.”
Peg stared up at me in a surprised way. “Why, Art! What an idea!”
“Did you?” 1 said.
She continued to stare. After a while a faint sparkle of humor came into her eyes. She took off the glasses.
“Could be,” she said. “It could very well be.”
So I got up and walked around the two desks. I took Peg’s hands and pulled her out of the chair. Madge didn’t matter any more. Neither did anything else. I put my arms around Peg, looked into her face and grinned.
“You don’t think there’s no social significance in my job, do you?”
“Why, Art,” she said. “Would 1 be working at something without social significance?”
I kissed her. It was wonderful to see the way her eyes softened and became misty. I kissed her again, and everything inside me fell apart. This was perfect. This was right in every way.
Then the telephone rang. I hated to let Peg go, but I went around the desk to answer.
The receptionist said, “There’s a Mr. Shaughnessy here to see you, Mr. Wells. He was referred here by Vagabond Magazine for some information about a Grand Canyon picture you took ...” it