The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories/Mrs. H. Harrison Wells's Shoes
Mrs. H. Harrison Wells's Shoes
LINTON had written a very pretty accidental drowning story (a father and two young children), a half-column about a suicide-for-love, and part of the big story on the first page about the absconding-bank- cashier-Sunday-school-superintendent. So having done his full day's share of uplifting and moulding the public mind, he should have been well pleased with himself the next morning when the paper came out, but he was not.
He was up early this morning, on his way to the Seventh Judicial District Court, at Third Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, and he was very glum and discontented. It was bad enough to get out of bed at nine o'clock—for a morning-paper man. But he wasn't thinking about that; it was what he had to do when he arrived there: watch a woman—whom he considered a very nice woman—in a lawsuit with a shoemaker; have a talk with each of them, get both sides of the matter, and write a good story, with facetious, satirical touches in it, for New York to smile over the next morning at breakfast. He knew the woman. She knew him. She would see him there. She would know that he was watching her. She would know that he had written what The Day published about her and her shoes. He felt like resigning.
It had sounded like such a good story the afternoon before when the smiling city editor was talking that he had jumped at it. But the moment he left the hot, exciting atmosphere of the City Room, it all seemed a very different business. This morning he had cooled down still more; and he could not understand how he had agreed to take such an assignment.
He had been at this work long enough now not to mind going up into tenements and talking to people there about their souls or their family quarrels, or their daughters who had killed themselves, or the reason for it. But when it came to making unpleasant publicity for refined people, it seemed a different thing. And yet, as he now reminded himself, it ought not to be considered a different thing. So he told himself it must be that he was afraid of being seen and known as a reporter by "refined people," and this made him hurry up the Elevated steps, two at a time, to show that it was a mistake.
But whether it was foolish or not, he did not like the idea of being seen on this assignment, and he made up his mind on the train to keep out of her way; he could cover the story well enough without having a talk with her.
But you see there was no dodging the great fact that this woman was a first cousin to the girl uptown, who seemed to him to be what a girl ought to be, and who believed in him. That was what had kept him awake during the night.
Whether the girl ever knew it or not, yet he would always know that he had deliberately … It would not be a pleasant thing to remember about himself.
All the old repugnance and loathing for this thing of reporting came upon him worse than ever, and he pictured himself, as he often had before, going back to the office and telling the city editor what he unreservedly thought about the whole dirty business.
"I'll go back and say, 'See here, White' (I won't call him 'mister'). 'What do you take me for, White? What do you take me for? Do you think I am going to do this sort of thing? Well, you're mistaken. I'll tell you, once for all, I'll be damned if I do.'" And he became quite hot and excited telling himself how little he would care at being discharged, and how much better offers he had had to do better things, etc., until the "L" guard called out his station.
Then he got out and wiped his brow, and reminded himself that he had no intention of making any such fool of himself as that. He had often felt like resigning before, and had always been glad he hadn't.
"All I shall have to do," he remarked to himself, "is to fall down on this assignment and one or two more as badly as I did last week, and I shall be allowed to resign fast enough without any grand-stand remarks."
Meanwhile, he would have to get the facts of this story because he couldn't very well resign over the telephone, and, besides, there wasn't time to send up another man, and it wouldn't be square to let the paper get beaten on the story.
"But there are two chances," he said; "either the case has been settled out of court to avoid publicity—I should think it would be—or it will be adjourned; cases generally are. Very likely Mrs. Wells won't be there, anyhow."
He entered the court-room and found he was mistaken in all these suppositions, and there sat Mrs. H. Harrison Wells in the front row, with a lot of beautiful tailor-made clothes on, looking handsome and out of place in the stuffy little court-room, which was filled with bad air and hard faces.
"Well," thought Linton, backing out again, "I'll have to keep out of her sight somehow," and just then somebody slapped him on the back.
It was a young man named Harry Lawrence. He was an old class-mate, so he greeted Linton cordially, wanted to know what in thunder he was doing up there, and seemed excited about something.
Linton said he was a reporter for The Day.
"That's so; I forgot," said the young lawyer. "Are you going to write an article up here—What about?"
"They want me to find out about Mrs. Wells's shoes or something."
"You don't say so! Why, I'm her counsel," Lawrence said, sententiously. "I'll be glad to give you all the help I can, Jim. I'll introduce you to her, if you like."
"Oh, no, you won't, though," thought Linton. "Is she going to stay during the trial?" he asked.
"Yes, of course. It's a civil suit, you know. She'll have to testify." The young lawyer hadn't tried very many cases before, and he was feeling important. "Excuse me a minute," he said. "You wait here, Jim."
But Linton did not. He went out of the door before Lawrence reached his client's side, and he meant to stay out until he heard the clerk call out: "Hawkins against Wells." And then he was merely going to get the bare facts and go down to, the office and resign. He was sick of this business.
A few minutes later the door opened and Mrs. Wells came out of the court-room, unaccompanied, and started for the stairs, her skirts swishing sympathetically.
"She's probably stifled by that air," thought Linton, "and Harry's busy with briefs and things. But she oughtn't to walk about here alone; I suppose I should——" He had started to take off his hat, but stopped his hand midway and scratched his chin instead, for Mrs. Wells had looked into his face and out the other side, and then hurried on down the stairs, without knowing he was there.
"It wasn't necessary to do that," he said to himself. "Harry probably asked if she wanted to talk to me, and she probably decided that she did not. She had a right to, I suppose, but it wasn't at all necessary to do that." He felt hot all over.
He watched her stepping carefully down the dirty stairs, and said to her back, "You needn't think I want to talk to you." He had never experienced anything quite like this before and he tried to laugh, but it didn't seem very funny; so he stopped laughing and became angry instead, and cursed Harry Lawrence for a snob.
To be sure he had only seen Mrs. Wells twice since the Commencement Week when he had seen a good deal of her, and that was some time ago, and he was dressed in a flannel coat and duck trousers then. Besides, she was to be a defendant in a lawsuit in a few minutes, and that might have preoccupied her, but he did not stop to think of that. He was thinking of her cousin.
He was still standing by the window in the hall, hot with indignation at her and angry and sneering at himself for minding it, when Lawrence suddenly appeared and took him by the arm. "Come on, old man, you can talk to Mrs. Wells. Mr. Wells is here, too, now, and——"
"No, no," said Linton, backing off and bristling all over.
"Come on, man, what's the matter with you? Thought you'd quit being a woman-hater." Then he whispered, "Turn around; here they come."
Linton turned around and there they came. Mrs. H. Harrison Wells was smiling at him. It was her regular smile, the one she used every evening. Whether she had cut him before or not she meant to allow him to speak to her now. She held out her hand, condescendingly, it seemed to Linton, who was hating her, hating Lawrence, and hating himself.
The husband did not shake hands; he merely said, "How do," and looked like a prosperous, well-nurtured New Yorker. Linton hated him, too, and took out his handkerchief to wipe his brow, which was wet; and Mrs. Wells said, "I did not know that you had taken up journalism. What paper do you write for? It must be very exciting. Do you like it?"
She was an interesting-looking young New York chaperone, but Linton saw that she had the hard, sharp look about the eyes that is bound to come, he guessed, when a woman thinks a good deal about being "a leader;"—and she was automatically put ting the young man at his ease.
Linton did not like people to put him at his ease, but he answered that he enjoyed some things about his work, and that he called it reporting, and laughed foolishly and perspired some more because she thought he was embarrassed at talking to her.
But she was smiling quite kindly and not paying attention to what he said. He had a notion to make her, and at the same time show that he was not rattled, by telling her that he had already taken mental note of her dark green street-dress and the Paris hat with the dash of red in it which was becoming, and even of the small calf-skin shoes, a pair which surely were made expressly for her; but Lawrence had begun to talk.
"You see," he said, officiously, "Mrs. Wells is tired of having these shop-keepers bunco her all the time, and she thought she'd make an example of this shoemaker."
Mrs. Wells laughed and looked more womanly when she laughed than when she smiled. Linton wanted to say, "I don't care to hear about your old shoes."
Then her husband spoke up, looking at Linton in a way he did not fancy, "You may say she thought she owed it to our friends to expose these people's methods—yes, you say that; say it wasn't the money, but she considers it her duty, as a matter of principle, you understand?"
Linton smiled amiably but was thinking, "Uhh, how smug you are."
The husband went on: "Now, my wife's very fond of shoes, and gets a great many of them. It's one of her hobbies."
"Well, I do know a ready-made boot when I see one," said Mrs. Wells, looking at her husband.
"Of course you do," said the husband, looking at her.
"You bet she does," said the young lawyer to Linton.
"That would make a good opening sentence," said the reporter to himself.
"At any rate," interrupted Mrs. Wells, shutting her eyes and opening them again, "those were not the boots I ordered, and as they had done this same thing before, and as I did not want to have so much space taken up with things I can't wear, why I returned them and, then, they sent them back to me once more, and enclosed the bill, too, the aggravating things; so I returned them again, and again they sent them back to me, and—oh, we had a fine time sending them back and forth." She laughed and looked at her husband.
It occurred to Linton that if he had not made up his mind not to cover this story there was a good paragraph or two showing the bootmaker's boy whistling and carrying the innocent shoes to Mrs. Wells, and the Wells's servant marching stiffly back with them again—altogether the unworn shoes would travel several miles. "Why, here comes that confounded footman again!" the bootmaker would say, and "Oh, here's the boy with those boots again!" the Wells's servants would exclaim. That is the way it could be put in the story which he was not to write.
"Now dear," interrupted the husband, "Harry says we must go in and sign this thing." Then, in a different tone of voice, to the reporter, "Anything else you want?"
Linton said, "I thank you, no," and hoped it sounded dignified and icy. The three hurried off, leaving him putting away his handkerchief.
Some of the other reporters who had been hovering round at a distance now hurried over to Linton and asked, "What did you get out of them, old man?"
"Nothing much," said Linton, as reporters nearly always do, and then he began to tell them as much as he thought Mrs. Wells would not object to their knowing. Mrs. Wells seemed to be watching him from across the room.
Just then the clerk called "Hawkins vs. Wells," and the other reporters hurried up to the press-table in front of the judge.
Linton hesitated a moment, looked across the room at the woman who had a cousin, then at the other reporters hurriedly sharpening their pencils. He kept on looking at the reporters. They would write the story. He took some copy paper out of his pocket—from force of habit. Those fellows did not know how to cover this story. He tore off a bit of copy paper and began to chew it. Then he said, "Oh, well, he thinks I'm writing it anyway," and walked up to the table.
The case did not last very long. Each side had brought shoes to court and held them up for the judge to examine. The defence first tried to show that the shoes in question were ready-made shoes, but the shoemaker had an employee to testify to having made them himself by hand.
"But, Your Honor," young Lawrence exclaimed, getting worked up, "we do not care whether these shoes are made to order or not. Granted that they are. That is not the point at issue. Our contention is that they were not made for our client. The witness does not swear that they were. He cannot. He dares not. But, Your Honor, we will show conclusively that they are not the shoes we ordered. Now we have shown you by exhibit 'B' that Mrs. Wells always orders eight buttons, why should she on this occasion order seven buttons?" etc., all of which would make a good story, as Linton well knew, and the humorous values were arranging themselves in his head in spite of himself.
But the best part, of course, was when Mrs. H. Harrison Wells was called to the stand to testify and had to try on several pairs of shoes. This was one of the chief points in the story, and the head-line in an afternoon yellow paper later in the day was,
MRS. WELLS'S FEET.
SOCIETY WOMAN TAKES OFF HER SHOES IN COURT.
Linton thought he was fastidious about such things, but he could not help admiring her for the way she carried it off. She knew that some of the papers (not his paper, thank Heavens!) had "artists" there making rapid sketches, but she kept her self-possession all through the ordeal. She blushed and smiled, but she did not smile too much. He thought she was just about right. "This has to be done," she seemed to say, "so I may as well do it with dignity and grace," and she did.
Also, she won the case, and young Lawrence and "Mr. and Mrs. H. Harrison Wells," with swishing skirts, hurried out of the room excited and delighted together, and the next case was called.
Linton waited until he heard their carriage-door slam and then he hurried to the office, sat down and dashed off the best story he had ever written.
He had the glow of creation, and he felt reckless and brilliant. He had a good humorous story in his head—it had formed itself there automatically—and he did not let himself stop to think whether he was giving anybody unpleasant publicity or not.
Besides, he had undertaken the job, so it was his duty to his paper to carry it through to the best of his ability, no matter who was the woman's cousin, was it not?
The story began, "Mrs. H. Harrison Wells knows a ready-made shoe when she sees it. Hereafter a certain fashionable boot-maker will remember this. He has reason to." Then he referred to her dainty demonstration, and ended his opening paragraph, as was then the vogue in The Day office, with a little short sentence. Like this.
Then he made a terse exposition of the facts of the trouble, and told about Mrs. Wells's interesting shoe hobby, and described, in detail, the shoes the defence brought to court, and the shoes the serious-faced shoemaker brought also. He told where, as shown by the old shoes, the defendant was accustomed to wear them out first, and on which side she ran the heels down, which had nothing to do with the case, but would make interesting reading. He told how fine and soft the material was, and ended that paragraph with, "However, most New York women would not want these shoes. They could not use them;" which was true.
"What rot!" thought Linton as he wrote it, but it was the sort of thing The Day liked, just as The Earth's story was not; the latter said, "Of course a member of the 400 could not wear ready-made shoes. Mercy, no!" And things of that silly sort.
Then Linton showed, with interpolated dialogue, written in short paragraphs which are apt to look readable glancing down the column, how the earnest little shoemaker became easily tangled up in cross-examination by the young lawyer, whom Linton could not help patronizing a little by the way, then concluded with the carriage-door slamming and the horses clattering off, while the shoemaker went back to his shop, and "under his arm were the soft little shoes that caused all the trouble."
Then he filed his copy, put on his hat, and went out and took a drink all by himself.
The next morning when Linton came down to the office he found he had written the story of the day. He was congratulated by all the men who knew him, and by some who did not, and, best of all, he overheard Billy Woods say, in a loud voice, "Who wrote that shoe story? It's good." "Linton," replied another older man, who the young reporter had supposed did not know his name.
Just then the city editor called him up to the desk and after complimenting him on the way he had handled the story, told him that at the end of the week his salary would be increased. Linton thanked him, but said he was not sure that he was going to stay with the paper; he would let him know in a few days. The reporter did not feel so pleased over his story as he thought he ought to.
But later in the day he heard down-stairs—to his complete amazement—that Mrs. H. Harrison Wells had ordered twenty extra copies of the paper from the counting-rooms. No one could tell, of course, how many others she had bought at the news-stands. She could not have been very indignant.
The reporter told himself he ought to be glad; he did not quite see why he felt so disgusted. Ought he not to be pleased? For she had not cut him purposely, as he afterwards learned, and wanted to be interviewed all along, and she thought his writing very clever. Doubtless, her friends were pleased, too, for they smiled and said: "What won't the woman do next to show off those feet?"
Linton heard this from Lawrence at a class smoker the following evening. The young lawyer thanked him sincerely for the kind mention of him as Mrs. Wells's counsel, and asked if Linton did not think it ought to help bring in some more business from her set. Linton said he thought so.
Even the shoemaker, Linton discovered, was rather pleased at seeing his name in the paper, although it did show him in a bad light. "That will tell people what class of customers I have, anyway," he said to himself. "It's a good ad."
"I see," thought young Linton, "that I am more of a kid than I supposed. So far as I have cared to inquire, everyone seems to be pleased, from the city editor to Mrs. Wells. Now, I am the cause of it. So I think I may as well be pleased, too." Then he added, after a pause, "I believe I can stop thinking about unnecessary things now—and become a good reporter." And that was what he decided to do.