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Talking Pictures

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Alec turned the lights in the screen room on with absent press of the button, and looked at Norah from across the row of comfortable chairs.

“So that…” he said, and stopped. He turned to stare at the projector, and phonograph attached to it.

Norah looked at the device as well. It was not as ominous as the opal necklace of the Rat God, but it was just as likely to change her life. The gentle whir of the phonograph continued as the stylus looped and looped around the end of the record.

“Christine will be ruined. She still uses ‘yinz’ when she’s emotional; she’d be a laughingstock,” Norah said, trying for an even, evaluating manner.

“And she can’t act,” Alec said.

“And she can’t act,” Norah agreed.

“She doesn’t need to act,” Alec said, which was true enough. Christine had been both ravishingly photogenic and extremely willing to listen to her directors, which made them fall over themselves to film her. Nowadays, Ambrose Conklin indulged Christine and her acting, but it was the hobby of a rich man’s wife, not the necessity of a divorcee. And Ambrose, dear man that he was, was kind and indulgent and had also been wise enough to guarantee that Christine would be independent after his death; Christine might have been an indulgence of his old age, but he’d set aside enough money for her.

“I can’t write scripts,” Norah said.

Alec lifted his head, and frowned at her. “Norah, you do write scripts.”

“Scenes. I write scenes. I am a scenarist. This,” Norah gestured to the projector, with the synchronized film and phonograph, “is not scenes. This is a bloody play, Alec. With lines. Lines and a full script, Alec. Not just pantomime and intertitles!”

Alec blinked, and moved to sit beside Norah. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders (he smelled of film fixatives up close; the sharp chemical scent of comfort, Norah realized, faintly chagrined) and clucked at her soothingly.

“Applesauce!” he murmured. “You rescued She-Devil of Babylon the first time you ever worked on a film, and there was a demon rat-god ruining all our work. You’ve improved everyone of Christine’s films since then, and even figured out how to make Mikos Hraldy’s silly cockroach obsession into a film, not that anyone wants to make the damned thing.”

Norah wiped her eyes, and gave a smile. “We’d have to get Menzies to design the thing, and we can’t afford him. Not for Metamorphosis; it’s not popular enough.”

“Not popular? It’s not even in English!” Alec chuckled. “Better to film Arrowsmith!”

“Or Manhattan Transfer. The costuming would be modern, and the sets would be nightclubs. Very glamorous.”

Alec smiled, impishly. “Or The Cave Girl. Nothing like women in skimpy outfits to gets the rubes in seats. You could even get a bit part.”

“As Christine’s ape-man duenna, no doubt?”

“Well…” Alex drawled, “I wouldn’t mind if you dressed up like something out of Tarzan...”

Norah snickered. Elmo Lincoln had looked quite delightful as the title character almost a decade ago, but Norah could only imagine what outrageous costumes might be tried for the heroine now. The Thief of Baghdad last year had been notable for Fairbanks’ lack of shirt for most of the film, and the fantastical clothing of the princess and her attendants, and the studios were all imitating the daring in their costume pieces this year, egging each other to greater liberties as each film came out.

The brief moment of amusement passed, and Norah was left with bleak sensation of standing at a ledge over a precipice.

“Norah?”

Alec had moved from his seat to crouching in front of her. When had that happened? His eyes were wide behind his glasses, and auburn beard crinkled as his mouth pulled down. He folded his chemical-stained hands around hers.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he murmured.

“I... “ Norah stumbled, “I feel so selfish.”

Alec’s eyebrows rose up, “How so?”

“I’m worried about myself -- how I’m going to live now that the cinema has sound. But Christine--”

“Will be fine. She’s only making movies because she wants to--”

“And she’s under contract--”

“As if Conklin doesn’t have a firm of lawyers and a boatful of money to break any contract he wants,” Alec countered.

“All right, yes, but I don’t. And scenarists are a dozen to a box.”

“You think Christine wouldn’t take care of you if you were replaced?”

“I don’t want her to be necessary,” Norah said. Christine had been a lifeline when she’d needed one, but how much better it would be not to be an appendage to Christine’s life. She’d been so close to independence as a scenarist; a modest living, to be sure, but an almost respectable one for a widow.

“You think I wouldn’t take care of you?” Alec said, dropping his head to look at Norah through his lashes.

“... you’re a cameraman, Alec.”

“I have my own house, and my own motor,” Alec said. “And I’m a ‘cinematographer’; I’ve got the magazine article to prove it.”

Norah muffled a snort behind her hand. Alec’s work on She-Devil of Babylon had received a write-up in the trade journal for cameramen after all the drama and insanity of the filming. It had turned out to be a beautiful movie, especially the scene in that ill-omened mansion that had doubled as a Babylonian palace. And his ‘motor’ was still that dreadful pre-War Model T.

“Alec, is this a proposal?”

He jolted, like he’d be electrified.

“I think...yes.” He nodded to himself, and then looked up at Norah. “Norah Blackstone, will you marry me?”

Norah’s tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, suddenly dry. Her hands trembled against Alec’s fingers.

“...Norah?” Alec’s confident tone melted into soft-voiced worry. His eyes had clouded over.

Norah had to do something.

“...yes. Yes.” She drew a deliberate breath. “Yes, Alec. I will marry you. And live in your little house in Venice. But we have to get something better than your car.”

Alec’s face turned as bright as the sun, and he grinned, “Well, I suppose I can get rid of my old jalopy, if that’s your only condition.”

“And I can keep writing for films.”

“Ah, weren’t just saying you couldn’t do it?” Alec teased.

“I think could do anything, as long as you’re with me,” Norah confessed.

“Even tell Christine we’re engaged?”

“Oh good lord.” Norah contemplated Christine’s reaction. “I suppose the worst that could happen is she’ll want to use our wedding for publicity.”

“As long as she pays for it,” was Alec’s cheerful response, and he kissed her.