Merton of the Movies
Harry Leon Wilson
Part 6 out of 7
"I know. That's the way with me. Of course I can put over the acting
stuff, even vamping, but I'm afraid of men off-stage. Say, would you
believe it, I ain't ever had but one beau. That was Bert Stacy. Poor
old Bert! He was lots older than me; about thirty, I guess. He was
white all through. You always kind of remind me of him. Sort of a
feckless dub he was, too; kind of honest and awkward--you know. He
was the one got me doing stunts. He wasn't afraid of anything.
Didn't know it was even in the dictionary. That old scout would go
out night or day and break everything but his contract. I was twelve
when I first knew him and he had me doing twisters in no time. I
caught on to the other stuff pretty good. I wasn't afraid, either,
I'll say that for myself. First I was afraid to show him I was
afraid, but pretty soon I wasn't afraid at all.
"We pulled off a lot of stuff for different people. And of course I
got to be a big girl and three years ago when I was eighteen Bert
wanted us to be married and I thought I might as well. He was the
only one I hadn't been afraid of. So we got engaged. I was still
kind of afraid to marry any one, but being engaged was all right. I
know we'd got along together, too, but then he got his with a
"Kind of funny. He'd do anything on that machine. He'd jump clean
over an auto and he'd leap a thirty-foot ditch and he was all set to
pull a new one for Jeff Baird when it happened. Jeff was going to
have him ride his motorcycle through a plate-glass window. The set
was built and everything ready and then the merry old sun don't
shine for three days. Every morning Bert would go over to the lot
and wait around in the fog. And this third day, when it got too late
in the afternoon to shoot even if the sun did show, he says to me,
'c'mon, hop up and let's take a ride down to the beach.' So I hop to
the back seat and off we start and on a ninety-foot paved boulevard
what does Bert do but get caught in a jam? It was an ice wagon that
finally bumped us over. I was shook up and scraped here and there.
But Bert was finished. That's the funny part. He'd got it on this
boulevard, but back on the lot he'd have rode through that plate-
glass window probably without a scratch. And just because the sun
didn't shine that day, I wasn't engaged any more. Bert was kind of
like some old sea-captain that comes back to shore after risking his
life on the ocean in all kinds of storms, and falls into a duck-pond
and gets drowned."
She sat a long time staring out over the landscape, still holding
his hand. Inside the fence before the farmhouse three of the New
York villains were again engaged in athletic sports, but she seemed
oblivious of these. At last she turned to him again with an
"But I was dead in love once before that, and that's how I know just
how you feel about Baxter. He was the preacher where we used to go
to church. He was a good one. Pa copied a lot of his stuff that he
uses to this day if he happens to get a preacher part. He was the
loveliest thing. Not so young, but dark, with wonderful eyes and
black hair, and his voice would go all through you. I had an awful
case on him. I was twelve, and all week I used to think how I'd see
him the next Sunday. Say, when I'd get there and he'd be working--
doing pulpit stuff--he'd have me in kind of a trance.
"Sometimes after the pulpit scene he'd come down right into the
audience and shake hands with people. I'd almost keel over if he'd
notice me. I'd be afraid if he would and afraid if he wouldn't. If
he said 'And how is the little lady this morning?' I wouldn't have a
speck of voice to answer him. I'd just tremble all over. I used to
dream I'd get a job workin' for him as extra, blacking his shoes or
fetching his breakfast and things.
"It was the real thing, all right. I used to try to pray the way he
did--asking the Lord to let me do a character bit or something with
him. He had me going all right. You must 'a' been that way about
Baxter. Sure you were. When you found she was married and used a
double and everything, it was like I'd found this preacher shooting
hop or using a double in his pulpit stuff."
She was still again, looking back upon this tremendous episode.
"Yes, that's about the way I felt," he told her. Already his affair
with Mrs. Rosenblatt seemed a thing of his childhood. He was
wondering, rather, if the preacher could have been the perfect
creature the girl was now picturing him. It would not have
displeased him to learn that this refulgent being had actually used
a double in his big scenes, or had been guilty of mere human
behaviour at odd moments. Probably, after all, he had been just a
preacher. "Uncle Sylvester used to want me to be a preacher," he
said, with apparent irrelevance, "even if he was his own worst
enemy." He added presently, as the girl remained silent, "I always
say my prayers at night." He felt vaguely that this might raise him
to the place of the other who had been adored. He was wishing to be
thought well of by this girl.
She was aroused from her musing by his confession. "You do? Now
ain't that just like you? I'd have bet you did that. Well, keep on,
son. It's good stuff."
Her serious mood seemed to pass. She was presently exchanging tart
repartee with the New York villains who had perched in a row on the
fence to be funny about that long--continued holding of hands in the
motor car. She was quite unembarrassed, however, as she dropped the
hand with a final pat and vaulted to the ground over the side of the
"Get busy, there!" she ordered. "Where's your understander--where's
your top-mounter?" She became a circus ringmaster. "Three up and a
roll for yours," she commanded. The three villains aligned
themselves on the lawn. One climbed to the shoulders of the other
and a third found footing on the second. They balanced there,
presently to lean forward from the summit. The girl played upon an
imaginary snare drum with a guttural, throaty imitation of its roll,
culminating in the "boom!" of a bass-drum as the tower toppled to
earth. Its units, completing their turn with somersaults, again
stood in line, bowing and smirking their acknowledgments for
The girl, a moment later, was turning hand-springs. Merton had never
known that actors were so versatile. It was an astounding
profession, he thought, remembering his own registration card that
he had filled out at the Holden office. His age, height, weight,
hair, eyes, and his chest and waist measures; these had been
specified, and then he had been obliged to write the short "No"
after ride, drive, swim, dance--to write "No" after "Ride?" even in
the artistically photographed presence of Buck Benson on horseback!
Yet in spite of these disabilities he was now a successful actor at
an enormous salary. Baird was already saying that he would soon have
a contract for him to sign at a still larger figure. Seemingly it
was a profession in which you could rise even if you were not able
to turn hand-springs or were more or less terrified by horses and
deep water and dance music.
And the Montague girl, who, he now fervently hoped, would not be
killed while doubling for Mrs. Rosenblatt, was a puzzling creature.
He thought his hand must still be warm from her enfolding of it,
even when work was resumed and he saw her, with sunbonnet pushed
back, stand at the gate of the little farmhouse and behave in an
utterly brazen manner toward one of the New York clubmen who was
luring her up to the great city. She, who had just confided to him
that she was afraid of men, was now practically daring an undoubted
scoundrel to lure her up to the great city and make a lady of her.
And she had been afraid of all but a clergyman and a stunt actor! He
wondered interestingly if she were afraid of Merton Gill. She seemed
not to be.
On another day of long waits they ate their lunch from the cafeteria
box on the steps of the little home and discussed stage names. "I
guess we better can that 'Clifford Armytage' stuff," she told him as
she seriously munched a sandwich. "We don't need it. That's out.
Merton Gill is a lot better name." She had used "we" quite as if it
were a community name.
"Well, if you think so--" he began regretfully, for Clifford
Armytage still seemed superior to the indistinction of Merton Gill.
"Sure, it's a lot better," she went on. "That 'Clifford Armytage'--
say, it reminds me of just another such feckless dub as you that
acted with us one time when we all trouped in a rep show, playing
East Lynne and such things. He was just as wise as you are, and when
he joined out at Kansas City they gave him a whole book of the piece
instead of just his sides. He was a quick study, at that, only he
learned everybody's part as well as his own, and that slowed him.
They put him on in Waco, and the manager was laid up, so they told
him that after the third act he was to go out and announce the bill
for the next night, and he learned that speech, too.
"He got on fine till the big scene in the third act. Then he went
bloody because that was as far as he'd learned, so he just left the
scene cold and walked down to the foots and bowed and said, 'Ladies
and gentlemen, we thank you for your attendance here this evening
and to-morrow night we shall have the honour of presenting Lady
"With that he gave a cold look to the actors back of him that were
gasping like fish, and walked off. And he was like you in another
way because his real name was Eddie Duffy, and the lovely stage name
he'd picked out was Clyde Maltravers."
"Well, Clifford Armytage is out, then," Merton announced, feeling
that he had now buried a part of his dead self in a grave where
Beulah Baxter, the wonder-woman, already lay interred. Still, he was
conscious of a certain relief. The stage name had been bothersome.
"It ain't as if you had a name like mine," the girl went on. "I
simply had to have help."
He wondered what her own name was. He had never heard her called
anything but the absurd and undignified "Flips." She caught the
question he had looked.
"Well, my honest-to-God name is Sarah Nevada Montague; Sarah for Ma
and Nevada for Reno where Ma had to stop off for me--she was out of
the company two weeks--and if you ever tell a soul I'll have the law
on you. That was a fine way to abuse a helpless baby, wasn't it?"
"But Sarah is all right. I like Sarah."
"Do you, Kid?" She patted his hand. "All right, then, but it's only
for your personal use."
"Of course the Nevada--" he hesitated. "It does sound kind of like a
geography lesson or something. But I think I'll call you Sarah, I
mean when we're alone." "Well, that's more than Ma ever does, and
you bet it'll never get into my press notices. But go ahead if you
"I will, Sarah. It sounds more like a true woman than 'Flips.'"
"Bless the child's heart," she murmured, and reached across the
lunch box to pat his hand again.
"You're a great little patter, Sarah," he observed with one of his
infrequent attempts at humour.
On still another day, while they idled between scenes, she talked to
him about salaries and contracts, again with her important air of
"After this picture," she told him, "Jeff was going to sew you up
with a long-time contract, probably at a hundred and fifty per. But
I've told him plain I won't stand for it. No five-year contract, and
not any contract at that figure. Maybe three years at two hundred
and fifty, I haven't decided yet. I'll wait and see--" she broke off
to regard him with that old puzzling light far back in her eyes--
"wait and see how you get over in these two pieces."
"But I know you'll go big, and so does Jeff. We've caught you in the
rushes enough to know that. And Jeff's a good fellow, but naturally
he'll get you for as little as he can. He knows all about money even
if he don't keep Yom Kippur. So I'm watching over you, son--I'm your
manager, see? And I've told him so, plain. He knows he'll have to
give you just what you're worth. Of course he's entitled to
consideration for digging you up and developing you, but a three-
year contract will pay him out for that. Trust mother."
"I do," he told her. "I'd be helpless without you. It kind of scares
me to think of getting all that money. I won't know what to do with
"I will; you always listen to me, and you won't be camping on the
lot any more. And don't shoot dice with these rough-necks on the
lot." "I won't," he assured her. "I don't believe in gambling." He
wondered about Sarah's own salary, and was surprised to learn that
it was now double his own. It was surprising, because her acting
seemed not so important to the piece as his. "It seems like a lot of
money for what you have to do," he said.
"There," she smiled warmly, "didn't I always say you were a natural-
born trouper? Well, it is a lot of money for me, but you see I've
helped Jeff dope out both of these pieces. I'm not so bad at gags--I
mean the kind of stuff he needs in these serious dramas. This big
scene of yours, where you go off to the city and come back a wreck
on Christmas night--that's mine. I doped it out after the piece was
started--after I'd had a good look at the truck driver that plays
Truck driver? It appeared that Miss Montague was actually applying
this term to the New York society girl who in private life was
burdened with an ailing family. He explained now that Mr. Baird had
not considered her ideal for the part, but had chosen her out of
Again there flickered far back in her eyes those lights that baffled
him. There was incredulity in her look, but she seemed to master it.
"But I think it was wonderful of you," he continued, "to write that
beautiful scene. It's a strong scene, Sarah. I didn't know you could
write, too. It's as good as anything Tessie Kearns ever did, and
she's written a lot of strong scenes."
Miss Montague seemed to struggle with some unidentified emotion.
After a long, puzzling gaze she suddenly said: "Merton Gill, you
come right here with all that make-up on and give mother a good big
Astonishingly to himself, he did so in the full light of day and
under the eyes of one of the New York villains who had been
pretending that he walked a tight-rope across the yard. After he had
kissed the girl, she seized him by both arms and shook him. "I'd
ought to have been using my own face in that scene," she said. Then
she patted his shoulder and told him that he was a good boy.
The pretending tight-rope walker had paused to applaud. "Your act's
flopping, Bo," said Miss Montague. "Work fast." Then she again
addressed the good boy: "Wait till you've watched that scene before
you thank me," she said shortly.
"But it's a strong scene," he insisted.
"Yes," she agreed. "It's strong."
He told her of the other instance of Baird's kindness of heart.
"You know I was a little afraid of playing scenes with the cross-
eyed man, but Mr. Baird said he was trying so hard to do serious
work, so I wouldn't have him discharged. But shouldn't you think
he'd save up and have his eyes straightened? Does he get a very
The girl seemed again to be harassed by conflicting emotions, but
mastered them to say, "I don't know exactly what it is, but I guess
he draws down about twelve fifty a week."
"Only twelve dollars and fifty cents a week!"
"Twelve hundred and fifty," said the girl firmly.
"Twelve hundred and fifty dollars a week!" This was monstrous,
incredible. "But then why doesn't he have his eyes--"
Miss Montague drew him to her with both her capable arms. "My boy,
my boy!" she murmured, and upon his painted forehead she now
imprinted a kiss of deep reverence. "Run along and play," she
ordered. "You're getting me all nervous." Forthwith she moved to the
centre of the yard where the tight-rope walker still endangered his
life above the heads of a vast audience.
She joined him. She became a performer on the slack wire. With a
parasol to balance her, she ran to the centre of an imaginary wire
that swayed perilously, and she swung there, cunningly maintaining a
precarious balance. Then she sped back to safety at the wire's end,
threw down her parasol, caught the handkerchief thrown to her by the
first performer, and daintily touched her face with it, breathing
deeply the while and bowing.
He thought Sarah was a strange child--"One minute one thing and the
next minute something else."
MISS MONTAGUE USES HER OWN FACE
Work on the piece dragged slowly to an end. In these latter days the
earnest young leading man suffered spells of concern for his
employer. He was afraid that Mr. Baird in his effort to struggle out
of the slough of low comedy was not going to be wholly successful.
He had begun to note that the actors employed for this purpose were
not invariably serious even when the cameras turned. Or, if serious,
they seemed perhaps from the earnestness of their striving for the
worth-while drama, to be a shade too serious. They were often, he
felt, over-emphatic in their methods. Still, they were, he was
certain, good actors. One could always tell what they meant.
It was at these times that he especially wished he might be allowed
to view the "rushes." He not only wished to assure himself for
Baird's sake that the piece would be acceptably serious, but he
wished, with a quite seemly curiosity, to view his own acting on the
screen. It occurred to him that he had been acting a long time
without a glimpse of himself. But Baird had been singularly firm in
this matter, and the Montague girl had sided with him. It was best,
they said, for a beginning actor not to see himself at first. It
might affect his method before this had crystallized; make them
He was obliged to believe that these well-wishers of his knew best.
He must not, then, trifle with a screen success that seemed assured.
He tried to be content with this decision. But always the misgivings
would return. He would not be really content until he had watched
his own triumph. Soon this would be so securely his privilege that
not even Baird could deny it, for the first piece in which he had
worked was about to be shown. He looked forward to that.
It was toward the end of the picture that his intimacy with the
Montague girl grew to a point where, returning from location to the
studio late, they would dine together. "Hurry and get ungreased,
Son," she would say, "and you can take an actress out to dinner."
Sometimes they would patronize the cafeteria on the lot, but
oftener, in a spirit of adventure, they would search out exotic
restaurants. A picture might follow, after which by street-car he
would escort her to the Montague home in a remote, flat region of
palm-lined avenues sparsely set with new bungalows.
She would disquiet him at these times by insisting that she pay her
share of the expense, and she proved to have no mean talent for
petty finance, for she remembered every item down to the street-car
fares. Even to Merton Gill she seemed very much a child once she
stepped from the domain of her trade. She would stare into shop
windows wonderingly, and never failed to evince the most childish
delight when they ventured to dine at an establishment other than a
At times when they waited for a car after these dissipations he
suffered a not unpleasant alarm at sight of a large-worded
advertisement along the back of a bench on which they would sit.
"You furnish the Girl, We furnish the House," screamed the bench to
him above the name of an enterprising tradesman that came in time to
bite itself deeply into his memory.
Of course it would be absurd, but stranger things, he thought, had
happened. He wondered if the girl was as afraid of him as of other
men. She seemed not to be, but you couldn't tell much about her. She
had kissed him one day with a strange warmth of manner, but it had
been quite publicly in the presence of other people. When he left
her at her door now it was after the least sentimental of partings,
perhaps a shake of her hard little hand, or perhaps only a "S'long--
see you at the show-shop!"
It was on one of these nights that she first invited him to dine
with the Montague family. "I tried last night to get you on the
telephone," she explained, "but they kept giving me someone else, or
maybe I called wrong. Ain't these six-figured Los Angeles telephone
numbers the limit? When you call 208972 or something, it sounds like
paging a box-car. I was going to ask you over. Ma had cooked a
lovely mess of corned beef and cabbage. Anyway, you come eat with us
to-morrow night, will you? She'll have something else cooked up that
will stick to the merry old slats. You can come home with me when we
get in from work."
So it was that on the following night he enjoyed a home evening with
the Montagues. Mrs. Montague had indeed cooked up something else,
and had done it well; while Mr. Montague offered at the sideboard a
choice of amateur distillations and brews which he warmly
recommended to the guest. While the guest timidly considered, having
had but the slightest experience with intoxicants, it developed that
the confidence placed in his product by the hospitable old craftsman
was not shared by his daughter.
"Keep off it," she warned, and then to her father, "Say, listen, Pa,
have a heart; that boy's got to work to-morrow." "So be it, my
child," replied Mr. Montague with a visible stiffening of manner.
"Sylvester Montague is not the man to urge strong drink upon the
reluctant or the over-cautious. I shall drink my aperatif alone."
"Go to it, old Pippin," rejoined his daughter as she vanished to the
"Still, a little dish of liquor at this hour," continued the host
suggestively when they were alone.
"Well"--Merton wished the girl had stayed--"perhaps just a few
"Precisely, my boy, precisely. A mere dram." He poured the mere dram
and his guest drank. It was a colourless, fiery stuff with an
elusive taste of metal. Merton contrived an expression of pleasure
under the searching glance of his host. "Ah, I knew you would relish
it. I fancy I could amaze you if I told you how recently it was
made. Now here"--He grasped another bottle purposely--"is something
a full ten days older. It has developed quite a bouquet. Just a
The guest graciously yet firmly waved a negation.
"Thanks," he said, "but I want to enjoy the last--it--it has so much
"It has; it has, indeed. I'll not urge you, of course. Later you
must see the simple mechanism by which I work these wonders. Alone,
then, I drink to you."
Mr. Montague alone drank of two other fruits of his loom before the
ladies appeared with dinner. He was clean--shaven now and his fine
face glowed with hospitality as he carved roast chickens. The talk
was of the shop: of what Mr. Montague scornfully called "grind
shows" when his daughter led it, and of the legitimate hall-show
when he gained the leadership. He believed that moving pictures had
sounded the knell of true dramatic art and said so in many ways.
He tried to imagine the sensations of Lawrence Barrett or Louis
James could they behold Sylvester Montague, whom both these
gentlemen had proclaimed to be no mean artist, enacting the role of
a bar-room rowdy five days on end by reclining upon a sawdust floor
with his back supported by a spirits barrel. The supposititious
comments of the two placed upon the motion-picture industry the
black guilt of having degraded a sterling artist to the level of a
peep-show mountebank. They were frankly disgusted at the spectacle,
and their present spokesman thought it as well that they had not
actually lived to witness it--even the happier phases of this so-
called art in which a mere chit of a girl might earn a living wage
by falling downstairs for a so-called star, or the he-doll
whippersnapper--Merton Gill flinched in spite of himself--could name
his own salary for merely possessing a dimpled chin.
Further, an artist in the so-called art received his payment as if
he had delivered groceries at one's back door. "You, I believe--"--
The speaker addressed his guest--"are at present upon a pay-roll;
but there are others, your elders-possibly your betters, though I do
not say that--"
"You better not," remarked his daughter, only to be ignored.
"--others who must work a day and at the close of it receive a slip
of paper emblazoned 'Talent Pay Check.' How more effectively could
they cheapen the good word 'talent'? And at the foot of this slip
you are made to sign, before receiving the pittance you have earned,
a consent to the public exhibition for the purpose of trade or
advertising, of the pictures for which you may have posed. Could
tradesmen descend to a lower level, I ask you?"
"I'll have one for twelve fifty to-morrow night," said Mrs.
Montague, not too dismally. "I got to do a duchess at a reception,
and I certainly hope my feet don't hurt me again."
"Cheer up, old dears! Pretty soon you can both pick your parts,"
chirped their daughter. "Jeff's going to give me a contract, and
then you can loaf forever for all I care. Only I know you won't, and
you know you won't. Both of you'd act for nothing if you couldn't do
it for money. What's the use of pretending?"
"The chit may be right, she may be right," conceded Mr. Montague
Later, while the ladies were again in the kitchen, Mr. Montague,
after suggesting, "Something in the nature of an after-dinner
cordial," quaffed one for himself and followed it with the one he
had poured out for a declining guest who still treasured the flavour
of his one aperitif.
He then led the way to the small parlour where he placed in action
on the phonograph a record said to contain the ravings of John
McCullough in his last hours. He listened to this emotionally.
"That's the sort of technique," he said, "that the so--called silver
screen has made but a memory." He lighted his pipe, and identified
various framed photographs that enlivened the walls of the little
room. Many of them were of himself at an earlier age.
"My dear mother-in-law," he said, pointing to another. "A sterling
artist, and in her time an ornament of the speaking stage. I was on
tour when her last days came. She idolized me, and passed away with
my name on her lips. Her last request was that a photograph of me
should be placed in her casket before it went to its final resting
He paused, his emotion threatening to overcome him. Presently he
brushed a hand across his eyes and continued, "I discovered later
that they had picked out the most wretched of all my photographs--an
atrocious thing I had supposed was destroyed. Can you imagine it?"
Apparently it was but the entrance of his daughter that saved him
from an affecting collapse. His daughter removed the record of John
McCullough's ravings, sniffed at it, and put a fox-trot in its
"He's got to learn to dance," she explained, laying hands upon the
"Dancing--dancing!" murmured Mr. Montague, as if the very word
recalled bitter memories.
With brimming eyes he sat beating time to the fox-trot measure while
Merton Gill proved to all observers that his mastery of this dance
would, if ever at all achieved, be only after long and discouraging
"You forget all about your feet," remarked the girl as they paused,
swaying to the rhythm. "Remember the feet--they're important in a
dance. Now!--" But it was hard to remember his feet or, when he did
recall them, to relate their movements even distantly to the music.
When this had died despairingly, the girl surveyed her pupil with
friendly but doubting eyes.
"Say, Pa, don't he remind you of someone? Remember the squirrel that
joined out with us one time in the rep show and left 'East Lynne'
flat right in the middle of the third act while he went down and
announced the next night's play--the one that his name was Eddie
Duffy and he called himself Clyde Maltravers?"
"In a way, in a way," agreed Mr. Montague dismally. "A certain lack
of finish in the manner, perhaps."
"Remember how Charlie Dickman, the manager, nearly murdered him for
it in the wings? Not that Charlie didn't have a right to. Well, this
boy dances like Eddie Duffy would have danced."
"He was undeniably awkward and forgetful," said Mr. Montague. "Well
do I recall a later night. We played Under the Gaslight; Charlie
feared to trust him with a part, so he kept the young man off stage
to help with the train noise when the down express should dash
across. But even in this humble station he proved inefficient. When
the train came on he became confused, seized the cocoanut shells
instead of the sand-paper, and our train that night entered to the
sound of a galloping horse. The effect must have been puzzling to
the audience. Indeed, many of them seemed to consider it ludicrous.
Charlie Dickman confided in me later. 'Syl, my boy,' says he, 'this
bird Duffy has caused my first gray hairs.' It was little wonder
that he persuaded young Duffy to abandon the drama. He was not meant
for the higher planes of our art. Now our young friend here"--he
pointed to the perspiring Merton Gill--"doesn't even seem able to
master a simple dance step. I might say that he seems to out-Duffy
Duffy--for Duffy could dance after a fashion."
"He'll make the grade yet," replied his daughter grimly, and again
the music sounded. Merton Gill continued unconscious of his feet,
or, remembering them, he became deaf to the music. But the girl
brightened with a sudden thought when next they rested.
"I got it!" she announced. "We'll have about two hundred feet of
this for the next picture--you trying to dance just the way you been
doing with me. If you don't close to a good hand I'll eat my last
The lessons ceased. She seemed no longer to think it desirable that
her pupil should become proficient in the modern steps. He was
puzzled by her decision. Why should one of Baird's serious plays
need an actor who forgot his feet in a dance?
There were more social evenings at the Montague home. Twice the
gathering was enlarged by other members of the film colony, a supper
was served and poker played for inconsiderable stakes. In this game
of chance the Montague girl proved to be conservative, not to say
miserly, and was made to suffer genuinely when Merton Gill displayed
a reckless spirit in the betting. That he amassed winnings of
ninety-eight cents one night did not reassure her. She pointed out
that he might easily have lost this sum.
She was indeed being a mother to the defenceless boy. It was after a
gambling session that she demanded to be told what he was doing with
his salary. His careless hazarding of poker-chips had caused her to
be fearful of his general money sense.
Merton Gill had indeed been reckless. He was now, he felt, actually
one of the Hollywood set. He wondered how Tessie Kearns would regard
his progress. Would she be alarmed to know he attended those gay
parties that so often brought the film colony into unfavourable
public notice? Jolly dinners, dancing, gambling, drinking with
actresses--for Mr. Montague had at last turned out a beer that met
with the approval not only of his guests but of his own more
exacting family. The vivacious brew would now and again behave
unreasonably at the moment of being released, but it was potable
It was a gay life, Merton felt. And as for the Montague girl's
questions and warnings about his money, he would show her! He had,
of course, discharged his debt to her in the first two weeks of his
work with Baird. Now he would show her what he really thought of
He would buy her a gift whose presentation should mark a certain
great occasion. It should occur on the eve of his screen debut, and
would fittingly testify his gratitude. For the girl, after all, had
made him what he was. And the first piece was close to its premiere.
Already he had seen advance notices in the newspapers. The piece was
called Hearts On Fire, and in it, so the notices said, the comedy
manager had at last realized an ambition long nourished. He had done
something new and something big: a big thing done in a big way. The
Montague girl would see that the leading man who had done so much to
insure the success of Baird's striving for the worth-while drama was
not unforgetful of her favours and continuous solicitude.
He thought first of a ring, but across the blank brick wall of the
jewellery shop he elected to patronize was an enormous sign in
white: The House of Lucky Wedding Rings. This staring announcement
so alarmed him that he not only abandoned the plan for a ring-any
sort of ring might be misconstrued, he saw-but in an excess of
caution chose another establishment not so outspoken. If it kept
wedding rings at all, it was decently reticent about them, and it
did keep a profusion of other trinkets about which a possible
recipient could entertain no false notions. Wrist watches, for
example. No one could find subtle or hidden meanings in a wrist
He chose a bauble that glittered prettily on its black silk
bracelet, and was not shocked in the least when told by the engaging
salesman that its price was a sum for which in the old days
Gashwiler had demanded a good ten weeks of his life. Indeed it
seemed rather cheap to him when he remembered the event it should
celebrate. Still, it was a pleasing trifle and did not look cheap.
"Do you warrant it to keep good time?" he sternly demanded.
The salesman became diplomatic, though not without an effect of
genial man-to-man frankness. "Well, I guess you and I both know what
women's bracelet-watches are." He smiled a superior masculine smile
that drew his customer within the informed brotherhood. "Now here,
there's a platinum little thing that costs seven hundred and fifty,
and this one you like will keep just as good time as that one that
costs six hundred more. What could be fairer than that?"
"All right," said the customer. "I'll take it." During the remaining
formalities attending the purchase the salesman, observing that he
dealt with a tolerant man of the world, became even franker. "Of
course no one," he remarked pleasantly while couching the purchase
in a chaste bed of white satin, "expects women's bracelet-watches to
keep time. Not even the women."
"Want 'em for looks," said the customer.
"You've hit it, you've hit it!" exclaimed the salesman delightedly,
as if the customer had expertly probed the heart of a world-old
He had now but to await his great moment. The final scenes of the
new piece were shot. Again he was resting between pictures. As the
date for showing the first piece drew near he was puzzled to notice
that both Baird and the Montague girl curiously avoided any mention
of it. Several times he referred to it in their presence, but they
seemed resolutely deaf to his "Well, I see the big show opens Monday
He wondered if there could be some recondite bit of screen etiquette
which he was infringing. Actors were superstitious, he knew. Perhaps
it boded bad luck to talk of a forthcoming production. Baird and the
girl not only ignored his reference to Hearts on Fire, but they left
Baird looking curiously secretive and the Montague girl looking
curiously frightened. It perplexed him. Once he was smitten with a
quick fear that his own work in this serious drama had not met the
expectations of the manager.
However, in this he must be wrong, for Baird not only continued
cordial but, as the girl had prophesied, he urged upon his new actor
the signing of a long-time contract. The Montague girl had insisted
upon being present at this interview, after forbidding Merton to put
his name to any contract of which she did not approve. "I told Jeff
right out that I was protecting you," she said. "He understands he's
got to be reasonable."
It appeared, as they set about Baird's desk in the Buckeye office,
that she had been right. Baird submitted rather gracefully, after
but slight demur, to the terms which Miss Montague imposed in behalf
of her protege. Under her approving eye Merton Gill affixed his name
to a contract by which Baird was to pay him a salary of two hundred
and fifty dollars a week for three years.
It seemed an incredible sum. As he blotted his signature he was
conscious of a sudden pity for the manager. The Montague girl had
been hard--hard as nails, he thought--and Baird, a victim to his own
good nature, would probably lose a great deal of money. He resolved
never to press his advantage over a man who had been caught in a
"I just want to say, Mr. Baird," he began, "that you needn't be
afraid I'll hold you to this paper if you find it's too much money
to pay me. I wouldn't have taken it at all if it hadn't been for
her." He pointed an almost accusing finger at the girl.
Baird grinned; the girl patted his hand. Even at grave moments she
was a patter. "That's all right, Son," she said soothingly. "Jeff's
got all the best of it, and Jeff knows it, too. Don't you, Jeff?"
"Well--" Baird considered. "If his work keeps up I'm not getting any
the worst of it."
"You said it. You know very well what birds will be looking for this
boy next week, and what money they'll have in their mitts.
"Maybe," said Baird.
"Well, you got the best of it, and you deserve to have. I ain't ever
denied that, have I? You've earned the best of it the way you've
handled him. All I'm here for, I didn't want you to have too much
the best of it, see? I think I treated you well."
"You're all right, Flips." "Well, everything's jake, then?"
"Everything's jake with me."
"All right! And about his work keeping up--trust your old friend and
well-wisher. And say, Jeff--" Her eyes gleamed reminiscently. "You
ain't caught him dancing yet. Well--wait, that's all. We'll put on a
fox-trot in the next picture that will sure hog the footage."
As this dialogue progressed, Merton had felt more and more like a
child in the presence of grave and knowing elders. They had seemed
to forget him, to forget that the amazing contract just signed bore
his name. He thought the Montague girl was taking a great deal upon
herself. Her face, he noted, when she had stated terms to Baird, was
the face she wore when risking a small bet at poker on a high hand.
She seemed old, indeed. But he knew how he was going to make her
feel younger. In his pocket was a gift of rare beauty, even if you
couldn't run railway trains by it. And pretty things made a child of
Baird shook hands with him warmly at parting. "It'll be a week yet
before we start on the new piece. Have a good time. Oh, yes, and
drop around some time next week if there's any little thing you want
to talk over--or maybe you don't understand."
He wondered if this were a veiled reference to the piece about to be
shown. Certainly nothing more definite was said about it. Yet it was
a thing that must be of momentous interest to the manager, and the
manager must know that it would be thrilling to the actor.
He left with the Montague girl, who had become suddenly grave and
quiet. But outside the Holden lot, with one of those quick
transitions he had so often remarked in her, she brightened with a
desperate sort of gaiety.
"I'll tell you what!" she exclaimed. "Let's go straight down town--
it'll be six by the time we get there--and have the best dinner
money can buy: lobster and chicken and vanilla ice-cream and
everything, right in a real restaurant--none of this tray stuff--and
I'll let you pay for it all by yourself. You got a right to, after
that contract. And we'll be gay, and all the extra people that's
eating in the restaurant'll think we're a couple o' prominent film
actors. How about it?" She danced at his side.
"We'll have soup, too," he amended. "One of those thick ones that
costs about sixty cents. Sixty cents just for soup!" he repeated,
putting a hand to the contract that now stiffened one side of his
"Well, just this once," she agreed. "It might be for the last time."
"Nothing like that," he assured her. "More you spend, more you make-
-that's my motto."
They waited for a city-bound car, sitting again on the bench that
was so outspoken. "You furnish the girl, we furnish the home," it
shouted. He put his back against several of the bold words and felt
of the bracelet-watch in his pocket.
"It might be the last time for me," insisted the girl. "I feel as if
I might die most any time. My health's breaking down under the
strain. I feel kind of a fever coming on right this minute."
"Maybe you shouldn't go out."
"Yes, I should."
They boarded the car and reached the real restaurant, a cozy and
discreet resort up a flight of carpeted stairs. Side by side on a
seat that ran along the wall they sat at a table for two and the
dinner was ordered. "Ruin yourself if you want to," said the girl as
her host included celery and olives in the menu. "Go on and order
prunes, too, for all I care. I'm reckless. Maybe I'll never have
another dinner, the way this fever's coming on. Feel my hand."
Under the table she wormed her hand into his, and kept it there
until food came. "Do my eyes look very feverish?" she asked.
"Not so very," he assured her, covering an alarm he felt for the
first time. She did appear to be feverish, and the anxiety of her
manner deepened as the meal progressed. It developed quickly that
she had but scant appetite for the choice food now being served. She
could only taste bits here and there. Her plates were removed with
their delicacies almost intact. Between courses her hand would seek
his, gripping it as if in some nameless dread. He became worried
about her state; his own appetite suffered.
Once she said as her hot hand clung to his, "I know where you'll be
to-morrow night." Her voice grew mournful, despairing. "And I know
perfectly well it's no good asking you to stay away."
He let this pass. Could it be that the girl was already babbling in
"And all the time," she presently went on, "I'll simply be sick a-
bed, picking at the covers, all blue around the gills. That'll be
me, while you're off to your old motion picture--'the so-called art
of the motion picture,'" she concluded with a careful imitation of
her father's manner.
He tried to determine whether she were serious or jesting. You never
could tell about this girl. Whatever it was, it made him uneasy.
Outside he wished to take her home in a taxi-cab, but she would not
hear to this. "We'll use the town-car, Gaston," she announced with a
flash of her old manner as she waved to an on-coming street-car.
During the long ride that followed she was silent but restless,
tapping her foot, shifting in her seat, darting her head about. The
one thing she did steadily was to clutch his arm.
During the walk from the car to the Montague house she twice
indulged in her little dance step, even as she clung to the arm, but
each Lime she seemed to think little of it and resumed a steady
pace, her head down. The house was dark. Without speaking she
unlocked the door and drew him into the little parlour.
"Stand right on that spot," she ordered, with a final pat of his
shoulder, and made her way to the dining room beyond where she
turned on a single light that faintly illumined the room in which he
waited. She came back to him, removed the small cloth hat, tossed it
to a chair, and faced him silently.
The light from the other room shone across her eyes and revealed
them to him shadowy and mysterious. Her face was set in some ominous
control. At last she looked away from him and began in a strained
voice, "If anything happens to me--"
He thought it time to end this nonsense. She might be feverish, but
it could be nothing so serious as she was intimating. He clutched
the gift. "Sarah," he said lightly, "I got a little something for
you--see what I mean?" He thrust the package into her weakly
She studied it in the dusk, turning it over and over. Then with no
word to him she took it to the dining room where under the light she
opened it. He heard a smothered exclamation that seemed more of
dismay than the delight he expected, though he saw that she was
holding the watch against her wrist. She came back to the dusk of
the parlour, beginning on the way one of her little skipping dance
steps, which she quickly suppressed. She was replacing the watch on
its splendid couch of satin and closing the box.
"I never saw such a man!" she exclaimed with an irritation that he
felt to be artificial. "After all you've been through, I should
think you'd have learned the value of money. Anyway, it's too
beautiful for me. And anyway, I couldn't take it--not to-night,
anyway. And anyway--" Her voice had acquired a huskiness in this
speech that now left her incoherent, and the light revealed a
wetness in her eyes. She dabbed at them with a handkerchief. "Of
course you can take it to-night," he said in masterful tones, "after
all you've done for me."
"Now you listen," she began. "You don't know all I've done for you.
You don't know me at all. Suppose something came out about me that
you didn't think I'd 'a' been guilty of. You can't ever tell about
people in this business. You don't know me at all-not one little
bit. I might 'a' done lots of things that would turn you against me.
I tell you you got to wait and find out about things. I haven't the
nerve to tell you, but you'll find out soon enough--"
The expert in photoplays suffered a sudden illumination. This was a
scene he could identify--a scene in which the woman trembled upon
the verge of revealing to the man certain sinister details of her
past, spurred thereto by a scoundrel who blackmailed her. He studied
the girl in a new light. Undoubtedly, from her words, he saw one
panic-stricken by the threatened exposure of some dreadful
complication in her own past. Certainly she was suffering.
"I don't care if this fever does carry me off," she went on. "I know
you could never feel the same toward me after you found out--"
Again she was dabbing at her eyes, this time with the sleeve of her
jacket. A suffering woman stood before him. She who had always shown
herself so competent to meet trouble with laughing looks was being
overthrown by this nameless horror. Suddenly he knew that to him it
didn't matter so very much what crime she had been guilty of.
"I don't care what you've done," he said, his own voice husky. She
continued to weep.
He felt himself grow hot. "Listen here, Kid"--He now spoke with more
than a touch of the bully in his tone--"stop this nonsense. You--you
come here and give me a good big kiss--see what I mean?"
She looked up at him from wet eyes, and amazingly through her
anguish she grinned. "You win!" she said, and came to him.
He was now the masterful one. He took her protectingly in his arms.
He kissed her though with no trace of the Parmalee technique. His
screen experience might never have been. It was more like the dead
days of Edwina May Pulver.
"Now you stop it," he soothed--"all this nonsense!" His cheek was
against hers and his arms held her. "What do I care what you've done
in your past--what do I care? And listen here, Kid"--There was again
the brutal note of the bully in his voice--"don't ever do any more
of those stunts--see what I mean? None of that falling off
streetcars or houses or anything. Do you hear?"
He felt that he was being masterful indeed. He had swept her off her
feet. Probably now she would weep violently and sob out her
confession. But a moment later he was reflecting, as he had so many
times before reflected, that you never could tell about the girl. In
his embrace she had become astoundingly calm. That emotional crisis
threatening to beat down all her reserves had passed. She reached up
and almost meditatively pushed back the hair from his forehead,
regarding him with eyes that were still shadowed but dry. Then she
gave him a quick little hug and danced away. It was no time for
dancing, he thought.
"Now you sit down," she ordered. She was almost gay again, yet with
a nervous, desperate gaiety that would at moments die to a brooding
solemnity. "And listen," she began, when he had seated himself in
bewilderment at her sudden change of mood, "you'll be off to your
old motion picture to-morrow night, and I'll be here sick in bed--"
"I won't go if you don't want me to," he put in quickly.
"That's no good; you'd have to go sometime. The quicker the better,
I guess. I'll go myself sometime, if I ever get over this disease
that's coming on me. Anyway, you go, and then if you ever see me
again you can give me this--" She quickly came to put the watch back
in his hands. "Yes, yes, take it. I won't have it till you give it
to me again, if I'm still alive." She held up repulsing hands. "Now
we've had one grand little evening, and I'll let you go." She went
to stand by the door.
He arose and stood by her. "All this nonsense!" he grumbled. "I--I
won't stand for it--see what I mean?" Very masterfully again he put
his arms about her. "Say," he demanded, "are you afraid of me like
you said you'd always been afraid of men?"
"Yes, I am. I'm afraid of you a whole lot. I don't know how you'll
take it." "Take what?"
"Oh, anything--anything you're going to get."
"Well, you don't seem to be afraid of me."
"I am, more than any one."
"Well, Sarah, you needn't be--no matter what you've done. You just
forget it and give me a good big--"
"I'm glad I'm using my own face in this scene," murmured Sarah.
Down at the corner, waiting for his car, he paced back and forth in
front of the bench with its terse message--"You furnish the girl, we
furnish the house"--Sarah was a funny little thing with all that
nonsense about what he would find out. Little he cared if she'd done
something--forgery, murder, anything.
He paused in his stride and addressed the vacant bench: "Well, I've
done my part."
"FIVE REELS-500 LAUGHS"
It occurred to him the next morning that he might have taken too
lightly Sarah's foreboding of illness. Reviewing her curious
behaviour he thought it possible she might be in for something
But a midday telephone call at the Montague home brought assurances
from the mother that quieted this fear. Sarah complained of not
feeling well, and was going to spend a quiet day at home. But Mrs.
Montague was certain it was nothing serious. No; she had no
temperature. No fever at all. She was just having a spell of
thinking about things, sort of grouchy like. She had been grouchy to
both her parents. Probably because she wasn't working. No, she said
she wouldn't come to the telephone. She also said she was in a bad
way and might pass out any minute. But that was just her kidding. It
was kind of Mr. Gill to call up. He wasn't to worry.
He continued to worry, however, until the nearness of his screen
debut drove Sarah to the back of his mind. Undoubtedly it was just
her nonsense. And in the meantime, that long--baffled wish to see
himself in a serious drama was about to be gratified in fullest
measure. He was glad the girl had not suggested that she be with him
on this tremendous occasion. He wanted to be quite alone, solitary
in the crowd, free to enjoy his own acting without pretense of
The Pattersons, of course, were another matter. He had told them of
his approaching debut and they were making an event of it. They
would attend, though he would not sit with them. Mr. Patterson in
his black suit, his wife in society raiment, would sit downstairs
and would doubtless applaud their lodger; but he would be remote
from them; in a far corner of the topmost gallery, he first thought,
for Hearts on Fire was to be shown in one of the big down-town
theatres where a prominent member of its cast could lose himself.
He had told the Pattersons a little about the story. It was pretty
pathetic in spots, he said, but it all came right in the end, and
there were some good Western scenes. When the Pattersons said he
must be very good in it, he found himself unable to achieve the
light fashion of denial and protestation that would have become him.
He said he had struggled to give the world something better and
finer. For a moment he was moved to confess that Mrs. Patterson, in
the course of his struggles, had come close to losing ten dollars,
but he mastered the wild impulse. Some day, after a few more
triumphs, he might laughingly confide this to her.
The day was long. Slothfully it dragged hours that seemed endless
across the company of shining dreams that he captained. He was early
at the theatre, first of early comers, and entered quickly,
foregoing even a look at the huge lithographs in front that would
perhaps show his very self in some gripping scene.
With an empty auditorium to choose from, he compromised on a balcony
seat. Down below would doubtless be other members of the company,
probably Baird himself, and he did not wish to be recognized. He
must be alone with his triumph. And the loftier gallery would be too
The house filled slowly. People sauntered to their seats as if the
occasion were ordinary; even when the seats were occupied and the
orchestra had played, there ensued the annoying delays of an
educational film and a travelogue. Upon this young actor's memory
would be forever seared the information that the conger eel lays
fifteen million eggs at one time and that the inhabitants of Upper
Burmah have quaint native pastimes. These things would stay with
him, but they were unimportant. Even the prodigal fecundity of the
conger eel left him cold.
He gripped the arms of his seat when the cast of Hearts on Fire was
flung to the screen. He caught his own name instantly, and was
puzzled. "Clifford Armytage--By Himself." Someone had bungled that,
but no matter. Then at once he was seeing that first scene of his.
As a popular screen idol he breakfasted in his apartment, served by
a valet who was a hero worshipper.
He was momentarily disquieted by the frank adoration of the cross-
eyed man in this part. While acting the scene, he remembered now
that he had not always been able to observe his valet. There were
moments when he seemed over-emphatic. The valet was laughed at. The
watcher's sympathy went out to Baird, who must be seeing his serious
effort taken too lightly.
There came the scene where he looked at the photograph album. But
now his turning of the pages was interspersed with close-ups of the
portraits he regarded so admiringly. And these astonishingly proved
to be enlarged stills of Clifford Armytage, the art studies of
Lowell Hardy. It was puzzling. On the screen he capably beamed the
fondest admiration, almost reverent in its intensity--and there
would appear the still of Merton bidding an emotional farewell to
his horse. The very novelty of it held him for a moment--Gashwiler's
Dexter actually on the screen! He was aroused by the hearty laughter
of an immense audience.
"It's Parmalee," announced a hoarse neighbour on his right. "He's
imitatin' Harold! Say, the kid's clever!"
The laughter continued during the album scene. He thought of Baird,
somewhere in that audience, suffering because his play was made fun
of. He wished he could remind him that scenes were to follow which
would surely not be taken lightly. For himself, he was feeling that
at least his strong likeness to Parmalee had been instantly
admitted. They were laughing, as the Montague girl had laughed that
first morning, because the resemblance was so striking. But now on
the screen, after the actor's long fond look at himself, came the
words, "The Only Man He Ever Loved."
Laughter again. The watcher felt himself grow hot. Had Baird been
betrayed by one of his staff?
The scene with the letters followed. Clothes baskets of letters. His
own work, as he opened a few from the top, was all that he could
have wished. He was finely Harold Parmalee, and again the hoarse
neighbour whispered, "Ain't he got Parmalee dead, though?"
"Poor, silly little girls!" the screen exclaimed, and the audience
became noisy. Undoubtedly it was a tribute to his perfection in the
Parmalee manner. But he was glad that now there would come acting at
which no one could laugh. There was the delicatessen shop, the
earnest young cashier and his poor old mother who mopped. He saw
himself embrace her and murmur words of encouragement, but
incredibly there were giggles from the audience, doubtless from base
souls who were impervious to pathos. The giggles coalesced to a
general laugh when the poor old mother, again mopping on the floor,
was seen to say, "I hate these mopping mothers. You get took with
house-maid's knee in the first reel."
Again he was seized with a fear that one of Baird's staff had been
clumsy with subtitles. His eyes flew to his own serious face when
the silly words had gone.
The drama moved. Indeed the action of the shadows was swifter than
he supposed it would be. The dissolute son of the proprietor came on
to dust the wares and to elicit a laugh when he performed a bit of
business that had escaped Merton at the time. Against the wire
screen that covered the largest cheese on the counter he placed a
placard, "Dangerous. Do not Annoy."
Probably Baird had not known of this clowning. And there came
another subtitle that would dismay Baird when the serious young
bookkeeper enacted his scene with the proprietor's lovely daughter,
for she was made to say: "You love above your station. Ours is 125th
Street; you get off at 59th."
He was beginning to feel confused. A sense of loss, of panic, smote
him. His own part was the intensely serious thing he had played, but
in some subtle way even that was being made funny. He could not rush
to embrace his old mother without exciting laughter.
The robbery of the safe was effected by the dissolute son, the
father broke in upon the love scene, discovered the loss of his
money, and accused an innocent man. Merton felt that he here acted
superbly. His long look at the girl for whom he was making the
supreme sacrifice brought tears to his own eyes, but still the
witless audience snickered. Unobserved by the others, the old mother
now told her son the whereabouts of the stolen money, and he saw
himself secure the paper sack of bills from the ice-box. He detected
the half-guilty look of which he had spoken to Baird. Then he read
his own incredible speech--"I better take this cool million. It
might get that poor lad into trouble!" Again the piece had been hurt
by a wrong subtitle. But perhaps the audience laughed because it was
accustomed to laugh at Baird's productions. Perhaps it had not
realized that he was now attempting one of the worth-while things.
This reasoning was refuted as he watched what occurred after he had
made his escape.
His flight was discovered, policemen entered, a rapid search behind
counters ensued. In the course of this the wire screen over the
biggest cheese was knocked off the counter. The cheese leaped to the
floor, and the searchers, including the policemen, fled in panic
through the front door. The Montague girl, the last to escape, was
seen to announce, "The big cheese is loose--it's eating all the
A band of intrepid firemen, protected by masks and armed with axes,
rushed in. A terrific struggle ensued. The delicatessen shop was
wrecked. And through it all the old mother continued to mop the
floor. Merton Gill, who had first grown hot, was now cold. Icy drops
were on his chilled brow. How had Hearts on Fire gone wrong?
Then they were in the great open spaces of the Come All Ye dance
hall. There was the young actor in his Buck Benson costume,
protecting his mother from the brutality of a Mexican, getting his
man later by firing directly into a mirror--Baird had said it would
come right in the exposure, but it hadn't. And the witless cackled.
He saw his struggle with the detective. With a real thrill he saw
himself bear his opponent to the ground, then hurl him high and far
into the air, to be impaled upon the antlers of an elk's head
suspended back of the bar. He saw himself lightly dust his sleeves
after this feat, and turn aside with the words, "That's one Lodge he
Then followed a scene he had not been allowed to witness. There
swung Marcel, the detective, played too emphatically by the cross-
eyed man. An antler point suspended him by the seat of his trousers.
He hung limply a moment, then took from his pocket a saw with which
he reached up to contrive his release. He sawed through the antler
and fell. He tried to stand erect, but appeared to find this
impossible. A subtitle announced: "He had put a permanent wave in
This base fooling was continuously blown upon by gales of stupid
laughter. But not yet did Merton Gill know the worst. The merriment
persisted through his most affecting bit, the farewell to his old
pal outside--how could they have laughed at a simple bit of pathos
like that? But the watching detective was seen to weep bitterly.
"Look a' him doin' Buck Benson," urged the hoarse neighbour
gleefully. "You got to hand it to that kid--say, who is he, anyway?"
Followed the thrilling leap from a second-story window to the back
of the waiting pal. The leap began thrillingly, but not only was it
shown that the escaping man had donned a coat and a false mustache
in the course of his fall, but at its end he was revealed slowly,
very slowly, clambering into the saddle!
They had used here, he saw, one of those slow cameras that seem to
suspend all action interminably, a cruel device in this instance.
And for his actual escape, when he had ridden the horse beyond
camera range at a safe walk, they had used another camera that gave
the effect of intense speed. The old horse had walked, but with an
air of swiftness that caused the audience intense delight.
Entered Marcel, the detective, in another scene Merton had not
watched. He emerged from the dance-hall to confront a horse that
remained, an aged counterpart of the horse Merton had ridden off.
Marcel stared intently into the beast's face, whereupon it reared
and plunged as if terrified by the spectacle of the cross-eyed man.
Merton recalled the horse in the village that had seemed to act so
intelligently. Probably a shot-gun had stimulated the present scene.
The detective thereupon turned aside, hastily donned his false
mustache and Sherlock Holmes cap, and the deceived horse now
permitted him to mount. He, too, walked off to the necromancy of a
lens that multiplied his pace a thousandfold. And the audience
rocked in its seats.
One horse still remained before the dance-hall. The old mother
emerged. With one anguished look after the detective, she gathered
up her disreputable skirts and left the platform in a flying leap to
land in the saddle. There was no trickery about the speed at which
her horse, belaboured with the mop-pail, galloped in pursuit of the
others. A subtitle recited--"She has watched her dear ones leave the
old nest flat. Now she must go out over the hills and mop the other
side of them!"
Now came the sensational capture by lasso of the detective. But the
captor had not known that, as he dragged his quarry at the rope's
end, the latter had somehow possessed himself of a sign which he
later walked in with, a sign reading, "Join the Good Roads
Movement!" nor that the faithful old mother had ridden up to deposit
her inverted mop-pail over his head.
Merton Gill had twice started to leave. He wanted to leave. But each
time he found himself chained there by the evil fascination of this
monstrous parody. He remained to learn that the Montague girl had
come out to the great open spaces to lead a band of train-robbers
from the "Q.T. ranche."
He saw her ride beside a train and cast her lasso over the stack of
the locomotive. He saw her pony settle back on its haunches while
the rope grew taut and the train was forced to a halt. He saw the
passengers lined up by the wayside and forced to part with their
valuables. Later, when the band returned to the ranche with their
booty, he saw the dissolute brother, after the treasure was divided,
winning it back to the family coffers with his dice. He saw the
stricken father playing golf on his bicycle in grotesque imitation
of a polo player.
And still, so incredible the revealment, he had not in the first
shock of it seemed to consider Baird in any way to blame. Baird had
somehow been deceived by his actors. Yet a startling suspicion was
forming amid his mental flurries, a suspicion that bloomed to
certainty when he saw himself the ever-patient victim of the genuine
Baird had said he wanted the close-ups merely for use in determining
how the spurs could be mastered, yet here they were. Merton Gill
caught the spurs in undergrowth and caught them in his own chaps,
arising from each fall with a look of gentle determination that
appealed strongly to the throng of lackwits. They shrieked at each
of his failures, even when he ran to greet his pictured sweetheart
and fell headlong. They found the comedy almost unbearable when at
Baird's direction he had begun to toe in as he walked. And he had
fallen clumsily again when he flew to that last glad rendezvous
where the pair were irised out in a love triumphant, while the old
mother mopped a large rock in the background. An intervening close-
up of this rock revealed her tearful face as she cleansed the
granite surface. Above her loomed a painted exhortation to "Use
Wizard Spine Pills." And of this pathetic old creature he was made
to say, even as he clasped the beloved in his arms--"Remember, she
is my mother. I will not desert her now just because I am rich and
At last he was free. Amid applause that was long and sincere he
gained his feet and pushed a way out. His hoarse neighbour was
saying, "Who is the kid, anyway? Ain't he a wonder!"
He pulled his hat down, dreading he might be recognized and shamed
before these shallow fools. He froze with the horror of what he had
been unable to look away from. The ignominy of it! And now, after
those spurs, he knew full well that Baird had betrayed him. As the
words shaped in his mind, a monstrous echo of them reverberated
through its caverns--the Montague girl had betrayed him!
He understood her now, and burned with memories of her uneasiness
the night before. She had been suffering acutely from remorse; she
had sought to cover it with pleas of physical illness. At the moment
he was conscious of no feeling toward her save wonder that she could
so coolly have played him false. But the thing was not to be
questioned. She--and Baird--had made a fool of him.
As he left the theatre, the crowd about him commented approvingly on
the picture: "Who's this new comedian?" he heard a voice inquire.
But "Ain't he a wonder!" seemed to be the sole reply.
He flushed darkly. So they thought him a comedian. Well, Baird
wouldn't think so--not after to-morrow. He paused outside the
theatre now to study the lithograph in colours. There he hurled
Marcel to the antlers of the elk. The announcement was "Hearts on
Fire! A Jeff Baird Comedy. Five Reels-500 Laughs."
Baird, he sneeringly reflected, had kept faith with his patrons if
not with one of his actors. But how he had profaned the sunlit
glories of the great open West and its virile drama! And the spurs,
as he had promised the unsuspecting wearer, had stood out! The
horror of it, blinding, desolating!
And he had as good as stolen that money himself, taking it out to
the great open spaces to spend in a bar-room. Baird's serious effort
had turned out to be a wild, inconsequent farrago of the most
But it was over for Merton Gill. The golden bowl was broken, the
silver cord was loosed. To-morrow he would tear up Baird's contract
and hurl the pieces in Baird's face. As to the Montague girl, that
deceiving jade was hopeless. Never again could he trust her.
In a whirling daze of resentment he boarded a car for the journey
home. A group seated near him still laughed about Hearts on Fire. "I
thought he'd kill me with those spurs," declared an otherwise sanely
behaving young woman--"that hurt, embarrassed look on his face every
time he'd get up!"
He cowered in his seat. And he remembered another ordeal he must
probably face when he reached home. He hoped the Pattersons would be
in bed, and walked up and down before the gate when he saw the house
still alight. But the light stayed, and at last he nerved himself
for a possible encounter. He let himself in softly, still hoping he
could gain his room undiscovered; but Mrs. Patterson framed herself
in the lighted door of the living room and became exclamatory at
sight of him.
And he who had thought to stand before these people in shame to
receive their condolences now perceived that his trial would be of
another but hardly less-distressing sort. For somehow, so dense were
these good folks, that he must seem to be not displeased with his
own performance. Amazingly they congratulated him, struggling with
reminiscent laughter as they did so.
"And you never told us you was one of them funny comedians," chided
Mrs. Patterson. "We thought you was just a beginner, and here you
got the biggest part in the picture! Say, the way you acted when
you'd pick yourself up after them spurs threw you--I'll wake up in
the night laughing at that."
"And the way he kept his face so straight when them other funny ones
was cutting their capers all around him," observed Mr. Patterson.
"Yes! wasn't it wonderful, Jed, the way he never let on, keeping his
face as serious as if he'd been in a serious play?"
"I like to fell off my seat," added Mr. Patterson.
"I'll tell you something, Mr. Armytage," began Mrs. Patterson with a
suddenly serious manner of her own, "I never been one to flatter
folks to their faces unless I felt it from the bottom of my heart--I
never been that kind; when I tell a person such-and-such about
themselves they can take it for the truth's own truth; so you can
believe me now--I saw lots of times in that play to-night when you
was even funnier than the cross-eyed man."
The young actor was regarding her strangely; seemingly he wished to
acknowledge this compliment but could find no suitable words. "Yes,
you can blush and hem and haw," went on his critic, "but any one
knows me I'll tell you I mean it when I talk that way--yes, sir,
funnier than the cross-eyed man himself. My, I guess the
neighbours'll be talking soon's they find out we got someone as
important as you be in our spare-room--and, Mr. Armytage, I want you
to give me a signed photograph of yourself, if you'll be so good."
He escaped at last, dizzy from the maelstrom of conflicting emotions
that had caught and whirled him. It had been impossible not to
appear, and somehow difficult not to feel, gratified under this
heartfelt praise. He had been bound to appear pleased but
incredulous, even when she pronounced him superior, at times, to the
cross-eyed man--though the word she used was "funnier."
Betrayed by his friends, stricken, disconsolate, in a panic of
despair, he had yet seemed glad to hear that he had been "funny." He
flew to the sanctity of his room. Not again could he bear to be told
that the acting which had been his soul's high vision was a thing
He paced his room a long time, a restless, defenceless victim to
recurrent visions of his shame. Implacably they returned to torture
him. Reel after reel of the ignoble stuff, spawned by the miscreant,
Baird, flashed before him; a world of base painted shadows in which
he had been the arch offender.
Again and again he tried to make clear to himself just why his own
acting should have caused mirth. Surely he had been serious; he had
given the best that was in him.
And the groundlings had guffawed!
Perhaps it was a puzzle he could never solve. And now he first
thought of the new piece.
This threw him into fresh panic. What awful things, with his high
and serious acting, would he have been made to do in that?
Patiently, one by one, he went over the scenes in which he had
appeared. Dazed, confused, his recollection could bring to him
little that was ambiguous in them. But also he had played through
Hearts on Fire with little suspicion of its low intentions.
He went to bed at last, though to toss another hour in fruitless
effort to solve this puzzle and to free his eyes of those flashing
infamies of the night. Ever and again as he seemed to become
composed, free at last of tormenting visions, a mere subtitle would
flash in his brain, as where the old mother, when he first punished
her insulter, was made by the screen to call out, "Kick him on the
But the darkness refreshed his tired eyes, and sun at last brought
him a merciful outlet from a world in which you could act your best
and still be funnier than a cross-eyed man.
He awakened long past his usual hour and occupied his first
conscious moments in convincing himself that the scandal of the
night before had not been a bad dream. The shock was a little dulled
now. He began absurdly to remember the comments of those who had
appeared to enjoy the unworthy entertainment. Undoubtedly many
people had mentioned him with warm approval. But such praise was
surely nothing to take comfort from. He was aroused from this
retrospection by a knock on his door. It proved to be Mr. Patterson
bearing a tray. "Mrs. P. thought that you being up so late last
night mebbe would like a cup of coffee and a bite of something
before you went out." The man's manner was newly respectful. In this
house, at least, Merton Gill was still someone.
He thanked his host, and consumed the coffee and toast with a novel
sense of importance. The courtesy was unprecedented. Mrs. Patterson
had indeed been sincere. And scarcely had he finished dressing when
Mr. Patterson was again at the door.
"A gentleman downstairs to see you, Mr. Armytage. "He says his name
is Walberg but you don't know him. He says it's a business matter."
"Very well, I'll be down." A business matter? He had no business
matters with any one except Baird.
He was smitten with a quick and quite illogical fear. Perhaps he
would not have to tear up that contract and hurl it in the face of
the manager who had betrayed him. Perhaps the manager himself would
do the tearing. Perhaps Baird, after seeing the picture, had decided
that Merton Gill would not do. Instantly he felt resentful. Hadn't
he given the best that was in him? Was it his fault if other actors
had turned into farce one of the worth-while things?
He went to meet Mr. Walberg with this resentment so warm that his
greeting of the strange gentleman was gruff and short. The caller,
an alert, businesslike man, came at once to his point. He was, it
proved, not the representative of a possibly repenting Baird. He
was, on the contrary, representing a rival producer. He extended his
card--The Bigart Comedies.
"I got your address from the Holden office, Mr. Armytage. I guess I
routed you out of bed, eh? Well, it's like this, if yon ain't sewed
up with Baird yet, the Bigart people would like to talk a little
business to you. How about it?"
"Business?" Mr. Armytage fairly exploded this. He was unhappy and
puzzled; in consequence, unamiable.
"Sure, business," confirmed Mr. Walberg. "I understand you just
finished another five-reeler for the Buckeye outfit, but how about
some stuff for us now? We can give you as good a company as that one
last night and a good line of comedy. We got a gag man that simply
never gets to the end of his string. He's doping out something right
now that would fit you like a glove--and say, it would be a great
idea to kind a' specialize in that spur act of yours. That got over
big. We could work it in again. An act like that's good for a
Mr. Armytage eyed Mr. Walberg coldly. Even Mr. Walberg felt an
extensive area of glaciation setting in.
"I wouldn't think of it," said the actor, still gruffly.
"Do you mean that you can't come to the Bigart at all--on any
"That's what I mean," confirmed Mr. Armytage.
"Would three hundred and fifty a week interest you?"
"No," said Mr. Armytage, though he gulped twice before achieving it.
Mr. Walberg reported to his people that this Armytage lad was one
hard-boiled proposition. He'd seen lots of 'em in his time, but this
bird was a wonder.
Yet Mr. Armytage was not really so granitic of nature as the Bigart
emissary had thought him. He had begun the interview with a
smouldering resentment due to a misapprehension; he had been
outraged by a suggestion that the spurs be again put to their
offensive use; and he had been stunned by an offer of three hundred
and fifty dollars a week. That was all.
Here was a new angle to the puzzles that distracted him. He was not
only praised by the witless, but he had been found desirable by
certain discerning overlords of filmdom. What could be the secret of
a talent that caused people, after viewing it but once, to make
And another thing--why had he allowed Baird to "sew him up"? The
Montague girl again occupied the foreground of his troubled musings.
She, with her airs of wise importance, had helped to sew him up. She
was a helpless thing, after all, and false of nature. He would have
matters out with her this very day. But first he must confront Baird
in a scene of scorn and reprobation.
On the car he became aware that far back in remote caverns of his
mind there ran a teasing memory of some book on the shelves of the
Simsbury public library. He was sure it was not a book he had read.
It was merely the title that hid itself. Only this had ever
interested him, and it but momentarily. So much he knew. A book's
title had lodged in his mind, remained there, and was now curiously
stirring in some direct relation to his present perplexities.
But it kept its face averted. He could not read it. Vaguely he
identified the nameless book with Tessie Kearns; he could not divine
how, because it was not her book and he had never seen it except on
the library shelf.
The nameless book persistently danced before him. He was glad of
this. It kept him at moments from thinking of the loathly Baird.
THE TRAGIC COMEDIAN
Penetrating the Holden lot he was relieved to find that he created
no immediate sensation. People did not halt to point derisive
fingers at him; he had half feared they would. As he approached the
office building he was almost certain he saw Baird turn in ahead of
him. Yet when he entered the outer room of the Buckeye offices a
young woman looked up from her typewriter to tell him that Mr. Baird
was not in.
She was a serious-eyed young woman of a sincere manner; she spoke
with certainty of tone. Mr. Baird was not only out, but he would not
be in for several days. His physician had ordered him to a
The young woman resumed her typing; she did not again, glance up.
The caller seemed to consider waiting on a chance that she had been
misinformed. He was now sure he had seen Baird enter the building,
and the door of his private office was closed. The caller idled
outside the railing, absently regarding stills of past Buckeye
atrocities that had been hung upon the walls of the office by
someone with primitive tastes in decoration. He was debating a
direct challenge of the young woman's veracity.
What would she say if told that the caller meant to wait right there
until Mr. Baird should convalesce? He managed some appraising side-
glances at her as she bent over her machine. She seemed to believe
he had already gone.
Then he did go. No good talking that way to a girl. If it had been a
man. now--"You tell Mr. Baird that Mr. Gill's got to see him as soon
as possible about something important," he directed from the open
The young woman raised her serious eyes to his and nodded. She
resumed her work. The door closed. Upon its closing the door of
Baird's private office opened noiselessly to a crack that sufficed
for the speaking voice at very moderate pitch to issue.
"Get Miss Montague on the 'phone," directed the voice. The door
closed noiselessly. Beyond it Mr. Baird was presently speaking in
low, sweet tones.
"'Lo, Sister! Listen; that squirrel just boiled in here, and I
ducked him. I told the girl I wasn't to be in unless he was laughing
all over, and he wasn't doing the least little thing that was
anywheres near laughing. See what I mean? It's up to you now. You
started it; you got to finish it. I've irised out. Get me?"
On the steps outside the rebuffed Merton Gill glanced at his own
natty wrist-watch, bought with some of the later wages of his shame.
It was the luncheon hour; mechanically he made his way to the
cafeteria. He had ceased to rehearse the speech a doughtier Baird
would now have been hearing.
Instead he roughly drafted one that Sarah Nevada Montague could not
long evade. Even on her dying bed she would be compelled to listen.
The practising orator with bent head mumbled as he walked. He still
mumbled as he indicated a choice of foods at the cafeteria counter;
he continued to be thus absorbed as he found a table near the centre
of the room.
He arranged his assortment of viands. "You led me on, that's what
you did," he continued to the absent culprit. "Led me on to make a
laughing-stock of myself, that's what you did. Made a fool of me,
that's what you did."
"All the same, I can't help thinking he's a harm to the industry,"
came the crisp tones of Henshaw from an adjoining table. The
rehearsing orator glanced up to discover that the director and the
sunny-faced brown and gray man he called Governor were smoking above
the plates of their finished luncheon.
"I wouldn't worry too much," suggested the cheerful governor.
"But see what he does: he takes the good old reliable, sure-fire
stuff and makes fun of it. I admit it's funny to start with, but
what'll happen to us if the picture public ever finds that out?
What'll we do then for drama--after they've learned to laugh at the
"Tush, tush, my boy!" The Governor waved a half--consumed cigarette
until its ash fell. "Never fear. Do you think a thousand Jeff Bairds
could make the picture public laugh at the old stuff when it's
played straight? They laughed last night, yes; but not so much at
the really fine burlesque; they guffawed at the slap-stick stuff
that went with it. Baird's shrewd. He knows if he played straight
burlesque he'd never make a dollar, so notice how he'll give a bit
of straight that is genuine art, then a bit of slap-stick that any
one can get. The slap-stick is what carries the show. Real burlesque
is criticism, my boy; sometimes the very high-browest sort. It
demands sophistication, a pretty high intelligence in the man that
"All right. Now take your picture public. Twenty million people
every day; not the same ones every day, but with same average
cranial index, which is low for all but about seven out of every
hundred. That's natural because there aren't twenty million people
in the world with taste or real intelligence--probably not five
million. Well, you take this twenty million bunch that we sell to
every day, and suppose they saw that lovely thing last night--don't
you know they'd all be back to-night to see a real mopping mother
with a real son falsely accused of crime--sure they'd be back, their
heads bloody but unbowed. Don't worry; that reliable field marshal,
old General Hokum, leads an unbeatable army."
Merton Gill had listened to the beginning of this harangue, but now
he savagely devoured food. He thought this so--called Governor was
too much like Baird.
"Well, Governor, I hope you're right. But that was pretty keen stuff
last night. That first bit won't do Parmalee any good, and that Buck
Benson stuff--you can't tell me a little more of that wouldn't make
Benson look around for a new play."
"But I do tell you just that. It won't hurt Parmalee a bit; and
Benson can go on Bensoning to the end of time--to big money. You
keep forgetting this twenty-million audience. Go out and buy a
picture magazine and read it through, just to remind you. They want
hokum, and pay for it. Even this thing of Baird's, with all the
saving slapstick, is over the heads of a good half of them. I'll
make a bet with you now, anything you name, that it won't gross two
thirds as much as Benson's next Western, and in that they'll cry
their eyes out when he kisses his horse good-bye. See if they don't.
Or see if they don't bawl at the next old gray-haired mother with a
mop and a son that gets in bad.
"Why, if you give 'em hokum they don't even demand acting. Look at
our own star, Mercer. You know as well as I do that she not only
can't act, but she's merely a beautiful moron. In a world where
right prevailed she'd be crowned queen of the morons without
question. She may have an idea that two and two make four, but if
she has it's only because she believes everything she hears. And
look at the mail she gets. Every last one of the twenty million has
written to tell her what a noble actress she is. She even believes
"Baird can keep on with the burlesque stuff, but his little old two-
reelers'll probably have to pay for it, especially if he keeps those
high-priced people. I'll bet that one new man of his sets him back
seven hundred and fifty a week. The Lord knows he's worth every cent
of it. My boy, tell me, did you ever in all your life see a lovelier
imitation of a perfectly rotten actor? There's an artist for you.
Who is he, anyway? Where'd he come from?" Merton Gill again
listened; he was merely affecting to busy himself with a fork. It
was good acting.
"I don't know," replied Henshaw. "Some of the crowd last night said
he was just an extra that Baird dug up on the lot here. And, on the
subject of burlesque, they also said Baird was having him do some
Edgar Wayne stuff in a new one."
"Fine!" The Governor beamed. "Can't you see him as the honest,
likable country boy? I bet he'll be good to his old mother in this
one, too, and get the best of the city slickers in the end. For
heaven's sake don't let me miss it! This kid last night handed me
laughs that were better than a month's vacation for this old carcass
of mine. You say he was just an extra?"
"That's what I heard last night. Anyway, he's all you say he is as
an artist. Where do you suppose he got it? Do you suppose he's just
the casual genius that comes along from time to time? And why didn't
he stay 'straight' instead of playing horse with the sacred
traditions of our art? That's what troubled me as I watched him.
Even in that wild business with the spurs he was the artist every
second. He must have tricked those falls but I couldn't catch him at
it. Why should such a man tie up with Baird?"
"Ask me something hard. I'd say this bird had been tried out in
serious stuff and couldn't make the grade. That's the way he struck
me. Probably he once thought he could play Hamlet--one of those
boys. Didn't you get the real pathos he'd turn on now and then? He
actually had me kind of teary a couple of times. But I could see
he'd also make me laugh my head off any time he showed in a straight
"To begin with, look at that low-comedy face of his. And then--
something peculiar--even while he's imitating a bad actor you feel
somehow that it isn't all imitation. It's art, I grant you, but you
feel he'd still be a bad actor if he'd try to imitate a good one.
Somehow he found out his limits and decided to be what God meant him
to be. Does that answer you? It gives you acting-plus, and if that
isn't the plus in this case I miss my guess."
"I suppose you're right--something like that. And of course the real
pathos is there. It has to be. There never was a great comedian
without it, and this one is great. I admit that, and I admit all you
say about our audience. I suppose we can't ever sell to twenty
million people a day pictures that make any demand on the human
intelligence. But couldn't we sell something better to one million--
or a few thousand?"
The Governor dropped his cigarette end into the dregs of his coffee.
"We might," he said, "if we were endowed. As it is, to make pictures
we must make money. To make money we must sell to the mob. And the
mob reaches full mental bloom at the age of fifteen. It won't buy
pictures the average child can't get."
"Of course the art is in its infancy," remarked Henshaw, discarding
his own cigarette.
"Ours is the Peter Pan of the arts," announced the Governor, as he
"The Peter Pan of the arts--"
"Yes. I trust you recall the outstanding biological freakishness of
"Oh!" replied Henshaw.
When Merton Gill dared to glance up a moment later the men were
matching coins at the counter. When they went out he left a half-
eaten meal and presently might have been observed on a swift-rolling
street-car. He mumbled as he blankly surveyed palm-bordered building
sites along the way. He was again rehearsing a tense scene with the
Montague girl. In actor parlance he was giving himself all the best
of it. But they were new lines he mumbled over and over. And he was
no longer eluded by the title of that book he remembered on the
library shelf at Simsbury. Sitting in the cafeteria listening to
strange talk, lashed by cruel memories, it had flashed upon his
vision with the stark definition of a screened subtitle. He rang the
Montague bell twice before he heard a faint summons to enter. Upon
the parlour couch, under blankets that reached her pillowed head,
lay Sarah. She was pale and seemed to suffer. She greeted him in a
feeble voice, lids fluttering over the fires of that mysterious
fever burning far back in her eyes.
"Hullo, Kid," he began brightly. "Here's your watch." Her doubting
glance hovered over him as he smiled down at her. "You giving it to
me again, Merton?" She seemed unable to conquer a stubborn
"Of course I'm giving it to you again. What'd you think I was going
She still surveyed him with little veiled glances. "You look so
bright you give me Kleig eyes," she said. She managed a wan smile at
"Take it," he insisted, extending the package. "Of course it won't
keep Western Union time, but it'll look good on you."
She appeared to be gaining on her incredulity, but a vestige of it
remained. "I won't touch it," she declared with more spirit than
could have been expected from the perishing, "I won't touch it till
you give me a good big kiss."
"Sure," he said, and leaned down to brush her pale cheek with his
lips. He was cheerfully businesslike in this ceremony.
"Not till you do it right," she persisted. He knelt beside the couch
and did it right. He lingered with a hand upon her pale brow.
"What you afraid of?" he demanded.
"You," she said, but now she again brought the watch to view,
holding it away from her, studying its glitter from various angles.
At last she turned her eyes up to his. They Were alive but
"Well?" he repeated coolly.
"Oh, stop it!" Again there was more energy than the moribund are
wont to manifest. There was even a vigorous impatience in her tone
as she went on, "You know well enough what I was afraid of. And you
know well enough what I want to hear right now. Shoot, can't you?"
He shot. He stood up, backed away from the couch to where he could
conveniently regard its stricken occupant, and shot gaily.
"Well, it'll be a good lesson to you about me, this thing of your
thinking I was fooled over that piece. I s'pose you and Baird had it
between you all the time, right down to the very last, that I
thought he was doin' a serious play. Ho, ho!" He laughed gibingly.
It was a masterful laugh. "A serious play with a cross-eyed man
doing funny stuff all through. I thought it was serious, did I? Yes,
I did!" Again the dry, scornful laugh of superiority. "Didn't you
people know that I knew what I could do and what I couldn't do? I
should have thought that little thing would of occurred to you all
the time. Didn't you s'pose I knew as well as any one that I got a
low-comedy face and couldn't ever make the grade in a serious piece?
"Of course I know I got real pathos--look how I turned it on a
couple o' times in that piece last night--but even when I'm
imitating a bad actor you can see it ain't all acting. You'd see
soon enough I was a bad actor if I tried to imitate a good one. I
guess you'd see that pretty quick. Didn't you and Baird even s'pose
I'd found out my limits and decided to be what God meant me to be?
"But I got the pathos all right, and you can't name one great
comedian that don't need pathos more'n he needs anything else. He
just has to have it--and I got it. I got acting-plus; that's what, I
got. I knew it all the time; and a whole lot of other people knew it
last night. You could hear fifty of 'em talking about it when I came
out of the theatre, saying I was an artist and all like that, and a
certain Los Angeles society woman that you can bet never says things
she don't mean, she told me she saw lots of places in this piece
that I was funnier than any cross-eyed man that ever lived. "And
what happens this morning?" Hands in pockets he swaggered to and fro
past the couch.
"Well, nothing happens this morning except people coming around to
sign me up for three hundred and fifty a week. One of 'em said not
an hour ago--he's a big producer, too--that Baird ought to be paying
me seven hundred and fifty because I earned every cent of it. Of
course I didn't want to say anything the other day, with you
pretending to know so much about contracts and all that--I just
thought I'd let you go on, seeing you were so smart--and I signed
what you told me to. But I know I should have held off--with this
Bamberger coming over from the Bigart when I was hardly out of bed,
and says will three hundred and fifty a week interest me and
promising he'll give me a chance to do that spur act again that was
the hit of the piece--"
He broke off, conscious suddenly that the girl had for some time
been holding a most peculiar stare rigidly upon him. She had at
first narrowed her right eye at a calculating angle as she listened;
but for a long time now the eyes had been widened to this
inexplicable stare eloquent of many hidden things.
As he stopped his speech, made ill at ease by the incessant pressing
of the look, he was caught and held by it to a longer silence than
he had meant to permit. He could now read meanings. That unflinching
look incurred by his smooth bluster was a telling blend of pity and
"So you know, do you," she demanded, "that you look just enough too
much like Harold Parmalee so that you're funny? I mean." she
amended, seeing him wince, "that you look the way Parmalee would
look if he had brains?"
He faltered but made a desperate effort to recover his balance.
"And besides, what difference does it make? If we did good pictures
we'd have to sell 'em to a mob. And what's a mob? It's fifteen years
old and nothing but admirons, or something like that, like Muriel
Mercer that wouldn't know how much are two times two if the
neighbours didn't get it to her--"
Again he had run down under her level look. As he stopped, the girl
on the couch who had lain with the blankets to her neck suddenly
threw them aside and sat up. Surprisingly she was not garbed in
sick-bed apparel. She seemed to be fully dressed.
A long moment she sat thus, regarding him still with that slow look,
unbelieving yet cherishing. His eyes fell at last.
"Merton!" he heard her say. He looked up but she did not speak. She
merely gave a little knowing nod of the head and opened her arms to
him. Quickly he knelt beside her while the mothering arms enfolded
him. A hand pulled his head to her breast and held it there. Thus
she rocked gently, the hand gliding up to smooth his hair. Without
words she cherished him thus a long time. The gentle rocking back
and forth continued.
"It's--it's like that other time you found me--" His bluster had
gone. He was not sure of his voice. Even these few words had been
hard. He did not try more.
"There, there, there!" she whispered. "It's all right, everything's
all right. Your mother's got you right here and she ain't ever going
to let you go--never going to let you go."
She was patting his head in rhythm with her rocking as she snuggled
and soothed him. There was silence for another interval. Then she
began to croon a song above him as she rocked, though the lyric was
plainly an improvisation.
"Did he have his poor old mother going for a minute? Yes, he did. He
had her going for a minute, for a minute. Yes, he had her going good
for a minute.
"But oh, he won't ever fool her very long, very long, not very long,
because he can't fool his dear old mother very long, very long; and
he can bet on that, bet on that, so he can, bet a lot of money on
that, that, that!" Her charge had grown still again, but she did not
relax her tightened arms.
"Say," he said at last.
"You know those benches where we wait for the cars?"
"Do I know them?" The imperative inference was that she did.
"I looked at the store yesterday. The sign down there says
'Himebaugh's dignified system of deferred payments.'"
"Yes, yes, I know."
"Well, I saw another good place--it says 'The house of lucky rings'-
"Sure, I know. That's all right."
"Well," he threw off the arms and got to his feet. She stood up
"Well, all right!"
They were both constrained now. Both affected an ease that neither
felt. It seemed to be conceded without words that they must very
lightly skirt the edges of Merton Gill's screen art. They talked a
long tune volubly of other things: of the girl's illness from which
she now seemed most happily to have recovered, of whether she was
afraid of him--she professed still to be--of the new watch whose
beauties were newly admired when it had been adjusted to its owner's
wrist; of finances they talked, and even, quite simply, of
accessible homes where two could live as cheaply as one.
It was not until be was about to go, when he stood at the door while
the girl readjusted his cravat, smoothed his hair, and administered
a final series of pats where they seemed most needed, that he broke
ever so slightly through the reserve which both had felt congealing
about a certain topic.
"You know," he said, "I happened to remember the title of a book
this morning; a book I used to see back in the public library at
home. It wasn't one I ever read. Maybe Tessie Kearns read it.
Anyway, she had a poem she likes a lot written by the same man. She
used to read me good parts of it. But I never read the book because
the title sounded kind of wild, like there couldn't be any such
thing. The poem had just a plain name; it was called 'Lucile,' but
the book by the same man was called 'The Tragic Comedians.' You
wouldn't think there could be a tragic comedian would you?--well,
look at me."
She looked at him, with that elusive, remote flickering back in her
eyes, but she only said, "Be sure and come take me out to dinner.
To-night I can eat. And don't forget your overcoat. And listen--
don't you dare go into Himebaugh's till I can go with you."
One minute after he had gone the Montague girl was at the telephone.
"Hello! Mr. Baird, please. Is this Mr. Baird? Well, Jeff,
everything's jake. Yeah. The poor thing was pretty wild when he got
here. First he began to bluff. He'd got an earful from someone,
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