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- Merton of the Movies - 30/62 -
The interior of the High Gear Dance Hall presented nothing new to his seasoned eye. It was the dance-hall made familiar by many a smashing five-reel Western. The picture was, quite normally, waiting. Electricians were shoving about the big light standards, cameras were being moved, and bored actors were loafing informally at the round tables or chatting in groups about the set.
One actor alone was keeping in his part. A ragged, bearded, unkempt elderly man in red shirt and frayed overalls, a repellent fell hat pulled low over his brow, reclined on the floor at the end of the bar, his back against a barrel. Apparently he slept. A flash of remembrance from the Montague girl's talk identified this wretched creature. This was what happened to an actor who had to peddle the brush. Perhaps for days he had been compelled to sleep there in the interests of dance-hall atmosphere.
He again scanned the group, for he remembered, too, that the Montague girl would also be working here in God's Great Outdoors. His eyes presently found her. She was indeed a blonde hussy, short- skirted, low-necked, pitifully rouged, depraved beyond redemption. She stood at the end of the piano, and in company with another of the dance-hall girls who played the accompaniment, she was singing a ballad the refrain of which he caught as "God calls them Angels in Heaven, we call them Mothers here."
The song ended, the Montague girl stepped to the centre of the room, looked aimlessly about her, then seized an innocent bystander, one of the rough characters frequenting this unsavoury resort, and did a dance with him among the tables. Tiring of this, she flitted across the room and addressed the bored director who impatiently awaited the changing of lights. She affected to consider him a reporter who had sought an interview with her. She stood erect, facing him with one hand on a hip, the other patting and readjusting her blonde coiffure.
"Really," she began in a voice of pained dignity, "I am at a loss to understand why the public should be so interested in me. What can I say to your readers--I who am so wholly absorbed in my art that I can't think of hardly anything else? Why will not the world let us alone? Hold on--don't go!"
She had here pretended that the reporter was taking her at her word. She seized him by a lapel to which she clung while with her other arm she encircled a post, thus anchoring the supposed intruder into her private affairs. "As I was saying," she resumed, "all this publicity is highly distasteful to the artist, and yet since you have forced yourself in here I may as well say a few little things about how good I am and how I got that way. Yes, I have nine motor cars, and I just bought a lace tablecloth for twelve hundred bones--"
She broke off inconsequently, poor victim of her constitutional frivolity. The director grinned after her as she danced away, though Merton Gill had considered her levity in the worst of taste. Then her eye caught him as he stood modestly back of the working electricians and she danced forward again in his direction. He would have liked to evade her but saw that he could not do this gracefully.
She greeted him with an impudent grin. "Why, hello, trouper! As I live, the actin' Kid!" She held out a hand to him and he could not well refuse it. He would have preferred to "up-stage" her once more, as she had phrased it in her low jargon, but he was cornered. Her grip of his hand quite astonished him with its vigour.
"Well, how's everything with you? Everything jake?" He tried for a show of easy confidence. "Oh, yes, yes, indeed, everything is."
"Well, that's good, Kid." But she was now without the grin, and was running a practised eye over what might have been called his production. The hat was jaunty enough, truly a hat of the successful, but all below that, the not-too-fresh collar, the somewhat rumpled coat, the trousers crying for an iron despite their nightly compression beneath their slumbering owner, the shoes not too recently polished, and, more than all, a certain hunted though still-defiant look in the young man's eyes, seemed to speak eloquently under the shrewd glance she bent on him.
"Say, listen here, Old-timer, remember I been trouping man and boy for over forty year and it's hard to fool me--you working?"
He resented the persistent levity of manner, but was coerced by the very apparent real kindness in her tone. "Well," he looked about the set vaguely in his discomfort, "you see, right now I'm between pictures--you know how it is."
Again she searched his eyes and spoke in a lower tone: "Well, all right--but you needn't blush about it, Kid." The blush she detected became more flagrant.
"Well, I--you see--" he began again, but he was saved from being explicit by the call of an assistant director.
"Miss Montague. Miss Montague--where's that Flips girl--on the set, please." She skipped lightly from him. When she returned a little later to look for him he had gone.
He went to bed that night when darkness had made this practicable, and under his blankets whiled away a couple of wakeful hours by running tensely dramatic films of breakfast, dinner, and supper at the Gashwiler home. It seemed that you didn't fall asleep so quickly when you had eaten nothing since early morning. Never had he achieved such perfect photography as now of the Gashwiler corned- beef hash and light biscuits, the Gashwiler hot cakes and sausage, and never had Gashwiler so impressively carved the Saturday night four-rib roast of tender beef. Gashwiler achieved a sensational triumph in the scene, being accorded all the close--ups that the most exacting of screen actors could wish. His knife-work was perfect. He held his audience enthralled by his technique.
Mrs. Gashwiler, too, had a small but telling part in the drama to- night; only a character bit, but one of those poignant bits that stand out in the memory. The subtitle was, "Merton, won't you let me give you another piece of the mince pie?" That was all, and yet, as screen artists say, it got over. There came very near to being not a dry eye in the house when the simple words were flashed beside an insert of thick, flaky-topped mince pies with quarters cut from them to reveal their noble interiors
Sleep came at last while he was regretting that lawless orgy of the morning. He needn't have cleaned up those beans in that silly way. He could have left a good half of them. He ran what might have been considered a split-reel comedy of the stew-pan's bottom still covered with perfectly edible beans lightly protected with Nature's own pastel-tinted shroud for perishing vegetable matter and diversified here and there with casual small deposits of ashes.
In the morning something good really did happen. As he folded his blankets in the gray light a hard object rattled along the floor from them. He picked this up before he recognized it as a mutilated fragment from the stale half--loaf of bread he had salvaged. He wondered how he could have forgotten it, even in the plenitude of his banquet. There it was, a mere nubbin of crust and so hard it might almost have been taken for a petrified specimen of prehistoric bread. Yet it proved to be rarely palatable. It's flavour was exquisite. It melted in the mouth.
Somewhat refreshed by this modest cheer, he climbed from the window of the Crystal Palace with his mind busy on two tracks. While the letter to Gashwiler composed itself, with especially clear directions about where the return money should be sent, he was also warning himself to remain throughout the day at a safe distance from the door of the cafeteria. He had proved the wisdom of this even the day before that had started with a bounteous breakfast. To-day the aroma of cooked food occasionally wafted from the cafeteria door would prove, he was sure, to be more than he could bear.
He rather shunned the stages to-day, keeping more to himself. The collar, he had to confess, was no longer, even to the casual eye, what a successful screen-actor's collar should be. The sprouting beard might still be misconstrued as the whim of a director sanctified to realism--every day it was getting to look more like that--but no director would have commanded the wearing of such a collar except in actual work where it might have been a striking detail in the apparel of an underworldling, one of those creatures who became the tools of rich but unscrupulous roues who are bent upon the moral destruction of beautiful young screen heroines. He knew it was now that sort of collar. No use now in pretending that it had been worn yesterday for the first time.
OF SHATTERED ILLUSIONS
The next morning he sat a long time in the genial sunlight watching carpenters finish a scaffolding beside the pool that had once floated logs to a sawmill. The scaffolding was a stout affair supporting an immense tank that would, evidently for some occult reason important to screen art, hold a great deal of water. The sawmill was gone; at one end of the pool rode a small sail-boat with one mast, its canvas flapping idly in a gentle breeze. Its deck was littered with rigging upon which two men worked. They seemed to be getting things shipshape for a cruise.
When he had tired of this he started off toward the High Gear Dance Hall. Something all day had been drawing him there against his will. He hesitated to believe it was the Montague girl's kindly manner toward him the day before, yet he could identify no other influence. Probably it was that. Yet he didn't want to face her again, even if for a moment she had quit trying to be funny, even if for a moment her eyes had searched his quite earnestly, her broad, amiable face glowing with that sudden friendly concern. It had been hard to withstand this yesterday; he had been in actual danger of confiding to her that engagements of late were not plentiful--something like that. And it would be harder to-day. Even the collar would make it harder to resist the confidence that he was not at this time overwhelmed with offers for his art.
He had for what seemed like an interminable stretch of time been solitary and an outlaw. It was something to have been spoken to by a human being who expressed ever so fleeting an interest in his affairs, even by someone as inconsequent, as negligible in the world of screen artistry as this lightsome minx who, because of certain mental infirmities, could never hope for the least enviable eminence in a profession demanding seriousness of purpose. Still it would be
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