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- Merton of the Movies - 60/62 -
"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 unrevealing. "Well?"
"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 of wonder.
"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'- -you know--rings!"
"Sure, I know. That's all right."
"Well," he threw off the arms and got to his feet. She stood up then.
"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, probably over on the lot. And he put it over on me for a minute, too. But he didn't last good. He was awful broke up when the end came. Bless his heart. But you bet I kissed the hurt place and made it well. How about him now? Jeff, I'm darned if I can tell except he's right again. When he got here he was some heart-broke and some mad and some set up on account of things he hears about himself. I guess he's that way still, except I mended the heart-break. I can't quite make him out--he's like a book where you can't guess what's coming in the next chapter, so you keep on reading. I can see we ain't ever going to talk much about it--not if we live together twenty years. What's that? Yeah. Didn't I tell you he was always
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