Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson - HTML preview

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8. Clifford Armytage, The Outlaw

Dawn brought the wide stretches of the Holden lot into gray relief. It lightened the big yellow stages and crept down the narrow street of the Western town where only the ghosts of dead plays stalked. It burnished the rich fronts of the Fifth Avenue mansions and in the next block illumined the rough sides of a miner's cabin.
With more difficulty it seeped through the blurred glass of the one window in this structure and lightened the shadows of its interior to a pale gray. The longhandled frying-pan rested on the hearth where the little girl had left it. The dishes of the overnight meal were still on the table; the vacant chairs sprawled about it; and the rifle was in its place above the rude mantel; the picks and shovels awaited the toil of a new day. All seemed as it had been when the director had closed the door upon it the previous night.
But then the blankets in the lower bunk were seen to heave and to be thrust back from the pale face of Merton Gill. An elbow came into play, and the head was raised. A gaze still vague with sleep travelled about the room in dull alarm. He was waking up in his little room at the Patterson house and he couldn't make it look right. He rubbed his eyes vigorously and pushed himself farther up. His mind resumed its broken threads. He was where he had meant to be from the moment he had spied the blankets in those bunks.
In quicker alarm, now, he reached for his watch. Perhaps he had slept too late and would be discovered--arrested, jailed! He found his watch on the floor beside the bunk. Seven o'clock. He was safe. He could dress at leisure, and presently be an early-arriving actor on the Holden lot. He wondered how soon he could get food at the cafeteria. Sleeping in this mountain cabin had cursed him with a ravenous appetite, as if he had indeed been far off in the keen air of the North Woods.
He crept from the warm blankets, and from under the straw mattress-- in which one of the miners had hidden the pouch of nuggets--he took his newly pressed trousers. Upon a low bench across the room was a battered tin wash--basin, a bucket of water brought by the little girl from the spring, and a bar of yellow soap. He made a quick toilet, and at seven-thirty, a good hour before the lot would wake up, he was dressed and at the door.
It might be chancy, opening that door; so he peered through a narrow crack at first, listening intently. He could hear nothing and no one was in sight. He pushed the latch--string through its hole, then opened the door enough to emit his slender shape.
A moment later, ten feet from the closed door, he stood at ease, scanning the log cabin as one who, passing by, had been attracted by its quaint architecture. Then glancing in both directions to be again sure that he was unobserved, he walked away from his new home.
He did not slink furtively. He took the middle of the street and there was a bit of swagger to his gait. He felt rather set up about this adventure. He reached what might have been called the lot's civic centre and cast a patronizing eye along the ends of the big stages and the long, low dressing--room building across from them. Before the open door of the warehouse he paused to watch a truck being loaded with handsome furniture--a drawing room was evidently to be set on one of the stages. Rare rugs and beautiful chairs and tables were carefully brought out. He had rather a superintending air as he watched this process. He might have been taken for the owner of these costly things, watching to see that no harm befell them. He strolled on when the truck had received its load. Such people as he had met were only artisans, carpenters, electricians, property-men. He faced them all confidently, with glances of slightly amused tolerance. They were good men in their way but they were not actors--not artists.
In the neatly landscaped little green place back of the office building a climbing rose grew on a trellis. He plucked a pink bud, fixed it in his lapel, and strolled down the street past the dressing rooms. Across from these the doors of the big stages were slid back, and inside he could see that sets were being assembled. The truckload of furniture came to one of these doors and he again watched it as the stuff was carried inside.
For all these workmen knew, he might presently be earning a princely salary as he acted amid these beautiful objects, perhaps attending a reception in a Fifth Avenue mansion where the father of a beautiful New York society girl would tell him that he must first make good before he could aspire to her hand. And he would make good--out there in the great open spaces, where the girl would come to him after many adventures and where they would settle to an untroubled future in the West they both loved.
He had slept; he knew where--with luck--he could sleep again; and he had money in his pocket for several more ample meals. At this moment he felt equal to anything. No more than pleasantly aware of his hunger, sharpened by the walk in this keen morning air, he made a nonchalant progress toward the cafeteria. Motor cars were now streaming through the gate, disgorging other actors--trim young men and beautiful young women who must hurry to the dressing rooms while he could sit at ease in a first-class cafeteria and eat heavily of sustaining foods. Inside he chose from the restricted menu offered by the place at this early hour and ate in a leisurely, almost condescending manner. Half-a-dozen other early comers wolfed their food as if they feared to be late for work, but he suffered no such anxiety. He consumed the last morsel that his tray held, drained his cup of coffee, and jingled the abundant silver coin in his pocket. True, underneath it, as he plumed himself upon his adventure, was a certain pestering consciousness that all was not so well with him as observers might guess. But he resolutely put this away each time it threatened to overwhelm him. He would cross no bridge until he came to it. He even combated this undercurrent of sanity by wording part of an interview with himself some day to appear in Photo Land:
"Clifford Armytage smiled that rare smile which his admirers have found so winning on the silver screen--a smile reminiscent, tender, eloquent of adversities happily surmounted. 'Yes,' he said frankly in the mellow tones that are his, 'I guess there were times when I almost gave up the struggle. I recall one spell, not so many years ago, when I camped informally on the Holden lot, sleeping where I could find a bed and stinting myself in food to eke out my little savings. Yet I look back upon that time'--he mischievously pulled the ears of the magnificent Great Dane that lolled at his feet--'as one of the happiest in my career, because I always knew that my day would come. I had done only a few little bits, but they had stood out, and the directors had noticed me. Not once did I permit myself to become discouraged, and so I say to your readers who may feel that they have in them the stuff for truly creative screen art--'"
He said it, dreaming above the barren tray, said it as Harold Parmalee had said it in a late interview extorted from him by Augusta Blivens for the refreshment of his host of admirers who read Photo Land. He was still saying it as he paid his check at the counter, breaking off only to reflect that fifty-five cents was a good deal to be paying for food so early in the day. For of course he must eat again before seeking shelter of the humble miner's cabin.
It occurred to him that the blankets might be gone by nightfall. He hoped they would have trouble with the fight scene. He hoped there would be those annoying delays that so notoriously added to the cost of producing the screen drama--long waits, when no one seemed to know what was being waited for, and bored actors lounged about in apathy. He hoped the fight would be a long fight. You needed blankets even in sunny California.
He went out to pass an enlivening day, fairly free of misgiving. He found an abundance of entertainment. On one stage he overlooked for half an hour a fragment of the desert drama which he had assisted the previous day. A covered incline led duskily down to the deserted tomb in which the young man and the beautiful English girl were to take shelter for the night. They would have eluded the bad sheik for a little while, and in the tomb the young man would show himself to be a gentleman by laying not so much as a finger upon the defenceless girl.
But this soon palled upon the watching connoisseur. The actual shots were few and separated by barren intervals of waiting for that mysterious something which photoplays in production seemed to need. Being no longer identified with this drama he had lost much of his concern over the fate in store for the girl, though he knew she would emerge from the ordeal as pure as she was beautiful--a bit foolish at moments, perhaps, but good.
He found that he was especially interested in bedroom scenes. On Stage Four a sumptuous bedroom, vacant for the moment, enchained him for a long period of contemplation. The bed was of some rare wood ornately carved, with a silken canopy, spread with finest linen and quilts of down, its pillows opulent in their embroidered cases. The hide of a polar bear, its head mounted with open jaws, spread over the rich rug beside the bed. He wondered about this interestingly. Probably the stage would be locked at night. Still, at a suitable hour, he could descreetly find out. On another stage a bedroom likewise intrigued him, though this was a squalid room in a tenement and the bed was a cheap thing sparsely covered and in sad disorder. People were working on this set, and he presently identified the play, for Muriel Mercer in a neat black dress entered to bring comfort to the tenement dwellers. But this play, too, had ceased to interest him. He knew that Vera Vanderpool had escaped the blight of Broadway to choose the worthwhile, the true, the vital things of life, and that was about all he now cared to know of the actual play. This tenement bed had become for him its outstanding dramatic value. He saw himself in it for a good night's rest, waking refreshed in plenty of time to be dressed and out before the tenement people would need it. He must surely learn if the big sliding doors to these stages were locked overnight.
He loitered about the stages until late afternoon, with especial attention to sleeping apartments. In one gripping drama he felt cheated. The set showed the elaborately fitted establishment of a fashionable modiste. Mannequins in wondrous gowns came through parted curtains to parade before the shop's clientele, mostly composed of society butterflies. One man hovered attentive about the most beautiful of these, and whispered entertainingly as she scanned the gowns submitted to her choice. He was a dissolute--looking man, although faultlessly arrayed. His hair was thin, his eyes were cruel, and his face bespoke self-indulgence.
The expert Merton Gill at once detected that the beautiful young woman he whispered to would be one of those light--headed wives who care more for fashionable dress than for the good name of their husbands. He foresaw that the creature would be trapped into the power of this villain by her love of finery, though he was sure that the end would find her still a good woman. The mannequins finished their parade and the throng of patrons broke up. The cameras were pushed to an adjoining room where the French proprietor of the place figured at a desk. The dissolute pleasure-seeker came back to question him. His errant fancy had been caught by one of the mannequins--the most beautiful of them, a blonde with a flowerlike face and a figure whose perfection had been boldly attested by the gowns she had worn. The unprincipled proprietor at once demanded from a severe-faced forewoman that this girl be sent for, after which he discreetly withdrew. The waiting scoundrel sat and complacently pinched the ends of his small dark mustache. It could be seen that he was one of those who believe that money will buy anything.
The fair girl entered and was leeringly entreated to go out to dinner with him. It appeared that she never went out to dinner with any one, but spent her evenings with her mother who was very, very ill. Her unworthy admirer persisted. Then the telephone on the manager's desk called her. Her mother was getting worse. The beautiful face was now suffused with agony, but this did not deter the man from his loathsome advances. There was another telephone call. She must come at once if she were to see her mother alive. The man seized her. They struggled. All seemed lost, even the choice gown she still wore; but she broke away to be told over the telephone that her mother had died. Even this sad news made no impression upon the wretch. He seemed to be a man of one idea. Again he seized her, and the maddened girl stabbed him with a pair of long gleaming shears that had lain on the manager's desk. He fell lifeless at her feet, while the girl stared in horror at the weapon she still grasped.
Merton Gill would not have lingered for this. There were tedious waits, and scenes must be rehearsed again and again. Even the agony of the girl as she learned of her mother's passing must be done over and over at the insistence of a director who seemed to know what a young girl should feel at these moments. But Merton had watched from his place back of the lights with fresh interest from the moment it was known that the girl's poor old mother was an invalid, for he had at first believed that the mother's bedroom would be near by. He left promptly when it became apparent that the mother's bedroom would not be seen in this drama. They would probably show the doctor at the other telephone urging the girl to hurry home, and show him again announcing that all was over, but the expense of mother and her deathbed had been saved. He cared little for the ending of this play. Already he was becoming a little callous to the plight of beautiful young girls threatened with the loss of that which they held most dear. Purposely all day he had avoided the neighbourhood of his humble miner's home. He thought it as well that he should not be seen much around there. He ate again at four o'clock, heartily and rather expensively, and loafed about the stages until six. Then he strolled leisurely down the village street and out the lower end to where he could view the cabin. Work for the day was plainly over. The director and his assistant lingered before the open door in consultation. A property man and an electrician were engaged inside, but a glance as he passed showed that the blankets were still in the bunks. He did not wait to see more, but passed on with all evidences of disinterest in this lowly abode.
He ascertained that night that the fight must have been had. The table was overturned, one of the chairs wrecked, and there were other signs of disorder. Probably it had been an excellent fight; probably these primitive men of the woods had battled desperately. But he gave little consideration to the combat, and again slept warmly under the blankets. Perhaps they would fight again tomorrow, or perhaps there would be less violent bits of the drama that would secure him another night of calm repose.
The following morning found him slightly disturbed by two unforeseen needs arising from his novel situation. He looked carefully at his collar, wondering how many days he would be able to keep it looking like a fresh collar, and he regretted that he had not brought his safety-razor to this new home. Still the collar was in excellent shape as yet, and a scrutiny of his face in the cracked mirror hanging on the log wall determined that he could go at least another day without shaving. His beard was of a light growth, gentle in texture, and he was yet far from the plight of Mr. Montague. Eventually, to be sure, he would have to go to the barber shop on the lot and pay money to be shaved, which seemed a pity, because an actor could live indefinitely unshaven but could live without food for the merest fragment of time.
He resolved to be on the lookout that day for a barber-shop set. He believed they were not common in the photodrama, still one might be found.
He limited himself to the lightest of breakfasts. He had timidly refrained from counting his silver but he knew he must be frugal. He rejoiced at this economy until late afternoon when, because of it, he simply had to eat a heavier dinner than he had expected to need. There was something so implacable about this demand for food. If you skimped in the morning you must make amends at the next meal. He passed the time as on the previous day, a somewhat blase actor resting between pictures, and condescending to beguile the tedium by overlooking the efforts of his professional brethren. He could find no set that included a barber shop, although they were beds on every hand. He hoped for another night in the cabin, but if that were not to be, there was a bed easy of access on Stage Three. When he had observed it, a ghastly old father was coughing out his life under its blankets, nursed only by his daughter, a beautiful young creature who sewed by his bedside, and who would doubtless be thrown upon the world in the very next reel, though--Merton was glad to note--probably not until the next day.
Yet there was no need for this couch of the tubercular father, for action in the little cabin was still on. After making the unhappy discovery in the cafeteria that his appetite could not be hoodwinked by the clumsy subterfuge of calling coffee and rolls a breakfast some six hours previously, he went boldly down to stand before his home. Both miners were at work inside. The room had been placed in order again, though the little mountain flower was gone. A letter, he gathered, had been received from her, and one of the miners was about to leave on a long journey.
Merton could not be sure, but he supposed that the letter from the little girl told that she was unhappy in her new surroundings, perhaps being ill-treated by the supercilious Eastern relatives. The miner who was to remain helped the other to pack his belongings in a quaint old carpet sack, and together they undid a bundle which proved to contain a splendid new suit. Not only this, but now came a scene of eloquent appeal to the watcher outside the door. The miner who was to remain expressed stern disapproval of the departing miner's beard. It would never do, he was seen to intimate, and when the other miner portrayed helplessness a new package was unwrapped and a safety razor revealed to his shocked gaze. At this sight Merton Gill felt himself growing too emotional for a mere careless bystander, and withdrew to a distance where he could regain better control of himself. When he left the miner to be shorn was betraying comic dismay while the other pantomimed the correct use of the implement his thoughtfulness had provided. When he returned after half--an-hour's rather nervous walk up another street, the departing miner was clean shaven and one might note the new razor glittering on the low bench beside the battered tin basin.
They worked late in his home that night; trifling scenes were taken and retaken. The departing miner had to dress in his splendid but ill-fitting new garments and to bid an affectionate farewell to his partner, then had to dress in his old clothes again for some bit that had been forgotten, only to don the new suit for close-ups. At another time Merton Gill might have resented this tediously drawn- out affair which was keeping him from his rest, for he had come to look upon this structure as one having rights in it after a certain hour, but a sight of the razor which had not been touched allayed any possible feeling of irritation.
It was nine-thirty before the big lights jarred finally off and the director said, "That's all, boys." Then he turned to call, "Jimmie! Hey, Jimmie! Where's that prop-rustler gone to now?"
"Here, Mr. Burke, yes, sir."
"We've finished the shack stuff. Let's see--" He looked at the watch on his wrist-"That'll be all for tonight. Strike this first thing tomorrow morning."
"Yes, sir," said Jimmie. The door was closed and the men walked away. Merton trailed them a bit, not remaining too pointedly near the cabin. He circled around through Fifth Avenue to regain the place.
Softly he let himself in and groped through the dark until his hand closed upon the abandoned razor. Satisfying himself that fresh blades had accompanied it, he made ready for bed. He knew it was to be his last night in this shelter. The director had told Jimmie to strike it first thing in the morning. The cabin would still be there, but it would contain no homely furniture, no chairs, no table, no washbasin, no safety-razor and, most vital of lacks--it would be devoid of blankets. Yet this knowledge did not dismay him. He slept peacefully after praying that something good would happen to him. He put it that way very simply. He had placed himself, it seemed, where things could only happen to him. He was, he felt, beyond bringing them about.