The pleasant, ostentatious boulevard was lined at prosperous intervals with New England Colonial houses—without ship models in the hall. When the inhabitants moved out here the ship models had at last been given to the children. The next street was a complete exhibit of the Spanish-bungalow phase of West Coast architecture; while two streets over, the cylindrical windows and round towers of 1897—melancholy antiques which sheltered swamis, yogis, fortune tellers, dressmakers, dancing teachers, art academies and chiropractors—looked down now upon brisk buses and trolley cars. A little walk around the block could, if you were feeling old that day, be a discouraging affair.
On the green flanks of the modern boulevard children, with their knees marked by the red stains of the mercurochrome era, played with toys with a purpose—beams that taught engineering, soldiers that taught manliness, and dolls that taught motherhood. When the dolls were so banged up that they stopped looking like real babies and began to look like dolls, the children developed affection for them. Everything in the vicinity—even the March sunlight—was new, fresh, hopeful and thin, as you would expect in a city that had tripled its population in fifteen years.
Among the very few domestics in sight that morning was a handsome young maid sweeping the steps of the biggest house on the street. She was a large, simple Mexican girl with the large, simple ambitions of the time and the locality, and she was already conscious of being a luxury—she received one hundred dollars a month in return for her personal liberty. Sweeping, Dolores kept an eye on the stairs inside, for Mr. Hannaford’s car was waiting and he would soon be coming down to breakfast. The problem came first this morning, however—the problem as to whether it was a duty or a favor when she helped the English nurse down the steps with the perambulator. The English nurse always said “Please,” and “Thanks very much,” but Dolores hated her and would have liked, without any special excitement, to beat her insensible. Like most Latins under the stimulus of American life, she had irresistible impulses toward violence.
The nurse escaped, however. Her blue cape faded haughtily into the distance just as Mr. Hannaford, who had come quietly downstairs, stepped into the space of the front door.
“Good morning.” He smiled at Dolores; he was young and extraordinarily handsome. Dolores tripped on the broom and fell off the stoop. George Hannaford hurried down the steps, reached her as she was getting to her feet cursing volubly in Mexican, just touched her arm with a helpful gesture and said, “I hope you didn’t hurt yourself.”
“I’m afraid it was my fault; I’m afraid I startled you, coming out like that.”
His voice had real regret in it; his brow was knit with solicitude.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Didn’t turn your ankle?”
“I’m terribly sorry about it.”
“Aw, it wasn’t your fault.”
He was still frowning as she went inside, and Dolores, who was not hurt and thought quickly, suddenly contemplated having a love affair with him. She looked at herself several times in the pantry mirror and stood close to him as she poured his coffee, but he read the paper and she saw that that was all for the morning.
Hannaford entered his car and drove to Jules Rennard’s house. Jules was a French Canadian by birth, and George Hannaford’s best friend; they were fond of each other and spent much time together. Both of them were simple and dignified in their tastes and in their way of thinking, instinctively gentle, and in a world of the volatile and the bizzare found in each other a certain quiet solidity.
He found Jules at breakfast.
“I want to fish for barracuda,” said George abruptly. “When will you be free? I want to take the boat and go down to Lower California.”
Jules had dark circles under his eyes. Yesterday he had closed out the greatest problem of his life by settling with his ex-wife for two hundred thousand dollars. He had married too young, and the former slavey from the Quebec slums had taken to drugs upon her failure to rise with him. Yesterday, in the presence of lawyers, her final gesture had been to smash his finger with the base of a telephone. He was tired of women for a while and welcomed the suggestion of a fishing trip.
“How’s the baby?” he asked.
“The baby’s fine.”
“Kay’s not herself, but I don’t pay any attention. What did you do to your hand ?”
“I’ll tell you another time. What’s the matter with Kay, George ?”
“Helen Avery. It’s nothing. She’s not herself, that’s all.” He got up. “I’m late,” he said. “Let me know as soon as you’re free. Any time after Monday will suit me.”
George left and drove out an interminable boulevard which narrowed into a long, winding concrete road and rose into the hilly country behind. Somewhere in the vast emptiness a group of buildings appeared, a barnlike structure, a row of offices, a large but quick restaurant and half a dozen small bungalows. The chauffeur dropped Hannaford at the main entrance. He went in and passed through various enclosures, each marked off by swinging gates and inhabited by a stenographer.
“Is anybody with Mr. Schroeder?” he asked, in front of a door lettered with that name.
“No, Mr. Hannaford.”
Simultaneously his eye fell on a young lady who was writing at a desk aside, and he lingered a moment.
“Hello, Margaret,” he said. “How are you, darling?”
A delicate, pale beauty looked up, frowning a little, still abstracted in her work. It was Miss Donovan, the script girl, a friend of many years.
“Hello. Oh, George, I didn’t see you come in. Mr. Douglas wants to work on the book sequence this afternoon.”
“These are the changes we decided on Thursday night” She smiled up at him and George wondered for the thousandth time why she had never gone into pictures.
“All right,” he said. “Will initials do?”
“Your initials look like George Harris’.”
“Very well, darling.”
As he finished, Pete Schroeder opened his door and beckoned him. “George, come here!” he said with an air of excitement. “I want you to listen to some one on the phone.”
Hannaford went in.
“Pick up the phone and say ’Hello, ’” directed Schroeder. “Don’t say who you are.”
“Hello,” said Hannaford obediently.
“Who is this?” asked a girl’s voice.
Hannaford put his hand over the mouthpiece. “What am I supposed to do?”
Schroeder snickered and Hannaford hesitated, smiling and suspicious.
“Who do you want to speak to?” he temporized into the phone.
“To George Hannaford, I want to speak to. Is this him?”
“Oh, George; it’s me.”
“Me—Gwen. I had an awful time finding you. They told me——”
“Gwen—can’t you hear? From San Francisco—last Thursday night.”
“I’m sorry,” objected George. “Must be some mistake.”
“Is this George Hannaford?”
The voice grew slightly tart: “Well, this is Gwen Becker you spent last Thursday evening with in San Francisco. There’s no use pretending you don’t know who I am, because you do.”
Schroeder took the apparatus from George and hung up the receiver.
“Somebody has been doubling for me up in Frisco,” said Hannaford.
“So that’s where you were Thursday night!”
“Those things aren’t funny to me—not since that crazy Zeller girl. You can never convince them they’ve been sold because the man always looks something like you. What’s new, Pete?”
“Let’s go over to the stage and see.”
Together they walked out a back entrance, along a muddy walk, and opening a little door in the big blank wall of the studio building entered into its half darkness.
Here and there figures spotted the dim twilight, figures that turned up white faces to George Hannaford, like souls in purgatory watching the passage of a half-god through. Here and there were whispers and soft voices and, apparently from afar, the gentle tremolo of a small organ. Turning the corner made by some flats, they came upon the white crackling glow of a stage with two people motionless upon it.
An actor in evening clothes, his shirt front, collar and cuffs tinted a brilliant pink, made as though to get chairs for them, but they shook their heads and stood watching. For a long while nothing happened on the stage—no one moved. A row of lights went off with a savage hiss, went on again. The plaintive tap of a hammer begged admission to nowhere in the distance; a blue face appeared among the blinding lights above and railed something unintelligible into the upper blackness. Then the silence was broken by a low clear voice from the stage:
“If you want to know why I haven’t got stockings on, look in my dressing-room. I spoiled four pairs yesterday and two already this morning.... This dress weighs six pounds.”
A man stepped out of the group of observers and regarded the girl’s brown legs; their lack of covering was scarcely distinguishable, but, in any event, her expression implied that she would do nothing about it. The lady was annoyed, and so intense was her personality that it had taken only a fractional flexing of her eyes to indicate the fact. She was a dark, pretty girl with a figure that would be fullblown sooner than she wished. She was just eighteen.
Had this been the week before, George Hannaford’s heart would have stood still. Their relationship had been in just that stage. He hadn’t said a word to Helen Avery that Kay could have objected to, but something had begun between them on the second day of this picture that Kay had felt in the air. Perhaps it had begun even earlier, for he had determined, when he saw Helen Avery’s first release, that she should play opposite him. Helen Avery’s voice and the dropping of her eyes when she finished speaking, like a sort of exercise in control, fascinated him. He had felt that they both tolerated something, that each knew half of some secret about people and life, and that if they rushed toward each other there would be a romantic communion of almost unbelievable intensity. It was this element of promise and possibility that had haunted him for a fortnight and was now dying away.
Hannaford was thirty, and he was a moving-picture actor only through a series of accidents. After a year in a small technical college he had taken a summer job with an electric company, and his first appearance in a studio was in the role of repairing a bank of Klieg lights. In an emergency he played a small part and made good, but for fully a year after that he thought of it as a purely transitory episode in his life. At first much of it had offended him—the almost hysterical egotism and excitability hidden under an extremely thin veil of elaborate good-fellowship. It was only recently, with the advent of such men as Jules Rennard into pictures, that he began to see the possibilities of a decent and secure private life, much as his would have been as a successful engineer. At last his success felt solid beneath his feet.
He met Kay Tompkins at the old Griffith Studios at Mamaroneck and their marriage was a fresh, personal affair, removed from most stage marriages. Afterward they had possessed each other completely, had been pointed to: “Look, there’s one couple in pictures who manage to stay together.” It would have taken something out of many people’s lives—people who enjoyed a vicarious security in the contemplation of their marriage—if they hadn’t stayed together, and their love was fortified by a certain effort to live up to that.
He held women off by a polite simplicity that underneath was hard and watchful; when he felt a certain current being turned on he became emotionally stupid. Kay expected and took much more from men, but she. too, had a careful thermometer against her heart. Until the other night, when she reproached him for being interested in Helen Avery, there had been an absolute minimum of jealousy between them.
George Hannaford was still absorbed in the thought of Helen Avery as he left the studio and walked toward his bungalow over the way. There was in his mind, first, a horror that anyone should come between him and Kay, and second, a regret that he no longer carried that possibility in the forefront of his mind. It had given him a tremendous pleasure, like the things that had happened to him during his first big success, before he was so “made” that there was scarcely anything better ahead; it was something to take out and look at—a new and still mysterious joy. It hadn’t been love, for he was critical of Helen Avery as he had never been critical of Kay. But his feeling of last week had been sharply significant and memorable, and he was restless, now that it had passed.
Working that afternoon, they were seldom together, but he was conscious of her and he knew that she was conscious of him.
She stood a long time with her back to him at one point, and when she turned at length, their eyes swept past each other’s, brushing like bird wings. Simultaneously he saw they had gone far, in their way; it was well that he had drawn back. He was glad that someone came for her when the work was almost over.
Dressed, he returned to the office wing, stopping in for a moment to see Schroeder. No one answered his knock, and, turning the knob, he went in. Helen Avery was there alone.
Hannaford shut the door and they stared at each other. Her face was young, frightened. In a moment in which neither of them spoke, it was decided that they would have some of this out now. Almost thankfully he felt the warm sap of emotion flow out of his heart and course through his body.
She murmured “What?” in an awed voice.
“I feel terribly about this.” His voice was shaking.
Suddenly she began to cry; painful, audible sobs shook her. “Have you got a handkerchief?” she said.
He gave her a handkerchief. At that moment there were steps outside. George opened the door halfway just in time to keep Schroeder from entering on the spectacle of her tears.
“Nobody’s in,” he said facetiously. For a moment longer he kept his shoulder against the door. Then he let it open slowly.
Outside in his limousine, he wondered how soon Jules would be ready to go fishing.
From the age of twelve Kay Tompkins had worn men like rings on every finger. Her face was round, young, pretty and strong; a strength accentuated by the responsive play of brows and lashes around her deaf, glossy, hazel eyes. She was the daughter of a senator from a Western state and she hunted unsuccessfully for glamour through a small Western city until she was seventeen, when she ran away from home and went on the stage. She was one of those people who are famous far beyond their actual achievement.
There was that excitement about her that seemed to reflect the excitement of the world. While she was playing small parts in Ziegfeld shows she attended proms at Yale, and during a temporary venture into pictures she met George Hannaford, already a star of the new “natural” type then just coming into vogue. In him she found what she had been seeking.
She was at present in what is known as a dangerous state. For six months she had been helpless and dependent entirely upon George, and now that her son was the property of a strict and possessive English nurse, Kay, free again, suddenly felt the need of proving herself attractive. She wanted things to be as they had been before the baby was thought of. Also she felt that lately George had taken her too much for granted; she had a strong instinct that he was interested in Helen Avery.
When George Hannaford came home that night he had minimized to himself their quarrel of the previous evening and was honestly surprised at her perfunctory greeting.
“What’s the matter, Kay?” he asked after a minute. “Is this going to be another night like last night?”
“Do you know we’re going out tonight?” she said, avoiding an answer.
“To Katherine Davis’. I didn’t know whether you’d want to go——”
“I’d like to go.”
“I didn’t know whether you’d want to go. Arthur Busch said he’d stop for me.”
They dined in silence. Without any secret thoughts to dip into like a child into a jam jar, George fell restless, and at the same time was aware that the atmosphere was full of jealousy, suspicion and anger. Until recently they had preserved between them something precious that made their house one of the pleasantest in Hollywood to enter. Now suddenly it might be any house; he felt common and he felt unstable. He had come near to making something bright and precious into something cheap and unkind. With a sudden surge of emotion, he crossed the room and was about to put his arm around her when the doorbell rang. A moment later Dolores announced Mr. Arthur Busch.
Busch was an ugly, popular little man, a continuity writer and lately a director. A few years ago they had been hero and heroine to him, and even now, when he was a person of some consequence in the picture world, he accepted with equanimity Kay’s use of him for such purposes as tonight’s. He had been in love with her for years, but, because his love seemed hopeless, it had never caused him much distress.
They went on to the party. It was a housewarming, with Hawaiian musicians in attendance, and the guests were largely of the old crowd. People who had been in the early Griffith pictures, even though they were scarcely thirty, were considered to be of the old crowd; they were different from those coming along now, and they were conscious of it. They had a dignity and straightforwardness about them from the fact that they bad worked in pictures before pictures were bathed in a golden haze of success. They were still rather humble before their amazing triumph, and thus, unlike the new generation, who took it all for granted, they were constantly in touch with reality. Half a dozen or so of the women were especially aware of being unique. No one had come along to fill their places; here and there a pretty face had caught the public imagination for a year, but those of the old crowd were already legends, ageless and disembodied. With all this, they were still young enough to believe that they would go on forever.
George and Kay were greeted affectionately; people moved over and made place for them. The Hawaiians performed and the Duncan sisters sang at the piano. From the moment George saw who was here he guessed that Helen Avery would be here, too, and the fact annoyed him. It was not appropriate that she should be part of this gathering through which he and Kay had moved familiarly and tranquilly for years.
He saw her first when someone opened the swinging door to the kitchen, and when, a little later, she came out and their eyes met, he knew absolutely that he didn’t love her. He went up to speak to her, and at her first words he saw something had happened to her, too, that had dissipated the mood of the afternoon. She had got a big part.
“And I’m in a daze!” she cried happily. “I didn’t think there was a chance and I’ve thought of nothing else since I read the book a year ago.”
“It’s wonderful. I’m awfully glad.”
He had the feeling, though, that he should look at her with a certain regret; one couldn’t jump from such a scene as this afternoon to a plane of casual friendly interest. Suddenly she began to laugh.
“Oh, we’re such actors, George—you and I.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Oh, yes, you do. You did this afternoon. It was a pity we didn’t have a camera.”
Short of declaring then and there that he loved her, there was absolutely nothing more to say. He grinned acquiescently. A group formed around them and absorbed them, and George, feeling that the evening had settled something, began to think about going home. An excited and sentimental elderly lady—someone’s mother—came up and began telling him how much she believed in him, and he was polite and charming to her, as only he could be, for half an hour. Then he went to Kay, who had been sitting with Arthur Busch all evening, and suggested that they go.
She looked up unwillingly. She had had several highballs and the fact was mildly apparent. She did not want to go, but she got up after a mild argument and George went upstairs for his coat. When he came down Katherine Davis told him that Kay had already gone out to the car.
The crowd had increased; to avoid a general good night he went out through the sun-parlor door to the lawn; less than twenty feet away from him he saw the figures of Kay and Arthur Busch against a bright street lamp; they were standing close together and staring into each other’s eyes. He saw that they were holding hands.
After the first start of surprise George instinctively turned about, retraced his steps, hurried through the room he had just left, and came noisily out the front door. But Kay and Arthur Busch were still standing close together, and it was lingeringly and with abstracted eyes that they turned around finally and saw him. Then both of them seemed to make an effort; they drew apart as if it was a physical ordeal. George said good-by to Arthur Busch with special cordiality, and in a moment he and Kay were driving homeward through the clear California night.
He said nothing, Kay said nothing. He was incredulous. He suspected that Kay had kissed a man here and there, but he had never seen it happen or given it any thought. This was different; there had been an element of tenderness in it and there was something veiled and remote in Kay’s eyes that he had never seen there before.
Without having spoken, they entered the house; Kay stopped by the library door and looked in.
“There’s someone there,” she said, and she added without interest: “I’m going upstairs. Good night.”
As she ran up the stairs the person in the library stepped out into the hall.
He was a pale and hard young man; his face was vaguely familiar, but George didn’t remember where he had seen it befofe.
“Mr. Hannaford?” said the young man. “I recognize you from your pictures.” He looked at George, obviously a little awed.
“What can I do for you ?”
“Well, will you come in here ?”
“What is it? I don’t know who you are.”
“My name is Donovan. I’m Margaret Donovan’s brother.” His face toughened a little.
“Is anything the matter?”
Donovan made a motion toward the door. “Come in here.” His voice was confident now, almost threatening.
George hesitated, then he walked into the library. Donovan followed and stood across the table from him, his legs apart, his hands in his pockets.
“Hannaford,” he said, in the tone of a man trying to whip himself up to anger, “Margaret wants fifty thousand dollars.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” exclaimed George incredulously.
“Margaret wants fifty thousand dollars,” repeated Donovan.
“You’re Margaret Donovan’s brother ?”
“I don’t believe it.” But he saw the resemblance now. “Does Margaret know you’re here ?”
“She sent me here. She’ll hand over those two letters for fifty thousand, and no questions asked.”
“What letters?” George chuckled irresistibly. “This is some joke of Schroeder’s, isn’t it?”
“This ain’t a joke, Hannaford. I mean the letters you signed your name to this afternoon.”
An hour later George went upstairs in a daze. The clumsiness of the affair was at once outrageous and astounding. That a friend of seven years should suddenly request his signature on papers that were not what they were purported to be made all his surroundings seem diaphanous and insecure. Even now the design engrossed him more than a defense against it, and he tried to recreate the steps by which Margaret had arrived at this act of recklessness or despair.
She had served as script girl in various studios and for various directors for ten years; earning first twenty, now a hundred dollars a week. She was lovely-looking and she was intelligent; at any moment in those years she might have asked for a screen test, but some quality of initiative or ambition had been lacking. Not a few times had her opinion made or broken incipient careers. Still she waited at directors’ elbows, increasingly aware that the years were slipping away.
That she had picked George as a victim amazed him most of all. Once, during the year before his marriage, there had been a momentary warmth; he had taken her to a May fair ball, and he remembered that he had kissed her going home that night in the car. The flirtation trailed along hesitatingly for a week. Before it could develop into anything serious he had gone East and met Kay.
Young Donovan had shown him a carbon of the letters he had signed. They were written on the typewriter that he kept in his bungalow at the studio, and they were carefully and convincingly worded. They purported to be love letters, asserting that he was Margaret Donovan’s lover, that he wanted to marry her, and that for that reason he was about to arrange a divorce. It was incredible. Someone must have seen him sign them that morning; someone must have heard her say: “Your initials are like Mr. Harris’.”
George was tired. He was training for a screen football game to be played next week, with the Southern California varsity as extras, and he was used to regular hours. In the middle of a confused and despairing sequence of thought about Margaret Donovan and Kay, he suddenly yawned. Mechanically he went upstairs, undressed and got into bed.
Just before dawn Kay came to him in the garden. There was a river that flowed past it now, and boats faintly lit with green and yellow lights moved slowly, remotely by. A gentle starlight fell like rain upon the dark, sleeping face of the world, upon the black mysterious bosoms of the trees, the tranquil gleaming water and the farther shore.
The grass was damp, and Kay came to him on hurried feet: her thin slippers were drenched with dew. She stood upon his shoes, nestling close to him, and held up her face as one shows a book open at a page.
“Think how you love me,” she whispered. “I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember.”
“You’ll always be like this to me.”
“Oh, no; but promise me you’ll remember.” Her tears were falling. “I’ll be different, but somewhere lost inside of me there’ll always be the person I am tonight.”
The scene dissolved slowly and George struggled into consciousness. He sat up in bed; it was morning. In the yard outside he heard the nurse instructing his son in the niceties of behavior for two-month-old babies. From the yard next door a small boy shouted mysteriously: “Who let that barrier through on me?”
Still in his pajamas, George went to the phone and called his lawyers. Then he rang for his man, and while he was being shaved—a certain order evolved from the chaos of the night before. First, he must deal with Margaret Donovan; second, he must keep the matter from Kay, who in her present state might believe anything; and, third, he must fix things up with Kay. The last seemed the most important of all.
As he finished dressing he heard the phone ring downstairs and, with an instinct of danger, picked up the receiver.
“Hello… Oh, yes.” Looking up, he saw that both his doors were closed. “Good morning, Helen… It’s all right, Dolores. I’m taking it up here.” He waited till he heard the receiver click downstairs.
“How are you this morning, Helen?”
“George, I called up about last night. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“Sorry? Why are you sorry?”
“For treating you like that. I don’t know what was in me, George. I didn’t sleep all night thinking how terrible I’d been.”
A new disorder established itself in George’s already littered mind.
“Don’t be silly,” he said. To his despair he heard his own voice run on: “For a minute I didn’t understand, Helen. Then I thought it was better so.”
“Oh, George,” came her voice after a moment, very low.
Another silence. He began to put in a cuff button.
“I had to call up,” she said after a moment. “I couldn’t leave things like that.”
The cuff button dropped to the floor; he stooped to pick it up, and then said “Helen!” urgently into the mouthpiece to cover the fact that he had momentarily been away.
At this moment the hall door opened and Kay, radiating a faint distaste, came into the room. She hesitated.
“Are you busy?”
“It’s all right.” He stared into the mouthpiece for a moment. “Well, good-by,” he muttered abruptly and hung up the receiver. He turned to Kay: “Good morning.”
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” she said distantly.
“You didn’t disturb me.” He hesitated. “That was Helen Avery.”
“It doesn’t concern me who it was. I came to ask you if we’re going to the Coconut Grove tonight.”
“Sit down, Kay?”
“I don’t want to talk.”
“Sit down a minute,” he said impatiently. She sat down. “How long are you going to keep this up?” he demanded.
“I’m not keeping up anything. We’re simply through, George, and you know it as well as I do.”
“That’s absurd,” he said. “Why, a week ago——”
“It doesn’t matter. We’ve been getting nearer to this for months, and now it’s over.”
“You mean you don’t love me?” He was not particularly alarmed. They had been through scenes like this before.
“I don’t know. I suppose I’ll always love you in a way.” Suddenly she began to sob. “Oh, it’s all so sad. He’s cared for me so long.”
George stared at her. Face to face with what was apparently a real emotion, he had no words of any kind. She was not angry, not threatening or pretending, not thinking about him at all, but concerned entirely with her emotions toward another man.
“What is it?” he cried. “Are you trying to tell me you’re in love with this man ?”
“I don’t know,” she said helplessly.
He took a step toward her, then went to the bed and lay down on it, staring in misery at the ceiling. After a while a maid knocked to say that Mr. Busch and Mr. Castle, George’s lawyer, were below. The fact carried no meaning to him. Kay went into her room and he got up and followed her.
“Let’s send word we’re out,” he said. “We can go away somewhere and talk this over.”
“I don’t want to go away.”
She was already away, growing more mysterious and remote with every minute. The things on her dressing table were the property of a stranger.
He began to speak in a dry, hurried voice. “If you’re still thinking about Helen Avery. it’s nonsense. I’ve never given a damn for anybody but you.”
They went downstairs and into the living room. It was nearly noon—another bright emotionless California day. George saw that Arthur Busch’s ugly face in the sunshine was wan and white; he took a step toward George and then stopped, as if he were waiting for something—a challenge, a reproach, a blow.
In a flash the scene that would presently take place ran itself off in George’s mind. He saw himself moving through the scene, saw his part, an infinite choice of parts, but in every one of them Kay would be against him and with Arthur Busch. And suddenly he rejected them all.
“I hope you’ll excuse me,” he said quickly to Mr. Castle. “I called you up because a script girl named Margaret Donovan wants fifty thousand dollars for some letters she claims I wrote her. Of course the whole thing is——” He broke off. It didn’t matter, “I’ll come to see you tomorrow.” He walked up to Kay and Arthur, so that only they could hear.
“I don’t know about you two—what you want to do. But leave me out of it; you haven’t any right to inflict any of it on me, for after all it’s not my fault. I’m not going to be mixed up in your emotions.”
He turned and went out. His car was before the door and he said “Go to Santa Monica” because it was the first name that popped into his head. The car drove off into the everlasting hazeless sunlight.
He rode for three hours, past Santa Monica and then along toward Long Beach by another road. As if it were something he saw out of the corner of his eye and with but a fragment of his attention, he imagined Kay and Arthur Busch progressing through the afternoon. Kay would cry a great deal and the situation would seem harsh and unexpected to them at first, but the tender closing of the day would draw them together. They would turn inevitably toward each other and he would slip more and more into the position of the enemy outside.
Kay had wanted him to get down in the dirt and dust of a scene and scramble for her. Not he; he hated scenes. Once he stooped to compete with Arthur Busch in pulling at Kay’s heart, he would never be the same to himself. He would always be a little like Arthur Busch; they would always have that in common, like a shameful secret. There was little of the theater about George; the millions before whose eyes the moods and changes of his face had flickered during ten years had not been deceived about that. From the moment when, as a boy of twenty, his handsome eyes had gazed off into the imaginary distance of a Griffith Western, his audience had been really watching the progress of a straightforward, slow-thinking, romantic man through an accidentally glamorous life.
His fault was that he had felt safe too soon. He realized suddenly that the two Fairbankses, in sitting side by side at table, were not keeping up a pose. They were giving hostages to fate. This was perhaps the most bizarre community in the rich, wild, bored empire, and for a marriage to succeed here, you must expect nothing or you must be always together. For a moment his glance had wavered from Kay and he stumbled blindly into disaster.
As he was thinking this and wondering where he would go and what he should do, he passed an apartment house that jolted his memory. It was on the outskirts of town, a pink horror built to represent something, somewhere, so cheaply and sketchily that whatever it copied the architect must have long since forgotten. And suddenly George remembered that he had once called for Margaret Donovan here the night of a Mayfair dance.
“Stop at this apartment!” he called through the speaking tube.
He went in. The negro elevator boy stared open-mouthed at him as they rose in the cage. Margaret Donovan herself opened the door.
When she saw him she shrank away with a little cry. As he entered and closed the door she retreated before him into the front room. George followed.
It was twilight outside and the apartment was dusky and sad. The last light fell softly on the standardized furniture and the great gallery of signed photographs of moving-picture people that covered one wall. Her face was white, and as she stared at him she began nervously wringing her hands.
“What’s this nonsense, Margaret?” George said, trying to keep any reproach out of his voice. “Do you need money that bad ?”
She shook her head vaguely. Her eyes were still fixed on him with a sort of terror; George looked at the floor.
“I suppose this was your brother’s idea. At least I can’t believe you’d be so stupid.” He looked up, trying to preserve the brusque masterly attitude of one talking to a naughty child, but at the sight of her face every emotion except pity left him. “I’m a little tired. Do you mind if I sit down ?”
“I’m a little confused today,” said George after a minute. “People seem to have it in for me today.”
“Why, I thought”—her voice became ironic in midsentence—“I thought everybody loved you, George.”
“Yes,” he said abstractedly.
“I wish it had been only me. But then, of course, you wouldn’t have been you.”
Suddenly he realized that she meant what she was saying.
“That’s just nonsense.”
“At least you’re here,” Margaret went on. “I suppose I ought to be glad of that. And I am. I most decidedly am. I’ve often thought of you sitting in that chair, just at this time when it was almost dark. I used to make up little one-act plays about what would happen then. Would you like to hear one of them? I’ll have to begin by coming over and sitting on the floor at your feet.”
Annoyed and yet spellbound, George kept trying desperately to seize upon a word or mood that would turn the subject.
“I’ve seen you sitting there so often that you don’t look a bit more real than your ghost. Except that your hat has squashed your beautiful hair down on one side and you’ve got dark circles or dirt under your eyes. You look white, too, George. Probably you were on a party last night.”
“I was. And I found your brother waiting for me when I got home.”
“He’s a good waiter, George. He’s just out of San Quentin prison, where he’s been waiting the last six years.”
“Then it was his idea ?”
“We cooked it up together. I was going to China on my share.”
“Why was I the victim ?”
“That seemed to make it realer. Once I thought you were going to fall in love with me five years ago.”
The bravado suddenly melted out of her voice and it was still light enough to see that her mouth was quivering.
“I’ve loved you for years,” she said—“since the first day you came West and walked into the old Realart Studio. You were so brave about people, George. Whoever it was, you walked right up to them and tore something aside as if it was in your way and began to know them. I tried to make love to you, just like the rest, but it was difficult. You drew people right up close to you and held them there, not able to move either way.”
“This is all entirely imaginary,” said George, frowning uncomfortably, “and I can’t control——”
“No, I know. You can’t control charm. It’s simply got to be used. You’ve got to keep your hand in if you have it, and go through life attaching people to you that you don’t want. I don’t blame you. If you only hadn’t kissed me the night of the Mayfair dance. I suppose it was the champagne.”
George felt as if a band which had been playing for a long time in the distance had suddenly moved up and taken a station beneath his window. He had always been conscious that things like this were going on around him. Now that he thought of it, he had always been conscious that Margaret loved him, but the faint music of these emotions in his ear had seemed to bear no relation to actual life. They were phantoms that he had conjured up out of nothing; he had never imagined their actual incarnations. At his wish they should die inconsequently away.
“You can’t imagine what it’s been like,” Margaret continued after a minute. “Things you’ve just said and forgotten, I’ve put myself asleep night after night remembering—trying to squeeze something more out of them. After that night you took me to the Mayfair other men didn’t exist for me any more. And there were others, you know—lots of them. But I’d see you walking along somewhere about the lot, looking at the ground and smiling a little, as if something very amusing had just happened to you, the way you do. And I’d pass you and you’d look up and really smile: ’Hello, darling!’ ’Hello, darling’ and my heart would turn over. That would happen four times a day.”
George stood up and she, too, jumped up quickly.
“Oh, I’ve bored you,” she cried softly. “I might have known I’d bore you. You want to go home. Let’s see—is there anything else? Oh, yes; you might as well have those letters.”
Taking them out of a desk, she took them to a window and identified them by a rift of lamplight.
“They’re really beautiful letters. They’d do you credit. I suppose it was pretty stupid, as you say, but it might to teach you a lesson about—about signing things, or something.” She tore the letters small and threw them in the wastebasket: “Now go on,” she said.
“Why must I go now?”
For the third time in twenty-four hours sad and uncontrollable tears confronted him.
“Please go!” she cried angrily—“or stay if you like. I’m yours for the asking. You know it. You can have any woman you want in the world by just raising your hand. Would I amuse you?”
“Oh, go on then.” She sat down and turned her face away. “After all, you’ll begin to look silly in a minute. You wouldn’t like that, would you ? So get out.”
George stood there helpless, trying to put himself in her place and say something that wouldn’t be priggish, but nothing came.
He tried to force down his personal distress, his discomfort, his vague feeling of scorn, ignorant of the fact that she was watching him and understanding it all and loving the struggle in his face. Suddenly his own nerves gave way under the strain of the past twenty-four hours and he felt his eyes grow dim and his throat tighten. He shook his head helplessly. Then he turned away—still not knowing that she was watching him and loving him until she thought her heart would burst with it—and went out to the door.
The car stopped before his house, dark save for small lights in the nursery and the lower hall. He heard the telephone ringing, but when he answered it, inside, there was no one on the line. For a few minutes he wandered about in the darkness, moving from chair to chair and going to the window to stare out into the opposite emptiness of the night.
It was strange to be alone, to feel alone. In his overwrought condition the fact was not unpleasant. As the trouble of last night had made Helen Avery infinitely remote, so his talk with Margaret had acted as a katharsis to his own personal misery. It would swing back upon him presently, he knew, but for a moment his mind was too tired to remember, to imagine or to care.
Half an hour passed. He saw Dolores issue from the kitchen, take the paper from the front steps and carry it back to the kitchen for a preliminary inspection. With a vague idea of packing his grip, he went upstairs. He opened the door of Kay’s room and found her lying down.
For a moment he didn’t speak, but moved around the bathroom between. Then he went into her room and switched on the lights.
“What’s the matter?” he asked casually. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
“I’ve been trying to get some sleep,” she said. “George, do you think that girl’s gone crazy?”
“Margaret Donovan. I’ve never heard of anything so terrible in my life.”
For a moment he thought that there had been some new development.
“Fifty thousand dollars!” she cried indignantly. “Why, I wouldn’t give it to her even if it was true. She ought to be sent to jail.”
“Oh, it’s not so terrible as that,” he said. “She has a brother who’s a pretty bad egg and it was his idea.”
“She’s capable of anything,” Kay said solemnly. “And you’re just a fool if you don’t see it. I’ve never liked her. She has dirty hair.”
“Well, what of it ?” he demanded impatiently, and added: “Where’s Arthur Busch?”
“He went home right after lunch. Or rather I sent him home.”
“You decided you were not in love with him ?”
She looked up almost in surprise. “In love with him? Oh, you mean this morning. I was just mad at you; you ought to have known that. I was a little sorry for him last night, but I guess it was the highballs.”
“Well, what did you mean when you——” He broke off. Wherever he turned he found a muddle, and he resolutely determined not to think.
“My heavens!” exclaimed Kay. “Fifty thousand dollars!”
“Oh, drop it. She tore up the letters she wrote them herself—and everything’s all right.”
“Of course Douglas will fire her right away.”
“Of course he won’t. He won’t know anything about it.”
“You mean to say you’re not going to let her go? After this?”
He jumped up. “Do you suppose she thought that?” he cried.
“That I’d have them let her go?”
“You certainly ought to.”
He looked hastily through the phone book for her name.
“Oxford——” he called.
After an unusually long time the switchboard operator answered: “Bourbon Apartments.”
“Miss Margaret Donovan, please.”
“Why——” The operator’s voice broke off. “If you’ll just wait a minute, please.” He held the line; the minute passed, then another. Then the operator’s voice: “I couldn’t talk to you then. Miss Donovan has had an accident. She’s shot herself. When you called they were taking her through the lobby to St. Catherine’s Hospital.”
“Is she—is it serious?” George demanded frantically.
“They thought so at first, but now they think she’ll be all right. They’re going to probe for the bullet.”
He got up and turned to Kay.
“She’s tried to kill herself,” he said in a strained voice. “I’ll have to go around to the hospital. I was pretty clumsy this afternoon and I think I’m partly responsible for this.”
“George,” said Kay suddenly.
“Don’t you think it’s sort of unwise to get mixed up in this ? People might say——”
“I don’t give a damn what they say,” he answered roughly.
He went to his room and automatically began to prepare for going out. Catching sight of his face in the mirror, he closed his eyes with a sudden exclamation of distaste, and abandoned the intention of brushing his hair.
“George.” Kay called from the next room, “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Jules Rennard called up. Something about barracuda fishing. Don’t you think it would be fun to get up a party? Men and girls both.”
“Somehow the idea doesn’t appeal to me. The whole idea of barracuda fishing——”
The phone rang below and he started. Dolores was answering it.
It was a lady who had already called twice today.
“Is Mr. Hannaford in?”
“No,” said Dolores promptly. She stuck out her tongue and hung up the phone just as George Hannaford came downstairs: She helped him into his coat, standing as close as she could to him, opened the door and followed a little way out on the porch.
“Meester Hannaford,” she said suddenly, “that Miss Avery she call up five-six times today, I tell her you out and say nothing to missus.”
“What?” He stared at her, wondering how much she knew about his affairs.
“She call up just now and I say you out.”
“All right,” he said absently.
“I deedn’t hurt myself thees morning when I fell off the porch.”
“That’s fine. Good night, Dolores.”
“Good night, Meester Hannaford.”
George smiled at her, faintly, fleetingly, tearing a veil from between them, unconsciously promising her a possible admission to the thousand delights and wonders that only he knew and could command. Then he went to his waiting car and Dolores, sitting down on the stoop, rubbed her hands together in a gesture that might have expressed either ecstasy or strangulation, and watched the rising of the thin, pale California moon.
Published in The Saturday Evening Post magazine (3 March 1928).
Illustrations by ?.