It was nine o’clock of a July night and there were still some extras in the drug store across from the studio—I could see them bent over the pin-games inside—as I parked my car. “Old” Johnny Swanson stood on the corner in his semi-cowboy clothes staring gloomily past the moon. Once he had been as big in pictures as Tom Mix or Bill Hart—now it was too sad to speak to him and I hurried across the street and through the front gate.
There is never a time when a studio is absolutely quiet. There is always a night shift of technicians in the laboratories and dubbing rooms and people on the maintenance staff dropping in at the commissary. But the sounds are all different—the padded hush of tires, the quiet tick of a motor running idle, the naked cry of a soprano singing into a nightbound microphone. Around a corner I came upon a man in rubber boots washing down a car in a wonderful white light—a fountain among the dead industrial shadows. I slowed up as I saw Mr. Marcus being hoisted into his car in front of the Administration Building, because he took so long to say anything, even goodnight—and while I waited I realized that the soprano was singing “Come! Come! I love you only” over and over; I remember this because she kept singing the same line during the earthquake. That didn’t come for five minutes yet.
Father’s offices were in the old building with the long balconies and iron rails with their suggestion of a perpetual tightrope. Father was on the second floor with Stahr on one side and Mr. Marcus on the other—this evening there were lights all along the row. My stomach dipped a little at the proximity to Stahr but that was in pretty good control now—I’d seen him only once in the month I’d been home.
There were a lot of strange things about Father’s office but I’ll make it brief. In the outer part were three poker—faced secretaries who had sat there like witches ever since I could remember—Birdy Peters, Maude something, and Rosemary Schmiel; I don’t know whether this was her name but she was the Dean of the trio, so to speak, and under her desk was the kick-lock that admitted you to Father’s throne room. All three of the secretaries were passionate capitalists and Birdy had invented the rule that if typists were seen eating together more than once in a single week they were hauled up on the carpet. At that time the studio feared mob rule.
I went on in. Nowadays all chief executives have huge drawing rooms but my father’s was the first. It was also the first to have oneway glass in the big French windows and I’ve heard a story about a trap in the floor that would drop unpleasant visitors to an oubliette below but believe it to be an invention. There was a big painting of Will Rogers, hung conspicuously and intended, I think, to suggest Father’s essential kinship with Hollywood’s St. Francis; there was a signed photograph of Minna Davis, Stahr’s dead wife, and photos of other studio celebrities and big chalk drawings of Mother and me. Tonight the one-way French windows were open and a big moon, rosy-gold with a haze around, was wedged helpless in one of them. Father and Jaques La Borwits and Rosemary Schmiel were down at the end around a big circular desk.
What did Father look like? I couldn’t describe him except for once in New York when I met him where I didn’t expect to; I was aware of a bulky, middle-aged man who looked a little ashamed of himself and I wished he’d move on—and then I saw he was Father. Afterward I was shocked at my impression. Father can be very magnetic—he has a tough jaw and an Irish smile.
But as for Jaques La Borwits I shall spare you. Let me just say he was an assistant producer which is something like a commissar, and let it go at that. Where Stahr picked up such mental cadavers or had them forced upon him—or especially how he got any use out of them—has always amazed me, as it amazed everyone fresh from the East who slapped up against them. Jaques La Borwits had his points, no doubt, but so have the sub-microscopic protozoa, so has a dog prowling for a bitch and a bone. Jaques La—oh, my!
From their expressions I was sure they had been talking about Stahr. Stahr had ordered something or forbidden something, or defied Father or junked one of La Borwits’ pictures or something catastrophic and they were sitting there in protest at night in a community of rebellion and helplessness. Rosemary Schmiel sat pad in hand as if ready to write down their dejection.
“I’m to drive you home dead or alive,” I told Father. “All those birthday presents rotting away in their packages!”
“A birthday!” cried Jaques in a flurry of apology. “How old? I didn’t know.”
“Forty-three,” said Father distinctly.
He was older than that—four years—and Jaques knew it; I saw him note it down in his account book to use sometime. Out here these account books are carried open in the hand. One can see the entries being made without recourse to lip reading and Rosemary Schmiel was compelled in emulation to make a mark on her pad. As she rubbed it out the earth quaked under us.
We didn’t get the full shock like at Long Beach where the upper stories of shops were spewed into the streets and small hotels drifted out to sea—but for a full minute our bowels were one with the bowels of the earth—like some nightmare attempt to attach our navel cords again and jerk us back to the womb of creation.
Mother’s picture fell off the wall revealing a small safe—Rosemary and I grabbed frantically for each other and did a strange screaming waltz across the room. Jaques fainted or at least disappeared and Father clung to his desk and shouted “Are you all right?” Outside the window the singer came to the climax of “I love you only,” held it a moment and then, I swear, started it all over. Or maybe they were playing it back to her from the recording machine.
The room stood still, shimmying a little. We made our way to the door, suddenly including Jaques who had reappeared, and tottered out dizzily through the ante-room on to the iron balcony. Almost all the lights were out and from here and there we could hear cries and calls. Momentarily we stood waiting for a second shock—then as with a common impulse we went into Stahr’s entry and through to his office.
The office was big but not as big as Father’s. Stahr sat on the side of his couch rubbing his eyes. When the quake came he had been asleep and he wasn’t sure yet whether he had dreamed it. When we convinced him he thought it was all rather funny—until the telephones began to ring. I watched him as unobtrusively as possible. He was grey with fatigue while he listened to the phone and Dictograph but as the reports came in, his eyes began to pick up shine.
“A couple of water mains have burst,” he said to Father, “- they’re heading into the back lot.”
“Gray’s shooting in the French Village,” said Father.
“It’s flooded around the Station too and in the Jungle and the City Corner, what the hell—nobody seems to be hurt.” In passing he shook my hands gravely. “Where’ve you been, Cecelia?”
“You going out there, Monroe?” Father asked.
“When all the news is in. One of the power lines is off too—I’ve sent for Robinson.”
He made me sit down with him on the couch and tell about the quake again.
“You look tired,” I said, cute and motherly.
“Yes,” he agreed, “I’ve got no place to go in the evenings so I just work.”
“I’ll arrange some evenings for you.”
“I used to play poker with a gang,” he said thoughtfully. “Before I was married. But they all drank themselves to death.”
Miss Doolan, his secretary, came in with fresh bad news.
“Robby’ll take care of everything when he comes,” Stahr assured Father. He turned to me. “Now there’s a man—that Robinson. He was a trouble-shooter—fixed the telephone wires in Minnesota blizzards—nothing stumps him. He’ll be here in a minute—you’ll like Robby.”
He said it as if it had been his life-long intention to bring us together, and he had arranged, the whole earthquake with just that in mind.
“Yes, you’ll like Robby,” he repeated. “When do you go back to college?”
“I’ve just come home.”
“You get the whole summer?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll go back as soon as I can.”
I was in a mist. It hadn’t failed to cross my mind that he might have some intention about me but if it was so, it was in an exasperatingly early stage—I was merely “a good property.” And the idea didn’t seem so attractive at that moment—like marrying a doctor. He seldom left the studio before eleven.
“How long—” he asked my father, “- before she graduates from college? That’s what I was trying to say.”
And I think I was about to sing out eagerly that I needn’t go back at all, that I was quite educated already—when the totally admirable Robinson came in. He was a bowlegged young redhead, all ready to go.
“This is Robby, Cecelia,” said Stahr. “Come on, Robby.”
So I met Robby. I can’t say it seemed like fate—but it was. For it was Robby who later told me how Stahr found his love that night.
Under the moon the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland—not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French chateaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway by night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood, like fragments of stories dancing in an open fire. I never lived in a house with an attic but a back lot must be something like that and at night of course in an enchanted distorted way, it all comes true.
When Stahr and Robby arrived clusters of lights had already picked out the danger spots in the flood.
“We’ll pump it out into the swamp on Thirty-sixth Street,” said Robby after a moment. “It’s city property—but isn’t this an act of God? Say—look there!”
On top of a huge head of the god Siva, two women were floating down the current of an impromptu river. The idol had come unloosed from a set of Burma and it meandered earnestly on its way, stopping sometimes to waddle and bump in the shallows with the other debris of the tide. The two refugees had found sanctuary along a scroll of curls on its bald forehead and seemed at first glance to be sightseers on an interesting bus-ride through the scene of the flood.
“Will you look at that, Monroe!” said Robby. “Look at those dames!”
Dragging their legs through sudden bogs they made their way to the bank of the stream. Now they could see the women looking a little scared but brightening at the prospect of rescue.
“We ought to let ’em drift out to the waste pipe,” said Robby gallantly, “but De Mille needs that head next week.”
He wouldn’t have hurt a fly though and presently he was hip deep in the water fishing for them with a pole and succeeding only in spinning it in a dizzy circle. Help arrived and the impression quickly got around that one of them was very pretty and then that they were people of importance. But they were just strays and Robby waited disgustedly to give them hell while the thing was brought finally into control and beached.
“Put that head back!” he called up to them. “You think it’s a souvenir?”
One of the women came sliding smoothly down the cheek of the idol and Robby caught and set her on solid ground; the other one hesitated and then followed. Robby turned to Stahr for judgement.
“What’ll we do with them, chief?”
Stahr did not answer. Smiling faintly at him from not four feet away was the face of his dead wife, identical even to the expression. Across the four feet of moonlight the eyes he knew looked back at him, a curl blew a little on a familiar forehead, the smile lingered changed a little according to pattern, the lips parted—the same. An awful fear went over him and he wanted to cry aloud. Back from the still sour room, the muffled glide of the limousine hearse, the falling concealing flowers, from out there in the dark—here now warm and glowing. The river passed him in a rush, the great spotlights swooped and blinked—and then he heard another voice speak that was not Minna’s voice.
“We’re sorry,” said the voice. “We followed a truck in through a gate.”
A little crowd had gathered—electricians, grips, truckers—and Robby began to nip at them like a sheep dog.
“… get the big pumps on the tanks on Stage 4… put a cable around this head… raft it up on a couple of two-by-fours… get the water out of the Jungle first for Christ’s sake… that big A pipe lay it down, all that stuff is plastic….”
Stahr stood watching the two women as they threaded their way after a policeman toward an exit gate. Then he took a tentative step to see if the weakness had gone out of his knees. A loud tractor came bumping through the slush and men began streaming by him—every second one glancing at him smiling speaking Hello Monroe… Hello Mr. Stahr… wet night Mr. Stahr… Monroe… Monroe… Stahr… Stahr… Stahr.
He spoke and waved back as the people streamed by in the darkness, looking I suppose a little like the Emperor and the Old Guard. There is no world so but it has its heroes and Stahr was the hero. Most of these men had been here a long time—through the beginnings and the great upset when sound came and the three years of Depression he had seen that no harm came to them. The old loyalties were trembling now—there were clay feet everywhere—but still he was their man, the last of the princes. And their greeting was a sort of low cheer as they went by.