Open main menu

Contents




BUCK'S LADY FRIEND



THE members of the Titan Company, comparing notes, agreed that something was the matter with Buck Parvin, though opinion was divided as to what that something might be. A subtle change had come over the spirit of that casual and careless son of the silent drama, a change that manifested itself in many ways and was, therefore, open to many interpretations by his associates.

Jimmy Montague, director, actor and mainspring of the western branch of the Titan Company, noticed it first. A director notices everything first, which is the reason why he holds his job.

Buck began to develop distressing lapses of memory, forgetting the business of his scenes, thereby costing the company something in wasted film and drawing heavily upon Montague 's small stock of patience.

"No, no, no! I told you to hand Jack the letter before you made the exit! I rehearsed you twice, and you go sleep-walking over the sidelines and ball up the entire scene! What's the matter with you lately, Buck? Get on to yourself, and for pity's sake don't jump so when I speak to you!"

When reproved while the camera was clicking, Buck would start guiltily and look toward the director, thus committing another crime beyond excuse or pardon. In the movies, where everything goes by looks and gestures, nothing registers quite so heavily against realism as a startled glance in the wrong direction. It makes an awkward break in the action of the scene and attracts undue attention to the machinery, which for the sake of the illusion should remain hidden. Hamlet, pausing in his soliloquy to exchange ribald greetings with the stage-hands, could do no worse.

Charlie Dupree, artist with a camera and aware of it, noticed a growing inclination on Buck's part to linger in front of the lens and register full-face photographs rather than action.

"What's got into Buck lately?" he complained. "That mug of his would stop an eight-day clock, but every chance he gets he shoves it square in front of the box and holds it there. He can't think he's pretty, so what ails the sucker?"

"I know," growled old Jennings, the assistant director. "Buck is beginning to think that he can act. So long as he was just an ordinary extra man you could depend on him to do as he was told. Then Montague went out of his way to put him on the regular payroll with the rest of us, and now, confound it, the rough-neck actually thinks that he's an actor!" Jennings, a graduate from the legitimate, could never forget that he had been two seasons on the kerosene circuit with Keene. The memory of those distant triumphs was often with him. At such times he lowered his voice a full octave, swore strange oaths, said "me" instead of "my," and treated the entire company with lofty condescension.

Bill Cartwright, presiding genius of the projecting and assembly rooms, where negatives are scrutinized for defects and the strips of film trimmed and patched together in order that they shall tell a smooth and connected story, was amazed to receive a request from Buck for scraps of waste film, always from scenes in which he had played a part.

"You can have as many of 'em as you like, Buck," said Cartwright; "but I'm blest if I see what you want of 'em! They're only negatives, you know."

"They'll do fine for souvenirs," said Buck, putting the scraps carefully away in his pockets. "And, say, when you trim up the courtroom scene that we made to-day—the one with me on the witness stand—save me a strip of that, will you!"

"That's funny," thought Cartwright. "Buck Parvin's been working here for a couple of years off and on and he never asked me for any film before. "Wants to lug it round and show it to his friends, I suppose. A regular kid's trick!"

Jack La Rue, the leading man, who was not popular with Buck but was nevertheless so popular with himself that the general average did not suffer, noticed that Buck's sombrero was adorned with a large celluloid button upon which was a bald statement of fact and a some- what impertinent query:

"I'm somebody's baby; whose baby are you?"

A rush of judgment to the head warned La Rue to withhold comment until Buck was out of earshot, thus postponing the crisis.

Myrtle Manners, the leading woman, as wise as she was pretty, and once an object of dumb adoration on Buck's part, noticed that his eyes no longer followed her, and being a woman she drew certain conclusions from that. Being a sensible woman she said nothing.

Ben Leslie, the property man and Buck's chum, a lean, loose-jointed individual with two eyes that were open most of the time, noticed all these things and many more, shaking his head over some of them.

"Nothing to it—Buck's got it bad," he reflected. "All I hope is that it ain't a widow woman with children. A ready-made family is the worst kind of a family what is, and Buck's just the particular kind of a darn fool that would fall for a widow."

The finishing touch was added when Buck appeared at the studio one Monday morning, disguised in a starched pink shirt, a high white collar and a flowing crimson necktie. Buck's taste ran joyfully to violent pot-pourris of color, but a white collar and a stiff shirt were things that demanded explanation.

"Your nose is bleeding, Buck," began Leslie, by way of opening the subject.

"It is not!" said Buck, startled into putting his hand to his face.

"Oh, beg pardon, that's a necktie, ain't it? Why, of course it is! And a white collar too! What are you made up for this morning, Buck?"

"This ain't no makeup. Can't a feller buy any new clothes without getting bawled out for it? I paid for 'em; that's all you need to know."

Jack La Rue appeared, trim and natty as a leading man should always be, swinging a light bamboo cane. He was in time to catch the last sentence and his dark eyes took in the situation at a glance, twinkling mischievously as they rested upon the collar.

"Howdy, Ben! Who's your friend!... Why, as I live, it's Buck! And all dolled up like a sore thumb! Now you're getting some sense. When are you going to scrap-heap those Kansas City boots and that cowboy hat?"

Buck grunted deeply, but did not reply.

"What's the celebration!" persisted La Rue. "Why the boiled shirt and the collar?"

"No celebration at all; just something to make little boys ask questions."

"Oh, well, if that's the case I'll ask you one: Who is she?"

"That's some more of your business!" was the reply.

La Rue grinned at Leslie.

"I'll bet Buck has been telling her that he's an actor," said he, and there was malice behind the bantering tone. "A regular actor, eh, and now he 's got to dress the part to make good. What?"

The shot went home. Buck's face flamed suddenly, shaming his cravat.

"I reckon I got as much right to call myself an actor as some folks I could name," said he doggedly. "It wasn't me that quit in that last stunt picture, and I didn't holler for a double in the riding stuff because I had a toothache. I can still manage to set up in the middle of a hawss without using my teeth to hang on by."

La Rue laughed mockingly and sauntered away toward his dressing-room. Buck looked after the handsome leading man with sullen eyes.

"Ben," said he, "I can stand just so much of that feller's society and then he goes against me. I ain't hunting trouble, but one of these days Mister La Rue is going to crowd the limit too far and I'll swing an uppercut on him. Yes, sir, I'll move his nose up on top of his head so the rain 'll run into it and drownd him. Who give that four-flusher any license to meddle in my private affairs! Has he been made chicken inspector round this town, or what!"

"Then it ain't a widow," said Leslie, immensely relieved. "It's a girl."

"I ain't said if it is or it ain't," replied Buck. "I ain't said a word, but take it from me there's class to her."

"Uh-huh," said Leslie. "Blonde or brunette!"

"What difference does that make? They all look pretty good to me. I ain't never had so many of 'em on a string that I could afford to be partickler about a color. I'm in luck if I can ketch 'em one at a time.... Say, Ben!"

"Say it; your mouth's open."

Buck glanced behind him and lowered his voice mysteriously.

"She's red-headed, Ben," he whispered, "and, believe me, she's some woman!"

The property man received this interesting confidence in a singular manner. He rose to his full height, which was considerable, and solemnly extended his hand.

"Red-headed!" said he huskily. "Good-by, Buck. Good-by, old scout. I thought you had a chance until you pulled that line on me. It's all off now. Good-by." And Ben sat down suddenly with the air of one who will not trust himself to speak further.

"SSa-a-y, where do you get all this good-by stuff?" demanded Buck. "I ain't going anywheres that I know of."

"That's the pitiful part of it," said Leslie, wagging his head slowly from side to side. "You're on your way, but you don't know it yet. You won't know until it's too late."

"Won't know what?" asked Buck, bewildered as much by Ben's manner as by his words. "I'm surprised at you," continued the property man. "At your time of life and with your experience! Didn't anybody ever tell you that strawberry blondes are dangerous?"

"How do you mean—dangerous!" asked Buck suspiciously.

"Why," said Ben, "everybody knows that red-headed women have got the marrying bug in the most aggravating form. It's always been that way with 'em. Didn't you ever read history?"

"Nothing but 'The Life of Jesse James,'" said Buck. "What's history got to do with it?"

"A whole lot. Look at Cleopatra and Sappho and Helen of Troy and the Queen of Sheba and all those female kidnapers! Red-headed, wasn't they?"

"How in Sam Hill do I know?" said Buck. "They was before my time."

"Well, it would pay you to look 'em up," said Ben. "All red-headed women are the same. If a fellow comes along and they like his looks, they nail him before he can bat an eye. Just bing! and they've got him. It seems to go with the color of the hair. They're natural-born wives, every one of 'em, and they can't help it."

"Aw, rats!" said Buck uneasily. "I don't believe it!"

"You can laugh at me, but you can't laugh at history, and while I think of it here's an argument you can 't beat. Did you ever see a red-headed old maid? Speak up quick now, did you?"

"Why, I— I—wait a minute till I think." For several seconds Buck ransacked a memory not too well stocked with women, in search of a solitary old maid with red hair. At length he was forced to admit defeat. "I don't seem to remember any just now, Ben," said he.

"Aha! Ain't that the answer? You don't remember any because there ain't any—there's no such animal. Red-headed grass widows are plenty. Buck, but you won't ever see a red-headed old maid. They all manage to get married somehow. That's because they know what they want and they go grab it. I can see your finish. She'll have you up before a justice of the peace with your right hand in the air, and you won't get it down till you swear to love, honor and obey her whole family—and support 'em too!"

"Gimme a chance to talk, will you?" sputtered Buck with some heat. "I ain't said anything about getting married, have I? I ain't even figuring on it."

"You bet you ain't!" said Ben. "No man figures on it. It's the other end of the sketch that does the figuring every time. Some fine evening this girl will take you for a walk and stop in front of a furniture store window. She'll show you a sign that says: ^You furnish the girl; we furnish the home. A dollar down and a dollar a week.' A fat chance you'll have after that ! Anything that you might say would be used against you.... Oh, well, maybe it would be a good thing for you to settle down and marry this girl and raise a family and stay home nights and——"

"But ain't I told you," interrupted Buck in sudden panic, "that I'm just keeping company with her? I dunno's I'd call her a girl either. She's old enough to know her own mind. I don't like 'em when they're so awful young. All the time I've been going with her I ain't said a word that she could figure was serious. That's on the level, Ben; honest, it is!"

"You may think you haven't, Buck, but she knows better. You're probably compromised right up to your neck. You're as good as a married man this minute."

"Don't you bet no money on it!" said Buck warmly. "I'm over seven and I've been round the block several times. Nobody ain't kidnaped me yet. Georgine's all right in a lot of ways and mighty refined for a woman that works in a soap factory, but—well, I dunno, Ben. I'm a little skittish of that till-death-do-us-part thing. A feller might live an awful long time. And he might want a change once in a while.

"Now there was ole Four-finger Simpson down in the Pecos country. He was so mean and ornery that a yeller dog wouldn't live on his ranch. He got laid up with inflammatory rheumatism so bad that he couldn't even wiggle his ears. Doc Bowen rustled round and dug up a trained nurse for him—six feet tall, she was, and would weigh about fifteen pounds to the running foot. Her face and disposition matched up with the rest of the scenario. She was every bit as easy to look at and as nice to get along with as old Four-finger himself, and I couldn't say any worse about her if I tried.

"Well, you'd never guess what she put over on Simpson. She rung in a traveling preacher and pulled a wedding ceremony on the ole coot when he was plum' out of his head. He always claimed he said 'I do' because he thought they was asking him if he wanted a drink. She didn't tell him anything about it until he was well enough to stand the shock. By that time he didn't have no more use for a trained nurse, and of course he hadn't never had no use for a wife. Ole Four-finger r'ared and pitched something awful when he found he was a sure-enough, bridegroom, but Mrs. Simpson hung on like a burr in a cinch, and finally he had to pungle up five thousand dollars to get rid of her. Then Four-finger up and died suddenlike—got as drunk as a minister's son and was kicked by a mustang—and come to find out, he'd left all the rest of his property to found a home for the indignant poor. When I come away that ole woman was wearing black for him and lawing to bust the will. The boys was betting three to one that she'd do it. Huh-uh! No wedding bells for Buck! Marriage is fine, Ben, if you can pick the right party, but with millions of women running round loose and only one out of the entire bunch the right one for you, there 's an awful heavy percentage against a feller before he starts."

"Better not start then," said Leslie. "By the way, have you got to the hand-holding stage yet, Buck?"

"Not yet," said Buck; "but at that I think she'd stand for it." He heaved a gusty sigh and thoughtfully fingered a red spot on his neck where the collar had chafed him. "Georgine is certainly some woman!" said he slowly, and lapsed into dreamy silence, during which Leslie regarded him with mingled resentment and compassion, holding his tongue because he found no language sufficiently strong to do justice to the combination.

"I'm going to meet her this evening," resumed Buck, still in pleasant reverie. "That's why I'm kind of dressed up a little. I'm rehearsing this collar and shirt. Georgine, she don't like soft shirts. She says they ain't refined."

"Dream on, Romeo, dream on," murmured Leslie.

"We're going to a moving-picture theater," said Buck. "Do you remember that two-reel Western thing, with Jim playing the sheriff and me in the posse, where I ride lickety-cut right up to the camera, pull ole Pieface up on his hind laigs, and light on the ground like a circus acrobat with my hat in my hand?"

"Do you mean 'The Sheriff's Pal'?" asked Leslie.

"That's the baby. It's been released and gets its first run this week. Georgine hasn't ever seen me in a picture. She's been wanting to, but I stalled her off, waiting for a Western one to come along."

"That riding stunt was about all you had to do in the entire picture," said Ben.

"I know it," said Buck. "It was a small part, but what there was of it was star stuff. Right square in front of the camera too. And with my hat off and all. She couldn't very well overlook me, eh?"

Leslie sniffed and made a clicking noise with his tongue, far more expressive than words.

"Say, Ben ... do you think it would make any difference to her ... being there beside me and ... seeing me in the picture? You know how hard women fall for actors."

"Don't let her miss it," said Ben quickly. "If she knows a real actor when she sees one, it may save your life."

Buck ignored this unkind thrust.

"I sort of figured that might make me strong with her," said he with a shameless grin.

Leslie groaned dismally and rose, prepared to abandon the field.

"Some people ain't worth saving," said he. "Go to it, Don Juan, but don't expect me to be your best man. I serve notice on you now that I won't do it."

"I ain't going to need a best man," said Buck. "Haven't I told you that she was just my lady friend? But say, Ben?"

"Well?"

"She sure is some woman!"


II

On the following morning Buck was early at the studio in a soft shirt and an extremely unpleasant frame of mind. The other members of the company, coming cheerfully to the day's work, gave him light greetings and received black scowls or grunts in return.

Ben Leslie, bursting to ask questions, took one look at his friend's face and retired to the fastnesses of the property room, where he leaned against the wall and abandoned himself to unseemly mirth.

At last Jimmy Montague came into view, walking briskly and puffing at a briar pipe, revolving great projects in his remarkable mind. To him went Buck, chin thrust forward, fire in his eyes and strutting like an enraged turkey-gobbler.

"Hello, Buck!" said the director. "How's tricks?"

"That was a fine thing that they put on at the Criterion last night," said Buck, ignoring the morning salutation. "That was a swell piece of cheese to hand the public!"

"'The Sheriff's Pal'!" said Montague. "Why, I caught it on the late run and it looked all right to me."

"Bah!" said Buck scornfully.

Now "The Sheriff's Pal" was one of Jimmy Montague's pet productions. Not only had he written the scenario and directed the making of the picture, but he had played the star part of the rascally sheriff; and played it very well, so it seemed to him. He was astonished and rather mystified at Buck's criticism.

"I thought it was pretty good," said Montague.

"Pretty good and rotten!" snapped Buck.

"Why, what was wrong with it?" asked Montague, between amazement and anger.

"It was cut all to pieces—that was what was wrong with it. The best stuff in it was trimmed out."

"Well, the footage ran over and we had to trim it some in spots, but I thought it got the story across all right. The audience liked it."

"Yah! A bunch of Eastern tourists! "What do they know about Western stuff? You can hand them anything and they'll like it. Trimmed some in spots! I tell you, Jim, that picture was butchered in the projecting room—just butchered!"

"I don't get you, Buck," said Montague.

"Well, get me now. You remember that location stuff we did on the Verdugo road? Them chases and things?"

Montague nodded.

"You remember that scene where you had me come riding down behind the posses and do the fancy dismount?"

"Ye-es, said Montague. "I remember that. What of it?"

"Well, they trimmed it out—that's what of it! They cut that scene as much as fifteen feet. There I was, just coming in sight up the road and so far away that you couldn't tell who I was, and zip! she was cut off short! They slaughtered me in cold blood with a pair of shears. It put the whole picture on the bum."

"There goes your artistic temperament again!" smiled Montague. "It didn't hurt the picture at all, because that bit of yours didn't have any bearing on the plot. It was spectacular and all that, and if we hadn't been away over on the footage it would have been left in, but it wasn't necessary to the story and they trimmed it out."

"Yes, and you let Jack La Rue hog sixty feet in one scene, and all he did was load his gun and set down on a table! Fifteen feet would have saved my life, but I get trimmed out! What's the use of hiring swell Western ability if you won't feature it? There ain't another man in the business could have done that stunt any better than me!"

"Pshaw!" said the director. "You must have got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, Buck. What do you care so long as you get your money every week! Forget it!"

"Don't you think I'll forget it! When you trimmed me out of that scene you made me a lot of trouble."

"Why, how was that!"

"Never mind how it was, " said Buck darkly. And not another word would he say.

To tell the truth, Montague did not press him. He had other and more important matters on his mind, and attributing Buck's outbreak to temperament he passed on into the studio.

It was Ben Leslie who got the whole story at the price of a little sympathetic silence. Ben could be wise as a serpent upon occasions, and he knew the value of a listener to one who has need of unbosoming himself. That day was taken up with location work, and during the lunch hour Ben smoked cigarettes with Buck under a pepper tree in Eastlake Park and waited for that which he knew could not long be delayed.

It began abruptly with a wild tirade against all directors everywhere, their heirs and assigns forever, touched with searing emphasis upon foot-hogs and favoritism, and wound up with a blistering curse laid heavily upon projecting-room experts and their assistants.

"Yes," said Ben, picking his cue deftly out of the air when Buck paused for breath, bankrupt of invective, "they cut and slash a film right and left, and the worst of it is that they never seem to know what to take out and what to leave in. They trim at the wrong place every time."

"And they don't know a real riding stunt when they see one," said Buck, and Ben, satisfied that he was fairly launched at last, rolled a fresh cigarette and nodded grave approval.

"Now take this sheriff picture, for example," said Buck. "I'd been waiting for weeks for that to come along. I'd been sort of promising Georgine a real treat. I didn't tell her what the stunt was going to be, because that would have spoiled it, and I wanted to surprise her. And there was other reasons why I wanted her to see me in that picture. You know that this town is full of cheap counterhoppers that go round telling every girl they meet that they're moving-picture actors. It sounds big, and they get away with it until the girl gets anxious to see 'em on a film somewhere, and then they're smoked out because they can't make good.

"Now Georgine's awful wise in some ways. You can kid her along just so far and then she has to be showed. She never said nothing right out about it, but it didn't take me long to tumble that she classed me with the bogus bunch. First time I told her I was an actor she called me right off my perch.

"'What company!' says she quick.

" 'The Titan,' I tells her.

"'Haven't they got a film running somewheres in town?' she says. 'Let's go down on Main Street and hunt one up. I'm crazy to see you act. Mister Parvin.'"

"Smart woman," said Leslie.

"You know it! Georgine, she wasn't going to waste no time on a dead one. She'd met them conversational moving-picture people before. Well, I stalled her along and I had a tough job doing it. I might have taken her to see me in one or two pictures, but there wasn't anything worth seeing in 'em. No star stuff and no hawssback stunts. The first time that she ketched me in a film I wanted her to ketch me right."

"You wanted her to see you at your best," prompted Leslie craftily.

"That's the ticket, Ben—at my best. I reckon you'd have felt the same way about it. It's natural to want to make a good impression at the go-off. I know I don't cut much ice in a soldier coat or afoot in a crowd, but gimme my chaps and put me on ole Pieface and I'm there forty ways from Sunday. Ain't I?"

"You surely are, Buck. None better."

"Well, I waited for this picture. I had it all doped out just what would happen. Here she'd be, setting beside me and waiting all through two reels, not recognizing me in any of the scenes and getting sorer and sorer all the time and making up her mind what a liar I am—seel And I'd be saying: 'Wait now, this is going to be good. Stick around, kid. Don't go away.' And Georgine, madder and madder every minute, would be handing it back to me strong. And she ain't like a woman that couldn't do it neither.

"Then all at once here comes someone ripping along the road like a cyclone, hitting nothing but the high spots and mighty few of them, and hanging on by one spur coming round the turn. I nudge Georgine and say: 'Get this now; watch it close!' Right to the camera this bird comes, lickety-clip, up goes ole Pie in the air, pawing with his front feet like he always does. 'Mercy!' says Georgine, 'that man will be hurt!' And zingo! there I am out in front of the whole bunch with my hat in my hand and laughing! Can you imagine how that would make her feel—with me setting right there beside her all the time?

"I figured to give her a chance to get her breath and then I was going to lean over and whisper: 'I'll bet you never met that feller up there, did you? Wouldn't know him from a side of sole-leather maybe? I reckon I can't act at all nor ride a hawss nor nothing, eh?' Oh, I'd thought up quite a lot of good lines to pull on her."

Buck paused and, scooping a handful of scarlet pepper berries from the ground, began to flick them into the air. The bright light of romance faded from his eyes and his lower lip drooped. Ben Leslie remained discreetly silent, but his attitude expressed sympathy.

"That's how I doped it to happen," resumed Buck with a heavy sigh. "It was some little scenario, only—only the film come out of the box a blank. They trimmed my stunt out of the picture."

"You don't say so!"

"Just butchered me. I wouldn't have minded that so much if it hadn't made such a horrible sucker out of me before Georgine, after I'd been ribbing her up all the evening and promising her that she was going to see something great. She got mighty sarcastic toward the end of the first reel when she hadn't seen hide nor hair of me in the picture.

"'Lovely make-up you must have, Mister Parvin,' says she. 'Your own mother wouldn't know you. Are you sure that this is the company you're with and do they know it?'

"I had all I could do to keep her in the theater until my scene was due. 'Wait!' I'd say. 'You're going to be sorry for these cracks you're making at me. Stick for the big show!'"

"And then!" suggested Leslie.

"I tipped her off at the proper time," said Buck. "'Here it comes at the end of this scene,' I told her. 'Watch that road close and don't miss a bit of it!' And just as I was starting to make the ride, away off in the distance and no bigger 'n a red ant, whack! off goes the film into an announcement!"

There was a long silence after this remark, delicately broken by Leslie:

"Was she—sore?"

Buck laughed, a strident cackle in which there was no mirth.

"Oh, no, not at all! She wasn't a bit sore. I only had to follow her four blocks with my hat in my hand before she'd as much as look at me, and it was an hour before she'd speak. I certainly did some tall explaining. I reckon I expounded the movie business from one end to the other. Sore? I should say not!"

"Did you finally get it fixed up?"

"Sort of. I'm on probation with her now. I can't play in her yard no more unless I show her I'm a sure-enough actor, and she says there's only one way I can do it and that's to bring her out to the studio some day and let her see me act with her own eyes. She says she'll believe it then, but she won't never trust a film again if she lives a thousand years."

"Are you going to do it?"

"I'm going to square myself with her somehow," said Buck moodily. "You ain't got no idea how small that woman made me feel. She had me thinking I was the little end of nothing. I ain't had such a wholesale bawling-out since I was weaned. She sure tromped my pride underfoot some, Ben. Yes, I'd make good with Georgine now if it took a laig."

"What's pride amount to when you've just escaped matrimony by the skin of your teeth?" demanded Leslie impatiently. "Don't be a fool, Buck. Let the bet go as it lays."

"You can say that all right," remarked Buck, rising and stretching himself with a cavernous yawn; "but you ain't never had a bawling-out from Georgine, and I have. That woman hurt my feelings something scandalous, and I'm going to make her apologize to me if it's the last official act of my life—sabe? I'm going to make her say she's sorry; and then, like as not, I'll throw her down so hard that she'll bounce!"

"Look out she don't bounce into a furnished flat," warned Ben. "If a redhead can get you to forgiving her it's all off. Remember Cleopatra and Sappho and——"

"Trot 'em all out!" said Buck. "In a straightaway tongue-lashing contest I'll back Georgine to win, hands down and on the chin-strap, from the whole darn smear. She sure is some woman


III

The dressing-rooms at the Titan studio are situated behind the glass-walled stages where the interior scenes are photographed. A number of narrow, dingy closets extending along a gallery serve to house the wardrobes of the regular members of the company, and in the smallest of these two resplendent creatures, partially clad in court costumes of the seventeenth century, were struggling before a mirror. The gorgeous white periwigs, the satin breeches, the silk stockings, the high-heeled slippers with jeweled buckles and the lace at wrist and throat contrasted oddly with the other articles of wearing apparel scattered about the room. Chaps, woolen shirts, bandannas, sombreros, cartridge belts and boots were everywhere, for the dressing-room belonged to none other than Buck Parvin.

Charlie Jennings, a stick of grease paint in his hand, jabbed viciously at the corner of Buck's left eye. It was one of the detested duties of the assistant director to make up the extra men and such actors as could not be trusted with pigments.

"Say, hold still, can't you, Parvin? Confound it, I'd rather paint an eel's face than make you up! Never mind trying to see yourself in the glass. I'll make you as handsome as possible."

Buck squirmed upon his stool in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the rhinestone buckles upon his slippers, his glance traversing a pair of rose-colored legs, satin to the knee and silk to the ankle.

"Say, Charlie, I don't look so terrible bow-laigged, do I?" he asked anxiously.

"I've seen worse, but I don't know where. You could catch a pig in an alley, all right—with the aid of a net."

"These short pants and stockings kind of show a feller up, don't they? I look pretty nifty in ordinary street stuff, but skin me down to tights and I reckon most people could tell that I've spent a lot of time in the saddle."

"Stand sideways to the camera and it won't show—much," said Jennings absently.

"I—I wasn't thinking about the camera. Say, does this pale pink look all right on me? Seems to me it's awful quiet. I like colors with some kick to 'em, colors that hit you right in the eye. Red and yellow and some shades of green. Say, don't I get one of them little patches of black sticking-plaster on my face? La Rue's going to wear one."

"You'll get all that's coming to you," said Jennings wearily. "You're a French nobleman in the picture. I don't know why Jim cast you for one, unless it's because you're on the regular payroll and he hates to waste money."

"Do I get that patch!" repeated Buck.

"Yes, yes, yes! The Lord knows it'll take a lot of patching to make you look the part!"

"Cut it in the shape of a heart, will you?" asked Buck. "I got a reason. And say, a little more powder wouldn't hurt, would it?"

"Who's doing this?" growled Jennings. "I was handling grease paint before you ever saw a theater. When I was with Tom Keene I had to make up two and three times at every performance, and——"

"Yeh, in 'Richard the Third.' You told me about it before," said Buck hastily, forestalling a monologue on a favorite subject.

"I guess you're fixed now," said Jennings as he settled the periwig upon Buck's powdered brow. "I've done all that art can do for you. Try not to teeter so when you walk. They'd spot you for a cowpuncher the minute they saw you. Go out in the back yard and practice a while. Get used to that lace and stuff. Here! Look out for that coat! Do you want to split the back out of it? Those things cost money!"

Buck cautiously eased himself into a wonderful rose-colored garment of brocaded silk, surveyed as much of his magnificence as was visible in a square foot of mirror, and then with an inflation of the chest that threatened the glass buttons on his flowered waistcoat he hobbled out into the sunshine, where he paced slowly to and fro rolling a brown paper cigarette and trying hard not to notice the sensation created by his appearance. After a time he lifted up his voice in song, crooning an almost forgotten classic of the varieties:


"Aw, my baby, tell me true,
Do you love me-e-e as I love you?"


Ben Leslie, in jumper and overalls, drew near, bowing low, with his hand on his heart.

"Greetings, Marcheese, greetings! To think that I should live to see my old pal Buck with a sticking-plaster heart on his face! What's the matter? Got a pimple?"

"Oh, get out!" grinned Buck. "How do I look?"

"About the same as you feel—darned uncomfortable."

"Shucks! I mean do I look the part?" persisted Buck.

"You do, in spots. You resemble a marquis quite a considerable round the back of your neck."

"But the clothes, the clothes!" said Buck impatiently. "Ain't this a humdinger of an outfit? Ain't there class to it?"

"Well," said Leslie judicially, "there's a difference of opinion about clothes. Some say they don't make a man and some say they do, but it's the biggest cinch in the world that they don't make a marquis. At that you might be able to get away with it if yon keep your hands in your pockets and stand behind tables and things. Jimmy Montague ought to have his head examined for casting a bow-legged man in a piece of this kind. Those warped shafts of yours will register awful strong if the camera gets a look at 'em. Maybe you've got a comedy part though. In that case the worse your legs look, the better."

"My laigs seem to be troubling a lot of people round this joint," said Buck. "They suit me all right. I ain't got no fault to find with 'em.... Say, Ben?"

"Well."

"Remember what we were talking about last week over in the park?"

"Georgine?"

"Uh-huh. Well, she'll be here pretty soon. I'm expecting her any minute. This is the big day, Ben."

Leslie took a critical survey of his friend, beginning at the periwig, lingering long between waist and ankle and finishing with the rhinestone shoe-buckles. Then he leaned against the gallery railing and laughed himself limp—laughed until the tears came.

"Don't mind me! Enjoy yourself!" said Buck petulantly. "What's so darned funny about that, hey? La Rue's friends are always coming out to watch him do studio stuff. You had a skirt hanging round for a month and I never said anything about it, did I? Georgine's the first woman I ever asked out here. I know this short-pants part ain't exactly in my line, but Georgine, she thinks there ain't anything like it. She seen a play once where everybody dressed like this and done a lot of sword fighting, and that's her notion of the pure quill in acting. Western stuff don't make any hit with her; she says it ain't refined. The other night I was telling her how to bulldog a steer and she pretty near fainted. Now when she sees me in this get-up she'll have to admit that I'm an actor, won't she?"

"She surely will," said Ben, wiping his eyes. "She won't know you from James K. Hackett or—— Judas Priest! Somebody left the gate open and look at the crowd pouring in! Boom! Boom! There's a battleship entering port!"

A huge overdressed Amazon came waddling resolutely across the yard. She wore an immense picture hat, burdened with scarlet flowers and nodding plumes, and her somewhat redundant figure was draped in billowy white. The sun glinted on masses of copper-bronze hair, and under the shade of heavily penciled brows bold eyes roved searchingly, taking in every detail of the unfamiliar surroundings.

"You darn fool!" ejaculated Buck. "That ain't no battleship! That's Georgine!" He hastened away to receive his guest, leaving Leslie open-mouthed and dumfounded.

"'Some woman' is right!" murmured Ben at last. "She's forty if she's a day and she's big enough to lick the Mexican standing army! Poor old Buck!"

"Humph, it's you, is it?" was Georgine's rather ungracious greeting to her cavalier. "It's a wonder you wouldn't have told that person at the gate to let me in. He tried to stop me, the fresh thing, but I give him a piece of my mind."

"Doggone it, Georgine," said Buck contritely, "I been so busy getting dressed and made up that I forgot it."

"That's no excuse for putting a lady in bad," said Georgine acidly.

"Well, I had to get into all this stuff, you know," explained Buck. "How do you like it?"

"Turn round slow," commanded Georgine. "No, not sideways; all the way round. M-m-m-m. That's a right nice piece of silk in the coat, but I don't think much of the lace. It's imitation, and cheap imitation at that. The pants don't fit you."

"But take it all together," pleaded Buck, "it ain't so worse, is it?"

Georgine snickered.

"It might look all right on some people," said she. "You must have been awful heavy when you was a baby or else your ma let you start walking too early. Mercy! Ain't you simply roasting with that rats' nest on your head? Take me somewheres where I can set down in the shade, and get me a glass of ice water and a fan. I declare I feel's if I was about to melt."

It was a very crestfallen Buck who escorted the fair visitor into the studio and placed a chair for her in a far corner, facing the stage and behind the camera.

"You can see everything from here," said he. "I'll be back in a minute. Make yourself to home."

When Buck returned La Rue, a graceful, elegant figure in black silk, was chatting with Montague in the center of the stage.

"Say!" whispered Georgine excitedly, "ain't that the man that was in the sheriff picture? He's one of the regular actors, ain't he?"

"Yes, he's with us," said Buck carelessly. "He calls himself La Rue, but they tell me his real name is Flaherty."

"I guess he can have a stage name if he wants to," said Georgine, rolling her eyes at La Rue over the rim of the glass. "Most actors change their names. He's a handsome wretch, ain't he?"

"He thinks so," was the grim reply. "He's awfully stuck on himself."

"He's got reason to be," said Georgine calmly. "Any man with his eyes and his figure has got plenty of excuse. I'll bet he's a terrible flirt."

"He's worse than that," said Buck shortly.

"Oh, well," said Georgine, "it might not be the poor boy's fault. Most likely there's a lot of women running round after him all the time."

"Yeh, women are fools about actors, but nobody with any sense would fall for that feller."

"Oh, I don't know's I'd say that. He looks to me as if he might be right good company. He ain't married?"

"No, divorced."

"Prob'ly she didn't understand him."

"She did, though—that's why she brought suit. Say, lemme tell you a stunt he pulled a few weeks ago. We was making a Western picture and he had to ride down a steep hill and jump his hawss over a creek. It wasn't what you'd call hard. I could have done it bareback. La Rue took a look at the water and quit cold—said he had a toothache. Montague had to double him in the scene and one of the extry men made the ride, a feller fixed up to look like him."

"I'll bet they never gave you that job," said Georgine with a laugh.

"Who, me? Say, I've doubled La Rue as many as forty times!" boasted Buck.

"It must have been at a distance," said Georgine. "And I don't see why he should be taking foolish chances. Suppose he'd get hurt or something?"

"A moving-picture actor has got to be game," said Buck, "and La Rue ain't. He's got a streak as wide as the Mississippi River!"

"You can't get me to believe that," smiled Georgine, still exasperatingly calm. "You're just jealous, that's all."

"What?" cried Buck in genuine amazement. "Jealous—of him? Why, say, he never saw the day that he could do my stuff! He ain't got the nerve to try it even! Wasn't I telling you that I was two seasons with the Bill Show, riding outlaws! Two Step, Aeroplane, Rocking Chair, Ole Steamboat—I've rode all them hawsses. There ain't many can say as much. I was——"

Georgine yawned openly.

"I wish't you wouldn't talk about yourself so much," said she. "I do despise a conceited man above all things. Oh, here comes the rest of 'em! What are they going to do now?"

The studio began to fill up with powdered gentlemen in wigs and ruffles. The stage carpenter added the finishing touches to a rich parlor setting and withdrew, mopping his brow. Buck rose hastily with something very like a sigh of relief.

"We're going to rehearse a scene," said he. "I don't know what it'll be, but I'm in it as big as a wolf. You want to watch close."

"I like the way Mr. La Rue walks," said Georgine, who had not given heed to Buck's remark. "I do believe he's the most graceful thing I ever saw. Seems to me it wouldn't be any more than polite for you to introduce him."

"He ain't the kind of a man I'd care to introduce to any of my lady friends," said Buck sternly.

Fate, which often uses the wireless telegraphy of the human eye to bring about its ends, chose this moment to strike the spark of jealous anger deep into Buck's wounded vanity. Jack La Rue, idle and mischievous, glancing casually about the studio, spied Georgine and stared hard at her. Interpreting his curiosity as an awakening interest, Georgine tossed her plumes with bovine coquetry and, if a woman weighing one hundred eighty-nine pounds can be said to simper, Georgine simpered.

"Bless me!" thought La Rue. "Buck's friend is trying to start something!"

Still holding her with his eyes, and conscious of Buck's strained attitude and sullen demeanor, the handsome leading man favored Georgine with a slow, deliberate smile.

"Well, of all the nerve!" she cooed in a delighted flutter. "Did you see that? I declare, I knew that man would flirt the minute I laid eyes on him! Oh, ain't he the rascal!"

"Well, he better not flirt with you!"

"You'd do something about it, I s'pose?"

"Yes, I'd do something about it!"

"You think you could stop him flirting with me if he really wanted to!" asked Georgine dreamily.

"I reckon I could try!" snapped Buck.


IV

"Scene forty-two, Dupree," said Montague. "Got your background clear? I want all of the stairs and the landing above. Be careful you don't cut off Jack's head when he makes his entrance."

"All set," said Dupree.

"Now, then," said the director, addressing the male members of the company, "I want the extra men in the background. Two or three of you go over there by the mantelpiece and talk among yourselves. Never mind trying to act. Just stand naturally, chatting and laughing. Oh, yes, you might hand round the snuffbox. That's always good stuff in a costume piece. Where is that snuff-box, Ben?"

"Coming up," said the imperturbable property man.

"Jennings," continued Montague, "take three more of the extra people and be playing cards at the table. Buck, sit down here at the desk and be reading this letter. Look up, crumple the letter in your hand and register surprise and then anger. Straighten in your chair and hit the desk a rap with your open hand. You've just made up your mind to do something desperate, see?... Jack, that's your cue. Come across the landing and stop at the head of the stairs. All the rest of you turn and look at him. Those of you that are sitting down get up, because he's a duke of royal blood. Buck, you get up last and face the stairs. You might be able to play a marquis with your back to the camera, and the tails of that coat will hide your legs some. Jack, you smile and bow to everybody, then come down the stairs and walk straight up to Buck with your hand held out. Give him the line: 'I congratulate you, marquis.' You look at his hand, Buck, but instead of taking it you slap him across the cheek. Not a hard slap, you understand; you're just doing it as an insult. All the rest of you jump and register great surprise when the duke gets slapped. Jack, you take a step backward and go after your sword; Jennings and his three extra men will grab you and the others will collar Buck. I don't want anybody in front of Jack in this struggle scene, because I want him to be registering surprise. Make that strong, Jack. And, remember, not too much of a struggle. This isn't 'Ten Nights in a Barroom.' These two men are gentlemen. You're all gentlemen. Don't forget it. No football tackling will go. Simply hold their arms and look shocked and drag them apart, and don't get in front of Jack's face while you're doing it. That'll be the end of the scene. We'll run through it a couple of times to get the business right. Take your places."

The action progressed smoothly to the point where Buck looked up from the letter.

"Not right into the camera!" instructed Montague. "Look beyond it. Now, then, register surprise—oh, fine stuff, Buck!"

At that moment Buck could not have registered anything but surprise had his life depended upon it. His glance, traveling beyond the camera, rested on Georgine, fair, fat and faithless. She was smiling coyly and waving a handkerchief, but, alas, for feminine constancy, her eyes were directed toward the point where La Rue was standing waiting for his cue.

"Bully!" cried Montague. "Immense! Now the anger. That's it! Hit the desk. Good work, Buck! Come on, Jack!"

La Rue strode across the landing and paused at the head of the stairs. His eyes were dancing with mischief and he bowed to the company with gay abandon.

"Up! All up!" cried Montague, and Buck was the first man on his feet. His right hand, falling at his side, knotted into a fist.

"Watch that sucker act!" crowed Dupree. "He ain't as rotten as I thought."

The duke tripped lightly down the stairs and across the carpeted floor, a mocking smile upon his face.

"I congratulate you, marquis," said he, and then, under his breath: "Who's your fat friend. Buck?"

"I'll show you!" roared Buck, and launched his fist from the hip. La Rue, taken entirely by surprise, went down like a shot rabbit, upsetting chairs and card-table, but he was on his feet again in an instant, meeting Parvin's infuriated attack with a very workmanlike right cross which rocked that hero to the very heels. In the twinkling of an eye the entire foreground filled with silken coattails, powdered wigs, hooks, jabs, uppercuts and swings, and many a peacemaker found that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive. Above the mêlée rose Buck's voice, shrill with rage:

"I'll learn you not to get gay with my girl!"

The battle, furious while it lasted, was a short one. With his own capable hands Jimmy Montague dragged his leading man back toward the camera, while a mound of arms and legs marked the spot where the extra men were struggling with Buck. It was then that a large figure in white swept majestically through the door and out into the yard.

"Call that acting?" said Georgine. "It looks more to me like a roughhouse. I ain't going to stay no place where people don't act gentlemanly!"


V

The late marquis sat in his dressing-room contemplating a swollen nose and an angry puff under the left eye. Ben Leslie appeared to say that a piece of raw beefsteak had been ordered

"It was worth a week's lay-off to lick that smart Aleck," said Buck. "I ain't worrying none about that. I wanted a vacation anyhow. But say, Ben?"

"Well?"

"What become of Georgine? I looked all round for her, but I couldn't find her."

"She beat it," said Leslie. "Told the man at the gate to let her out because some hoodlum had started a free-for-all."

"Some hoodlum!" repeated Buck bitterly. "That's the best I get, is it? Oh, well, Georgine she was always too refined for me. And fickle too. I reckon she'll stay sore for good this time, but if it's true about them red-headed women, maybe I'm lucky."

"Huh!" said Leslie. "You needn't have been worried about Georgine."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, nothing. Only that red hair of hers come out of a bottle. She wasn't the real article in red-heads."

There was a long silence after this remark.

"Well, anyhow," said Buck, "she was some woman!"

"She was that!" said Ben Leslie.