Buck Parvin and the Movies/Water Stuff
BUCK PARVIN, moving-picture cow-puncher, arrayed in the conspicuous habiliments of his calling, sat on the steps outside the main building of the Titan Company and thrust forth his new boots for all the world to admire. Fashioned of the choicest materials, with the squarest of square toes and the highest of high heels, the midleg portions scroll-stitched in graceful and intricate designs, and surmounted by broad bands of glittering patent leather, they were, indeed, boots to challenge the eye and demand the respectful attention of the most casual observer.
Since his promotion to a position on the weekly payroll at a salary that amazed him afresh every Saturday afternoon, Buck had been able to indulge his passion for expensive gauds and trappings. The new sombrero was a dream in gray beaver, the silk shirt a poem in Nile green; but the Kansas City boots were the very apple of Buck's eye. They marked the floodtide of gratified ambition and made him one with leading men, champion broncho busters, street medicine fakers and proprietors of Wild West shows.
Such boots are to be seen in shop windows in Cheyenne, Denver, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas. They are seldom encountered east of the Mississippi River, and nowhere are they common or likely to become so, for they cost a great deal more than a suit of ready-made clothes and something less than a good saddle. In this day of inflated food values those who can afford such luxurious footwear are scarce. There are cheap imitations of course, but they are just that and nothing else, and serve but to make the genuine article more desirable.
For the further edification of the assembled extra people. Buck rolled a brown-paper cigarette, employing none but the fingers of his left hand—and those who do not believe this feat requires dexterity and practice should try it at their leisure.
As he gave the flimsy cylinder a final twist and flourish Buck paused, eyes upturned and ear inclined toward an open window whence issued a mournful chant, pitched in a low, rumbling key. The window looked out from the private office of James Montague, scenario author, heavy actor and producing director, in whose narrow littered sanctum film dramas were born.
Ben Leslie, the property man, slouched across the yard and Buck summoned him with a jerk of his head.
"Some kicks, boy—some kicks!" said Leslie approvingly. "You didn't find those new boots hanging on a bush, I'll bet!"
"Not so you could notice it," said Buck with modesty. "Just got 'em out of the express office—made to order. But that ain't what I wanted you for. Listen here a minute and see if you can get this.
"Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep;
So beware! Be-e-e-e-ware!
"What's biting Jim now?" continued Buck, with a trace of anxiety in his tone.
The property man, a lean, melancholy person of much assorted experience, given at times to economy in language, rose, hitched his trousers fore and aft and gravely performed the first steps of the dance known to musical comedy as the sailor's hornpipe.
"Doggone it!" sighed Buck. "I had a hunch that was what ailed him. Some more of that rotten water stuff, eh? It's a pity Jim wouldn't get a company of square-faced Swede sailors and mermaids and be done with it!
"For many a stormy wind shall blo-o-o-w
Ere Ja-hack—comes home—again!"
"He's full of it this morning," said Leslie. "Genius must be burning like a fire in a furniture factory. Do you know what he's doing, Buck? Jim is trying to warble himself into thinking that he's the Clark Russell of the movie business; but he doesn't know one end of a ship from the other. That's temperament, son—temperament."
"Uh-huh!" Buck shuddered slightly. "Let him sing his fool head off! Believe me, them songs about bounding billows and raging mains was never written by a guy with a weak stomach. Do you reckon Jim will hire that ratty old ship again and stake us all to some more seasickness!"
"The Alden Besse? She's already hired."
"And me a regular member of the company!" groaned Buck.
"Well, you would be an actor!" grinned the unfeeling Ben.
"Listen!" said Buck. "If I have to go to sea any more in that old tub all the acting in the world won't keep me from laying right down on the deck so soon as we get outside the San Pedro breakwater. After that I'll be just the same as dead—only not near so comfortable. Montague makes me sick! Here he's got all the dry land in California to work on—and he chooses the Pacific Ocean! You know, Ben, sometimes I think a movie director ain't human!"
"He's got to give the public what it wants," said Leslie, quoting Article I, Section 1, of the Showman's Creed. "The other water picture is getting a lot of money. That's the answer, old horse!"
"If it gets a million it won't break me even for what it done to my stomach, " said Buck morosely. "I'm a game guy, Ben—and you know it. Everybody knows it. I don't mind taking fool chances with my life; but monkeying with my stomach is another proposition. Put me on ole Pieface and I'll ride him as high and handsome as anybody. I'll take as hard a fall as Jim Montague can frame up for me—and he's framed some jimdandies!
"When it comes to runs through brush or over boulders I can make all them Spring Street cowboys and film Cossacks quit like sheep in a blizzard—but salt water? Deep salt water? No, sir! You never heard of a guy named Buck that was a sailor. Me—I begin to get seasick as soon as I buy my steamer ticket. There's something about the look and smell of the ocean that hits me right where I live. Green ain't no healthy color for water, Ben—and you know it. I've come down some terrible steep hills for Jim Montague and never cheeped about it; but if he's quit the cavalry and joined the navy I reckon I'll have to ask for a change of venue."
"Shucks!" said the property man. "A little attack of seasickness is the healthiest thing a man can have. It tones up your whole system—acts like a tonic."
"A tonic, eh?" sneered Buck. "Now you've said something! Doc Bowen gave Baldy Bradley a tonic when lie was getting over the fever that time down in the Pecos country. It looked like harness oil, it smelled like a burnt boot, and it tasted like both of 'em, with a few other things thrown in to make it more difficult. Whenever it come time to slip Baldy a jolt of the stuff it took five able-bodied men to turn the trick—three to set on him, one to hold his nose, and one to steer the spoon.
"'Doc,' says Baldy one day, 'what in Sam Hill do you put in that stuff that makes it taste so bad?'
" 'Why, several things,' says the doc, blowing out his double chin like a pelican. 'That's a tonic to build you up. I take it myself sometimes.'
" 'Take it now, doc,' says Baldy, 'and keep it! Gimme the fever back again; I'd relish it more.'
"And that's your Uncle Buck on this seasick thing. If I've got to yo-heave-ho to be healthy I'd choose to remain an invalid like I am now. I'd rather be a well extry man and stay on dry land than play special seasick leads at a hundred a week.
"Rocked in the cradle of the deep,
I lay me down in peace to sleep."
"Gosh!" said Buck. "You don't reckon Jim figures to keep us on that water all night?"
"Forget it!" said Ben Leslie, rising. "You might have a good part in this next picture."
Buck regarded his friend reproachfully
"I had a good part in that last one," he said; "but my breakfast got jealous of me and busted into the film. How can a man act when his stomach is acting, too?"
"Don't ask me!" said the property man. "Ask Jim—here he is."
Montague stood on the steps and surveyed the morning gathering of extra people with the cold appraising eye of the experienced director—the connoisseur in features and types.
Broken-down actors, with frayed collars and cuffs, trying to hide a pathetic eagerness behind a calm, professional exterior; gum-chewing girls in cheap finery, powdered and painted within an inch of their lives; young men smitten with an ambition to smirk before a camera and call themselves actors forever afterward; a sprinkling of the down-and-outs of both sexes—it was the typical motley assemblage. To some of them an appearance in a moving picture was nothing more than a joke or a new experience; to others it meant three dollars a day and bread and butter.
"You girl on the end—with the green feathers!" said Montague briskly. "Can you swim?"
The young woman laughed loudly and flirted her flumes.
"Swim!" she answered. "Well, I should say not! I'm an actress, Mr. Montague. I was with the Worldwide and the Transcontinental people; and the——"
"Good night!" said Jimmy. "Nothing doing if you can't swim."
He descended to pass among the applicants and the line shifted uneasily.
"Water stuff! Water stuff!" the whisper ran.
"Well, what do you know about that!" demanded the young woman with the green feathers. "There was a time in this business when talent got you something, but now they don't use nothing but acrobats!" And by the manner in which she glared at Montague's back it was plain that she did not hold him guiltless of this decadence in art.
Slowly the line of applicants melted away.
"Nothing but swimmers this morning!" said Montague. Some of the young men qualified and were engaged. "I must have more women," muttered the director. "How about you?"
Montague paused before a girl who sat twisting a handkerchief nervously between her fingers. Her cheap blue serge skirt was shiny at the seams, her tan shoes were run down at the heels and her hat was of the obsolete peach-basket variety. There was a frightened look in her brown eyes as she raised them.
"Can you swim, kid!" asked Montague not unkindly.
"I—yes, sir," stammered the girl.
"Good!" said Jimmy. "Ever had any experience in pictures? No? Well, that doesn't make much difference. Be at the electric depot at six o'clock next Thursday morning. Bring along a change of clothes and some towels. You get five dollars for the water stunt. What's your name?"
"All right, Jennie. Go to the office and have them fill out a card for you. That's the way we keep in touch with our extra people; and when we need you again we can notify you."
"Thank you, sir," said the girl as she moved away.
"Scared stiff!" thought Montague as he looked after her. "Little shopgirl or something. Not much like the rest of these actresses. A fine type and she'll photograph well. Pretty thin, but she's got nice eyes."
A few moments later Buck Parvin, sunk in fathomless melancholy, became aware that a young woman was addressing him.
"Excuse me, sir," and the face under the peach-basket hat flushed crimson, "but do you know whether I shall be expected to bring a bathing suit?"
"Huh? What's that?" Buck looked up, and what he saw prompted him to rise and remove his sombrero.
"I'm sorry, miss," said he, "but I don't know any more about this next picture than the man in the moon. If you'll wait I'll find out for you."
He was back again almost instantly.
"You'll want bloomers, but no skirt. The rest of the stuff will be furnished by the company. It's a costume piece. Reckon you're kind of new at this business, ain't you?"
"Yes, sir. I thought perhaps you could tell me what I should be expected to do."
"Nobody knows that but the director," he said. "He'll tell you in plenty of time. Say, do you ever get seasick!"
"I—I don't know," said the girl. "I've never been on the ocean."
"Gee, but you're lucky!" said Buck.
Jack La Rue, leading man of the Titan Company and, as such, privileged to ask questions and annoy directors, insinuated himself into Jimmy Montague's private office, where he found that capable person perspiring over a list of properties for the new picture.
"Oakum; red-fire; smoke-pots," read La Rue over Montague's shoulder. "What are you framing up for us now, James? Something tough, I suppose."
"No," said Jimmy, intent upon his task. "This one is going to be dead easy."
La Rue sniffed audibly.
"Yeh!" said he. "All your pictures are dead easy—to hear you tell it. That Mexican war thing, for instance. That was going to be a cinch; no rough stuff, no stunts at all—straight acting. I had to jump off the top of a 'dobe house, ride down the side of a cliff, swim a river in all my clothes, and do an Alexander Salvini out of a window into a brushpile. I've been picking cactus spines out of myself ever since. Heaven is my witness, Jim Montague, never again will I jump into a brushpile head first without looking to see what's in it!"
"Always kicking!" said Montague pleasantly. "You wouldn't be a great actor if you couldn't roar at the director every few days. I suppose I planted that cactus in the brushpile for your especial benefit!"
"I wouldn't put it past you," said the leading man. "But, come, what's the new stunt to be? You can't sidetrack me with an argument."
"Another water picture—and a bird, if I do say it as shouldn't! I'm going to pull something new—something that hasn't been done before—a fire on a ship at sea."
"You don't call that new, do you?" demanded the actor. "It's been done to death and nobody ever got away with it."
"It was done with miniatures," said Montague sternly, "and that's the reason the pictures were frosts. People are on to that fake stuff. Jack. You can't build a boat four feet long and burn her in a mudpuddle and fool anybody into thinking she's a regular ship. It would go once, but not now. Audiences are too wise for miniatures and the magic-lantern stuff. They want the real thing. I'll have a real ship—a real ocean——"
"You won't have a real fire though. How will you get the effect of one?"
"You should worry about my effects!" snapped Montague angrily. "Smoke-pots all over the place—in the rigging and on deck. For the flame we'll touch off a lot of oakum on sheets of galvanized iron. That'll give us a real blaze all along the deck line. Red fire for aglow—and there you are! A fire effect? I'll get one that will knock their eyes out! The old Alden Besse will look as if she was burning from stem to gudgeon. Can't you see what a background that will make for the people as they jump overboard? Can't you see that thick smoke rolling up, and the flames shooting along the rail, and the reflection in the water, and——"
"Oh, that's it!" interrupted La Rue. "I jump overboard, do I?"
Montague paused, his enthusiasm suddenly chilled. He drew a long breath through his nose.
"Say," drawled Montague at last, "It must be awful to hate yourself the way you do! You're the whole works round this place, ain't you? Nobody else counts at all! Here I sweat blood and dope out a really great picture—something original and startling—something that all these other directors will try to copy—and I can't even tell you about it! Can't get a ripple of enthusiasm out of my leading man! His little bit is all that interests him!"
"But I jump, do I?" persisted La Rue, who was a young man of few ideas and direct methods.
Montague threw up both hands in token of surrender.
"Yes—confound it—you jump! You're the captain of an emigrant ship back in the fifties, bound round the Horn to California. You fall in love with one of the cabin passengers—that's Myrtle. Fire in the hold. Women and children first—and all that sort of thing. Not enough boats. Life raft is put over the side, but breaks loose and drifts away. That's where the jumping comes in. Myrtle in her cabin, overcome by emoke. You rescue her—a studio scene, of course—run to the rail and do a Brodie with her in your arms—the last two people off the ship. Then you swim straight into the camera, and——"
"Just a second!" said La Rue. "You 've got a great picture there, Jim—a bully picture; but don't forget that the old Besse stands up out of the water like a church. It's a long jump from her rail. Doing it single would be easy, but I'm not stuck on trying it with a woman in my arms. Myrtle is no featherweight, you know; and if she overbalances me it'll look rotten in the film. Why can't I throw her overboard and jump after her—or else let her down with a rope? It seems to me——"
"Nothing of the sort!" Montague burst into a sudden rage. "Who's running this company? You'll jump with her in your arms—in your arms! Do you understand? I've listened to all the kicking that I'm going to take from you, La Rue! The next time you try to edit a scenario for me I'll——"
"Oh, all right—if that's the way you feel about it!" said the leading man as he reached for the doorknob. "Have it your own way; but I was thinking——"
"What with?" rasped Montague. "Who's paying you to think? You 're an actor—a great actor—and that lets you out. Be a good fellow and beat it, Jack! Can't you see that I've got work to do?"
Buck Parvin chose this inauspicious moment to ask a favor. He creaked into the room, grinning ingratiatingly and trifling with the brim of his sombrero.
"Well!" said Montague gruffly. "What do you want?"
"Jim," said he, "my health—it ain't been very well lately. I may not look it, but I'm a sick man. This studio stuff is breaking me down. I been used to the open air, and I——"
"What you need," said Montague, without looking up, "is a little sea trip. I'm writing you a nice fat part in the next picture. You're going to be the first mate of the Alden Besse."
"But, Jim," expostulated the unhappy Buck, "you know how sick I got the other time! I can't do no acting on the water. If you had my stomach——"
"I'd be an ostrich!" finished Montague. "You're almost as much of a nuisance as Jack La Rue. On your way before I bounce a paper-weight off your head!"
"And you won't let me off?"
"Certainly not. What do you think I pay you thirty dollars a week for?"
Buck grunted and moved toward the door. There he faced about and emptied the locker of its last despairing shot.
"If I must, I must!" said he dolefully. "But listen to reason, Jim, and don't cast me for a first mate. Write in a part for a corpse and let me play that. I won't need no rehearsing at all!"
The good ship Alden Besse rocked at her moorings, groaning and sighing as she lifted with the rush of the tide. She groaned because she was very old, and she sighed because her hull was deeply incrusted with the barnacles of other days, which tore the moving water into tiny ripples, producing a low, hissing sound.
Built by honest but shortsighted men who had no vision of steam, the Alden Besse was paying the penalty imposed on archaism by an age of progress and invention. The world had moved on and left her behind. She had outlived her pride; but her too-solid construction forced her to linger beyond her day—a relic of the vanished period when American clipper ships spread their sails to every wind that blew across the Seven Seas.
Hongkong and Canton knew her well in the sixties and the seventies, when she was new and listed as one of the fast Cape Horners. Rich cargoes were her portion in those days—tea, silks and spices for the New York market—and she poured gold into the coffers of her owners. Then progress dealt her the first blow. The Clyde-built iron barks invaded the Orient and the wooden clipper ships were forced to fight for a share of the trade. They could no longer pick and choose. A few years of fierce competition ushered in the tramp cargo steamers, with their lower freight rates, superior speed and greater tonnage; and the Alden Besse, together with all other sailing ships, faced the beginning of the end.
She loafed about the Far Eastern ports for several months before she fell into the hands of the Japanese Government, which reënforced her teak with an armor-belt of oak timbers, mounted guns on her deck, and made of her a naval training ship.
It was an easy berth, but it could not last. The old order changed—wooden ships-of-war gave place to swift steel cruisers and the stick-and-string navies of the world became obsolete. Japan followed the lead of other nations and the Alden Besse was sold for a song.
She next appeared on the other side of the Pacific, where she was engaged in the sugar trade, plying between Honolulu and San Francisco. Again steam drove her out and she dipped into the South Seas, trafficking in copra, cocoanut fiber, vanilla and coffee. She became a sort of maritime panhandler, haunting strange ports, thankful for small favors and bartering her self-respect for a pittance. At lengthening intervals she crept through the Golden Gate, dirty and dingy, and smelling to Heaven of mixed cargoes. Her last voyage brought her to San Pedro Harbor, where she was sold for dock charges—an ignominious ending of a long career.
For months the old ship lay at her moorings, deserted save by the watchman, stripped of her sails and most of her fittings—a sorry spectacle, at which the steam craft of the harbor hooted in derision. Useless in any sort of coastwise trade and valueless except for her solid timbers, the Alden Besse was doomed to destruction; but progress, having ruined her, intervened to save her from this final shame.
There came a keen-eyed young man—a director in the employ of a moving-picture company. He had a scenario that demanded a ship—and a ship he would have. He saw the Alden Besse and fell in love with her stately lines and towering spars.
"Just the ticket!" said he. "I'll rent her by the day, put a couple of cameras aboard and stage this picture right."
"Not the All-done Besse? said the seafaring men. "Why, that old tub ain't got no sails!"
"That's a mere matter of detail. I can hire a tug and have her towed to sea."
"She'll tow like a brick house! There's tons of barnacles on her bottom."
"The barnacles," said the director, "will not show in the picture."
"There's no ballast in her. She's high out of the water and as light as a feather. She'll roll something awful!"
"Let her roll!" said the young man calmly.
The seafarers abandoned the landlubber to his lunacy and went away shaking their heads; but, in spite of pessimistic prophecies along the waterfront, the old ship's first film appearance proved a tremendous success, artistically as well as financially. It was something new and a movie audience dearly loves a novelty.
Other directors, quick to see possibilities in the Alden Besse, besought their scenario editors for sea stories, and the venerable clipper became the marine arm of the movie industry—a piece of renting property worth owning.
For a time pirate pictures were all the rage, and the Alden Besse carried more buccaneers than ever sailed the Spanish Main. On her hitherto respectable decks scenes of mortal combat were enacted. Cutlasses flashed along the rail and ancient firelocks spat from the rigging, Blindfolded prisoners bravely walked the plank, prodded thereto by inhuman captors with rings in their ears and daggers in their teeth. Beautiful maidens were rescued at risk of life and limb—or, failing in this, came at last to love the pirate chief and reform him.
Then mutiny upon the high seas engaged the attention of the scenario departments. The cutlass gave way to the marline-spike and the firelock to the bulldog revolver. Cruel captains were dealt with according to their deserts and bucko mates reaped the rewards of demerit. At the beck and call of many producing directors the Alden Besse led a busy life, cutting strange capers in her old age.
On this particular morning she stared down coldly on a laughing, chattering crowd that advanced along the wharf. James Montague was in the van, flanked on each side by a camera expert.
"Bully light to-day!" said the director, squinting at the sun.
"Yep!" said Charlie Dupree, one of the camera men. "Better not waste any of it. Where do we set up first?"
"Right here on the wharf. Cut in the gangplank and as much of the ship as you can get. Look out for your background and don't get any buildings in it, because this is supposed to be Glasgow or Liverpool. Departure of the emigrant ship. Weeping and wailing—and all that sort of stuff. Affecting farewells on the pier."
"I get you," said Dupree. "Cast Buck Parvin for an emigrant. He and that girl he's picked up are about the saddest things in the bunch. He was grouching all the way down in the car."
"Huh! Buck thinks he's going to be seasick," said Montague. "Now, then, all you extra people, hop aboard and get made up. No time to lose!"
"Women dress in the cabin and men on the deck!" bawled Jennings, Montague's assistant. "Hustle, now!" As a production The Emigrant Ship was an ambitious undertaking, requiring seventy extra people besides the regular members of the company and the entire working force of the Titan studio.
Over one hundred strong, men and women and laughing girls swarmed up the gangplank; and the decks resounded to the swift tapping of high-heeled shoes and the joyful whoops of the youthful extra men, who regarded the entire expedition as a lark. "They'll be singing another tune before long!" Thus Buck Parvin darkly, lagging in the extreme rear with Jennie Lee.
"Is the water very deep—where we swim, I mean?" asked the girl.
"Moving-picture actors," said Buck, "ain't got no regular swimming places like other folks. We hit the water wherever the director says. It wouldn't surprise me none if Jim Montague heaved us all overboard a couple of miles out to sea and made us swim ashore. He ain't got no more consideration for an actor's feelings than a billy-goat. Once he made me—why, hello! You ain't getting sick already, are you?"
"No," said the girl quickly. "No, I'm all right, Mr. Parvin."
"You look kind of white round the mouth," said Buck critically. "Does your stomach feel sort of restlesslike? That's the way it starts with me."
"No, it isn't that; only—only I'm afraid I can't swim very far. I never tried it, and——"
"Oh, I was just kidding about that," said Buck. "It'll be a short swim; they always are—just a flash in the water and out again."
"Perhaps I ought to tell the director. What shall I do, Mr. Parvin?"
"Do nothing!" advised Buck. "If you tell Jim he'll give you a bawling out. What he don't know won't hurt him. And say, I wisht you 'd call me Buck. They all do—it's shorter."
"But Buck is such a queer name."
"Hush! I've got a queerer one. My mother named me Rollo; but the old man, he tacked on the Buchanan—to take the curse off, I reckon. Rollo! Ain't that a noble name for a full-grown man?"
Montague stood at the gangplank counting noses. His quick eye noted several things and he saluted the stragglers with appropriate remarks.
"Don't let that film cowboy scare you, Jennie!" said he. "The trouble with him is that he's opposed to water in any form. The only people who are ever seasick are the ones who are afraid they're going to be. Hurry along and get ready!... You, Buck! Didn't I tell you to dress a first mate? What sort of boots are those for a sailor to wear!"
Buck halted with a conscious downward glance. In order that no part of their glory might be wasted he was wearing his treasures with the trousers stuffed into the stiff, stitched tops.
"What have you got against these boots?" demanded Parvin, glaring at the director. "They cost me twenty-seven dollars and express charges from K. C, Missoury. Made to order! No first mate ever had a better pair—you can win a bet on that!"
"Cowpuncher boots—at seal" howled Montague. "Why, man, those high heels will register a mile away! Get some shoes—confound you! What do you want to do—burlesque this picture?"
Buck passed up the gangplank, muttering mutinously. He sat down on a spare spar lashed in the scuppers and examined the boots carefully. No—he would not discard them—director or no director. He would compromise by drawing the trousers down over the gorgeous tops. As he was about to offer this sop to authority a passing tug set the Alden Besse to bobbing merrily up and down, and from that very moment boots and all other professional considerations passed out of Buck Parvin's mind.
Later, when he was prone upon the deck, spent and empty, his head pillowed upon his arms, he heard as from a great distance the voice of James Montague commanding him to come and be a first mate, a man, a mouse, or a long-tailed rat; but Buck was beyond insult, and the director went away, trailing lurid remarks behind him.
"Buck's a quitter—that's what he is!" said Montague to Ben Leslie.
"Oh, no, he ain't!" said the property man. "You can't quit until you've started—and Buck ain't going to start."
At three o'clock in the afternoon a calm fell on the deck of the Alden Besse, while Jimmy Montague, hoarse and hatless, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, conferred with his assistant, checking up the amount of work accomplished. The old clipper, just outside the breakwater and in tow of a tug, heaved and tossed to the long, oily groundswells that shouldered in from the Pacific, and her aged rigging creaked dismally with every plunge.
It had been a lively day on the deep. Montague, mindful of his enlarged payroll and anxious to complete the water stuff in one day, drove the company at top speed, scene following scene with bewildering rapidity. The extra people, herded here and there like sheep and used as a human background for the principals in the cast, were given no time in which to analyze physical sensations. Two cameras clicked constantly—a precaution against makeovers—and while Montague rehearsed and directed one scene Jennings busied himself preparing the next.
"Pretty fast work, Jim!" said the assistant, consulting his memorandum book.
"Not so bad!" said Montague, wiping his brow. "That's about all of the deck stuff, I guess. Flag the captain of the tug and have him take us inside the breakwater. We'll want a smooth sea for the swimmers. Tell the people who are going into the water that they can take off their shoes—no use in spoiling 'em. This stunt is just a quick flash overboard, and the stockings won't register. They'll be able to swim better without their shoes, too. Where's Ben? I want to see him."
The property man hoisted himself out of the companionway, imperturbable as ever, hitched his trousers fore and aft in true nautical style, and came to a rigid salute.
"Got the smoke-pots in the rigging, Ben?"
"Aye aye, skipper!"
"All it needs is the match. When do we pull the big smudge?"
"As soon as we get inside. Listen now! I'm going to cut in the stern of the ship for he jumps and I'll want plenty of smoke, but not enough to hide the people as they come to the rail."
"That's easy. The wind is off shore."
"Turn loose a little of the oakum where the ship is cut down on the side——"
"The waist, skipper—the waist!" corrected Leslie.
"All right—the waist. A little fire there, but not much—just enough to make a showing. Touch off the smoke-pots on the rear mast——"
"Holy sailor!" ejaculated Ben. "The mizzenmast, Jim! Be technical, can't you?"
"Never you mind the technicalities!" said Montague. "You give me the sort of a fire effect I want and let it go at that. Then, after the jumps, we'll go still farther away with the tug, so we can cut in the whole ship; then turn loose the whole works—smoke-pots, oakum, red-fire and all. Give her everything you've got; and see that none of your stooges show their heads over the rail. The Alden Besse is supposed to be deserted by that time. Do you get me?"
"Absolutely! Leave it to me and I'll smoke her up to the queen's taste."
"How^s the quitter getting along?" asked Montague.
"Better," said Ben. "He was able to cuss me the last time I poked him up. Pretty soft for Buck! That pretty little new girl is sitting beside him and holding a cold towel on his head."
"Humph!" grunted Montague. "He's not game—that's what ails him! Now there's little Dupree—seasick as a dog all day—but he never missed a turn of the crank except when he had to run to the rail."
At the same moment Buck was detailing his symptoms for the benefit of the faithful Jennie.
"I've got a fierce headache and black spots floating in front of my eyes," said the stricken one, essaying to sit up. "My stomach feels like somebody had used it to churn sour milk in and there's a dark green taste in my mouth. I've got palpitation of the heart and I'm as weak as a cat; but otherwise there ain't a thing the matter with me. I reckon I'll live till night, at least. It was mighty nice of you to stick round the way you did. I won't forget it; and if you're ever seasick——"
"Oh, but I was—this morning."
"And went on working just the same?" cried Buck. "Well, they say that a woman can stand more suffering than a man. I reckon it's true. Doc Bowen used to say——"
"Come on, you swimmers! Get ready!"
"That's Jennings," said Buck. "Better run along and—why, see here, sister, what's the matter? You ain't scared, are you?"
"I—I'm afraid I am," quavered the girl. "I didn't think it would be like this—away out on the ocean!"
"But you said you could swim!"
"Only a little—and I've never been in deep water in my life. It—it frightens me!"
"Oh, shucks! There's nothing to be scared of. There'll be somebody handy to grab you if anything goes wrong. Once you get wet all over, you won't notice it at all."
"And you're sure there'll be somebody there?"
"Why, of course! "Whoever heard of a moving-picture actor getting drownded?"
The girl went away reluctantly, leaving Buck to speculate upon the inconsistencies of feminine nature.
"She's seasick and never lets a yip out of her," thought he; "but the notion of getting wet stampedes her plumb off the reservation! Women are too various for me—I give 'em up!"
Before the tug drew alongside to receive the director and the camera men, Montague addressed the entire company from the after deck-house of the Alden Besse, Buck being the only absentee.
"Now this is the action," said Jimmy—"and pay attention to me, because I haven't got time to repeat it. We will first make the boats rowing away from the ship. You folks who were in the deck struggles and the launching scenes, take the same places in the boats that you had before—dressed the same way too. The men at the oars will pull over toward the tug and across the sidelines. Be careful you don't drift back into the picture. As you leave the ship be looking back at her—all of you—and register grief—like this."
Here Montague registered grief—a very simple matter when one knows how.
"You women, wring your hands and cry. Here's a ship—burning up at sea. It's a terrible thing! All your friends and loved ones are left on her; you may never see 'em again. Try to get something of that fear into the picture—and if I catch you looking at the cameras it'll cost you a day's pay! You look at the ship—and keep on looking at her until you're over the sidelines.
"Next we'll do the liferaft, drifting away from the side. Jennings, you coach 'em in the action—it's only about ten feet or so.
"Now, then, here's the big stunt of the day! Where are all those swimmers? Come down here in front so I can see you. This water scene won't run much over thirty feet in all, but it's the most important one in the picture and I don't want any boneheads or smart Alecks crumbing it up for me—remember that! The liferaft will be over between the tug and the ship. When you hear me holler Go! you're to start jumping. Go overboard from the waist there—it's lower. Don't all jump at once—two or three at a time; and keep on coming. When I say jump I mean jump! I don't want any exhibition dives or posing on the rail—no headfirst stuff. This ship is supposed to be red hot and you're getting off of her as quick as you can. Never mind making it pretty—you hit the water feet first.
"I want a couple of girls to register fear—you, Anderson; and you, Lee. When you climb on the rail look down and hesitate—sort of shrink back; make it look as if you were afraid. Then jump. And another thing—when you get into the water cut out the fancy swimming. No showing off and no skylarking. You boys, remember that! Tear out for the raft as if your lives depended on getting there in a hurry. That's all for you extra people."
"And when do I jump?" asked Jack La Rue.
"I'm getting round to you now. At the beginning of the jumping scene, Jack, I want you to establish yourself at the rail there—up above the waist. Give a quick look round and then register that you've just missed Myrtle. Rush over and duck behind that little coop where the stairs go down."
Here Ben Leslie emitted a sepulchral groan and took his head in his hands.
"Myrtle, you be waiting for Jack there. When the extra people are all in the water I'll give you a signal, Jack, and you carry Myrtle to the rail—the same place where you established yourself before. Register exhaustion—you've been breathing smoke, remember. Ben, I want you to plant one of your stooges in that coop with a couple of smoke-pots, so that we'll get the effect of Jack coming through the thickest of it."
"Aye, aye, commodore!" said Leslie. "But don't call it a coop. That's the after companion-hatch."
"Say, where do I jump from?" demanded La Rue.
"From the rail up above—there'll be less smoke there."
"And farther to go before I hit the water!" grumbled the leading man. And he scowled at the lovely Myrtle Manners, who was to be his partner in the plunge.
"It's a straight falling jump," said that practical young woman, "and not a fancy dive. We oughtn't to have any trouble."
"We! We!" sneered La Rue. "I'm the one that's got to do it all! And you're liable to turn me over in the air——"
"Not if you know your business!" said Miss Manners tartly.
La Rue retorted in kind and Montague's voice blared above the argument.
"Swim for the raft. Jack, and keep hold of Myrtle all the way. We'll pan you right down the middle of the picture to the raft; and—oh, for the love of Mike, quit jawing, you two! Anybody would think you were married!... Now, then, the boat scene first. There 'll be no rehearsals; so don't make any mistakes!"
The boats had pulled away from the side, freighted to the gunwales with duly registered grief and fear; the liferaft had been maneuvered into position midway between the tug and the ship, and a hush of expectancy fell on the Alden Besse, Over the water came a hoarse bellow. James Montague, on the tug, was megaphoning his compliments to the property man.
"What in the double-dash, blankety-blank-blank is the matter with that smoke? More pots there, Ben! Touch off the oakum!"
Ben Leslie and his assistants—stooges, in the vernacular of the profession, the same being short for students—swarmed over the after part of the ship, distributing stubby roman candles, which when lighted belched forth great quantities of acrid, yellowish vapor. These were the smoke-pots, without which there would be few film fires.
The oakum flared suddenly in the waist and a dense black smoke-cloud rolled along the deck, enveloping Buck Parvin, who had suffered a temporary relapse. He crawled out of the fire zone, strangling and choking and wiping his eyes. From a safe distance he looked back upon the made-to-order inferno.
"Gosh-all-zicketty!" he coughed. "I always knowed Jim Montague could raise hell; but this is the first time he ever raised her so high that I could see her! What in thunder is coming off here?"
Through the swirling smoke Buck caught glimpses of the after part of the ship. La Rue, very imposing in his captain's uniform, waited at the rail to establish himself, while Myrtle Manners sulked behind the hatch and examined her makeup with the aid of a pocket mirror. Jennings and the swimmers were grouped below on the deck. The assistant director was gesticulating violently and portions of his harangue reached Buck's ears:
"No funny business!... You jump when I tell you to!... Never mind having your picture taken!... The bigger the splash, the better!"
A sudden gust of wind cleared the deck of smoke for an instant and one figure stood out, clear and distinct—a slender girl, her face white save for the splash of carmine on her lips, her hands clenched at her sides. Then the smoke hid her again.
"Good Lord!" groaned Buck; "has that kid got to jump as well as swim?"
"Heads down, you stooges!" bawled Leslie. "How is she now, Jim?"
"Better!" floated back over the water. "We'll make it now. Ready!—Action!—Go!"
The two cameras upon the tug began to click in unison as the first of the extra men flashed over the bulwarks and dropped like a plummet, feet first, making a tremendous splash.
"Lovely!" said Montague. "It's a better effect than I thought it was going to be. Faster, there, you boneheads! Faster!"
On board the Alden Besse, Jack La Rue strode from the rail and disappeared in the smoke, determination to do or die written large upon his heroic shoulders. Jennings, bent double behind the bulwarks, drove the extra people to their task.
"You next! And you—and you! Jump!"
Buck Parvin, watching the thinning ranks of the swimmers, crept down the deck, bending low to escape the cameras. Jennie Lee was the last to go. Jennings reached out and took her by the arm.
"Get up there and register fear! Hurry!"
The girl mounted the bulwarks, looked down over the side—twenty feet to the green water—and cringed, shuddering.
"That's Lee!" said Montague, on the tug. "A born actress! You'd think, to look at her, that she was scared to death!" Then, through the megaphone: "Don't overact! That's enough! The picture's waiting on you! Jump!"
Buck Parvin, crouching below, looked up and saw the terror in the girl's eyes.
"You've got to go now!" he urged. "You're established on the rail! If you don't jump you'll spoil the picture!"
"Oh, I'm afraid! I'm afraid!" whimpered Jennie. "There's nobody down there to help me if I sink! I'm afraid—and it's so far too!"
Jennings raged on the deck; Buck pleaded; and hoarse, inarticulate howls of rage came from the tug.
Jack La Rue, squatting behind the hatch, saw nothing of all this, but he heard Montague's voice uplifted profanely.
"He means us!" said La Rue; and picking up the young woman he staggered to the rail. At the sight of him James Montague grazed death by apoplexy; and Charlie Dupree, who knew something of dramatic values, sucked in his breath with a whistling sound.
"Good-night, nurse!" muttered Dupree. "Jack has crumbed this scene for fair! Why didn't the fool stay back there?" But, like the dependable photographer he was, he continued to make his two revolutions a second, counting the film, foot by foot.
By precedent and every rule of stagecraft the hero is entitled to the center of the stage and, in his one great moment, the undivided attention of the audience. La Rue, by blundering into the picture at the wrong time, was dividing the big scene with a cowering extra woman—and taking the short end of it. Montague gurgled and estimated the cost of another day's work.
With the singleness of purpose that stamps a selfish man as well as a great one, La Rue looked neither to the right nor to the left. He planted one foot on the rail, cast an imploring glance heavenward and floundered over the side—making a very bad jump, indeed. At the same instant Jennings, who had not seen La Rue at the taffrail, pushed Jennie Lee violently outward, and she fell, twisting and screaming, into the water.
"You're a fine stiff, Jennings!" said Buck as he rushed to the bow, where he could look over the side without fear of getting into the picture. Jack La Rue was swimming steadily toward the raft, towing Miss Manners; Jennie Lee was struggling in the water—once she disappeared entirely. Buck ran back to the waist.
"That kid can't swim!" he cried. "What shall we do?"
"Maybe they can trim her out of the film!" said Jennings.
"She's drownding, I tell you!" shouted Buck.
There came a bubbling cry for help, followed immediately by a terrific blast from the megaphone.
"Somebody go in after that girl!"
Buck Parvin placed one hand on the bulwarks and vaulted over the side. Two vigorous strokes carried him into action. Exhausted, helpless and frightened out of her wits, the girl grasped Buck round the neck and clung to him with the last ounce of her strength, dragging him below the surface of the water. Buck fought himself free from that strangling embrace and, seizing her by the hair, struck out for the raft, yelling for help.
"Get that, Charlie! Get that! It'll save the picture!" screamed Montague, dancing up and down. "Come on with her, Buck! Right for the raft! Pan 'em in, Charlie! Get all that! It's great stuff!"
It is a good director who can turn even an accident to account, and a good camera man who does not lose his head or his count in emergencies. Dupree, one eye in the viewfinder and both hands flying, tilted the black box slightly and with the panorama attachment held Buck in the exact center of the picture—a maneuver that drew roars of protests from the leading man.
"Hey! What are you doing there?" yelled La Rue.
"Shut up!" barked Montague. "I'm saving the picture that you ruined!"
Ordinarily it would not have been a hard swim, but Buck was below par physically, empty and weak and shaken; and the girl, crazed with fear, fought him desperately every stroke of the way. He had gone into the water fully dressed and his twenty-seven-dollar boots, filling with the first plunge, weighed him down like anchors. Strangling and spitting, Buck reached the raft at last; and Myrtle Manners—as much woman as actress—drew the half-conscious and hysterical girl to safety. Buck managed to hook one foot over the top of the raft and hung there panting.
"A lift. Jack! I'm all in!" he gasped.
"It's a wonder to me you wouldn't wait till I got through!" snarled the leading man. "That fool girl crabbed my jump and you crabbed my swim!"
"Too darned bad!" wheezed Buck. "I should have let her drown to oblige a stiff like you!"
"The poor child has fainted!" cried Miss Manners.
"Yes, and this poor child is going to faint too, unless he gets help!" said Buck.
La Rue seized the boot and tugged with all his might. Two or three of the extra men grasped Buck by the shoulders and heaved him up on the raft, where he lay, face downward, suffering a last rending attack of his old enemy.
"How much did she run?" asked Montague when the cameras ceased clicking.
"Eighty-two feet," said Dupree; "and about fifty of it was Buck and his lady friend. Gee, but that rescue scene was bully! I thought Manners could do the best drownding stuff in the world, but that skinny little extra woman hung it all over Myrtle! Fought like a wild-cat, didn't she?"
La Rue sat on the edge of the raft, scowling at a boot he held in his hands. He had torn it from Buck's foot while hauling him aboard. It was soggy and limp and dripping—a sad ruin of its former beauty, for cowboy boots are not made to hold salt water. After some time La Rue allowed the boot to slip over the side of the raft. It gurgled once and found bottom at twelve fathoms.
James Montague came from the projecting room whistling like a meadow lark. He paused to speak a few words to Buck Parvin, who sat on the studio steps gazing mournfully down at a pair of aged and disreputable boots.
"I've just seen the negatives of the water stuff," said the director. "The rescue scene came out great, and so did the ones I made of you and Jennie afterward. That was a good idea—writing in parts for you and the girl. It switched the picture all round and put La Rue's nose out of joint; but it was the only thing to do."
"Did the films show what became of that other boot?" demanded Buck, betraying sudden interest.
"Are you going to start that argument all over again?" asked Montague.
"I want a new pair of boots," said Buck doggedly. "One of 'em I lost and the other is plumb ruined. Twenty-seven bucks them boots stood me, and express charges from K. C., Missoury!"
"You won't get any twenty-seven-dollar boot item on my expense account!" said Montague. "But, just to show you that my heart is in the right place, turn in a bill for five dollars and I'll O. K. it."
"Keep your five dollars! And the next time any of your extry people start drownding on you, fish 'em out yourself!"
"That's a fine thing to say! Most anybody else would have been proud of saving a girl's life. That little Lee kid——"
"Yeh!" said Buck bitterly. "I was out to see her the other night. Her mother accused me of throwing her off the ship a-purpose, so I could make a grandstand play! Called me a low, degraded theater actor, and slammed the door in my face. For years I've been wanting to do just two things—save somebody's life in front of a camera, and own a pair of them swell K. C. boots. I get the boots, all right; then I lose 'em saving a girl's life—and now I'm in bad with her folks!"
"Tough luck!" said Montague. "Only one man ever had it tougher. I had a pal down in the Pecos country named Scott Hastings. Queer duck, he was; but all right in spots when you found out which spots they was. Scotty always said that when he got the dough from his old man's estate he was going to have a ringtailpeeler of a time. His notion of a blow-out was to harness himself up in a boiled shirt, with a celluloid collar and cuffs, and paint the town red. Scotty got the dinero finally—six hundred and thirty dollars, it was, all in a chunk—and I went to town with him to help spend it. First thing he did was to stake himself to a boiled shirt, a big, high celluloid collar, and celluloid cuffs.
"'Now that I'm all dressed up like a horse,' says Scotty, 'we'll have a big five-cent seegar apiece; and then we'll pile this town up in heaps and run rings round her!'
"He struck a match to light the seegar and the head flew off and lit the collar instead. The cuffs chimed in about the same time. Talk about your pillars of fire! Scotty went down the middle of the street like a runaway comet, and if Dud Baxter hadn't roped and throwed him he'd have run his fool self to death! They took Scotty to the hospital and did him up in cotton batting and linseed oil for about three months. When they let him out his bill was exactly six hundred and twenty-eight dollars and ten cents. Darned good thing they didn't make it fifteen or Scotty would have had to owe 'em the nickel!
"That come from setting his heart on some thing and getting it. I'm going to quit wishing for things, Jim, because it seems like the minute I get 'em luck comes along and switches the cut on me."
"You haven't been wishing for any cash bonus, have you!" asked Montague.
"Well, that's all right, then," said the director, grinning. "I can't charge the boss twenty-seven dollars for boots; but I did slip over a little fifty-dollar bonus for you, Buck. It's not coming to you because you lost the boots or because you saved the girl's life. You saved the Titan Company a makeover and another day's pay for seventy extra people! Sabe?"
"Fifty bucks!" breathed the cowpuncher reverently. "Bill Cody himself won't have a thing on me now!"