The Girl Who Paid Dividends
The Girl Who Paid Dividends
ILLUSTRATED BY CHARLES D. MITCHELL
MR. HERMAN WINKLE, the eminent producer of film masterpieces, sat in his office staring at the director he had but recently lured away from a rival concern. California's special brand of early morning sunshine poured through a window at Mr. Winkle's back, bathing in golden splendor his vast expanse of bald head.
"Well, Kenyon," he inquired, "did you go over that new script for Malone?"
"I did," said the director. "It looks like an A-1 story to me."
"Yeah, it's a good piece of property," replied Mr. Winkle, making use of his favorite phrase.
The director smiled.
"Now that shot where Malone appears on the fire escape in her nightgown——"
"Wasn't in the property when I bought it," Mr. Winkle informed him. "I wrote it in." He paused a moment, his chest swelling with the pride of authorship. "Well, I guess you're ready to begin shooting as soon as Malone shows up. I hope you two get along O. K."
"Oh, we'll hit it off," smiled Kenyon. "I understand that Peggy Malone is a regular fellow."
"She's a mighty fine kid," said Mr. Winkle. "Five years we been working together, and never a word between us that wasn't as pleasant as a good week's gross. Yes, sir, five years ago I found her in the Follies chorus, getting her measly little fifty a week. Just for an evening of pleasure I go to the theater, and the minute this girl walks on I know I'm there for business. Right away I went back stage and signed her up. It was one of my big strokes."
"One of many," flattered Kenyon.
"Yeah, you said it," Mr. Winkle admitted. "Well, get busy. All I got to say is, treat her right. I never knew her to be peevish yet, but I ain't taking no chances. I wouldn't lose her for Rockefeller's millions. She's the best bit of property I got." He rose and waved an emphatic finger at his new director. "Believe me when I say it, she's the best bit of property in the films."
Up at the other end of Hollywood, in a boudoir done, to quote Peggy herself, "in a Los Angeles imitation of Louis the Quince," the film star sat before her dressing-table. She was running a tortoise-shell comb through her hair, which she wore bobbed that season. On top it was a tangled glory of gold, but it stopped abruptly just below her ears, as though it would think twice before concealing those charming shoulders.
In the mirror Peggy Malone could see, at her back, the trim figure of her maid moving silently about the room, straightening it up. She found the sight of so much calm efficiency, so early in the morning, rather wearing. Again she lowered her eyes, under the famous long lashes, to her dressing-table, where amid the toilet things lay an opened letter. At sight of the letter Peggy smiled.
"Good old Nell!" she said.
"Beg pardon, miss?" said the maid.
"It's a letter from an old pal of mine," explained Peggy Malone. "A girl I used to know in the Follies—Nell Morrison. She went over to London, and turned out a riot. She's all pep, all ginger, Nell is. And the English are so taken with that sort of thing, poor dears, having so little themselves!"
"Yes, miss," said the maid stiffly. She was English and proud of it.
"To hear Nell tell it, she's grabbed off a duke. She wants me to come over and go shopping. Says the titles are all lined up on the shelves, and you just go in and serve yourself—like a cafeteria."
[ Illustration: To Hear Nell Tell it, She's Grabbed Off a Duke. She Wants Me to Come Over and Go Shopping. Says the Titles are All Lined Up on the Shelves, and You Just Go In and Serve Yourself—Like a Cafeteria." ]
"Why don't you go, miss? The rest would do you good."
"If I only could!" sighed Peggy, and smiled again—that twisted, wistful little smile that held her public enthralled.
She could do with a rest, she told herself. She was rather tired. She lowered her hand with the comb to the edge of the table and yawned again. This getting up at eight in the morning was no joke. Not like the old days in the chorus, days that began when the noon whistles were blowing. Happy days; not much money, but excitement—thrills. Sometimes she wished——
How foolish, she reflected. With all her luck! Her thoughts flew back beyond the chorus, back to the smoke of Pittsburgh, out of which her beauty had so unexpectedly emerged. It was six-thirty when she rose in the mornings then. She smelled again the steamy little kitchen; saw her mother wearily hovering between stove and table; her father, the motorman, drinking his coffee from a saucer, then rushing off to the barn to take out his car; and Joey, her brother, whimpering under foot, cross in the mornings even at that age. She remembered her own hurried breakfast, her race to the big hotel where, as telephone operator, she was one day to meet the Broadway manager who was so keen a judge of beauty wherever found. Lucky—yes, she was lucky. She looked round the luxurious room her beauty had paid for.
"Nearly nine o'clock," suggested the maid.
Peggy Malone stood up, slim and straight and boyish in her lacy negligee. It was one of her chief assets, that figure of hers. Whenever a film story faltered, whenever the author's invention failed him, they rushed Peggy into a negligee, a bathing suit, anything that was nothing much. And right there the picture went over—scored a big success. Her face was lovely—innocent, appealing, a necessary part of her equipment, of course—but it was not her face Herman Winkle was thinking of when he fixed her salary at eight hundred a week.
When she was ready to go down-stairs her maid spoke.
"We're all out of the face cream, miss."
"So we are." Peggy opened her purse and took out a bill. "How much is it a jar?"
"I—I don't recall, miss." The eyes of the maid, fixed on that greenback, were cold, grasping. "The price keeps going up. Two dollars, I fancy, the last I bought."
Peggy tossed the ten-dollar bill down on her dressing-table.
"Get me a couple of jars," she said.
The maid seized the bill and tucked it away in her bosom. She looked keenly at her mistress. She wondered if Peggy suspected that the cream was only fifty cents a jar. Probably not. Anyhow, Peggy Malone should worry—with her salary! The woman smiled and patted her bodice above the bill. Nine dollars clear, and the day yet young. She must tell Henry, the chauffeur, about this. Not that Henry would be impressed; he wouldn't stoop for such chicken feed. His arrangement with the garage brought him, he boasted, more than a hundred a month.
Peggy went down to the breakfast-room. Her father, Peter Malone, was already at the table. A powerful-looking man you would have said, and, indeed, strength had been his boast in the days when he piloted a trolley car about Pittsburgh. But he was not so strong now. His back, he said, hurt him. Three years before, when his wife died, he had come out to sample the climate of California. The idea had been that he was to obtain a job, but he had found the air of the Coast strangely enervating. Now and again he had come into dangerous proximity to work, but when he had asked the salary and compared it to the money Peg was getting—well, it was precisely at that moment that he was likely to experience a twinge of warning from his back.
"Hello, Peg," he said cheerfully.
"Good morning, dad. What are you up to?"
"Waiting for you," he said. "You know, Peg, I was just settin' here watching the sunshine on the silver, an' it come to me—how your poor mother would have enjoyed all this."
"Would she?" asked Peggy. She sat down and attacked her grapefruit. "Somehow I don't believe she would have been contented just to loll round and enjoy. She was always a worker, mother was. I imagine I'm like her."
"What do you mean by that?" asked her father.
"Nothing," smiled Peggy. And it was true, she had intended no rebuke. "Where's Joey?"
"Ain't down yet," scowled Peter Malone. "I heard him come in last night. Past three it was. I looked at that watch you gave me. If you ask me, he was probably over at Hunt's room at the hotel playin' poker."
"Sure! An' they cleaned him out again, I'll bet you. He ain't got no sense, that kid. You ought to speak to him, Peg."
"But, Peg, it's your money he loses."
"What if it is? Let's not have any row."
"Well, it's up to you, of course. An' speakin' of money, my dear——"
"I bought a bunch of silk shirts yesterday. There was a sale on. I got 'em at rock-bottom prices. But it took every penny I had."
"More silk shirts? Dad, you've got a thousand already."
"Well, what if I have?" He poured rich, heavy cream on his oatmeal. "The father of Peggy Malone's got to look snappy, hasn't he? You don't want me goin' round shabby?"
"Of course not, you old dear. How much do you want?" She rose and went to the table where her pocketbook lay. His eager eyes followed her.
"Oh, not much, honey. Just car fare, that's all—and a few little extras."
She threw a bill down beside him.
"Will twenty do?" she asked.
"Plenty, plenty!" he answered cheerfully. He tucked the bill away in his vest with a sigh of relief. It assured him the pleasant little adjuncts of his aimless day—a bunch of expensive cigars, a good lunch, the cheap vaudeville or movie that was his solace of an afternoon. "You're a good girl, Peg," he assured her.
"Never been a word against me," she laughed, resuming her seat.
Joey came into the room, sour-faced, the corners of his mouth drooping. A sporty youth of twenty, pulpy faced, dressed like a clothing advertisement, and with mean little eyes. His greeting to his father was short and sharp, but he made an effort to be more genial in his manner toward Peg. Joey was, as usual, at liberty. He had graced numerous jobs round motion-picture lots, but none for long. He sat down and took up his spoon with fingers that bore the stain of many cigarettes.
"Where was you last night, young man?" his father asked.
"That's my affair," snapped Joey. His eye fell on a letter beside his plate. He snatched it up and read. "The devil!"
"What's the trouble?" Peggy inquired.
"That money you gave me to invest in oil stocks," replied Joey sadly. "The market's all shot to pieces, and the broker's hollering his head off for more margin."
"Oh, dear," said Peg. "I thought you were going to get rich!"
"Maybe I will—some day. But the market's in the cellar, digging itself in."
"How much does the broker want?" she asked.
"He—he says he's got to have three hundred. If he don't get it we're wiped out." Peggy had finished her brief breakfast. She rose and went toward her desk in the next room. Joey got up and followed. "Might make it a little more," he suggested. "I'm stripped. Not a drop of gas for my car."
Back at the table Peter Malone had picked up the broker's notice.
"Three hundred, you say?" he called. "It looks more like two hundred to me."
Joey swung on him, his little eyes flashing.
"Keep out of this, will you?" he cried. "You've made your touch, I'll gamble on that. Now you're trying to queer me! You—you dog in the manger!"
"Hush!" cried the girl. "Please—you know how I hate a row." Joey muttered something about being sorry. She took up her rather worn check-book and wrote. "Here you are, Joey. Four hundred—will that do?"
"Fine—fine!" cried the boy, elated. "You're an ace, Peg."
"Am I?" She smiled at him. "Joey, I wish you'd keep away from Hunt and that crowd at the hotel. They're too clever for you—you're only a kid."
"Sure I will if you say so!" He went back to the table, his hot fingers clasping the check. "You're the boss round here, Peg," he added, with a contemptuous glance at his father.
Peggy stood pulling on her gloves.
"By the way, Dad," she said, "I had a telegram from Martin Fox. He's on his way to Los—gets in to-day. If he calls the house tell him to look for me at the studio."
An expression of alarm crossed her father's face.
"Martin Fox! Coming all the way from New York again—to see you!"
"Well, I guess that's the idea."
"He's crazy about you."
"Wouldn't it be nice if he was—and him worth millions?"
[ Illustration: "Now Don't You Go and Get Married, Honey. You're Doing Mighty Well as it Is. ]
"Now don't you go and get married, honey. You're doing mighty well as it is. I don't care what Fox is worth; it wouldn't be your money—like this is. Remember that!"
"Married?" She snapped the catch on her glove. "I may as well tell you what I told Martin the last time I saw him. I'd marry him to-morrow—if I was free."
Malone remembered then, and a look of relief came into his eyes.
"But you ain't free, Peg," he said. "You got one husband already. You ain't forgot Jimmy, have you?"
"No"—her voice softened somewhat—"I haven't forgot Jimmy. He can never say that I did—not once in two years have I missed. The first of every month—regular—like rent day—he's got his check from me."
"But Jimmy's a sick man," her father protested.
"Sure! Don't forget what I said. Send Martin round to the studio. If you go out leave word with the Jap. Ta-ta!"
She waved good-by from the hall and disappeared into the bright outdoors. Malone turned worried eyes on his son.
"You heard what she said? She'd marry Fox to-morrow if——"
"Yes—if. They got to get rid of Jimmy first. And believe me, Jimmy will take some getting rid of! He's a wise old bird, sick or well." Joey got up from the table.
"Here," said his father, "you better take this notice from the broker."
"To hell with the broker! Four hundred cash—I ain't had so much money in a month."
"You listen to me——"
"Let the oil stock slide. You may not see me for a day or two. I'm going down to Tia Juana to play the ponies. I'll come back with a wad."
Peter Malone got to his feet.
"I forbid it!"
"You? Don't make me laugh!"
"How dare you speak to your father——"
"Oh, fade away! Fade away!" And the front door slammed behind him, while Peter Malone stood raging, helpless.
In a few moments the older man's anger had cooled. He sat down in Peggy's chair, in Peggy's house, looking out over Peggy's lawn. He took out a cigar she had paid for, and spread on his knees the newspaper for which she subscribed. Slothful content filled his soul. She was a good girl, was Peggy. She would look out for him, whatever happened. Other men set aside stocks and bonds as a protection against old age, but he had that which was far, far better—a loving, indulgent daughter.
His daughter was riding in her open limousine down Hollywood Boulevard. Spring comes to California as to other places, though there, of course, it merely gilds the lily. Peggy was conscious of a feeling of spring in the air. She saw, on the lawns bordering the pavement, new blossoms that had sprung into being overnight. On a corner an old, bent, ragged man was selling violets.
Peggy Malone's thoughts drifted lazily back over seven years. It was spring in Atlantic City too. In front of the theater, on the Boardwalk, an old, bent, ragged man sold violets. They were down there to open a new musical show—just another of those things. It never had a chance in the world. Its backers were broke before they rung up the curtain. The only clever thing about the production was Jimmy Parsons, its press agent, then at the beginning of his brief but brilliant career as the white-haired boy of Broadway—its pet, its darling. Quaint, whimsical, given to quixotic adventures, to know him was to love him; not to know him was to argue oneself unknown on the Great White Way.
On a warm, lovely Monday night, when the Atlantic whispered softly just outside the walk, their show opened and bade the public come and see. The girls worked hard that night. They danced like demons, smiled eternally, and at the finish wondered whether the piece went over. When the next morning at ten, sleepy-eyed and weary, they reported for rehearsal, their question was answered by a notice on the call board. The show would close that evening! Five weeks of rehearsal and two nights of work!
When Peggy Malone returned to the Boardwalk the morning had lost its savor and life its thrill. She was dimly conscious of the flower man, who stood directly in her path.
"Violets, lady! Violets!"
"No—no!" she cried, and stopped. Something in that voice——
"Violets, lady, from the hand of one who loves you!"
She looked again. Jimmy Parsons, in the coat and hat of the flower man, was proffering the purple blossoms. How like him!
"Jimmy!" she cried. Her voice broke.
"Thirty-two bunches of violets—all for you," he said gayly. "With my undying love."
"Jimmy, you silly old thing! The show's busted."
"Sure it has! I knew that last night. Good idea too. Gives us plenty of time to get married. I dare you!"
She was not one to take a dare. Besides, she loved him then. Jimmy and the flower man once more traded costumes, and there was a quick wedding, with violets for all the girls, though many of them would have preferred roast beef.
"What do we care if the show's a bloomer?" Jimmy had cried. "Our love is a big success."
So it had been—for a time. But Jimmy Parsons' career as the most popular man's man on Broadway left him little leisure for a wife. Wherever he went his pals were waiting. They would drag him in somewhere for a drink. Each night at the club they surrounded him, urging him on to that flow of brilliant talk for which he was famous up and down the big street. He would grow more witty as the day approached, which was probably why they seldom let him off till dawn. Very soon the love that had seemed so wonderful in Atlantic City was dead and forgotten, like the show that ran two nights. Peggy went back to the chorus.
Now, as her car turned off the Boulevard into a side street, Peggy smiled softly to herself.
"Violets, lady, violets! From the hand of one who loves you!" He had been a dear in those days. But when she had seen him last—two years ago!
She shuddered. Broadway had got him—too many highballs, too many four-o'clock breakfasts. When she met him at the Los Angeles hotel he was coughing with a cold that somehow he could not shake off, and there were red splotches high on his thin cheeks.
"The doctors say I'm all in, Peg," he told her.
She shrank from him.
"You can't believe all you hear, Jimmy," she said. There was something in his eyes she did not like, a beaten look, a terrible fear of death. "Listen! There's a place down on the edge of the desert—it's called Palm Springs. They say the air is fine for—for sick people. You go down there and get a house——"
"I'm broke, Peg."
"I'll stake you. You can pay it back when you get well."
He shook his head.
"You'd be throwing your money away," he told her.
He was very sure he would not go, but there was little fight left in him. She persuaded him, she made all arrangements, rented the house, instituted the custom of the monthly check. It was characteristic of her that she set the figure at two hundred and fifty dollars, twice the sum that he needed.
Jimmy went off to Palm Springs, and not once since then had she seen him or heard from him, save through her canceled checks that came back from the bank.
"Crawling off to the desert to die," he had told a friend on leaving. But he still lived; he lived this beautiful April morning, the only obstacle between Peggy and Martin Fox, who loved her and wanted to take care of her.
Peggy alighted from her car before the studio and went quickly to her dressing-room.
As she seated herself to make up there came a knock on her door and one of her sister actresses entered, carrying a weekly theatrical newspaper.
"Something in here about you, Peg," she said, and held it out. Peggy took it and read:
"Jimmy Parsons, who went out to California two years ago to recover from an illness, writes to a friend that he's a riot with the cactus plants. It is understood that Jimmy has been approached by the lawyer of a certain Wall Street man and offered a cool fifty thousand to allow his wife to divorce him. The rumor goes on to say that Jimmy is holding out for a bigger split on the gross."
Peggy Malone flushed and handed back the paper. "That's all news to me," she said.
"Oh, sure it is, dearie!" remarked the actress with open sarcasm.
"You heard me!"
Peggy's eyes flashed.
"Well, don't get sore," said the girl, and went out.
Peggy sat for a moment staring at her glass.
So Jimmy was holding out for more money! How he had changed since Atlantic City seven years ago! And Martin Fox was on his way—would arrive this very afternoon.
"I'm coming to settle things once for all," he had wired.
She was conscious of the imminence of a crisis in her affairs.
Another knock at her door, and Kenyon, the new director, looked in.
"Whenever you're ready, Miss Malone," he smiled.
"Just a second," she smiled back, and with flying fingers she prepared herself for a day's hard labor.
WHEN Martin Fox met her at the Los Angeles hotel for dinner that evening he had another man with him whom he introduced as Mr. Greenwood. The stranger was a mild, genial little chap, with eyes that beamed behind thick spectacles.
Peggy was surprised. It was not Fox's custom to welcome a third party to their meetings.
Fox himself was looking more efficient, more prosperous than ever. He was a big, silky-smooth man, blond and handsome; the sort who, in a play, remarks at intervals: "Remember, I always get what I go after."
In real life he was not so crude as to say it—he just looked it. At the moment two devastating passions engrossed him—Peg and money. The former was recent, the latter of long standing.
They went in to their table in a quiet, partially hidden corner.
"Don't order for me, please," Greenwood said. "My wife is expecting me at the apartment. I'll just report and then I'll run along."
Peggy looked at him wonderingly.
"Greenwood is my lawyer," Fox explained.
"Oh!" she said. She understood now. "Martin, I heard what you've done, and I can't say I like it."
"Why not?" He seemed surprised. "I'd do anything to get you, Peg. It means my very happiness—and yours too. Isn't that so?"
"Yes, of course. But money never counted with Jimmy."
"It didn't, eh?" sneered Fox. "Well, I never met the man yet who hadn't his price. Dear old Jimmy's seems to be a bit higher than we expected, but let Mr. Greenwood tell it."
"Well, I went down to Palm Springs," began Greenwood. "There are a few sanitariums, some simple little houses—and the air was wonderful."
"You didn't go down to take the air," Fox suggested.
"No, of course not." The lawyer's tone was sharp and held no apology. "I had Mr. Parsons' house pointed out to me—a neat little bungalow set amid orange trees. When I came along he was lying in a hammock in the dooryard. He got up and met me."
Peggy Malone leaned eagerly across the table.
"How was he looking?" she asked.
"He was looking mighty well," said Greenwood. "In fact, I was greatly surprised.
"'You don't look much like a sick man to me,' I told him.
"He laughed. 'I can't imagine how that rumor started,' he said. 'I'm as strong as a horse.'"
"You see?" Martin Fox's tone was triumphant. "He doesn't deserve any sympathy. He's all right; just lazy—lying up there in a hammock waiting for your two fifty a month—grafting off you like all the rest."
"Go on," Peggy said to the lawyer.
"Well, he made it difficult for me, I'll have to admit that," Greenwood continued. "He was so darn glad to see me. Said I was the first visitor he'd had in two years. He called his Chinese boy and ordered lunch, and he talked. It was pathetic, somehow, the way he talked. Just ran on and on—couldn't stop. And such talk! It was as good as a show."
"But you hadn't come there to hear him talk," Fox put in. "You made that clear?"
"Oh, yes—naturally—after lunch. I told him my mission was sort of delicate. I explained how things stood. I said his wife wanted to marry. 'Did she send you?' he asked sort of sharp. I said no, that I represented the gentleman in the case. 'Ah, yes,' he said, 'I know his sort. I've never seen him, never heard of him until to-day; but I can describe him.' And he went on to tell me all about you. It was—uncanny."
"Go ahead," growled Fox. "Repeat it."
"Oh, no—no matter," said the lawyer hastily. "I got to the point at once. I told him I was authorized to offer him twenty-five thousand to—to step aside."
"What did he say?" asked Peggy Malone.
"He said he was sorry I hadn't come a month earlier. 'The desert is at its best in March,' he told me. I went to thirty thousand. 'Though it's no slouch of a desert even now,' he says, 'what with the cactus blooms and the palo verde.' 'Thirty-five thousand,' I said. 'The Spaniards.' says he, never cracking a smile, 'called this spot where Palm Springs stands the Coachella Desert, which means the desert of the little shells.'"
"Kidded you, eh?" said Fox.
"Well, at that I stood up. 'I'm authorized to go to forty thousand, and not a cent higher,' I said. 'Oh, must you go?' says he. 'That's too bad, really it is. I was hoping you'd stay overnight. The desert air is wonderful at night. Man, I'm telling you, it's the very breath of heaven!'"
Peggy Malone was smiling gently to herself.
"He was kidding me, as you say," the lawyer went on. "But I didn't mind. I sort of liked it. When I was about to leave I told him I'd be absolutely frank with him—that I could pay fifty thousand, but no more. 'What shall I tell my client?' I asked. 'Tell him,' says this boy, 'that we've had a lovely season up here, but we sure need rain.' So I came away."
The three sat for a moment in silence. Then Martin Fox spoke with decision.
"He wants more money," said Fox. "I recognize the symptoms. The figures you named didn't happen to touch him. I've changed my mind—I'll pay a hundred thousand. Now you go up there to-morrow——"
The lawyer got quickly to his feet.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm through. You'll have to get somebody else."
"I never liked this job, anyhow. However, we were under obligation to you, so I took it. But now—I've seen Jimmy Parsons. I've seen him just once, for a couple of hours—and he's a friend of mine. I—I like him. I withdraw completely. Good night, sir. Miss Malone, a great pleasure to meet you. I wish you all the happiness in the world. Good night."
"Sentimental old fool," said Fox peevishly. "I'll get some one else—some one who's not so easy."
"Let's drop it, Martin," Peggy said.
"Drop it? Not I! I came out here to settle this, and I will. I'm crazy about you, Peg. And you said last time you'd be willing to marry me if—see here, you aren't still in love with that husband of yours?"
"Oh, no! That was over and done with years ago!"
"That's all I want to know. Now you leave things to me. I won't annoy you with details. I'm out here to get you your freedom, and after that I'll win you if it's the last act of my life. I—I can't get along without you, Peg. You're such a good pal. You do like me a bit, eh?"
"I like you a lot. You—you'd take care of me, wouldn't you?"
"Give me the chance!"
"So that I wouldn't have to work. I'm—I'm tired. Somehow that's what I want most—somebody to take care of me, and of Dad and Joey."
"The whole blame family. Marry me and all the burdens shift from those little shoulders over here." He tapped his own. "Nothing to do but look pretty and spend money. How does it sound?"
"Why, it sounds fine!" she smiled. But for some reason she was thinking of Palm Springs. "Let's go to a show, Martin."
It was close on midnight when he dropped her at her door and took the kiss he had been looking forward to all evening. She went softly up the stairs to her room. As she hastily prepared for bed she found herself thinking again of Jimmy, Atlantic City, violets. She sighed. Marrying Martin Fox would be so different. Well, she had been twenty in Atlantic City—twenty and breathlessly in love. The sort of thing that could happen but once in a lifetime. And Martin was a good fellow at heart. He would take care of her, protect her, pay the bills.
When she crept into bed her thoughts had swung round to Jimmy again. Jimmy better, cured by the air that was like a breath of heaven. But lazy, shiftless, content to wait for her checks. Was that true? Perhaps not. Perhaps he was not so well as he pretended to be. And he was lonesome—one visitor in two years. It was sort of pathetic, that lawyer said, the way he talked. Peggy closed her eyes, tired with a day's hard work. There was a harder one awaiting her to-morrow. Jimmy—in a hammock—she mustn't forget—the first of the month was close at hand—she'd write a check in the morning. "Tell him we've had a lovely season up here, but we sure need rain." She was smiling when she fell asleep.
She overslept the next morning, and rushed down to breakfast in an apologetic mood. Her father was alone at the table.
"Hello!" he said. "Martin Fox called up yesterday. Did he find you all right?"
"Yes; I had dinner with him."
"Any—anything new?" he ventured.
"Nothing new," she smiled.
"Joey didn't come home last night," he told her. "He took that money you gave him and went down to Tia Juana to play the races. Probably cleaned out and hungry by this time." She looked her distress. "He doesn't amount to a rap, Peg. Going to the dogs. You ought to do something——"
"What can I do?" she asked wearily. "When he was a baby I remember I used to follow him about, saying 'No, no, Joey! Joey mustn't touch!' I can't do that out here in Hollywood. He's grown up—and I'm too busy, anyhow."
"Shut down on him. Don't give him any more money."
"That's easy to say, dad; but I haven't the heart."
"You've got too much heart. You're too good to Joey—and me, too, for that matter. I got to thinking about it last night."
"Why shouldn't I be good to you? My own father and brother. I'll have a talk with Joey when he gets home. Now I've got to rush along. Got a tough day ahead—out on location."
It proved a tough day indeed. In her newest picture Peggy Malone played, as usual, the beautiful daughter of a multimillionaire. In this instance she must fall in love with a simple country boy, late of the A. E. F. The manner of their meeting was romantic. Driving her smart racing car up a mountain, she was to round a curve and meet, head-on, the cheap little car of the simple lad who—played by an ennuied Broadway actor—was growing less simple every minute. By doing it very slowly and carefully there was no real danger, and the film could be speeded up to reveal a rather thrilling collision.
It had been raining, but when they reached the hill just outside Hollywood, where this bit of script was to be filmed, the sun was out again. They found exactly what they wanted, a sharp curve with both approaches hidden. Pickets were sent a hundred yards in each direction to warn off the cars of outsiders, and Peg drove her little racer down the road and turned it carefully about on the wet asphalt.
She heard the sound of the director's whistle and started up the hill. Small things alter human destinies. The picket who was guarding the upper approach turned his back a moment to light a cigarette, and as he did so a heavy limousine filled with tourists shot silently by him.
Peg was thinking of Jimmy as she came on up the hill. The little bungalow amid the orange trees, the cactus blooms, the nights when the air was so wonderful. She bore down rather heavily on the gas—saw that the curve was surprisingly near.
"Put on your brakes!" shouted Kenyon, directing.
She seized the brake handle; the light car quivered a moment, then began to skid. She brought it to a stop just before the curve, but at right angles to the road. At that instant the big limousine shot round the corner and hit Peg's car amidships.
The little racer turned over with Peggy Malone underneath.
On their way to the office of a near-by doctor, Kenyon, sitting in the back seat of a car, white-faced and grim, with the unconscious Peggy in his arms, kept thinking, "Winkle will never forgive me for this. His best bit of property—practically ruined."
When she was conscious again, and all her injuries were dressed, Peggy pleaded so hard to be taken home rather than to a hospital that the doctor finally consented. At five o'clock that afternoon old Peter Malone returned from the vaudeville theater where he had been killing time. As he came up the front walk he was humming a new song that had taken his fancy. He opened the door of the house. At once to his nostrils came the odor of hospitals; at the top of the stairs he saw the fleeting figure of a trained nurse. He went up two steps at a time, and into his daughter's room.
"Peg!" he cried.
He saw her slim figure under the sheets in the darkened room, caught a glimpse of her bandaged face, a whiff of iodoform that sickened him.
"Don't be scared, Dad," he heard her say faintly. "I got banged up a little doing a picture. I'll be all right to-morrow."
"Peg!" he cried again. The nurse came and led him out.
"You mustn't excite her."
"What—what happened?" he wanted to know.
"Someone else will tell you. I'm busy," snapped the woman, and he found himself in the hall.
He went downstairs, dazed. The front door opened, admitting Joey. Joey was dusty, sleepy, seedy and, to one who knew him, broke.
"Dad, what's up?" he cried.
"Peg," said Malone. "Hurt doing a picture."
"Hurt? Not bad?"
"I don't know. Her face—her face is all bandaged."
For a long moment they stood staring at each other.
Neither spoke, but each knew what the other was thinking. Joey went over and with trembling fingers took a cigarette from a silver box and lighted it. He went back to the foot of the stairs and listened. He heard Peg's voice.
"Turn up the light and give me a mirror—please, please!"
Joey sat down weakly on the stairs.
PETER MALONE did not sleep well that night. A final spark of manhood had flared up in his breast to trouble him. He was ashamed of himself; he made brave resolutions in the dark. He would find some sort of employment, earn his own money. Something easy that would not encourage the pain in his back. And Joey—Joey, too, by heaven, must go to work!
In the bright sunshine of the morning after, his good resolutions, so far as they concerned himself, began to waver. Everything looked so much more cheerful. Joey and he waited in the drawing-room for the doctor's verdict. After what seemed a very long time the latter came downstairs and joined them.
"Well," he announced, "she's not hurt so seriously as I feared. No internal trouble. Just badly bruised and shocked. She mustn't think of working again, for, say, six or eight weeks."
"Oh, then there's nothing to interfere with her working?" said Malone. He saw Joey's face lighting up like a Christmas tree.
"Of course not," the doctor answered.
"You see," Joey explained, "we was sort of afraid—her face——"
"Ah, yes!" The doctor looked at them keenly.
"She seems to have had the same fear. But I have assured her there will be no permanent scars—at least not where they will matter. But it's my opinion she's been working too hard of late. She ought to have a long rest."
"Sure!" cried Malone, beaming. "That's easy fixed."
When the doctor had gone he sat down in his favorite chair, sinking back with a great sigh of relief. He lighted a twenty-five-cent cigar. His quixotic plans, born in the dark of a restless night, vanished with the smoke. After all, he was along in years. He had worked hard once; he deserved a bit of comfort, a bit of his daughter's charity. But Joey! He looked Joey over coldly. Joey was young—nothing wrong with his back. He intended to tell Joey where he got off—a little later. Just at the moment it was pleasant merely to sit and enjoy his renewed sense of security.
Joey was walking the floor, elated.
"Her salary will go on whether she works or not," he was saying, "and I'm not sure she couldn't hold Winkle up for damages. Somebody must have been darned careless. Anyhow, she can use the accident to get a boost in pay."
"Perhaps," Malone agreed. "Here—what are you doing?" For Joey had gone over and was rummaging about in Peg's desk.
"I wonder what became of her pocket-book," said Joey. "I had a run of hard luck down at the border. Had to borrow ten to get home, and I need a shave. I don't suppose you got anything."
"No, of course not."
They heard the door-bell ring; heard the Jap go to answer it, and then a strong voice in the hall, a voice they did not recognize.
"Tell Miss Malone I'd like to see her if she's well enough. What? Oh, nobody in particular—only her husband, that's all. Beat it, baron!" And Jimmy Parsons walked into the drawing-room.
"Hello, boys," he smiled. "Busy as usual, I observe. Before you do another stroke—may I see your union cards?"
"Came on the run, didn't you?" Joey sneered. "Sort of afraid the checks might stop."
"Must have been it," said Parsons. His face grew serious. "Is Peg badly hurt?"
"Don't worry," Joey answered. "She'll be back on the job in a few weeks."
A look of relief appeared in the eyes of Jimmy Parsons. The Japanese servant entered with the word that Peg would see him. He walked to the center table and picked up the morning newspaper.
"Have you boys read this?" he inquired innocently.
"What do you mean—about Peg's accident?" asked Malone.
"No, not exactly. Have you read it line for line—I mean, the way you should? No, something tells me you haven't"
"I don't get you," said Joey.
"Ought to go over it pretty carefully, both of you," went on Parsons. He put the sheet into Joey's hand. "Word for word—line for line. Just a suggestion on my part. Afterward I'll have a little talk with you."
He went into the hall. Joey stared at the paper.
"What's he talking about?" he wanted to know.
"Don't ask me," Malone replied. "I never could follow him half the time. Give me that paper. I've been all over it once, but I'll look again."
In the hallway beside his hat and coat Jimmy Parsons found a small package wrapped in tissue-paper. He picked it up, and as he entered Peg's room left it on a table just inside the door.
He went over to the bed. "Well, Peg," he said.
"Hello, Jimmy." Her voice came faintly from out the bandages. "I'm sorry about your check—this is the first of the month—I never missed before——"
"Good lord, Peg," he cried, "is that all you have to say to me?" His voice broke.
"No, that isn't all. Put up the curtain, please. The doctor said I could have more light. I want to look at you. You're better, Jimmy?"
"I'm well," he said. He lifted the curtain and stood for inspection. "There wasn't anything wrong, Peg, except too much Broadway. I got rid of that cough the second month down there by the desert. I've been all right—for a long time. I'll sit down if you don't mind."
He drew up a chair.
"I was on my way here before I heard about your smash-up, Peg. I read about it this morning in Los Angeles. It—it sort of knocked me all in a heap."
"Nonsense, I'm all right!" she said. "And you—you're all right, too, Jimmy. It does me good to look at you. So different from that—that last time I saw you. What have you been doing these last two years?"
"Peg," he said, "you'd be surprised!"
"Yes, when I tell you what I've been doing. I've been thinking—down there by the desert, with only a Chink and the cactus plants for company. Great place to think. Otherwise not a darned thing stirring."
"What did you think, Jimmy?"
"Mostly I thought about you—what a corker you are. Up here working your pretty little head off, while we vultures hovered around, waiting for your pay day."
"Well, one thought sort of led on to another." He reached into his pocket and took out a little slip of pink paper. He put it into her hand. "This is a big moment in my life, Peg," he said softly.
"What—what is it, Jimmy?"
"It's a check. My check for six thousand five hundred dollars made out to you. It represents twenty-six checks from you for two-fifty each. Every cent you ever gave me, Peg—back in your hands—where it belongs."
She swallowed the lump that came into her throat.
"I—I can't take it."
"Yes, you can—for my sake. That's my self-respect you're holding there. Keep it, and thank heaven there's one man in your family who can take care of himself."
"But how did you manage it, Jimmy? In a place like Palm Springs!"
"Well, a lot of it is your money that I never touched. And the rest"—he drew his chair closer—"I wasted three months wondering how I could swing it. And nights, when I lay on my cot out under the stars, they kept marching by me—the people I used to know—trying to show me the way. And me too blind to see—at first. But one night it came to me, and the next day I sent down to Banning for a typewriter." He smiled reminiscently. "I could hardly wait till it arrived. I wrote that first story in two days. It was about Nell Morrison and Billy Archer. I changed everything, of course. No one could possibly have recognized them—except you, perhaps. You—you didn't happen to see it?"
"I'm sorry, Jimmy, I didn't."
"No time to read, of course. Well, I wrote some more stories. Great bunch of people I had to draw on, and that's what counts, Peg—real, live human beings. The first year I made seven hundred dollars—not much, but a start. And this year I cleaned up nearly eight thousand. I could have made more, but I've been fooling with a play I've had in my mind a long time. I sent the scheme of it to Georgie Cohan, and he wrote me a wonderful letter. Said he liked my idea. You know what that means."
"Oh, Jimmy! But I always knew you were clever."
"It's been a great satisfaction to me, Peg. And this big moment—this large third-act curtain—I've been looking forward to it so long. Of course, it's not so wonderful as I'd hoped it might be——"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, down there in the shadow of old San Jacinto I'm afraid I got to thinking—pretty silly things."
"I got to thinking that maybe when I brought you this check I could tell you that one man in your family was ready to take care of you at last; that maybe I could carry you away—look after you—that is, if you could be fond of me, as you were once. Wasn't I the fool, Peg? That fussy little lawyer dropped in the other day, and then I knew what a fool I'd been." His voice softened. "I want to tell you—it's all right, Peg. If it means your happiness you don't have to pay me to get out of the way. You must have known that. I'll do all I can to help—and I'll wish you luck."
The nurse entered suddenly.
"Mr. Martin Fox is calling," she announced.
"I'd like to see him," Peg said.
"He makes a good entrance," smiled Jimmy, and Fox came in.
Peg introduced them. Fox started at sound of Jimmy's name, gave him a cool nod and passed him by.
"I was here last night, Peg," said the millionaire. "They wouldn't let me see you. By gad, you are banged up! Poor little kid!"
"Only a few scratches," she told him.
Jimmy came over and tapped Fox on the shoulder.
"Just a moment," he said.
The big man turned and stared at him.
"Well?" he said sharply.
"Well," drawled Jimmy. He looked down at Peggy Malone. "It's no use, Peg," he said. "I can't stage the grand renunciation scene, after all."
"What are you talking about?" asked Martin Fox.
"It's like this," smiled Jimmy graciously. "I thought I'd come up from Palm Springs to hand you my wife—take her, old man, God bless you both, and all that stuff—but I'm damned if I do. A fellow doesn't draw a wife like Peg more than once in a lifetime. I've been looking you over. I cut out a dozen like you seven years ago—some of them wanted to marry her too—and what I did once I can do again."
He went to the table just inside the door and took up his package, unwrapping the tissue-paper covering. He carried the object over and laid it on the pillow close by his wife's face.
"Jimmy!" she cried.
"Violets, lady, violets! From the hand of one who loves you." He turned again to Fox.
"I suppose you do a lot of motoring out here in California?"
"What the devil——"
"Maybe you can tell us about a house that's for sale—or for rent," Jimmy went on. "A little house—we won't have much money at first. We'll want something with snow-capped mountains at the back door, and if it's not asking too much, a glimpse of the sea down in front—yes, I rather want the sea—and it ought to face the west, so that the sun can pour in on us all day long. Have you run across anything like that in your travels?"
"I guess Peg will have something to say about this!" growled Fox.
"I want you two boys to shake hands," she said. "You're regular fellows, both of you, and there's no reason why you shouldn't be friends. And after that—if you know any such house, Martin, you might tell us; but if not—just wish us luck—before you go."
Martin Fox stood for a long moment; then he held out his hand. Jimmy took it.
"All the luck in the world to both of you," said Fox. He walked unsteadily to the door and turned. "You—you want to hurry up and get well, Peg," he said, and went out.
Jimmy leaned over and dropped a kiss among the bandages. Then he followed Fox downstairs and politely helped him find his hat and stick.
"She's the greatest little girl in the world," Fox said. "You don't blame me if—if I tried——"
"To grab her? Man, it does you credit!" Jimmy held open the door. "A pleasant journey East," he said.
He returned to the drawing-room. Joey and Peter Malone were sitting there, the latter with the morning paper still in his hand.
"Well, boys," said Jimmy genially, "I've got important news for you. Peg isn't going to work again."
"Wha—what's the trouble?" Joey cried.
"No trouble at all," Jimmy told him. "Everything's lovely. She's just picked up a husband she mislaid, and strangely enough he's able and willing to take care of her."
He paused for a moment to enjoy their faces, then stepped over and removed the newspaper from Malone's limp hand. "Now in regard to the morning paper——"
"What did you mean about the paper?" asked Malone. "I been all through it and so has Joey——"
"Ah, yes! But I'm afraid you sort of skimmed through the page that ought to interest you most. Just a minute—here we are! There's more than a page; there's a page and a half. What luck!" He folded the paper carefully, thrust it into Joey's reluctant hands and pointed. "Study it well, both of you," he said, " 'Help Wanted—Male'—that is, if you think you still come under that classification."
He stood for a moment, smiling at them. Then he turned and went upstairs to his wife.