Story type: Literature
The real purpose of this is to tell about Mr. Lobel’s attack of apoplexy. What comes before must necessarily be in its nature preliminary and preparatory, leading up to the climactic stroke which leaves the distinguished victim stretched upon the bed of affliction.
First let us introduce our principal. Reader, meet Mr. Max Lobel, president of Lobel Masterfilms, Inc., also its founder, its chief stockholder and its general manager. He is a short, broad, thick, globular man and a bald one, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, carrying a gold-headed cane and using a private gold-mounted toothpick after meals. His collars are of that old-fashioned open-faced kind such as our fathers and Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., used to wear; collars rearing at the back but shorn widely away in front to show two things–namely, the Adam’s apple and that Mr. Lobel is conservative. But for his neckwear he patronizes those shops where ties are exclusively referred to as scarves and cost from five dollars apiece up, which proves also he is progressive and keeps abreast of the times. When he walks he favors his feet. Mostly, though, he rides in as good a car as domestic currency can buy in foreign marts.
Aside from his consuming desire to turn out those surpassing achievements of the cellular-cinema art known as Lobel’s Masterfilms, he has in life two great passions, one personal in its character, the other national in its scope–the first a craving for fancy waistcoats, the second a yearning to see the name of Max Lobel in print as often as possible and in as large letters as likewise is possible; and for either of these is a plausible explanation. Mr. Lobel has a figure excellently shaped for presenting the patternings of a fanciful stomacher to the world and up until a few years ago there were few occasions when he might hope to see the name Lobel in print. For, know you, Mr. Lobel has not always been in the moving-picture business. Nobody in the moving-picture business has always been in the moving-picture business–excepting some of the child wonders under ten years of age. And ten years ago our hero was the M. Lobel Company, cloak and suit jobbers in rather an inconspicuous Eastern town.
What was true of him as regards his comparatively recent advent into the producing and distributing fields was true of his major associates. Back in 1911 the vice president and second in command, Mr. F. X. Quinlan, moved upward into a struggling infantile industry via the stepping-stone of what in the vernacular of his former calling is known as a mitt joint–summers at Coney, winters in store pitches–where he guided the professional destinies of Madame Zaharat, the Egyptian seeress, in private, then as now, Mrs. F. X. Quinlan nee Clardy.
The treasurer and secretary, Mr. Simeon Geltfin, had once upon a time been proprietor of the Ne Plus Ultra Misfit Clothing Parlors at Utica, New York, a place where secondhand habiliments, scoured and ironed, dangled luringly in show windows bearing such enticing labels as “Tailor’s Sample–Nobby–$9.80,” “Bargain–Take Me Home For $5.60,” and “These Trousers Were Uncalled For–$2.75.”
The premier director, Mr. Bertram Colfax, numbered not one but two chrysalis changes in his career. In the grub stage, as it were, he had begun life as Lemuel Sims, a very grubby grub indeed, becoming Colfax at the same time he became property man for a repertoire troupe playing county-fair weeks in the Middle West.
As for the scenario editor and continuity writer, he in a prior condition of life had solicited advertisements for a trade journal. So it went right down the line.
At the time of the beginning of this narrative Lobel Masterfilms, Inc., had attained an eminence of what might be called fair-to-medium prominence in the moving-picture field. In other words, it now was able to pay its stars salaries running up into the multiples of tens of thousands of dollars a year and the bank which carried its paper had not yet felt justified in installing a chartered accountant in the home offices to check the finances and collect the interest on the loans outstanding. Before reaching this position the concern had passed through nearly all the customary intervening stages. Nearly a decade rearward, back in the dark ages of the filmic cosmos, the Jurassic Period of pictures, so to speak, this little group of pathfinders tracking under the chieftainship of Mr. Lobel into almost uncharted wilds of artistic endeavor had dabbled in slap-stick one reelers featuring the plastic pie and the treacherous seltzer siphon, also the trick staircase, the educated mustache and the performing doormat.
Next–following along the line of least resistance–the adventurers went in more or less extensively for wild-western dramas replete with stagecoach robberies and abounding in hair pants. If the head bad man–not the secondary bad man who stayed bad all through, or the tertiary bad man who was fatally extinguished with gun-fire in Reel Two, but the chief, or primary, bad man who reformed and married Little Nell, the unspoiled child of Death Valley–wore the smartest frontier get-up of current year’s vintage that the Chicago mail-order houses could turn out; if Little Nell’s father, appearing contemporaneously, dressed according to the mode laid down for Forty-niners by such indubitable authorities as Bret Harte; if the sheriff stalked in and out of lens range attired as a Mississippi River gambler was popularly supposed to have been attired in the period 1860 to 1875; and if finally the cavalry troopers from the near-by army post sported the wide hats and khaki shirts which came into governmental vogue about the time of the Spanish War, all very well and good. The action was everything; the sartorial accessories were as they might be and were and frequently still are.
Along here there intruded a season when the Lobel shop tentatively experimented with costume dramas–the Prisoner of Chillon wearing the conventional black and white in alternating stripes of a Georgia chain gang and doing the old Sing Sing lock step and retiring for the night to his donjon cell with a set of shiny and rather modern-looking leg irons on his ankles; Mary Queen of Scots and Catharine de’ Medici in costumes strikingly similar; Oliver Goldsmith in Sir Walter Raleigh’s neck ruff and Captain Kidd’s jack boots.
But this season endured not for long. Costume stuff was nix. It was not what the public wanted. It was over their heads. Mr. Lobel himself said so. Wake him up in the middle of the night and he could tell you exactly what the public did and did not want. Divining the popular will amounted with him to a gift; it approximated an exact art; really it formed the corner stone of his success. Likewise he knew–but this knowledge perhaps had come to him partly by experience rather than altogether by intuition–that historical ten reelers dealing with epochal events in the life of our own people were entirely unsuited for general consumption.
When this particular topic untactfully was broached in his presence Mr. Lobel, recalling the fate of the elaborate feature entitled Let Freedom Ring, had been known to sputter violently and vehemently. Upon this production–now abiding as a memory only, yet a memory bitter as aloes–he had spared neither expense nor pains, even going so far as personally to direct the filming of all the principal scenes. And to what ends? Captious critics, including those who wrote for the daily press and those who merely sent in offensive letters–college professors and such like cheap high-brows–had raised yawping voices to point out that Paul Revere galloping along the pre-Revolutionary turnpike to spread the alarm passed en route two garages and one electric power house; that Washington crossing the Delaware stood in the bow of his skiff half shrouded in an American flag bearing forty-eight stars upon its field of blue; that Andrew Jackson’s riflemen filing out from New Orleans to take station behind their cotton-bale breastworks marched for some distance beneath a network of trolley wires; that Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation did so while seated at a desk in a room which contained in addition to Lincoln and the desk and the Proclamation a typewriter and a Persian rug; that at Manila Bay Admiral Dewey wore spats and a wrist watch.
But these primitive adventurings, these earlier pioneering quests into the realm of the speculative were all in limbo behind them, all wiped off the slate, in part forgiven, in a measure forgotten. Since that primitive beginning and those formulative middle periods Lobel Masterfilms had found their field, and having found it, now plowed and tilled it. To those familiar with the rise and the ever-forward movement of this, now the fourth largest industry in the civilized globe–or is it the third?–it sufficiently will fix the stage of evolutionary development attained by this component unit of that industry when I state that Lobel Masterfilms now dealt preponderantly with vampires. To be sure, it continued to handle such side lines as taffy-haired ingenues from the country, set adrift among the wiles and pitfalls of a cruel city; such incidentals as soft-pie comickers and chin-whiskered by-Hectors; such necessary by-products as rarely beautiful he-juveniles with plush eyelashes and the hair combed slickly back off the forehead in the approved Hudson seal effect–splendid, manly youths these, who might have dodged a draft or two but never yet had flinched from before the camera’s aiming muzzle. But even though it had to be conceded that Goldilockses and Prince Charmings endure and that while drolls and jesters may come and go, pies are permanent and stale not, neither do they wither; still, and with all that, such like as these were, in the Lobel scheme of things, merely so many side lines and incidentals and by-products devised and designed to fatten out a program.
Where Mr. Lobel excelled was in the vamp stuff. Even his competitors admitted it the while they vainly strove to rival him. In this, his own chosen realm of exploration and conquest he stood supremely alone; a monarch anointed with the holy oils of superiority, coroneted with success’s glittering diadem. Look at his Woman of a Million Sins! Look at his Satan’s Stepchild, or How Human Souls are Dragged Down to Hell, in six reels! Look at A Daughter of Darkness! Look at The Wrecker of Lives! Look at The Spider Lady, or The Net Where Men Were the Flies! Look at Fair of Face Yet Black of Heart! All of them his, all box-office best bets and all still going strong!
Moreover by now Lobel Masterfilms had progressed to that milestone on the path of progress and enterprise where genuine live authors–guys that wrote regular books–frequently furnished vehicles for stardom’s regal usages. By purchase, upon the basis of so much cash or–as the case might be–so little cash down on the signing of the contract and the promise of so much more–often very very much more–to be paid in royalties out of accrued net profits, the rights to a published work would be acquired. Its name, say, was A Commonplace Person, which promptly would be changed in executive conclave to The Cataract of Destiny, or perhaps Fate’s Plaything, or in any event some good catchy title which would look well in electrics and on three sheets.
This important point having been decided on, Mr. Ab Connors, the scenario editor, would take the script in hand to labor and bring forth the screen adaptation. If the principal character in the work, as originally evolved by her creator, was the daughter of a storekeeper in a small town in Indiana who ran away from home and went to Chicago to learn the millinery business, he, wielding a ruthless but gifted blue pencil, would speedily transform her into the ebon-hearted heiress of a Klondyke millionaire, an angel without but a harpy within, and after opening up Reel One with scenes in a Yukon dance hall speedily would move all the important characters to New York, where the plot thickened so fast that only a succession of fade-outs and fade-ins, close-ups and cut-backs saved it from clabbering right on Mr. Connors’ hands.
The rest would be largely a matter of continuity and after that there was nothing to worry about except picking out the cast and the locations and building the sets and starting to shoot and mayhap detailing a head office boy to stall off the author in case that poor boob came butting in kicking about changes in his story or squawking about overdue royalty statements or something. Anyhow, what did he know–what could he be expected to know–about continuity or what the public wanted or what the limitations and the possibilities of the screen were? He merely was the poor fish who’d wrote the book and he should ought to be grateful that a fellow with a real noodle had took his stuff and cut all that dull descriptive junk out of it and stuck some pep and action and punch and zip into the thing and wrote some live snappy subtitles, instead of coming round every little while, like he was, horning in and beefing all over the place.
And besides, wasn’t he going to have his name printed in all the advertising matter and flashed on the screen, too, in letters nearly a fifth as tall as the letters of Mr. Lobel’s name and nearly one-third as tall as the name of the star and nearly one-half as tall as the name of the director and nearly–if not quite–as tall as the name of the camera man, and so get a lot of absolutely free advertising that would be worth thousands of dollars to him and start people all over the country to hearing about him? Certainly he was! And yet, with all that, was there any satisfying some of these cheap ginks? The answer was that there was not.
There was never any trouble, though, about casting the principal role. That was easy–a matter of natural selection. If it could be played vampishly from the ground up, and it usually could–trust Mr. Connors for that–it went without question to Vida Monte, greatest of all the luminaries in the Lobel constellation and by universal acknowledgment the best vampire in the business. In vampiring Vida Monte it was who led; others imitatively followed. Compared with her these envying lady copy cats were as pale paprikas are to the real tabasco. Five pictures she had done for Lobel Masterfilms since placing herself under Lobel’s management and a Lobel contract, all of them overpowering knock-outs, sensations, sure-fire hits. On the sixth she now was at work and her proud employer in conversation and in announcements to the trade stood sponsor for the pledge that in its filming Monte literally would out-Monte Monte.
Making his word good, he took over volunteer supervision of the main scenes. His high-domed forehead glistening with sweat, his spectacles aflame like twin burning glasses, his coat off, his collar off, his waistcoat off, he snorted and churned, a ninety-horse dynamo of a little fat man, through the hot glary studio, demanding this improvement, detecting that defect, calling for this, that or the other perfect thing in a voice which would have detained the admiring ear of an experienced bull whacker. Before him Josephson, the little camera man, quailed. From his path extra people departed, fleeing headlong; and in his presence property men were as though they were not and never had been. Out of the hands of Bertram Colfax, born Sims, he wrenched a megaphone and through it he bellowed:
“Put more punch in it, Monte–that’s what I’m asking you for–the punch! Choke her, Harcourt! Choke him right back, Monte! Now-w-w then, clinch! Clinch and hang on! Good! And now the kiss! You know, Monte, the long kiss–the genuwine Monte kiss! Oh, if you love me, Monte, give me footage on that kiss! That’s it–hold it! Hold it! Keep on holding it!”
“But, Mr. Lobel, now,” protested Colfax, born a Sims but living it down and feeling that never more than at this minute, when rudely the steersman’s helm had been snatched from his grasp, was there greater need that he should be a Colfax through and through—-“but, Mr. Lobel, it was my idea that up to this point anyway the action should be played with restraint to sort of prepare the way for—-“
“What do you mean restraint?”
“Well, I thought to emphasize what comes later–for a sort of comparative value–that if we were just a little subtle at the beginning–“
“Sufficient, Colfax! Listen! Don’t come talking to me about no subtles! When you’re working the supporting members of the cast you maybe could stick in some subtles once in a while to salve them censors, but so far as Monte is concerned you leave ’em out!”
“Don’t but me any buts! Listen! Ain’t I taken my paralyzed oath that this here picture should make all the other vamp pictures which ever were taken look like pikers? I have! Listen! For Monte, the way I feel, I shouldn’t care if she don’t do a single subtle in the whole damn picture.”
He had taken his paralyzed oath and he kept it. It was a wonderful story. The queen of the apaches, ruling the Parisian underworld by her fire, her beauty, her courage, accepts German gold to betray her country, and attempts by siren wiles to seduce from the path of duty Capt. Stuyvesant Schuyler of the U. S. A. general staff; almost succeeds too because of his blind passion for this glorious, sinful creature. At the crucial moment, when about to surrender to his Delilah secrets which would destroy the entire Allied cause and open the gates of Paris to the conquering foe, he is saved by a vision of his sainted, fade-in-and-fade-out mother’s face. Overcome with remorse, he resigns his commission, and fleeing from temptation returns to America, a broken-hearted man; proves heart is broken by constantly pressing clenched hand to left breast as though to prevent pieces from slipping down into the abdominal cavity. Distress of the apache queen on finding her intended victim gone. Suddenly a real love, not the love of the wanton, but a purer, deeper emotion wakens in her breast. Close-up showing muscular reflexes produced upon the human face by wakening processes in the heart.
Quitting the gay life, she follows him to Land of Free. Finds him about to marry his sweetheart of childhood, a New York society girl worth uncounted millions but just middling looking. Prompt bust-up of childhood sweetheart’s romance. Abandonment of social position, wealth, everything by Schuyler, who declares he will make the stranger his bride–accompanying subtitle, “What should we care what the world may say? For after all, love is all!” Discovery on day before marriage of papers proving that Lolita–that’s the lady apache’s name–is really Schuyler’s half sister, due to carryings-on of Schuyler’s late father as a young art student in Paris with Lolita’s mother, a famous gypsy model. Renunciation by Lolita of Schuyler. Her suicide by imbibing poison from secret receptacle in ring. Schuyler, after registering copious grief, reenters American Army under assumed name as a private in the ranks. Returns to battlefield in time to take part in decisive action of the war. All the officers in his brigade above the rank of corporal having apparently been killed by one devastating blast of high explosive, he assumes command and leads dauntless charge of the heavy artillery through the Hindenburg Line. Is made a colonel on the spot. Rides up Fifth Avenue alongside of Pershing in grand triumphant parade of home-coming First Division, carrying a large flag and occasionally chatting pleasantly with Pershing. On eve of marriage to childhood’s sweetheart, who remains faithful, he goes to lonely spot where Lolita lies buried and places upon the silent mound her favorite flower, a single long-stemmed tiger lily. Fade out–finish!
Artistically, picturesquely, from the standpoint of timeliness, from the standpoint of vampirishness, from any standpoint at all, it satisfied fully every demand. It was one succession of thrilling, gripping, heart-lifting scenes set amid vividly contrasting surroundings–the lowest dive in all Paris; the citadel at Verdun; grand ballroom of the Schuyler mansion at Newport; the Place Vendome on a day when it was entirely unoccupied except by moving-picture actors; Fifth Avenue on its most gala occasion–these were but a few samples. The subtitles fairly hissed to the sibilant swishing of such words as traitress, temptress, tigress and sorceress. And the name of it–you’d never guess–the name of it was The She-Demon’s Doom! When Mr. Lobel spoke those words inspired he literally took them up in his arms and fondled them and kissed them on the temples. And why not? They were his own brain children.
He had kept his paralyzed word and he could prove it. For because this Vida Monte was one of those mimetic pieces of flesh which, without any special mental cooperation, may alter the body, the face, the muscles, the expression, the very look out of the eyes, to suit the demands of prompters and teachers; because of the plan of direction so powerfully engineered by the master mind of Lobel and, under Lobel, the lesser mind of Colfax, born Sims; because of the very nature of the role of Lolita the abandoned, this picture was more daring, more sensual, more filled up with voluptuous suggestion, with coiling, clinging, writhing snakiness, with rampant, naked sexuality–in short and in fine was more vampirishly vampiratious than this, the greatest of all modern mediums for the education, the moral uplift and the entertainment of the masses, had ever known.
And then one week to the day after Mr. Lobel shot the last scene she up and died on him.
That is to say, a woman named Glassman, a Hungarian by birth, in age thirty-two years, widowed and without children or known next of kin, died in a small bungalow in a small town up in the coast range north of Los Angeles. When the picture was done and Vida Monte took off the barbaric trappings and the heavy paste jewels and the clinging reptilian half gowns of the role she played, with them she took off and laid aside the animal emotionalism, the theatricalistic fever and fervor, the passion and the lure that professionally made up Vida Monte, movie star. She took off even the very aspect of herself as the show shop and as patrons of the cinemas knew her; and she put on a simple traveling gown and she tucked her black hair up in coils beneath a severely plain hat and she became what really she was and always had been–a quiet, self-contained, frugal and–except for her splendid eyes, her fine figure and her full mobile mouth–a not particularly striking-looking woman, by name Sarah Glassman, which was, in fact, her name; and quite alone she got on a train and she went up into the foothills to a tiny bungalow which she had rented there for a month or so to live alone, to do her own simple housekeeping, to sew and to read and to rest.
It was the day after the taking of the last segment of the picture that she went away. It was four days later that she sickened of the Spanish influenza, so called. It was not Spanish and not influenza, though by any other name it would have been as deadly in its devastating sweep across this country. And it was within forty-eight hours after that, on a November afternoon, that word came to the Lobel plant that she was dead. Down there they had not known even that she was sick.
“The doctor in that there little jay town up there by the name Hamletsburg is the one which just gets me on the long-distance telephone and tells me that she died maybe half an hour ago.”
Mr. Lobel in his private office was telling it to Vice President Quinlan and Secretary-Treasurer Geltfin, the only two among his associates that his messenger had been able to find about the executive department at the moment. He continued:
“Coming like a complete shock, you could ‘a’ knocked me down with a feather, I assure you. For a minute I couldn’t believe it. This doctor he has to say it to me twice before I get it into my head. Shocking–huh? Sudden–huh? Awful–what? You bet you! That poor girl, for her my heart is bleeding. Dead and gone like that, with absolutely practically no warning! It don’t seem possible! Taken down day before yesterday, the doctor says, and commenced getting from bad to worse right away. And this morning she goes out of her head and at two-forty-five this afternoon all of a sudden her heart gives out on her and she is dead before anybody knows it. Awful, awful!”
Mr. Lobel wagged a mournful poll.
“More than awful–actually it is horrifying!” quoth Mr. Geltfin. Visibly at least his distress seemed greater than the distress of either of the others. “All off alone up there by herself in some little rube town it must come to her! Maybe if she had been down here with specialists and surgeons and nurses and all she would ‘a’ been saved. Too bad, too bad! People got no business going away from a big town! Me, I get nervous even on a motor trip in the country and–“
“Everything possible which could be done was done,” resumed Mr. Lobel. “So you don’t need you should worry there, Geltfin. The doctor tells me he can’t get no regular trained nurse on account there is so much sickness from this flu and no regular nurses there anyway, but he tells me he brings in his wife which she understands nursing and he says the wife sticks right there day and night and gives every attention. There ain’t nothing we should reproach ourselves about, and besides we didn’t know even she was sick–nobody knew.
“Dead and gone, poor girl, and not one week ago–six days, if I got to be exact–she is sitting right there in that same seat where you’re sitting now, Geltfin, looking just as natural and healthy as what you look, Geltfin; looking just as if nothing is ever going to happen to her.”
Mr. Geltfin had hastily risen and moved nearer the outer door.
“An awful thing–that flu!” he declared. “Lobel, do you think maybe she could ‘a’ had the germs of it on her then?”
“Don’t be a coward, Geltfin!” rebuked his senior severely. “Look at me how I am not frightened, and yet it was me she seen last, not you! Besides, only to-day I am reading where that big doctor in Cincinnati, Ohio–Silverwater–says it is not a disease which you could catch from somebody else until after they have actually got down sick with it. Yes, sir, she sits right there telling me good-by. ‘Mr. Lobel,’ she says to me–I had just handed her her check–‘Mr. Lobel,’ she says, ‘always to you,’ she says, ‘I should be grateful. Always to you,’ she says, ‘I should give thanks that two years ago when I am practically comparatively unknown you should ‘a’ given me my big chance.’ In them very words she says it, and me setting here at this desk listening at her while she said so!
“Well, I ain’t lost no time, boys. Before even I sent to find you I already got busy. I’ve got Appel starting for up there in half an hour in my car to take charge of everything and with orders to spare no expense. The funeral what I am going to give that girl! Well, she deserves it. Always a hard worker, always on the job, always she minds her own business, always she saves her money, always a perfect lady, never throwing any of these here temperamentals, never going off in any of these here highsterics, never making a kick if something goes wrong because it happens I ain’t on the lot to run things, never—-“
It threatened to become a soliloquy. This time it was Quinlan who interrupted:
“You said it all, Lobel, and it’s no need that you should go on saying it any more. The main points, I take it, are that we’re all sorry and that we’ve lost one swell big asset by her dying–only it’s lucky for us she didn’t take ill before we got through shooting The She-Demon.”
“Lucky? Huh! Actually, lucky ain’t the right word for it!” said the president. “When I think of the fix we should ‘a’ been in if she hadn’t finished up the picture first, I assure you, boys, it gives me the shivers. Right here and now in the middle of being sorry it gives me the shivers!”
“It does, does it?” There was something so ominous in Mr. Geltfin’s sadly ironic remark–something in tone and accent so lugubriously foreboding that his hearers swung about to stare at him. “It does, does it? Well, all what I’ve got to say is, Lobel, you’ve got some shivers coming to you! We’ve all got some shivers coming to us! Having this girl die on us is bad business!”
“Sure it is,” agreed the head, “but it might be worse. There’s one awful big salary cut off the pay roll and if we can’t have her with us no longer there’s nobody else can have her. And the profits from that last picture should ought to be something positively enormous–stupendous–sensational. Listen! I bet you that from the hour we release—-“
“You ain’t going to release!” broke in Geltfin, his wizen features sharpening into a peaky mask of grief.
“Don’t talk foolishness!” snapped Mr. Lobel. “For why shouldn’t we be going to release?”
“That’s it–why?” Mr. Quinlan seconded the demand.
“Because you wouldn’t dare do it!” In his desire to make clear his point Mr. Geltfin fairly shoveled the words out of himself, bringing them forth overlapping one another like shingles on a roof. “Because the public wouldn’t stand for it! Always you brag, Lobel, that you know what the public want! Well then, would the public stand for a picture where a good, decent, straight girl that’s dead and will soon be in her grave is for six reels doing all them suggestive vampire stunts like what you yourself, Lobel, made her do? Would the public stand for calling a dead woman names like she-demon? They would not–not in a thousand years–and you should both know it without I should have to tell you! With some pretty rough things we could get by, but with that thing we could never get by! The public, I tell you, would not stand for it. No, sir; when that girl died the picture died with her. You just think it over once!”
Out of popped eyes he glared at them. They glared at him, then they looked at each other. Slowly Mr. Lobel’s head drooped forward as though an unseen hand pressed against the back of his neck. Quinlan casting his eyes downward traced with one toe the pattern of the rug under his feet.
On top of one sudden blow, heavy and hard to bear, another now had followed. Since Lobel had become one of the topnotchers with a reputation to maintain, expenses had been climbing by high jumps, but receipts had not kept pace with expenses. There were the vast salaries which even the lesser drawing cards among the stars now demanded–and got. There were war taxes, excess profit taxes, amusement taxes. There was to be included in the reckoning the untimely fate of Let Freedom Ring, a vastly costly thing and quickly laughed to death, yet a smarting memory still. Its failure had put a crimp in the edge of the exchequer. This stroke would run a wide fluting of deficit right through the middle of it.
The pall of silence lasted no longer than it has here taken to describe how it fell and enveloped them. Mr. Geltfin broke the silence without lifting the prevalent gloom. Indeed his words but depressingly served to darken it to a very hue of midnight.
“Besides,” he added, “there is anyhow another reason. We know what a nice clean girl she was in private life. We know that all them wild romance stories about her was cooked up in the press department to make the suckers believe that both on and off the screen she was the same. But she wasn’t, and so I for one should be afraid that if we put that fillum out she’d come back from the dead to stop it!”
He sank his voice, glancing apprehensively over his shoulder.
“Lobel, you wouldn’t dare do it!”
“Lobel,” said Quinlan, “he’s right! We wouldn’t dare do it!”
“Quinlan,” admitted Lobel, “it’s right–I wouldn’t dare do it.”
In that same instant of his confession, though, Mr. Lobel bounded out of his chair, magically changing from a dumpy static figure of woe into the dynamo of energy and resourcefulness the glassed-in studios and the out-of-door locations knew.
“I got it!” he whooped. “I got it!” He threw himself at an inner door of the executive suite and jerked it open. “Appel,” he shouted, “don’t start yet! I got more instructions still for you. And say, Appel, you ain’t seen nobody but only Quinlan and Geltfin–eh? You ain’t told nobody only just them? Good! Well, don’t! Don’t telephone nobody! Don’t speak a word to nobody! Don’t move from where you are!”
He closed the door and stood against it as though to hold his private secretary a close prisoner within, and faced his amazed partners.
“It’s a cinch!” he proclaimed to them. “I just this minute thought it up myself. If I must say it myself, always in a big emergency I can think fast. Listen! Nobody ain’t going to know Monte is dead; not for a year, not maybe for two years; not until this last big picture is old and worn out; not until we get good and ready they should know. Vida Monte, she goes right on living till we say the word.”
“Wait, wait, can’t you? If I must do all the quick thinking for this shop shouldn’t I sometimes get a word in sideways? What I’m telling you, if you’ll please let me, is this: The girl is dead all right! But nobody knows it only me and you, Quinlan, and you, Geltfin, and Appel in this next room here. Even the doctor up there at Hamletsburg he don’t know it and his wife she don’t know it and nobody in all that town knows it. And why don’t they know? Because they think only it is a woman named Sarah Glassman that is dead. Actually that sickness no doubt changed her so that even if them rubes ever go to see high-class feature fillums there didn’t nobody recognize her. If they didn’t suspect nothing when she was alive, for why should they suspect something now she is dead? They shouldn’t and they won’t and they can’t!
“What give me the idea was, I just remembered that when the doctor called me up he spoke only the name Glassman, not the name Monte. He tells me he calls up here because he finds in her room where she died a card with the name Lobel Masterfilms on it. And likewise also I just remembered that in the excitement of getting such a sad news over the telephone I don’t tell him who really she is neither.”
“Holy St. Patrick!” blurted Quinlan, up now on his feet. “You mean, Lobel—-“
“Wait, wait, I ain’t done–I ain’t hardly started!” With flapperlike motions of his hands Mr. Lobel waved him down. “It’s easy–a pipe. Listen! To date her salary is paid. The day she went away I gave her a check in full, and if she done what always before she does, it’s in the bank drawing interest. Let it go on staying in the bank drawing interest. So far as we know, she ain’t got no people in this country at all. In the old country, in Hungary? Maybe, yes. But Hungary is yet all torn up by this war–no regular government there, no regular mails, no American consuls there, no nothing. Time for them foreigners that they should get their hands on her property one year from now or two years or three. They couldn’t come to claim it even if we should notify them, which we can’t. They don’t lose nothing by waiting. Instead they gain–the interest it piles up.
“Should people ask questions, why then through the papers we give it out that Miss Vida Monte is gone far off away somewhere for a long rest; that maybe she don’t take no more pictures for a long time. That should make The She-Demon go all the better. And to-morrow up there in that little rube town very quietly we bury Sarah Glassman, deceased, with the burial certificate made out in her own name.” He paused a moment to enjoy his triumph. “Boys, when I myself think out something, am I right or am I wrong?”
He answered his own question.
By the look on Quinlan’s face he read conviction, consent, full and hearty approval. But Geltfin wavered. Inside Geltfin superstition wrestled with opposing thoughts. Upon him then Lobel, the master mind, advanced, dominating the scene and the situation and determined also to dominate the lesser personality.
“But–but say–but look here now, Lobel,” stammered Geltfin, hesitating on the verge of a decision, “she might come back.”
“Geltfin,” commanded Lobel, “you should please shut up. Do you want that we should make a lot of money or do you want that we should lose a lot of money? I ask you. Listen! The dead they don’t come back. When just now you made your spiel, that part of it which you said about the dead coming back didn’t worry me. It was the part which you said about the public not standing for it that got me, because for once, anyhow, in your life you were right and I give you right. But what the public don’t know don’t hurt ’em. And the public won’t know. You leave it to me!”
It was as though this argument had been a mighty arm outstretched to shove him over the edge. Geltfin ceased to teeter on the brim–he fell in. He nodded in surrender and Lobel quit patting him on the back to wave the vice president into activity.
“Quinlan,” he ordered as he might order an office boy, “get busy! Tell ’em to rush The She-Demon! Tell ’em to rush the subtitles and all! Tell ’em to rush out an announcement that the big fillum is going to be released two months before expected–on account the demand of the public is so strong to see sooner the greatest vampire feature ever fillumed.”
Quinlan was no office boy, but he obeyed as smartly as might any newly hired office boy.
If it was Mr. Lobel’s genius which guided the course of action, energizing and speeding it, neither could it be denied that circumstance and yet again circumstance and on top of that more circumstance matched in with hue and shade to give protective coloration to his plan. Continued success for it as time should pass seemed assured and guaranteed, seeing that Vida Monte, beyond the studios and off the locations, had all her life walked a way so secluded, so inconspicuous and so utterly commonplace that no human being, whether an attache of the company or an outsider, would be likely to miss her, or missing her, to pry deeply into the causes for her absence. So much for the contingencies of the future as those in the secret foresaw it. As for the present, that was simplicity.
As quietly as she had moved in those earlier professional days of hers, when she played small roles in provincial stock companies; as quietly as she had gone on living after film fame and film money came her way; as quietly as she had laid her down and died, so–very quietly–was her body put away in the little cemetery at Hamletsburg. To the physician who had ministered to her, to his good-hearted wife, to the official who issued the burial certificate, to the imported clergyman who held the service, to the few villagers who gathered for the funeral, drawn by the morbid lure which in isolated communities brings folk to any funeral–to all of these the dead woman merely was a stranger with a strange name who, temporarily abiding here, had fallen victim to the plague which filled the land.
Of those who had a hand in the last mortal role she would ever play only Lobel’s private secretary, young Appel, who came to pay the bills and take over the private effects of this Sarah Glassman and after some fashion to play the roles of next friend and chief mourner, kenned the truth. The clergyman having done his duty by a deceased coreligionist, to him unknown, went back to the city where he belonged. The physician hurried away from the cemetery to minister to more patients than he properly could care for. The townspeople scattered, intent upon their own affairs. Appel returned to headquarters, reporting all well.
At headquarters all likewise went well–so briskly well in fact that under the urge for haste things essential were accomplished in less time by fewer craftsmen than had been the case since those primitive beginnings when Lobel’s, then a struggling short-handed concern, frequently had doubled up its studio staffs for operative service in the makeshift laboratory. Reporting progress to the president, Mr. Quinlan expanded with self-satisfaction.
“I’m fixing to show you something in the way of a speed record,” he proudly proclaimed. “The way I looked at it, the fewer people I had rushing this thing through the factory the less chance there was for loose talk round the plant and the less loose talk there was going on round the plant the less chance there was for maybe more loose talk outside. Yes, I know we’d figured we’d got everything caulked up air-tight, but I says to myself, ‘What’s the use in taking a chance on a leak if you don’t have to?’
“So I practically turned the big part of the job–developing and all the rest of it–over to Josephson, same as we used to do back yonder when we was starting out in this game and didn’t have a regular film cutter and the camera man had to jump in and develop and cut and assemble and print and everything. Josephson shot all the scenes for The She-Demon–he knows the run of it better even than the director does. Besides, Josephson is naturally close-mouthed. He minds his own business and never butts in anywhere. To look at him you can’t never tell what he’s thinking about. But even if he suspected anything–and, of course, he don’t–he’s the kind that’d know enough to keep his trap shut. So I’ve had him working like a nailer and he’s pretty near done.
“Soon as he had the negative ready, which was late yesterday afternoon after you’d went home, I had it run off with nobody there but me and Josephson, and I took a flash at it–and, Lobel, it’s a bear! No need for you to worry about the negative–it was a heap too long, of course, in the shape it was yesterday, but it had everything in it we hoped would be in it–and more besides.
“So then without losing a minute I stuck Josephson on the printing machine himself. I’d already gave the girl on the machine a couple of days off to get her out of the way. Josephson stayed on the job alone pretty near all last night, I guess. He had things to himself without anybody to bother him and I tell you he shoved it along.
“Connors ain’t lost no time neither. He’s got the subtitles pretty near done, and believe it or not, as you’re a mind to, but, Lobel, I’m telling you that this time to-morrow morning and not a minute later I’ll have the first sample print all cut and assembled and ready for you to give it a look! Then it’ll just be a job of matching up the negative and sticking in the subtitles and starting to turn out the positives faster than the shipping-room gang can handle ’em. I guess that ain’t moving, heh?”
“Quinlan,” said Mr. Lobel, “I give you right.”
By making his word good to the minute the gratified Mr. Quinlan derived additional gratification. At the time appointed they sat in darkness in the body of the projection room–Lobel, Quinlan, Geltfin and Appel, these four and none other–behind a door locked and barred. Promptly on Quinlan’s order the operator in the box behind them started his machine and the accomplished rough draft of the great masterpiece leaped into being and actuality upon the lit square toward which they faced.
The beginning was merely a beginning–graphic enough and offering abundant proof that in this epochal undertaking the Lobel shop had spared no expense to make the production sumptuous, but after all only preliminary stuff to sauce the palate of the patron for a greater feast to come and suitably to lead up to the introduction of the star. Soon the star was projected upon the screen, a purring, graceful panther of a woman, to change at once into a sinuous python of a woman and then to merge the feline and the ophidian into a sinister, splendid, menacing composite bespeaking the dramatic conception and the dramatic presentment of all feminine evil, typifying in every move of the lithe, half-clad body, in every shift of the big eyes, wickedness unleashed and unashamed.
Mr. Lobel sitting unseen in the velvet blackness uttered grunts of approbation. The greatest of all film vampires certainly had delivered the goods in this her valedictory. Never before had she so well delivered them. The grunting became a happy rumble.
But all this, too, was in a measure dedicatory–a foretaste of more vivid episodes to follow, when the glorious siren, displaying to the full her powers of fascination over the souls and the bodies of men, would rise to heights yet greater and the primitive passion she so well simulated would shine forth like a malignant jewel in a setting that was semibarbaric and semicivilized, too, and altogether prodigal and lavish. The first of these bigger scenes started–the scene where the queen of the apaches set herself to win the price of her hire from the Germans by seducing the young army officer into a betrayal of the Allied cause; the same scene wherein at the time of filming it Mr. Lobel himself had taken over direction from Colfax’s hands.
The scene was launched, acquired headway, then was halted as a bellow from Mr. Lobel warned the operator behind him to cut off the power.
“What the hell!” sputtered the master. “There’s a blur on the picture here, a sort of a kind of smokiness. Did you see it, Geltfin? Right almost directly in front of Monte it all of a sudden comes! Did you, Quinlan?”
“Sure I seen it,” agreed Geltfin. “Like a spot–sort of.”
“It wasn’t on the negative when I seen it day before yesterday,” stated Quinlan. “I can swear to that. A little defect from faulty printing, I guess.”
“All right then,” said Mr. Lobel. “Only where you got efficiency like I got it in this plant such things should have no business occurring.
“Go on, operator–let’s see how goes it from now on.”
Out again two shadow figures–the vampire and the vampire’s prey–flashed in motion. Yes, the cloudy spot was there, a bit of murky shadow drifting between the pair of figures and the audience. It thickened and broadened–and then from the suddenly constricted throats of the four watchers, almost as though all in the same moment an invisible hand had laid gripping hold on each of their several windpipes, came a chorused gasp.
For they saw how out of the drifting patch of spumy wrack there emerged a shape vague and indistinct and ghostly, but taking on instantly the sharpened outlines of one they recognized. It was the shape, not of Vida Monte, the fabled wrecker of lives, but the shape of her other self, Sarah Glassman, and the face it wore was not the face of the stage vampire, aflame with the counterfeited evil which the actor woman had so well known how to simulate but the real face of the real woman, who lay dead and buried under a mound of fresh-cut sods seventy miles away–her own face, melancholy and sadly placid, as God had fashioned it for her.
Out from the filmy umbra it advanced to the center, thus hiding its half-naked double writhing in the embrace of the deluded lover, and clearly revealed itself in long sweeping garments of pure white–fit grave clothes for one lately entombed–with great masses of loosened black hair falling like a pall about the passionless brooding face; and now lifting reproachful eyes, it looked out across the intervening void of blackness into their staring eyes, and from the folds of the cerement robes raised a bare arm high as though to forbid a lying sacrilege. And stood there then as a wraith newly freed from the burying mold, filling and dominating the picture so that one looking saw nothing else save the shrouded figure and the head and the face and those eyes and that upheld white arm.
Cowering low in his seat with a sleeve across his eyes to shut out the accusing apparition, Mr. Geltfin whispered between chattering teeth: “I told him! I told him the dead could maybe come back!”
Mr. Quinlan, a bolder nature but even so terribly shaken, was muttering to himself: “But it wasn’t in the negative! I swear to God it wasn’t in the negative!”
It is probable that Mr. Lobel heard neither of them, or if he heard he gave no heed. He had a feeling that the darkness was smothering him.
“Shut off the machine!” he roared as he wrenched his body free of the snug opera chair in which he sat. “And turn on the lights in this room–quick! And let me out of here–quick!”
Lunging into the darkness he stumbled over Appel’s legs and tumbled headlong out into the narrow aisle. On all fours as the lights flashed on, he gave in a choking bellow his commands.
“Burn that print–you hear me, burn it now! And then burn the negative too! Quick you burn it, like I am telling you!”
“But, Lobel, I’ll swear to the negative!” protested Quinlan, jealous even in his fright for his own vindication. “If you’ll look at the neg–“
“I wouldn’t touch it for a million dollars!” roared Lobel. “Burn it up, I tell you! And bury the ashes!”
Still choking, still bellowing, he scrambled to his feet, an ungainly embodiment of mortal agitation, and ran for the door. But Mr. Geltfin beat him to it and through it, Quinlan and Appel following in the order named.
Outside their chief fell up against a wall, panting and wheezing for breath, his face swollen and all congested with purple spots. They thought he was about to have a stroke or a seizure of some sort. But they were wrong. This merely was Nature’s warning to a man with a size seventeen neckband and a forty-six-inch girth measurement. The stroke he was to have on the following day.
Probably Quinlan and Geltfin as experienced business men should have known better than to come bursting together into the office of a stout middle-aged man who so lately had suffered a considerable nervous shock and still was unstrung; and having after such unseemly fashion burst in, then to blurt out their tidings in concert without first by soft and soothing words preparing their hearer’s system to receive the tidings they bore. But themselves, they were upset by what they just had learned and so perhaps may be pardoned for a seeming unthoughtfulness. Both speaking at once, both made red of face and vehement by mingled emotions of rage and chagrin, each nourishing a perfectly natural and human desire to place the blame for a catastrophe on shoulders other than their own two pairs, they sought to impart the tale they brought. Ensued for an exciting moment a baffling confusion of tongues.
“It was that Josephson done it–the mousy little sneak!”
These words became intelligible as Quinlan, exerting his superior vocal powers, dinned out the sputtering inarticulate accents of Geltfin.
“He fixed it so that you’d spill the beans, Lobel! He fixed The She-Demon–Josephson. And me trusting him!
“How should I be knowing that all this time him and that girl was secretly engaged to be married? How should I be knowing that he would find out for himself the day after the funeral that she was dead and yet never say a word about it? How should I be knowing that he would have all tucked away somewhere a roll of film showing her dressed up like a madonna or a saint or a martyr or a ghost or something which he took privately one time when they was out together on location–slipping away with her and taking ’em without nobody knowing about it? How should I be knowing that without tipping his hand he would cook up the idea to work a slick fake on you, Lobel, and scare you into killing off the whole thing? How should I be knowing that while he was on the printing machine all by himself the other night that he would work the old double exposure stunt and throw such a scare into you in the projecting room yesterday?”
By reason of his valvular resources Mr. Quinlan might shout louder than Geltfin. But he could not shout louder than Mr. Lobel. Nobody in that section of Southern California could. Mr. Lobel outblared him:
“How should you be knowing? You come now and ask me that when all along it was you that had the swell idee to stick him into the laboratory all by himself where he could play some funny business? You!”
“But it was you, Lobel, that wouldn’t listen to me when I begged you to wait and not burn up the negative. I tried to tell you that the negative was O. K. when I’d seen it run off.”
“You told me? It’s a lie!”
“Sure I told you! Geltfin remembers my telling you, don’t you, Geltfin? You’re an old bird, Lobel–you ought to know by now about retouching and doctoring and all. You know how easy it is to slip over a double exposure. But it was only the sample print that was doctored. The negative was all right, but you wouldn’t listen.”
“That’s right too, Lobel!” shrilled Geltfin. “I heard him when he yelled out to you that you should wait!”
Quinlan amplified the indictment.
“Sure he heard me–and so did you! But no, you had to lose your nerve and lose your head just because you’d had a scare throwed into you.”
“I never lose my head! I never lose my nerve!” denied Mr. Lobel. He turned the counter tide of recriminations on Geltfin.
“Anyhow,–it was you started it, Geltfin–you in the first place, right here in this room, with your craziness about the dead coming back. Only for your fool talk I would never have had the idee of a ghost at all. And now–now when the cow is all spilt milk you two come and–“
“Oh, but Lobel,” countered Geltfin, “remember you was the one that made ’em burn up the negative without giving it a look at all!”
“He said it, Lobel!” reenforced Quinlan. “You was the one that just would have the negative burned up whether or no. And now it’s burned up!”
Mr. Lobel was not used to being bullied in his own office or elsewhere. If there was bullying to be done by anyone, he was his own candidate always. Surcharged with distracting regrets as he was, he had an inspiration. He would turn the flood of accusation away from himself.
“Where is that Josephson?” he whooped. “He is the one actually to blame, not us. Let me get my hands on that Josephson once!”
“You can’t!” jeered Quinlan. “He’s quit–he’s gone–he’s beat it! He wrote me a note, though, and mailed it back to me when he was beating it out of town, telling me to tell you how slick he’d worked it on you.” He felt in his pockets. “I got that note here somewhere–here it is. I’ll read it to you, Lobel–he calls you an old scoundrel in one place and an old sucker in another.”
“Look out–catch him, Quinlan!” cried Mr. Geltfin. “Look at his face–he’s fixing to faint or something.”
The prime intent of this recital, as set forth at the beginning, was to tell why Mr. Max Lobel had an attack of apoplexy. That original purpose having been now carried out, there remains nothing more to be added and the chapter ends.