Professor's Progress. Ii: A Novel of Contemporaneous Adventure

I

THE PROFESSOR was free, alone, and on the open road. Looking forward at breakfast to the first morning of his holiday in the open, he had thought of any number of problems to which he might now devote unlimited periods of consecutive speculation. Only, as he walked, he found that nature is not conducive to sustained thought. The stage-setting is too big, the lights are too strong, there are all sorts of distracting sounds and odors and colors. After several brave attempts to force his mind into action upon a set topic, he surrendered and let the road do with him as it pleased. The road thereupon proceeded to drug his soul into a peace such as it had not known for months.

He had set out at a good pace, unwisely. Within an hour he grew painfully aware of his legs. The road rose steadily in a succession of long, teasing loops, to the crest of the divide he had set out to cross. Some distance from the top he pulled up — not from fatigue, oh, no; but for the view, as we all do. The hills were lifting up in front of him and on either side, and the next turn in the road would throw a green barrier behind him. The hills were playing riot across country, chasing, outflanking, tumbling into each other. Or in the background a green promontory would thrust forward into the sunlight, like an enormous dog at rest with his head on his paws. The woods ran up to the very ridge like the heavy nap of a carpet. Latimer felt very little and tired. He had breakfasted too heartily for a first day’s journey. It was careless in Harriet.

He sighed, and went on, sparing himself. He reached the summit with a fair reserve of breath, but the steep descent to Elk Creek was a sore trial for his ankles. In his preliminary studies on the map he had fixed upon Westville as the first halting-place; that was four miles away. The road crossed Elk Creek on an ugly red iron bridge and swung south, parallel with the stream. He trudged along with much less vim on the level highway than he had put into climbing the hills. As an abstract proposition, he fell to wondering how long a mile would be in these parts.

He was tiring rapidly. The early morning breeze had died away, and the sun beat down on him. After all, why be a slave to schedules? Just off from the road a great willow stood deep in the grass. He would lie down for a few minutes and read. Before doing that, it would be good to cut across the field and bathe one’s face and hands in the creek; but even that short détour was too much of a task. He unlimbered his knapsack, lowered himself painfully to the ground, pulled out Quentin Durward from the bag, and, turning to the fourteenth chapter, fell asleep.

He had scarcely closed his eyes when he was awake again. The earth was rocking under him in the most disturbing fashion. On further consideration, it was not the earth at all, but himself. A young woman in an automobile duster was bending over him and shaking him vigorously by the shoulder. He sat up and rubbed his eyes.

‘Are you ill?’ said the girl.

‘Not at all,’ said Latimer, half asleep; ‘can I do anything for you?’

‘You’ve been carrying on like anything— moaning and tossing about.’

‘But that can scarcely be,’ said Latimer. ‘I have just lain down to rest after a fatiguing journey and was preparing to take a short nap.’

‘You have another guess coming,’ said the young woman. ‘ You were fast asleep when we came by in the machine an hour ago, and you were still going strong when I spied you on our way back. My arm’s tired.’

In fact Latimer saw the sun high over his head. His limbs ached. His palate was dry.

‘Do you want anything?’ said the girl.

‘I should greatly appreciate a drink of cold water.’ He started to rise.

‘Don’t stir,’ she said. ‘Archibald, bring a cup of water.’

She turned to two men who stood close by, looking down upon Latimer with only the faintest curiosity. The elder of the two was a heavy-jowled figure in a dust-coat which was sufficiently open at the throat to show a fat diamond in a crimson scarf beneath the blue of a desperately shaven chin. Archibald was a very tall and sad-eyed young man, with a two days’ beard and only on the most indifferent terms of friendship with his clothes. He had no motor-coat and his derby was tilted back at an angle so as to bring a tall forehead into the general scheme with a prominent Adam’s apple. He strolled meditatively to the car, searched for the drinking-cup without haste, and in due course made his thoughtful way to the edge of the creek and back again to the little group under the tree.

‘Thank you,’ Said Latimer; and Archibald nodded. Even without the sleepy friendliness in his eyes Latimer was prepared to like him much better than the heavy man with the blueblack jaw.

The latter pulled out his watch and growled.

‘It’s late, Gladys. Let’s move on.’

Gladys did not bother to answer.

‘Quite sure you’re all right?’ she said to Latimer.

‘Beyond question,’ he said.

But the effort with which he got to his feet did not please her.

‘Which way are you going?’

‘I am bound for Westville, where I purpose to take lunch,’ said Latimer.

‘We’re going the other way,’ said the man in the duster. Archibald had picked up Quentin Durward, and was reading with evident interest.

‘But we could lake him back, Baby,’ said Gladys. ‘It’s only a minute in the machine, and I don’t like the idea of letting him start off by himself.’

‘I assure you, madam, there is no occasion for anxiety,’ said Latimer. ‘The fact is I very rarely dream.’

‘The old man’s all right,’ said Baby. ‘Come on,’

‘Go ahead, if you like,’ said Gladys, eliminating him from her consciousness.

‘I will,’ said Baby; and, stalking off to the car, he plunked down into the driver’s seat with superfluous energy.

‘Madam,’ said Latimer, ‘I really stand in no need of assistance, and I should greatly regret to make myself a source of contention between husband and wife. Permit me to thank you for your kindness and to go my way.’

Gladys laughed aloud, not unpleasantly, Latimer thought. Archibald looked up from the pages of Quentin Durward, and a grin spread over that Hamlet countenance which Latimer was getting to like more and more.

‘No offense,’ said Gladys.

‘I suspect none,’ said Latimer.

‘Only I hate to let you go off by yourself,’ she said.

Archibald closed the book and handed it back to Latimer with a nod of thanks.

‘Suppose I walk back with the gentleman?’ he said. ‘It’s all the same to me if I wait in Westville or at the hotel.'

‘Good for you, Archibald,’ she said; and to Latimer, ‘You don’t mind having him trot along? Archie is a nice child, and it would make me feel better.’

‘Nothing would please me more.’

‘Fine!’ said Gladys. ‘See you again.'

She tripped away to the car, where Baby was manipulating enough levers to start half a dozen automobiles, and took her place beside him. As the car shot away she turned and blew a kiss to Latimer.

II

Latimer silently acknowledged the thoughtfulness of his long-legged companion in accommodating himself to his own cautious pace.

‘A woman of good heart,’ said Latimer. ‘Something in her, no doubt, of that modern touch which is apt to merge into frivolity, but essentially a womanly woman.’

‘Recognize her?’ said the sad-eyed one.

‘How? From her picture, you mean? In the public press?’

‘ Everywhere,’ said Archibald. ‘Miss Gladys Winthrop, Intercontinental Film Corporation.’

‘The lady is an actress for the —’

‘Yes. She is the Intercontinental star. They know her all over the world. In the Fiji Islands people pass up a cannibal feast when they put on a Winthrop film.’

‘Miss Winthrop,’ said Latimer. ‘So the gentleman with the red cravat is not her husband?’

‘Baby is chief stage-director for the Intercontinental. We are screening Mexican war-scenes a couple of miles down the river, and Miss Winthrop comes down every day from her hotel at Sumnerville.’

‘And you —'

‘I am deputy assistant scenario editor.’

‘It is an art with which I regret to say I have only the most superficial acquaintance,’ said Latimer. ‘The strain on the eyes is trying.’

‘It is a rotten business,’ said the other, with a savage intensity Latimer did not think him capable of.

‘And yet, my dear Mr. Archibald—’

‘My name,’ said the other, ‘is Perkins; William Henry Perkins. Archibald is Miss Winthrop’s pet name for me.’

‘Like Baby?’

‘Exactly. If you don’t mind my saying it, I suspect she is now referring to you as Grandpa.’

‘I am sure I bear her no ill-will,’ said Latimer. ‘But your opinion of your own profession puzzles me.’

‘It is not my profession,’ said Perkins. ‘ I write plays, real plays.’

‘You have had them produced?’

‘One. It’s been tried out on the road and we are now licking it into shape for New York. In the meanwhile I do scripts for a living.’

‘You are to be congratulated,’ said Latimer. ‘I have myself on occasion experienced a strong impulse toward the theatre. I went so far as to purchase a textbook on the technique of the drama. And to think that you have actually had a play produced!’

‘I’ve been writing them ever since I can remember,’ said Perkins. ‘This one was finished five years ago. It was a melodrama; five acts and fourteen characters; pretty large order, I admit.’

‘Many of Shakespeare’s plays exhibit more than that number of personages,’ said Latimer.

‘That so?’ said Perkins. ‘It’s some time since I have looked into Shakespeare. The manuscript was kicked about in the usual way till McClintock got hold of it. That was about a year ago in Chicago. McClintock was crazy about it. “It’s the big idea,” he said. “It’s a wallop.” Only he balked at the list of characters. A cast of fourteen means a pretty healthy salary list. So we cut out three of them, a boodle politician, a woman social worker, and a comic policeman. McClintock hated to lose some of the lines, so we gave them to the leading man, who is the candidate of the Reform League for district-attorney. We then went into rehearsal.’

‘I envy you the experience of seeing for the first time the creatures of your imagination in the flesh,’ said Latimer.

‘Quite so,’ said Perkins. ‘Only McClintock’s leading woman got an offer from the movies. The only available substitute was a much younger woman. This made it necessary to eliminate the heroine’s children. It meant quite a bit of rewriting, but you must be prepared for that. Then we went on the road. McClintock believes in building up his shows before real audiences.’

‘I am of the same opinion,’ said Latimer. ‘The audience is joint-author in every successful play.’

‘That is what the textbook says.’ Perkins spoke without the intention of satire, but Latimer blushed. ‘The first night we put it on somewhere in Indiana. The third act is tensely dramatic, with a good bit of pathos. Only the crowd laughed. I was in the back of the balcony when that laugh came and you can imagine how I felt.’

Latimer stopped short and held out his hand. ‘I am sorry,’ he said.

‘Oh, that’s all right,’said the author. ‘McClintock thought differently. He confessed that at first he felt it was all up with us; but as the crowd went on laughing he brightened, and when the show was over he ran up and slapped me on the back. “We’ve got them, Perkins,” he said; “it don’t make any difference whether they laugh or cry so long as they do it strong. Get busy and tickle them some more, old man.” I set to work.’

‘But the logical structure of the piece was bound to suffer.’

‘It is n’t so hard once you put your mind on it,’ said Perkins. ‘We took that court-room scene where the audience got away from us, and lightened it up considerably. Strange to say, in the next town they did n’t laugh very much. McClintock thought it over and said a court-room with judges and lawyers and turnkeys was too sombre. So we changed it to a private diningroom in a Broadway restaurant. That forced us to cut out the first act.’

Latimer was confused but correspondingly sympathetic.

‘At any rate the play has now assumed final shape?’

‘Practically,’ said Perkins. ‘It comes to Broadway in September; a whimsical farce in three acts and nine characters.’

‘The labor must have been great,’ mused Latimer.

‘Labor is no word for it. Lots of times I was ready to quit. But McClintock would n’t hear of it. McClintock was splendid. “Perkins,” he’d say, “I’ll stake my head on that play. There’s a big idea in it. All we have to do is make ’em see it.” And McClintock usually knows what he is talking about.’

III

‘We should be close to Westville,’ said Latimer.

They stopped to inquire of a big man in rusty city garb, with a fishing-rod, who, from a rock in the stream, was casting with a short line into the pools under the opposite bank. He threw his line with a lazy swing as if utterly indifferent to the destination of the fly; almost as if he were of half a mind to withdraw the bait while it was still in the air. When the fly lit and brought no response he withdrew the line and cast again, without interest and without disappointment. Latimer thought of a drowsy man going through his morning exercises in his bedroom.

‘What luck?’ said Latimer.

‘They never bite much around here,’ said the fisherman.

He had turned toward Latimer with the same graceful calm he gave to his fishing. If the stranger stopped, he was perfectly willing to give up fishing and talk. If the stranger went on, he would be just as glad to go back to his rod. He had a soft drawl that was more of the South than of the New York hills.

‘Westville is far off? ’ said Latimer.

‘I should n’t call it very far,’ said the fisherman. He pondered on the exact distance and his judicial manner aroused Latimer’s fears.

‘A couple of miles?’

‘No, not that far,’ said the other. ‘When you make the turn yonder by that barn you are ’most there.’

‘Why, then, it is only a matter of a few minutes,’ said Latimer.

‘Well, about that,’ ruminated the fisherman.

‘I am exceedingly obliged,’ said Latimer, and started off briskly.

They were around the curve of the road in less than ten minutes and found themselves on the edge of the village. Straight ahead was the whitewashed steeple of the little wooden church. Facing it stood the smithy and wagonshop, with the village hall above — the ‘Assembly Room’ during the summerboarding season.

They stopped at the first house in the village. It stood back from the road, on a wide stretch of lawn checkered with sunlight through the maple trees. A garden on one side ran down to the brook, which here came within a hundred feet of the road. There was about the house an air of confirmed invalidity. The open veranda, which ran all the length of the broad front, sagged in places, and the trellis-work underneath showed gaps. A shutter on the upper floor hung slightly out of line. The paint had peeled in places and everywhere was toned to a yellow gray that was not altogether displeasing. About the lawn and garden there was the same suggestion of decay which had not progressed so far but that to the summer boarder it would all be quite romantic.

‘I never eat in the middle of the day,’ said Perkins. ‘If you don’t mind lending me your Scott, I will wait for you outside.’

Neither, it appeared, did he take coffee or resort to tobacco, and Latimer decided that a one-sided feast would, indeed, be rather disconcerting. He climbed the porch-steps and knocked.

Back in the house, in the region of the kitchen he surmised, some one was coughing violently. He knocked again and the sound of coughing came nearer. The door was opened by a tall, broadboned woman in a checked apron, the corner of which she held to her mouth. From her flushed cheeks Latimer inferred that she had just come from the kitchen fire. In her eyes he thought he discerned a resemblance to the misty gaze of the fisherman by the creek, the same languid grace which might be the sign of a temperament or of low vitality. She was breathing rapidly, and he conjectured that it was the after effect of the prolonged coughing-spell.

Latimer doffed his hat.

‘ If it is not inconvenient, madam, I should appreciate a simple luncheon. Eggs and a glass of milk would be quite enough.’

' Come in,’ she said. Her voice reminded him again of the soft drone of the man with the fishing-pole.

She opened a door on her right and showed him into a large dining-room with half a dozen tables. The place spoke of summer boarders and had been little used since the going of the last guest seven months ago. She made to throw open the windows, but it was an effort, and Latimer came to her aid. The inrush of sweet air was a delight. He sank into a chair and sighed happily.

‘Will you have tea and muffins with your eggs?’ she asked.

‘Pray, don’t put yourself out for me,’ said Latimer.

‘I am making some for dinner,’ she said, and withdrew.

In the kitchen he heard that long, harassing cough. It troubled him, but in his pleasant state of lassitude, he hesitated to embark on disturbing conjectures. Then a rustle at the door made him turn in his chair. A little girl was peering at him from the hallway. As Latimer’s eye fell upon her she whisked away, but he had seen a brown head with ringlets and blue eyes alight with curiosity. Her furtive coming and going were in consonance with the dreamy silence that hung over the house.

‘I should not have consented to the muffins,’ thought Latimer. ‘Whether they are ready or not, it means additional work over the kitchen fire; if not now, then later.’ He rose to countermand his order and stopped. ‘The house within is spotless. The child is fresh from soap and water and the comb. The life of this home is functioning normally. Why be officious? She might resent it.’

He sat down. He was very fond of corn-muffins.

He ate with relish. The hostess moved about the business of the table efficiently but with the suggestion of a strong will driving a reluctant body. She was plainly not so hearty as her robust frame would lead one to suppose, and her face was hollow beneath the cheek-bones.

‘I trust you are doing something for that troublesome cough,’ said Latimer. ‘How long have you had it?’

‘It’s been hanging on over the winter,’ she said. ‘The doctor has given me something for it.’

‘And is it doing you good?’

She hesitated. ‘Yes, I think I am better.’ But in her eyes Latimer saw a fear which made him turn away and look out of the window. In a swing chair on the lawn the little girl was standing on tiptoe, spying on the stranger. He snapped his fingers at her and held up a stick of chocolate which he drew from his pocket. The child scurried round the corner of the kitchen but did not make her expected appearance.

When he had done eating, Latimer went in search of the little one. He found her in the shelter of her mother’s apron in what had once been a barn, but was now empty of cattle or wagongear and given up to miscellaneous storage. The mother was splitting faggots with a hatchet the handle of which was always coming loose. She declined Latimer’s offer to fetch in the wood for her, laughing meanwhile at his ardent courtship of the little one, who managed, all the way back to the house, to keep her mother’s skirts as a bulwark against the predatory stranger. Ultimately she succumbed to the lure of the chocolate. Prolonged and shy negotiations led to a modus vivendi, with Latimer established on the kitchen steps leading down to the garden and the child close to him with a hovering eye on mother.

‘Pretty soon,’ said Latimer, ‘this will be a big girl and helping mother about the house.’

The child shook her head with quick decision.

‘I won’t. I’ll go squirrel-shooting with daddy.’

In the great heat from the stove the woman’s face was crimson. Latimer wondered how it would be with her in midsummer when she was cooking all day for a houseful of boarders.

‘Won’t you come with me to the city?’ Latimer pleaded with the child. ‘We will live in a big house and go to the circus every Saturday.’

‘Babe was born in the city,’ said the woman. ‘We’ve been here only two years.’

‘Do you like it?’

She stared down at the floor.

‘It is better for me,’ she said.

It probably would be, Latimer thought, if she were spared the rough man’s work that had fallen to her. The head of the house must be exceedingly busy elsewhere to make it necessary for the woman to split her own kindling-wood and be continually running out of the kitchen on errands that should have been anticipated for her.

‘In the city they don’t grow cheeks like these,’ said Latimer, pressing his finger into the firm, brown flesh of the little face beside him.

‘It’s been best for Babe and myself,’ said the woman. ‘But it’s hard on my husband. He’s city-bred and there’s nothing in farming up here in the hills. It’s mostly rock and scrub and he is n’t very strong.’

‘There should be some one to help you about the house,’ said Latimer.

‘The girls here are more a nuisance than a help,’ she said. ‘I can get on very well.’

‘The proof is here,’ said Latimer, tugging gently at the child’s curls.

She threatened him with her clenched fist.

‘You do think Babe looks well?’ said the mother.

Her tone and the recurrent pain in her eyes told him of the dread that was gnawing at the woman’s heart.

‘I have n’t the least doubt of it,’ he declared with a confidence not at all justified by his knowledge of the subject. ‘She’ll soon be a big woman; as big as this,’ addressing himself to the child and pointing to the roof of the kitchen-shed.

The little one, passing easily from shyness to intimacy, made a face at him. The next moment she was crying, ‘Daddy!’ and whirling down the path. It was the man with the fishing-rod. The child rushed at him, buried her face in his trouser-leg, caught his arm, and came dancing back with him, radiant.

Latimer rose. The husband greeted him with that now familiar smile of easy acceptance of things as they are. That the stranger of the road should be sitting there on his own kitchen steps was no more odd than if he had not been there.

‘Dinner is ’most, ready,Sam,’ said his wife. ‘ I wish you’d fetch me a bucket of water.’

He brought the pail languidly in one hand, with Babe clinging to the other. Latimer settled his account while the husband turned decorously aside.

‘It has been a great kindness,’ said Latimer, holding out his hand.

She stared a little while before extending her own. He offered to shake hands with Babe, who immediately retired behind her father; but, with her father, she escorted the visitor down the path to the street.

‘You have a charming place,’ said Latimer. ‘One might be happy here.’

For the first time the man’s languor fell from him. His eyes were almost wolfish.

‘I’d be glad to sell, for half what it cost me,’ he said. ‘You don’t know of any one who’d want it?’

‘Unfortunately, no,’ said Latimer.

The big, placid face was now twisted with anger at fate and himself.

‘It’s a hole, a cursed, rocky hole,’ he cried. ‘It’s no place for a man. In the city I had a large store and there were people you could live with.'

He stopped short, nodded farewell, and went back to the house with his grievance. He had been walking close to Latimer and left behind him the odor of cheap whiskey.

From the kitchen came the sound of coughing. Latimer’s lips tightened and he found himself walking in the wrong direction, until hailed by Perkins, whom he had utterly forgotten. They walked on in silence.

‘She has a great many more puzzles to work out than I have,’ thought Latimer. ‘Only she has the answers close at hand. That bright-eyed, cleanly child is one answer. The husband who must have his warm midday meal is another. — Yes,’ he said aloud, ‘undoubtedly she will get well.’

‘Who will?’ said Perkins.

Latimer stared at him a moment without understanding.

‘Oh, the world will,’ he said. And Perkins would not press him for details.

IV

Half a mile beyond the village they were overtaken by Miss Winthrop and Baby in the car. Gladys was on her way to the moving-picture camp for an afternoon’s work before the camera.

‘Now won’t you let me give you a lift?’ she demanded, registering childish imperiousness.

Latimer was tempted, but fell not.

‘Thank you, no,’ he said. ‘The impulse to ride is always strong at the beginning of a pedestrian journey. For that very reason it should be resisted.’

‘But it’s nearly four miles,’ she persisted. ‘Mr.—’

‘Professor Latimer,’ Perkins told her.

‘That means only an hour and a half at the most leisurely pace,’ said Latimer. ‘If you will lend me the company of Mr. Perkins for that additional length of time, it will be an easy walk.’

‘Just as you say, professor,’ registering queenly complaisance. ‘Giddap, Baby.’

The car shot away.

‘How long do you think the war will last, Professor Latimer?’ said Perkins.

‘It is not a question of men. Financial exhaustion perhaps — ’

‘Well, now, I wonder,’ said Perkins. ‘Money is n’t everything.’

‘No,’ said Latimer. ‘You have in mind, I suppose, the classic case of the Ottoman Empire which has always been bankrupt and always at war?’

Perkins said no; he was thinking of last winter in Chicago when both the children and Mrs. Perkins were ill and there were two trained nurses in the house. When the children took to bed, first the little one and then the boy, Perkins said, the strain was all the harder upon his wife because they were out in the suburbs and without a permanent cook. That is to say, a satisfactory servant can always be obtained for a price, but this price Mrs. Perkins was loath to pay, for obvious reasons. So they had seven kitchen-workers in eight weeks, and managed somehow before the doctor came into the house. Then it did n’t matter how things went on downstairs. Mrs. Perkins gave herself entirely to the children, until she broke down completely, and for several weeks was ill enough to require a double shift of trained nurses.

Thereupon Perkins did the wise and inevitable thing. He went to the employment office and demanded the best cook obtainable. She was obtained. Her wages would have made poor Mrs. Perkins thoroughly unhappy if she had known, but he took good care not to let her know. Left entirely to her own devices, the new servant was reasonably content, and Perkins was at last free from the horror, under which they had lived for months, of a sudden demand for passports from the kitchen. The tradesmen’s bills were enormous, but he gave them no thought. His mind, poor fellow, was with the very sick woman upstairs. The money for everything was forthcoming somehow —just how, he could not tell himself.

‘Now, war,’ said Perkins, ‘is just like that. The world takes sick and goes to bed and there is plenty of money for everything.’

But more than that, said Perkins. He could understand, not only how bankrupt nations can somehow find the means for carrying on war, but how for the time being they actually enjoy it. He could understand crowded movie theatres and expensive automobiles in war-time. Never, he said, had he experienced so acute a sense of social well-being as during the weeks after his anxiety for his wife had been relieved, but when she was still too ill to dispense with her nurses. Perkins found himself at the head of an establishment. An efficient cook was functioning downstairs. Two handsome young women in uniform were continuously about the house; and as the pressure in the sick-room relaxed, the nurses were occasionally at his own service. Out of pity for the spiritual strain he had been under, these tall young women in uniform petted him. They prepared special desserts for him and went on errands to the tobaccoshop. And when Mrs. Perkins was strong enough to sit up in bed and he might have sent away one of the nurses, he waited until the very last, his wife ultimately intervening. How pleasant it was to have a gracious young woman in white gown and cap alert to the least call with tray, pillow, book, an offer to open the window, or pull down the blind!

Perkins said he felt like the aristocracy in a fashionable London comedy, where you pull a bell-rope and tell Hobson to have the motor ready in ten minutes. For the next two years, Perkins said, he would be paying bills, but while it lasted it was exhilarating. And that was war finance.

But Latimer had not been listening.

‘Mrs. Perkins and the children are quite well now?’ he said, stopping short.

‘Never better,’ said Perkins.

‘That’s splendid,’ cried Latimer and held out his hand. ‘When you write you must tell them how glad I am.’

‘I certainly will.’

‘And they are coming down, of course, for that first night on Broadway ? ’

‘I hope so,’ said Perkins. His sallow face went pink. ‘You know, Dr. Latimer, the reason we could not afford a good cook was—’

‘Because it takes a lot of unremunerative labor to turn a five-act melodrama into a three-act farce.’ cried Latimer.

They laughed like schoolgirls.

In a village of tents along the riveredge and up the slopes of the hill lay the army that was fighting the battles of Mexico for the Intercontinental Film Corporation. Smoke came from the field kitchens. A long row of stables, fresh from the carpenter’s hand, sheltered the two hundred horses upon which the Intercontinental’s Mexican raiders carried havoc into American territory. Add a fleet of motor-trucks; mountain-heaps of provisions, of forage for the remounts, and of fuel for the motor-drays, all under canvas; cabins of pine and corrugated iron scattered over the hillside, which were studios, developing rooms, storerooms for the raw and completed film; add a Red Cross tent, with two doctors and several nurses appropriately grouped; and then remember that all this represented only the operations of the left wing of the Mexican army. If you will recall that the Mexican right wing was at the same time operating in an open-air studio in Pennsylvania, and that Obregon’s main forces were conducting a pitched battle with the Villistas around Los Angeles, you will realize the scale upon which the Intercontinental Film chronicled the agony and revival of the Mexican nation.

‘There may be a chance to see Miss Winthrop in action,’ said Perkins.

He hastened toward one of a group of raw wooden barracks in the centre of the camp. To Latimer the first glimpse of this mammoth factory of make-believe brought back in a burst of pungent, wistful memory, the sensations of a boy’s visit to the circus half a century ago. Perkins, his play, his wife, his children, the woman coughing in the kitchen, were swept away in a rush of carnival spirit.

From the outside it was an ugly wooden barn they were entering. Within, it was the courtyard of a hacienda, complete with fountain, orange trees, and ancient Indian squaws in costume. There they found working itself out an episode in the tragic love of Juanita, daughter of the fiery Don Alvarez, for the handsome young American lieutenant. It is not necessary to enter into the details of the plot. It was a prize scenario selected from three thousand manuscripts. At the precise moment, Juanita was striving to guard her fatal secret from the searching questions of the stern old hidalgo. Juanita was Miss Winthrop; but Latimer’s attention went first, not to her, but to Baby.

That infant stood beside the camera operator, a florid, perspiring bulk in shirt-sleeves, and shouted orders — at whom? Yes, at the great Miss Winthrop, among others. It was a different Baby from the surly, half-tamed mastiff whom Gladys paraded in her auto and forced to eat out of her hand. This was his hour, his regular daily hour of mastery; in a professional way, to be sure, but still, mastery. To Latimer at that moment Baby was overwhelming, Napoleonic.

Juanita was registering indignant amazement at the drift of her stern parent’s inquiries.

‘Scorn! scorn!’ shouted Baby. ‘That’s it! You’re a daughter of the Tropics and you’d as soon as not slip a knife into the venerable greaser. Blaze at him! Shrivel him up! I know you are innocent, but you’ve got to convince Jones.’

(‘Jones,’ whispered Perkins, ‘is the father.’)

It was evident to Latimer that a great deal of the Winthrop magic that had enthralled six continents and Polynesia, must be credited to this transformed, demiurgic Baby. In justice to Gladys it must be recorded, however, that she did not fall too often under the hot rain of Baby’s reproof. For minutes at a stretch she went through her absurd mummery with a fluency of gesture, a lightning play of those world-famous eyes, that fascinated Latimer.

‘Superb,’ he said. ‘But as for the other, impossible!’

He was referring to Jones, whom even Latimer’s untrained judgment found a rather wooden Alvarez.

Baby raged at the hidalgo.

‘Snarl, for God’s sake, snarl, Jonesy! Look as if you ’ll eat her if she don’t out with the truth. My God, no! You ain’t making love to her! You ain’t trying to sell her a bungalow on Flushing Bay. You are telling her that if she be false to her country and her faith, then, by the memory of her sainted mother, you’ll show her! There’s royal blood in your veins, Jonesy; you’re a descendant of kings; bite her — that’s better — oh, gosh!’

‘A pitiful performance,’ hissed Latimer. ‘Not a trace of the fire and dignity of the Castilian strain. Why any one —’

This time Baby caught his words and turned. A Hush of gratification colored that heavy countenance, and his greetings were cordial. Miss Winthrop broke out of the scene to seize Latimer’s hands in her own and beam welcome. She was far less pleasing in her ghostly make-up of powder and pigment than in her normal self, and she knew it; but they were the trappings of her fame.

‘Do you like me, Professor Latimer?’ she demanded.

‘You are wonderful, mi Juanita,' he said patting her hand. ‘But your father, if I may venture to say so, fails to do you credit.’

‘Then suppose you play Don Alvarez to me?’

He hesitated, looked about him, received an assenting smile from Perkins, and was lost.

‘I dare say, with a knowledge of the Spanish character and the elements of Latin-American history, one might —’

‘Fine!’ said Baby, who was quite as eager as Gladys to exhibit himself in action. ‘You ’ll find all the clothes you want in the next house. Archibald will show you.’

‘But is it essential to array one’s self in all this?’ said Latimer.

Miss Winthrop insisted that the sense of being entirely in the picture would react favorably on his art. When Latimer emerged from the dressing-room in the habiliments of Alvarez, Baby’s professional eye gave approval. Latimer was not of the Quixote build, but the vivid, massive face in its frame of white beard, the eyes alight with the zest of adventure, were eloquent of the noble blood of Spain. Jonesy, quite free from resentment, whispered to Perkins, —

‘The old boy has my job whenever he wants it.’

Latimer took his stand near the fountain. Perkins, in his capacity as deputy assistant editor, read out the script for the scene. Baby gave him a few hints as to distance and attitude. Latimer strode forward, raised his arm in menace over his daughter, and balked.

‘What do I say?’ he asked.

‘What do you want to say?’ said Baby.

‘I distinctly recall seeing Miss Winthrop and Mr. Jones address each other.’

Baby grinned.

‘I am afraid the author forgot to put in the dialogue. It’s up to you, professor.’

‘Say anything that comes into your head, Dr. Latimer,’ counseled Perkins.

Miss Winthrop showed him how. She swam forward, threw one arm around his neck, and said, —

‘Good-morning, father. Do you think it will rain to-morrow, Professor Latimer? You sent for me?’

He was an apt pupil. Pulling the fatal letter from his pocket, he flourished it before her eyes, tapped it with a menacing finger, and said, ‘Daughter, we the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, what is the meaning of this?’

In Juanita’s wondrous eyes affection gave way to the first premonitions of peril.

‘I don’t understand you, father. One times two is two, two times two is four, three times two is six, father, you do not mistrust me?’

‘Punch, professor, more punch!’ shouted Baby.

Latimer tore Juanita’s hand from his neck, glared at her from beneath lowered eyelids, and thundered, —

‘Juanita, last week the U-boats sank twenty-three ships of over 1600 tons and thirty-seven ships of less than 1600 tons. Will you answer?’

She clasped her hands in entreaty.

‘Four times five is four times five is four times five. Won’t you believe me? ’

Latimer seized her by the shoulders. In his face paternal love and fanatic hatred of the Americanos contended for mastery.

‘Daughter,’ he cried passionately, ‘if the square of the hypothenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, by the memory of your sainted mother, it will be so.’

And then confusion overtook him. He stammered, laughed, went hot with shame, and ran for the dressing-room amid the plaudits of a hilarious audience.

V

Miss Winthrop in her boudoir tent gave them tea out of a silver urn presented to her by a prince of Siam.

‘Now that you are one of us, Dr. Latimer, what do you really think of our work?’ she asked.

Latimer was diplomatic.

‘In respect to range of appeal, the history of art has seen nothing like it,’ he said. ‘Yet I must confess that to me the one thing in the theatre is the spoken word. Now a voice like yours, Miss Winthrop — what might not one do with it?’

She beamed upon him.

‘Some day, Dr. Latimer, perhaps — ’

She was about to honor him with her confidence, but Latimer suddenly put down his tea-cup, jumped up and turned to the door.

‘Your indulgence for a moment, Miss Winthrop, but I must see Jones.’

She wondered and gave regal consent.

He found the Mexican father drinking bottled beer in the shadow of the oleanders. At the sight of Latimer, the old hidalgo, with perfect muscular adjustment, cleared a space on the table with one hand, reached behind with the other for another bottle, and pushed forward a chair with his foot.

Latimer’s face was red and he breathed rapidly.

‘I am afraid I cannot stay, Mr. Jones, but I want to ask your pardon.’

‘Sure,’ said the noble Castilian. ‘For what?’

‘I came into the camp a guest,’ said Latimer. ‘I presumed to speak in criticism of your work without the justification of the most elementary acquaintance with your art. It was a procedure which I feel was neither intelligent nor decent.’

The hidalgo got to his feet.

‘There’s nothing to pardon, Dr. Latimer. In the first place I am a rotten actor. In the second place I had forgotten what you said.’

‘It was wanton impertinence on my part,’ declared Latimer. ‘I insist that you recognize it as such and forgive me.’

Jones held out his hand.

‘I trust we shall always be friends,’ he said gravely.

Latimer took the hand in both his own.

(To be continued)

  1. A synopsis of the earlier chapters will be found in the Contributors’ Column.