He rather shunned the stages to-day, keeping more to himself. The collar, he had to confess, was no longer, even to the casual eye, what a successful screen-actor's collar should be. The sprouting beard might still be misconstrued as the whim of a director sanctified to realism--every day it was getting to look more like that--but no director would have commanded the wearing of such a collar except in actual work where it might have been a striking detail in the apparel of an underworldling, one of those creatures who became the tools of rich but unscrupulous roues who are bent upon the moral destruction of beautiful young screen heroines. He knew it was now that sort of collar. No use now in pretending that it had been worn yesterday for the first time.
The next morning he sat a long time in the genial sunlight watching carpenters finish a scaffolding beside the pool that had once floated logs to a sawmill. The scaffolding was a stout affair supporting an immense tank that would, evidently for some occult reason important to screen art, hold a great deal of water. The sawmill was gone; at one end of the pool rode a small sail-boat with one mast, its canvas flapping idly in a gentle breeze. Its deck was littered with rigging upon which two men worked. They seemed to be getting things shipshape for a cruise.
When he had tired of this he started off toward the High Gear Dance Hall. Something all day had been drawing him there against his will. He hesitated to believe it was the Montague girl's kindly manner toward him the day before, yet he could identify no other influence. Probably it was that. Yet he didn't want to face her again, even if for a moment she had quit trying to be funny, even if for a moment her eyes had searched his quite earnestly, her broad, amiable face glowing with that sudden friendly concern. It had been hard to withstand this yesterday; he had been in actual danger of confiding to her that engagements of late were not plentiful--something like that. And it would be harder to-day. Even the collar would make it harder to resist the confidence that he was not at this time overwhelmed with offers for his art.
He had for what seemed like an interminable stretch of time been solitary and an outlaw. It was something to have been spoken to by a human being who expressed ever so fleeting an interest in his affairs, even by someone as inconsequent, as negligible in the world of screen artistry as this lightsome minx who, because of certain mental infirmities, could never hope for the least enviable eminence in a profession demanding seriousness of purpose. Still it would be foolish to go again to the set where she was. She might think he was encouraging her.
So he passed the High Gear, where a four-horse stage, watched by two cameras, was now releasing its passengers who all appeared to be direct from New York, and walked on to an outdoor set that promised entertainment. This was the narrow street of some quaint European village, Scotch he soon saw from the dress of its people. A large automobile was invading this remote hamlet to the dismay of its inhabitants. Rehearsed through a megaphone they scurried within doors at its approach, ancient men hobbling on sticks and frantic mothers grabbing their little ones from the path of the monster. Two trial trips he saw the car make the length of the little street.
At its lower end, brooding placidly, was an ancient horse rather recalling Dexter in his generously exposed bones and the jaded droop of his head above a low stone wall. Twice the car sped by him, arousing no sign of apprehension nor even of interest. He paid it not so much as the tribute of a raised eyelid.
The car went back to the head of the street where its entrance would be made. "All right--ready!" came the megaphoned order. Again the peaceful street was thrown into panic by this snorting dragon from the outer world. The old men hobbled affrightedly within doors, the mothers saved their children. And this time, to the stupefaction of Merton Gill, even the old horse proved to be an actor of rare merits. As the car approached he seemed to suffer a painful shock. He tossed his aged head, kicked viciously with his rear feet, stood absurdly aloft on them, then turned and fled from the monster. As Merton mused upon the genius of the trainer who had taught his horse not only to betray fright at a motor car but to distinguish between rehearsals and the actual taking of a scene, he observed a man who emerged from a clump of near-by shrubbery. He carried a shotgun. This was broken at the breech and the man was blowing smoke from the barrels as he came on.
So that was it. The panic of the old horse had been but a simple reaction to a couple of charges of--perhaps rock--salt. Merton Gill hoped it had been nothing sterner. For the first time in his screen career he became cynical about his art. A thing of shame, of machinery, of subterfuge. Nothing would be real, perhaps not even the art.