Chapter 10 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

As the weeks passed, the routine of ranch life weighed more and more heavily on Custer Pennington. The dull monotony of it took the zest from the things that he had formerly regarded as the pleasures of existence. The buoyant Apache no longer had power to thrill. The long rides were but obnoxious duties to be performed. The hills had lost their beauty.

Custer attributed his despondency to an unkind face that had thwarted his ambitions. He thought that he hated Ganado; and he thought, too—he honestly thought—that freedom to battle for success in the heart of some great city would bring happiness and content. For all that, he performed his duties and bore himself as cheerfully as ever before the other members of his family, though his mother and sister saw that when he thought he was alone and unobserved he often sat with drooping shoulders, staring at the ground, in an attitude of dejection which their love could scarce misinterpret.

The frequent letters that came from Grace during her first days in Hollywood had breathed a spirit of hopefulness and enthusiasm that might have proven contagious, but for the fact that he saw in her success a longer and probably a permanent separation. If she should be speedily discouraged, she might return to the foothills and put the idea of a career forever from her mind; but if she received even the slightest encouragement, Custer was confident that nothing could wean her from her ambition. He was the more sure of this because in his own mind he could picture no inducement sufficiently powerful to attract any one to return to the humdrum existence of the ranch. Better be a failure in the midst of life, he put it to himself, than a success in the unpeopled spaces of its outer edge.

Ensuing weeks brought fewer letters, and there was less of enthusiasm, though hope was still unquenched. She had not yet met the right people, Grace said, and there was a general depression in the entire picture industry. Universal had a new manager, and there was no guessing what his policy would be; Goldwyn had laid off half their force; Robertson-Cole had shut down. She was sure, though, that things would brighten up later, and that she would have her chance. Would they please tell her how Senator was, and give him her love, and kiss the Apache for her? There was just a note, perhaps, of homesickness in some of her letters; and gradually they became fewer and shorter.

The little gatherings of the neighbors at Ganado continued. Other young people of the valley and the foothills came and danced, or swam, or played tennis. Their elders came, too, equally enjoying the hospitality of the Penningtons; and among these was the new owner of the little orchard beyond the Evans ranch.

The Penningtons had found Mrs. Burke a quiet woman of refined tastes, and the possessor a quiet humor that made her always a welcome addition to the family circle. That she had known more of sorrow than of happiness was evidenced in many ways, but that she had risen above the petty selfishness of grief was strikingly apparent in her thoughtfulness for others, her quick sympathy, and the kindliness of her humor. Whatever ills fate had brought her, they had not left her soured.

As she came oftener, and came to know the Penningtons better, she depended more and more on the colonel for advice in matters pertaining to her orchard and her finances. Of personal matters she never spoke. They knew that she had a daughter living in Los Angeles; but of the girl they knew nothing, for deep in the heart of Mrs. George Burke, who had been born Charity Cooper, was a strain of Puritanism that could not look with aught but horror upon the stage and its naughty little sister, the screen—though in her letters to that loved daughter there was no suggestion of the pain that the fond heart held because of the career the girl had chosen.

Charity Cooper’s youth had been so surrounded by restrictions that at eighteen she was as unsophisticated as a child of twelve. As a result, she had easily succumbed to the blandishments of an unscrupulous young Irish adventurer, who had thought that her fine family connections indicated wealth. When he learned the contrary, shortly after their marriage, he promptly deserted her, nor had she seen or heard aught of him since. Of him she never spoke, and of course the Penningtons never questioned her.

At thirty-nine Mrs. George Burke still retained much of the frail and delicate beauty that had been hers in girlhood. The effort of moving from her old home and settling the new, followed by the responsibilities of the unfamiliar and highly technical activities of orange culture, had drawn heavily upon her always inadequate vitality. As the Penningtons became better acquainted with her, they began to feel real concern as to her physical condition; and this concern was not lessened by the knowledge that she had been giving the matter serious thought, as was evidenced by her request that the colonel would permit her to name him as executor of her estate in a will that she was making.

While life upon Ganado took its peaceful way, outwardly unruffled, the girl whose image was in the hearts of them all strove valiantly in the face of recurring disappointment toward the high goal upon which her eyes were set.

If she could only have a chance! How often that half prayer, half cry of anguish, was in the silent voicing of her thoughts! If she could only have a chance!

In the weeks of tramping from studio to studio she had learned much. For one thing, she had come to know the ruthlessness of a certain type of man that must and will some day be driven from the industry—that is, in fact, even now being driven out, though slowly, by the stress of public opinion and by the example of the men of finer character who are gradually making a higher code of ethics for the studios.

She had learned even more from the scores of chance acquaintances who, through repeated meetings in the outer offices of casting directors, had become almost friends. Indeed, when she found herself facing the actuality of one of the more repulsive phases of studio procedure, it appeared more in the guise of habitude through the many references to it that she had heard from the lips of her more experienced fellows.

She was interviewing, for the dozenth time, the casting director of the K. K. S. Studio, who had come to know her by sight, and perhaps to feel a little compassion for her—though there are those who will tell you that casting directors, having no hearts, can never experience so human an emotion as compassion.

“I’m sorry, Miss Evans,” he said; “but I haven’t a thing for you to-day.” As she turned away, he raised his hand. “Wait!” he said. “Mr. Crumb is casting his new picture himself. He’s out on the lot now. Go out and see him—he might be able to use you.”

The girl thanked him and made her way from the office building in search of Crumb. She stepped over light cables and picked her way across stages that were littered with the heterogeneous jumble of countless interior sets. She dodged the assistants of a frantic technical director who was attempting to transform an African water hole into a Roman bath in an hour and forty-five minutes. She bumped against a heavy shipping crate, through the iron-barred end of which a savage lioness growled and struck at her. Finally she discovered a single individual who seemed to have nothing to do and who therefore might be approached with a query as to where Mr. Crumb might be found. This resplendent idler directed her to an Algerian street set behind the stages, and as he spoke she recognized him as the leading male star of the organization, the highest salaried person on the lot.

A few minutes later she found the man she sought. She had never seen Wilson Crumb before, and her first impression was a pleasant one, for he was courteous and affable. She told him that she had been to the casting director, and that he had said that Mr. Crumb might be able to use her. As she spoke, the man watched her intently, his eyes running quickly over her figure without suggestion of offense.

“What experience have you had?” he asked.

“Just a few times as an extra,” she replied.

He shook his head.

“I am afraid I can’t use you,” he said; “unless”—he hesitated—“unless you would care to work in the semi-nude, which would necessitate making a test—in the nude.”

He waited for her reply. Grace Evans gulped. She could feel a scarlet flush mounting rapidly until it suffused her entire face. She could not understand why it was necessary to try her out in any less garmenture than would pass the censors; but then that is something which no one can understand.

Here, possibly, was her opportunity. She had read in the papers that Wilson Crumb was preparing to make the greatest picture of his career. She thought of her constant prayer for a chance. Here was a chance, and yet she hesitated. The brutal, useless condition he had imposed outraged every instinct of decency and refinement inherent in her, just as it has outraged the same characteristics in countless other girls—just as it is doing in other studios in all parts of the country every day.

“Is that absolutely essential?” she asked.

“Quite so,” he replied.

Still she hesitated. Her chance! If she let it pass, she might as well pack up and return home. What a little thing to do, after all, when one really considered it! It was purely professional. There would be nothing personal in it, if she could only succeed in overcoming her self-consciousness; but could she do it?

Again she thought of home. A hundred times, of late, she had wished that she was back there; but she did not want to go back a failure. It was that which decided her.

“Very well,” she said; “but there will not be many there will there?”

“Only a camera man and myself,” he replied. “If it is convenient, I can arrange it immediately.”

Two hours later Grace Evans left the K. K. S. lot. She was to start work on the morrow at fifty dollars a week for the full period of the picture. Wilson Crumb had told her that she had a wonderful future, and that she was fortunate to have fallen in with a director who could make a great star of her. As she went, she left behind all her self-respect and part of her natural modesty.

Wilson Crumb, watching her go, rubbed the ball of his right thumb to and fro across the back of his left hand, and smiled.

The Apache danced along the wagon trail that led back into the hills. He tugged at the bit and tossed his head impatiently, flecking his rider’s shirt with foam. He lifted his feet high and twisted and wriggled like an eel. He wanted to be off, and he wondered what had come over his old pal that there were no more swift, gay gallops, and that washes were crossed sedately by way of their gravelly bottoms, instead of being taken with a flying leap.

Presently he cocked an eye ahead, as if in search of something. A moment later he leaped suddenly sidewise, snorting in apparent terror.

“You old fool!” said Pennington affectionately.

The horse had shied at a large white bowlder lying beside the wagon trail. For nearly three years he had shied at it religiously every time he had passed it. Long before they reached it he always looked ahead to see if it was still there, and he would have been terribly disappointed had it been missing. The man always knew that the horse was going to shy—he would have been disappointed if the Apache had not played this little game of make-believe. To carry the game to its conclusion, the rider should gather him and force him snorting and trembling, right up to the bowlder, talking to him coaxingly and stroking his arched neck, but at the same time not neglecting to press the spurs against his glossy sides if he hesitated.

The Apache loved it. He loved the power that was his as exemplified by the quick, wide leap aside, and he loved the power of the man to force his nose to the bowlder—the power that gave him such confidence in his rider that he would go wherever he was asked to go; but to-day he was disappointed. His pal did not force him to the bowlder. Instead, Custer Pennington merely reined him into the trail again beyond it and rode on up Jackknife Cañon.

Custer was looking over the pasture. It was late July. The hills were no longer green, except where their sides and summits were clothed with chaparral. The lower hills were browning beneath the hot summer sun, but they were still beautiful, dotted as they were with walnut and live oak.

As Pennington rode, he recalled the last time he had ridden through Jackknife with Grace. She had been gone two months now—it seemed as many years. She no longer wrote often, and when she did write her letters were short and unsatisfying. He recalled all the incidents of that last ride, and they reminded him again of the new-made trail they had discovered, and of his oft repeated intention of following it to see where it led. He had never had the time—he did not have the time to-day. The heifers with their calves were still in this pasture. He counted them, examined the condition of the feed, and rode back to the house.

It was Friday. From the hill beyond Jackknife a man had watched through binoculars his every move. Three other men had been waiting below the watcher along the new-made trail. It was well for Pennington that he had not chosen that day to investigate.

After he had turned back toward the ranch, the man with the binoculars descended to the others.

“It was young Pennington,” he said. The speaker was Allen. “I was thinking that it would be a fool trick to kill him, unless we have to. I have a better scheme. Listen—if he ever learns anything that he shouldn’t know, this is what you are to do, if I am away.”

Very carefully and in great detail he elaborated his plan.

“Do you understand?” he asked.

They did, and they grinned.

The following night, after the Penningtons had dined, a ranch hand came up from Mrs. Burke’s to tell them that their new neighbor was quite ill, and that the woman who did her housework wanted Mrs. Pennington to come down at once as she was worried about her mistress.

“We will be right down,” said Colonel Pennington.

They found Mrs. Burke breathing with difficulty, and the colonel immediately telephoned for a local doctor. After the physician had examined her, he came to them in the living room.

“You had better send for Jones, of Los Angeles,” he said. “It is her heart. I can do nothing. I doubt if he can; but he is a specialist. And,” he added, “if she has any near relatives, I think I should notify them—at once.”

The housekeeper had joined them, and was wiping tears from her face with her apron.

“She has a daughter in Los Angeles,” said the colonel; “but we do not know her address.”

“She wrote her to-day, just before this spell,” said the housekeeper. “The letter hasn’t been mailed yet—here it is.”

She picked it up from the center table and handed it to the colonel.

“Miss Shannon Burke, 1580 Panizo Circle, Hollywood,” he read. “I will take the responsibility of wiring both Miss Burke and Dr. Jones. Can you get a good nurse locally?”

The doctor could, and so it was arranged.