XXX. The Ballroom Scene
 

Sounds of music caught our ears as we entered the studio courtyard of Manton Pictures. Carrying the bag with its indisputable proof of some person's guilt, we made our way through the familiar corridor by the dressing rooms, out under the roof of the so-called large studio. There a scene of gayety confronted us, in sharp contrast with the gloomy atmosphere of the rest of the establishment.

Kauf, however, had thoroughly demonstrated his genius as a director. To counteract the depression caused by all the recent melodramatic and tragic happenings, he had brought in an eight- piece orchestra, establishing the men in the set itself so as to get full photographic value from their jazz antics. Where Werner and Manton had dispensed with music, in a desperate effort at economy, Kauf had realized that money saved in that way was lost through time wasted with dispirited people. It was a lesson learned long before by other companies. In other studios I had seen music employed in the making of soberly dramatic scenes, solely as an aid to the actors, enabling them to get into the atmosphere of their work more quickly and naturally.

Under the lights the entire set sparkled with a tawdry garishness apt to fool those uninitiated into the secrets of photography. On the screen, colors which now seemed dull and flat would take on a soft richness and a delicacy characteristic of the society in which Kauf's characters were supposed to move. Obviously fragile scenery would seem as heavy and substantial as the walls and beams of the finest old mansion. Even the inferior materials in the gowns of most of the girls would photograph as well as the most expensive silk; in fact, by long experience, many of the extra girls had learned to counterfeit the latest fashions at a cost ridiculous by comparison.

Kennedy approached Kauf, then returned to us.

"He asks us to wait until he gets this one big scene. It's the climax of the picture, really, the unmasking of the 'Black Terror.' If we interrupt now he loses the result of half a day of preparation."

"He may lose more than that!" muttered Mackay; and I wondered just whom the district attorney suspected.

"Is everyone here?" I asked. "All seven?"

Gordon and Shirley, of the men, and Marilyn and Enid, of course, were out on the floor of the supposed ballroom. Gordon I recognized because I remembered that he was to wear the garb of a monk. Marilyn was easily picked out, although the vivacity she assumed seemed unnatural now that we knew her as well as we did. Her costume was a glorious Yama Yama creation, of a faint yellow which would photograph dazzling white, revealing trim stockinged ankles and slender bare arms, framing face and eyes dancing with merriment and maliciousness. Unquestionably she was the prettiest girl beneath the arcs, never to be suspected as the woman who had braved the terrors of a film fire to rescue the man she loved. Enid was stately and serene in the gown of Marie Antoinette. In the bright glare her features took on a round innocence and she was as successful in portraying sweetness as Marilyn was in the simulation of the mocking evil of the vampire.

Shirley interested me the most, however. I wondered if Kennedy still eliminated him in guessing at the identity of the criminal. I called to mind the heavy man's presence in the basement at the time of the explosion and McGroarty's information that he had been hanging about that part of the studio for some time previously. Some one had planted a cigarette case and stub to implicate Gordon, according to Kennedy's theory. Shirley certainly had had opportunity to steal the towel from the locker as well as to point suspicion toward the leading man.

In the midst of my reverie Shirley approached and passed us. He was in the garb of Mephisto. Like the others, he had not yet masked his face. A peculiar brightness in his eyes struck me and I nudged Kennedy.

"Belladonna," Kennedy explained when he was beyond earshot.

"Oh!" I remembered. "Enid told him to use it."

"What?"

I repeated the conversation as near as I could reconstruct it.

"H-m! That's a new cure for smoke-burned eyes; no cure at all."

I was unable to get any more out of Kennedy, however.

Manton I detected in the background with Phelps. The two men were arguing, as always, and it was evident that the banker was accomplishing nothing by this constant hanging about the studio. Where previously my sympathy had been with Phelps entirely, now I realized that the promoter had won me. Indeed, Manton's interest in all the affairs of picture making at this plant had been far too sincere and earnest to permit the belief that he was seeking to wreck the company or to double-cross his backer.

Millard entered the studio as I glanced about for him. He handed some sheets to Kauf, then turned to leave. I attracted Kennedy's attention.

"You don't want Millard to get away," I whispered.

Kennedy sent Mackay to stop him. The author accompanied the district attorney willingly.

"Yes, Mr. Kennedy?"

"As soon as this scene is over we're going down to the projection room; everyone concerned in the death of Miss Lamar and of Mr. Werner."

The scenario writer looked up quickly. "Do you--do you know who it is?" he asked, soberly.

"Not exactly, but I will identify the guilty person just as soon as we are assembled down in front of the screen."

Shirley had left the studio floor, apparently to go to his dressing room. Now I noticed that he returned and passed close just in time to hear Millard's question and Kennedy's answer. His eyes dilated. As he turned away his face fell. He went on into the set, but his legs seemed to wabble beneath him. I was sure it was more than the weakness resulting from his experience in the fire.

Kauf's voice, through the megaphone, echoed suddenly from wall to wall, reverberating beneath the roof.

"All ready! Everyone in the set! Masks on! Take your places!"

At a signal the orchestra struck up and the couples started to dance. It was a wonderfully colorful scene and I saw that Kauf proposed to rehearse it thoroughly, doing it over and over without the cameras until every detail reached a practiced perfection. In this I was certain he achieved results superior to Werner's slap, dash, and bang.

Then came the call for action.

"Camera!" Kauf began to bob up and down. "Into it, everybody!"

For fascination and charm this far exceeded the banquet scene which we had witnessed in the taking previously. The music was surprisingly good, so that it was impossible for the people not to get into the swing, and the result was a riotous swirling of gracefully dancing pairs; the girls, selected for their beauty, flashing half-revealed faces toward the camera, displaying eyes which twinkled through their masks in mockery at a wholly ineffectual attempt at concealment.

Enid maintained her stately carriage, but made full use of the dazzling whiteness of her teeth. Early she permitted the attentions of the cowled monk whom she knew to be her lover. Marilyn was everywhere, making mischief the best she could. Shirley stalked about in his satanic red, which would photograph black and appear even more somber on the screen.

Of course the whole was not photographed in a continuous strip from one camera position. I saw that Kauf made several long shots to catch the general atmosphere. Then he made close-up scenes of all the principals and of some of the best appearing extras. At one time he ordered a panorama effect, in which the cameras "pammed," swept from one side to the other, giving a succession of faces at close range.

Finally everything was ready for the climax. Shirley had been playing a sort of Jekyll and Hyde role in which he was at once the young lawyer friend of Enid and the Black Terror. Unmasked and cornered at this function of a society terrified by the dread unknown menace, he was to make the transformation directly before the eyes of everyone, using the mythical drug which changed him from a young man of good appearance and family to the being who was a very incarnation of evil.

For once Kauf did not rehearse the scene. Shirley was obviously weakened from his experience and the director wished to spare him. All the details were shouted out through the megaphone, however, and I grasped that the action of this part of the dance was familiar to everyone; it was the big scene of the story toward which all other events had built.

Then came the familiar order. "Camera!"

At the start of this episode the orchestra was playing and the dancers were in motion. Suddenly Gordon, as the hero, strode up to Shirley and unmasked him with a few bitter words which later would be flashed upon the screen in a spoken title. Instantly a crowd gathered about, but in such a way as not to obstruct the camera view.

Cornered, seeing that flight was impossible unless he became the Black Terror and possessed the strength and fearlessness of that strange other self, Shirley drew a little vial from his breast pocket and drank the contents. Evidently he knew his Mansfield well. Slowly he began to act out the change in his appearance which corresponded with the assumption of control by the evil within. His body writhed, went through contortions which were horrible yet fascinating. It was almost as though a new fearful being was created within sight of the onlookers. Not only was the face altered, but the man's stature seemed to shrink, to lose actual inches. I thought it a wonderful exhibition.

The very next instant there came a groan from Shirley, something which at once indicated pain and realization and fear. He lost all control of himself and in a moment pitched forward upon the floor, sputtering and clutching at the empty air. Another cry broke from between his lips, a ghastly contracted shriek as treble as though from the throat of a woman.

This was no part of the story, no skillful bit of acting! It was real! Even before I had grasped the full significance of the happening Kennedy had dashed forward. The cameras still were grinding and they caught him as he kneeled at the side of the stricken man. Hardly a second afterward Mackay and I followed and were at Kennedy's side. Kauf and the others, their faces weirdly ashen, clustered about in fright.

A third time the invisible hand had struck at a member of the company. "The Black Terror," with all the horror written into that story, contained nothing as fearful as the menace to the people engaged in its production.

Shirley's skin was cold and clammy, his face almost rigid. While conscious, he was helpless. Kennedy found the little vial and examined it.

"Atropin!" he ejaculated. "Walter!" He turned to me. "Get some physostigmin, quick! Have Mackay drive you! It's--it's life or death! Here--I'll write it down! Physostigmin!"

As I raced madly out and down the stairs, Mackay at my heels, I heard a woman's scream. Marilyn! Did she think him dead?

Once in the car, headed for the nearest drug store, grasping wildly at the side or at the back of the seat every few moments as the district attorney skidded around curves and literally hurdled obstacles, I remembered a forgotten fact.

Atropin! That was belladonna, simply another name for the drug. Shirley had procured the stuff for use in his eyes. Nevertheless, he had been aware, undoubtedly, of its deadly nature. Passing by Kennedy and the rest of us, he had overheard Kennedy state that the murderer would be identified as soon as all could be assembled in the projection room. The heavy man had not cared to face justice in so prosaic a manner. With the same sense of the melodramatic which had led him to slay Stella Lamar in the taking of a scene, Werner in the photographing of another, he had preferred suicide and had selected the most spectacular moment possible for his last upon earth.

Yes, Shirley was guilty. Rather than wait the slow processes of legal justice he had attempted suicide. Now we raced to save his life, to preserve it for a more fitting end in the electric chair.