The Film Mystery by Arthur B. Reeve
VIII. Lawrence Millard
It struck me on the trip to Manton's apartment that the film people were wholly unfeeling, were even uninterested in the death of Stella Lamar except where it interfered with their business arrangements. Werner excused himself and did not accompany us, on the score of the complete realignment of production necessary to place Enid in Stella's part. It seemed to me that he felt a certain relish in the problem, that he was almost glad of the circumstances which brought Enid to him. His last words to Manton were, to be sure to have Millard recast the action of the scenes wherever possible, so as to give Enid the better chance to display her own personality.
I marveled as I realized that the remains of Stella Lamar were scarcely cold before these people were figuring on the star to take her place.
As Manton talked, the thought crossed my mind that such a man needed no publicity manager. I dismissed the idea that he might be capable even of murder for publicity. But at least it was an insight into some methods of the game.
As our car mounted to the Concourse and turned Manhattanward I was distinctly unhappy. Manton monopolized Enid completely, insisting upon talking over everything under the sun, from the wardrobe she would need in Stella's part and the best sort of personal advertising campaign for her, to the first available evening when she could go to dinner with him.
She sat in the rear seat, between Kennedy and the promoter, which did not add to my sense of comfort. The only consoling feature from my viewpoint was that I was admirably placed to study her, and that Manton held her so engrossed that I had every opportunity to do so unnoticed. Because she had overwhelmed me so completely I did nothing of the kind. I knew we were riding with the most beautiful woman in New York, but I did not know the color of her hair or eyes, or even the sort of hat or dress she wore. In short I was movie-struck.
We stopped at last at a huge, ornate apartment house on Riverside Drive and Manton led the way through the wide Renaissance entrance and the luxurious marble hall to the elevator. His quarters, on the top floor, facing the river, were almost exotic in the lavishness and barbaric splendor of their furnishings. My first impression as we entered the place was that Manton had purposely planned the dim lights of rich amber and the clinging Oriental fragrance hovering about everything so as to produce an alluring and enticing atmosphere. The chairs and wide upholstered window seats, the soft, yielding divans in at least two corners, with their miniature mountains of tiny pillows, all were comfortable with the comfort one associates with lotus eating and that homeward journey soon to be forgotten. There was the smoke of incense, unmistakably. On a taboret were cigarettes and cigars and through heavy curtains I caught a glimpse of a sideboard and decanters, filled and set out very frankly.
A Japanese butler, whom Manton called Huroki, took our hats and retreated with a certain emanating effluvium of subtlety such as I had known only once before, when the Oriental attendant left me on the occasion of my only visit to an opium den in Chinatown.
A moment later Millard, who had been waiting, rose to greet us.
I would have guessed him to be an author, I believe, had I met him at random anywhere in the city. He affected all the professional marks and mannerisms, and yet he did so gracefully. I noticed, in the little hall where Huroki placed our headgear, a single-jointed Malacca stick, a dark-colored and soft-brimmed felt hat, and a battered brief-case. That was Millard, unquestionably. The man himself was tall and loose-limbed, heavy with an appearance of slenderness. His face was handsome, rather intellectual in spite of rather than because of large horn-rimmed glasses. His mouth and chin showed strength and determination, which was a surprise to me. In fact, in no way did he seem to reveal the artist. Lawrence Millard was a commercial writer, a dreamer never.
First he greeted Enid, taking both of her hands in his. In this one brief moment all my own little romance went glimmering, for I could not blind myself to the softening of his expression, the welcoming light in hers, the long interval in which their fingers remained interlaced.
And then another thought came to me, hastened, fed and fattened upon my jealousy. The sealed testimony in the case of Millard vs. Millard! Could Enid, by any chance, be concerned in that?
The next moment I dismissed the thought, or at least I thought I did so. I tried to picture Enid's work on the Coast, to remember the short time she had been in the East. It was possible Millard had known her before she went to Los Angeles, but unlikely.
Millard next turned to Kennedy.
"I just learned of the tragedy a short while ago, Professor," he exclaimed. "It is terrible, and so amazingly sudden, too! It--it has upset me completely. Tell me, have you found anything? Have you discovered any possible clue? Is there anything at all I can do to help?"
"I would like to ask a few questions," Kennedy explained.
"By all means!"
He extended a hand to me and I found it damp and flabby, as though he were more concerned than his manner betrayed. He faced Kennedy again, however, immediately.
"Stella and I didn't make a go of our married life at all," he went on, frankly enough. "I was very sorry, too, because I was genuinely fond of her."
"How recently have you seen her?"
"Stella? Not for over a month--perhaps longer than that."
Manton took Enid by the arm. It was evidently her first visit to the apartment and he was anxious to show her his various treasures.
Millard, Kennedy, and I found a corner affording a view out over the Hudson. After Kennedy had described, briefly, the circumstances of Stella's death, at Millard's insistence, he produced the note he had found in her handbag. The author recognized it at once, without reading it.
"Yes, I wrote that!" Then just a trace of emotion crept into his voice. "I was too late," he murmured.
"What was it you wanted to say?" Kennedy inquired.
Millard's glance traveled to Manton and Enid, a troubled something in his expression. I could see that the promoter was making the most of his tete-a-tete with the girl, but she seemed perfectly at ease and quite capable of handling the man, and I, certainly, was more disturbed at the interest of Millard.
"I thought there was something about the business I ought to tell Stella," he answered, finally. "Manton Pictures is pretty shaky."
"Oh! Then Manton wasn't talking for effect when he told Miss Faye that the company was broke?"
"No, indeed! In fact, didn't Enid make her agreement with Manton personally? That's what I advised her to do."
Kennedy nodded. "But is Manton himself financially sound?"
Millard laughed. "Lloyd Manton always has a dozen things up his sleeve. He may have a million or he may owe a million." In the author's voice was no respect for his employer. A touch of malice crept into his tone. "Manton will make money for anyone who can make money for him," he added, "that is, provided he has to do it."
Kennedy and I exchanged glances. This was close to an assertion of downright dishonesty. At that moment Huroki stole in on padded feet, as noiseless as a wraith.
"Yes, Huroki?" His master turned, inquiringly.
"Mr. Leigh," was the butler's announcement.
"Show him in," said Manton; then he hurried over to us. "Courtlandt Leigh, the banker, you know."
I imagine I showed my surprise, for Kennedy smiled as he caught my face. Leigh was a bigger man than Phelps, of the highest standing in downtown financial circles. If Manton had interested Courtlandt Leigh in moving pictures he was a wizard indeed.
It seemed to me that the banker was hardly in the apartment before he saw Enid, and from that moment the girl engrossed him to the exclusion of everything else. For Enid, I will say that she was a wonder. She seemed to grasp the man's instant infatuation and immediately she set about to complete the conquest, all without permitting him so much as to touch her.
"You'll excuse us?" remarked Manton, easily, as he drew Phelps and Enid away.
"See!" exclaimed Millard, in a low voice, frowning now as he watched the girl. "Manton's clever! I've never known him unable to raise money, and that's why I wanted Enid to have her contract with him personally. If Manton Pictures blows up he'd put her in some other company."
"He has more than one?" This seemed to puzzle Kennedy.
"He's been interested in any number on the side," Millard explained. "Now he's formed another, but it's a secret so far. You've heard of Fortune Features, perhaps?"
Kennedy looked at me, but I shook my head.
"What is 'Fortune Features'?" Kennedy asked the question of Millard.
"Just another company in which Manton has an interest," he replied, casually. "That was why I said I advised that Enid make her contract personally with Manton. If Manton Pictures goes up, then he will have to swing her into Fortune Features--the other Manton enterprise, don't you see?" He paused, then added: "By the way, don't say anything outside about that. It isn't generally known--and as soon as anyone does hear it, everybody in the film game will hear it. You don't know how gossip travels in this business."
Kennedy asked a few personal questions about Stella, but Millard's answers indicated that he had not contemplated or even hoped for a reconciliation, that his interest in his former wife had become thoroughly platonic. Just now, however, he seemed unable to keep Manton out of his mind.
"Oh, Manton's clever!" he said, confidentially to Kennedy, as he watched the promoter deftly maneuvering Leigh and Enid into a position side by side.
And indeed, as Millard talked, I began to get some inkling of how really clever was the game which Manton played.
"Why," continued Millard, warming up to his story--for, to him, above all, a good story was something that had to be told, whatever might result from it--"I have known him to pay a visit some afternoon to Wall Street--go down there to beard the old lions in their den. He always used to show up about the closing time of the market.
"I've known him to get into the office of some one like Leigh or Phelps. Then he'll begin to talk about his brilliant prospects in the company he happens to be promoting at the time. If you listen to Manton you're lost. I know it--I've listened," he added, whimsically.
"Well," he continued, "the banker will begin to get restless after a bit--not at Manton, but at not getting away. 'My car is outside,' Manton will say. 'Let me drive you uptown.' Of course, there's nothing else for the banker to do but to accept, and when he gets into Manton's car he's glad he did. I don't know anyone who picks out such luxurious things as he does. Why, that man could walk right out along Automobile Row, broke, and some one would give him a car."
"How does he do it?" I put the question to him.
"How does a fish swim?" said Millard, smiling. "He's clever, I tell you. Once he has the banker in the car, perhaps they stop for a few moments at a club. At any rate, Manton usually contrives it so that, as they approach his apartment, he has his talk all worked up to the point where the banker is genuinely interested. You know there's almost nothing people will talk to you longer about than moving pictures.
"Well, on one pretext or another, Manton usually persuades the banker to step up here for a moment. Poor simp! It's all over with him then. I'll never forget how impressed Phelps was with this place the first time. There, now, watch this fellow, Leigh. He thinks this looks like a million dollars. We're all here, playing Manton's game. We're his menagerie--he's Barnum. I tell you, Leigh's lost, lost!"
I did not know quite what to make of Millard's cynicism. Was he trying to be witty at Manton's expense? I noticed that he did not smile himself. Although he was talking to us, his attention was not really on us. He was still watching Enid.
"Then, along would happen Stella, as if by chance."
Millard paused bitterly, as though he did not quite relish the telling it, but felt that Kennedy would pry it out of him or some one else finally, and he might as well have it over with frankly.
"Yes," he said, thoughtfully, "but it all wasn't really Manton's fault, after all. Stella liked the Bohemian sort of life too much--and Manton does the Bohemian up here wonderfully. It was too much for Stella. Then, when Phelps came along and was roped in, she fell for him. It was good-by, poor Millard! I wasn't rapid enough for that crowd."
I almost began to sympathize with Millard in the association into which, for his living's sake, his art had forced him. I realized, too, that really the banker, the wise one from Wall Street, was the sucker.
Indeed, as Millard told it, I could easily account for the temptation of Stella. To a degree, I suppose, it was really her fault, for she ought to have known the game, shown more sense than to be taken in by the thing. I wondered at the continued relations of Millard with Manton, under the circumstances. However, I reflected, if Stella had chosen to play the little fool, why should Millard have allowed that to ruin his own chances?
What interested me now was that Millard did not seem to relish the attentions which the banker was paying to Enid. Was Manton framing up the same sort of game again on Leigh?
However, when Enid shot a quick glance at Millard in an aside of the conversation, accompanied by a merry wink, I saw that Millard, though still doubtful, was much more at ease.
Evidently there was a tacit understanding between the two.
Kennedy glanced over at me. Bit by bit the checkered history of Stella Lamar's life was coming to light.
I began to see more clearly. Deserting Millard and fascinated by Manton and his game, she had been used to interest Phelps in the company. In turn she had been dazzled by the glitter of the Phelps gold. She had not proved loyal even to the producer and promoter.
Perhaps, I reflected, that was why Millard was so apparently complacent. One could not, under the circumstances, have expected him to display wild emotion. His attitude had been that of one who thought, "She almost broke me; let her break some one else."
That, however, was not his attitude toward Enid now. Indeed, he seemed genuinely concerned that she should not follow in the same steps.
Later, I learned that was not all of the history of Stella. Fifteen hundred dollars a week of her own money, besides lavish presents, had been too much for her. Even Phelps's money had had no over-burdening attraction for her. The world--at least that part of it which spends money on Broadway, had been open to her. Jack Daring had charmed her for a while--hence the engagement. Of Shirley, I did not even know. Perhaps the masterful crime roles he played might have promised some new thrill, with the possibility that they expressed something latent in his life. At any rate, she had dilettanted about him, to the amazement and dismay of Marilyn. That we knew.
The dinner hour was approaching, and, in spite of the urgent invitation of Manton, Leigh was forced to excuse himself to keep a previous appointment. I felt, though, that he would have broken it if only Enid had added her urging. But she did not, much to the relief of Millard. Manton took it in good part. Perhaps he was wise enough to reflect that many other afternoons were in the lap of the future.
"What is Manton up to?" Kennedy spoke to Millard. "Is it off with the old and on with the new? Is Phelps to be cast aside like a squeezed-out lemon, and Leigh taken on for a new citrus fruit?"
Millard smiled. He said nothing, but the knowing glance was confirmation enough that in his opinion Kennedy had expressed the state of affairs correctly.
Millard hastened to the side of Enid at once and we learned then that they had a theater engagement together and that Millard had the tickets in his pocket. Once more I realized it was no new or recent acquaintanceship between these two. Again I wondered what woman had been named in Stella Lamar's divorce suit, and again dismissed the thought that it could be Enid.
Kennedy took his hat and handed me mine. "We must eat, Walter, as well as the rest of them," he remarked, when Manton led the way to the door.
I was loath to leave and I suppose I showed it. The truth was that little Enid Faye had captivated me. It was hard to tear myself away.
In the entrance I hesitated, wondering whether I should say good- by to her. She seemed engrossed with Millard.
A second time she took me clean off my feet. While I stood there, foolishly, she left Millard and rushed up, extending her little hand and allowing it to rest for a moment clasped in mine.
"We didn't have a single opportunity to get acquainted, Mr. Jameson," she complained, real regret in the soft cadences of her voice. "Won't you phone me sometime? My name's in the book, or I'll be at the studio--"
I was tongue-tied. My glance, shifting from hers because I was suddenly afraid of myself, encountered the gaze of Millard from behind. Now I detected the unmistakable fire of jealousy in the eyes of the author. I presume I was never built to be a heavy lover. Up and down my spine went a shiver of fear. I dropped Enid's hand and turned away abruptly.