The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
Bob went on to Los Angeles with the sprightly Baker. At first glance the city seemed to him like any other. Then, as he wandered its streets, the marvel and vigour and humour of the place seized on him.
"Don't you suppose I see the joke?" complained Baker at the end of one of their long trolley rides. "Just get onto that house; it looks like a mission-style switch engine. And the one next to it, built to shed snow. Funny! sure it's funny. But you ain't talking to me! It's alive! Those fellows wanted something different from anybody else--so does everybody. After they'd used up the regular styles, they had to make 'em up out of the fresh air. But anyway, they weren't satisfied just to copy Si Golosh's idea of a Noah's Ark chicken coop."
They stopped opposite very elaborate and impressive iron gates opening across a graded street. These gates were supported by a pair of stone towers crowned with tiles. A smaller pair of towers and gates guarded the concrete sidewalk. As a matter of fact, all these barriers enclosed nothing, for even in the remote possibility that the inquiring visitor should find them shut, an insignificant detour would circumvent their fenceless flanks.
"Maudsley Court," Bob read sculptured on one of the towers.
"That makes this particular subdivision mighty exclusive," grinned Baker. "Now if you were a homeseeker wouldn't you love to bring your dinner pail back to the cawstle every night?"
Bob peered down the single street. It was graded, guttered and sidewalked. A small sentry box labelled "office," and inscribed with glowing eulogiums, occupied a strategic position near the gates. From this house Bob immediately became aware of close scrutiny by a man half concealed by the indoor dimness.
"The spider," said Baker. "He's onto us big as a house. He can spot a yap at four hundred yards' range, and you bet they don't get much nearer than that alone."
A huge sign shrieked of Maudsley Court. "Get a grin!" was its first advice.
"They all try for a catchword--every one of 'em," explained Baker. "You'll see all kinds in the ads; some pretty good, most of 'em rotten."
"They seem to have made a start, anyway," observed Bob, indicating a new cottage half way down the street. It was a super-artistic structure, exhibiting the ends of huge brown beams at all points. Baker laughed.
"That's what it's intended to seem," said he. "That's the come-on house. It's built by the spider. It's stick-um for the flies. 'This is going to be a high-brow proposition,' says the intending purchaser; 'look at the beautiful house already up. I must join this young and thriving colony.' Hence this settled look."
He waved his hand abroad. Dotted over the low, rounded hills of the charming landscapes were new and modern bungalows. They were spaced widely, and each was flanked by an advertising board and guarded by a pair of gates shutting their private thoroughfares from the country highways. Between them showed green the new crops.
"Nine out of ten come-on houses," said Baker, "and all exclusive. If you can't afford iron gates, you can at least put up a pair of shingled pillars. It's the game."
"Will these lots ever be sold?" asked Bob.
"Out here, yes," replied Baker. "That's part of the joke. The methods are on the blink, but the goods insist on delivering themselves. Most of these fellows are just bunks or optimists. All hands are surprised when things turn out right. But if all the lots are ever sold, Los Angeles will have a population of five million."
They boarded an inward-bound trolley. Bob read the devices as they flashed past. "Hill-top Acres," he read near a street plastered against an apparently perpendicular hill. "Buy before the rise!" advised this man's rival at its foot. The true suburbs strung by in a panorama of strange little houses--imitation Swiss chalets jostling bastard Moorish, cobblestones elbowing plaster--a bewildering succession of forced effects. Baker caught Bob's expression.
"These are workingmen's and small clerks' houses," he said quietly. "Pretty bad, eh? But they're trying. Remember what they lived in back East."
Bob recalled the square, painted, ugly, featureless boxes built all after the same pattern of dreariness. He looked on this gay bewilderment of bad taste with more interest.
"At least they're taking notice," said Baker, lighting his pipe. "And every fellow raises some kind of posies."
A few moments later they plunged into the vortex of the city and the smiling country, the far plains toward the sea, and the circle of the mountains were lost. Only remained overhead the blue of the California sky.
Baker led the way toward a blaring basement restaurant.
"I'm beginning to feel that I'll have to find some monkey-food somewhere, or cash in," said he.
They found a table and sat down.
"This is the place to see all the sights," proffered Baker, his broad face radiating satisfaction. "When they strike it rich on the desert, they hike right in here. That fat lady thug yonder is worth between three and four millions. Eight months ago she did washing at two bits a shirt while her husband drove a one-man prospect shaft. The other day she blew into the big jewelry store and wanted a thirty-thousand-dollar diamond necklace. The boss rolled over twice and wagged his tail. 'Yes, madam,' said he; 'what kind?' 'I dunno; just a thirty-thousand-dollar one.' That's all he could get out of her. 'But tell me how you want 'em set,' he begged. She looked bewildered. 'Oh, set 'em so they'll jingle,' says she."
After the meal they walked down the principal streets, watching the crowd. It was a large crowd, as though at busy midday, and variously apparelled, from fur coat to straw hat. Each extreme of costume seemed justified, either by the balmy summer-night effect of the California open air, or by the hint of chill that crept from the distant mountains. Either aspect could be welcomed or ignored by a very slight effort of the will. Electric signs blazed everywhere. Bob was struck by the numbers of clairvoyants, palm readers, Hindu frauds, crazy cults, fake healers, Chinese doctors, and the like thus lavishly advertised. The class that elsewhere is pressed by necessity to the inexpensive dinginess of back streets, here blossomed forth in truly tropical luxuriance. Street vendors with all sorts of things, from mechanical toys to spot eradicators, spread their portable lay-outs at every corner. Vacant lots were crowded with spielers of all sorts--religious or political fanatics, vendors of cure-alls, of universal tools, of marvelous axle grease, of anything and everything to catch the idle dollar. Brilliantly lighted shops called the passer-by to contemplate the latest wavemotor, flying machine, door check, or what-not. Stock in these enterprises was for sale--and was being sold! Other sidewalk booths, like those ordinarily used as dispensaries of hot doughnuts and coffee, offered wild-cat mining shares, oil stock and real estate in some highly speculative suburb. Great stores of curios lay open to the tourist trade. Here one could buy sheepskin Indian moccasins made in Massachusetts, or abalone shells, or burnt-leather pillows, or a whole collection of photographic views so minute that they could all be packed in a single walnut shell. Next door were shops of Japanese and Chinese goods presided over by suave, sleepy-eyed Orientals, in wonderful brocade, wearing the close cap with the red coral button atop. Shooting galleries spit spitefully. Gasolene torches flared.
Baker strolled along, his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his head. From time to time he cast an amused glance at his companion.
"Come in here," he said abruptly.
Bob found himself comfortably seated in a commodious open-air theatre, watching an excellent vaudeville performance. He enjoyed it thoroughly, for it was above the average. In fifteen minutes, however, the last soubrette disappeared in the wings to the accompaniment of a swirl of music. Her place was taken by a tall, facetious-looking, bald individual, clad in a loose frock coat. He held up his hand for silence.
"Ladies 'n' gentlemen," he drawled, "we hope you have enjoyed yourselves. If you find a better show than this in any theatre in town, barring the Orpheum, come and tell us about it and we will see what we can do to brace ours up. I don't believe you can. This show will be repeated every afternoon and evening, with complete change of programme twice a week. Go away and tell your friends about the great free show down on Spring Street. Just tell them about it."
Bob glanced startled at his companion. Baker was grinning.
"This show has cost us up to date," went on the leisurely drawl, "just twenty-eight hundred dollars. Go and tell your friends that. But"--he suddenly straightened his figure and his voice became more incisive--"that is not enough. We have decided to give you something real to talk about. We have decided to give every man, woman and child in this vast audience a first-night present of Two Silver Dollars!"
Bob could feel an electric thrill run through the crowd, and every one sat up a little straighter in his chair.
"Let me see," the orator went on, running his eye over the audience. He had resumed his quieter manner. "There are perhaps seven hundred people present. That would make fourteen hundred dollars. By the way, John," he addressed some one briskly. "Close the gates and lock them. We don't want anybody in on this who didn't have interest enough in our show to come in the first place." He winked humorously at the crowd, and several laughed.
"Pretty rotten, eh?" whispered Baker admiringly. "Fixed 'em so they won't bolt when the show's over and before he works off his dope."
"These Two Silver Dollars, which I want you all to get, are in these hampers. Six little boys will distribute them. Come up, boys, and get each a hatful of dollars." The six solemnly marched up on the stage and busied themselves with the hampers. "While we are waiting," went on the orator, "I will seize the opportunity to present to you the world-famed discoverer of that wonderful anaesthetic, Oxodyne, Painless Porter."
At the words a dapper little man in immaculately correct evening dress, and carrying a crush hat under his arm, stepped briskly from the wings. He was greeted by wild but presumably manufactured applause. He bowed rigidly from the hips, and at once began to speak in a high and nasal but extremely penetrating voice.
"As far as advertising is concerned," he began without preamble, "it is entirely unnecessary that I give this show. There is no man, woman or child in this marvellous commonwealth of ours who is not familiar with the name of Painless Porter, whether from the daily papers, the advertising boards, the street cars, or the elegant red brougham in which I traverse your streets. My work for you is my best advertisement. It is unnecessary from that point of view that I spend this money for this show, or that this extra money should be distributed among you by my colleague, Wizard Walker, the Medical Marvel of Modern Times."
The tall man paused from his business with the hampers and the six boys to bow in acknowledgment.
"No, ladies 'n' gentlemen, my purpose is higher. In the breast of each human being is implanted an instinctive fear of Pain. It sits on us like a nightmare, from the time we first come to consciousness of our surroundings. It is a curse of humanity, like drink, and he who can lighten that curse is as much of a philanthropist as George W. Childs or Andrew Carnegie. I want you to go away and talk about me. It don't matter what you say, just so you say something. You can call me quack, you may call me fakir, you may call me charlatan--but be sure to call me SOMETHING! Then slowly the news will spread abroad that Pain is banished, and I can smile in peace, knowing that my vast expenditures of time and money have not been in vain, and that I have been a benefit to humanity. Wizard Walker, the Medical Marvel of Modern Times, will now attend to the distribution, after which I will pull a few teeth gratis in order to demonstrate to you the wonderful merits of Oxodyne."
"A dentist!" gasped Bob.
"Yup," said Baker. "Not much gasoline-torch-on-the-back-lot in his, is there?"
Bob was hardly surprised, after much preamble and heightening of suspense, to find that the Two Silver Dollars turned out finally to be a pink ticket and a blue ticket, "good respectively at the luxurious offices for one dollar's worth of dental and medical attention FREE."
Nor was he more than slightly astounded when the back drop rose to show the stage set glitteringly with nickel-mounted dentist chairs and their appurtenances, with shining glass, white linen, and with a chorus of fascinating damsels dressed as trained nurses and standing rigidly at attention. Then entered Painless himself, in snowy shirt-sleeves and serious professional preoccupation. Volunteers came up two by two. Painless explained obscurely the scientific principles on which the marvelous Oxodyne worked--by severing temporarily but entirely all communication between the nerves and the brain. Then much business with a very glittering syringe.
"My lord," chuckled Baker, "if he fills that thing up, it'll drown her!"
In an impressive silence Painless flourished the forceps, planted himself square in front of his patient, heaved a moment, and triumphantly held up in full view an undoubted tooth. The trained nurses offered rinses. After a moment the patient, a roughly dressed country woman, arose to her feet. She was smiling broadly, and said something, which the audience could not hear. Painless smiled indulgently.
"Speak up so they can all hear you," he encouraged her.
"Never hurt a bit," the woman stammered.
Three more operations were conducted as expeditiously and as successfully. The audience was evidently impressed.
"How does he do it?" whispered Bob.
"Cappers," explained Baker briefly. "He only fakes pulling a tooth. Watch him next time and you'll see that he doesn't actually pull an ounce."
"Suppose a real toothache comes up?"
"I think that is one now. Watch him."
A young ranchman was making his way up the steps that led to the stage. His skin was tanned by long exposure to the California sun, and his cheek rounded into an unmistakable swelling.
"No fake about him," commented Baker.
He seated himself in the chair. Painless examined his jaw carefully. He started back, both hands spread in expostulation.
"My dear friend!" he cried, "you can save that tooth! It would be a crime to pull that tooth! Come to my office at ten to-morrow morning and I will see what can be done." He turned to the audience and for ten minutes expounded the doctrine of modern dentistry as it stands for saving a tooth whenever possible. Incidentally he had much to say as to his skill in filling and bridge work and the marvellous painlessness thereof. The meeting broke up finally to the inspiring strains of a really good band. Bob and his friend, standing near the door, watched the audience file out. Some threw away their pink and blue tickets, but most stowed them carefully away.
"And every one that goes to the 'luxurious offices' for the free dollar's worth will leave ten round iron ones," said Baker.
After a moment the Painless One and the Wizard marched smartly out, serenely oblivious of the crowd. They stepped into a resplendent red brougham and were whisked rapidly away.
"It pays to advertise," quoted Baker philosophically.
They moved on up the street.
"There's the inventor of the Unlimited Life," said Baker suddenly, indicating a slender figure approaching. "I haven't seen him in three years--not since he got into this graft, anyway."
"Unlimited Life," echoed Bob, "what's that? A medicine?"
"No. A cult. Hullo, Sunny!"
The approaching figure swerved and stopped. Bob saw a very slender figure clad in a close-fitting, gray frock suit. To his surprise, from beneath the wide, black felt hat there peered at him the keenly nervous face of the more intelligent mulatto. The man's eyes were very bright and shrewd. His hair surrounded his face as an aureole of darkness, and swept low to his coat collar.
"Mr. Baker," he said, simply, his eyes inscrutable.
"Well, Sunny, this is my old friend Bob Orde. Bob, this is the world-famous Sunny Larue, apostle of the Unlimited Life of whom you've heard so much." He winked at Bob. "How's the Colony flourishing, Sunny?"
"More and more our people are growing to see the light," said the mulatto in low, musical tones. "The mighty but simple principles of Azamud are coming into their own. The poor and lowly, the humble and oppressed are learning that in me is their salvation--." He went on in his beautiful voice explaining the Colony of the Unlimited Life, addressing always Bob directly and paying little attention to Baker, who stood aside, his hands in his pockets, a smile on his fat, good-natured face. It seemed that the Colony lived in tents in a canon of the foothills. It paid Larue fifty dollars a head, and in return was supported for six months and instructed in the mysteries of the cult. It had its regimen. "At three we arise and break our fast, quite simply, with three or four dry prunes," breathed Larue, "and then, going forth to the high places for one hour, we hold steadfast the thought of Love."
"Say, Sunny," broke in Baker, "how many you got rounded up now?"
"There are at present twenty-one earnest proselytes."
"At fifty a head--and you've got to feed and keep 'em somehow--even three dried prunes cost you something in the long run"--ruminated Baker. He turned briskly to the mulatto: "Sunny, on the dead, where does the graft come in?"
The mulatto drew himself up in swift offence, scrutinized Bob closely for a moment, met Baker's grin. Abruptly his impressive manner dropped from him. He leaned toward them with a captivating flash of white teeth.
"You just leave that to me," he murmured, and glided away into the crowd.
Baker laughed and drew Bob's arm within his own.
"Out of twenty of the faithful there's sure to be one or two with life savings stowed away in a sock, and Sunny's the boy to make them produce the sock."
"What's his cult, anyway?" asked Bob. "I mean, what do they pretend to believe? I couldn't make out."
"A nigger's idea of Buddhism," replied Baker briefly. "But you can get any brand of psychic damfoolishness you think you need in your business. They do it all, here, from going barefoot, eating nuts, swilling olive oil, rolling down hill, adoring the Limitless Whichness, and all the works. It is now," he concluded, looking at his watch, "about ten o'clock. We will finish the evening by dropping in on the Fuzzies."
Together they boarded a street car, which shortly deposited them at an uptown corner. Large houses and spacious grounds indicated a district of some wealth. To one of these houses, brilliantly lighted, Baker directed his steps.
"But I don't know these people, and I'm not properly dressed," objected Bob.
"They know me. And as for dress, if you'd arrange to wear a chaste feather duster only, you'd make a hit."
A roomful of people were buzzing like a hive. Most were in conventional evening dress. Here and there, however, Bob caught hints of masculine long hair, of feminine psyche knots, bandeaux and other extremely artistic but unusual departures. One man with his dinner jacket wore a soft linen shirt perforated by a Mexican drawn-work pattern beneath which glowed a bright red silk undergarment. Women's gowns on the flowing and Grecian order were not uncommon. These were usually coupled with the incongruity of parted hair brought low and madonna-wise over the ears. As the two entered, a very powerful blond man was just finishing the declamation of a French poem. He was addressing it directly at two women seated on a sofa.
"Un r-r-reve d'amour!"
He concluded with much passion and clasped hands.
In the rustle ensuing after this effort, Baker led his friend down the room to a very fat woman upholstered in pink satin, to whom he introduced Bob. Mrs. Annis, for such proved to be her name, welcomed him effusively.
"I've heard so much about you!" she cried vivaciously, to Bob's vast astonishment. She tapped him on the arm with her fan. "I'm going to make a confession to you; I know it may be foolish, but I do like music so much better than I do pictures."
Bob, his brain whirling, muttered something.
"But I'm going to confess to you again, I like artists so much better than I do musicians."
A light dawned on Bob. "But I'm not an artist nor a musician," he blurted out.
The pink-upholstered lady, starting back with an agility remarkable in one of her size, clasped her hands.
"Don't tell me you write!" she cried dramatically.
"All right, I won't," protested poor Bob, "for I don't."
A slow expression of bewilderment overspread Mrs. Annis's face, and she glanced toward Baker with an arched brow of interrogation.
"I merely wanted Mr. Orde to meet you, Mrs. Annis," he said impressively, "and to feel that another time, when he is less exhausted by the strain of a long day, he may have the privilege of explaining to you the details of the great Psychic Movement he is inaugurating."
Mrs. Annis smiled on him graciously. "I am home every Sunday to my intimes," she murmured. "I should be so pleased."
Bob bowed mechanically.
"You infernal idiot!" he ground out savagely to Baker, as they moved away. "What do you mean? I'll punch your fool head when I get you out of here!"
But the plump young man merely smiled.
Halfway down the room a group of attractive-looking young men hailed them.
"Join in, Baker," said they. "Bring your friend along. We're just going to raid the commissary."
But Baker shook his head.
"I'm showing him life," he replied. "None but Fuzzies in his to-night!"
He grasped Bob firmly by the arm and led him away.
"That," he said, indicating a very pale young man, surrounded by women, "is Pickering, the celebrated submarine painter."
"The what?" demanded Bob.
"Submarine painter. He paints fish and green water and lobsters, and the bottom of the sea generally. He paints them on the skins of kind-faced little calves."
"What does he do that for?"
"He says it's the only surface that will express what he wants to. He has also invented a waterproof paint that he can use under water. He has a coral throne down on the bottom which he sits in, and paints as long as he can hold his breath."
"Oh, he does!" said Bob.
"Yes," said Baker.
"But a man can't see three feet in front of his face under water!" cried Bob.
"Pickering says he can. He paints submarinescapes, and knows all the fishes. He says fishes have individual expressions. He claims he can tell by a fish's expression whether he is polygamous or monogamous."
"Do you mean to tell me anybody swallows that rot!" demanded Bob indignantly.
"The women do--and a lot more I can't remember. The market for calf-skins with green swirls on them is booming. Also the women clubbed together and gave him money enough to build a house."
Bob surveyed the little white-faced man with a strong expression of disgust.
"The natural man never sits in chairs," the artist was expounding. "When humanity shall have come into its own we shall assume the graceful and hygienic postures of the oriental peoples. In society one must, to a certain extent, follow convention, but in my own house, the House Beautiful of my dreams, are no chairs. And even now a small group of the freer spirits are following my example. In time----"
"If you don't take me away, I'll run in circles!" whispered Bob fiercely to his friend.
They escaped into the open air.
"Phew!" said Bob, straightening his long form. "Is that what you call the good society here?"
"Good society is there," amended Baker. "That's the joke. There are lots of nice people in this little old town, people who lisp our language fluently. They are all mixed in with the Fuzzies."
They decided to walk home. Bob marvelled at the impressive and substantial buildings, at the atrocious streets. He spoke of the beautiful method of illuminating one of the thoroughfares--by globes of light gracefully supported in clusters on branched arms either side the roadway.
"They were originally bronze--and they went and painted them a mail-box green," commented Baker drily.
At the hotel the night clerk, a young man, quietly dressed and with an engaging air, greeted them with just the right amount of cordiality as he handed them their keys. Bob paused to look about him.
"This is a good hotel," he remarked.
"It's one of the best-managed, the best-conducted, and the best-appointed hotels in the United States," said Baker with conviction.
The next morning Bob bought all the papers and glanced through them with considerable wonder and amusement. They were decidedly metropolitan in size, and carried a tremendous amount of advertising. Early in his perusal he caught the personal bias of the news. Without distortion to the point of literal inaccuracy, nevertheless by skilful use of headlines and by manipulation of the point of view, all items were made to subserve a purpose. In local affairs the most vulgar nicknaming, the most savage irony, vituperation, scorn and contempt were poured out full measure on certain individuals unpopular with the papers. Such epithets as "lickspittle," "toad," "carcass blown with the putrefying gas of its own importance," were read in the body of narration.
"These are the best-edited, most influential and powerful journals in the West," commented Baker. "They possess an influence inconceivable to an Easterner."
The advertising columns were filled to bursting with advertisements of patent medicines, sex remedies, quack doctors, miraculous healers, clairvoyants, palm readers, "philanthropists" with something "free" to bestow, cleverly worded offers of abortion; with full-page prospectuses of mines; of mushroom industrial concerns having to do with wave motors, water motors, solar motors, patent couplers, improved telephones and the like, all of whose stock now stood at $1.10, but which on April 10th, at 8.02 P.M., would go up to $1.15; with blaring, shrieking offers of real estate in this, that or the other addition, consisting, as Bob knew from yesterday, of farm acreage at front-foot figures. The proportion of this fake advertising was astounding. One in particular seemed incredible--a full page of the exponent of some Oriental method of healing and prophecy.
"Of course, a full-page costs money," replied Baker. "But this is the place to get it." He pushed back his chair. "Well, what do you think of our fair young city?" he grinned.
"It's got me going," admitted Bob.
"Took me some time to find out where to get off at," said Baker. "When I found it out, I didn't dare tell anybody. They mob you here and string you up by your pigtail, if you try to hint that this isn't the one best bet on terrestrial habitations. They like their little place, and they believe in it a whole lot, and they're dead right about it! They'd stand right up on their hind legs and paw the atmosphere if anybody were to tell them what they really are, but it's a fact. Same joyous slambang, same line of sharps hanging on the outskirts, same row, racket, and joy in life, same struggle; yes, and by golly! the same big hopes and big enterprises and big optimism and big energies! Wouldn't you like to be helping them do it?"
"What's the answer?" asked Bob, amused.
"Well, for all its big buildings and its electric lights, and trolleys, and police and size, it's nothing more nor less than a frontier town."
"A frontier town!" echoed Bob.
"You think it over," said Baker.