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In which I find that the incredible has happened; burn my bridges behind me and penetrate for the first time the mysterious regions behind the moving-picture film.
"BUT — I said two hundred dollars a week," I repeated feebly, stunned by Mr. Sennett's unexpected response. Two hundred dollars a week — forty pounds — he couldn't mean it! It was absolutely impossible.
"Yes. That's right. Two hundred dollars a week," Mr. Sennett said crisply. "When can you begin work?"
"Why — you know, I must have a two-years' contract at that salary," I said, feeling my way carefully, for I still could not credit this as a genuine offer.
"All right, we'll fix it up. Two years, two hundred — " he made a little memorandum on a desk pad, and something in the matter-of-fact way he did it convinced me that this incredible thing had actually happened. "Contract will be ready this afternoon, say at four o'clock. That will suit you? And we'd like you to start for California as soon as possible."
"Certainly. Oh, of course," I said, though still more confounded by this, for I did not see the connection between California and the cinematograph. More than anything else, however, I felt that I needed air and an opportunity to consider where I stood anyway, and what I was going to do.
I walked down Broadway in a daze. An actor for a cinematographic company — my mind shied at the thought. How were the confounded things made, anyhow? Still, two hundred dollars a week — what would happen if I could not do the work? I tried to imagine what it would be like. Acting before a machine — how could I tell whether I was funny or not? The machine would not laugh. Then suddenly I stopped short in a tangle of cross-street traffic and cried aloud, "Look here, you could have got twice the money!" But instantly that thought was swept away again by my speculations about the work and my concern as to whether or not I could do it.
At four o'clock I returned to the Keystone offices, in a mood between exultation and panic, and signed the contract, beginning with a feeble scratch of the pen, but ending in a bold black scrawl. It was done; I was a moving-picture actor, and heaven only knew what would happen next!
"Can you start for California to-night?" Mr. Sennett asked, while he blotted the contract
"I can start any time," I said a little uncertainly. "But shouldn't I rehearse first?"
He laughed. "You don't rehearse moving pictures in advance. You do that as they are being taken," he replied. "They'll show you all that at the studios. You'll soon catch on, and you'll photograph all right, don't worry."
Still with some misgivings, but becoming more jubilant every moment, I hurried away to get my luggage and to announce to Mr. Reeves that I was not going back to London with Carno's company. He began to urge me to change my mind, to wait while he could cable to Carno and get me an offer from him for the next season, but I triumphantly produced my contract, and after one look at the figures he was dumb.
"Two hundred dollars — Holy Moses!" he managed to ejaculate after a moment, and I chuckled at the thought of Mr. Carno's face when he should hear the news.
"It's not so bad, for a beginning," I said modestly, trying my best to speak as though it were but a trifle, but unable to keep the exultation out of my voice. A dozen times, in the hurry of arranging my affairs and catching the train, I stopped to look at the contract again, half fearful that the figures might have changed.
My high spirits lasted until I was settled in the Chicago Limited, pulling out of New York with a great noise of whistles and bells, and steaming away into the darkness toward California and the unknown work of a moving-picture actor. Then misgivings came upon me in a cloud. I saw myself trying to be funny before the cold eye of a machine, unable to speak my lines, not helped by any applause, failing miserably. How could I give the effect of ripping my trousers without the "r-r-r-r-r-rip r' of a snare-drum? When I slipped and fell on my head, how could the audience get the point without the loud hollow "boom!" from the orchestra?
Every added mile farther from London increased my doubts, hard as I tried to encourage myself with thoughts of my past successes. Moving-picture work was different, and if I should fail in California I would be a long, long way from home.
I reached Los Angeles late at night, very glad that I would not have to report at the Keystone studios until morning. I tried to oversleep next day, but it was impossible; I was awake long before dawn. I dressed as slowly as possible, wandered about the streets as long as I could, and finally ordered an enormous breakfast, choosing the most expensive cafe I could find, because the more expensive the place the longer one must wait to be served, and I was seizing every pretext for delay. When the food came I could not eat it, and suddenly I said to myself that I was behaving like a child; I would hurry to the studios and get it over. I rushed from the cafe, called a taxi and bribed the chauffeur to break the speed laws and get me there quick.
When I alighted before the studio, a big new building of bright unpainted wood, I took a deep breath, gripped my cane firmly, walked briskly to the door — and hurried past it. I walked a block or so, calling myself names, before I could bring myself to turn and come back. At last, with the feeling that I was dragging myself by the collar, I managed to get up the steps and push open the door.
I was welcomed with a cordiality that restored a little of my self-confidence. The director of the company in which I was to star had been informed of my arrival by telegraph and was waiting for me on the stage, they said. An office boy, whistling cheerfully, volunteered to take me to him, and, leading me through the busy offices, opened the stage door.
A glare of light and heat burst upon me. The stage, a yellow board floor covering at least two blocks, lay in a blaze of sunlight, intensified by dozens of white canvas reflectors stretched overhead. On it was a wilderness of "sets" — drawing-rooms, prison interiors, laundries, balconies, staircases, caves, fire-escapes, kitchens, cellars. Hundreds of actors were strolling about in costume; carpenters were hammering away at new sets; five companies were playing before five clicking cameras. There was a roar of confused sound — screams, laughs, an explosion, shouted commands, pounding, whistling, the bark of a dog. The air was thick with the smell of new lumber in the sun, flash-light powder, cigarette smoke.
The director was standing in his shirt-sleeves beside a clicking camera, holding a mass of manuscript in his hand and clenching an unlighted cigar between his teeth. He was barking short commands to the company which was playing — "To the left; to the left, Jim! There, hold it! Smile, Maggie! That's right. Good! Look out for the lamp!"
The scene over, he welcomed me cordially enough, but hurriedly.
"Glad to see you. How soon can you go to work? This afternoon? Good! Two o'clock, if you can make it. Look around the studio a bit, if you like. Sorry I haven't a minute to spare; I'm six hundred feet short this week, and they're waiting for the film. G'by. Two o'clock, sharp!" Then he turned away and cried, "All ready for the next scene. Basement interior," and was hard at work again.