THE ASTONISHED COMPTON

Your true cloister of to-day is a moving-picture studio. The sign “No
Admittance,” or some wording of similar meaning, greets the stranger at
every door. There is, too, at each entry a dragon on guard, sometimes in
the guise of a gracious but firm young woman, sometimes, it may be, in
that of a forbidding old man; but no matter how various be the form of
these dragons, they are there to see that you don’t go in. To enter
without the Open Sesame incurs an excommunication seldom incurred, for
the reason that the dragons are always on duty.

As John Compton, holding the hand of Bobby, made to enter the sacred
precincts of the Lantry Studio at the entryway provided for the actors,
the man on guard cast a severe and forbidding look at the youth.

“You know my orders,” he grumbled, still gazing at Bobby while
addressing Compton.

“Sure I do. But this boy is an aunt of mine—er—that is, an uncle. Oh,
dash it! what am I talking about? He’s my little nephew, Bobby Compton.”

“Why don’t you get it right?” observed a bright young lady, one of the
“stars,” as she passed through the sacred gate. “Don’t you think, on
second thought, Mr. Compton, that he’s your grandfather? He looks more
like that than an aunt of yours.”

The surly keeper of the gate perceived the joke. It was on record that
he had seen through a joke on three distinct occasions during his two
years of guardianship. To-day he scored for the fourth time. Bobby as an
aunt was really funny. But as a grandfather! The keeper dropped his pipe
and lost his scowl, and holding up both hands, palms outward, roared
with laughter. He was still in the throes of his mammoth mirth when
Compton pushed through the stile—I know no better word for it—and drew
Bobby after him. The cloister was violated.

Now, Bobby had by this time wearied of holding Compton’s hand. Moreover
he had noticed a certain peculiarity in Compton’s walk which he desired
to study to better advantage. So, loosening his hold, and saying, “I’ll
follow you,” he dropped behind his newly-discovered uncle.

Mr. Compton, dressed for his part in the rehearsal, wore a nondescript
jacket and a vest of startling color. Into the armholes of this vest his
thumbs were thrust, the free fingers of his hand extended and waving in
unison at each step. Bobby had already studied this peculiarity. Now he
was to study the secret of Compton’s strides. They were, to begin with,
notably long strides. But most striking of all was the part his feet
played. The right foot at each step was turned in, the left out. In
justice to Mr. Compton, this was not his proper gait. He was practicing
for his part. Bobby, however, liked it. In fact, he liked anything
connected with John Compton, and because John Compton did it Bobby saw
nothing funny in it at all. It was easy for Bobby to insert his real
thumbs into imaginary armholes and to wiggle his fingers with each step.
It was not so easy, by reason of the shortness of his legs, for Bobby to
catch his uncle’s stride. But he thought it worth while, and he did it.
Then Bobby, with surprisingly little difficulty, got his feet to working
as though one were going in one direction and the other in another; and
so serenely moved on the procession of two, a spectacle for angels and
Miss Bernadette Vivian, the young star who had brought to life once more
the gate-keeper’s sense of humor.

It was Bernadette’s turn to laugh.

“Look,” she cried to a busy and jaded-looking official, who was hurrying
past her with a sheaf of papers in his hands and a lead pencil in his
mouth. “Set your eyes on that boy. That’s Compton’s aunt or
grandfather—he’s not quite clear which—and of the two, I think, with
all respect to Compton, the aunt is the better comedian.”

The official looked and grinned.

“Maybe you’re right,” he observed, removing the pencil from his mouth.
“You’re working with Compton. Keep your eye on the kid. We may need him
if he’s not engaged already.”

“Come on here, Bobby; you take my hand,” said Compton, turning sharply
and detecting his understudy in action. Another man might have been
annoyed, Compton was tickled beyond measure.

Threading their way through a maze of sets and scenery, among which busy
men—carpenters, electricians, secretaries and what not—were winding in
what appeared to be inextricable confusion, they finally arrived at a
set arranged to represent the lobby of a hotel.

To the left was a cigar counter, and beyond it an exit, or, possibly, an
entryway to some other part of the hotel. The rest, save for a bellhop’s
bench, was space. Seated or lounging about were several actors; among
them a young lady dressed as a salesgirl; a boy of about Bobby’s size,
though evidently several years older, gay in the buttons and livery of a
bellhop; a young man in society clothes; and finally a young woman who
was evidently a lady.

Hurrying from one to the other of these and speaking quickly certain
instructions, was a young man whose intense face expressed infinite
patience and strong, though jaded, energy. He was tired—had been tired
for six months—but had no time to diagnose the symptoms. This was the
stage director, Mr. Joseph Heneman.

“Halloa, John! Glad you’ve come. Everything’s set, and we’re going to
move like a house afire. Who’s that fine little boy with you?”

“I’m his aunt,” said Bobby seriously.

Heneman nearly exploded on the spot.

“You young screech-owl!” said Compton, turning a severe face, though his
eyes twinkled, upon Bobby. “Who taught you how to lie?”

“You said I was your aunt,” countered Bobby.

“Your uncle—nephew, I mean. This young monkey,” he went on, addressing
the manager, the vision of Bobby’s latest mimicry still vivid in his
memory, “is my nephew, Bobby Compton.”

“Why, I didn’t know you had a nephew,” said Heneman, still laughing. As
he spoke he shook hands with the interesting youth.

“Neither did I till a while ago,” chuckled Compton. “Fact is I adopted
him and christened him on the way in. It’s a long story, but he’s in my
charge now. He’ll sit still and watch us working. Won’t you, Bobby?”

“I’ll watch you working all right,” said Compton’s new relation. Bobby
had no intention of sitting still.

“Halloa, aunty!” said Bernadette, suddenly appearing on the scene, and
smiling at Bobby, showing in the act a perfect and shining set of teeth.

“How do you do?” returned Bobby, bowing gravely. “You’ve got it wrong,
though. He’s my uncle. He says so himself, and he ought to know.”

Before the rehearsal began every one there heard the story from the fair
lady’s cupid-painted lips of the circumstances connected with Bobby’s
admission into the Lantry cloister. The story filled with joy all the
listeners save one. The bellhop did not even smile. The fact is, the
bellhop, yielding to a long-fought temptation, had obtained a quid of
tobacco from a stage carpenter, had indulged in his first and probably
his last chew, and was just now filled with feelings of wild regret and
a desire to lie down in some obscure spot and die.

As a result of Bernadette’s story every one, excepting of course the
unhappy bellhop, was in a state of almost hilarious good humor when the
rehearsal was called; in such humor that even when the star halted
everything for several minutes by insisting that one of her shoes was
improperly laced—though to the naked eye there was nothing out of
order—and having her attendant do it all over again, no one grumbled.

Mr. Heneman had counted on going on with the rehearsal “like a house
afire.” He had reckoned without his host, and the host was the bellhop.

Before going further it may be well to observe that a picture in the
making is far from resembling a picture in the viewing. The former is a
very slow process. It may require a whole day to produce what one sees
on the screen in three or four seconds. Before the camera men “shoot”
there may be a dozen or more rehearsals; and the shooting may be
repeated seven or eight times.

“Ready!” cried Mr. Heneman. “Positions!”

At the word the salesgirl got behind the cigar counter and, to make
everybody understand that she was only a salesgirl, proceeded to chew
gum violently. In real life saleswomen sometimes do chew gum; but it is
rare to discover one who makes it an almost violent physical exercise.
Standing to the right of the saleslady—in the lobby—the young man in
the dresscoat, facing the young lady with not enough clothes on her back
to make a bookmark, began offering such original remarks as the state of
the weather generally evokes. Back of them all, in an alcove near the
exit, sat the bellhop, gloom and desolation upon his face.

“Here, you! Don’t stand so the lady can’t be seen. Let the lady turn a
little to the right. That’s it. Go on and talk, both of you, and smile
as if you were each saying awfully witty things. Bellhop, hold up your
head! You look like a drowned rat. Look tough; you’re looking dismal.”
Here the director paused, and while the camera men were placing their
machines in position, and their assistants were arranging reflectors,
and an electrician, perched on high above the shooting line, arranged a
powerful light over the head of the salesgirl, he went over to the
bellhop, showed him how to sit, how to hold his hands, cross his legs
and drop one corner of his mouth. There was some improvement.

“Now, once more!” ordered the director. “Positions! Smile, you two.
Talk, talk! Don’t overdo that chewing-gum stuff. Give a yawn, bellhop.
Good! Now come on, Compton.”

From off scene to the right enters Compton. He is befuddled with liquor,
and on his face is an expression of utmost stupidity. It is doubtful,
indeed, if any live human being could be as stupid as he looked. In his
right hand he is balancing a cane with a crook. His walk is a marvel of
indecision. He hasn’t the least idea, apparently, as to whither he is
going.

Bobby, just back of the director, is watching all this with breathless
interest. Previous to Compton’s entrance he had assumed the attitude and
pose of the “lady,” arms akimbo, head thrown back and a full smile. Upon
Compton’s appearance Bobby could at first hardly restrain the exuberance
of his delight. The highest admiration often expresses itself in
imitation. To the amazement and amusement of several actors stationed
behind him, the lad with scarcely an effort threw his features into a
close replica of Compton’s.

“He’s as good a nut as Compton,” observed an old actor to a companion.

“I’ll say so!” rejoined the other.

Compton almost jostled the young lady in his onward progress. As it was,
the crook of his cane caught upon her elbow and hung there. Without his
cane, Compton showed a dim consciousness of feeling that something was
wrong. He felt his clothes, his pockets, his face, and then looking for
the nonce dimly intelligent, turned around, removed the cane from its
improvised hook, raised his hat, dropped it, stooped to get the cane,
picked it up, reached for his hat, dropped the cane, and so on. It was
simple fun, but made worth while by the manner of the actor. Bobby by
this time had a stick and a hat, and without knowing it was giving a
capital performance for the exclusive benefit of sixteen actors and
several outsiders.

“Hey, salesgirl!” ordered Heneman, “call the bellhop, and tell him to
request with all possible politeness the gentleman in liquor to leave
the premises.”




The bellhop came at her call, received her message, and strode towards
Compton.

“Get back there and do it again!” bawled the director. “You walk as
though you were going to church or to your grandmother’s funeral. Turn
your shoulders in, drop your mouth, swing your arms. Just imagine you’re
going to lick somebody.”

The bellhop tried again, with no sign of improvement. Again and again he
failed. No moving-picture actor in that studio, it is probable, ever
received such minute directions. But they were all lost on him. However,
they were not lost on Bobby. Utterly unconscious of the attention he was
exciting, Bobby was following out to the letter every hint coming from
Heneman’s mouth.

Among the spectators was a wag. The parts he always figured in were
tragic or romantic roles, but in real life he was the most notorious
practical joker in the Lantry Studio.

“See here, Johnny,” he said, whispering into the boy’s ear. “Would you
like to do an act of kindness?”

“Sure,” said Bobby.

“I’ve been watching you for some time. You know how that bellhop should
do his part. Go and show him. It’s no use telling him how. He doesn’t
understand. But you just go and show him.”

“Will it be all right?” asked Bobby.

“An act of kindness is always right,” answered the wag, with tragic
solemnity. “Look; he’s starting now, and he’s worse than ever. Don’t
tell any one I suggested your showing him. Keep it a dead secret. Now,
go to it.”

In perfect good faith Bobby stepped forward, passed the director, saying
as he went, “Excuse me, sir,” and ignoring Compton and the “lady” and
“gentleman,” strode over to the bellhop. All this, happening though it
did in a few seconds, produced an unheard-of effect. The saleslady
stopped chewing, the lady and gentleman ceased smiling, Compton looked
surprised and intelligent, the director let his jaw drop, and the
audience, now swollen to double its size, pressed forward to the
cameras. The bellhop himself put on a human expression of inquiry. As
Bobby came face to face with the victim every one on the stage seemed to
be momentarily paralyzed.

“You poor fish,” said Bob, kindness and energy ringing in his accents,
“just let me show you. It’s so easy!”

The bellhop sank back into his seat.

“Now look,” continued Bobby. The left-hand corner of his mouth sagged,
his shoulders bent in, and with a walk and a swerve redolent of the old
Bowery, Bobby advanced towards Compton, whose eyes were protruding.

“You boob!” announced Bobby. “You are politely requested to make a noise
like a train and rattle out of here. Get me?” And as Bobby, not in the
way of kindness, laid his hand on Compton, cheers and laughter and
hand-clapping disturbed scandalously the quiet of the Lantry cloister.

Bobby, nothing disconcerted, bowed, laying his hand over his heart, and
smiled affably. But when the star, Bernadette, came running over, her
face beaming with delight, and exclaimed, “Aunty, I’m going to kiss you
for that,” he blanched and fled to Compton’s arms.

There was a pause and a deliberation. Compton and the manager conferred
together for five minutes. The result of their talk was that Bobby was
hired on the spot and the victim of tobacco given a vacation till
further notice.

Thus did Bobby Vernon “break into the movies.”

“Well,” observed John Compton as, holding Bobby’s hand, he sauntered
along that Bagdad of a street, Hollywood Boulevard, “you’ve scored the
first time at the bat, Bobby. You’re under a contract at thirty-five
dollars a week, and a bonus of two hundred dollars if you make good.”

“I like to make money,” cried Bobby.

“Oh, you do? Have you made much?”

“No. I never made a cent in my life; but I like to, just the same.”

“Are you fond of money?”

Bobby did not make an immediate reply. He was trying, not
unsuccessfully, to “take off” the mincing gait of a young lady in front
of him, who, considering the tightness of her skirt and the height of
her truncated cone heels, was doing very well.

“No. I don’t care for money; but mother needs it. Say, this is a nice
place. I like flowers, lots of them, and nice white houses and palm
trees and bright sunshine.”

“All these things,” observed John Compton “are our long suit in
Hollywood. If there ever was a paradise on earth, it must have been
here.”

“Is that all you know?” inquired the lad, his lip curling in scorn.
“Why, of course there was a paradise! Didn’t you ever study catechism?”

“Well—er, no.”

“That’s all right,” said Bobby, relaxing from scorn to benevolence,
“I’ll teach you myself.”

“Upon my word!” ejaculated Compton, and fell into meditation, from which
he was presently aroused by the strange behavior of the people on the
street. Were they staring and laughing at him? Turning, he discovered
Bobby, a little to the rear of him, doing the Bowery walk and wearing a
face becoming a hardened pickpocket.

“See here, you young imp! You’re giving our show away.”

“Oh, I never thought of that!” cried Bobby, putting on the air of a
Sunday-school superintendent. “I just can’t help it,” he went on. “I
just love to act.”

“Why, have you ever acted before?”

“No; but I just love to.”

“Did you ever see a church more charmingly situated?” asked the
comedian.

They were passing the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, a church hardly
to be seen from the sidewalk. It stood well back from the street, hidden
by large palms, pepper trees, and a profusion of flowers and foliage.

“Is that a Catholic church?” the boy inquired.

“It certainly is.”

“Let’s go in and pay a visit,” suggested the lad.

“I don’t go to church,” returned Compton.

Once more Bobby’s lip curled.

“You must be crazy,” he said. “Now, you come on in.”

Bobby, it was clear, was in no mood for argument. Catching Compton by
the hand, he led that astonished young man along the lovely path towards
the church.

“What’s that sign about up there?” asked Bobby.

“It says,” answered Compton, “that it was here or in the immediate
vicinity that Father Junipero Serra said the Mass of the Holy Cross.”

“I’ve heard of him and read a book about him,” said Bobby. “He must have
been a great man.”

“Yes?” interrogated the skeptic. “I’ve heard it said that the Mass of
the Holy Cross is the same as the Mass of the Holy Wood; and that’s the
reason we call this section Hollywood.”

“I like that name now more than ever, uncle.”

On entering the vestibule Bobby hunted for and quickly found the
holy-water font. Dipping his finger in, he devoutly made the sign of the
cross, while Mr. Compton gazed at him as though he were seeing for the
first time an unusually occult rite.

Bobby motioned him; then pointed to the font. Compton came forward
obediently enough, but he would not or could not understand what the
child further expected.

“Here!” whispered Bobby, with unsmiling face. And catching Mr. Compton’s
reluctant right hand, he dipped its index finger in the font.

“Now say what I say,” he adjured.

Standing on tiptoe, Bobby placed the captive finger on Compton’s
forehead, brought it down to the breast, then to the left and the right
shoulder, while Compton, his face red as a Los Angeles geranium,
repeated after his young mentor, “In the name of the Father, and of the
Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

“You’ll do it better next time,” remarked Bobby consolingly.

“Now come on!” And Bobby, pushing the comedian in front of him,
proceeded fully half way up the center aisle.

“Now you genuflect,” he whispered.

“Eh?” said Compton, looking like the “nut” he played.

“Sh-h-h!” warned Bobby. “Look.”

And Bobby bent his right knee, holding himself quite erect, till it
touched the floor. “Now do that.”

Compton made the effort; and Compton, who could turn handsprings and
bend the crab and stop a grounder and catch a fly with a grace that had
won the hearts of the fair sex in many a city, bent his knee with the
effect of one suffering from locomotor ataxia.

Once more Bobby’s lip curled. He was minded to make Mr. Compton do it
again, but on second thought changed his mind.

“Get in that pew,” he whispered, in manifest disgust.

There was nothing for Compton to do but obey. Bobby followed after him
and, a second time signing himself with the sign of the cross, knelt
down. Compton, looking, as he felt, inexpressibly stupid, seated
himself.

Bobby stared at him severely, arose, and catching his friend by the arm
coaxed him to his knees.

Once more Bobby made an elaborate sign of the cross, during the
performance of which the comedian, leaning back, braced himself
comfortably against the end of the seat. It came home to Bobby by this
time that he was “instructing the ignorant.” He must do it in all
kindness. After all, it might not be Compton’s fault. So, smiling
sweetly but with the severe restraint proper to a church where the Lord
of all was present in the tabernacle, he reached forward a tiny hand,
applied it to the small of Compton’s back, and pressed forward till
Compton was kneeling erect.

“That’s the proper way to kneel,” he whispered kindly. “Now just keep
that way, and say your prayers.”

There was a sound so like a giggle that it really could not have been
anything else proceeding from the back of the church, and three young
ladies, their handkerchiefs at their mouths, incontinently left the
church. Several other worshipers left, clearly for the same reason. Only
one worshiper remained, a man whose romances had thrilled hundreds of
thousands of readers. Restraining his features, he tiptoed up the aisle,
and knelt at an angle where he could see Bobby’s face.

In no wise realizing that he had emptied the church, Bobby for the third
time crossed himself and, undisturbed by Compton, began to pray. It had
been for Compton a day of many surprises. But now it was a moment of
astonishment. Glancing sidewise, he took in Bobby’s face. Just a few
minutes before, he had reprehended Bobby for wearing the air of a
criminal; and now—-he was looking upon the face of an angel! And there
was a difference, too, of another kind, as Compton at once realized.
Looking like a criminal, Bobby was acting; looking like an angel Bobby
was himself, his natural self touched by faith into something strange
and rare. The boy’s eyes, large, earnest, beseeching, were fastened upon
the tabernacle; his lips were moving in a silent eloquence. His head,
erect, was motionless. So, for that matter, was his whole person—all
save those eloquent lips. At that moment, as Compton felt, there existed
for Bobby only two persons, God and himself. For the first time in his
life Compton was seized with a sense of the supernatural. He bowed his
head upon his hands and looked no more. It was the most sacred moment of
his life. If Compton did not pray orally, he did something better. He
meditated.

The eminent author saw the vision, too. He had stayed for curiosity’s
sake; he remained to pray. Like Compton, the vision of lovely faith—and
what is there out of heaven so lovely as the faith of a child?—quite
overcame him. He gazed no more, but, lowering his eyes, prayed with a
new devotion.

“I saw a little boy praying in church,” he said to his wife an hour
later, “and I understood as I never understood before that saying of our
Lord’s, ‘Unless you become as little children you shall not enter the
kingdom of heaven.’”

Several minutes passed. A light touch brought Compton out of a virgin
land of thought. Bobby, tranquil and with a subdued cheerfulness, was
motioning him out.

“Watch!” whispered Bobby, and genuflected. “Now try it again. Fine!”

At the vestibule five minutes were spent, by which time Compton really
knew how to make the sign of the cross.

“Bobby,” he said, as they got outside, “that’s my first visit to a
Catholic church, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”