THE BUNGALOW at 1421 Vista del Paso was of the new school of Hollywood architecture, which appears to be an hysterical effort to combine Queen Anne, Italian, Swiss chalet, Moorish, Mission, and Martian. You are ushered directly into a living room, whereupon you forget all about architects and art, for the room is really beautiful, even though a trifle heavy in an Oriental way, with its Chinese rugs, dark hangings, and ponderous, overstuffed furniture. Across from you, on a divan, a woman is lying, her face buried among pillows. When you cough, she raises her face toward you, and you see that it is very beautiful, even though the eyes are a bit wide and staring and the expression somewhat haggard. You see a mass of black hair surrounding a face of perfect contour. Even the plucked and pencilled brows, the rouged cheeks, and carmined lips cannot hide a certain dignity and sweetness.
“The same as usual?” she asks in a weary voice.
Your throat is very dry. You swallow before you assure her eagerly, almost feverishly, that her surmise is correct. She leaves the room. Probably you have not noticed that she is wild-eyed and haggard or that her fingers are stained and trembling, for you, too, are wild-eyed and haggard, and you are trembling worse than she.
Presently she returns. In her left hand is a small glass phial, containing many little tablets. As she crosses to you, she extends her right hand with the palm up. It is a slender, delicate hand, yet there is a look of strength to it, for all its whiteness. You lay a bill in it, and she hands you the phial. That is all. You leave, and she closes the Oregon pine door quietly behind you.
As she turns about toward the divan again, she hesitates. Her eyes wander to a closed door at one side of the room. She takes a half step toward it, and then draws back, her shoulders against the door. Her fingers are clenched tightly, the nails sinking into the soft flesh of her palms; but still her eyes are upon the closed door. They are staring and wild, like those of a beast at bay. She is trembling from head to foot.
For a minute she stands there, fighting her grim battle, alone and without help. Then, as with a last mighty efforts, she drags her eyes from the closed door and glances toward the divan. With unsteady step she returns to it and throws herself down among the pillows.
Suddenly she leaps to her feet and rushes toward the mantel.
“Damn you!” she screams, and, seizing the clock, dashes it to pieces upon the tiled hearth.
Then her eyes leap to the closed door; and now, without any hesitation, almost defiantly, she crosses the room, opens the door, and disappears within the bathroom beyond.
Five minutes later the door opens again, and the woman comes back into the living room. She is humming a gay little tune. Stopping at a table, she takes a cigarette from a carved wooden box and lights it. Then she crosses to the baby grand piano in one corner and commences to play. Her voice, rich and melodious, rises in a sweet old song of love and youth and happiness.
Something has mended her shattered nerves. Upon the hearth lies the shattered clock. It can never be mended.
Her name—her professional name—is Gaza de Lure. You may have seen her in small parts on the screen, and may have wondered why some one did not star her. Two years ago she came to Hollywood from a little town in the Middle West—that is, two years before you looked in upon her at the bungalow on the Vista del Paso. She was fired by high purpose then. Her child’s heart, burning with lofty ambition, had set its desire upon a noble goal. The broken bodies of a thousand other children dotted the road to the same goal, but she did not see them, or seeing, did not understand.
Stronger, perhaps, than her desire for fame was an unselfish ambition that centred about the mother whom she had left behind. To that mother the girl’s success would mean greater comfort and happiness than she had known since a worthless husband had deserted her shortly after the baby came—the baby who was now known as Gaza de Lure.
There had been the usual rounds of the studios, the usual disappointments, followed by more or less regular work as an extra girl. During this period she had learned many things—of some of which she had never thought as having any possible bearing upon her chances for success.
For example, a director had asked her to go with him to Vernon one evening, for dinner and dancing, and she had refused, for several reasons—one being her certainty that her mother would disapprove, and another the fact that the director was a married man. The following day the girl who had accompanied him was cast for a part which had been promised to Gaza, and for which Gaza was peculiarly suited.
In the months that followed she had had many similar experiences, until she had become hardened enough to feel the sense of shame and insult less strongly than at first. She could talk back to them now, and tell them what she thought of them; but she found that she got fewer and fewer engagements. There was always enough to feed and clothe her, and to pay for the little room she rented; but there seemed to be no future, and that had been all that she cared about.
And then she had met Wilson Crumb. She had had a small part in a picture in which he played lead, and which he also directed. He had been very kind to her, very courteous. She had thought him handsome, notwithstanding a certain weakness in his face; but what had attracted her most was the uniform courtesy of his attitude toward all the women of the company. Here at last she thought, she had found a real gentleman whom she could trust implicitly; and once again her ambition lifted its drooping head.
The first picture finished, Crumb had cast her for a more important part in another, and she had made good in both. Before the second picture was completed, the company that employed Crumb offered her a five-year contract. It was only for fifty dollars a week; but it included a clause which automatically increased the salary to one hundred a week, two hundred and fifty, and then five hundred dollars in the event that they starred her. She knew that it was to Crumb that she owed the contract—Crumb had seen to that.
Very gradually, then—so gradually and insidiously that the girl could never recall just when it had started—Crumb commenced to make love to her. At first it took only the form of minor attentions—little courtesies and thoughtful acts; but after a while he spoke of love—very gently and very tenderly, as any man might have done.
She had never thought of loving him or any other man; so she was puzzled at first, but she was not offended. He had given her no cause for offence. When he had first broached the subject, she had asked him not to speak of it, as she did not think that she loved him, and he had said he would wait; but the seed was planted in her mind, and it came to occupy much of her thoughts.
She realized that she owed to him what little success she had achieved. She had an assured income that was sufficient for her simple wants, while permitting her to send something home to her mother every week, and it was all due to the kindness of Wilson Crumb. He was a successful director, he was more than a fair actor, he was good-looking, he was kind, he was a gentleman, and he loved her. What more could any girl ask?
She thought the matter out very carefully, finally deciding that though she did not exactly love Wilson Crumb she probably would learn to love him, and that if he loved her it was in a way her duty to make him happy, when he had done so much for her happiness. She made up her mind, therefore, to marry him whenever he asked her, but Crumb did not ask her to marry him. He continued to make love to her; but the matter of marriage never seemed to enter the conversation.
Once, when they were out on location, and had had a hard day, ending by getting thoroughly soaked in a sudden rain, he had followed her to her room in the little mountain inn where they were stopping.
“You’re cold and wet and tired,” he said. “I want to give you something that will brace you up.”
He entered the room and closed the door behind him. Then he took from his pocket a small piece of paper folded into a package about an inch and three—quarters long by half an inch wide, with one end tucked ingeniously inside the fold to form a fastening. Opening it, he revealed a white powder, the minute crystals of which glistened beneath the light from the electric bulbs.
“It looks just like snow,” she said.
“Sure!” he replied, with a faint smile. “It is snow. Look, I’ll show you how to take it.”
He divided the powder into halves, took one in the palm of his hand, and snuffed it into his nostrils.
“There!” he exclaimed. “That’s the way—it will make you feel like a new woman.”
“But what is—it?” she asked. “Won’t it hurt me?”
“It’ll make you feel bully. Try it.”
So she tried it, and it made her “feel bully”. She was no longer tired, but deliciously exhilarated.
“Whenever you want any, let me know,” he said, as he was leaving the room. “I usually have some handy.”
“But I’d like to know what it is,” she insisted.
“Aspirin,” he replied. “It makes you feel that way when you snuff it up your nose.”
After he left, she recovered the little piece of paper from the waste basket where he had thrown it, her curiosity aroused. She found it a rather soiled bit of writing paper with a “C” written in lead pencil upon it.
“‘C’” she mused. “Why aspirin with a C?”
She thought she would question Wilson about it.
The next day she felt out of sorts and tired, and at noon she asked him if he had any aspirin with him. He had, and again she felt fine and full of life. That evening she wanted some more, and Crumb gave it to her. The next day she wanted it oftener, and by the time they returned to Hollywood from location she was taking it five or six times a day. It was then that Crumb asked her to come and live with him at the Vista del Paso bungalow; but he did not mention marriage.
He was standing with a little paper of the white powder in his hand, separating half of it for her, and she was waiting impatiently for it.
“Well?” he asked.
“Are you coming over to live with me?” he demanded.
“Without being married!” she asked.
She was surprised that the idea no longer seemed horrible. Her eyes and her mind were on the little white powder that the man held in his hand.
Crumb laughed. “Quit your kidding,” he said. “You know perfectly well that I can’t marry you yet. I have a wife in San Francisco.”
She did not know it perfectly well—she did not know it at all; yet it did not seem to matter so very much. A month ago she would have caressed a rattlesnake as willingly as she would have permitted a married man to make love to her; but now she could listen to a plea from one who wished her to come and live with him, without experiencing any numbing sense of outraged decency.
Of course, she had no intention of doing what he asked; but really the matter was of negligible import—the thing in which she was most concerned was the little white powder. She held out her hand for it, but he drew it away.
“Answer me first,” he said. “Are you going to be sensible or not?”
“You mean that you won’t give it to me if I won’t come?” she asked.
“That’s precisely what I mean,” he replied. “What do you think I am, anyway? Do you know what this bundle of ‘C’ stands me? Two fifty, and you’ve been snuffing about three of ’em a day. What kind of a sucker do you think I am?”
Her eyes, still upon the white powder, narrowed.
“I’ll come,” she whispered. “Give it to me!”
She went to the bungalow with him that day, and she learned where he kept the little white powders, hidden in the bathroom. After dinner she put on her hat and her fur, and took up her vanity case, while Crumb was busy in another room. Then, opening the front door, she called:
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
“Home,” she replied.
“No, you’re not!” he cried. “You promised to stay here.”
“I promised to come,” she corrected him. “I never promised to stay, and I never shall until you are divorced and we are married.”
“You’ll come back,” he sneered. “when you want another shot of snow!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I can buy aspirin at any drug store as well as you.”
Crumb laughed aloud.
“You little fool, you!” he cried derisively. “Aspirin! Why, it’s cocaine you’re snuffing, and you’re snuffing about three grains of it a day!”
For an instant a look of horror filled her widened eyes.
“You beast!” she cried. “You unspeakable beast!”
Slamming the door behind her, she almost ran down the narrow walk and disappeared in the shadows of the palm trees that bordered the ill lighted street.
The man did not follow her. He only stood there laughing, for he knew that she would come back. Craftily he had enmeshed her. It had taken months, and never had quarry been more wary or difficult to trap. A single false step earlier in the game would have frightened her away forever; but he had made no false step. He was very proud of himself, was Wilson Crumb, for he was convinced that he had done a very clever bit of work.
Rubbing his hands together, he walked toward the bathroom—he would take a shot of snow; but when he opened the receptacle, he found it empty.
“The little devil!” he ejaculated.
Frantically he rummaged through the medicine cabinet, but in vain. Then he hastened into the living room, seized his hat, and bolted for the street.
Almost immediately he realized the futility of search. He did not know where the girl lived. She had never told him. He did not know it, but she had never told any one. The studio had a post office box number to which it could address communications to Gaza de Lure; the mother addressed the girl by her own name at the house where she had roomed since coming to Hollywood. The woman who rented her the room did not know her screen name. All she knew about her was that she seemed a quiet, refined girl who paid her room rent promptly in advance every week, and who was always home at night, except when on location.
Crumb returned to the bungalow, searched the bathroom twice more, and went to bed. For hours he lay awake, tossing restlessly.
“The little devil!” he muttered, over and over. “Fifty dollars’ worth of cocaine—the little devil!”
The next day Gaza was at the studio, ready for work, when Crumb put in a belated appearance. He was nervous and irritable. Almost immediately he called her aside and demanded an accounting; but when they were face to face, and she told him that she was through with him, he realized that her hold upon him was stronger than he has supposed. He could not give her up. He was ready to promise anything, and he would demand nothing in return, only that she would be with him as much as possible. Her nights should be her own—she could go home then. And so the arrangement was consummated, and Gaza de Lure spent the days when she was not working at the bungalow on the Vista del Paso.
Crumb saw that she was cast for small parts that required but little of her time at the studio, yet raised no question at the office as to her salary of fifty dollars a week. Twice the girl asked why he did not star her, and both times he told her that he would—for a price; but the price was one that she would not pay.
As the months passed, Crumb’s relations with the source of the supply of their narcotic became so familiar that he could obtain considerable quantities at a reduced rate, and the plan of peddling the drug occurred to him. Gaza was induced to do her share, and so it came about that the better class “hypes” of Hollywood found it both safe and easy to obtain their supplies from the bungalow on the Vista del Paso. Cocaine, heroin, and morphine passed continually through the girl’s hands, and she came to know many of the addicts, though she seldom had further intercourse with them than was necessary to the transaction of the business that brought them to the bungalow.
One evening Crumb brought home with him a stranger whom he had known in San Francisco—a man whom he introduced as Allen. From that evening the fortunes of Gaza de Lure improved. Allen had just returned from the Orient as a member of the crew of a freighter, and he had succeeded in smuggling in a considerable quantity of opium. In his efforts to dispose of it he had made the acquaintance of others in the same line of business, and had joined forces with them. His partners could command a more or less steady supply of morphine, and cocaine from Mexico, while Allen undertook to keep up their stock of opium, and to arrange a market for their drugs in Los Angeles.
If Crumb could handle it all, Allen agreed to furnish morphine at fifty dollars an ounce—Gaza to do the actual peddling. The girl agreed on one condition—that half the profits should be hers. After that she had been able to send home more money than ever before, and at the same time to have all the morphine she wanted at a low price. She began to put money in the bank, made a first payment on a small orchard about a hundred miles from Los Angeles, and sent for her mother.
The day before you called on her in the “art” bungalow at 1421 Vista del Paso she had put her mother on a train bound for her new home, with the promise that the daughter would visit her “as soon as we finish this picture.” It had required all the girl’s remaining will power to hide her shame from those eager mother eyes; but she had managed to do it, though it had left her almost a wreck by the time the train pulled out of the station.
To Crumb she had said nothing about her mother. This was a part of her life that was too sacred to be revealed to the man whom she now loathed even as she loathed the filthy habit he had tricked her into; but she could no more give up the one than the other.