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Title: The King
Author: Max Brand
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1401811h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Apr 2014
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The King

by

Max Brand
[Frederick Faust]

Cover Image

Published posthumously in the syndicated
Sunday newspaper supplement, This Week (USA), November 21, 1948



IT was a big day when Rudy Zandor consented to dine with me at Chasen's because those were the years when he was astonishing Hollywood with a series of super productions. He was another Sampson whose strength lay not in his long hair but in his perfect self-confidence.

The country he loved, the flag followed, the God he worshiped was Rudy Zandor. So I put in the whole day working on my plot and reached the restaurant rather full of hope.

Zandor was hardly an hour later, which seemed a good sign, and then he came in with a yes-man named Gregg and Jimmy Jones, whose real name is Jonascsky, Zandor raised quite a buzz with his entrance because he always dressed for public appearances. This time he wore corduroy trousers, a riding coat buttoned high around the throat, and four days' whiskers. His friends were in dinner jackets for contrast.

Rudy was almost at my table when another murmur started. All eyes left him, and in came Raymond Vincent Etherton in his black coat and white stock like an eighteenth century ghost. It was rather hard on Zandor to have his entrance messed up like that, for he was completely forgotten as the old man went by, looking straight ahead and failing to see the people who spoke to him. He went to his usual corner, waited for his coffee and cognac, and contemplated the dignity of space.

When Dave Chasen in person brought the brandy, Etherton became gently and kindly aware of him, for he was really abstracted, not merely high-hat. Thirty years before, when he consented to be King Arthur for D.W. Griffith, he must have been a glorious man.

Some of the glory hung about him as Henri Quatre in Ivry or as Richard the Lion-Hearted in The Talisman. He never was cast except as a king and he moved through his parts without the slightest acting, merely lending his presence, as it were. The whisper had it that there was a dash of real royalty in his blood but no one even in Hollywood dared to suggest the bar-sinister to Etherton.

Even Hollywood was surprised by the appearance of such a man on the screen. He was more a rare legend than a fact. That was why Chasen's buzzed so this evening.

Zandor, in eclipse, looked pretty sour.

"That man," he said, pointing at Etherton. "Who is he?"

Jimmy Jones winked at me. It was the yes-man who gave the answer. A celebrity in Hollywood can't help accumulating them as the northside of a tree gathers moss.

"That's Raymond Vincent Etherton," said Gregg.

"I want him. He has a hungry look. I want him to play Shylock," said Zandor.

"The 'Merchant of Venice' after the big western?" I asked.

"Before," said Zandor. "I'm not doing the western."

My hopes went crash; and at the same moment I heard Gregg ordering caviar.

Jimmy said: "You can't buy an Etherton, Rudy. He doesn't need money, but he acts now and then to raise the level of the screen and show the world what royalty should be."

Zandor waved his hand at Jones. "You bother me," he said. "Go away."

Jimmy Jones went away.

"Now get Etherton. Offer him seventy-five thousand," directed Zandor.

His Number Two boy went over to Etherton and I felt a little sick about Zandor and about myself for being with him.

Etherton was sipping his brandy when the yes-man leaned over his table and started talking. The old fellow showed no sign that he heard a syllable. Presently he laid a bill on the table, stood up, and walked through the Number Two boy as though the fellow were a thin mist. He passed out of Chasen's and Gregg came back to Zandor, astonished.

"Nothing could stop him—not even your name, Rudy," he said.

"Why didn't you raise the bid?" asked Zandor, furious. "I don't care what sort of blood he has in him; nobody walks out on me. Why didn't you offer him one hundred thousand?"

"But I didn't have the authority," said the yes-man.

Zandor looked him over from his chin to the sleek of his hair and turned his shoulder; it was plain that there was one parasite less in his life.

It was a rotten dinner. I tried to be bright for a while but gave it up after Zandor had snarled a few times. The great man was preoccupied. In the middle of his chicken cacciatore he jumped up and left the tableware jingling.

"Show me where this Etherton lives," he commanded.

I paid the bill and took him to Etherton's house—small, sedate, withdrawn from the vulgar world behind a formal Italian garden. The California moon, for we have a special variety out here, was laying cool silver over everything and the fountain statue left a perfect shadow on the pool.

The door of the house was open. I don't know why this shocked me so much. It was like seeing the great Etherton with his mouth agape. Zandor leaned on the bell. It made a thin chime of music far inside and we had no other answer. Zandor went in.

"You'd better not do that," I protested. "The old man won't stand intrusions."

"Look!" said Zandor. "I knew it... hungry!"

I followed him a step and saw him pointing to the living room; there was enough slanting moonshine to show that it was empty. The waxed floor shone like water, but there was not a stick of furniture. Zandor strode through the open door beyond and into the kitchen. There was a rusted gas stove. Something scurried away on a shelf and I saw a bit of nibbled cheese rind and cracker crumbs. But Zandor was moving on through a naked dining room and into a bed chamber that was furnished with box springs on the floor, a pier glass, and a big, gilded chair in front of the mirror. In the chair sat Etherton wrapped in a black cloak with his white head thrown back and his right hand at his breast, supported by something.

He looked at us with deeply veiled eyes of contempt and seemed about to make a gesture of silent dismissal. It needed another glance to see that all his gesturing had ended, for what supported his hand was the hilt of the little medieval dagger he had driven through his heart.

I looked away from him to the three big photographs which hung on the walls and showed me Etherton as the Lion-Hearted in heavy chain mail, as Henri Quatre with the famous white plume in his helmet, as King Arthur bearded like a saint.

Understanding grew in me. Those rare appearances of Etherton on the screen had not been a casual amusement but the nerve center of his whole life. His parts never had been large but they had made him a king, and with a child's pitiful sincerity he had enclosed himself within a dream. Rather than step outside it, he had starved. I could imagine with what care he dressed himself this evening, borrowed the last possible dollar from a pawnbroker and went out for the final time to see if Hollywood once more would give him a shadowy throne. Instead, it preferred to see in him the wicked moneylender, so he came home and erased himself from the page.

Zandor was triumphant.

"You see? You see?" he roared at me. "I was right. I did spot the hunger in him. He's been on a throne for thirty years but when he got the Shylock offer, he knew that I'd seen the starvation in his face. The seventy- five thousand scared him. He was tempted and he almost fell. The hundred thousand would have bought him, lock, stock and barrel. But that fool of a Gregg didn't know how to bargain."

I got out into the garden. It was a warm June night, but I was shivering. Zandor followed me. The bigness of his voice made the fountain pool tremble.

"He wanted to be a king or nothing, you see?" roared Zandor. "So he came home and ended his reign. You get it? It's big stuff. It's new. It's a picture. And it's mine."


THE END

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