by Jeffrey Ford
[Continued from Part 2]
The Lancaster house was a creaky old retro affair from the part of Earth's history when they used wood to build dwellings. I'd seen pictures of these things before. The style, as I had read in one of my many film books, was Victorian. These baroque shelters with lacelike woodwork and myriad rooms were always popping up in the flicks from the thirties and forties. Pointed rocket-ship-looking turrets on either side of a big three-story box with a railed platform that went all the way around it. As I made my way toward the steps that led to a door, I quickly, out of desperation, mind-wrote the script for the next scene.
I knocked once, twice, three times, and waited, hoping the lady of the house was home. There was no way I would ever make it to Exo-town on my own. Eventually the door pulled back and a young woman appeared behind an inner screen door.
"Can I help you?" she asked, almost in a whisper.
"I'm lost," I said. "I wandered away from town, hoping to see the luminous veldt, and although I've found it, I don't think I can return. Something has been chasing me through the tall grass. I'm scared and tired." Having said this, I had a feeling my words had come out too stiffly to be believed.
She opened the screen door and looked at me. "Joseph Cotten?" she said.
I nodded and looked as forlornly as possible.
"You poor man," she said, and motioned for me to enter.
As I crossed the threshold, it became clear to me that old Joe was on the job. If it had been only me, she most likely would have locked the door and called the Beetle Squad, but since it was Cotten, the consummate professional of ingratiating Third Man haplessness, she immediately felt my pain.
Inside the bowels of the old Victorian, standing on an elaborately designed rug, amidst the spiraled wooden furniture, in the face of an ancient stand-up clock, I took in the beauty of Gloriette Moss. Stootladdle knew his film, because here was obvious star quality in the supernova range—an exotic hybrid of the young Audrey Hepburn and the older Hayley Mills. She was this and more than this, with a mid-length blonde wave, a face so fresh and innocent, a smile that was straight grace until the corners curled into mischief. She wore a simple, cobalt-blue dress and no shoes. She was Jean Seberg with hair, Grace Kelly minus the affectation.
"I rarely have visitors now that my husband has passed away," she said, her hands clasped behind her back.
"Sorry to trouble you," I said. "I don't know what I was thinking, coming out here into the wilderness on my own."
"It's no trouble, really," she said. "I rather enjoy the idea of company."
"Well, just let me get my bearings and I'll be off," I said, and though I spoke this plainly, I could feel Cotten creating a look of half-hidden dejection.
"Nonsense," she said. "You've come all this way to see the veldt. You can't go back to town by yourself, you're lucky you made it here alive. There are things in the grass, you know. Things that would just as soon eat you."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I had come all the way from Earth to scout locations for a film about the bug planet. I'm thinking of reviving the art of cinema back on the home world, and I thought what better place to make a movie than the only place in the universe where movies are still appreciated for their art and not how much freasence they will bring."
"That's wonderful," she said, her face brightening more than ever. "Stay here with me for a while and I will show you the veldt. This house has so many empty rooms."
"Are you sure I won't be putting you out?" I asked.
"Please," she said. "I'll have my man show you upstairs and get you situated."
I began to speak, but she said, "I'll hear nothing to the contrary," and that ancient, elegant phrase, issuing from that smooth face made me weak.
"Vespatian," she called out, and a moment later a pale green grasshopper as tall as me, dressed in a black short-coat and trousers, appeared at the entrance to a hallway leading left.
"We have a visitor," she said. "Mr. Cotten will be staying for a time. See him to the large room on the third floor, the one with the view of the veldt."
"As you wish, madame," said the bug with the obsequious air of a David Niven. "This way, sir."