Read THE ESTRAY : CHAPTER II of The Branding Iron , free online book, by Katharine Newlin Burt, on ReadCentral.com.

MORENA’S WIFE

Betty Morena was sitting in a rustic chair before an open fire, smoking a cigarette. She was a short woman, so slenderly, even narrowly built, as to appear overgrown, and she was a mature woman so immaturely shaped and featured as to appear hardly more than a child. Her curly, russet hair was parted at the side, her wide, long-lashed eyes were set far apart, her nose was really a finely modeled snub, more, a boy’s nose even to a light sprinkling of freckles, and her mouth was provokingly the soft, red mouth of a sorrowful child. She lounged far down in her chair, her slight legs, clad in riding-breeches of perfect cut, stretched out straight, her limber arms along the arms of the chair, her chin sunk on her flat chest, and her big, clear eyes staring into the fire. It was an odd figure of a wife for Jasper Morena, a Jew of thirty-eight, producer and manager of plays.

When Betty Kane had run away with him, there had been lamentation and rage in the houses of Kane and of Morena. To the pride of an old Hebrew family, the marriage even of this wandering son with a Gentile was fully as degrading as to the pride of the old Tory family was the marriage with a Jew. Her perverse Gaelic blood on fire with the insults heaped upon her lover, Betty, seventeen years old, romantic, clever, would have walked over flint to give her hand to him. That was ten years ago. Now, when Jasper came into her room, she drew her quick brows together, puffed at her cigarette, and blinked as though she was looking at something distasteful and at the same time rather alarming.

“Have they stopped dancing, Jasper?” she asked in a voice that was at once brusque and soft.

Jasper rubbed his hands delightedly. He was still merry, and came to stand near the fire, looking down at her with eyes entirely kind and admiring.

“Have you ever noticed Jane, who cooks for the outfit, Betty?”

“Yes. She’s horrible.”

“She’s extraordinary, and I mean to get hold of her for Luck’s play. Did you read it?”

“Yes.”

“The play is absolutely dependent on the leading part and I have found it simply impossible to fill. Now, here’s a woman of extraordinary grace and beauty

Betty lifted skeptical eyebrows, twisted her limber mouth, but forbore to contradict.

“And with a magical voice a woman who not only looks the part, but is it. You remember Luck’s heroine?”

Betty flicked off the ash of her cigarette and looked away. “A savage, isn’t she? The man has her tamed, takes her back to London, and there gives her cause for jealousy and she springs on him yes, I remember. This woman, Jane, is absolutely without education and hasn’t a notion of acting, I suppose.”

Jasper rubbed his hands with increased delight. “Not a notion and she murders the King’s English. But she is Luck’s savage and in spite of your eyebrows, Betty she is beautiful. I can school her. It will take money, no end of patience, but I can do it. It’s one of the things I can do. But, of course, there’s the initial difficulty of persuading her to try it.”

“That oughtn’t to be any difficulty at all. Of course she’ll jump at the chance.”

“I’m not so sure. She was ready to throw me out of the kitchen to-night. She is really a virago. Do you know what one of the men said about her?” Jasper laughed and imitated the gentle Western drawl. “Jane’s plumb movin’ to me. She’s about halfway between ’You go to hell’ and ‘You take me in your arms to rest.’”

Betty smiled. Her smile was vastly more mature than her appearance. It was clever and cynical and cold. The Oriental, looking down at her, lost his merriment.

“Do you feel better, dear?” he asked timidly. “Do you think you will be able to go back next week?”

She stood up as he came nearer and walked over to the little table that played the part of dressing-table under a wavy mirror. “Oh, yes. I am quite well. I don’t think the doctors have much sense. I’m sure I hadn’t anything like a nervous breakdown. I was just tired out.”

Jasper drew back the hand whose touch she had eluded, and nervously, his long supple fingers a little unsteady, lighted a cigarette. At that moment he did not look like a spider, but like a lover who has been hurt. Betty could see in the mirror a distorted image of his dejected gracefulness, but, entirely unmoved, she put up her thin, brown hands and began to take the pins out of her hair.

“I like your Jane experiment,” she said. “Let me know how you get on with it and whether I can help. I shall have to turn in now. I’m dead beat. Yarnall took me halfway up the mountain and back. Good-night.”

Jasper looked at her, then pressed his lips into a straight line and went to the door which led from her bedroom to his. He said “Good-night” in a low tone, glanced at her over his shoulder, and went out.

Betty waited an instant, then slowly unlaced her heavy, knee-high boots, took them off, and began to walk to and fro on stocking feet, hands clasped behind her back. With her curly hair all about her face and shoulders, she looked like a wild, extravagantly naughty school-girl, a girl in a wicked temper, a rebel against authority. In fact, she was rejoicing that this horrible enforced visit to the West was all but over. One week more! She was almost at an end of her endurance. How she hated the beautiful white night outside, those mountain peaks, the sound of that rapid river, the stillness of sagebrush, the voice of the big pines! And she hated the log room, its simplicity now all littered with incongruous luxuries; ivory toilet articles on the board table; lacy, beribboned underwear thrown over the rustic chair; silver-framed photographs; an exquisite, gold-mounted crystal vase full of wild flowers on the pine shelf; satin bedroom slippers on the clay hearth; a gorgeous, fur-trimmed dressing-gown over the foot of her narrow, iron cot; all the ridiculous necessities that Betty’s maid had put into her trunk. Yes, Betty hated it all because it was what she had always thirsted for. What a malevolent trick of fate that Jasper should have brought her to Wyoming, that the doctor had insisted upon at least a month of just this life. “Take her West,” he had said, and Betty, lying limp and white in her bed, her small head sunk into the pillow, had jerked from head to foot. “Take her West. I know a ranch in Wyoming Yarnall’s. She’ll get outdoor exercise, tonic air, sound sleep, release from all these pestiferous details, like a cloud of flies, that sting women’s nerves to death. Don’t pay any attention to whether she likes it or not. Let her behave like a naughty child, let her kick and scream and cry. Pick her up, Morena, and carry her off. Do you hear? Don’t let her make you change your plans.” The doctor had seen his patient’s convulsive jerk. “Pack her up. Make your reservations and go straight to ‘Buck’ Yarnall’s ranch, Lazy-Y, that’s his brand, I believe, Middle Fork, Wyoming. I’ll send him a wire. He knows me. She needs all outdoors to run about in. She needs joggin’ around all day through the sagebrush on a cow-pony in that sun; she needs the smell of a camp-fire Gad! wish I could get back to it myself.”

Betty, having heard this out, began to laugh. She laughed till they gave her something to keep her quiet. But, except for that laughter, she had made no protest whatever; she did not “kick and scream and cry.” In fact, though she looked like a child, she was not at all inclined to such exhibitions. This doctor had not seen her through her recent ordeal. Two years before her breakdown, Jasper had been terribly hurt in an automobile accident, and Betty had come to him at the hospital, had waited, as white as a snow-image, for the result of the examination. They had told her emphatically that there was no hope. Jasper Morena could not live for more than a few days. She must not allow herself to hope. He might or might not regain consciousness. If he did, it would be for a few minutes before the end. Betty had listened with her white, rigid, child face, had thanked them, had gone home. There in her exquisite, little sitting room above Central Park, she had sat at her desk and written a few lines on square, gray note paper.

“Jasper is dying,” she had written. “By the time you get this, he will be dead. If you can forgive me for having failed in courage last year, come back. What I have been to you before I will be again, only, this time we can love openly. Come back.”

Then she had dropped her head on the desk and cried. Afterwards she had addressed her letter to a certain Prosper Gael. The letter went to Wyoming. When it reached its destination, it was taken over a mountain-range by a patient Chinaman.

Three days later Jasper regained consciousness and began slowly to return to health. He had the tenacious vitality of his race, and, in his own spirit, an iron will to live. He kept Betty beside his bed for hours, and held her cold hand in his long, sensitive one, and he stared at her under his lashes till she thought she must go mad. But she did not. She nursed him through an interminable convalescence. She received Prosper, very early in this convalescence, by her husband’s bed, and Jasper had murmured gratitude for the emotion that threatened to overwhelm his friend. It was not till some time an extraordinarily long time after Morena’s complete recovery that she had snapped like a broken icicle. And then, forsooth, they had sent her to Wyoming to get back her health!

Having paced away some of her restlessness, Betty stopped by the cabin window and pushed aside one of the short, calico curtains. She looked out on the court. A tall woman had just pulled up a bucket of water from the well and had emptied it into a pitcher. She finished, let the bucket drop with a whirr and a clash, and raised her head. For a second she and Jasper Morena’s wife looked at each other. Betty nodded, smiled, and drew the curtain close.