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

JANE

After that night, there began a sort of persecution, skillfully conducted by Jasper and Betty, against the ferocity of Jane. It was a persecution impossible to imagine in any other setting, even the social simplicity of Lazy-Y found itself a trifle amused. For Jasper, the stately Jewish figure, would carry pails of water for Jane from the well to the kitchen, would help her in the vegetable garden, and to straighten out her recalcitrant stove-pipe; Betty would put on an apron a mile too large, to wash dishes and shell peas. She would sit on the kitchen table swinging her long, childlike legs and chatter amiably. Jasper talked, too, to the virago, talked delightfully, about horses and dogs, he had a charming gift of humorous observation, talked about hunting and big-game shooting, about trapping, about travel, and, at last, about plays. Undoubtedly Jane listened. Sometimes she laughed. Once in a while she ejaculated, musically, “Well!” Occasionally she swore.

One afternoon he met her riding home from an errand to a neighboring ranch, and, turning his horse, rode with her. In worn corduroy skirt, flannel shirt, and gray sombrero, she looked like a handsome, haggard boy, and, that afternoon, there was a certain unusual wistfulness in her eyes, and her mouth had relaxed a little from its bitterness. Perhaps it was the beauty of a clear, keen summer day; without doubt, also, she was touched by the courteous pleasure of his greeting and by his giving up his ride in order to accompany her. She even unbent from her silence and, for the first time, really talked to him. And she spoke, too, in a new manner, using her beautiful voice with beautiful carefulness. It was like a master-musician who, after a long illness, takes up his beloved instrument and tentatively tests his shaken powers. Jasper had much ado to keep his surprise to himself, for the rough ranch girl could speak pure enough English if she would.

“You and your wife are leaving soon?” she asked him, and, when he nodded, she gave a sigh. “I’ll be missing you,” she said, throwing away her brusquerie like a rag with which she was done. “You’ve been company for me. You’ve made use of lots of patience and courage, but I have really liked it. I’ve not got the ways of being sociable and I don’t know that I want ever to get them. I am not seeking for friends. There isn’t another person on the ranch that would dare talk to me as you and Mrs. Morena have talked. They don’t know anything about me here and I don’t mean that they should know.” She paused, then gave way to an impulse of confidence. “One of the boys asked me to marry him. He came and shouted it through the window and I caught him with a pan of water.” She sighed. “I don’t know rightly if he meant it for a joke or not, but the laugh wasn’t on me.”

Jasper controlled his laughter, then saw the dry humor of her eyes and lips and let out his mirth.

“Why, sir,” said Jane, “you’d be surprised at the foolishness of men. Sometimes it seems that, just for pure contrariness, they want to marry her that least wants them about. The day I came tramping into this valley, I stopped for food at the ranch of an old bachelor down yonder at the ford. And he invited me to be his wife while I was drinking a glass of water from his well. He told me how much money he had and said he’d start my stove for me winter mornings. There’s a good husband! And he was sure kind to me even when I told him ‘no.’ ’T was that same evening that the boy from Lazy-Y rode in and claimed me for a cook. Mr. Yarnall is a trusting man. He took me and didn’t ask any questions. I told him I was ‘Jane’ and that I wasn’t planning to let him know more. He hasn’t asked me another question since. He’s a gentleman, I figure it, and he’s kind of quiet himself about what he was before he came to this country. He’s a man of fifty and he has lots back of him only he’s taken a fresh start.” She sighed, “Folks like you and Betty seem awfully open-hearted. It’s living in cities, I suppose, where every one knows every one else so well.”

This astonishing picture of the candid simplicity of New York’s social life absorbed Jasper’s attention for some time.

“Wouldn’t you like to live in a city, Jane?”

She laughed her short, boyish “Hoo!” “It isn’t what I would like, Mr. Morena,” she said. “Why, I’d like to see the world. I would like to be that fellow who was condemned to wander all over the earth and never to die. He was a Jew, too, wasn’t he?”

Jasper flushed. People were not in the habit of making direct reference to his nationality, and, being an Israelite who had early cut himself off with dislike from his own people and cultivated the society of Gentiles, “a man without a country,” he was acutely sensitive.

“The Wandering Jew? Yes. Where did you ever hear of him?”

“I read his story,” she answered absently; “an awful long one, but interesting, about lots of people, by Eugene Sue.”

Jasper’s lips fell apart and he stared. She had spoken unwittingly and he could see that she was not thinking of him, that she was far away, staring beyond her horse’s head into the broad, sunset-brightened west.

“Where were you schooled?” he asked her.

He had brought her back and her face stiffened. She gave him a startled, almost angry look, dug her heels into her horse and broke into a gallop; nor could he win from her another word.

A few days before he left, he took Yarnall into his confidence. At first the rancher would do nothing but laugh. “Jane on the boards! That’s a notion!” followed by explosion after explosion of mirth. The Jew waited, patient, pliant, smiling, and then enumerated his reasons. He talked to Yarnall for an hour, at the end of which time, Yarnall, his eyes still twinkling, sent for Jane.

The two men sat in a log-walled room, known as the office. Yarnall’s big desk crowded a stove. There was no other furniture except shelves and a box seat beneath a window. Jasper sat on the end of the desk, swinging his slim, well-booted leg; Yarnall, stocky, gray, shabby, weather-beaten, leaned back in his wicker chair. The door which Jasper faced was directly behind Yarnall. When Jane opened it, he turned.

The girl looked grim and a little pale. She was evidently frightened. This summons from Yarnall suggested dismissal or reproof. She came around to face him and stood there, looking fierce and graceful, her head lowered, staring gloomily at him from under her brows. To Jasper she gave not so much as a glance.

“Well, Jane, I fancy I shall have to let you go,” said Yarnall. He was not above tormenting the wild-cat. Female ferocity always excites the teasing boy in a man. “You’re getting too ambitious for us. You see, once these rich New Yorkers take you up, you’re no more use to a plain ranchman like me.”

“What are you drivin’ at?” asked Jane.

“Do let me explain it to her, Yarnall!” Jasper snapped his elastic fingers, color had risen to his face, and he looked annoyed. “Miss Jane, won’t you sit down?”

Jane turned her deep, indignant eyes upon him. “Are you and your wife the rich New Yorkers he says are takin’ me up?”

“No, no. He’s joking. This is a serious business. It’s of vital importance to me and it ought to be of vital importance to you. Please do sit down!”

Jane took a long step back and sat down on the settle under the long, horizontal window. She folded her hands on her knee and looked up at Morena. She had transferred her attention completely to him. Yarnall watched them. He was an Englishman of much experience and this picture of the skillful, cultivated, handsome Jew angling deftly for the gaunt, young savage diverted him hugely. He screwed up his eyes to get a picture of it.

“I am a producer and manager of plays,” said Jasper, “which means that I take a play written by a more gifted man and arrange it for the stage. Have you ever seen a play?”

“No, sir.”

“But you have some idea what they are?”

“Yes. I have read them. Shakespeare wrote quite a lot of that kind of talking pieces, didn’t he?”

Jasper was less surprised than Yarnall. “At present I have a play on my hands which is a very brilliant and promising piece of work, but which I have been unable to produce for lack of a heroine. There isn’t an actress on my list that can take the part and do it justice. Now, Miss Jane, I believe that with some training you could take it to perfection. My wife and I would like to take you to New York, paying all your expenses, of course, and put you into training at once. It would take a year’s hard work to get you fitted for the part. Then next fall we could bring out the play and I think I can promise you success and fame and wealth in no small measure. I don’t know you very well; I don’t know whether or not you are ambitious; but I do know that every woman must love beauty and ease and knowledge and experience. For what else,” he smiled, “did Eve eat the apple? All these you can have if you will let us take you East. Of course, if I find you cannot take this part, I will hold myself accountable for you. I will not let you be a loser in any way by the experiment. With your beauty” Yarnall fell back in his chair and gaped from the excited speaker to the silent listener “and your extraordinary voice, and your magnetism, you must be especially fitted for a career of some kind. I promise to find you your career.”

Every drop of blood had fallen from Jane’s face and the rough hands on her knee were locked together.

“What part,” she asked in a quick, low voice, “is this that you think I could learn to do?”

Jasper changed his position. He came nearer and spoke more rapidly. “It is the story of a girl, a savage girl, whom a man takes up and trains. He trains her as a professional might train a lioness. It is a passion with him to break spirits and shape them to his will. He trains her with coaxing and lashing not actual lashing, though I believe in one place he does come near to beating her and he gets her broken so that she lies at his feet and eats out of his hand. All this, you understand, while he’s an exile from his own world. Then, in the second act, that is the second part of the play, he takes his tamed lioness back to civilization. They go to London and there the woman does his training infinite credit. She is extraordinarily beautiful; she is civilized, successful, courted. Her eccentricities only add to her charm. So it goes on very prettily for a while. Then he makes a mistake. He blunders very badly. He gives his lioness cause for jealousy and to come to the point she flies at his throat. You see, he hadn’t really tamed her. She was under the skin, a lioness, a beast, at heart.”

Jasper had been absorbed in the plot and had not noticed Jane, but Yarnall for several minutes had been leaning forward, his hands tightened on the arms of his chair. The instant Jasper stopped he held up his hand.

“Quiet, Jane,” he said softly as a man might speak to a plunging horse. “Steady!”

Jane got to her feet. She was very white. She put up her hand and pressed the back of it against her forehead and from under this hand she looked at the two men with eyes of such astonished pain and beauty as they could never forget.

“Yes,” she said presently; “that’s something I could do.”

At once Jasper hastened to retrieve his error. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been horribly clumsy. Do forgive me. Do let me explain. I didn’t mean that you were a wild

She let the hand fall and held it up to stop his speech. “I’m not taking offense, Mr. Morena,” she said. “You say you arrange plays and that you have been seeking for some one to play that girl, that lioness-girl who wasn’t rightly tamed, though the man had done his worst to break her?”

Jasper nodded with a puzzled, anxious air. For all his skill and subtlety, he could not interpret her tone.

“And you think I’m beautiful?”

“My dear child, I know you are,” said he. “You try to disguise it. And I know that in many other ways you disguise yourself. I think you make a great mistake. Your work is hard and rough

She smiled. “I’m not complaining of my work,” she said. “It’s rough and so am I. Oh, yes, I’m real, true rough. I was born to roughness and raised to it. I’m not anything I don’t seem, Mr. Morena. I’ve had rough travel all my days, only only ” She sat down again, twisting her hands painfully in her apron and bending her face down from the sight of the two men. The line of her long, bent neck was a beautiful thing to see. She spoke low and rapidly, holding down her emotion, though she could not control all the exquisite modulations of her voice. “There’s only one part of my travel that I want to forget and that’s the one smooth bit. And it’s hateful to me and you’ve been reminding me of it. I must tell you now that I’d rather be burnt by a white-hot iron” here she gave him a wide and horrified look like a child who speaks of some dreadful remembered punishment “than do that thing you’ve asked of me. I hate everything you’ve been telling me about. I don’t want to be beautiful. I don’t want any one to be telling me such things. I don’t want to be any different from what I am now. This is my real self. It is. I hate beauty. I hate it. I’m not good enough to love it. Beauty and learning and and music

Her head had been bending lower and lower, her voice rocking under its weight of restrained anguish. On the word “music” she dropped her head to her knees and was silent.

“I can’t talk no more,” she said, after a moment, and she stood up and ran out of the room.

Ill be d d!” swore Yarnall.

But Jasper stood, his face pale, smiting one hand into the other.

“I feel that I, at least, deserve to be,” he said.