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

JOAN AND PROSPER

The situation was no doubt an extraordinary, an unimaginable one, but it had to be met. When he returned to the box, Prosper had himself in hand, and, sitting a little farther back than before, he watched the second act with a sufficiency of outward calm.

This part was the most severe test of his composure, for he had fashioned it almost in detail upon that idyll in a canyon. There were even speeches of Joan’s that he had used. To sit here and watch Joan herself go through it, while he looked on, was an exciting form of torment. The setting was different, tropical instead of Northern, and the half-native heroine was more passionate, more emotional, more animal than Joan. Nevertheless, the drama was a repetition. As Prosper had laid his trap for Joan, silently, subtly undermining her whole mental structure, using her loneliness, playing upon the artist soul of her, so did this Englishman lay his trap for Zona. He was more cruel than Prosper, rougher, necessarily more dramatic, but there was all the essence of the original drama, the ensnarement of a simple, direct mind by a complex and skillful one. Joan’s surrender, Prosper’s victory, were there. He wondered how Joan could act it, play the part in cold blood. Now he was condemned to live in his own imagination through Joan’s tragedy. There was that first pitifulness of a tamed and broken spirit; then later, in London, the agony of loneliness, of separation, of gradual awakening to the change in her master’s heart. Prosper had written the words, but it was Joan who, with her voice, the music of memory-shaken heart-strings, made the words alive and meaningful. Others in the audience might wonder over the girl’s ability to interpret this unusual experience, to make it natural, human, inevitable. But Prosper did not wonder. He knew that simply she forced herself to re-live this most painful part of her own life and to re-live it articulately. What, in God’s name, had induced her to do it? Necessity? Poverty? Morena? All at once he remembered Betty’s belief, that Joan was the manager’s mistress his wild, beautiful Joan, Joan the creation of his own wizardry. This thought gave him such pain that he whitened.

“Prosper,” murmured Betty, “you must tell me what is wrong. Evidently your nerves are in bad shape. Is the excitement too much for you?”

“I believe it is,” he said, avoiding her eyes and moving stiff, white lips; “I’ve never seen such acting. I I Morena says he’ll let me see her in her dressing-room afterwards. You see, Betty, I’m badly shaken up.”

“Ye-es,” drawled Betty, and looked at him through narrowed lids, and she sat with this look on her face and with her fingers locked, when Prosper, not giving her further notice, followed Morena out.

“Jasper,” Prosper held his friend back in the middle of a passage that led to the dressing-rooms, “I want very particularly to see Miss West alone. I am very much moved by her performance and I want to tell her so. Also, I want her to express herself naturally with no idea of my being the author of the play and without the presence of her manager. Will you just ask if she will see a friend of yours alone?”

Jasper smiled his subtle smile. “Of course, Prosper. It’s all as clear as daylight.”

Prosper did not notice the Jew’s intelligent expression. He was too much absorbed in his own excitement. In a moment he would be with Joan Joan, his love of winter nights!

Morena tapped upon a door. A maid half-opened it.

“Ask Miss West, please, if she will see a friend of Mr. Morena’s. Tell her I particularly wish her to give him a private interview.” He scribbled a line on a card and the maid took it in.

In five minutes, during which the two men waited silently, she came back.

“Miss West will see your friend, sir.”

“Ah! Then I’ll take myself off. Prosper, will you join Betty and me at supper?”

“No, thanks. I’ll have my brief interview with Miss West and then go home, if you’ll forgive me. I’m about all in. New York’s too much for a man just home from the front.”

Jasper laid his hand for a moment on Prosper’s shoulder, smiled, shrugged, and turned away. Prosper waited till his friend was out of sight and hearing, then knocked and was admitted to the dressing-room of Miss Jane West.

She had not changed from the evening dress she had worn in the last scene nor had she yet got rid of her make-up. She was sitting in a narrow-backed chair that had been turned away from the dressing-table. The maid was putting away some costumes.

Prosper walked half across the room and stopped.

“Miss West,” he said quietly.

She stood up. The natural color left her face ghastly with patches of paint and daubs of black. She threw back her head and said, “Prosper!” just above her breath.

“Go out, Henrietta.” This was spoken to the maid in the voice of Jane the virago and Henrietta fled.

At sight of Joan, Prosper had won back instantly his old poise, his old feeling of ascendancy.

“Joan, Joan,” he said gently; “was ever anything so strange? Why didn’t you let me know? Why didn’t you answer my letters? Why didn’t you take my money? I have suffered greatly on your account.”

Joan laughed. Four years ago she would not have been capable of this laugh, and Prosper started.

“I wrote again and again,” he said passionately. “Wen Ho told me that you had gone, that he didn’t know anything about your plans. I went out to Wyoming, to our house. I scoured the country for you. Did you know that?”

“No,” said Joan slowly, “I didn’t know that But it makes no difference to me.”

They were still standing a few paces apart, too intent upon their inner tumult to heed any outward situation. She lowered her head in that dangerous way of hers, looking up at him from under her brows. Her color had returned and the make-up had a more natural look.

“Maybe you did write, maybe you did send money, maybe you did come back I don’t care anything for all that.” She made a gesture as if to sweep something away. “The day after you left me in that house, Pierre, my husband, came up the trail. He was taking after me. He meant to fetch me home. You told me” she began to tremble so violently that the jewels on her neck clicked softly “you told me he was dead.”

Prosper came closer, she moving back, till, striking the chair, she sat down on it and looked up at him with her changed and embittered eyes.

“Would you have gone back to him, Joan Landis, after he had tied you up and branded your shoulder with his cattlebrand?”

“What has that got to do with it?” she asked, her voice lifting on a wave of anger. “That was between my man and me. That was not for you to judge. He loved me. It was through loving me too much, too ignorantly, that he hurt me so.” She choked. “But you

“Joan,” said Prosper, and he laid his hand on her cold and rigid fingers, “I loved you too.”

She was still and stiff. After a long silence she seemed to select one question from a tide of them.

“Why did you leave me?”

“I wrote you a full explanation. The letter came back to me unread.”

Again Joan gave the laugh and the gesture of disdain.

That doesnt matter ... your loving or not loving. You made use of me for your own ends, and when you saw fit, you left me. But thats not my complaint. I dont say I didnt deserve that. I was easy to use. But it was all based on what wasnt true. I was married, my man was living, and I had dealings with you. That was sin. That was horrible. That was what my mother did. She was a ” Joan used the coarse and ugly word her father had taught her, and Prosper laid a hand over her mouth.

“Joan! No! Never say it, never think it. You are clean.”

Joan twisted herself free, stood up, and walked away. “I am that!” she said grimly; “and it was you that made me. You took lots of trouble to make me see things in a way where nothing a person wants is either right or wrong. You made me thirsty with your talk and your books and your music, and when I was tormented with thirst, you came and offered me a drink of water. That was it. I don’t care about your not marrying me. I still don’t see that that has much to do with it except, perhaps, that a man would be caring to give any woman he rightly loves whatever help or cherishing or gifts the world has decided to give her. But, you see, Prosper, we didn’t start fair. You knew that Pierre was alive.”

“But, Joan, you say yourself that marrying

She stopped him with so fierce a gesture that he flinched. “Yes. Pierre did rightly love me. He gave me his best as he knew it. Oh, he was ignorant, a savage, I guess, like I was. But he did rightly love me. He was not trying to break my spirit nor to tame me, nor to amuse himself with me, nor to give me a longing for beauty and easiness and then leave me to fight through my own rough life without any of those things. Did you really think, Prosper Gael, that I would stay in your house and live on your money till you should be caring to come back to me if ever you would care? Did you honestly think that you would be coming back as as my lover? No. Whatever it was that took you away, it was likely to keep you from me for always, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Prosper in a muffled voice, “it was likely to. But, Joan, Fate was on your side. Since I have been yours, I haven’t belonged to any one but you. You’ve put your brand on me.”

“I don’t want to hear about you,” Joan broke in. “I am done with you. Have you seen this play?”

“Yes.” He found that in telling her so he could not meet her eyes.

“Well, the man who wrote that knew what you are, and, if he didn’t, every one that has seen me act in it, knows what you are.” She paused, breathing fast and trembling. “Good-bye,” she said.

He went vaguely toward the door, then threw up his head defiantly. “No,” he said, “it’s not going to be good-bye. I’ve found you. You must let me tell you the truth about myself. Come, Joan, you’re as just as Heaven. You never read my explanations. You’ve never heard my side of it. You’ll let me come to see you and you’ll hear me out. Don’t do me an injustice. I’ll leave the whole thing in your hands after that. But you must give me that one chance.”

“Chance?” repeated Joan. “Chance for what?”

“Oh,” Prosper flung up his lithe, long hands “oh, for nothing but a cleansing in your sight. I want what forgiveness I can wring from you. I want what understanding I can force from you. That’s all.”

She thought, standing there, still and tall, her arms hanging, her eyes wide and secret, as he had remembered them in her thin, changed, so much more expressive face.

“Very well,” she said, “you may come. I’ll hear you out.” She gave him the address and named an afternoon hour. “Good-night.”

It was a graceful and dignified dismissal. Prosper bit his lip, bowed and left her.

As the door closed upon her, he knew that it had closed upon the only real and vivid presence in his life. War had burnt away his glittering, clever frivolity. Betty was the adventure, Betty was the tinsel; Joan was the grave, predestined woman of his man. For the first time in his life he found himself face to face with the cleanness of despair.