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Gray Envelopes







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

It was with more than the usual sinking of heart that Jasper let
himself that evening into the beautiful house which Betty and he
called their home. Joan's too expressive look had stung the old
soreness of his disillusionment. He knew that the house was empty of
welcome. He took off his hat and coat dejectedly. There were footsteps
of his man who came from the far end of the hall.

While he stood waiting, Jasper noticed the absence of a familiar
fragrance. For the first time in years Betty had forgotten to order
flowers. The red roses which Jasper always caressed with a long,
appreciative finger as he went by the table in the hall, were missing.
Their absence gave him a faint sensation of alarm.

"Mr. Kane, Mrs. Morena's brother, has called to see you, sir. He is
waiting."

Jasper's eyebrows rose. "To see me? Is he with Mrs. Morena now?"

"No, sir. Mrs. Morena went out this morning and has not yet returned.
Mr. Kane has been here since five o'clock, sir."

"Very well."

It was a mechanical speech of dismissal. The footman went off. Jasper
stood tapping his chin with his finger. Woodward Kane come to see him
during Betty's absence! Woodward had not spoken more than three or four
icy words of necessity to him since the marriage. After a stiff,
ungracious fashion this brother had befriended Betty, but to his Jewish
brother-in-law he had shown only a slightly disguised distaste. The Jew
was well used to such a manner. He treated it with light bitterness,
but he did not love to receive the users of it in his own house. It was
with heightened color and bent brows that he pushed apart the long,
crimson hangings and came into the immense drawing-room.

It was softly lighted and pleasantly warmed. A fire burned. The tall,
fair visitor rose from a seat near the blaze and turned all in one
rigid piece toward his advancing host. Jasper was perfectly conscious
that his own gesture and speech of greeting were too eager, too
ingratiating, that they had a touch of servility. He hated them
himself, but they were inherited with his blood, as instinctive as the
wagging of a dog's tail. They were met by a precise bow, no smile, no
taking of his outstretched hand.

Jasper drew himself up at once, put the slighted hand on the back of a
tall, crimson-damask chair, and looked his stateliest and most
handsome self.

"Betty hasn't come in yet," he said. "You've been waiting for her?"

Woodward Kane pulled at his short, yellow mustache and stared at
Jasper with his large, blank, blue eyes. "As a matter of fact I didn't
call to see my sister, but to see you. I have just come from
Elizabeth. She is at my house. She came to me this morning."

Jasper's fingers tightened on the chair. "She is sick?"

"No." There was a pause during which the blank, blue eyes staring at
him slowly gathered a look of cold pleasure. Jasper was aware that
this man who hated him was enjoying his present mission.

"Shall we sit down? I shall have to take a good deal of your time, I
am afraid. There is rather a good deal to be gone over."

Jasper sat down in the chair the back of which he had been holding.
"Will you smoke?" he asked, and smiled his charming smile.

There was now not a trace of embarrassment, anger, or anxiety about
him. His eyes were quiet, his voice flexible. Woodward declined to
smoke, crossed his beautifully clothed legs and drew a small gray
envelope from his pocket. Jasper's eyes fastened upon it at once. It
was Betty's paper and her angular, boyish writing marched across it.
Evidently the note was addressed to him. He waited while Woodward
turned it about in his long, stiff, white fingers.

"About two months ago Betty came to me one evening in great distress
of mind. She asked for my advice and to the best of my ability I gave
it to her. I wish that she had asked for it ten years ago. She might
have saved herself a great deal. This time she has not only asked for
it, but she has been following it, and, in following it, she has now
left your house and come to mine. This, of course, will not surprise
you."

"It does, however, surprise me greatly." It was still the gentle
murmur, but Jasper's cigarette smoke veiled his face.

"I cannot understand that. However, it's not my business. Betty has
asked me to interview you to-day so that she may be spared the
humiliation. After this, you must address your communications to her
lawyers. In a short time Rogers and Daring will serve you with notice
of divorce."

Jasper sat perfectly still, leaning slightly forward, his cigarette
between his fingers.

"So-o!" he said after a long silence. Then he held out his hand. "I
may have Betty's letter?"

Woodward Kane withheld it and again that look of pleasure was visible
in his eyes. "Just a moment, please. I should like to have my own say
out first. I shall have to be brutal, I am afraid. In these matters
there is nothing for it but frankness. Your infidelity has been common
talk for some time. The story of it first came to Betty's ears on the
evening when she came to me two months ago. Since then there has been
but one possible course."

Jasper kept another silence, more difficult, however, than his last.
His pallor was noticeable. "You say my--infidelity is common talk.
There has been a name used?"

"Your protegee from Wyoming--Jane West."

Jasper was on his feet, and Woodward too rose, jerkily holding up a
hand. "No excitement, please," he begged. "Let us conduct this
unfortunate interview like gentlemen, if possible."

Jasper laughed. "As you say--if possible. Why, man, it was Betty who
helped me bring Miss West to New York, it was Betty who helped me to
install her here, it was Betty who chose the furnishings for her
apartment, who helped her buy her clothes, who engaged her maid, who
gave her most of her training. This is the most preposterous, the most
filthy perversion of the truth. Betty must know it better than any one
else. Come, now, Woodward, there's something more in it than this?"
Jasper had himself in hand, but it was easy now to see the effort it
cost him. The veins of his forehead were swollen.

"I shall not discuss the matter with you. Betty has excellent
evidence, unimpeachable witnesses. There is no doubt in my mind, nor
in the minds of her lawyers, that she will win her suit and get her
divorce, her release. Of course, you will not contest--"

Jasper stopped in his pacing which had begun to take the curious,
circling, weaving form characteristic of him, and, standing now with
his head thrown back, he spoke sonorously.

"Do you imagine for one instant, Kane,--does Betty imagine for one
instant,--that I shall not contest?"

This changed the look of cold pleasure in Woodward's eyes, which grew
blank again. "Do you mean me to understand--Naturally, I took it for
granted that you would act as most gentlemen act under the
circumstances."

"Then you have taken too much for granted, you and Betty. Ten years
ago your sister gave herself to me. She is mine. I will not for a
whim, for a passion, for a temporary alienation, let her go. Neither
will I have my good name and the name of a good woman besmirched for
the sake of this impertinent desire for a release. I love my
wife"--his voice was especially Hebraic and especially abhorrent to
the other--"and as a husband I mean to keep her from the ruin this
divorce would mean to her--"

"Far from being her ruin, Morena, it would be the saving of her. Her
ruin was as nearly as possible brought about ten years ago, when
against the advice, against the wishes of every one who loved her, she
made her insane marriage with an underbred, commercial, and licentious
Jew. She was seventeen and you seized your opportunity."

Jasper had stepped close. He was a head taller and several inches
broader of shoulder than his brother-in-law. "As long as you are in my
house, don't insult me. I am, as you say, a Jew, and I am, as you say,
of a commercial family. But I am not, I have never been licentious. Is
it necessary to use such language? You suggested that this interview
be conducted by us like gentlemen."

"The man who refuses to give her liberty to a wife that loathes him,
scarcely comes under the definition."

"My ideas on the matter are different. We need not discuss them. If
you will let me read my wife's letter, I think that we can come to an
end of this."

Woodward unwillingly surrendered the small, gray envelope to a
quivering, outstretched hand. Jasper turned away and stood near the
lamp. But his excitement prevented him from reading. The angular
writing jumped before his eyes. At last, the words straightened
themselves.

I am glad that you have given me this opportunity to escape from a
life that for a long time has been dreadful to me. Ten years ago I
made a disaster of my life and yours. Forgive me if you can and
let me escape. I will not see you again. Whatever you may have to
say, please say it to Woodward. From now on he is my protector. In
other matters there are my lawyers. It is absolutely not to be
thought of that I should speak to you. I hope never to see you
alone. I want you to hate me and this note ought to make it easy
for you.

Betty

Jasper stared at the name. He was utterly bewildered, utterly
staggered, by the amazing dissimulation practiced by this small,
soft-lipped, round-eyed girl who had lived with him for so long,
sufficiently pliable, sufficiently agreeable. What was back of it all?
Another man, of course. In imagination he was examining the faces of
his acquaintances, narrowing his lids as though the real men passed in
review before him.

"Perhaps you understand the situation better now?" asked Woodward
cruelly.

Jasper's intense pain and humiliation gave him a sort of calm. He
seemed entirely cool when he moved back toward his brother-in-law; his
eyes were clear, the heat had gone from his temples. He was even
smiling a little, though there was a white, even frame to his lips.

"I shall not write to Betty nor attempt to see her," he said quietly.
"But I shall ask you to take a message to her."

Woodward assented.

"Tell her she shall have her release, but to get it she will have to
walk through the mire and there will be no one waiting for her on the
other side. Can you remember that? Not even you will be there." He was
entirely self-assured so that Woodward felt a chill of dismay.

"I shall contest the suit," went on Jasper, "and I believe that I
shall win it. You may tell Betty so if you like or she can wait to
hear it from my lawyer." He put the envelope into his pocket, crossed
the room, and held back one of the crimson curtains of the door.

"If you have nothing more to say," he smiled, "neither have I.
Good-bye."

He bowed slightly, and Woodward found himself passing before him in
silence and some confusion. He stood for a moment in the hall and,
having stammered his way to a cold "Good-afternoon," he put on his hat
and went out.

Jasper returned to the empty drawing-room and began his weaving march.

Before he could begin his spinning which he hoped would entangle Betty
and leave her powerless for him to hold or to release at will, he must
go to Jane West and tell her what trick life with his help had played
upon her. The prospect was bitterly distasteful. Jasper accused
himself of selfishness. Because she cared nothing for the world, was a
creature apart, he had let the world think what it would. He knew that
an askance look would not hurt her; for himself, secure in innocence,
he did not care; for Betty, he had thought her cruelly certain of him.

He went to Jane the day after his interview with Woodward Kane. It was
Sunday afternoon. She was out, but came in very soon, and he stood up
to meet her with an air of confusion and guilt.

"What's the matter with you?" she asked, pulling her gloves from her
long hands.

Her quickly observant eyes swept him. She walked to him and stood
near. The frosty air was still about her and her face was lightly
stung to color with exercise. Her wild eyes were startling under the
brim of her smart, tailored hat.

Jasper put a hand on either of her shoulders and bent his head before
her. "My poor child--if I'd only left you in your kitchen!"

Joan tightened her lips, then smiled uncertainly. "You've got me
scared," she said, stepped back and sat down, her hands in her muff.
"What is it?" she asked; and in that moment of waiting she was sickly
reminded of other moments in her life--of the nearing sound of
Pierre's webs on a crystal winter night, of the sound of Prosper's
footsteps going away from her up the mountain trail on a swordlike,
autumn morning.

Jasper began his pacing. Feeling carefully for delicate phrases, he
told her Betty's accusation, of her purpose.

Joan took off her hat, pushed back the hair from her forehead; then,
as he came to the end, she looked up at him. Her pupils were larger
than usual and the light, frosty tint of rose had left her cheeks.

"Would you mind telling me that again?" she asked.

He did so, more explicitly.

"She thinks, Betty thinks, that I have been--that we have been--? She
thinks that of me? No wonder she hasn't been coming to see me!" She
stopped, staring blindly at him; then, "You must tell her it isn't
true," she said pitifully, and the quiver of her lips hurt him.

"Ah! But she doesn't want to believe that, my dear. She wants to
believe the worst. It is her opportunity to escape me."

"Haven't you loved her? Have you hurt her?" asked Joan.

"God knows I have loved her. I have never hurt her--consciously. Even
she cannot think that I have."

"Why must she blame me? Why do I have to be brought into this, Mr.
Morena? Can't she go away from you? Why do the lawyers have to take it
up? You are unhappy, and I am so sorry. But you wouldn't want her to
stay if--if she doesn't love you?"

"I want her. I mean to keep her or--break her." He turned his back to
say this and went toward the window. Joan, fascinated, watched his
fingers working into one another, tightening, crushing. "It's another
man she wants," he said hoarsely, "and if I can prevent it, she shall
not have him. I will force her to keep her vows to me--force her. If
it kills her, I'll break this passion, this fancy. I'll have her
back--" He wheeled round, showing a twitching face. "I'll prove her
infidelity whether she's been unfaithful or not, and then I'll take
her back, after the world has given her one of its names--"

"You don't love her," said Joan, very white. "You want to brand her."

"By God!" swore the Jew, "and I will brand her. I'll brand her."

He fumbled in his pocket and brought out the small envelope Woodward
Kane had handed to him the day before. He stood turning the letter
about in his hands as though some such meaningless occupation was a
necessity to him. Joan's eyes, falling upon the letter, widened and
fixed.

"She has written to me," said Jasper. "She wants her liberty. She
wants it in such a way that she will fly clear and I--yes, and you,
too, will be left in the mud. There's a man somewhere, of course. She
thinks she has evidence, witnesses against me. I don't know what
rubbish she has got together. But I'm going to fight her. I'm going to
win. I'll save you if I can, Jane; if not, of course I am at your
service for any amends--"

He stopped in his halting speech, for Joan had stood up and was moving
across the room, her eyes fastened on the letter in his hands. She had
the air of a sleep-walker.

She opened a drawer of her desk, took out an old tin box, once used
for tobacco, and drew forth a small, gray envelope torn in two. Then
she came back to him and said, "Let me see that letter," and he obeyed
as though she had the right to ask.

She took his letter and hers and compared the two, the small, gray
squares lying unopened on her knee, and she spoke incomprehensibly.

"Betty is 'the tall child,'" she said, and laughed with a catch in her
breath.

Jasper looked at the envelopes. They were identical; Betty's gray
note-paper crossed by Betty's angular, upright hand, very bold, very
black. The torn envelope was addressed to Prosper Gael. Jasper took
it, opened each half, laid the parts together, and read:

Jasper is dying. By the time you get this he will be dead. If
you can forgive me for having failed you 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.

"Jane,"--Morena spoke brokenly,--"what does it mean?"

"He built that cabin in Wyoming for her," said Joan, speaking as
though Jasper had seen the canyon hiding-place and known its history,
"and she didn't come. He brought me there on his sled. I was hurt. I
was terribly hurt. He took care of me--"

"Prosper?" Jasper thrust in. His face was drawn with excitement.

"Yes. Prosper Gael. I was there with him for months. At first I wasn't
strong enough to go away, and then, after a while, I tried. But I was
too lonely and sorrowful. In the spring I loved him. I thought I loved
him. He wanted me. I was all alone in the world. I didn't know that he
loved another woman. I thought she was dead--like Pierre. Prosper had
clothes for her there. I suppose--I've thought it out since--that she
was to leave as if for a short journey, and then secretly go on that
long one, and she couldn't take many things with her. So he had
beautiful stuffs for her--and a little suit to wear in the snow.
That's how I came to call her 'the tall child,' seeing that little
suit, long and narrow.... This letter came one morning, one awfully
bright morning. He read it and went out and the next day he went away.
Afterwards I found the letter torn in two beside his desk on the
floor. I took it and I've always kept it. 'The tall child'! He looked
so terrible when I called her that.... And she was your Betty all the
time!"

"Yes," said Morena slowly. "She was my Betty all the time." He gave
her a twisted smile and put the two papers carefully into an inside
pocket. "I am going to keep this letter, Jane. Truly the ways of the
Lord are past finding out."

Joan looked at him in growing uneasiness. Her mind, never quick to
take in all the bearings and the consequences of her acts, was
beginning to work. "What are you going to do with it, Mr. Morena? I
don't want you to do Betty a hurt. She must have loved Prosper Gael.
Perhaps she still loves him."

This odd appeal drew another difficult smile from Betty's husband.
"Quite obviously she still loves him, Jane. She is divorcing me so
that she can marry him."

"But, Mr. Morena, I don't believe he will marry her now. He is tired
of her. He is that kind of lover. He gets tired. Now he would like to
marry me. He told me so. Perhaps--if Betty knew that--she might come
back to you, without your branding her."

Jasper was startled out of his vengeful stillness.

"Prosper Gael wants to marry you? He has told you so?"

"Yes." She was sad and humbled. "Now he wants to marry me and once
he told me things about marrying. He said"--Joan quoted slowly, her
eyes half-closed in Prosper's manner, her voice a musical echo of his
thin, vibrant tone--"'It's man's most studied insult to woman.'"

"Yes. That's Prosper," murmured Jasper.

"I wouldn't marry him, Mr. Morena, even if I could--not if I were to
be--burnt for refusing him."

Jasper looked probingly at her, a new speculation in his eyes. She had
begun to fit definitely into his plans. It seemed there might be a way
to frustrate Betty and to keep a hold upon his valuable protegee.
"Are you so sure of that, Jane?"

"Ah!" she answered; "you doubt it because I once thought I loved him?
But you don't know all about me...."

He stood silent, busy with his weaving. At last he looked at her
rather blankly, impersonally. Joan was conscious of a frightened,
lonely chill. She put out her hand uncertainly, a wrinkle appearing
sharp and deep between her eyes.

"Mr. Morena, please--I haven't any one but you. I don't understand
very well what this divorcing rightly means. Nor what they will do to
me. Will you be thinking of me a little? I wouldn't ask it, for I know
you are unhappy and bothered enough, but, you see--"

He did not notice the hand. "It will come out right, Jane. Don't
worry," he said with absent gentleness. "Keep your mind on your work.
I'll look out for your best interests. Be sure of that." He came near
to her, his hat in his hand, ready to go. "Try to forget all about it,
will you?"

"Oh, I can't do that. I feel sort of--burnt. Betty thinking--that! But
I'll do my work just the same, of course."

She sighed heavily and sat, the unnoticed hand clasped in its fellow.

When he had gone she called nervously for her maid. She had a hitherto
unknown dread of being alone. But when Mathilde, chosen by Betty, came
with her furtive step and treacherous eyes, Joan invented some duty
for her. It occurred to her that Mathilde might be one of Betty's
witnesses. For some time the girl's watchfulness and intrusions had
become irritatingly noticeable. And Morena was Joan's only frequent
and informal visitor.

"Mathilde thinks I am--that!" Joan said to herself; and afterwards,
with a burst of weeping, "And, of course, that is what I am." Her past
sin pressed upon her and she trembled, remembering Pierre's wistful,
seeking face. If he should find her now, he would find her branded,
indeed--now he could never believe that she had indeed been innocent
of guilt in the matter of Holliwell. Her father had first put a mark
upon her. Since then the world had only deepened his revenge.

There followed a sleepless, dry, and aching night.





Next: The Spider

Previous: Against The Bars



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