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Luck's Play







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

A young man who had just landed in New York from one of the big,
adventurous transatlantic liners hailed a taxicab and was quickly
drawn away into the glitter and gayety of a bright winter morning. He
sat forward eagerly, looking at everything with the air of a lad on a
holiday. He was a young man, but he was not in his first youth, and
under a heavy sunburn he was pale and a trifle worn, but there was
about him a look of being hard and very much alive. Under a broad brow
there were hawk eyes of greenish gray, a delicate beak, a mouth and
chin of cleverness. It was an interesting face and looked as though it
had seen interesting things. In fact, Prosper Gael had just returned
from his three months of ambulance service in France, and it was the
extraordinary success of his play, "The Leopardess," that had chiefly
brought him back.

"Dear Luck," his manager had written, using the college title which
Prosper's name and unvarying good fortune suggested, "you'd better
come back and gather up some of these laurels that are smothering us
all. The time is very favorable for the disappearance of your
anonymity. I, for one, find it more and more difficult to keep the
secret. So far, not even your star knows it. She calls you 'Mr. Luck'
... to that extent I have been indiscreet...."

Prosper had another letter in his pocket, a letter that he had re-read
many times, always with an uneasy conflict of emotions. He was in a
sort of hot-cold humor over it, in a fever-fit that had a way of
turning into lassitude. He postponed analysis indefinitely. Meanwhile
his eyes searched the bright, cold city, its crowds, its traffics, its
windows--most of all, its placards, and, not far to seek, there were
the posters of "The Leopardess." He leaned out to study one of them; a
tall, wild-eyed woman crouched to spring upon a man who stared at her
in fear. Prosper dropped back with a gleaming smile of amused
excitement. "They've made it look like cheap melodrama," he said to
himself; "and yet it's a good thing, the best thing I've ever done.
Yet they will vulgarize the whole idea with their infernal notions of
'what the public wants.' Morena is as bad as the rest of them!" He
expressed disgust, but underneath he was aglow with pride and
interest. "There's a performance to-night. I'll dine with Jasper. I'll
have to see Betty first...." His thoughts trailed off and he fell into
that hot-cold confusion, that uncomfortable scorching fog of mood. The
cab turned into Fifth Avenue and became a scale in the creeping
serpent of vehicles that glided, paused, and glided again past the
thronged pavements. Prosper contrasted everything with the grim
courage and high-pitched tragedy of France. He could not but wonder at
the detached frivolity of these money-spenders, these spinners in the
sun. How soon would the shadow fall upon them too and with what change
of countenance would they look up! To him the joyousness seemed almost
childish and yet he bathed his fagged spirit in it. How high the white
clouds sailed, how blue was the midwinter sky! How the buildings
towered, how quickly the people stepped! Here were the pretty painted
faces, the absurd silk stockings, the tripping, exquisitely booted
feet, the swinging walk, the tall, up-springing bodies of the women he
remembered. He regarded them with impersonal delight, untinged by any
of his usual cynicism.

It was late afternoon when Prosper, obedient to a telephone call from
Betty, presented himself at the door of Morena's house, just east of
the Park, off Fifth Avenue; a very beautiful house where the wealthy
Jew had indulged his passion for exquisite things. Prosper entered its
rich dimness with a feeling of oppression--that unanalyzed mood of hot
and cold feeling intensified to an almost unbearable degree. In the
large carved and curtained drawing-room he waited for Betty. The
tea-things were prepared; there would be no further need of service
until Betty should ring. Everything was arranged for an uninterrupted
tete-a-tete. Prosper stood near an ebony table, his shoulder
brushed by tall, red roses, and felt his nerves tighten and his pulses
hasten in their beat. "The tall child ... the tall child ..." he had
called her by that name so often and never without a swift and
stabbing memory of Joan, and of Joan's laughter which he had silenced.

He took out the letter he had lately received from Betty and re-read
it and, as he read, a deep line cut between his eyes. "You say you
will not come back unless I can give you more than I have ever given
you in the past. You say you intend to cut yourself free, that I have
failed you too often, that you are starved on hope. I'm not going to
ask much more patience of you. I failed you that first time because I
lost courage; the second time, fate failed us. How could I think that
Jasper would get well when the doctors told me that I mustn't allow
myself even a shadow of hope! Now, I think that Jasper, himself, is
preparing my release. This all sounds like something in a book. That's
because you've hurt me. I feel frozen up. I couldn't bear it if now,
just when the door is opening, you failed me. Prosper, you are my
lover for always, aren't you? I have to believe that to go on living.
You are the one thing in my wretched life that hasn't lost its value.
Now, read this carefully; I am going to be brutal. Jasper has been
unfaithful to me. I know it. I have sufficient evidence to prove it in
a law court and I shall not hesitate to get a divorce. Tear this up,
please. Now, of all times, we must be extraordinarily careful. There
has never been a whisper against us and there mustn't be. Jasper must
not suspect. A counter-suit would ruin my life. I must talk it over
with you. I'll see you once alone--just once--before I leave Jasper
and begin the suit. We must have patience for just this last bit. It
will seem very long...."

Prosper folded the letter. He was conscious of a faint feeling of
sickness, of fear. Then he heard Betty's step across the marble
pavement of the hall. She parted the heavy curtains, drew them
together behind her, and stood, pale with joy, opening and shutting
her big eyes. Then she came to meet him, held him back, listening for
any sound that might predict interruption, and gave herself to his
arms. She was no longer pale when he let her go. She went a few steps
away and stood with her hands before her face, then she went to sit by
the tea-table. They were both flushed. Betty's eyes were shining under
their fluttering lids. Prosper rejoiced in his own emotion. The mental
fog had lifted and the feeling of faintness was gone.

"You've decided not to break away altogether, then?" she asked, giving
him a quick glance.

He shook his head. "Not if what you have written me is true. I've had
such letters from you before and I've grown very suspicious. Are you
sure this time?" He laid stress upon his bitterness. It was his one
weapon against her and he had been sharpening it with a vague purpose.

"Oh," said Betty, speaking low and furtively, "Jasper is fairly
caught. I have a reliable witness in the girl's maid. There is no
doubt of his guilt, Prosper, none. Everyone is talking of it. He has
been perfectly open in his attentions."

Every minute Betty looked younger and prettier, more provoking. Her
child-mouth with its clever smile was bright as though his kiss had
painted it.

"Who is the girl?" asked Prosper. He was deeply flushed. Being capable
of simultaneous points of view, he had been stung by that cool phrase
of Betty's concerning "Jasper's guilt."

"I'll tell you in a moment. Did you destroy my letter?"

He shook his head.

"Oh, Prosper, please!"

He took it out, tore it up, and walking over to the open fire, burned
the papers. He came back to his tea. "Well, Betty?"

"The girl," said Betty, "is the star in your play, 'The Leopardess,'
the girl that Jasper picked up two Septembers ago out West. He has
written to you about her. She was a cook, if you please, a hideous
creature, but Jasper saw at once what there was in her. She has made
the play. You'll have to acknowledge that yourself when you see her.
She is wonderful. And, partly owing to the trouble I've taken with
her, the girl is beautiful. One wouldn't have thought it possible. She
is not charming to me, she's not in the least subtle. It's odd that
she should have had such an effect upon Jasper, of all men...."

Prosper sipped his tea and listened. He looked at her and was bitterly
conscious that the excitement which had pleased and surprised him was
dying out. That faintness again assailed his spirit. He was feeling
stifled, ashamed, bored. Yes, that was it, bored. That life of service
and battle-danger in France had changed him more than he had realized
till now. He was more simple, more serious, more moral, in a certain
sense. He was like a man who, having denied the existence of Apollyon,
has come upon him face to face and has been burnt by his breath. Such
a man is inevitably moral. All this long, intricate intrigue with the
wife of a man who called him friend, seemed to him horribly unworthy.
If Betty had been a great lover, if she had not lost courage at the
eleventh hour and left him to face that terrible winter in Wyoming,
then their passion might have justified itself: but now there was a
staleness in their relationship. He hated the thought of the long
divorce proceedings, of the decent interval, of the wedding, of the
married life. He had never really wanted that. And now, in the ebb of
his passion, how could he force himself to take her when he had
learned to live more keenly, more completely without her! He would
have to take her, to spend his days and nights with her, to travel
with her. She would want to visit that gay, little forsaken house in a
Wyoming canyon. With vividness he saw a girl lying prone on a black
rug before a dancing fire, her hair all fallen about her face, her
secret eyes lifted impatiently from the book--"You had ought to be
writin', Mr. Gael...."

"What are you smiling for, Prosper?" Betty asked sharply.

He looked up, startled and confused. "Sorry. I've got into beastly
absent-minded habits. Is that Morena?"

Jasper opened the curtains and came in, greeting Prosper in his
stately, charming fashion. "To-night," he said, "we'll show you a
leopardess worth looking at, won't we, Betty? But first you must tell
us about your own experience. You look wonderfully fit, doesn't he,
Betty? And changed. They say the life out there stamps a man, and
they're right. It's taken some of that winged-demon look out of your
face, Prosper, put some soul into it."

He talked and Betty laughed, showing not the slightest evidence of
effort, though the soul Jasper had seen in Prosper's face felt shriveled
for her treachery. Prosper wondered if she could be right in her surmise
about Jasper. The Jew was infinitely capable of dissimulation, but there
was a clarity of look and smile that filled Prosper with doubts. And the
eyes he turned upon his wife were quite as apparently as ever the eyes
of a disappointed man.

So absorbed was he in such observations that he found it intolerably
difficult to fix his attention on the talk. Jasper's fluency seemed to
ripple senselessly about his brain.

"You must consent to one thing, Luck: you must allow me to choose my
own time for announcing the authorship." This found its way partially
to his intelligence and he gave careless assent.

"Oh, whenever you like, as soon as I've had my fun."

"Of course--" Morena was thoughtful for an instant. "How would it do
for me to leave it with Melton, the business manager? Eh? Suppose I
phone him and talk it over a little. He'll want to wait till toward
the end of the run. He's keen; has just the commercial sense of the
born advertiser. Let him choose the moment. Then we can feel sure of
getting the right one. Will you, Luck?"

"If you advise it. You ought to know."

"You see, I'm so confoundedly busy, so many irons in the fire, I might
just miss the psychic moment. I think Melton's the man--I'll call him
up to-night before we leave. Then I won't forget it and I'll be sure
to catch him too."

Again Prosper vaguely agreed and promptly forgot that he had given his
permission. Later, there came an agonizing moment when he would have
given the world to recall his absent, careless words.

With an effort Prosper kept his poise, with an effort, always
increasing, he talked to Jasper while Betty dressed, and kept up his
end at dinner. The muscles round his mouth felt tight and drawn, his
throat was dry. He was glad when they got into the limousine and
started theaterwards. It had been a long time since he had been put
through this particular ordeal and he was out of practice.

They reached the house just as the lights went out. Prosper was amused
at his own intense excitement. "I didn't know I was still such a kid,"
he said, flashing a smile, the first spontaneous one he had given her,
upon Betty who sat beside him in the proscenium box.

The success of his novel had had no such effect upon him as this. It
was entrancing to think that in a few moments the words he had written
would come to him clothed in various voices, the people his brain had
pictured would move before him in flesh and blood, doing what he had
ordained that they should do. When the curtain rose, he had forgotten
his personal problem, had forgotten Betty. He leaned forward, his
elbows on his knees, his chin in his hand.

The scene was of a tropical island, palms, a strip of turquoise sea. A
girl pushed aside the great fronds of ferns and stepped down to the
beach. At her appearance the audience broke into applause. She was a
tall girl, her stained legs and arms bare below her ragged dress, her
black hair hung wild and free about her face and neck. As the daughter
of a native mother and an English father, her beauty had been made to
seem both Saxon and savage. Stained and painted, darkened below the
great gray eyes, Joan with her brows and her classic chin and throat,
Joan with her secret, dangerous eyes and lithe, long body, made an
arresting picture enough against the setting of vivid green and blue.
She moved slowly, deliberately, naturally, and stood, hands on hips,
to watch a ship sail into the turquoise harbor. It was not like
acting, she seemed really to look. She threw back her head and gave a
call. It was the name of her stage brother, but it came from her deep
chest and through her long column of a throat like music. Prosper
brought down his hands on the railing before him, half pushed himself
up, turned a blind look upon Betty, who laid a restraining hand upon
his arm.

He whispered a name, which Betty could not make out, then he sat down,
moistened his lips with his tongue, and sat through the entire first
act and neither moved nor spoke. As the curtain went down he stood up.

"I must go out," he said, and hesitated in the back of the box till
Jasper came over to him with an anxious question. Then he began to
stammer nervously. "Don't tell her, Jasper, don't tell her."

"Tell her what, man? Tell whom?" Jasper gave him a shake. "Don't you
like Jane? Isn't she wonderful?"

"Yes, yes, extraordinary!"

"Made for the part?"

"No." Prosper's face twisted into a smile. "No. The part came second,
she was there first. Morena, promise me you won't tell her who wrote
the play."

"Look here, Prosper, suppose you tell me what's wrong. Have you seen a
ghost?"

Prosper laughed; then, seeing Betty, her face a rigid question, he
struggled to lay hands upon his self-control.

"Something very astonishing has happened, Morena,--one of those
'things not dreamt of in a man's philosophy.' I can't tell you. Have
you arranged for me to meet Jane West?"

"After the show, yes, at supper."

"But not as the author?"

"No. I was waiting for you to tell her that."

"She mustn't know. And--and I can't meet her that way, at supper."
Again he made visible efforts at self-control. "Don't tell Betty what
a fool I am. I'll go out a minute. I'll be all right."

Betty was coming toward them. He gave a painful smile and fled.





Next: Joan And Prosper

Previous: Flight



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