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Morena's Wife







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

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.





Next: Jane

Previous: A Wild Cat



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