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The Clean Wild Thing







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

"The Reverend Francis Holliwell." Morena turned the card over and over
in his hand. "Holliwell. Holliwell. Frank Holliwell." Yes. One of the
fellows that had dropped out. Big, athletic youngster; left college in
his junior year and studied for the ministry. Fine chap. Popular.
Especially decent to him when he had begun to play that difficult role
of a man without a country. Now here was the card of the Reverend
Francis Holliwell and the man himself, no doubt, waiting below. Jasper
tried to remember. He'd heard something about Frank. Oh, yes. The
young clergyman had given up a fashionable parish in the East--small
Norman church, wealthy parishioners, splendid stipend, beautiful stone
Norman rectory--thrown it all up to go West on some unheard-of mission
in the sagebrush. He was back now, probably for money, donations
wanted for a building, church or hospital or library. Jasper in
imagination wrote out a generous check. Before going down he glanced
at the card again and noticed some lines across the back:

This is to introduce one of my best friends, Pierre Landis, of
Wyoming. Please be of service to him. His mission has and deserves
to have my full sympathy.

So, after all, it wasn't Holliwell below and the check-book would not
be needed. "Pierre Landis, of Wyoming." Jasper went down the stairs
and on the way he remembered a letter received from Yarnall a long
time before. He remembered it with an accession of alarm. "I've
probably let hell loose for your protegee, Jane; given your address,
and incidentally hers, to a fellow who wants her pretty badly. His
name's Pierre Landis. You're a pretty good judge of white men. Size
him up and do what's best for Jane."

For some time after receiving this letter, Jasper had expected the
appearance of this Pierre Landis, then had forgotten him. The fellow
who wanted Jane so badly had been a long while on his way to her.
Remembering and wondering, the manager opened the crimson curtains and
stepped into the presence of Pierre.

Even if he had had no foreknowledge, Jasper felt that, at sight of his
visitor, his fancy would have jumped to Joan. It was the eyes; he had
seen no others but hers like them for clarity; far-seeing, grave eyes
that held a curious depth of light. Here was one of Joan's kindred,
one of the clean, wild things.

Then came the gentle Western drawl. "I'm right sorry to trouble you,
Mr. Morena."

Jasper took a brown hand that had the feel of iron. The man's face, on
a level with Jasper's, was very brown and lean. It had a worn look, a
trifle desperate, perhaps, in the lines of lip and the expression of
the smoke-colored eyes. Jasper, sensitive to undercurrents, became
aware that he stood in some fashion for a forlorn hope in the life of
this Pierre. At the same time the manager remembered a confidence of
Jane's. She had been "afraid of some one." She had been running away.
There was one that mustn't find her, and to run away from him, that
was the business of her life. Pierre Landis was this "one," the
something wild and clean that had at last come searching even into
this city. It was necessary that Jane's present protector should be
very careful. There must be no running away this time, and Pierre must
be warned off. Jasper had plans of his own for his star player. For
one thing she must draw Prosper Gael completely out of Betty's life.

Jasper made his guest comfortable, sat opposite to him, and lighted a
cigarette. Although Pierre had accepted one, he did not smoke. He was
far too disturbed.

"Frank Holliwell gave me a note to you, Mr. Morena. I got your address
some years ago from Yarnall, of Lazy-Y Ranch, Middle Fork, Wyoming.
I've been gettin' my affairs into shape ever since, so that I could
come East. I don't rightly know whether Yarnall would have wrote to
you concernin' me or no."

"Yes. He did write--just a line--two years ago."

Pierre studied his own long, brown hands, turning the soft hat between
them. When he lifted his eyes, they were intensely blue. It was as
though blue fire had consumed the smoke.

"I've been takin' after a girl. She was called Jane on Yarnall's ranch
an' she was cook there for the outfit. Nobody knowed her story nor her
name. She left the mornin' I came in an' I didn't set eyes on her. You
were takin' her East to teach her to play-act for you. I don't know
whether you done so or not, but I've come here to learn where she is
so that I can find out if she's the woman I'm lookin' for."

Morena smiled kindly. "You've come a long way, Mr. Landis, on an
uncertainty."

"Yes, sir." Pierre did not smile. He was holding himself steady. "But
I'm used to uncertainty. There ain't no uncertainty that can keep me
from seekin' after the person I want." He paused, the eyes still fixed
upon Morena, who, uncomfortable under them, veiled himself thinly in
cigarette smoke. "I want to see this Jane," Pierre ended gently.

"Nothing easier, Landis. I'll give you a ticket to 'The Leopardess.'
She is acting the title part. She is my leading lady and a very
extraordinary young actress. Of course, it's none of my business, but
in a way I am Miss West's guardian--"

"Miss West?"

"Yes. That is Jane's name--Jane West. You think it is an assumed one?"

Pierre stood up. "I'm not thinkin' on this trip," he said; "I'm
hopin'."

"I am sorry, but I am afraid you're on the wrong track. There may be a
resemblance, there may even be a marked resemblance, between Miss West
and the person you want to find, but--again please forgive me--I am in
the place of guardian to her at present and I should like to know
something of your business, enough of it, that is, to be sure that
your sudden appearance, if you happen to be right in your surmise,
won't frighten my leading lady out of her wits and send her off to
Kalamazoo on the next train."

Pierre evidently resented the fashion of this speech. "I'm sorry," he
said with dignity, "not to be able to tell you anything. I'll be
careful not to frighten Miss West. I can see her first from a distance
an' then--"

"Certainly. Certainly."

Jasper rang and directed his man to get an envelope from an upstairs
table. When it came, he handed it to Pierre.

"That is a ticket for to-morrow night's performance. It's the best
seat I can give you, though it is not very near the stage. However,
you will certainly be able to recognize your--Jane, if she is your
Jane."

Pierre pocketed the ticket. "Thank you," he murmured. His face was
expressionless.

Jasper was making rapid plans. "Oh, by the way," he said hurriedly,
"if you should stand near the stage exit to-night, say at about twelve
o'clock, you could see Miss West come out and get into her motor. That
would give you a fairly close view. But even if you find you are
mistaken, Landis, be sure to see 'The Leopardess.' It's well worth
your while. You're going? Won't you dine with me to-night?"

"No, thank you. I wouldn't be carin' to to-night. I--I reckon I've got
this matter too much on my mind. Thank you very much, Mr. Morena."

"Before you go, tell me about Holliwell. He was a good friend of
mine."

"He was a good friend to most every one he knowed. He was more than
that to me."

"Then he's been a success out there?"

Pierre meditated over the words. "Success? Why, yes, I reckon he's
been all of that."

"A difficult mission, isn't it? Trying to bring you fellows to God?"

Pierre smiled. "I reckon we get closer to God out there than you do
here. We sure get the fear of Him even if we don't get nothin' else.
When you fight winter an' all outdoors an' come near to death with
hosses an' what-not, why, I guess you're gettin' close to somethin'
not quite to be explained. Holliwell, he's a first-class sin-buster,
best I ever knowed."

Morena laughed. He was beginning to enjoy his visitor. "Sin-buster?"

"That's one name fer a parson. Well, sir, I guess Holliwell is plumb
close to bein' a prize devil-twister."

"Tell me how you first met him. It ought to be a good story."

But the young man's face grew bleak at this. "It ain't a good story,
sir," he said grimly. "It ain't anything like that. I must wish you
good-by, an' thank you kindly."

"But you'll let me see you again? Where are you stopping? Holliwell's
friends are mine."

Pierre gave him the address of a small, downtown hotel, thanked him
again, and, standing in the hall, added, "If I'm wrong in the notion
that brought me to New York, I'll be goin' back again to my ranch, Mr.
Morena. I'm goin' back to ranchin' on the old homestead. I've got it
fixed up." He seemed to look through Jasper into an enormous distance.
Morena was almost uncannily aware of the long, long journey by which
this man's spirit had trodden, of the desert he faced ahead of him if
the search must fail. Was it wrong to warn Jane? Ought this man to be
given his chance? Surely here stood before him Jane's mate. Jasper
wished that he knew more of the history back of Pierre and the girl. A
man could do little but look out for his own interests, when he worked
in the dark. Which would be the better man for Jane?--this Jane so
trained, so educated, so far removed superficially from the
ungrammatical, bronzed, clumsily dressed, graceful visitor. In every
worldly respect, doubtless, Prosper Gael. Only--there were Pierre's
eyes and the soul looking out of them.

Jasper said good-bye half-absently.

An hour later he went to call on Jane.

He found her done up in an apron and a dust-cap cleaning house with
astonishing spirit. She and the Bridget, who had recently been
substituted for Mathilde, were merry. Bridget was sitting on the sill,
her upper half shut out, her round, brick-colored face laughing
through the pane she was polishing. Jane was up a ladder, dusting
books.

She came down to greet Morena, and he saw regretfully the sad change
in her face and bearing which his arrival caused. Bridget was sent to
the kitchen. Jane made apologies, and sitting on the ladder step she
looked up at him with the look of some one who expects a blow.

"What is it now, Mr. Morena? Have the lawyers begun to--"

He had purposely kept her in the dark, purposely neglected her, left
her to loneliness, in the hope of furthering the purposes of Prosper
Gael.

"I haven't come to discuss that, Jane. Soon I hope to have good news
for you. But to-day I've come to give you a hint--a warning, in
fact--to prepare you for what I am sure will be a shock."

"Yes?" She was flushed and breathing fast. Her fingers were busy with
the feather-duster on her knee and her eyes were still waiting.

"I had a visitor this morning--Pierre Landis, of Wyoming."

She rose, came to him, and clutched his arm. "Pierre? Pierre?" She
looked around her, wild as a captured bird. "Oh, I must go! I must
go!"

"Jane, my child,"--he put his arm about her, held her two hands in
his,--"you must do nothing of the kind. If you don't want this Pierre
to find you, if you don't want him to come into your life, there's an
easy, a very simple, way to put an end to his pursuit. Don't you know
that?"

She stared up at him, quivering in his arm. "No. What is it? How can
I? Oh, he mustn't see me! Never, never, never! I made that promise to
myself."

"Jane, you say yourself that you are changed, that you are not the
girl he wants to find."

She shook her head desolately enough. "Oh, no, I'm not."

"He isn't sure that Jane West is the woman he's looking for. He's
following the faintest, the most doubtful, of trails. He heard of you
from Yarnall; the description of you and your sudden flight made him
fairly sure that it must be--you--" Jasper laughed. "I'm talking quite
at random in a sense, because I haven't a notion, my dear, who you are
nor what this Pierre has been in your life. If you could tell me--?"

She shook her head. "No," she said; "no."

"Very well. Then I'll have to go on talking at random. Jane at the
Lazy-Y Ranch was a woman who had deliberately disguised herself. Jane
West in New York is a different woman altogether; but, unless I'm very
wrong, she is even more completely disguised from Pierre Landis. If
you can convince Pierre that you are Jane West, not any other woman,
certainly not the woman he once knew, aren't you pretty safely rid of
him for always?"

She stood still now. He felt that her fingers were cold. "Yes. For
always. I suppose so. But how can I do that, Mr. Morena?"

"Nothing easier. You're an actress, aren't you? I advised Pierre
Landis to stand near the stage exit to-night and watch you get into
your motor."

Again she clutched at him. "Oh, no. Don't--don't let him do that!"

"Now, if you will make an effort, look him in the eyes, refuse to show
a single quiver of recognition, speak to some one in the most
artificial tone you can manage, pass him by, and drive away, why,
wouldn't that convince him that you aren't his quarry--eh?"

She thought! then slowly drew herself away and stood, her head bent,
her brows drawn sharply together. "Yes. I suppose so. I think I can do
it. That is the best plan." She looked at him wildly again. "Then it
will be over for always, won't it? He'll go away?"

"Yes, my poor child. He will go away. He told me so. Then, will you
try to forget him, to live your life for its own beautiful sake? I'd
like to see you happy, Jane."

"Would you?" She smiled like a pitying mother. "Why, I've given up
even dreaming of that. That isn't what keeps me going."

"What is it, then, Jane?"

"Oh, a queer notion." She laughed sadly. "A kind of kid's notion, I
guess, that if you live along, some way, some time, you'll be able to
make up for things you've done, and that perhaps there'll be another
meeting-place--a kind of a round-up--where you'll be fit to forgive
those you love and to be forgiven by them."

Jasper walked about. He was touched and troubled. Some minutes later
he said doubtfully, "Then you'll carry through your purpose of not
letting Pierre know you?"

"Yes. I've made up my mind to that. That's what I've got to do. He
mustn't find me. We can't meet here in this life. That's certain.
There are things that come between, things like bars." She made a
strange gesture as of a prisoner running his fingers across the barred
window of a cell. "Thank you for warning me. Thank you for telling me
what to do." She smiled faintly. "I think he will know me, anyway,"
she said, "but I won't know him. Never! Never!"

That night the theater was late in emptying itself. Jane West had acted
with especial brilliance and she was called out again and again. When
she came to her dressing-room she was flushed and breathless. She did
not change her costume, but drew her fur coat on over the green evening
dress she had worn in the last scene. Then she stood before her mirror,
looking herself over carefully, critically. Now that the paint was
washed off, and the flush of excitement faded, she looked haggard and
white. Her face was very thin, its beautiful bones--long sweep of jaw,
wide brow, straight, short nose--sharply accentuated. The round throat
rising against the fur collar looked unnaturally white and long. She
sat down before her dressing-table and deliberately painted her cheeks
and lips. She even altered the outlines of her mouth, giving it a
pursed and doll-like expression, so that her eyes appeared enormous and
her nose a little pinched. Then she drew a lock of waved hair down
across the middle of her forehead, pressed another at each side close
to the corners of her eyes. This took from the unusual breadth of brow
and gave her a much more ordinary look. A coat of powder, heavily
applied, more nearly produced the effect of a pink-and-white,
glassy-eyed doll-baby for which she was trying. Afterwards she turned
and smiled doubtfully at the astonished dresser.

"Good gracious, Miss West! You don't look like yourself at all!"

"Good!"

She said good-night and went rapidly down the draughty passages and
the concrete stairs. Jasper was standing inside the outer door and
applauded her.

"Well done. If it weren't for your pose and walk, my dear, I should
hardly have known you myself."

Joan stood beside him, holding her furs close, breathing fast through
the parted, painted lips.

"Is he here, do you know?"

"Yes. He's been waiting. I told him you might be late. Now, keep your
head. Everything depends upon that. Can you do it?"

"Oh, yes. Is the car there? I won't have to stop?"

"Not an instant. But give him a good looking-over so that he'll be
sure, and don't change the expression of your eyes. Feel, make
yourself feel inside, that he's a stranger. You know what I mean.
Good-night, my dear. Good luck. I'll call you up as soon as you get
home--that is, after I've seen your pursuer safely back to his rooms."
But this last sentence was addressed to himself.

Joan opened the door and stepped out into the chill dampness of the
April night. The white arc of electric light beat down upon her as she
came forward and it fell as glaringly upon the figure of Pierre. He
had pushed forward from the little crowd of nondescripts always
waiting at a stage exit, and stood, bareheaded, just at the door of
her motor drawn up by the curb. She saw him instantly and from the
first their eyes met. It was a horrible moment for Joan. What it was
for him, she could tell by the tense pallor of his keen, bronzed face.
The eyes she had not seen for such an agony of years, the strange,
deep, iris-colored eyes, there they were now searching her. She
stopped her heart in its beating, she stopped her breath, stopped her
brain. She became for those few seconds just one thought--"I have
never seen you. I have never seen you." She passed so close to him
that her fur touched his hand, and she looked into his face with a
cool, half-disdainful glitter of a smile.

"Step aside, please," she said; "I must get in." Her voice was
unnaturally high and quite unnaturally precise.

Pierre said one word, a hopeless word. "Joan." It was a prayer. It
should have been, "Be Joan." Then he stepped back and she stumbled
into shelter.

At the same instant another man--a man in evening dress--hastily
prevented her man from closing the door.

"Miss West, may I see you home?"

Before she could speak, could do more than look, Prosper Gael had
jumped in, the door slammed, the car began its whirr, and they were
gliding through the crowded, brilliant streets.

Joan had bent forward and was rocking to and fro.

"He called me 'Joan,'" she gasped over and over. "He called me
'Joan.'"

"That was Pierre?" Prosper had been forewarned by Jasper and had
planned his part.

She kept on rocking, holding her hands on either side of her face.

"I must go away. If I see him again I shall die. I could never do that
another time. O God! His hand touched me. He called me 'Joan' ... I
must go...."

Prosper did not touch her, but his voice, very friendly, very calm,
had an instantaneous effect. "I will take you away."

She laughed shakily. "Again?" she asked, and shamed him into silence.

But after a while he began very reasonably, very patiently:

"I can take you away so that you need not be put through this
unnecessary pain. I can arrange it with Morena. If Pierre sees you
often enough, he will be sure to recognize you. Joan, I did not
deserve that 'again' and you know it. I am a changed man. If you don't
know that now I have the heart of--of devotion, of service, toward
you, you are indeed a blind and stupid woman. But you do know it. You
must."

She sat silent beside him, the long and slender hand between her face
and him.

"I can take you away," he went on presently, "and keep you from Pierre
until he has given up his search and has gone West again. And I can
take you at once--in a day or two. Your understudy can fill the part.
This engagement is almost at an end. I can make it up to Morena. After
all, if we go, we shall be doing Betty and him a service."

Joan flung out her hands recklessly. "Oh," she cried, "what does it
matter? Of course I'll go. I'd run into the sea to escape Pierre--"
She leaned back against the cushioned seat, rolled her head a little
from side to side like a person in pain. "Take me away," she repeated.
"I believe that if I stay I shall go mad. I'll go anywhere--with any
one. Only take me away."





Next: The Leopardess

Previous: The Spider



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