Left Hand.ca - Take the left handed quick quiz. Visit Left Hand.caInformational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Leopardess







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

Pierre stood before the cheap bureau of his ugly hotel bedroom turning
a red slip of cardboard about in his fingers. The gas-jet sputtering
above his head threw heavy shadows down on his face. It was the face
of hopeless, heartsick youth, the muscles sagging, the eyes dull, the
lips tight and pale. Since last night when the contemptuous glitter of
Joan's smile had fallen upon him, he had neither slept nor eaten.
Jasper had joined him at the theater exit, had walked home with him,
and, while he was with the manager, Pierre's pride and reserve had
held him up. Afterwards he had ranged the city like a prairie wolf,
ranged it as though it had been an unpeopled desert, free to his
stride. He had fixed his eyes above and beyond and walked alone in
pain.

Dawn found him again in his room. What hope had sustained him, what
memory of Joan, what purpose of tenderness toward her--these hopes and
memories and purposes now choked and twisted him. He might have found
her, his "gel," his Joan, with her dumb, loving gaze; he might have
told her the story of his sorrow in such a way that she, who forgave
so easily, would have forgiven even him, and he might have comforted
her, holding her so and so, showing her utterly the true, unchanged,
greatly changed love of his chastened heart. This girl, this love of
his, whom, in his drunken, jealous madness, he had branded and driven
away, he would have brought her back and tended her and made it up to
her in a thousand, in ten thousand, ways. Pierre knelt by his bed, his
black head buried in the cover, his arms bent above it, his hands
clenched. Out there he had never lost hope of finding her, but here,
in this peopled loneliness, with a memory of that woman's heartless
smile, he did at last despair. In a strange, torturing way she had
been like Joan. His heart had jumped to his mouth at first sight of
her. And just there, to his shoulder where her head reached, had
Joan's dear black head reached too. Pierre groaned aloud. The picture
of her was so vivid. Not in months had the reality of his "gel" come
so close to his imagination. He could feel her--feel her! O God!

That was the sort of night he had spent and the next day he passed in
a lethargy. He had no heart to face the future now that the great
purpose of his life had failed. Holliwell's God of comfort and
forgiveness forsook him. What did he want with a God when that one
comrade of his lonely, young, human life was out there lost by his own
cruelty! Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps the wound had killed her. For
all these years she might have been lying dead somewhere in the snow,
under the sky. Sharp periods of pain followed dull periods of stupor.
Now it was night again and a recollection of Jasper's theater ticket
had dragged him to a vague purpose. He wanted to see again that woman
who had so vivified his memory of Joan. It would be hateful to see her
again, but he wanted the pain. He dressed and groomed himself
carefully. Then, feeling a little faint, he went out into the
clattering, glaring night.

Pierre's experience of theater-going was exceedingly small. He had
never been in so large a play-house as this one of Morena's; he had
never seen so large and well-dressed an audience; never heard a full
and well-trained orchestra. In spite of himself, he began to be
distracted, excited, stirred. When the curtain rose on the beautiful
tropical scene, the lush island, the turquoise sea, the realistic
strip of golden sand, Pierre gave an audible oath of admiration and
surprise. The people about him began to be amused by the excitement of
this handsome, haggard young man, so graceful and intense, so
different with his hardness and leanness, the brilliance of his eyes,
the brownness of his skin. His clothes were good enough, but they
fitted him with an odd air of disguise. An experienced eye would
inevitably have seen the appropriateness of flannel shirt, gay silk
neck-handkerchief, boots, spurs, and chaparreras. Pierre was
entirely unaware of being interesting or different. At that moment,
caught up in the action of the play, he was as outside of himself as a
child.

The palms of stage-land stirred, the ferns swayed; between then: tall,
vivid greenness came Joan with her tread and grace and watchful eyes
of a leopardess, her loose, wild hair decked with flowers: these and
her make-up and her thinness disguised her completely from Pierre, but
again his heart came to his throat and, when she put her hands up to
her mouth and called, his pulses gave a leap. He shut his eyes. He
remembered a voice calling him in to supper. "Pi-erre! Pi-erre!" He
could sniff the smoke of his cabin fire. He opened his eyes. Of
course, she wasn't Joan, this strange, gaunt creature. Besides, his
wife could never have done what this woman was doing. Why, Joan
couldn't talk like this, she couldn't act to save her soul! She was as
simple as a child, and shy, with the unself-conscious shyness of wild
things. To be sure, this "actress-lady" was making-believe she was a
wild thing, and she was doing it almighty well, but Joan had been the
reality, and grave and still, part of his own big, grave, mountain
country, not a fierce, man-devouring animal of the tropics. Pierre
lived in the play with all but one fragment of his brain, and that
remembered Joan. It hurt like a hot coal, but he deliberately ignored
the pain of it. He followed the action breathlessly, applauded with
contagious fervor, surreptitiously rid himself of tears, and when, in
the last scene, the angry, jealous woman sprang upon her tamer, he
muttered, "Serve you right, you coyote!" with an oath of the cow-camp
that made one of his neighbors jump and throttle a startled laugh.

The curtain fell, and while the applause rose and died down and rose
again, and the people called for "Jane West! Jane West!" the
stage-director, a plump little Jew, came out behind the footlights and
held up his hand. There was a gradual silence.

"I want to make an interesting announcement," he said; "the author of
'The Leopardess' has hitherto maintained his anonymity, but to-night I
have permission to give you his name. He is in the theater to-night.
The name is already familiar to you as that of the author of a popular
novel, 'The Canyon': Prosper Gael."

There was a stir of interest, a general searching of the house,
clapping, cries of "Author! Author!" and in a few moments Prosper Gael
left his box and appeared beside the director in answer to the calls.
He was entirely self-possessed, looked even a little bored, but he was
very white. He stood there bowing, a graceful and attractive figure,
and he was about to begin a speech when he was interrupted by a
renewed calling for "Jane West!" The audience wanted to see the star
and the author side by side. Pierre joined in the clamor.

After a little pause Jane West came out from the opposite wing,
walking slowly, dressed in her green gown, jewels on her neck and in
her hair. She did not look toward the audience at all, nor bow, nor
smile, and for some reason the applause began to falter as though the
sensitive mind of the crowd was already aware that here something must
be wrong. She came very slowly, her arms hanging, her head bent, her
eyes looking up from under her brows, and she stood beside Prosper
Gael, whose forced smile had stiffened on his lips. He looked at her
in obvious fear, as a man might look at a dangerous madwoman. There
must have been madness in her eyes. She stood there for a strange,
terrible moment, moving her head slightly from side to side. Then she
said something in a very low tone. Because of the extraordinary
carrying quality of her voice--the question was heard by every one
there present:

"You wrote the play? You wrote the play?"

She said it twice. She seemed to quiver, to gather herself together,
her hands bent, her arms lifted. She flew at Prosper with all the
sudden strength of her insanity.

There was an outcry, a confusion. People rushed to Gael's assistance.
Men caught hold of Joan, now struggling frantically. It was a dreadful
sight, mercifully a brief one. She collapsed utterly, fell forward,
the strap of her gown breaking in the grasp of one of the men who held
her. For an instant every one in the audience saw a strange double
scar that ran across her shoulder to the edge of the shoulder-blade.
It was like two bars.

Pierre got to his feet, dropped back, and hid his face. Then he was
up, and struggling past excited people down the row, out into the
aisle, along it, hurrying blindly down unknown passages till somehow
he got himself into that confused labyrinth behind the scenes. Here a
pale, distracted scene-shifter informed him that Miss West had already
been taken home.

Pierre got the address, found his way out to the street, hailed a
taxicab, and threw himself into it. He sat forward, every muscle
tight; he felt that he could take the taxicab up and hurl it forward,
so terrible was his impatience.

An apartment house was a greater novelty to him even than a theater,
but, after a dazed moment of discovering that he did not have to ring
or knock, but just push open the great iron-scrolled door and step
into the brightly lighted, steam-heated marble hall, he decided that
the woman at the desk was a person in authority, and to her he
addressed himself, soft hat gripped in his hand, his face set to hide
excitement.

The girl was pale and red-eyed. They had brought Miss West in a few
minutes ago, she told him, and carried her up. She was still
unconscious; poor thing! "I don't think you could see her, sir. Mr.
Morena is up there, and Mr. Gael, and a doctor. A trained nurse has
been sent for. Everything in the world will be done. She's such an
elegant actress, ain't she? I've often seen her myself. And so kind
and pleasant always. Yes, sir. I'll ask, if you like, but I'm sure
they won't allow you up."

She put the receiver to her ear, pushed in the black plug, and Pierre
listened to her questions.

"Can Miss West see any one? Can an old friend"--for so Pierre had
named himself--"be allowed to see her? No. I thought not." This, with
a sympathetic glance at Pierre. "She is not conscious yet. Dangerously
ill."

"Could I speak to the doctor?" Pierre asked hoarsely.

"The gentleman wants to know if he can speak to the doctor. Certainly
not at present. If he will wait, the doctor will speak to him on the
way out."

Pierre sat on the bench and waited. He leaned forward, elbows on
knees, head crushed in both hands, and the woman stared at him
pitilessly--not that he was aware of her scrutiny. His eyes looked
through his surroundings to Joan. He saw her in every pose and in
every look in which he had ever seen her, and, with a very sick and
frightened heart, he saw her, at the last, pass by him in her fur
coat, throwing him that half-contemptuous look and smile. She didn't
know him. Was he changed so greatly? Or was the change in her so
enormous that it had disassociated her completely from her old life,
from him? He kept repeating to himself Holliwell's stern, admonishing
speech: "However changed for the worse she may be when you do find
her, Pierre, you must remember that it is your fault, your sin. You
must not judge her, must not dare to judge her. Judge yourself.
Condemn yourself. It is for her to forgive if she can bring herself to
do it."

So now Pierre fought down his suspicions and his fears. He had not
recognized Prosper. The man who had come in out of the white night,
four years ago, had worn his cap low over his eyes, his collar turned
up about his face, and, even at that, Pierre, in his drunken stupor,
had not been able to see him very clearly. This Prosper Gael who had
stood behind the footlights, this Prosper Gael at whom Joan, from some
unknown cause, had sprung like a woman maddened by injury, was a
person entirely strange to Pierre. But Pierre hated him. The man had
done Joan some insufferable mischief, which at the last had driven her
beside herself. Pierre put up a hand, pressing it against his eyes. He
wanted to shut out the picture of that struggling girl with her torn
dress and the double scar across her shoulder. If it hadn't been for
the scar he would never have known her--his Joan, his gentle, silent
Joan! What had they been doing to her to change her so? No, not they.
He. He had changed her. He had branded her and driven her out. It was
his fault. He must try to find her again, to find the old Joan--if she
should live. The doctor had said that she was desperately ill. O God!
What was keeping him so long? Why didn't he come?

The arrival of the trained nurse distracted Pierre for a few moments.
She went past him in her gray cloak, very quiet and earnest, and the
elevator lifted her out of sight.

"Were you in the theater to-night?" asked the girl at the desk, seeing
that he was temporarily aware of her again.

"Yes, ma'am."

She was puzzled by his appearance and the fashion of his speech. He
must be a gentleman, she thought, for his bearing was gentle and
assured and unself-conscious, but he wore his clothes differently and
spoke differently from other gentlemen. That "Yes, ma'am," especially
disturbed her. Then she remembered a novel she had read and her mind
jumped to a conclusion. She leaned forward.

"Say, aren't you from the West?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"You weren't ever a cowboy, were you?"

Pierre smiled. "Yes, ma'am. I was raised in a cow-camp. I was a cowboy
till about seven years ago when I took to ranchin'."

"Where was that?"

"Out in Wyoming."

"And you've come straight from there to New York?" She pronounced it
"Noo Yoik."

"No, ma'am. I've been in Alasky for two years now. I've been in a
lumber-camp."

"Gee! That's real interesting. And you knew Miss West before she came
East, then?"

"Yes, ma'am." But there was a subtle change in Pierre's patient voice
and clear, unhappy eyes, so that the girl fell to humming and bottled up
her curiosity. But just as soon as he began to brood again she gave up
her whole mind to staring at him. Gee! He was brown and strong and thin!
And a good-looker! She wished that she had worn her transformation that
evening and her blue blouse. He might have taken more interest in her.

A stout, bald-headed man, bag in hand, stepped out of the elevator,
and Pierre rippled to his feet.

"Are you the doctor?"

"Yes. Oh, you're the gentleman who wanted to see Miss West. She's come
to, but she is out of her head completely ... doesn't know any one.
Can you step out with me?"

Pierre kept beside him and stood by the motor, hat still in his hand,
while the doctor talked irritably: "No. You certainly can't see her,
for some time. I shall not allow any one to see her, except the nurse.
It will be a matter of weeks. She'll be lucky if she gets back her
sanity at all. She was entirely out of her head there at the theater.
She's worn out, nerves frayed to a frazzle. Horribly unhealthy life
and unnatural. To take a country girl, an ignorant, untrained, healthy
animal, bring her to the city and force her under terrific pressure
into a life so foreign to her--well! it was just a piece of d----d
brutality." Then his acute eye suddenly fixed itself on the man
standing on the curb listening.

"You're from the West yourself?"

"Yes, sir."

"Knew her in the old days--eh?"

"Yes, sir." Pierre's voice was faint and he put a hand against the
motor.

"Well, why don't you take her back with you to that life? You're not
feeling any too fit yourself, are you? Look here. Get in and I'll drop
you where you belong."

Pierre obeyed rather blindly and leaned back with closed eyes. The
doctor got out a flask and poured him a dose of brandy.

"What's the trouble? Too much New York?"

Pierre shook his head and smiled. "No, sir. I've been bothered and
didn't get round to eating and sleeping lately."

"Then I'll take you to a restaurant and we'll have supper. I need
something myself. And, look here, I'll make you a promise. Just as
soon as I consider her fit for an interview with any one, I'll let you
see Miss West. That helps you a whole lot, doesn't it?"

But there were other powers, besides this friendly one, watching over
Joan, and they were bent upon keeping Pierre away. Day after sickening
day Pierre came and stood beside the desk, and the girl, each time a
little more careless of him, a little more insolent toward him--for
the cowboy would not notice her blue blouse and her transformation and
the invitation of her eyes--gave him negligent and discouraging
information.

"Miss West was better, but very weak. No. She wouldn't see any one.
Yes, Mr. Morena could see her, but not Mr. Landis, certainly not Mr.
Pierre Landis, of Wyoming."

And the doctor, being questioned by the half-frantic Westerner,
admitted that Mr. Morena had hinted at reasons why it might be
dangerous for the patient to see her old friend from the West. Pierre
stood to receive this sentence, and after it, his eyes fell. The
doctor had seen the quick, desperate moisture in them.

"I tell you what, Landis," he said, putting a hand on Pierre's
shoulder. "I'm willing to take a risk. I'm sure of one thing. Miss
West hasn't even heard of your inquiries."

"You mean Morena's making it up--about her not being willing to see
me?"

"I do mean that. And no doubt he's doing it with the best intentions.
But I'm willing to take a risk. See those stairs? You run up them to
the fifth floor. The nurse is out. Gael is in attendance; that is,
he's in the sitting-room. She doesn't know of his presence, hasn't
been allowed to see him. Miss West's door--the outside one--is ajar.
Go up. Get past Gael if you can. Behave yourself quietly, and if you
see the least sign of weakness on the part of Miss West, or if she
shows the slightest disinclination for your company, come down--I'm
trusting you--as quickly as you can and tell me. I'll wait. Have I
your promise?"

"Yes, sir," gasped Pierre.

The doctor smiled at the swift, leaping grace of his Western friend's
ascent. He was anxious concerning the result of his experiment, but
there was a memory upon him of a haunted look in Joan's eyes that
seemed the fellow to a look of Pierre's. He rather believed in
intuitions, especially his own.





Next: The End Of The Trail

Previous: The Clean Wild Thing



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 467