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The Spider







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

"Hullo. Is this Mrs. Morena?"

Betty held the receiver languidly. Her face had grown very thin and
her eyes were patient. They were staring now absently through the
front window of Woodward Kane's sitting-room at a day of driving April
rain.

"Yes. This is Mrs. Morena."

The next speech changed her into a flushed and palpitating girl.

"Mr. Gael wishes to know, madam,"--the man-servant recited his lesson
automatically,--"if you have seen the exhibition of Foster's
water-colors, Fifty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. He wants to know
if you will be there this afternoon at five o'clock. No. 88 in the
inner room is the picture he would especially like you to notice,
madam."

Betty's hand and voice were trembling.

"No. I haven't seen it." She hesitated, looking at the downpour. "Tell
him, please, that I will be there."

Her voice trailed off doubtfully.

The man at the other end clipped out a "Very well, madam," and hung
up.

Betty was puzzled. Why had Prosper sent her this message, made this
appointment by his servant? Perhaps because he was afraid that, in her
exaggerated caution, she might refuse to meet him if she could explain
to him the reason for her refusal, or gauge the importance of his
request. With a servant she could do neither, and the very uncertainty
would force her to accept. It was a dreadful day. Nobody would be out,
certainly not at the tea-hour, to look at Foster's pictures--an
insignificant exhibition. Betty felt triumphant. At last, this far too
acquiescent lover had rebelled against her decree of silence and
separation.

At five o'clock she stepped out of her taxicab, made a run for
shelter, and found herself in the empty exhibition rooms. She checked
her wrap and her umbrella, took a catalogue from the little table,
chatted for a moment with the man in charge, then moved about, looking
carelessly at the pictures. No. 88 in the inner room! Her heart was
beating violently, the hand in her muff was cold. She went slowly
toward the inner room and saw at once that, under a small canvas at
its far end, Prosper stood waiting for her.

He waited even after he had seen her smile and quickening step, and
when he did come forward, it was with obvious reluctance. Betty's
smile faded. His face was haggard and grim, unlike itself; his eyes
lack-luster as she had never seen them. This was not the face of an
impatient lover. It was--she would not name it, but she was conscious
of a feeling of angry sickness.

He took her hand and forced a smile.

"Betty, I thought you disapproved of this kind of thing. I think,
myself, it's rather imprudent to arrange a meeting through your maid."

Betty jerked away her hand, drew a sharp breath. "What do you mean? I
didn't arrange this meeting. It was you--your man."

They became simultaneously aware of a trap. It had sprung upon them.
With the look of trapped things, they stared at each other, and Betty
instinctively looked back over her shoulder. There stood Jasper in the
doorway of the room. He looked like the most casual of visitors to an
art-gallery, he carried a catalogue in his hand. When he saw that he
was seen he smiled easily and came over to them.

"You will have to forgive me," he murmured pleasantly; "you see, it
was necessary to see you both together and Betty is not willing to
allow me an interview. I am sorry to have chosen a public place and to
have used a trick to get you here, but I could not think of any other
plan. This is really private enough. I have arranged this exhibition
for Foster and it is closed to the public to-day. We got in by special
permit--a fact you probably missed. And, after all, civilized people
ought to be able to talk about anything without excitement."

Betty's eyes glared at him. "I will not stay! This is insufferable!"

But he put out his hand and something in his gesture compelled her.
She sat down on the round, plush seat in the middle of the room and
looked up at the two men helplessly. Joan had once leaned in a
doorway, silent and unconsulted, while two men, her father and Pierre,
settled their property rights in her. Betty was, after all, in no
better case. She listened, whiter and whiter, till at the last she
slowly raised her muff and pressed it against her twisted mouth.

Morena stood with his hand resting on the high back of the circular seat
almost directly above Betty's head. It seemed to hold her there like a
bar. But it was at Prosper he looked, to Prosper he spoke. "My friend,"
he began, and the accentuation of the Hebraic quality of his voice had
an instantaneous effect upon his two listeners. Both Prosper and Betty
knew he was master of some intense agitation. They were conscious of an
increasing rapidity of their pulses. "My friend, I thought that I knew
you fairly well, as one man knows another, but I find that there have
been certain limits to my knowledge. How extraordinary it is! This inner
world of our own lives which we keep closely to ourselves! I have a
friend, yes, a very good friend, a very dear friend,"--the ironic
insistence upon this word gave Prosper the shock of a repeated
blow,--"and I fancy, in the ignorance of my conceit, that this friend's
life is sufficiently open to my understanding. I see him leave college,
I see him go out on various adventures. I share with him, by letters and
confidences, the excitement of these adventures. I know with regret that
he suffers from ill-health and goes West, and there, with a great deal
of sympathy, I imagine him living, drearily enough, in some small,
health-giving Western town, writing his book and later his play which he
has so generously allowed me to produce."

"What the devil are you after, Jasper?"

"But I do my friend an injustice," went on the manager, undiverted.
"His career is infinitely more romantic. He has built himself a little
log house amongst the mountains, and he has decorated it and laid in a
supply of dainty and exquisite stuffs. I believe that there is even an
outing suit, small and narrow--"

"My God!" said Prosper, very low.

There was a silence. Jasper moved slightly, and Prosper started, but
the Jew stayed in his former place, only that he bent his head a
little, half-closed his eyes, and marked time with the hand that was
not buried in the plush above Betty's head. He recited in a heavy
voice, and it was here that Betty raised her muff!

Jasper is dying. By the time you get this letter 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 to you again, only
this time we can love openly. Come back.

"I am going mad!" said Prosper harshly, and indeed his face had a
pinched, half-crazy look.

The Jew waved his hand. "Oh, no, no, no. It is only that you are
making a discovery. Letters should be burnt, my friend, not torn and
thrown away, but burnt." He stood up to his stateliest height and he
made a curious and rather terrible gesture of breaking something
between his two hands. "I have this letter and I hold you and
Betty--so!" he said softly--"so!"

Betty spoke. "I might have told you that I loved him, that I have
loved him for years, Jasper. If you use this evidence, if you bring
this counter-suit, it will bring about the same, the very same,
result. Prosper and I--" She broke off choking.

"Of course. Betty and I will be married at once, as soon as she gets
her divorce, or you get yours." But Prosper's voice was hollow and
strained.

"You will be married, Betty," went on Jasper as calmly as before;
"you, branded in the eyes of the world as an unfaithful wife, will be
married to a man who has ceased to love you."

"That is not true," said Betty.

"Look at his face, my dear. Look at it carefully. Now, watch it
closely. Prosper Gael, if I should tell that with a little patience, a
little skill, a little unselfishness, you could win a certain woman
who once loved you--eh?--a certain Jane West, could you bring yourself
to marry this discarded wife of mine?"

Betty sprang up and caught Prosper's arm in her small hand.

"He is tired of you, Betty. He loves Jane West." Jasper laughed
shortly, looking at the tableau they made: Prosper white, caught in
the teeth of honor, his face set to hide its secret, Betty reading his
eyes, his soul.

"I am entirely yours, in your hands," said Prosper Gael.

Betty shook his arm and let it go. "You are lying. You love the woman.
Do you think I can't see?"

"It will be a very strange divorce suit," went on Jasper. "Your
lawyers, Betty, will perhaps prove your case. My lawyers will
certainly prove mine, and, when we find ourselves free, our--our
lovers will then unite in holy matrimony--rather an original outcome."

"Will you go, Prosper?" asked Betty. It was a command.

He saw that, at that moment, his presence was intolerable to her.

"Of course. If you wish it. Jasper, you know where to find me, and,
Betty,"--he turned to her with a weary tenderness,--"forgive me and
make use of me, if you will, as you will."

He went out quickly, feeling himself a coward to leave her, knowing
that he would be a coward to stay to watch the anguish of her broken
heart and pride. For an instant he did hesitate and look back. They
were standing together, calmly, man and wife. What could he do to help
them, he that had broken their lives?

Betty turned to Jasper, still with the muff before her mouth, looking
at him above it with her wide, childlike, desperate eyes.

"What do you get out of this, Jasper? I will go to Woodward. I will
never come back to you.... Is it revenge?"

"If so," said Jasper, "it isn't yet complete. Betty, you have been
rash to pit yourself against me. You must have known that I would
break you utterly. I will break you, my dear, and I will have you
back, and I will be your master instead of your servant, and I will
love you--"

"You must be mad. I'm afraid of you. Please let me go."

"In a moment, when you have learned what home you have to go to. This
morning I had an interview with your brother in his office, and he
wrote this letter that I have in my pocket and asked me to give it to
you."

Betty laid down her muff, showing at last the pale and twisted mouth.
Jasper watched her read her brother's letter, and his eyes were as
patient and observant as the eyes of a skillful doctor who has given a
dangerous but necessary draught.

Betty read the small, sharp, careful writing, very familiar to her.

I have instructed your maid to pack your things and to return at
once to your husband's house. He is a much too merciful man. You
have treated him shamelessly. I can find no excuse for you. My
house is definitely closed to you. I will send you no money,
allow you no support, countenance you in no way. This is final.
You have only one course, to return humbly and with penitence to
your husband, submit yourself to him, and learn to love and
honor and obey him as he deserves. The evidence of your guilt is
incontrovertible. I utterly disbelieve your story against him.
It is part of your sin, and it is easily to be explained in the
light of my present knowledge of your real character. Whether
you return to Morena or not, I emphatically reassert that I will
not see you or speak to you again. You are to my mind a woman of
shameless life, such a woman as I should feel justified in
turning out of any decent household.

Woodward Kane

The room turned giddily about Betty. She saw the whole roaring city
turn about her, and she knew that there was no home in it for her. She
could go to Prosper Gael, but at what horrible sacrifice of pride,
and, if Jasper now refused to bring suit, could she ask this man, who
no longer loved her, to keep her as his mistress? What could she do?
Where could she turn? How could she keep herself alive? For the first
time, life, stripped of everything but its hard and ugly bones, faced
her. She had always been sheltered, been dependent, been loved. Once
before she had lost courage and had failed to venture beyond the
familiar shelter of custom and convention. Now, she was again most
horribly afraid. Anything was better than this feeling of being lost,
alone. She looked at Jasper. At that moment he was nothing but a
protector, a means of life, and he knew it.

"Will you come home with me now?" he asked her bitterly.

Betty forced the twisted mouth to speech. "What else is there for me
to do?" she said.





Next: The Clean Wild Thing

Previous: Gray Envelopes



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