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The Training Of A Leopardess







Part of: THE TWO-BAR BRAND
From: The Branding Iron

On that evening Prosper began to talk. The unnatural self-repression
he had practiced gave way before the flood of his sociability. It was
Joan's amazing beauty as she stumbled wretchedly into the circle of
his firelight, her neck drawn up to its full length, her head crowned
high with soft, black masses, her lids dropped under the weight of
shyness, vivid fright in her distended pupils, scarlet in her
cheeks,--Joan's beauty of long, strong lines draped to advantage for
the first time in soft and clinging fabrics,--that touched the spring
of Prosper's delighted egotism. There it was again, the ideal
audience, the necessary atmosphere, the beautiful, gracious,
intelligent listener. He forgot her ignorance, her utter simplicity,
the unplumbed emptiness of her experience, and he spread out his
colorful thoughts before her in colorful words, the mental plumage of
civilized courtship.

After dinner, now sipping from the small coffee cup in his hand, now
setting it down to move excitedly about the room, he talked of his
life, his book, his plans. He told anecdotes, strange adventures; he
drew his own inverted morals; he sketched his fantastic opinions; he
was in truth fascinating, a speaking face, a lithe, brilliant presence,
a voice of edged persuasion. He turned witty phrases. Poor Joan! One
sentence in ten she understood and answered with her slow smile and her
quaint, murmured, "Well!" His eloquence did her at least the service of
making her forget herself. She was rather crestfallen because he had
not complimented her; his veiled look of appreciation, this coming to
of his real self was too subtle a flattery for her perception.
Nevertheless, his talk pleased her. She did not want to disappoint him,
so she drew herself up straight in the big red-lacquered chair, sipped
her coffee, in dainty imitation of him, gave him the full, deep tribute
of her gaze, asked for no explanations and let the astounding
statements he made, the amazing pictures he drew, cut their way
indelibly into her most sensitive and preserving memory.

Afterwards, at night, for the first time she did not weep for Pierre,
the old lost Pierre who had so changed into a torturer, but, wakeful,
her brain on fire, she pondered over and over the things she had just
heard, feeling after their meaning, laying aside for future
enlightenment what was utterly incomprehensible, arguing with herself
as to the truth of half-comprehended speeches--an ignorant child
wrestling with a modern philosophy, tricked out in motley by a ready
wit.

There were more personal memories that gave her a flush of pleasure,
for after midnight, as she was leaving him, he came near to her, took
her hand with a grateful "Joan, you've done so much for me to-night,
you've made me happy," and the request, "You won't put your hair back
to the old way, will you? You will wear pretty things, if I give them
to you, won't you?" in a beseeching spoiled-boy's voice, very amusing
and endearing to her.

He gave her the "pretty things," whole quantities of them, fine linen
to be made up into underwear, soft white and colored silks and
crepes, which Joan, remembering the few lessons in dressmaking she
had had from Maud Upper and with some advice from Prosper, made up not
too awkwardly, accepting the mystery of them as one of Prosper's
magic-makings. And, in the meantime, her education went on. Prosper
read aloud to her, gave her books to read to herself, questioned her,
tutored her, scolded her so fiercely sometimes that Joan would mount
scarlet cheeks and open angry eyes. One day she fairly flung her book
from her and ran out of the room, stamping her feet and shedding
tears. But back she came presently for more, thirsting for knowledge,
eager to meet her trainer on more equal grounds, to be able to answer
him to some purpose, to contradict him, to stagger ever so slightly
the self-assurance of his superiority.

And Prosper enjoyed the training of his captive leopardess, though he
sometimes all but melted over the pathos of her and had much ado to
keep his hands from her unconscious young beauty.

"You're so changed, Joan," he said one day abruptly. "You've grown as
thin as a reed, child; I can see every bone, and your eyes--don't you
ever shut them any more?"

Joan, prone on the skin before the fire, elbows on the fur, hands to
her temples, face bent over a book, looked up impatiently.

"I'd not be talkin' now if I was you, Mr. Gael. You had ought to be
writin' an' I'm readin'. I can't talk an' read; seems when I do a
thing I just hed to do it!"

Prosper laughed and returned chidden to his task, but he couldn't help
watching her, lying there in her blue frock across his floor, like a
tall, thin Magdalene, all her rich hair fallen wildly about her face.
She was such a child, such a child!





Next: Joan Runs Away

Previous: A Matter Of Taste



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