The Leopardess





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.





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