THE BRANDING IRON
THE BRANDING IRON
BY KATHARINE NEWLIN BURT
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
BY ARRANGEMENT WITH HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY THE RIDGWAY COMPANY COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY KATHARINE N. BURT ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
CL PRINTED IN THE U. S. A.
Book One THE TWO-BAR BRAND
I. Joan Reads by Firelight 3 II. Pierre Lays his Hand on a Heart 12 III. Two Pictures in the Fire 21 IV. The Sin-Buster 25 V. Pierre Becomes Alarmed about his Property 32 VI. Pierre Takes Steps to Preserve his Property 42 VII. The Judgment of God 51 VIII. Delirium 56 IX. Dried Rose-Leaves 61 X. Prosper Comes to a Decision 72 XI. The Whole Duty of Woman 80 XII. A Matter of Taste 91 XIII. The Training of a Leopardess 100 XIV. Joan Runs Away 105 XV. Nerves and Intuition 116 XVI. The Tall Child 124 XVII. Concerning Marriage 133
Book Two THE ESTRAY
I. A Wild Cat 151 II. Morena's Wife 161 III. Jane 170 IV. Flight 182 V. Luck's Play 191 VI. Joan and Prosper 205 VII. Aftermath 215 VIII. Against the Bars 227 IX. Gray Envelopes 236 X. The Spider 255 XI. The Clean Wild Thing 266 XII. The Leopardess 284 XIII. The End of the Trail 300
THE BRANDING IRON
Book One THE TWO-BAR BRAND
JOAN READS BY FIRELIGHT
There is no silence so fearful, so breathless, so searching as the night silence of a wild country buried five feet deep in snow. For thirty miles or so, north, south, east, and west of the small, half-smothered speck of gold in Pierre Landis's cabin window, there lay, on a certain December night, this silence, bathed in moonlight. The cold was intense: below the bench where Pierre's homestead lay, there rose from the twisted, rapid river, a cloud of steam, above which the hoar-frosted tops of cottonwood trees were perfectly distinct, trunk, branch, and twig, against a sky the color of iris petals. The stars flared brilliantly, hardly dimmed by the full moon, and over the vast surface of the snow minute crystals kept up a steady shining of their own. The range of sharp, wind-scraped mountains, uplifted fourteen thousand feet, rode across the country, northeast, southwest, dazzling in white armor, spears up to the sky, a sight, seen suddenly, to take the breath, like the crashing march of archangels militant.
In the center of this ring of silent crystal, Pierre Landis's logs shut in a little square of warm and ruddy human darkness. Joan, his wife, made the heart of this defiant space—Joan, the one mind living in this ghostly area of night. She had put out the lamp, for Pierre, starting townward two days before, had warned her with a certain threatening sharpness not to waste oil, and she lay on the hearth, her rough head almost in the ashes, reading a book by the unsteady light of the flames. She followed the printed lines with a strong, dark forefinger and her lips framed the words with slow, whispering motions. It was a long, strong woman's body stretched there across the floor, heavily if not sluggishly built, dressed rudely in warm stuffs and clumsy boots, and it was a heavy face, too, unlit from within, but built on lines of perfect animal beauty. The head and throat had the massive look of a marble fragment stained to one even tone and dug up from Attic earth. And she was reading thus heavily and slowly, by firelight in the midst of this tremendous Northern night, Keats's version of Boccaccio's "Tale of Isabella and the Pot of Basil."
The story for some reason interested her. She felt that she could understand the love of young Lorenzo and of Isabella, the hatred of those two brothers and Isabella's horrible tenderness for that young murdered head. There were even things in her own life that she compared with these; in fact, at every phrase, she stopped, and, staring ahead, crudely and ignorantly visualized, after her own experience, what she had just read; and, in doing so, she pictured her own life.
Her love and Pierre's—her life before Pierre came—to put herself in Isabella's place, she felt back to the days before her love, when she had lived in a desolation of bleak poverty, up and away along Lone River in her father's shack. This log house of Pierre's was a castle by contrast. John Carver and his daughter had shared one room between them; Joan's bed curtained off with gunny-sacking in a corner. She slept on hides and rolled herself up in old dingy patchwork quilts and worn blankets. On winter mornings she would wake covered with the snow that had sifted in between the ill-matched logs. There had been a stove, one leg gone and substituted for by a huge cobblestone; there had been two chairs, a long box, a table, shelves—all rudely made by John; there had been guns and traps and snowshoes, hides, skins, the wings of birds, a couple of fishing-rods—John made his living by legal and illegal trapping and killing. He had looked like a trapped or hunted creature himself, small, furtive, very dark, with long fingers always working over his mouth, a great crooked nose—a hideous man, surely a hideous father. He hardly ever spoke, but sometimes, coming home from the town which he visited several times a year, but to which he had never taken Joan, he would sit down over the stove and go over heavily, for Joan's benefit, the story of his crime and his escape.
Joan always told herself that she would not listen, whatever he said she would stop her ears, but always the story fascinated her, held her, eyes widened on the figure by the stove. He had sat huddled in his chair, gnomelike, his face contorting with the emotions of the story, his own brilliant eyes fixed on the round, red mouth of the stove. The reflection of this scarlet circle was hideously noticeable in his pupils.
"A man's a right to kill his woman if she ain't honest with him," so the story began; "if he finds out she's ben trickin' of him, playin' him off fer another man. That was yer mother, gel; she was a bad woman." There followed a coarse and vivid description of her badness and the manner of it. "That kinder thing no man can let pass by in his wife. I found her"—again the rude details of his discovery—"an' I found him, an' I let him go fer the white-livered coward he was, but her I killed. I shot her dead after she'd said her prayers an' asked God's mercy on her soul. Then I walked off, but they kotched me an' I was tried. They didn't swing me. Out in them parts they knowed I was in my rights; so the boys held, but 'twas a life sentence. They tuk me by rail down to Dawson an' I give 'em the slip, handcuffs an' all. Perhaps 'twas only a half-hearted chase they made fer me. Some of them fellers mebbe had wives of their own." He always stopped to laugh at this point. "An' I cut off up country till I come to a smithy at the edge of a town. I hung round fer a spell till the smith hed gone off an' I got into his place an' rid me of the handcuffs. 'Twas a job, but I wasn't kotched at it an' I made myself free." Followed the story of his wanderings and his hardships and his coming to Lone River and setting out his traps. "In them days there weren't no law ag'in' trappin' beaver. A man could make a honest livin'. Now they've tuk an' made laws ag'in' a man's bread an' butter. I ask ye, if 't ain't wrong on a Tuesday to trap yer beaver, why, 't ain't wrong the follerin' Tuesday. I don't see it, jes becos some fellers back there has made a law ag'in' it to suit theirselves. Anyway, the market fer beaver hides is still prime. Mebbe I'll leave you a fortin, gel. I've saved you from badness, anyhow. I risked a lot to go back an' git you, but I done it. You was playin' out in front of yer aunt's house an' I come fer you. You was a three-year-old an' a big youngster. Says I, 'What's yer name?' Says you, 'Joan Carver'; an' I knowed you by yer likeness to her. By God! I swore I'd save ye. I tuk you off with me, though you put up a fight an' I hed to use you rough to silence you. 'There ain't a-goin' to be no man in yer life, Joan Carver,' says I; 'you an' yer big eyes is a-goin' to be fer me, to do my work an' to look after my comforts. No pretty boys fer you an' no husbands either to go a-shootin' of you down fer yer sins.'" He shivered and shook his head. "No, here you stays with yer father an' grows up a good gel. There ain't a-goin' to be no man in yer life, Joan."
But youth was stronger than the man's half-crazy will, and when she was seventeen, Joan ran away.
She found her way easily enough to the town, for she was wise in the tracks of a wild country, and John's trail townwards, though so rarely used, was to her eyes plain enough; and very coolly she walked into the hotel, past the group of loungers around the stove, and asked at the desk, where Mrs. Upper sat, if she could get a job. Mrs. Upper and the loungers stared, for there were few women in this frontier country and those few were well known. This great, strong girl, heavily graceful in her heavily awkward clothes, bareheaded, shod like a man, her face and throat purely classic, her eyes gray and wide and as secret in expression as an untamed beast's—no one had ever seen the like of her before.
"What's yer name?" asked Mrs. Upper suspiciously. It was Mormon Day in the town; there were celebrations and her house was full; she needed extra hands, but where this wild creature was concerned she was doubtful.
"Joan. I'm John Carver's daughter," answered the girl.
At once comprehension dawned; heads were nodded, then craned for a better look. Yes, the town, the whole country even, had heard of John Carver's imprisoned daughter. Sober and drunk, he had boasted of her and of how there was to be "no man" in her life. It was like dangling ripe fruit above the mouths of hungry boys to make such a boast in such a land. But they were lazy. It was a country of lazy, slow-thinking, slow-moving, and slow-talking adventurers—you will notice this ponderous, inevitable quality of rolling stones—and though men talked with humor not too fine of "travelin' up Lone River for John's gel," not a man had got there. Perhaps the men knew John Carver for a coward, that most dangerous animal to meet in his own lair.
Now here stood the "gel," the mysterious secret goal of desire, a splendid creature, virginal, savage, as certainly designed for man as Eve. The men's eyes fastened upon her, moved and dropped.
"Your father sent you down here fer a job?" asked Mrs. Upper incredulously.
"No. I come." Joan's grave gaze was unchanging. "I'm tired of it up there. I ain't a-goin' back. I'm most eighteen now an' I kinder want a change."
She had not meant to be funny, but a gust of laughter rattled the room. She shrank back. It was more terrifying to her than any cruelty she had fancied meeting her in the town. These were the men her father had forbidden, these loud-laughing, crinkled faces. She had turned to brave them, a great surge of color in her brows.
"Don't mind the boys, dear," spoke Mrs. Upper. "They will laff, joke or none. We ain't none of us blamin' you. It's a wonder you ain't run off long afore now. I can give you a job an' welcome, but you'll be green an' unhandy. Well, sir, we kin learn ye. You kin turn yer hand to chamber-work an' mebbe help at the table. Maud will show you. But, Joan, what will dad do to you? He'll be takin' after you hot-foot, I reckon, an' be fer gettin' you back home as soon as he can."
Joan did not change her look.
"I'll not be goin' back with him," she said.
Her slow, deep voice, chest notes of a musical vibration, stirred the room. The men were hers and gruffly said so. A sudden warmth enveloped her from heart to foot. She followed Mrs. Upper to the initiation in her service, clothed for the first time in human sympathies.
PIERRE LAYS HIS HAND ON A HEART
Maud Upper was the first girl of her own age that Joan had ever seen. Joan went in terror of her and Maud knew this and enjoyed her ascendancy over an untamed creature twice her size. There was the crack of a lion-tamer's whip in the tone of her instructions. That was after a day or two. At first Maud had been horribly afraid of Joan. "A wild thing like her, livin' off there in the hills with that man, why, ma, there's no tellin' what she might be doin' to me."
"She won't hurt ye," laughed Mrs. Upper, who had lived in the wilds herself, having been a frontierman's wife before the days even of this frontier town and having married the hotel-keeper as a second venture. She knew that civilization—this rude place being civilization to Joan—would cow the girl and she knew that Maud's self-assertive buoyancy would frighten the soul of her. Maud was large-hipped, high-bosomed, with a small, round waist much compressed. She carried her head, with its waved brown hair, very high, and shot blue glances down along a short, broad nose. Her mouth was thin and determined, her color high. She had a curiously shallow, weak voice that sounded breathless. She taught Joan impatiently and laughed loudly but not unkindly at her ways.
"Gee, she's awkward, ain't she?" she would say to the men; "trail like a bull moose!"
The men grinned, but their eyes followed Joan's movements. As a matter of fact, she was not awkward. Through her clumsy clothes, the heaviness of her early youth, in spite of all the fetters of her ignorance, her wonderful long bones and her wonderful strength asserted themselves. And she never hurried. At first this apparent sluggishness infuriated Maud. "Get a gait on ye, Joan Carver!" she would scream above the din of the rough meals, but soon she found that Joan's slow movements accomplished a tremendous amount of work in an amazingly short time. There was no pause in the girl's activity. She poured out her strength as a python pours his, noiselessly, evenly, steadily, no haste, no waste. And the men's eyes brooded upon her.
If Joan had stayed long at Mrs. Upper's, she would have begun inevitably to model herself on Maud, who was, in her eyes, a marvelous thing of beauty. But, just a week after her arrival, there came to the inn Pierre Landis and for Joan began the strange and terrible history of love.
In the lives of most women, of the vast majority, the clatter and clash of housewifery prelude and postlude the spring song of their years. And the rattle of dishes, of busy knives and forks, the quick tapping of Maud's attendant feet, the sound of young and ravenous jaws at work: these sounds were in Joan's bewildered ears, and the sights which they accompanied in her bewildered eyes, just before she heard Pierre's voice, just before she saw his face.
It was dinner hour at the hotel, an hour most dreadful to Joan because of the hurry, the strangeness, and the crowd, because of the responsibility of her work, but chiefly because at that hour she expected the appearance of her father. Her eyes were often on the door. It opened to admit the young men, the riders and ranchers who hung up their hats, swaggered with a little jingle of spurs to their chairs; clean-faced, clean-handed, wet-haired, murmuring low-voiced courtesies,—"Pass me the gravy, please," "I wouldn't be carin' fer any, thank you,"—and lifting to the faces of waiting girls now and again their strange, young, brooding eyes, bold, laughing, and afraid, hungry, pathetic, arrogant, as the eyes of young men are, tameless and untamable, but full of the pathos of the untamed. Joan's heart shook a little under their looks, but when Pierre lifted his eyes to her, her heart stood still. She had not seen them following her progress around the room. He had come in late, and finding no place at the long, central table sat apart at a smaller one under a high, uncurtained window. By the time she met his eyes they were charged with light; smoky-blue eyes they were, the iris heavily ringed with black, the pupils dilated a little. For the first time it occurred to Joan, looking down with a still heart into his eyes, that a man might be beautiful. The blood came up from her heart to her face. Her eyes struggled away from his.
"What's yer name, gel?" murmured Pierre.
"You run away from home?" He too had heard of her.
"Will your father be takin' you back?"
"I won't be goin' with him."
She was about to pass on. Pierre cast a swift look about the table—bent heads and busy hands, eyes cast down, ears, he knew, alert. It was a land of few women and of many men. He must leave in the morning early and for months he would not be back. He put out a long, hard hand, caught Joan's wrist and gave it a queer, urgent shake, the gesture of an impatient and beseeching child.
"Will you be comin' home with me, gel?" asked Pierre hurriedly.
She looked at him, her lips apart, and she shook her head.
Maud's voice screamed at her from the kitchen door. Pierre let her go. She went on, very white.
She did not sleep at all that night. Her father's face, Pierre's face, looked at her. In the morning Pierre would be gone. She had heard Maud say that the "queer Landis feller would be makin' tracks back to that ranch of his acrost the river." Yes, he would be gone. She might have been going with him. She felt the urgent pressure of his hand on her arm, in her heart. It shook her with such a longing for love, for all the unknown largesse of love, that she cried. The next morning, pale, she came down and went about her work. Pierre was not at breakfast, and she felt a sinking of heart, though she had not known that she had built upon seeing him again. Then, as she stepped out at the back to empty a bucket, there he was!
Not even the beauty of dawn could lend mystery to the hideous, littered yard, untidy as the yards of frontier towns invariably are, to the board fence, to the trampled half-acre of dirt, known as "The Square," and to the ugly frame buildings straggled about it; but it could and did give an unearthly look of blessedness to the bare, gray-brown buttes that ringed the town and a glory to the sky, while upon Pierre, waiting at his pony's head, it shed a magical and tender light. He was dressed in his cowboy's best, a white silk handkerchief knotted under his chin, leather "chaps," bright spurs, a sombrero on his head. His face was grave, excited, wistful. At sight of Joan, he moved forward, the pony trailing after him at the full length of its reins; and, stopping before her, Pierre took off the sombrero, slowly stripped the gauntlet from his right hand, and, pressing both hat and glove against his hip with the left hand, held out the free, clean palm to Joan.
"Good-bye," said he, "unless—you'll be comin' with me after all?"
Joan felt again that rush of fire to her brows. She took his hand and her fingers closed around it like the frightened, lonely fingers of a little girl. She came near to him and looked up.
"I'll be comin' with you, Pierre," she said, just above her breath.
He shot up a full inch, stiffened, searched her with smouldering eyes, then held her hard against him. "You'll not be sorry, Joan Carver," said he gently and put her away from him. Then, unsmiling, he bade her go in and get her belongings while he got her a horse and told his news to Mrs. Upper.
That ride was dreamlike to Joan. Pierre put her in her saddle and she rode after him across the Square and along a road flanked by the ugly houses of the town.
"Where are we a-goin'?" she asked him timidly.
He stopped at that, turned, and, resting his hand on the cantle of his saddle, smiled at her for the first time.
"Don't you savvy the answer to that question, Joan?"
She shook her head.
The smile faded. "We're goin' to be married," said he sternly, and they rode on.
They were married by the justice, a pleasant, silent fellow, who with Western courtesy, asked no more questions than were absolutely needful, and in fifteen minutes Joan mounted her horse again, a ring on the third finger of her left hand.
"Now," said Pierre, standing at her stirrup, his shining, smoke-blue eyes lifted to her, his hand on her boot, "you'll be wantin' some things—some clothes?"
"No," said Joan. "Maud went with me an' helped me buy things with my pay just yesterday. I won't be needin' anything."
"All right," said he. "We're off, then!" And he flung himself with a sudden wild, boyish "Whoopee!" on his pony, gave a clip to Joan's horse and his own, and away they galloped, a pair of young, wild things, out from the town through a straggling street to where the road boldly stretched itself toward a great land of sagebrush, of buttes humping their backs against the brilliant sky. Down the valley they rode, trotting, walking, galloping, till, turning westward, they mounted a sharp slope and came up above the plain. Below, in the heart of the long, narrow valley, the river coiled and wandered, divided and came together again into a swift stream, amongst aspen islands and willow swamps. Beyond this strange, lonely river-bed, the cottonwoods began, and, above them, the pine forests massed themselves and strode up the foothills of the gigantic range, that range of iron rocks, sharp, thin, and brittle where they scraped the sky.
At the top of the hill, Pierre put out his hand and pulled Joan's rein, drawing her to a stop beside him.
"Over yonder's my ranch," said he.
Joan looked. There was not a sign of house or clearing, but she followed his gesture and nodded.
"Under the mountains?" she said.
"At the foot of Thunder Canyon. You can see a gap in the pines. There's a waterfall just above—that white streak. Now you've got it. Where you come from 's to the south, away yonder."
Joan would not turn her head. "Yes," said she, "I know."
Suddenly tears rushed to her eyes. She had a moment of unbearable longing and regret. Pierre said nothing; he was not watching her.
"Come on," said he, "or your father will be takin' after us."
They rode at a gallop down the hill.
TWO PICTURES IN THE FIRE
The period which followed had a quality of breathless, almost unearthly happiness. They were young, savage, simple, and their love, unanalyzed, was as joyous as the loves of animals: joyous with that clear gravity characteristic of the boy and girl. Pierre had been terribly alone before Joan came, and the building-up of his ranch had occupied his mind day and night except, now and again, for dreams. Yet he was of a passionate nature. Joan felt in him sometimes a savage possibility of violence. Two incidents of this time blazed themselves especially on her memory: the one, her father's visit, the other, an irrelevant enough picture until after events threw back a glare upon it.
They had been at Pierre's ranch for a fortnight before John Carver found them. Then, one morning, as Pierre opened the door to go out to work, Joan saw a thin, red pony tied to the fence and a small figure walking toward the cabin.
"Pierre, it's Father!" she said. And Pierre stopped in his tracks, drew himself up and waited, hands on his cartridge belt.
How mean and old and furtive her father looked in contrast to this beautiful young husband! Joan was entirely unafraid. She leaned against the side of the door and watched, as silent and unconsulted as any squaw, while the two men settled their property rights in her.
"So you've took my gel," said John Carver, stopping a foot or two in front of Pierre, his eyes shifting up and down, one long hand fingering his lips.
Pierre answered courteously. "Some man was bound to hev her, Mr. Carver, soon or late. You can't set your face ag'in' the laws of natur'. Will you be steppin' in? Joan will give you some breakfast."
Carver paid no heed to the invitation. "Hev you married her?" said he.
The blood rose to Pierre's brown face. "Sure I hev."
"Well, sir, you hev married the darter of a ——" Carver used a brutal word. "Look out fer her. If you see her eyes lookin' an' lookin' at another man, you kin know what's to come." Pierre was white. "I've done with her. She kin never come to me fer bite or bed. Shoot her if you hev to, Pierre Landis, but when she's kotched at her mother's game, don't send her back to me. That's all I come to say."
He turned with limber agility and went back to his horse. He was on it and off, galloping madly across the sagebrush flat. Pierre turned and walked into the house past Joan without a word.
She still leaned against the door, but her head was bent.
Presently she went about her housework. Every now and then she shot a wistful look at Pierre. All morning long, he sat there, his hands hanging between his knees, his eyes full of a brooding trouble. At noon he shook his head, got up, and, still without word or caress, he strode out and did not come back till dark. Joan suffered heartache and terror. When he came, she ran into his arms. He kissed her, seemed quite himself again, and the strange interview was never mentioned by either of them. They were silent people, given to feelings and to action rather than to thoughts and words.
The other memory was of a certain sunset hour when she came at Pierre's call out to the shed he had built at one side of their cabin. Its open side faced the west, and, as Joan came, her shadow went before her and fell across Pierre at work. The flame of the west gave a weird pallor to the flames over which he bent. He was whistling, and hammering at a long piece of iron. Joan came and stood beside him.
Suddenly he straightened up and held in the air a bar of metal, the shaped end white hot. Joan blinked.
"That's our brand, gel," said Pierre. "Don't you fergit it. When I've made my fortune there'll be stock all over the country marked with them two bars. That'll be famous—the Two-Bar Brand. Don't you fergit it, Joan."
And he brought the white iron close so that she felt its heat on her face and drew back, flinching. He laughed, let it fall, and kissed her. Joan was very glad and proud.
In the fall, when the whole country had turned to a great cup of gold, purple-rimmed under the sky, Pierre went out into the hills after his winter meat. Joan was left alone. She spent her time cleaning and arranging the two-room cabin, and tidying up outdoors, and in "grubbing sagebrush," a gigantic task, for the one hundred and fifty acres of Pierre's homestead were covered for the most part by the sturdy, spicy growth, and every bush had to be dug out and burnt to clear the way for ploughing and planting. Joan worked with the deliberateness and intentness of a man. She enjoyed the wholesome drudgery. She was proud every sundown of the little clearing she had made, and stood, tired and content, to watch the piled brush burn, sending up aromatic smoke and curious, dull flames very high into the still air.
She was so standing, hands folded on her rake, when, on the other side of her conflagration, she perceived a man. He was steadily regarding her, and when her eyes fell upon him, he smiled and stepped forward—a tall, broad, very fair young man in a shooting coat, khaki riding-breeches, and puttees. He had a wide brow, clear, blue eyes and an eager, sensitive, clean-shaven mouth and chin. He held out a big white hand.
"Mrs. Landis," he said, in a crisp voice of an accent and finish strange to the girl "I wonder if you and your husband can put me up for the night. I'm Frank Holliwell. I'm on a round of parish visits, and, as my parish is about sixty miles square, my poor old pony has gone lame. I know you are not my parishioners, though, no doubt, you should be, but I'm going to lay claim to your hospitality, for all that, if I may?"
Joan had moved her rake into the grasp of her left hand and had taken the proffered palm into her other, all warm and fragrantly stained.
"You're the new sin-buster, ain't you?" she asked gravely.
The young man opened his blue and friendly eyes.
"Oh, that's what I am, eh? That's a new one to me. Yes. I suppose I am. It's rather a fine name to go by—sin-buster," and he laughed very low and very amusedly.
Joan looked him over and slowly smiled. "You look like you could bust anything you'd a mind to," she said, and led the way toward the house, her rake across her shoulder.
"Pierre," she told him when they were in the shining, clean log house, "is off in the hills after his elk, but I can make you up a bed in the settin'-room an' serve you a supper an' welcome."
"Oh, thanks," he rather doubtfully accepted.
Evidently he did not know the ways and proprieties of this new "parish" of his. But Joan seemed to take the situation with an enormous calm impersonality. He modeled his manner upon hers. They sat at the table together, Joan silent, save when he forced her to speak, and entirely untroubled by her silence, Frank Holliwell eating heartily, helping her serve, and talking a great deal. He asked her a great many questions, which she answered with direct simplicity. By the end of dish-washing, he had her history and more of her opinions, probably, than any other creature she had met.
"What do you do when Landis is away?"
She told him.
"But, in the evenings, I mean, after work. Have you books?"
"No," said Joan; "it's right hard labor, readin'. Pa learned me my letters an' I can spell out bits from papers an' advertisements an' what not, but I ain't never read a book straight out. I dunno," she added presently, "but as I'd like to. Pierre can read," she told him proudly.
"I'm sure you'd like to." He considered her through the smoke of his pipe. He was sitting by the hearth now, and she, just through with clearing up, stood by the corner of the mantel shelf, arranging the logs. The firelight danced over her face, so beautiful, so unlighted from within.
"How old are you, Joan Landis?" he asked suddenly, using her name without title for the first time.
"Is that all? You must read books, you know. There's so much empty space there back of your brows."
She looked up smiling a little, her wide gray eyes puzzled.
"Yes, Joan. You must read. Will you—if I lend you some books?"
She considered. "Yes," she said. "I'd read them if you'd be lendin' me some. In the evenings when Pierre's away, I'm right lonesome. I never was lonesome before, not to know it. It'll take me a long time to read one book, though," she added with an engaging mournfulness.
"What do you like—stories, poetry, magazines?"
"I'd like real books in stiff covers," said Joan, "an' I don't like pictures."
This surprised the clergyman. "Why not?" said he.
"I like to notion how the folks look myself. I like pictures of real places, that has got to be like they are"—Joan was talking a great deal and having trouble with her few simple words—"but I like folks in stories to look like I want 'em to look."
"Not the way the writer describes them?"
"Yes, sir. But you can make up a whole lot on what the writer describes. If he says 'her eyes is blue'; you can see 'em dark blue or light blue or jest blue. An' you can see 'em shaped round or what not, the way you think about folks that you've heard of an' have never met."
It was extraordinary how this effort at self-expression excited Joan. She was rarely self-conscious, but she was usually passive or stolid; now there was a brilliant flush in her face and her large eyes deepened and glowed. "I heerd tell of you, Mr. Holliwell. Fellers come up here to see Pierre once in a while an' one or two of 'em spoke your name. An' I kinder figured out you was a weedy feller, awful solemn-like, an' of course you ain't, but it's real hard for me to notion that there ain't two Mr. Holliwells, you an' the weedy sin-buster I've ben picturin'. Like as not I'll get to thinkin' of you like two fellers." Joan sighed. "Seems like when I onct get a notion in my head it jest sticks there some way."
"Then the more wise notions you get the better. I'll ride up here in a couple of weeks' time with some books. You may keep them as long as you will. All winter, if you like. When I can get up here, we can talk them over, you and Landis and I. I'll try to choose some without pictures. There will be stories and some poetry, too."
"I ain't never read but one pome," said Joan.
"And that was?"
She had sat down on the floor by the hearth, her head thrown back to lean against the cobbles of the chimney-piece, her knees locked in her hands. That magnificent long throat of hers ran up to the black coils of hair which had slipped heavily down over her ears. The light edged her round chin and her strongly modeled, regular features; the full, firm mouth so savagely pure and sensuous and self-contained. The eyes were mysterious under their thick lashes and dark, long brows. This throat and face and these strong hands were picked out in their full value of line and texture from the dark cotton dress she was wearing.
"It's a pome on a card what father had, stuck ag'in' the wall." She began to recite, her eyes fixed upon him with childlike gravity. "'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.... Yea, though I walk through the valley of shadows, thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.'"
Holliwell had taken the pipe from between his teeth, had straightened up. Her deep voice, the slight swinging of her body to the rhythm she had unconsciously given to her lines, the strange glow in her eyes ... Holliwell wondered why these things, this brief, sing-song recitation, had given a light thrill to the surface of his skin, had sent a tingling to his fingertips. He was the first person to wonder at that effect of Joan's cadenced music. "The valley of the shadow—" she had missed a familiar phrase and added value to a too often repeated line.
"Joan! Joan!" said the "sin-buster," an exclamation drawn from him on a deep breath, "what an extraordinary girl you are! What a marvelous woman you are going to be!"
Joan looked at him in a silence of pure astonishment and that was the end of their real talk.
PIERRE BECOMES ALARMED ABOUT HIS PROPERTY
The next time Holliwell came, he brought the books, and, finding Pierre at home, he sat with his host after supper and talked men's talk of the country; of game, of ranching, a little gossip, stories of travel, humorous experiences, and Joan sat in her place, the books in her lap, looking and listening.
John Carver had used a phrase, "When you see her eyes lookin' and lookin' at another man—" and this phrase had stuck in Pierre's sensitive and jealous memory. What Joan felt for Holliwell was a sort of ignorant and respectful tenderness, the excitement of an intelligent child first moved to a knowledge of its own intelligence; the gratitude of savage loneliness toward the beautiful feet of exploration. A consciousness of her clean mind, a consciousness of her young, untamed spirit, had come slowly to life in her since her talk with Holliwell. Joan was peculiarly a woman—that is, the passive and receptive being. Pierre had laid his hand on her heart and she had followed him; now this young parson had put a curious finger on her brain, it followed him. Her husband saw the admiration, the gratitude, the tender excitement in her frank eyes, and the poison seed sown by John Carver's hand shot out roots and tiny, deadly branches.
But Joan and Holliwell were unaware. Pierre smoked rapidly, rolling cigarette after cigarette; he listened with a courteous air, he told stories in his soft, slow voice; once he went out to bring in a fresh log and, coming back on noiseless feet, saw Joan and her instructor bent over one of the books and Joan's face was almost that of a stranger, so eager, so flushed, with sparkles in the usually still, gray eyes.
It was not till a week or two after this second visit from the clergyman that Pierre's smouldering jealousy broke into flame. After clearing away the supper things with an absent air of eager expectation, Joan would dry her hands on her apron, and, taking down one of her books from their place in a shelf corner, she would draw her chair close to the lamp and begin to read, forgetful of Pierre. These had been the happiest hours for him; he would tell Joan about his day's work, about his plans, about his past life; wonderful it was to him, after his loneliness, that she should be sitting there drinking in every word and loving him with her dumb, wild eyes. Now, there was no talk and no listening. Joan's absorbed face was turned from him and bent over her book, her lips moved, she would stop and stare before her. After a long while, he would get up and go to bed, but she would stay with her books till a restless movement from him would make her aware of the lamplight shining wakefulness upon him through the chinks in the partition wall. Then she would get up reluctantly, sighing, and come to bed.
For ten evenings this went on, Pierre's heart slowly heating itself, until, all at once, the flame leaped.
Joan had untied her apron and reached up for her book. Pierre had been waiting, hoping that of her free will she might prefer his company to the "parson feller's"—for in his ignorance those books were jealously personified—but, without a glance in his direction, she had turned as usual to the shelf.
"You goin' to read?" asked Pierre hoarsely. It was a painful effort to speak.
She turned with a childish look of astonishment. "Yes, Pierre."
He stood up with one of his lithe, swift movements, all in one rippling piece. "By God, you're not, though!" said he, strode over to her, snatched the volume from her, threw it back into its place, and pointed her to her chair.
"You set down an' give heed to me fer a change, Joan Carver," he said, his smoke-colored eyes smouldering. "I didn't fetch you up here to read parsons' books an' waste oil. I fetched you up here—to—" He stopped, choked with a sudden, enormous hurt tenderness and sat down and fell to smoking and staring, hot-eyed, into the fire.
And Joan sat silent in her place, puzzled, wistful, wounded, her idle hands folded, looking at him for a while, then absently before her, and he knew that her mind was busy again with the preacher feller's books. If he had known better how to explain his heart, if she had known how to show him the impersonal eagerness of her awakening mind—! But, savage and silent, they sat there, loving each other, hurt, but locked each into his own impenetrable life.
After that, Joan changed the hours of her study and neglected housework and sagebrush-grubbing, but, nonetheless, were Pierre's evenings spoiled. Perfection of intercourse is the most perishable of all life's commodities. Now, when he talked, he could not escape the consciousness of having constrained his audience; she could not escape her knowledge of his jealousy, the remembrance of his mysterious outbreak, the irrepressible tug of the story she was reading. So it went on till snow came and they were shut in, man and wife, with only each other to watch, a tremendous test of good-fellowship. This searching intimacy came at a bad time, just after Holliwell's third visit when he had brought a fresh supply of books.
"There's poetry this time," he said. "Get Pierre to read it aloud to you."
The suggestion was met by a rude laugh from Pierre.
"I wouldn't be wastin' my time," he jeered.
It was the first rift in his courtesy. Holliwell looked up in sharp surprise. He saw a flash of the truth, a little wriggle of the green serpent in Pierre's eyes before they fell. He flushed and glanced at Joan. She stood by the table in the circle of lamplight, looking over the new books, but in her eagerness there was less simplicity. She wore an almost timorous air, accepted his remarks in silence, shot doubtful looks at Pierre before she answered questions, was an entirely different Joan. Now Holliwell was angry and he stiffened toward his host and hostess, dropped all his talk about the books and smoked haughtily. He was young and over-sensitive, no more master of himself in this instance than Pierre and Joan. But before he left after supper, refusing a bed, though Pierre conquered his dislike sufficiently to urge it, Holliwell had a moment with Joan. It was very touching. He would tell about it afterwards, but, for a long time, he could not bear to remember it.
She tried to return his books, coming with her arms full of them and lifting up eyes that were almost tragic with renunciation.
"I can't be takin' the time to read them, Mr. Holliwell," she said, that extraordinary, over-expressive voice of hers running an octave of regret; "an' someway Pierre don't like that I should spend my evenin's on them. Seems like he thinks I was settin' myself up to be knowin' more than him." She laughed ruefully. "Me—knowin' more'n Pierre! It's laughable. But anyways I don't want him to be thinkin' that. So take the books, please. I like them." She paused. "I love them," she said hungrily and, blinking, thrust them into his hands.
He put them down on the table. "You're wrong, Joan," he said quickly. "You mustn't give in to such a foolish idea. You have rights of your own, a life of your own. Pierre mustn't stand in the way of your learning. You mustn't let him. I'll speak to him."
"Oh, no!" Some intuition warned her of the danger in his doing this.
"Well, then, keep your books and talk to Pierre about them. Try to persuade him to read aloud to you. I shan't be back now till spring, but I want you to read this winter, read all the stuff that's there. Come, Joan, to please me," and he smiled coaxingly.
"I ain't afeared of Pierre," said Joan slowly. Her pride was stung by the suggestion. "I'll keep the books." She sighed. "Good-bye. When I see you in the spring, I'll be a right learned school-marm."
She held out her hand and he took and held it, pressing it in his own. He felt troubled about her, unwilling to leave her in the snowbound wilderness with that young savage of the smouldering eyes.
"Good-bye," said Pierre behind him. His soft voice had a click.
Holliwell turned to him. "Good-bye, Landis. I shan't see either of you till the spring. I wish you a good winter and I hope—" He broke off and held out his hand. "Well," said he, "you're pretty far out of every one's way here. Be good to each other."
"Damn your interference!" said Pierre's eyes, but he took the hand and even escorted Holliwell to his horse.
Snow came early and deep that winter. It fell for long, gray days and nights, and then it came in hurricanes of drift, wrapping the cabin in swirling white till only one window peered out and one gabled corner cocked itself above the crust. Pierre had cut and stacked his winter wood; he had sent his cows to a richer man's ranch for winter feeding. There was very little for him to do. After he had brought in two buckets of water from the well and had cut, for the day's consumption, a piece of meat from his elk hanging outside against the wall, he had only to sit and smoke, to read old magazines and papers, and to watch Joan. Then the poisonous roots of his jealousy struck deep. Always his brain, unaccustomed to physical idleness, was at work, falsely interpreting her wistful silence—she was thinking of the parson, hungry to read his books, longing for the open season and his coming again to the ranch.
In December a man came in on snowshoes bringing "the mail"—one letter for Pierre, a communication which brought heat to his face. The Forest Service threatened him with a loss of land; it pointed to some flaw in his title; part of his property, the most valuable part, had not yet been surveyed.... Pierre looked up with set jaws, every fighting instinct sharpened to hold what was his own.
"I hev put in two years' hard work on them acres," he told his visitor, "an' I'm not plannin' to give them over to the first fool favored by the Service. My title is as clean as my hand. It'll take more'n thievery an' more'n spite to take it away from me."
"You better go to Robinson," advised the bearer of the letter; "can't get after them fellers too soon. It's a country where you can easy come by what you want, but where it ain't so easy to hold on to it. If it ain't yer land, it's yer hosses; if it ain't yer hosses, it's yer wife." He looked at Joan and laughed.
Pierre went white and dumb; the chance shot had inflamed his wound.
He strapped on his snowshoes and bade a grim good-bye to Joan, after the man had left. "Don't you be wastin' oil while I'm away," he told her sharply, standing in the doorway, his head level with the steep wall of snow behind him, and he gave her a threatening look so that the tenderness in her heart was frozen.
After he had gone, "Pierre, say a real good-bye, say good-bye," she whispered. Her face cramped and tears came.
She heard his steps lightly crunching across the hard, bright surface of the snow, they entered into the terrible frozen silence. Then she turned from the door, dried her eyes with her sleeve like a little village girl, and ran across the room to a certain shelf. Pierre would be gone a week. She would not waste oil, but she would read. It was with the appetite of a starved creature that she fell upon her books.
PIERRE TAKES STEPS TO PRESERVE HIS PROPERTY
A log fell forward and Joan lifted her head. She had not come to an end of Isabella's tragedy nor of her own memories, but something other than the falling log had startled her; a light, crunching step upon the snow.
She looked toward the window. For an instant the room was almost dark and the white night peered in at her, its gigantic snow-peaks pressing against the long, horizontal window panes, and in that instant she saw a face. The fire started up again, the white night dropped away, the face shone close a moment longer, then it too disappeared. Joan came to her feet with pounding pulses. It had been Pierre's face, but at the same time, the face of a stranger. He had come back five days too soon and something terrible had happened. Surely his chancing to see her with her book would not make him look like that. Besides, she was not wasting oil. She had stood up, but at first she was incapable of moving forward. For the first time in her life she knew the paralysis of unreasoning fear. Then the door opened and Pierre came in out of the crystal night.
"What brought you back so soon?" asked Joan.
"Too soon fer you, eh?" He strode over to the hearth where she had lain, took up the book, struck it with his hand as though it had been a hated face, and flung it into the fire. "I seen you through the window," he said. "So you been happy readin' while I been away?"
"I'll get you supper. I'll light the lamp," Joan stammered.
Pierre's face was pale, his black hair lay in wet streaks on his temples. He must have traveled at furious speed through the bitter cold to be in such a sweat. There was a mysterious, controlled disorder in his look and there arose from him the odor of strong drink. But he was steady and sure in all his movements and his eyes were deadly cool and reasonable—only it was the reasonableness of insanity, reasonableness based on the wildest premises of unreason.
"I don't want no supper, nor no light," he said. "Firelight's enough fer you to read parsons' books by, it's enough fer me to do what I oughter done long afore to-night."
She stood in the middle of the small, log-walled room, arrested in the act of lighting a match, and stared at him with troubled eyes. She was no longer afraid. After all, strange as he looked, more strangely as he talked, he was her Pierre, her man. The confidence of her heart had not been seriously shaken by his coldness and his moods during this winter. There had been times of fierce, possessive tenderness. She was his own woman, his property; at this low counting did she rate herself. A sane man does no injury to his own possessions. And Pierre, of course, was sane. He was tired, angry, he had been drinking—her ignorance, her inexperience led her to put little emphasis on the effects of the poison sold at the town saloon. When he was warm and fed and rested, he would be quite himself again. She went about preparing a meal in spite of his words.
He did not seem to notice this. He had taken his eyes from her at last and was busy with the fire. She, too, busy and reassured by the familiar occupation, ceased to watch him. Her pulses were quiet now. She was even beginning to be glad of his return. Why had she been so frightened? Of course, after such a terrible journey alone in the bitter cold, he would look strange. Her father, when he came back smelling of liquor, had always been more than usually morose and unlike his every-day self. He would sit over the stove and tell her the story of his crime. They were horrible home-comings, horrible evenings, but the next morning they would seem like dreams. To-morrow this strangeness of Pierre's would be mistlike and unreal.
"I seen your sin-buster in town," said Pierre. He was squatting on his heels over the fire which he had built up to a great blaze and glow and he spoke in a queer sing-song tone through his teeth. "He asked after you real kind. He wanted to know how you was gettin' on with the edication he's ben handin' out to you. I tell him that you was right satisfied with me an' my ways an' hed quit his books. I didn't know as you was hevin' such a good time durin' my absence."
Joan was cruelly hurt. His words seemed to fall heavily upon her heart. "I wasn't hevin' a good time. I was missin' you, Pierre," said she in a low tremolo of grieving music. "Them books, they seemed like they was all the company I hed."
"You looked like you was missin' me," he sneered. "The sin-buster an' I had words about you, Joan. Yes'm, he give me quite a line of preachin' about you, Joan, as how you hed oughter develop yer own life in yer own way—along the lines laid out by him. I told him as how I knowed best what was right an' fittin' fer my own wife; as how, with a mother like your'n you needed watchin' more'n learnin'; as how you belonged to me an' not to him. An', says he, 'She don't belong to any man, Pierre Landis,' he said, 'neither to you nor to me. She belongs to her own self.' 'I'll see that she belongs to me,' I said. 'I'll fix her so she'll know it an' every other feller will.'"
At that he turned from the fire and straightened to his feet.
Joan moved backward slowly to the door. He had made no threatening sign or movement, but her fear had come overwhelmingly upon her and every instinct urged her to flight. But before she touched the handle of the door, he flung himself with deadly, swift force and silence across the room and took her in his arms. With all her wonderful young strength, Joan could not break away from him. He dragged her back to the hearth, tied her elbows behind her with the scarf from his neck, that very scarf he had worn when the dawn had shed a wistful beauty upon him, waiting for her on a morning not so very long ago. Joan went weak.
"Pierre," she cried pitifully, "what are you a-goin' to do to me?"
He roped her to the heavy post of a set of shelves built against the wall. Then he stood away, breathing fast.
"Now whose gel are you, Joan Carver?" he asked her.
"You know I'm yours, Pierre," she sobbed. "You got no need to tie me to make me say that."
"I got to tie you to make you do more'n say it. I got to make sure you are it. Hell-fire won't take the sureness out of me after this."
She turned her head, all that she could turn.
He was bending over the fire, and when he straightened she saw that he held something in his hand ... a long bar of metal, white at the shaped end. At once her memory showed her a broad glow of sunset falling over Pierre at work. "There'll be stock all over the country marked with them two bars," he had said. "The Two-Bar Brand, don't you fergit it!" She was not likely to forget it now.
She shut her eyes. He stepped close to her and jerked her blouse down from her shoulder. She writhed away from him, silent in her rage and fear and fighting dumbly. She made no appeal. At that moment her heart was so full of hatred that it was hardened to pride. He lifted his brand and set it against the bare flesh of her shoulder.
Then terribly she screamed. Again, when he took the metal away, she screamed. Afterwards there was a dreadful silence.
Joan had not lost consciousness. Her healthy nerves stanchly received the anguish and the shock, nor did she make any further outcry. She pressed her forehead against the sharp edge of the shelf, she drove her nails into her hands, and at intervals she writhed from head to foot. Circles of pain spread from the deep burn on her shoulder, spread and shrank, to spread and shrink again. The bones of her shoulder and arm ached terribly; fire still seemed to be eating into her flesh. The air was full of the smell of scorched skin so that she tasted it herself. And hotter than her hurt her heart burned consuming its own tenderness and love and trust.
When this pain left her, when she was free of her bonds, no force nor fear would hold her to Pierre. She would leave him as she had left her father. She would go away. There was no place for her to go to, but what did that matter so long as she might escape from this horrible place and this infernal tormentor? She did not look about to see the actuality of Pierre's silence. She thought that he had dropped the brand and was sitting near the table with his face hidden. How long the stillness of pain and fury and horror lasted there was no one to reckon. It was most startlingly broken by a voice. "Who screamed for help?" it said, and at the same instant a draught of icy air smote Joan. The door had opened with suddenness and violence. With difficulty she mastered her pain and turned her head.
Pierre had staggered to his feet. Opposite him, framed against the open door filled with the wan whiteness of the snow, stood a spare, tall figure. The man wore his fur collar turned up about his chin and ears, his fur cap pulled down about his brow, a sharp aquiline nose stood out above frozen mustaches, keen and brilliant eyes searched the room. He carried his gun across his arm in readiness, and snuffed the air like a suspicious hound. Then he advanced a step toward Pierre.
"What devil's work have you been at?" said he, his voice cutting the ear in its sharpness of astonished rage, and his hand slid down along the handle of his gun.
Pierre, watching him like a lynx, side-stepped, crouched, whipped out his gun, and fired. At almost the same second the other's gun went off. Pierre dropped.
This time Joan's nerves gave way and the room, with its smell of scorched flesh, of powder, and of frost, went out from her horrified senses. For a moment the stranger's stern face and brilliant eyes made the approaching center of a great cloud of darkness, then it too went out.
THE JUDGMENT OF GOD
The man who had entered with such violence upon so violent a scene, stood waiting till the smoke of Pierre's discharge had cleared away, then, still holding his gun in readiness, he stepped across the room and bent over the fallen man.
"I've killed him!" he said, just above his breath, and added presently, "That was the judgment of God." He looked about, taking in every detail of the scene, the branding iron that had burnt its mark deep into the boards where Pierre had thrown it down, the glowing fire heaped high and blazing dangerously in the small room, the woman bound and burnt, the white night outside the uncurtained window.
Afterwards he went over to the woman, who drooped in her bonds with head hanging backward over the wounded shoulder. He untied the silk scarf and the rope and carried her, still unconscious, into the bedroom where he laid her on the bed and bathed her face in water. Joan's crown of hair had fallen about her neck and temples. Her bared throat and shoulder had the firm smoothness of marble, her lifeless face, its pure, full lips fallen apart, its long lids closed, black-fringed and black-browed, owing little of its beauty to color or expression, was at no loss in this deathlike composure and whiteness. The man dealt gently with her as though she had been a child. He found clean rags which he soaked in oil and placed over her burn, then he drew the coarse clothing about her and resumed his bathing of her forehead.
She gave a moaning sigh, her face contracted woefully, and she opened her eyes. The man looked into them as a curious child might look into an opened door.
"Did you see what happened?" he asked her when she had come fully to herself.
"Yes," Joan whispered, her lips shaking.
"I've killed the brute."
Her face became a classic mask of tragedy, the drawn brows, horrified eyes, and widened mouth.
"Pierre? Killed?" Her voice, hardly more than a whisper, filled the house with its agony.
"Are you sorry?" demanded her rescuer sternly. "Was he in the habit of tying you up or was this—branding—a special diversion?"
Joan turned her face away, writhed from head to foot, put up her two hands between him and her agonizing memories.
The man rose and left her, going softly into the next room. There he stood in a tense attitude of thought, sat down presently with his long, narrow jaw in his hands and stared fixedly at Pierre. He was evidently trying to fight down the shock of the spectacle, grimly telling himself to become used to the fact that here lay the body of a man that he had killed. In a short time he seemed to be successful, his face grew calm. He looked away from Pierre and turned his mind to the woman.
"She can't stay here," he said presently, in the tone of a man who has fallen into the habit of talking aloud to himself. He looked about in a hesitant, doubtful fashion. "God!" he said abruptly and snapped his fingers and thumb. He looked angry. Again he bent over Pierre, examined him with thoroughness and science, his face becoming more and more calm. At the end he rose and with an air of authority he went in again to Joan. She lay with her face turned to the wall.
"It is impossible for you to stay here," said he in a voice of command. "You are not fit to take care of yourself, and I can't stay and take care of you. You must come with me. I think you can manage that. Your husband—if he is your husband—is dead. It may or may not be a matter for sorrow to you, but I should say that it ought not to be anything but a merciful release. Women are queer creatures, though.... However, whether you are in grief or in rejoicing, you can't stay here. By to-morrow or next day you'll need more nursing than you do now. I don't want to take you to a neighbor, even if there was one near enough, but I'll take you with me. Will you get ready now?"
His sure, even, commanding voice evidently had a hypnotizing effect upon the dazed girl. Slowly, wincing, she stood up, and with his help gathered together some of her belongings which he put in the pack he carried on his shoulders. She wrapped herself in her warmest outdoor clothing. He then put his hand upon her arm and drew her toward the door of that outer room. She followed him blindly with no will of her own, but, as he stopped to strap on his snowshoes, her face lightened with pain, and she made as if to run to Pierre's body. He stood before her, "Don't touch him," said he, and, turning himself, he glanced back at Pierre. In that glance he saw one of the lean, brown hands stir. His face became suddenly suffused, even his eyes grew shot with blood. Standing carefully so as to obstruct her view, he caught at the corner of an elk hide and threw it over Pierre. Then he went to Joan, who stared at him, white and shaking. He put his arm around her and drew her out, shutting the door of her home and leaning against it.
"You can't go back," said he gently and reasonably. "The man tried to kill you. You can't go back. Surely you meant to go away."
"Yes," said Joan, "yes. I did mean to go away. But—but it's Pierre."
He bent and began to strap on her snowshoes. There was a fighting brilliance in his eyes and a strange look of hurry about him that had its effect on Joan. "It's Pierre no longer," said he. "What can you do for him? What can he do for you? Be sensible, child. Come. Don't waste time. There will be snow to-day."
In fact it was to-day. The moon had set and a gray dawn possessed the world. It was not nearly so cold and the great range had vanished in a bank of gray-black clouds moving steadily northward under a damp wind. Joan looked at this one living creature with wide, fever-brightened eyes.
"Come," said the man impatiently.
Joan bent her head and followed him across the snow.
It is not the people that have led still and uneventful lives who are best prepared for emergencies. They are not trained to face crises, to make prompt and just decisions. Joan had made but two such resolutions in her life; the first when she had followed Pierre, the second when she had kept Holliwell's books in defiance of her husband's jealousy. The leaving her father had been the result of long and painful thought. Now, in a few hours, events had crashed about her so that her whole life, outer and inner, had been shattered. Beyond the pain and fever of her wound there was an utter confusion of her faculties. Before she fainted she had, indeed, made a distinct resolve to leave Pierre. It was this purpose, working subconsciously on her will, as much as the urgent pressure of the stranger, that took her past Pierre's body out into the dawn and sent her on that rash journey of hers in the footsteps of an unknown man. This being seemed to her then hardly human. Mysteriously he had stepped in out of the night, mysteriously he had condemned Pierre, and in self-defense, for Joan had seen Pierre draw his gun and fire, he had killed her husband. Now, just as mysteriously, as inevitably it seemed to her, he took command of her life. She was a passive, shipwrecked thing—a derelict. She had little thought and no care for her life.
As the silent day slowly brightened through its glare of clouds, she plodded on, setting her snowshoes in the tracks her leader made. The pain in her shoulder steadily increased, more and more absorbed her consciousness. She saw little but the lean, resolute figure that went before her, turning back now and then with a look and a smile that were a compelling mixture of encouragement, pity, and command. She did not know that they were traveling north and west toward the wildest and most desolate country, that every time she set down her foot she set it down farther from humanity. She began soon to be a little light-headed and thought that she was following Pierre.
At noon they entered the woods, and her guide came beside her and led her through fallen timber and past pitfalls of soft snow. Suddenly, "I can't go no more," she sobbed, and stopped, swaying. At that he took her in his arms and carried her a few hundred feet till they entered a cabin under the shelter of firs.
"It's the ranger-station," said he; "the ranger told me that I could make use of it on my way back. We can pass the night here."
Joan knew that he had carried her across a strange room and put her on a strange bed. He took off her snowshoes, and she lay watching him light a fire in the cold, clean stove and cook a meal from supplies left by the owner of the house. She was trying now to remember who he was, what had happened, and why she was in such misery and pain. Sometimes she knew that he was her father and that she was at home in that wretched shack up Lone River, and an ineffable satisfaction would relax her cramped mind; sometimes, just as clearly, she knew that he was Pierre who had taken her away to some strange place, and, in this certainty, she was even more content. But always the horrible flame on her shoulder burnt her again to the confusion of half-consciousness. He wasn't John Carver, he wasn't Pierre. Who, in God's name, was he? And why was she here alone with him? She could not frame a question; she had a fear that, if she began to speak, she would scream and rave, would tell impossible, secret, sacred things. So she held herself to silence, to a savage watchfulness, to a battle with delirium.
The man brought her a cup of strong coffee and held up her head so that she could drink it, but it nauseated her and she thrust it weakly away, asking for cold water. After she had drunk this, her mind cleared for an instant and she tried to stand up.
"I must go back to Pierre now," she said, looking about with wild but resolute eyes.
"Lie still," said the stranger gently. "You're not fit to stir. Trust me. It's all right. You're quite safe. Get rested and well, then you may go wherever you like. I want only to help you."
The reassuring tone, the promising words coerced her and she dropped back. Presently, in spite of pain, she slept.
She woke and slept in fever for many hours, vaguely aware, at times, that she was traveling. She felt the motion of a sled under her and knew that she was lying on the warm hide of some freshly killed beast and that a blanket and a canvas covering protected her from a swirl of snow. Then she thought she heard a voice babbling queerly and saw a face quite terribly different from other human faces. The covering was taken from her, snowflakes touched her cheek, a lantern shone in her eyes, and she was lifted and carried into a warm, pleasant-smelling place from which were magically and completely banished all sound and bitterness of storm. She tried to see where she was, but her eyes looked on incredible colors and confusions, so she shut them and passively allowed herself to be handled by deft hands. She knew only that delicious coolness, cleanliness, and softness were given to her body, that the pain in her shoulder was soothed, that dreamlessly she slept.
The house that Prosper Gael had built for himself and for the woman whom Joan came to think of as the "tall child," stood in a canyon, a deep, secret fold of the hills, where a cliff stood behind it, and where the pine-needled ground descended before its door, under the far-flung, greenish-brown shade of fir boughs, to the lip of a green lake. Here the highest snow-peak toppled giddily down and reared giddily up from the crystal green to the ether blue, firs massed into the center of the double image. In January, the lake was a glare of snow, in which the big firs stood deep, their branches heavily weighted. Prosper had dug a tunnel from his door through a big drift which touched his eaves. It was curious to see Wen Ho come pattering out of this Northern cave, his yellow, Oriental face and slant eyes peering past the stalactite icicles as though they felt their own incongruity almost with a sort of terror. The interior of the five-room house gave just such an effect of bizarre and extravagant contrast; an effect, too, of luxury, though in truth it was furnished for the most part with stuffs and objects picked up at no very great expense in San Francisco shops. Nevertheless, there was nothing tawdry and, here and there, something really precious. Draperies on the walls, furniture made by Wen Ho and Prosper, lacquered in black and red, brass and copper, bright pewter, gay china, some fur rugs, a gorgeous Oriental lamp, bookcases with volumes of a sober richness, in fact the costliest and most laborious of imports to this wilderness, small-paned, horizontal windows curtained in some heavy green-gold stuff which slipped along the black lacquered pole on rings of jade; all these and a hundred other points of softly brilliant color gave to the living-room a rare and striking look, while the bedrooms were matted, daintily furnished, carefully appointed as for a bride. Much thought and trouble, much detailed labor, had gone to the making of this odd nest in a Wyoming canyon. Whatever one must think of Prosper Gael, it is difficult to shirk heartache on his account. A man of his temperament does not lightly undertake even a companioned isolation in a winter land. To picture what place of torment this well-appointed cabin was to him before he brought to it Joan, as a lonely man brings in a wounded bird to nurse and cherish, stretches the fancy on a rack of varied painfulness.
On that night, snow was pouring itself down the narrow canyon in a crowded whirl of dry, clean flakes. Wen Ho, watchful, for his master was already a day or so beyond the promised date of his return, had started a fire on the hearth and spread a single cover on the table. He had drawn the green-and-gold curtains as though there had been anything but whirling whiteness to look in and stood warming himself with a rubbing of thin, dry hands before the open blaze. The real heat of the house, and it was almost unbearably hot, came from the stoves in kitchen and bedrooms, but this fire gave its quota of warmth and more than its quota of that beauty so necessary to Prosper Gael.
Wen Ho put his head from one side to the other and stopped rubbing his hands. He had heard the packing of snow under webs and runners. After listening a moment, he nodded to himself, like a figure in a pantomime, ran into the kitchen, did something to the stove, then lighted a lantern and pattered out along the tunnel dodging the icicle stalactites. Between the firs he stopped and held his lantern high so that it touched a moving radius of flakes to silver stars. Back of him through the open door streamed the glow of lamp and fire filling the icicles with blood and flushing the walls and the roof of the cave.
Down the canyon Prosper shouted, "Wen Ho! Wen Ho!"
The Chinaman plunged down the trail, packed below the new-fallen snow by frequent passage, and presently met the bent figure of his master pulling and breathing hard. Without speaking, Wen Ho laid hold of the sled rope and together the two men tugged up the last steep bit of the hill.
"Velly heavy load," said Wen.
Prosper's eyes, gleaming below the visor of his cap, smiled half-maliciously upon him. "It's a deer killed out of season," he said, "and other cattle—no maverick either—fairly marked by its owner. Lend me a hand and we'll unload."
Wen showed no astonishment. He removed the covering and peeped slantwise at the strange woman who stared at him unseeingly with large, bright eyes. She closed them, frowning faintly as though she protested against the intrusion of a Chinese face into her disturbed mental world.
The men took her up and carried her into the house, where they dressed her wound and laid her with all possible gentleness in one of the two beds of stripped and lacquered pine that stood in the bedroom facing the lake. Afterwards they moved the other bed and Prosper went in to his meal.
He was too tired to eat. Soon he pushed his plate away, turned his chair to face the fire, and, slipping down to the middle of his spine, stuck out his lean, long legs, locked his hands back of his head, let his chin fall, and stared into the flames.
Wen Ho removed the dishes, glancing often at his master.
"You velly tired?" he questioned softly.
"It was something of a pull in the storm."
"Velly small deer," babbled the Chinaman, "velly big lady."
Prosper smiled a queer smile that sucked in and down the corners of his mouth.
"She come after all?" asked Wen Ho.
Prosper's smile disappeared; he opened his eyes and turned a wicked, gleaming look upon his man. What with the white face and drawn mouth the look was rather terrible. Wen Ho vanished with an increase of speed and silence.
Alone, Prosper twisted himself in his chair till his head rested on his arms. It was no relaxation of weariness or grief, but an attitude of cramped pain. His face, too, was cramped when, a motionless hour later, he lifted it again. He got up then, broken with weariness, and went softly across the matted hall into the room where Joan slept, and he stood beside her bed.
A glow from the stove, and the light shining through the door, dimly illumined her. She was sleeping very quietly now; the flush of fever had left her face and it was clear of pain, quite simple and sad. Prosper looked at her and looked about the room as though he felt what he saw to be a dream. He put his hand on one long strand of Joan's black hair.
"Poor child!" he said. "Good child!" And went out softly, shutting the door.
In the bedroom where Joan came again to altered consciousness of life, there stood a blue china jar of potpourri, rose-leaves dried and spiced till they stored all the richness of a Southern summer. Joan's first question, strangely enough, was drawn from her by the persistence of this vague and pungent sweetness.
She was lying quietly with closed eyes, Prosper looking down at her, his finger on her even pulse, when, without opening her long lids, she asked, "What smells so good?"
Prosper started, drew away his fingers, then answered, smiling, "It's a jar of dried rose-leaves. Wait a moment, I'll let you hold it."
He took the jar from the window sill and carried it to her.
She looked at it, took it in her hands, and when he removed the lid, she stirred the leaves curiously with her long forefinger.
"I never seen roses," she said, and added, "What's basil?"
Prosper was startled. For an instant all his suppositions as to Joan were disturbed. "Basil? Where did you ever hear of basil?"
"Isabella and Lorenzo," murmured Joan, and her eyes darkened with her memories.
Prosper found his heart beating faster than usual. "Who are you, you strange creature? I think it's time you told me your name. Haven't you any curiosity about me?"
"Yes," said Joan; "I've thought a great deal about you." She wrinkled her wide brows. "You must have been out after game, though 't was out of season. And you must have heard me a-cryin' out an' come in. That was right courageous, stranger. I would surely like you to know why I come away with you," she went on, wistful and weak, "but I don't know as how I can make it plain to you." She paused, turning the blue jar in her hand. "You're very strange to me," she said, "an' yet, someways, you takin' care of me so well an' so—so awful kind—" her voice gave forth its tremolo of feeling—"seems like I knowed you better than any other person in the world."
A flush came into his face.
"I wouldn't like you to be thinkin'—" She stopped, a little breathless.
He took the jar, sat down on the bed, and laid a hand firmly over both of hers. "I 'won't be thinking' anything," he said, "only what you would like me to think. Listen—when a man finds a wounded bird out in the winter woods, he'll bring it home to care for it. And he 'won't be thinking' the worse of its helplessness and tameness. Of course I know—but tell me your name, please!"
At the name, given painfully, Joan drew a weighted breath, another, then, pushing herself up as though oppressed beyond endurance, she caught at Prosper's arm, clenched her fingers upon it, and bent her black head in a terrible paroxysm of grief. It was like a tempest. Prosper thought of storm-driven, rain-wet trees wild in a wind ... of music, the prelude to "Fliegende Hollander." Joan's weeping bent and rocked her. He put his arm about her, tried to soothe her. At her cry of "Pierre! Pierre!" he whitened, but suddenly she broke from him and threw herself back amongst the pillows.
"'T was you that killed him," she moaned. "What hev I to do with you?"
It was not the last time that bitter exclamation was to rise between them; more and more fiercely it came to wring his peace and hers. This time he bore it with a certain philosophy, calmed her patiently.
"How could I help it, Joan?" he pleaded. "You saw how it was?" As she grew quieter, he talked. "I heard you scream like a person being tortured to death—twice—a gruesome enough sound, let me tell you, to hear in the dead of a white, still night. I didn't altogether want to break into your house. I've heard some ugly stories about men venturing to disturb the work of murderers. But, you see, Joan, I've a fear of myself. I've a cruel brain. I can use it on my own failures. I've been through some self-punishment—no! of course, you don't understand all that.... Anyway, I came in, in great fear of my life, and saw what I saw—a woman tied up and devilishly tortured, a man gloating over her helplessness. Naturally, before I spoke my mind, as a man was bound to speak it, under the pain and fury of such a spectacle, I got ready to defend myself. Your—Pierre"—there was a biting contempt in his tone—"saw my gesture, whipped out his gun, and fired. My shot was half a second later than his. I might more readily have lost my life than taken his. If he had lived, Joan, could you have forgiven him?"
"No," sobbed Joan; "I think not." She trembled. "He said terrible hard words to me. He didn't love me like I loved him. He planned to put a brand on me so's I c'd be his own like as if I was a beast belongin' to him. Mr. Holliwell said right, I don't belong to no man. I belong to my own self."
The storm had passed into this troubled after-tossing of thought.
"Can you tell me about it all?" asked Prosper. "Would it help?"
"I couldn't," she moaned; "no, I couldn't. Only—if I hadn't 'a' left Pierre a-lyin' there alone. A dog that had onct loved him wouldn't 'a' done that." She sat up again, white and wild. "That's why I must go back. I must surely go. I must! Oh, I must!"
"Go back thirty miles through wet snow when you can't walk across the room, Joan?" He smiled pityingly.
Her hands twisting in his, she stared past him, out through the window, where the still, sunny day shone blue through shadowy pine branches. Tears rolled down her face.
"Can't you go back?" She turned the desolate, haunted eyes upon him. "Oh, can't you?—to do some kindness to him? Can you ever stop a-thinkin' of him lyin' there?"
Prosper's face was hard through its gentleness. "I've seen too many dead men, less deserving of death. But, hush!—you lie down and go to sleep. I'll try to manage it. I'll try to get back and show him some kindness, as you say. There! Will you be a good girl now?"
She fell back and her eyes shone their gratitude upon him. "Oh, you are good!" she said. "When I'm well—I'll work for you!"
He shook his head, smiled, kissed her hand, and went out.
She was entirely exhausted by her emotion, so that all her memories fell away from her and left her in a peaceful blankness. She trusted Prosper's word. With every fiber of her heart she trusted him, as simply, as singly, as foolishly as a child trusts God.
PROSPER COMES TO A DECISION
Perhaps, in spite of his gruesome boast as to dead men, it was as much to satisfy his own spirit as to comfort Joan's that Prosper actually did undertake a journey to the cabin that had belonged to Pierre. It was true that Prosper had never been able to stop thinking, not so much of the tall, slim youth lying so still across the floor, all his beauty and strength turned to an ashen slackness, as of a brown hand that stirred. The motion of those fingers groping for life had continually disturbed him. The man, to Prosper's mind, was an insensate brute, deserving of death, even of torment, most deserving of Joan's desertion, nevertheless, it was not easy to harden his nerves against the picture of a man left, wounded and helpless, to die slowly alone. Prosper went back expecting to find a dead man, went back as a murderer visits the scene of his crime. He dubbed himself more judge than murderer, but there was a restless misery of the imagination not to be quieted by names. He went back stealthily at dusk, choosing a dusk of wind-driven snow so that his tracks vanished as soon as made. It was very desolate—the blank surface of the world with its flying scud, the blank yellow-gray sky, the range, all iron and white, the blue-black scars of leafless trees, the green-black etchings of firs. The wind cut across like a scythe, sharp, but making no stir above the drift. It was all dead and dark—an underground world which, Prosper felt, never could have seen the sun, had no memory of sun nor moon nor stars. The roof of Pierre's cabin made a dark ridge above the snow, veiled in cloudy drift. He reached it with a cold heart and slid down to its window, cautiously bending his face near to the pane. He expected an interior already dark from the snow piled round the window, so he cupped his hands about his eyes. At once he let himself drop out of sight below the sill. There was a living presence in the house. Prosper had seen a bright fire, the smoke of which had been hidden by the snow-spray, a cot was drawn up before the fire, and a big, fair young man in tweeds whose face, rosy, sensitive, and quiet, was bent over the figure on the cot. A pair of large, white hands were carefully busy.
Prosper, crouched below the window, considered what he had seen. It was a week now since he had left Landis for a dying man. This big fellow in tweeds must have come soon after the shooting. Evidently he was not caring for a dead man. The black head on the pillow had moved. Now there came the sound of speech, just a bass murmur. This time the black head turned itself slightly and Prosper saw Pierre's face. He had seen it only twice before; once when it had looked up, fierce and crazed, at his first entrance into the house, once again when it lay with lifted chin and pale lips on the floor. But even after so scarce a memory, Prosper was startled by the change. Before, it had been the face of a man beside himself with drink and the lust of animal power and cruelty; now it was the wistful face of Pierre, drawn into a tragic mask like Joan's when she came to herself; a miserably haunted and harrowed face, hopeless as though it, too, like the outside world, had lost or had never had a memory of sun. Evidently he submitted to the dressing of his wound, but with a shamed and pitiful look. Prosper's whole impression of the man was changed, and with the change there began something like a struggle. He was afflicted by a crossing of purposes and a stumbling of intention.
He did not care to risk a second look. He crept away and fled into the windy dusk. He traveled with the wind like a blown rag, and, stopping only for a few hours' rest at the ranger station, made the journey home by morning of the second day. And on the journey he definitely made up his mind concerning Joan.
Prosper Gael was a man of deliberate, though passionate, imagination. He did not often act upon impulse, though his actions were often those attempted only by passion-driven or impulsive folk. Prosper could never plead thoughtlessness. He justified carefully his every action to himself. Those were cold, dark hours of deliberation as he let the wind drive him across the desolate land. When the wind dropped and a splendid, still dawn swept up into the clean sky, he was at peace with his own mind and climbed up the mountain trail with a half-smile on his face.
In the dawn, awake on her pillows, Joan was listening for him, and at the sound of his webs she sat up, pale to her lips. She did not know what she feared, but she was filled with dread. The restful stupor that had followed her storm of grief had spent itself and she was suffering again—waves of longing for Pierre, of hatred for him, alternately submerged her. All these bleak, gray hours of wind during which Wen Ho had pattered in and out with meals, with wood for her stove, with little questions as to her comfort, she had suffered as people suffer in a dream; a restless misery like the misery of the pine branches that leaped up and down before her window. The stillness of the dawn, with its sound of nearing steps, gave her a sickness of heart and brain, so that when Prosper came softly in at her door she saw him through a mist. He moved quickly to her side, knelt by her, took her hands. His touch at all times had a tingling charge of vitality and will.
"He has been cared for, Joan," said Prosper. "Some friend of his came and did all that was left to be done."
"Some friend?" In the pale, delicately expanding light Joan's face gleamed between its black coils of hair with eyes like enchanted tarns. In fact they had been haunted during his absence by images to shake her soul. Prosper could see in them reflections of those terrors that had been tormenting her. His touch pressed reassurance upon her, his eyes, his voice.
"My poor child! My dear! I'm glad I am back to take care of you! Cry. Let me comfort you. He has been cared for. He is not lying there alone. He is dead. Let's forgive him, Joan." He shook her hands a little, urgently, and a most painful memory of Pierre's beseeching grasp came upon Joan.
She wrenched away and fell back, quivering, but she did not cry, only asked in her most moving voice, "Who took care of Pierre—after I went away and left him dead?"
Prosper got to his feet and stood with his arms folded, looking wearily down at her. His mouth had fallen into rather cynical lines and there were puckers at the corners of his eyes. "Oh, a big, fair young man—a rosy boy-face, serious-looking, blue eyes."
Joan was startled and turned round. "It was Mr. Holliwell," she said, in a wondering tone. "Did you talk with him? Did you tell him—?"
"No. Hardly." Prosper shook his head. "I found out what he had done for your Pierre without asking unnecessary questions. I saw him, but he did not see me."
"He'll be comin' to get me," said Joan. It was an entirely unemotional statement of certainty.
Prosper pressed his lips into a line and narrowed his eyes upon her.
"Oh, he will?"
"Yes. He'll be takin' after me. He must 'a' ben scairt by somethin' Pierre said in the town durin' their quarrel an' have come up after him to look out what Pierre would be doin' to me.... I wisht he'd 'a' come in time.... What must he be thinkin' of me now, to find Pierre a-lyin' there dead, an' me gone! He'll be takin' after me to bring me home."
Prosper would almost have questioned her then, his sharp face was certainly at that moment the face of an inquisitor, a set of keen and delicate instruments ready for probing, but so weary and childlike did she look, so weary and childlike was her speech, that he forbore. What did it matter, after all, what there was in her past? She had done what she had done, been what she had been. If the fellow had branded her for sin, why, she had suffered overmuch. Prosper admitted, that, unbranded as to skin, he was scarcely fit to put his dirty civilized soul under her clean and savage foot. Was the big, rosy chap her lover? She had spoken of a quarrel between him and Pierre? But her manner of speaking of him was scarcely in keeping with the thought, rather it was the manner of a child-soul relying on the Shepherd who would be "takin' after" some small, lost one. Well, he would have to be a superman to find her here with no trails to follow and no fingers to point. Pierre by now would have told his story—and Prosper knew instinctively that he would tell it straight; whatever madness the young savage might perpetrate under the influence of drink and jealousy, he would hardly, with that harrowed face, be apt at fabrications—they would be looking for Joan to come back, to go to the town, to some neighboring ranch. They would make a search, but winter would be against them with its teeth bared, a blizzard was on its way. By the time they found her, thought Prosper,—and he quoted one of Joan's quaint phrases to himself, smiling with radiance as he did so,—"she won't be carin' to leave me." In his gay, little, firelit room, he sat, stretched out, lank and long, in the low, deep, red-lacquered chair, dozing through the long day, sipping strong coffee, smoking, reading. He was singularly quiet and content. The devil of disappointment and of thwarted desire that had wived him in this carefully appointed hiding-place stood away a little from him and that wizard imagination of his began to weave. By dusk, he was writing furiously and there was a glow of rapture on his face.
THE WHOLE DUTY OF WOMAN
Joan waited for Holliwell and, waiting, began inevitably to regain her strength. One evening as Wen Ho was spreading the table, Prosper looked up from his writing to see a tall, gaunt girl clinging to the door-jamb. She was dressed in the heavy clothes, which hung loose upon her long bones, her throat was drawn up to support the sharpened and hollowed face in which her eyes had grown very large and wistful. Her hair was braided and wrapped across her brow, her long, strong hands, smooth and only faintly brown, were thin, too, and curiously expressive as they clung to the logs. She was a moving figure, piteous, lovely, rather like some graceful mountain beast, its spirit half-broken by wounds and imprisonment and human tending, but ready to leap into a savagery of flight or of attack. They were wild, those great eyes, as well as wistful. Prosper, looking suddenly up at them, caught his breath. He put down his book as quietly as though she had indeed been a wild, easily startled thing, and, suppressing the impulse to rise, stayed where he was, leaning a trifle forward, his hands on the arms of his chair.
Joan's eyes wandered curiously about the brilliant room and came to him at last. Prosper met them, relaxed, and smiled.
"Come in and dine with me, Joan," he said. "Tell me how you like it."
She felt her way weakly to the second large chair and sat down facing him across the hearth. The Chinaman's shadow, thrown strongly by the lamp, ran to and fro between and across them. It was a strange scene truly, and Prosper felt with exhilaration all its strangeness. This was no Darby and Joan fireside; a wizard with his enchanted leopardess, rather. He was half-afraid of Joan and of himself.
"It's right beautiful," said Joan, "an' right strange to me. I never seen anything like it before. That"—her eyes followed Wen Ho's departure half-fearfully—"that man and all."
Prosper laughed delightedly, stretching up his arms in full enjoyment of her splendid ignorance. "The Chinaman? Does he look so strange to you?"
"Is that what he is? I—I didn't know." She smiled rather sadly and ashamedly. "I'm awful ignorant, Mr. Gael. I just can read an' I've only read two books." She flushed and her pupils grew large.
Prosper saw that this matter of reading trod closely on her pain.
"Yes, he's a Chinaman from San Francisco. You know where that is."
"Yes, sir. I've heard talk of it—out on the Pacific Coast, a big city."
"Full of bad yellow men and a few good ones of whom let's hope Wen Ho is one. And full of bric-a-brac like all these things that surprise you so. Do you like bright colors, Joan?"
She pondered in the unself-conscious and unhurried fashion of the West, stroking the yellow, spotted skin that lay over the black arm of her chair and letting her eyes flit like butterflies in a garden on a zigzag journey to one after another of the flowers of color in the room.
"Well, sir," she said, "I c'd take to 'em better if they was more one at a time. I mean"—she pushed up the braid a little from wrinkling brows—"jest blue is awful pretty an' jest green. They're sort of cool, an' yeller, that's sure fine. You'd like to take it in your hands. Red is most too much like feelin' things. I dunno, it most hurts an' yet it warms you up, too. If I hed to live here—"
Prosper's eyebrows lifted a trifle.
"I'd—sure clear out the whole of this"—and she swept a ruthless hand.
Again Prosper made delighted use of that upward stretching of his arms. He laughed. "And you'd clear me out, too, wouldn't you?—if you had to live here."
"Oh, no," said Joan. She paused and fastened her enormous, grave look upon him. "I'd like right soon now to begin to work for you."
Again Prosper laughed. "Why," said he, "you don't know the first thing about woman's work, Joan. What could you do?"
Joan straightened wrathfully. "I sure do know. Sure I do. I can cook fine. I can make a room clean. I can launder—"
"Oh, pooh! The Chinaman does all that as well—no, better than you ever could do it. That's not woman's work."
Joan saw all the business of femininity swept off the earth. Profound astonishment, incredulity, and alarm possessed her mind and so her face. Truly, thought Prosper, it was like talking to a grave, trustful, and most impressionable child, the way she sat there, rather on the edge of her chair, her hands folded, letting everything he said disturb and astonish the whole pool of her thought.
"But, Mr. Gael, sweepin', washin', cookin',—ain't all that a woman's work?"
"Men can do it so much better," said Prosper, blowing forth a cloud of blue cigarette smoke and brushing it impatiently aside so that he could smile at her evident offense and perplexity.
"But they don't do it better. They're as messy an' uncomfortable as they can be when there ain't no woman to look after 'em."
"Not if they get good pay for keeping themselves and other people tidy. Look at Wen Ho."
"Oh," said Joan, "that ain't properly a man."
Prosper laughed out again. It was good to be able to laugh.
"I've known plenty of real white men who could cook and wash better than any woman."
"But—but what is a woman's work?"
Prosper remained thoughtful for a while, his head thrown back a little, looking at her through his eyelashes. In this position he was extraordinarily striking. His thin, sharp face gained by the slight foreshortening and his brilliant eyes, keen nose, and high brow did not quite so completely overbalance the sad and delicate strength of mouth and chin. In Joan's eyes, used to the obvious, clear beauty of Pierre, Gael was an ugly fellow, but even she, artistically untrained, caught at the moment the picturesqueness and grace of him, the mysterious lines of texture, of race; the bold chiselings of thought and experience. The colors of the room became him, too, for he was dark, with curious, catlike, greenish eyes.