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A Matter Of Taste







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

"What are you writin' so hard for, Mr. Gael?" Joan voiced the question
wistfully on the height of a long breath. She drew it from a silence
which seemed to her to have filled this strange, gay house for an
eternity. For the first time full awareness of the present cut a rift
in the troubled cloudiness of her introspection. She had been sitting
in her chair, listless and wan, now staring at the flames, now
following Wen Ho's activities with absent eyes. A storm was swirling
outside. Near the window, Prosper, a figure of keen absorption, bent
over his writing-table, his long, fine hand driving the pencil across
sheet after sheet. He looked like a machine, so regular and rapid was
his work. A sudden sense of isolation came upon Joan. What part had
she in the life of this companion, this keeper of her own life? She
felt a great need of drawing nearer to him, of finding the humanity in
him. At first she fought the impulse, reserve, pride, shyness locking
her down, till at last her nerves gave her such torment that her
fingers knitted into each other and on the outbreathing of a desperate
sigh she spoke.

"What are you writin' so hard for, Mr. Gael?"

At once Prosper's hand laid down its pencil and he turned about in his
chair and gave her a gleaming look and smile. Joan was fairly
startled. It was as if she had touched some mysterious spring and
turned on a dazzling, unexpected light. As a matter of fact, Prosper's
heart had leapt at her wistful and beseeching voice.

He had been biding his time. He had absorbed himself in writing,
content to leave in suspense the training of his enchanted leopardess.
Half-absent glimpses of her desolate beauty as she moved about his
winter-bound house, contemplation of her unself-consciousness as she
companioned his meals, the pleasure he felt in her rapt listening to
his music in the still, frost-held evenings by the fire--these he had
made enough. They quieted his restlessness, soothed the ache of his
heart, filled him with a warm and patient desire, different from any
feeling he had yet experienced. He was amused by her lack of interest
in him. He was not accustomed to such through-gazing from beautiful
eyes, such incurious absence of questioning. She evidently accepted him
as a superior being, a Providence; he was not a man at all, not of the
same clay as Pierre and herself. Prosper had waited understandingly
enough for her first move. When the personal question came, it made a
sort of crash in the expectant silence of his heart.

Before answering, except by that smile, he lit himself a cigarette;
then, strolling to the fire, he sat on the rug below her, drawing his
knees up into his hands.

"I'd like to tell you about my writing, Joan. After all, it's the
great interest of my life, and I've been fairly seething with it; only
I didn't want to bother you, worry your poor, distracted head."

"I never thought," said Joan slowly, "I never thought you'd be carin'
to tell me things. I know so awful little."

"It wasn't your modesty, Joan. It was simply because you haven't given
me a thought since I dragged you in here on my sled. I've been
nothing"--under the careless, half-bitter manner, he was weighing his
words and their probable effect--"nothing, for all these weeks, but--a
provider."

"A provider?" Joan groped for the meaning of the word. It came, and
she flushed deeply. "You mean I've just taken things, taken your kind
doin's toward me an' not been givin' you a thought." Her eyes filled
and shone mortification down upon him so that he put his hand quickly
over hers, tightened together on her knee.

"Poor girl! I'm not reproaching you."

"But, Mr. Gael, I wanted to work for you. You wouldn't let me." She
brushed away her tears. "What can I do? Where can I go?"

"You can stay here and make me happy as you have been doing ever since
you came. I was very unhappy before. And you can give me just as much
or as little attention as you please. I don't ask you for a bit more.
Suppose you stop grieving, Joan, and try to be just a little happier
yourself. Take an interest in life. Why, you poor, young, ignorant
child, I could open whole worlds of excitement, pleasure, to you, if
you'd let me. There's more in life than you've dreamed of experiencing.
There's music, for one thing, and there are books and beauty of a
thousand kinds, and big, wonderful thoughts, and there's companionship
and talk. What larks we could have, you and I, if you would care--I
mean, if you would wake up and let me show you how. You do want to
learn a woman's work, don't you, Joan?"

She shook her head slowly, smiling wistfully, the tears gone from her
eyes, which were puzzled, but diverted from pain. "I didn't savvy what
you meant when you talked about what a woman's work rightly was. An'
I'm so awful ignorant, you know so awful much. It scares me, plumb
scares me, to think how much you know, more than Mr. Holliwell! Such
books an' books an' books! An' writin' too. You see I'd be no help nor
company fer you. I'd like to listen to you. I'd listen all day long,
but I'd not be understandin'. No more than I understand about that
there woman's work idea."

He laughed at her, keeping reassuring eyes on hers. "I can explain
anything. I can make you understand anything. I'll grant you, my idea
of a woman's work is difficult for you to get hold of. That's a big
question, after all, one of the biggest. But--just to begin with and
we'll drop it later for easier things--I believe, the world believes,
that a woman ought to be beautiful. You can understand that?"

Joan shook her head. "It's a awful hard sayin', Mr. Gael. It's awful
hard to say you had ought to be somethin' a person can't manage for
themselves. I mean--" poor Joan, the inarticulate, floundered, but he
left her, rather cruelly, to flounder out. "I mean, that's an awful
hard sayin' fer a homely woman, Mr. Gael."

He laughed. "Oh," said he with a gesture, "there is no such thing as a
homely woman. A homely woman simply does not count." He got up, looked
for a book, found it, opened it, and brought it to her. "Look at that
picture, Joan. What do you think of it?"

It was of a woman, a long-drawn, emaciated creature, extraordinarily
artificial in her grace and in the pose and expression of her ugly,
charming form and features. She had been aided by hair-dresser and
costumer and by her own wit, aided into something that made of her an
arresting and compelling picture. "What do you think of her, Joan?"
smiled Prosper Gael.

Joan screwed up her eyes distastefully. "Ain't she queer, Mr. Gael?
Poor thing, she's homely!"

He clapped to the book. "A matter of educated taste," he said. "You
don't know beauty when you see it. If you walked into a drawing-room by
the side of that marvelous being, do you think you'd win a look, my dear
girl? Why, your great brows and your great, wild eyes and your face and
form of an Olympian and your free grace of a forest beast--why, they
wouldn't be noticed. Because, Joan, that queer, poor thing knew woman's
work from A to Z. She's beautiful, Joan, beautiful as God most certainly
never intended her to be. Why, it's a triumph--it's something to blow a
trumpet over. It's art!"

He returned the volume and came back to stand by the mantel,
half-turned from her, looking down into the fire. For the moment, he
had created in himself a reaction against his present extraordinary
experiment, his wilderness adventure. He was keenly conscious of a
desire for civilized woman, for her practiced tongue, her poise, her
matchless companionship....

Joan spoke, "You mean I'm awful homely, Mr. Gael?"

The question set him to laughing outrageously. Joan's pride was stung.

"You've no right to laugh at me," she said. "I'd not be carin' what
you think." And she left him, moving like an angry stag, head high,
light-stepping.

He went back to his work, not at all in regret at her pique and still
amused by the utter femininity of her simple question.

Before dinner he rapped at her door. "Joan, will you do me a favor?"

A pause, then, in her sweet, vibrant voice, she answered, "I'd be
doin' anything fer you, Mr. Gael."

"Then, put on these things for dinner instead of your own clothes,
will you?"

She opened the door and he piled into her arms a mass of shining silk,
on top of it a pair of gorgeous Chinese slippers.

"Do it to please me, even if you think it makes you look queer, will
you, Joan?"

"Of course," she smiled, looking up from the gleaming, sliding stuff
into his face. "I'd like to, anyway. Dressing-up--that's fun."

And she shut the door.

She spread the silk out on the bed and found it a loose robe of dull
blue, embroidered in silver dragons and lined with brilliant rose.
There was a skirt of this same rose-colored stuff. In one weighted
pocket she found a belt of silver coins and a little vest of creamy
lace. There were rose silk stockings stuffed into the shoes. Joan
eagerly arrayed herself. She had trouble with the vest, it was so
filmy, so vaguely made, it seemed to her, and to wear it at all she
had to divest herself altogether of the upper part of her coarse
underwear. Then it seemed to her startlingly inadequate even as an
undergarment. However, the robe did go over it, and she drew that
close and belted it in. It was provided with long sleeves and fell to
her ankles. She thrilled at the delightful clinging softness of silk
stockings and for the first time admired her long, round ankles and
shapely feet. The Chinese slippers amused her, but they too were
beautiful, all embroidered with flowers and dragons.

She felt she must look very queer, indeed, and went to the mirror.
What she saw there surprised her because it was so strange, so
different. Pierre had not dealt in compliments. His woman was his
woman and he loved her body. To praise this body, surrendered in love
to him, would have been impossible to the reverence and reserve of his
passion.

Now, Joan brushed and coiled her hair, arranging it instinctively, but
perhaps a little in imitation of that queer picture that had looked to
her so hideous. Then, starting toward the door at Wen Ho's announcement
of "Dinner, lady," she was quite suddenly overwhelmed by shyness. From
head to foot for the first time in all her life she was acutely
conscious of herself.





Next: The Training Of A Leopardess

Previous: The Whole Duty Of Woman



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