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Aftermath







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

Joan waited for Prosper on the appointed afternoon. There was a fire
on her hearth and a March snow-squall tapped against the window panes.
The crackle of the logs inside and that eerie, light sound outside
were so associated with Prosper that, even before he came, Joan,
sitting on one side of the hearth, closed her eyes and felt that he
must be opposite to her in his red-lacquered chair, his long legs
stuck out in front, his amused and greedy eyes veiled by a cloud of
cigarette smoke.

Since she had seen him at the theater, she had been suffering from
sleeplessness. At night she would go over and over the details of
their intercourse, seeing them, feeling them, living them in the light
of later knowledge, till the torment was hardly to be borne. Three
days and nights of this inner activity had brought back that sharp
line between her brows and the bitter tightening of her lips.

This afternoon she was white with suspense. Her dread of the impending
interview was like a physical illness. She sat in a high-backed chair,
hands along the arms, head resting back, eyes half-closed, in that
perfect stillness of which the animal and the savage are alone
entirely capable. There were many gifts that Joan had brought from the
seventeen years on Lone River. This grave immobility was one. She was
very carefully dressed in a gown that accentuated her height and
dignity. And she wore a few jewels. She wanted, pitifully enough, to
mark every difference between this Joan and the Joan whom Prosper had
drawn on his sled up the canyon trail. If he expected to force her
back into the position of enchanted leopardess, to see her "lie at his
feet and eat out of his hand," as Morena had once described the plight
of Zona, he would see at a glance that she was no longer so easily
mastered. In fact, sitting there, she looked as proud and perilous as
a young Medea, black-haired with long throat and cold, malevolent
lips. It was only in the eyes--those gray, unhappy, haunted eyes--that
Joan gave away her eternal simplicity of heart. They were unalterably
tender and lonely and hurt. It was the look in them that had prompted
Shorty's description, "She's plumb movin' to me--looks about halfway
between 'You go to hell' and 'You take me in your arms to rest.'"

Prosper was announced, and Joan, keeping her stillness, merely turned
her head toward him as he came into the room.

She saw his rapid observation of the room, of her, even before she
noticed the very apparent change in him. For he, too, was haggard and
utterly serious as she did not remember him. He stood before her fire
and asked her jerkily if she would let him smoke. She said "Yes," and
those were the only words spoken for five unbearable minutes the
seconds of which her heart beat out like a shaky hammer in some worn
machine.

Prosper smoked and stood there looking, now at her, now at the fire.
At last, with difficulty, he smiled. "You are not going to make it
easy for me, are you, Joan?"

For her part she was not looking at him. She kept her eyes on the fire
and this averted look distressed and irritated his nerves.

"I am not trying to make it hard," she said; "I want you to say what
you came to say and go."

"Did you ever love me, Joan?"

He had said it to force a look from her, but it had the effect only of
making her more still, if possible.

"I don't know," she said slowly, answering with her old directness. "I
thought you needed me. I was alone. I was scared of the emptiness when
I went out and looked down the valley. I thought Pierre had gone out
of the world and there was no living thing that wanted me. I came back
and you met me and you put your arms round me and you said"--she
closed her eyes and repeated his speech as though she had just heard
it--"'Don't leave me, Joan.'"

Her voice was more than ever before moving and expressive. Prosper
felt that half-forgotten thrill. The muscles of his throat contracted.
"Joan, I did want you. I spoke the truth," he pleaded.

She went on with no impatience but very coldly. "You came to tell me
your side. Will you tell me, please?"

For the first time she looked into his eyes and he drew in his breath
at the misery of hers.

"I built that cabin, Joan," he said, "for another woman."

"Your wife?" asked Joan.

"No."

"For the one I said must have been like a tall child? She wasn't your
wife? She was dead?"

Prosper shook his head. "No. Did you think that? She was a woman I
loved at that time very dearly and she was already married to another
man."

"You built that house for her? I don't understand."

"She had promised to leave her husband and to come away with me. I had
everything ready, those rooms, those clothes, those materials, and
when I went out to get her, I had a message saying that her courage
had failed her, that she wouldn't come."

"She was a better woman than me," said Joan bitterly.

Prosper laughed. "By God, she was not! She sent me down to hell. I
couldn't go back to the East again. I had laid very careful and
elaborate plans. I was trapped out there in that horrible winter
country...."

"It was not horrible," said Joan violently; "it was the most
wonderful, beautiful country in all the world." And tears ran suddenly
down her face.

But she would not let him come near to comfort her. "Go on," she said
presently.

"Before you came, Joan," Prosper went on, "it was horrible. It was
like being starved. Every thing in the house reminded me of--her. I
had planned it all very carefully and we were to have been--happy. You
can fancy what it was to be there alone."

Joan nodded. She was just and she was honestly trying to put herself
in his place. "Yes," she said; "if I had gone back and Pierre had been
dead, his homestead would have been like that to me."

"It was because I was so miserable that I went out to hunt. I'd scour
the country all day and half the night to tire myself out, that I
could get some sleep. I was pretty far from home that moonlight night
when I heard you scream for help...."

Joan's face grew whiter. "Don't tell about that," she pleaded.

He paused, choosing another opening. "After I had bandaged you and
told you that Pierre was dead--and I honestly thought he was--I didn't
know what to do with you. You couldn't be left, and there was no
neighbor nearer than my own house; besides, I had shot a man, and,
perhaps,--I don't know, maybe I was influenced by your beauty, by my
own crazy loneliness.... You were very beautiful and very desolate. I
was in a fury over the brute's treatment of you...."

"Hush!" said Joan; "you are not to talk about Pierre."

Prosper shrugged. "I decided to take you home with me. I wanted you
desperately, just, I believe, to take care of, just to be kind
to--truly, Joan, I was lonely to the point of madness. Some one to
care for, some one to talk to, was absolutely necessary to save my
reason. So when I was leading you out, I--I saw Pierre's hand move--"

Joan stood up. After a moment she controlled herself with an effort
and sat down again. "Go on. I can stand it," she said.

"And I thought to myself, 'The devil is alive and he deserves to be
dead. This woman can never live with him again. God wouldn't sanction
such an act as giving her back to his hands.' And I was half-mad
myself, I'd been alone so long ... I stood so you couldn't see him,
Joan, and I threw an elk-hide over him and led you out."

"I followed you; I didn't look at Pierre; I left him lying there,"
gasped Joan.

Prosper went on monotonously. "When I came back a week later, I
thought he would be dead. It was dusk, the wind was blowing, the snow
was driving in a scud. I came down to the cabin and dropped below the
drift by that northern window, and, the second I looked in, I dropped
out of sight. There was a light and a fire. Your husband was lying
before the fire on a cot. There was another man there, your Mr.
Holliwell; they were talking, Holliwell was dressing Pierre's wound. I
went away like a ghost, and while I was going back, I thought it all
out; and I decided to keep you for myself. I suppose," said Prosper
dully, "that that was a horrible sin. I didn't see it that way then.
I'm not sure I see it that way now. Pierre had tied you up and pressed
a white-hot iron into your bare shoulder. If you went back to him, if
he took you back, how was I to know that he might not repeat his
drunken deviltry, or do worse, if anything could be worse! It was the
act of a fiend. It put him out of court with me. Whatever I gave you,
education and beauty, and ease, must be better and happier for you
than life with such a brute as Pierre--"

"Stop!" said Joan between her teeth; "you know nothing of Pierre and
me; you only know that one dreadful night. You don't know--the rest."

"I don't want to know the rest," he said sharply; "that is enough to
justify my action. I thought so then and I think so now. You won't be
able to make me change that opinion."

"I shall not try," said Joan.

He accepted this and went on. "When I found you in your bed waiting
for news of Pierre, I thought you the most beautiful, pitiful thing I
had ever seen. I loved you then, Joan, then. Tell me, did I ever in
those days hurt you or give you a moment's anxiety or fear?"

"No," Joan admitted, "you did not. In those days you were wonderful,
kind and patient with me. I thought you were more like God than a
human then."

Prosper laughed with bitterness. "You thought very wrong, but,
according to my own lights, I was very careful of you. I meant to give
you all I could and I meant to win you with patience and forbearance.
I had respect for you and for your grief and for the horrible thing
you had suffered. Joan, by now you know better what the world is. Can
you reproach me so very bitterly for our--happiness, even if it was
short?"

"You lied to me," said Joan. "It wasn't just. We didn't start even.
And--and you knew what you wanted of me. I never guessed."

"You didn't? You never guessed?"

"No. Sometimes, toward the last, I was afraid. I felt that I ought to
go away. That day I ran off--you remember--I was afraid of you. I felt
you were bad and that I was bad too. Then it seemed to me that I'd
been dreadfully ungrateful and unkind. That was what began to make me
give way to my feelings. I was sorrowful because I had hurt you and
you so kind! The day I came in with that suit and spoke of--her as a
'tall child' and you cried, why, I felt so sorrowful that I'd made you
suffer. I wanted to comfort you, to put my hands on you in comfort,
like a mother, I felt. And you went out like you were angry and stayed
away all night as though you couldn't bear to be seeing me again in
your house that you had built for her. So I wrote you my letter and
went away. And then--it was all so awful cold and empty. I didn't know
Pierre was out there. I came back...."

They were both silent for a long time and in the silence the idyll was
re-lived. Spring came again with its crest of green along the canyon
and the lake lay like a turquoise drawing the glittering peak down
into its heart.

"My book--its success," Prosper began at last, "made me restless.
You'll understand that now that you are an artist yourself. And one
day there came a letter from that woman I had loved."

"It was a little square gray envelope," said Joan breathlessly. "I can
see it now. You never rightly looked at me again."

"Ah!" said Prosper. He turned and hid his face.

"Tell me the rest," said Joan.

He went on without turning back to her, his head bent. "The woman
wrote that her husband was dying, that I must come back to her at
once."

The snow tapped and the fire crackled.

"And when you--went back?"

"Her husband did not die," said Prosper blankly; "he is still alive."

"And you still love her very much?"

"That's the worst of it, Joan," groaned Prosper. His groan changed
into a desperate laugh. "I love you. Now truly I do love you. If I
could marry you--if I could have you for my wife--" He waited,
breathing fast, then came and stood close before her. "I have never
wanted a woman to be my wife till now. I want you. I want you to be
the mother of my children."

Then Joan did look at him with all her eyes.

"I am Pierre's wife," she said. The liquid beauty had left her voice.
It was hoarse and dry. "I am Pierre's wife and I have already been the
mother of your child."

There was a long, rigid silence. "Joan--when?--where?" Prosper's
throat clicked.

"I knew it before you left. I couldn't tell you because you were so
changed. I worked all winter. It--it was born on an awful cold March
night. I think the woman let it--made it--die. She wanted me to work
for her during the summer and she thought I would be glad if the child
didn't live. She used to say I was 'in trouble' and she'd be glad if
she could 'help me out.'... It was what I was planning to live for ...
that child."

During the heavy stillness following Joan's dreadful, brief account of
birth and death, Prosper went through a strange experience. It seemed
to him that in his soul something was born and died. Always afterwards
there was a ghost in him--the father that might have been.

"I can't talk any more," said Joan faintly. "Won't you please go?"





Next: Against The Bars

Previous: Joan And Prosper



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