Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron
And it was spring-time; these prisoners of frost were beautifully
sensitive. They, too, with the lake and the aspens and the earth, the
seeds and the beasts, had suffered the season of interment. In such
fashion Nature makes possible the fresh undertakings of last summer's
reckless prodigals; she drives them into her mock tomb and freezes
their hearts--it is a little rest of death--so that they wake like
turbulent bacchantes drunk with sleep and with forgetfulness. Love,
spring says, is an eternal fact, welcome its new manifestations.
Remating bluebirds built their nests near Joan's window; they were not
troubled by sad recollections of last year's nests nor the young birds
that flew away. It was another life, a resurrection. If they remembered
at all, they remembered only the impulses of pleasure; they had
somewhere before learned how to love, how to build; the past summers
had given practice to their singing little throats and to their rapid
wings. No ghosts forbade happiness and no God--man-voiced--saying,
because he knew the ugly human aftermaths, hard sayings of "Be ye
What counsel was theirs for Joan and what had her human mentor taught
her? He had taught her in one form or another the beauty of passion and
its eternal sinlessness, for that was his sincere belief. By music he
had taught her, by musical speech, by the preaching of heathen sage and
the wit of modern arguers. He had given her all the moral schooling she
had ever had and its golden rule was, "Be ye beautiful and generous."
Joan was both beautiful and made for giving, "free-hearted" as she
might herself have said, Friday's child as the old rhyme has it,--and
to cry out to her with love, saying, "I want you, Joan," was just,
sooner or later, to see her turn and bend her head and hold out her
arms. Prosper had the reward of patience; his wild leopardess was tamed
to his hand and her sweetness made him tender and very merciful.
Their gay, little house stood open all day while they explored the
mountains and plunged into the lake, choosing the hot hour of noon.
Joan made herself mistress of the house and did her woman's work at
last of tidying and beautifying and decking corners with gorgeous
branches of blossoms while Prosper worked at his desk. He was happy;
the reality of Joan's presence had laid his ghost just as the reality
of his had laid hers. His work went on magically and added the glow of
successful creation to the glow of satisfied desire. And his sin of
deceit troubled him very little, for he had worked out that problem
and had decided that Pierre, dead or alive, was unworthy of this mate.
But sometimes in her sleep Joan would start and moan feeling the touch
of the white-hot iron on her shoulder. Her hatred of Pierre's cruelty,
her resolution to be done with him forever, must have vividly renewed
itself in those dreams, for she would cling to Prosper like a
frightened child, and wake, trembling, happy to find herself safe in
So they lived their spring. Wen Ho, the silent and inscrutable, went
out of the valley for provisions, and during his absence Joan queened
it in the kitchen. She was learning to laugh, to see the absurd,
delightful twists of daily living, to mock Prosper's oddities as he
mocked hers. She was learning to be a comrade and she was learning
better speech and more exquisite ways. It was inevitable that she
should learn. Prosper, in these days, spent his whole soul upon her,
fed her with music and delight, and he trained her to sing her sagas so
that every day her voice gained in power and flexible sweetness. She
would sing, since he told her to, her voice beating its wings against
the walls of the house or ringing down the canyon in untrammeled
flight. Prosper was lost in wonder of her, in a passionate admiration
for his own handiwork. He was making, here in this God-forsaken
solitude, a thing of marvel; what he was making surely justified the
means. Joan's laughable simplicity and directness were the same; they
were part of her essence; no civilizing could confuse or disturb them;
but she changed, her brain grew, it absorbed material, it attempted
adventures. Nowadays Joan sometimes argued, and this filled Prosper
with delight, so quaint and logical she was and so skillful.
They were reading out under the firs by the green lip of the lake,
when Wen Ho led his pack-horse up the trail. He had been gone a month,
for Prosper had sent him out of the valley to a distant town for his
supplies. He didn't want the little frontier place to prick up its
ears. Wen Ho had ridden by a secret trail back over the range; he had
not passed even the ranger station on his way. He called out, and, in
the midst of a sentence Joan was reading, Prosper started up.
Joan looked at him smiling. "You're as easily turned away from
learning as a boy," she began, and faltered when she saw his face. It
was turned eagerly toward the climbing horses, toward the pack, and it
was sharp and keen with detached interest, an excitement that had
nothing, nothing in the world to do with her.
It was the great bundle of Prosper's mail that first brought home to
Joan the awareness of an outside world. She knew that Prosper was a
traveled and widely experienced man, but she had not fancied him held
to this world by human attachments. Concerning the "tall child" she
had not put a question and she still believed her to have been
Prosper's wife. But when, leaving her place under the tree, she came
into the house and found Prosper feverishly slitting open envelope
after envelope, with a pile of papers and magazines, ankle-high,
beside him on the floor, she stood aghast.
"What a lot of people must have been writing to you, Prosper!"
He did not hear her. He was greedy of eye and fingertips, searching
written sheet after sheet. He was flushed along the cheek-bones and a
little pale about the lips. Joan stood there, her hands hanging, her
head bent, staring up and out at him from under her brows. She looked,
in this attitude, rather dangerous.
Prosper sped through his mail, made an odd gesture of desperation, sat
still a moment staring, his brilliant, green-gray eyes gone dull and
blank, then he gave himself a shuddery shake, pulled a small parcel
from under the papers, and held it out to Joan. He smiled.
"Something for you, leopardess," he said--he had told her his first
impression of her.
She took the box haughtily and walked with it over to her chair. But
he came and kissed her.
"Jealous of my mail? You foolish child. What a girl-thing you are! It
doesn't matter, does it, how we train you or leave you untrained,
you're all alike, you women, under your skins. Open your box and thank
me prettily, and leave matters you don't understand alone. That's the
way to talk, isn't it?"
She flushed and smiled rather doubtfully, but, at sight of his gift,
she forgot everything else for a moment. It was a collar of topaz and
emerald set in heavy silver. She was awe-struck by its beauty, and
went, after he had fastened it for her, to stand a long while before
the glass looking at it. She wore her yellow dress cut into a V at the
neck and the jewels rested beautifully at the base of her long, round
throat, faintly brown like her face up to the brow. The yellow and the
green brought out all the value of her grave, scarlet lips, the soft,
even tints of her skin, the dark lights and shadows of her hair and
"It's beautiful," she said. "It's wonderful. I love it."
All the time very grave and still, she took it off, put it on its box,
and laid it on the mantel. Then she went out of doors.
Prosper hurried to the window and saw her walk out to the garden they
had made and begin her work. He was puzzled by her manner, but
presently shrugged the problem of her mood away and went back to his
mail. That night he finished his novel and got it ready for the
Again Wen Ho, calm and uncomplaining, was sent out over the hill, and
again the idyll was renewed, and Joan wore the collar and was almost
as happy as before. Only one night she startled Prosper.
"I asked Pierre," she said slowly, after a silence, in her low-pitched
voice, "when he was taking me away home, I asked, 'Where are you
going?' and he said to me, 'Don't you savvy the answer to that
question, Joan?' And, Prosper, I didn't savvy, so he told me and he
looked at me sort of hard and stern, 'We're a-goin' to be married,
Prosper and Joan were sitting before the fire, Joan on the bearskin at
his feet, he lounging back, long-legged, smoke-veiled, in one of the
lacquered chairs. She had been fingering her collar and she kept on
fingering it as she spoke and staring straight into the flames, but,
at the last, quoting Pierre's words and tone, her voice and face
quivered and she looked at him with eyes of mysterious pain, in them a
sort of uncomprehended anguish.
"Why was that, Prosper?" she asked; "I mean, why did he say it that
way? And what--what does it stand for, marrying or not--?"
Prosper jerked a little in his chair, then said he blasphemously,
"Marriage is the sin against the Holy Ghost. Don't be the conventional
woman, Joan. Isn't this beautiful, this life of ours?"
"Yes." But her eyes of uncomprehended pain were still upon him. So he
put his hand over them and drew her head against his knee. "Yes, but
that other life was--was--before Pierre changed, it was beautiful--"
"Of course. Love is always beautiful. Not even marriage can always
spoil it, though it very often does. Well, Joan," he went on
flippantly, though the tickle of her lashes against his palm somehow
disturbed his flippancy, "I'll go into the subject with you one of
these days, when the weather isn't so beautiful. It's really a matter
of law, property rights, and so forth; a practice variously conducted
in various lands; it's man's most studied insult to woman; it's
recommended as the lesser of two evils by a man who despised woman as
only an Oriental can despise her, Saint Paul by name; it's a thing
civilized women cry for till they get it and then quite bitterly learn
to understand; it's a horrible invention which needn't touch your
beautiful clean soul, dear. Come out and look at the moon."
"Listen!" They stood side by side at the door. "Some silly bird thinks
that is the dawn. Look at me, Joan!"
She lifted obedient eyes.
"There! That's better. Don't get that other look. I can't bear it. I
A moment later they went out into the sweet, silver silence down to
the silver lake.
* * * * *
Four months later the name of Prosper Gael began to be on every one's
lips, and before every one's eyes; the world, his world, began to
clamor for him. Even Wen Ho grumbled at this going out on tremendous
journeys after the mail for which Prosper grew more and more greedy and
impatient. His novel, "The Canyon," had been accepted, was enormously
advertised, had made an extraordinary success. All this he explained to
Joan, who tried to rejoice because she saw that it was exquisite
delight to Prosper. He was by way of thinking now that his exile, his
Wyoming adventure, was to thank for his success, but when a woman, even
such a woman as Joan, begins to feel that she has been a useful
emotional experience, there begins pain. For Joan pain began and daily
it increased. It was suffering for her to watch Prosper reading his
letters, forwarded to him from the Western town where his friends and
his secretary believed him to be recovering from some nervous illness;
to watch him smoking and thinking of himself, his fame, his talents,
his future; to watch him scribbling notes, planning another work, to
hear his excited talk, now so impersonal, so unrelated to her; to see
how his eagerness over her education slackened, faltered, died; to
notice that he no longer watched the changeful humors of her beauty nor
cared if she wore bronze or blue or yellow; and worst of all, to find
him staring at her sometimes with a worried, impatient look which
scuttled out of sight like some ugly, many-legged creature when it met
her own eyes--painful, of course, yet such an old story. Joan, who had
never heard of such experience, did not foresee the inevitable end,
and, in so much, she was spared. The extra pain of forfeiting her
dignity and self-respect did not touch her, for she made none of those
most pitiful, unavailing efforts to hold him, to cling; did not even
pretend indifference. She only drew gradually into herself, shrinking
from her pain and from him as the cause of it; she only lost her glow
of love-happiness, her face seemed dwindled, seemed to contract, and
that secret look of a wild animal returned to her gray eyes. She
quietly gave up the old regulations of their life; she did not remind
him of the study-hours, the music-hours, the hours of wild outdoor
play. She read under the firs, alone; she studied faithfully, alone;
she climbed and swam, alone--or with his absent-minded, fitful company;
she worked in her garden, alone. At night, when he was asleep, she lay
with her hand pressed against her heart, staring at the darkness,
listening to the night, waiting. Curiously enough, his inevitable
returns of passion and interest, the always decreasing flood-mark, each
time a line lower, did not deceive her, did not distract her. She never
expressed her trouble, even to herself. She did not give it any words.
She took her pain without wincing, without complaint, and when he
seemed to need her in any little way, in any big way, she gave because
she could not help it, because she had promised him largesse, because
it was her nature to give. Besides, although she was instinctively
waiting, she did not foresee the end.
It was in late October when, somewhere in the pile of Prosper's mail,
there lay a small gray envelope. Joan drew his attention to it,
calling it a "queer little letter," and he took it up slowly as though
his deft and nervous fingers had gone numb. Before he opened it he
looked at Joan and, in one sense, it was the last time he ever did
look at her; for at that moment his stark spirit looked straight into
hers, acknowledged its guilt, and bade her a mute and remorseful
He read and Joan watched. His face grew pale and bright as though some
electric current had been turned into his veins; his eyes, looking up
from the writing, but not returning to her, had the look given by some
drug which is meant to stupefy, but which taken in an overdose
intoxicates. He turned and made for the door, holding the little gray
folded paper in his hand. On the threshold he half-faced her without
lifting his eyes.
"I have had extraordinary news, Joan. I shall have to go off alone and
think things out. I don't know when I shall get back." He went out and
shut the door gently.
Joan stood listening. She heard him go along the passage and through
the second door. She heard his feet on the mountain trail. Afterwards
she went out and stood between the two sentinel firs that had marked
the entrance to that snow-tunnel long since disappeared. Now it was a
late October day, bright as a bared sword. The flowers of the Indian
paint-brush burned like red candle flames everywhere under the firs,
the fire-weed blazed, the aspen leaves were laid like little golden
tiles against the metallic blue of the sky. The high peak pointed up
dizzily and down, down dizzily into the clear emptiness of the lake.
This great peak stood there in the glittering stillness of the day. A
grouse boomed, but Joan was not startled by the sudden rush of its
wings. She felt the sharp weight of that silent mountain in her heart;
she might have been buried under it. So she felt it all day while she
worked, a desperate, bright day,--hideous in her memory,--and at night
she lay waiting. After hours longer than any other hours, the door of
her bedroom opened and an oblong of moonlight, as white as paper, fell
across the matted floor. Prosper stepped in noiselessly and walked
over to her bed. He stood a moment and she heard him swallow.
"You're awake, Joan?"
Her eyes were staring up at him, but she lay still.
"Listen, Joan." He spoke in short sentences, waiting between each for
some comment of hers which did not come. "I shall have to go away
to-morrow. I shall have to go away for some time. I don't want you to
be unhappy. I want you to stay here for a while if you will, for as
long as you want to stay. I am leaving you plenty of money. I will
write and explain it all very clearly to you. I know that you will
understand. Listen." Here he knelt and took her hands, which he found
lying cold and stiff under the cover, pressed against her heart. "I
have made you happy here in this little house, haven't I, Joan?"
She would not answer even this except by the merest flicker of her
"You have trusted me; now, trust me a little longer. My life is very
complicated. This beautiful year with you, the year you have given to
me, is just a temporary respite from--from all sorts of things. I've
taught you a great deal, Joan. I've healed the wound that brute made
on your shoulder and in your heart. I've taught you to be beautiful.
I've filled your mind with beauty. You are a wonderful woman. You'll
live to be grateful to me. Some day you'll tell me so."
Her quiet, curved lips moved. "Are you tellin' me good-bye, Prosper?"
It was impossible to lie to her. He bent his head.
"Then tell it quick and go out and leave me here to-night."
It was impossible to touch her. She might have been wrapped in white
fire. He found that though she had not stirred a finger, his hand had
shrunk away from hers. He got to his feet, all the cleverness which all
day long he had been weaving like a silk net to catch, to bewilder, to
draw away her brain from the anguish of full comprehension, was
shriveled. He stood and stared helplessly at her, dumb as a youth. And,
obedient, he went out and shut the door, taking the white patch of
moonlight with him.
So Joan, having waited, behind an obstinately locked door, for his
departure, came out at noon and found herself in the small, gay house
She sat in one of the lacquered chairs and saw after a long while that
the Chinaman was looking at her.
Wen Ho, it seemed, had been given instructions. He was to stay and
take care of the house and the lady for as long as she wanted it, or
him. Afterwards he was to lock up the house and go. He handed her a
large and bulky envelope which Joan took and let lie in her lap.
"You can go to-morrow, Wen Ho," she said.
"You no wait for Mr. Gael come back? He say he come back."
"No. I'm not going to wait. I guess"--here Joan twisted her mouth into
a smile--"I'm not one of the waiting kind. I'm a-going back to my own
ranch now. It won't seem so awful lonesome, perhaps, as I was thinking
last spring that it would."
She touched the envelope without looking at it.
"Is this money, Wen Ho?"
"I tink so, lady."
She held it, unopened, out to him.
"I will give it to you, then. I have no need of it."
She stood up.
"I am going out now to climb up this mountain back of the house so's I
can see just where I am. I'll come down to-night for dinner and
to-morrow after breakfast I'll be going away. You understand?"
"Lady, you mean give me all this money?" babbled the Chinaman.
"Yes," said Joan gravely; "I have no need of it."
She went past him with her swinging step.
She was coming down the mountain-side that evening, very tired, but
with the curious, peaceful stillness of heart that comes with an
entire acceptance of fate, when she heard the sound of horses' hoofs
in the hollow of the canyon. Her heart began to beat to suffocation.
She ran to where, standing near a big fir tree, she could look
straight down on the trail leading up to Prosper's cabin. Presently
the horsemen came in sight--the one that rode first was tall and broad
and fair, she could see under his hat-brim his straight nose and
firmly modeled chin.
"The sin-buster!" said Joan; then, looking at the other, who rode
behind him, she caught at the tree with crooked hands and began to
sink slowly to her knees. He was tall and slight, he rode with
inimitable grace. As she stared, he took off his sombrero, rested his
hand on the saddle-horn, and looked haggardly, eagerly, up the trail
toward the house. His face was whiter, thinner, worn by protracted
mental pain, but it was the beautiful, living face of Pierre.
Joan shrank back into the shadows of the pines, crouched for a few
minutes like a mortally wounded beast, then ran up the mountain-side
as though the fire that had once touched her shoulder had eaten its
way at last into her heart.
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