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Dried Rose-leaves

From: The Branding Iron

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

"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

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

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

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!"

"Joan Landis."

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.

Next: Prosper Comes To A Decision

Previous: Delirium

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