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Joan And Prosper







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

The situation was no doubt an extraordinary, an unimaginable one, but
it had to be met. When he returned to the box, Prosper had himself in
hand, and, sitting a little farther back than before, he watched the
second act with a sufficiency of outward calm.

This part was the most severe test of his composure, for he had
fashioned it almost in detail upon that idyll in a canyon. There were
even speeches of Joan's that he had used. To sit here and watch Joan
herself go through it, while he looked on, was an exciting form of
torment. The setting was different, tropical instead of Northern, and
the half-native heroine was more passionate, more emotional, more
animal than Joan. Nevertheless, the drama was a repetition. As Prosper
had laid his trap for Joan, silently, subtly undermining her whole
mental structure, using her loneliness, playing upon the artist soul
of her, so did this Englishman lay his trap for Zona. He was more
cruel than Prosper, rougher, necessarily more dramatic, but there was
all the essence of the original drama, the ensnarement of a simple,
direct mind by a complex and skillful one. Joan's surrender, Prosper's
victory, were there. He wondered how Joan could act it, play the part
in cold blood. Now he was condemned to live in his own imagination
through Joan's tragedy. There was that first pitifulness of a tamed
and broken spirit; then later, in London, the agony of loneliness, of
separation, of gradual awakening to the change in her master's heart.
Prosper had written the words, but it was Joan who, with her voice,
the music of memory-shaken heart-strings, made the words alive and
meaningful. Others in the audience might wonder over the girl's
ability to interpret this unusual experience, to make it natural,
human, inevitable. But Prosper did not wonder. He knew that simply she
forced herself to re-live this most painful part of her own life and
to re-live it articulately. What, in God's name, had induced her to do
it? Necessity? Poverty? Morena? All at once he remembered Betty's
belief, that Joan was the manager's mistress--his wild, beautiful
Joan, Joan the creation of his own wizardry. This thought gave him
such pain that he whitened.

"Prosper," murmured Betty, "you must tell me what is wrong. Evidently
your nerves are in bad shape. Is the excitement too much for you?"

"I believe it is," he said, avoiding her eyes and moving stiff, white
lips; "I've never seen such acting. I--I--Morena says he'll let me see
her in her dressing-room afterwards. You see, Betty, I'm badly shaken
up."

"Ye-es," drawled Betty, and looked at him through narrowed lids, and
she sat with this look on her face and with her fingers locked, when
Prosper, not giving her further notice, followed Morena out.

"Jasper,"--Prosper held his friend back in the middle of a passage
that led to the dressing-rooms,--"I want very particularly to see Miss
West alone. I am very much moved by her performance and I want to tell
her so. Also, I want her to express herself naturally with no idea of
my being the author of the play and without the presence of her
manager. Will you just ask if she will see a friend of yours--alone?"

Jasper smiled his subtle smile. "Of course, Prosper. It's all as clear
as daylight."

Prosper did not notice the Jew's intelligent expression. He was too
much absorbed in his own excitement. In a moment he would be with
Joan--Joan, his love of winter nights!

Morena tapped upon a door. A maid half-opened it.

"Ask Miss West, please, if she will see a friend of Mr. Morena's. Tell
her I particularly wish her to give him a private interview." He
scribbled a line on a card and the maid took it in.

In five minutes, during which the two men waited silently, she came
back.

"Miss West will see your friend, sir."

"Ah! Then I'll take myself off. Prosper, will you join Betty and me at
supper?"

"No, thanks. I'll have my brief interview with Miss West and then go
home, if you'll forgive me. I'm about all in. New York's too much for
a man just home from the front."

Jasper laid his hand for a moment on Prosper's shoulder, smiled,
shrugged, and turned away. Prosper waited till his friend was out of
sight and hearing, then knocked and was admitted to the dressing-room
of Miss Jane West.

She had not changed from the evening dress she had worn in the last
scene nor had she yet got rid of her make-up. She was sitting in a
narrow-backed chair that had been turned away from the dressing-table.
The maid was putting away some costumes.

Prosper walked half across the room and stopped.

"Miss West," he said quietly.

She stood up. The natural color left her face ghastly with patches of
paint and daubs of black. She threw back her head and said, "Prosper!"
just above her breath.

"Go out, Henrietta." This was spoken to the maid in the voice of Jane
the virago and Henrietta fled.

At sight of Joan, Prosper had won back instantly his old poise, his
old feeling of ascendancy.

"Joan, Joan," he said gently; "was ever anything so strange? Why
didn't you let me know? Why didn't you answer my letters? Why didn't
you take my money? I have suffered greatly on your account."

Joan laughed. Four years ago she would not have been capable of this
laugh, and Prosper started.

"I wrote again and again," he said passionately. "Wen Ho told me that
you had gone, that he didn't know anything about your plans. I went
out to Wyoming, to our house. I scoured the country for you. Did you
know that?"

"No," said Joan slowly, "I didn't know that But it makes no difference
to me."

They were still standing a few paces apart, too intent upon their
inner tumult to heed any outward situation. She lowered her head in
that dangerous way of hers, looking up at him from under her brows.
Her color had returned and the make-up had a more natural look.

"Maybe you did write, maybe you did send money, maybe you did come
back--I don't care anything for all that." She made a gesture as if to
sweep something away. "The day after you left me in that house,
Pierre, my husband, came up the trail. He was taking after me. He
meant to fetch me home. You told me"--she began to tremble so
violently that the jewels on her neck clicked softly--"you told me he
was dead."

Prosper came closer, she moving back, till, striking the chair, she
sat down on it and looked up at him with her changed and embittered
eyes.

"Would you have gone back to him, Joan Landis, after he had tied you
up and branded your shoulder with his cattlebrand?"

"What has that got to do with it?" she asked, her voice lifting on a
wave of anger. "That was between my man and me. That was not for you
to judge. He loved me. It was through loving me too much, too
ignorantly, that he hurt me so." She choked. "But you--"

"Joan," said Prosper, and he laid his hand on her cold and rigid
fingers, "I loved you too."

She was still and stiff. After a long silence she seemed to select one
question from a tide of them.

"Why did you leave me?"

"I wrote you a full explanation. The letter came back to me unread."

Again Joan gave the laugh and the gesture of disdain.

"That doesn't matter ... your loving or not loving. You made use of me
for your own ends, and when you saw fit, you left me. But that's not
my complaint. I don't say I didn't deserve that. I was easy to use.
But it was all based on what wasn't true. I was married, my man was
living, and I had dealings with you. That was sin. That was horrible.
That was what my mother did. She was a ----" Joan used the coarse and
ugly word her father had taught her, and Prosper laid a hand over her
mouth.

"Joan! No! Never say it, never think it. You are clean."

Joan twisted herself free, stood up, and walked away. "I am that!"
she said grimly; "and it was you that made me. You took lots of
trouble to make me see things in a way where nothing a person wants is
either right or wrong. You made me thirsty with your talk and your
books and your music, and when I was tormented with thirst, you came
and offered me a drink of water. That was it. I don't care about your
not marrying me. I still don't see that that has much to do with it
except, perhaps, that a man would be caring to give any woman he
rightly loves whatever help or cherishing or gifts the world has
decided to give her. But, you see, Prosper, we didn't start fair. You
knew that Pierre was alive."

"But, Joan, you say yourself that marrying--"

She stopped him with so fierce a gesture that he flinched. "Yes.
Pierre did rightly love me. He gave me his best as he knew it. Oh, he
was ignorant, a savage, I guess, like I was. But he did rightly love
me. He was not trying to break my spirit nor to tame me, nor to amuse
himself with me, nor to give me a longing for beauty and easiness and
then leave me to fight through my own rough life without any of those
things. Did you really think, Prosper Gael, that I would stay in your
house and live on your money till you should be caring to come back to
me--if ever you would care? Did you honestly think that you would be
coming back--as--as my lover? No. Whatever it was that took you away,
it was likely to keep you from me for always, wasn't it?"

"Yes," said Prosper in a muffled voice, "it was likely to. But, Joan,
Fate was on your side. Since I have been yours, I haven't belonged to
any one but you. You've put your brand on me."

"I don't want to hear about you," Joan broke in. "I am done with you.
Have you seen this play?"

"Yes." He found that in telling her so he could not meet her eyes.

"Well, the man who wrote that knew what you are, and, if he didn't,
every one that has seen me act in it, knows what you are." She paused,
breathing fast and trembling. "Good-bye," she said.

He went vaguely toward the door, then threw up his head defiantly.
"No," he said, "it's not going to be good-bye. I've found you. You
must let me tell you the truth about myself. Come, Joan, you're as
just as Heaven. You never read my explanations. You've never heard my
side of it. You'll let me come to see you and you'll hear me out.
Don't do me an injustice. I'll leave the whole thing in your hands
after that. But you must give me that one chance."

"Chance?" repeated Joan. "Chance for what?"

"Oh,"--Prosper flung up his lithe, long hands--"oh, for nothing but a
cleansing in your sight. I want what forgiveness I can wring from you.
I want what understanding I can force from you. That's all."

She thought, standing there, still and tall, her arms hanging, her
eyes wide and secret, as he had remembered them in her thin, changed,
so much more expressive face.

"Very well," she said, "you may come. I'll hear you out." She gave him
the address and named an afternoon hour. "Good-night."

It was a graceful and dignified dismissal. Prosper bit his lip, bowed
and left her.

As the door closed upon her, he knew that it had closed upon the only
real and vivid presence in his life. War had burnt away his glittering,
clever frivolity. Betty was the adventure, Betty was the tinsel; Joan
was the grave, predestined woman of his man. For the first time in his
life he found himself face to face with the cleanness of despair.





Next: Aftermath

Previous: Luck's Play



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