Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The End Of The Trail







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

At the top of the fourth flight of steps, Pierre found himself facing
a door that stood ajar. Beyond that door was Joan and he knew not what
experience of discovery, of explanation, of punishment. What he had
suffered since the night of his cruelty would be nothing to what he
might have to suffer now at the hands of the woman he had loved and
hurt. That she was incredibly changed he knew, what had happened to
change her he did not know. That she had suffered greatly was certain.
One could not look at the face of Jane West, even under its disguise
of paint and pencil, without a sharp realization of profound and
embittering experience. And, just as certainly, she had gone far ahead
of her husband in learning, in a certain sort of mental and social
development. Pierre was filled with doubt and with dread, with an
almost unbearable self-depreciation. And at the same time he was
filled with a nameless fear of what Joan might herself have become.

He stood with his hand on the knob of that half-opened door, bent his
head, and drew some deep, uneven breaths. He thought of Holliwell as
though the man were standing beside him. He stepped in quietly, shut
the door, and walked without hesitation down the passageway into the
little, sunny sitting-room. There, before the crackling, open fire,
sat Prosper Gael.

Prosper, it seemed, was alone in the small, silent place. He was
sitting on the middle of his spine, as usual, with his long, thin legs
stretched out before him and a veil of cigarette smoke before his
eyes. He turned his head idly, expecting, no doubt, to see the nurse.

Pierre, white and grim, stood looking down at him.

The older man recognized him at once, but he did not change his
position by a muscle, merely lounged there, his head against the side
of the cushioned chair, the brilliant, surprised gaze changing slowly
to amused contempt. His cigarette hung between the long fingers of one
hand, its blue spiral of smoke rising tranquilly into a bar of
sunshine from the window.

"The doctor told me to come up," said Pierre gravely. He was aware of
the insult of this stranger's attitude, but he was too deeply stirred,
too deeply suspenseful, to be irritated by it. He seemed to be moving
in some rare, disconnected atmosphere. "I have his permission to
see--to see Miss West, if she is willing to see me."

Prosper flicked off an ash with his little finger. "And you believe
that she is willing to see you, Pierre Landis?" he asked slowly.

Pierre gave him a startled look. "You know my name?"

"Yes. I believe that four years ago, on an especially cold and snowy
night, I interrupted you in a rather extraordinary occupation and gave
myself the pleasure of shooting you." With that he got to his feet and
stood before the mantel, negligently enough, but ready to his
fingertips.

Pierre came nearer by a stride. He had been stripped at once of his
air of high detachment. He was pale and quivering. He looked at
Prosper with eyes of incredulous dread.

"Were you--that man?" A tide of shamed scarlet engulfed him and he
dropped his eyes.

"I thought that would take the assurance out of you," said Prosper.
"As a matter of fact, shooting was too good for you. On that night you
forfeited every claim to the consideration of man or woman. I have the
right of any decent citizen to turn you out of here. Do you still
maintain your intention of asking for an interview with Miss Jane
West?"

Pierre, half-blind with humiliation, turned without a word and made
his way to the door. He meant to go away and kill himself. The purpose
was like iron in his mind. That he should have to stand and, because
of his own cowardly fault, to endure insult from this contemptuous
stranger, made of life a garment too stained, too shameful to be worn.
He was in haste to be rid of it. Something, however, barred his exit.
He stumbled back to avoid it. There, holding aside the curtain in the
doorway, stood Joan.

This time there was no possible doubt of her identity. She was wrapped
in a long, blue gown, her hair had fallen in braided loops on either
side of her face and neck. The unchanged eyes of Joan under her broad
brows looked up at him. She was thin and wan, unbelievably broken and
tired and hurt, but she was Joan. Pierre could not but forget death at
sight of her. He staggered forward, and she, putting up her arms, drew
him hungrily and let fall her head upon his shoulder.

"My gel! My Joan!" Pierre sobbed.

Prosper's voice sawed into their tremulous silence.

"So, after all, the branding iron is the proper instrument," he said.
"A man can always recognize his estray, and when she is recognized she
will come to heel."

Joan pushed Pierre from her violently and turned upon Prosper Gael.
Her voice broke over him in a tumult of soft scorn.

"You know nothing of loving, Prosper Gael, not the first letter of
loving. Nobody has learned that about you as well as I have. Now,
listen and I will teach you something. This is something that I have
learned. There are worse wounds than I had from Pierre, and it is by
the hands of such men as you are that they are given. The hurts you
get from love, they heal. Pierre was mad, he was a beast, he branded
me as though I had been a beast. For long years I couldn't think of
him but with a sort of horror in my heart. If it hadn't been for you,
I might never have thought of him no other way forever. But what you
did to me, Prosper, you with your white-hot brain and your gray-cold
heart, you with your music and your talk throbbing and talking and
whining about my soul, what you did to me has made Pierre's iron a
very gentle thing. I have not acted in the play you wrote, the play
you made out of me and my unhappiness, without understanding just what
it was that you did to me. Perhaps if it hadn't been for the play, I
might even have believed that you were capable of something better
than that passion you had once for me--but not now. Never now can I
believe it. What you make other people suffer is material for your own
success and you delight in it. You make notes upon it. Pierre was mad
through loving me, too ignorantly, too jealously, but what you did to
me was through loving me too little. That was a brand upon my brain
and soul. Sometimes since then that scar on my shoulder has seemed to
me almost like the memory of a caress. I went away from Pierre,
leaving him for dead, ready for death myself. When you left me, you
left me alive and ready for what sort of living? It has been Pierre's
love and his following after me that have kept me from low and beastly
things. I've run from him knowing I wasn't fit to be found by him, but
I've run clean and free." She began to tremble. "Will you say anything
more to me and to my man?"

Prosper's face wore its old look of the winged demon. He was cold in
his angry pain.

"Just one thing to your man, perhaps, if you will allow me, but
perhaps you'll tell him that yourself. That his method is the right
one, I admit. But in one respect not even a brand will altogether
preserve property rights. Morena could say something on that score. So
could I...."

"Hush!" said Joan; "I will tell him myself. Pierre, I left you for
dead and I went away with this man, and after a while, because I
thought you were dead, and because I was alone and sorrowful and weak,
and because, perhaps, of what my mother was, I--I--" She fell away
from Pierre, crouched against the side of the door, and wrapped the
curtain round her face. "He told me you were dead--" The words came
muffled.

Pierre had let her go and turned to Prosper. His own face was a mask
of rage. Prosper knew that it was the Westerner's intention to kill.
For a minute, no longer, he was a lightning channel of death. But
Pierre, the Pierre shaped during the last four difficult years, turned
upon his own writhing, savage soul and forced it to submit. It was as
though he fought with his hands. Sweat broke out on him. At last, he
stood and looked at Prosper with sane, stern eyes.

"If that's true what you hinted, if that's true what she was tryin' to
tell, if it's even partly true," he said painfully, "then it was me
that brought it upon her, not you--an' not herself, but me."

He turned back to Joan, drew the curtain from her face, drew down her
hands, lifted her and carried her to the couch beside the fire.

There she shrank away from him, tried to push him back.

"It's true, Pierre; not that about Morena, but the rest is true. It's
true. Only he told me you were dead. But you weren't--no, don't take
my hands, I never did have dealings with Holliwell. Indeed, I loved
only you. But you must have known me better than I knew myself. For I
am bad. I am bad. I left you for dead and I went away."

He had mastered her hands, both of them in one of his, and he drew
them close to his heart.

"Don't Joan! Hush, Joan! You mustn't. It was my doings, gel, all of
it. Hush!"

He bent and crushed his lips against hers, silencing her. Then she
gave way and clung to him, sobbing.

After a while Pierre looked up at Prosper Gael. All the patience and
the hunger and the beauty of his love possessed his face. There was
simply no room in his heart for any lesser thing.

"Stranger," he said in the grave and gentle Western speech, "I'll have
to ask you to leave me with my wife."

Prosper made a curious, silent gesture of self-despair and went out,
feeling his way before him.

It was half an hour later when the doctor came softly to the door and
held back the curtain in his hand. He did not say anything and, after
a silent minute, he let fall the curtain and moved softly away. He was
reassured as to the success of his experiment. He had seen Joan's
face.





Next: The Spelling-match

Previous: The Leopardess



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 490