The Tall Child
Part of: THE TWO-BAR BRAND
From: The Branding Iron
There were times, even now, when Prosper tried to argue himself back
into sardonic self-possession. "Pooh!" said his brain, "you were
beside yourself over a loss and then you were shut in for months of
winter alone with this mountain girl, so naturally you are off your
balance." He would school himself while Joan shoveled outdoors. He
would try to see her with critical, clear eyes when she strode in. But
one look at her and he was bemused again. For now she was at a great
height of beauty, vivid with growing strength and purpose, her lips
calm and scarlet, her eyes bright and hopeful. In fact, Joan had made
her plans. She would wait till spring, partly to get back her full
strength, partly to make further progress in her studies, but mostly
in order not to hurt this hospitable Prosper Gael. The naivete of
her gratitude, of her delicate consideration for his feelings, which
continually triumphed over an instinctive fear, would have filled him
with amusement, perhaps with compunction, had he been capable of
understanding them. She was truly sorry that she had hurt him by
running away. She told herself she would not do that again. In the
spring she would make him a speech of thankfulness and of farewell,
and then she would tramp back to Pierre's homestead and win and hold
Pierre's land. As yet, you see, Prosper entered very little into her
conscious life. Somewhere, far down in her, there was a disturbance, a
growing doubt, a something vague and troubling.... Joan had not learnt
to probe her own heart. A sensation was not, or it was. She was
puzzled by the feeling Prosper was beginning to cause her, a feeling
of miserable complexity; but she was not yet mentally equipped for the
confronting of complexity. It was necessary for an emotion to rush at
Joan and throw down, as it were, her heart before she recognized it;
even then she might not give it a name. She would act, however, and
So now she planned and worked and grew beautiful with work and
planning, while Prosper curbed his passion and worked, too, and his
instruments were delicate and deadly and his plans made no account of
hers. Every word he read to her, every note he played for her, had its
calculated effect. He worked on her subconsciousness, undermining her
path, and at nights and in her sleep she grew aware of him.
But even now, in his cool and passionate heart there were moments of
reaction, one at last that came near to wrecking his purpose.
"Your clothes are about done for, Joan," Prosper laughed one morning,
watching her belt in her tattered shirt; "you'll soon look like
Cophetua's beggar maid."
"I'm not quite barefoot yet." She held up a cracked boot.
"Joan--" He hesitated an instant, then got up from his desk, walked to
a window, and looked out at the bright morning. The lake was ruffled
with wind, the firs tossed, there were patches of brown-needled earth
under his window; his eyes were startled by a strip of green where
tiny yellow flowers trod on the very edge of the melting drift. The
window was open to soft, tingling air that smelt of snow and of sun,
of pines, of growing grass, of sap, of little leaf-buds. The birds
were in loud chorus. For several minutes Prosper stared and listened.
"What is it, Mr. Gael?" asked Joan patiently.
He started. "Oh," he said without looking at her again, "I was going
to tell you that there are a skirt and a sort of coat in--in a closet
in the hall. Do you want to use them?"
She went out to look. In five minutes--he had gone back to his work at
the desk--he heard her laugh, and, still laughing, she opened the door
"Oh, Mr. Gael, were you really thinking that I could wear these?
He turned and looked at her. She had crowded her strong, lithe frame
into a brown tweed suit, a world too narrow for her, and she was
laughing heartily at herself and had come in to show him the misfit.
"These things, Mr. Gael," she said,--"they must have been made for a
Prosper had too far tempted his pain, and in her vivid phrase it came
to life before him. She had painted a startling picture and he had
seen that suit, so small and trim, before.
Joan saw his face grow white, his eyes stared through her. He drew a
quick breath and winced away from her, hiding his face in his hands. A
moment later he was weeping convulsively, with violence, his head down
between his hands. Joan started toward him, but he made a wicked and
repellent gesture. She fled into her room and sat, bewildered, on her
All at once the question came to her: for whom had the delicate
fabrics been bought, for whom had this suit been made? "It was his
wife and she is dead," thought Joan, and very pitifully she took off
the suit, laid it and the other things away, and sitting by her window
rested her chin in her hands and stared out through the blue pines.
Tears ran down her face because she was so sorry for Prosper's pain.
And again, thought Joan, she had caused it, she who owed him
everything. Yes, she was deeply sorry for Prosper, deeply; her whole
heart was stirred. For the first time she had a longing to comfort him
with her hands.
For all that day Prosper fled the house and went across the country,
now fording a flood of melted snow, now floundering through a drift,
now walking on springy sod, unaware of the soft spring, conscious only
of a sort of fire in his breast. He suffered and he resented his
suffering, and he would have killed his heart if, by so doing, he
could have given it peace. And all day he did not once think of Joan,
but only of the "tall child" for whom the gay canyon refuge had been
built, but who had never set her slim foot upon its threshold. Sunset
found him miles away in the foothills of a low, many-folded range
across the plain. He was dog tired, so that for very exhaustion his
brain had stopped its tormenting work. He lit a fire and sat by it,
huddled in his coat, smoking, dozing, not able really to sleep for
cold and hunger. The bright stars, flung all about the sky, mildly
regarded hum. Coyotes mourned their loneliness and hunger near and
far, and once, in the broken woods above him, a mountain lion gave its
blood-curdling scream. Prosper hated the night and its beautiful
desolation, he hated the God that had made this land. He cursed the
dawn when it came delicately, spreading a green arc of radiance across
the east. And then, as he arose stiffly, stamped out his fire, and
started slowly on his way back, he was conscious of a passionate
homesickness, not for the old life he had lost, but for his cabin, his
bright hearth, his shut-in solitude, his Joan. Very dear and real and
human she was, and her laughter had been sweet. He had shocked it to
silence, he had repulsed her comforting hands. She had been so
innocent of any desire to hurt him. He could not imagine her ever
hurting any one, this broad-browed Joan. She was so kind. And now she
must be anxious about him. She would have sat up by the fire all
night.... His eagerness for her slighted comfort gave his lagging
steps a certain vigor, the long walk back seemed very long, indeed.
Noon was hot, but he found water and by sundown he came to the canyon
trail. He wanted Joan as badly now as a hurt child wants its mother.
He came, haggard and breathless, to the door, called "Joan," came into
the warm little room and found it empty. Wen Ho, to be sure, pattered
to meet him.
"Mister Gael been gone a long time, velly long, all night. Wen Ho, he
fix bed, fix breakfast--oh, the lady? She gone out yestiddy, not come
back. She leave a letter for him, there on the table."
Prosper took it, waved Wen Ho out, and, dropping into the big chair,
opened the paper. There was Joan's big handwriting, that he himself
had taught her. Before she could only sign her name.
Mister Gael, dere frend,--
You have ben too good to me an it has ben too hard for you to
keep me when you were all the wile amissin her an it hurts me to
think of how it must have ben terrible hard for you all this
winter to see me where you had ben ust to seem her an me wearin
her pretty things all the wile. Now dere frend this must not be
no more. I will not stay to trouble you. You have ben awful
free-hearted. When you come back from your wanderin an tryin to
get over your bein so unhappy you will find your house quiet an
peaceful an you will not be hurt by me no more. I am not able to
say all I am feelin about your goodness an I hev not always ben
as kind to you in my thoughts an axions but that has ben my own
fault not yours. I want you to beleave this, Mister Gael. I am
goin back to Pierre's ranch to work on his land an some day I
will be hopin to see you come ridin in an I will keep on learnin
as well as I can an mebbe you will not be ashamed of me. I feel
awful bad to go but I would feel more bad to stay when it must
hurt you so. Respectably
There were blistered spots above that pathetic, mistaken signature.
The poor girl had meant to sign herself "Respectfully," and somehow
that half-broke his heart.
He drank the strong coffee Wen Ho brought for him, two great cups of
it, and he ate a piece of broiled elk meat. Then he went out again and
walked rapidly down the trail. It was not yet dark; the world was in a
soft glow of rose and violet, opalescent lights. The birds were
singing in a hundred chantries. And there, through the firs, a sight
to stop his heart, Joan came walking toward him, graceful, free, a
swinging figure, bareheaded, her rags girded beautifully about her.
And up and up to him she came soundlessly over the pine needles and
through the wet snow-patches, looking at him steadfastly and tenderly,
without a smile. She came and stood before him, still without dropping
her sad, grave look.
"Mr. Gael," she said, "I hev come back. I got out yonder an'"--her
breast heaved and a sort of terror came into her eyes--"an' the world
was awful lonely. There ain't a creature out yonder to care fer me,
fer me to care fer. It seemed like as if it was all dead. I couldn't
She put out her hand wistfully asking for pity, but he fell upon his
knees and wrapped his hungry arms about her. "Joan," he sobbed, "Joan!
Don't leave me. Don't--I couldn't bear it!" He looked up at her, his
worn face wet with tears. "Don't leave me, Joan! I want you. Don't you
Her deep gray eyes filled slowly with light, she put a hand on either
side of his face and bent her lips to his. "I never thought you'd be
wantin' me," she said.
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