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The Whole Duty Of Woman

From: The Branding Iron

Joan waited for Holliwell and, waiting, began inevitably to regain her
strength. One evening as Wen Ho was spreading the table, Prosper
looked up from his writing to see a tall, gaunt girl clinging to the
door-jamb. She was dressed in the heavy clothes, which hung loose upon
her long bones, her throat was drawn up to support the sharpened and
hollowed face in which her eyes had grown very large and wistful. Her
hair was braided and wrapped across her brow, her long, strong hands,
smooth and only faintly brown, were thin, too, and curiously
expressive as they clung to the logs. She was a moving figure,
piteous, lovely, rather like some graceful mountain beast, its spirit
half-broken by wounds and imprisonment and human tending, but ready to
leap into a savagery of flight or of attack. They were wild, those
great eyes, as well as wistful. Prosper, looking suddenly up at them,
caught his breath. He put down his book as quietly as though she had
indeed been a wild, easily startled thing, and, suppressing the
impulse to rise, stayed where he was, leaning a trifle forward, his
hands on the arms of his chair.

Joan's eyes wandered curiously about the brilliant room and came to
him at last. Prosper met them, relaxed, and smiled.

"Come in and dine with me, Joan," he said. "Tell me how you like it."

She felt her way weakly to the second large chair and sat down facing
him across the hearth. The Chinaman's shadow, thrown strongly by the
lamp, ran to and fro between and across them. It was a strange scene
truly, and Prosper felt with exhilaration all its strangeness. This was
no Darby and Joan fireside; a wizard with his enchanted leopardess,
rather. He was half-afraid of Joan and of himself.

"It's right beautiful," said Joan, "an' right strange to me. I never
seen anything like it before. That"--her eyes followed Wen Ho's
departure half-fearfully--"that man and all."

Prosper laughed delightedly, stretching up his arms in full enjoyment
of her splendid ignorance. "The Chinaman? Does he look so strange to

"Is that what he is? I--I didn't know." She smiled rather sadly and
ashamedly. "I'm awful ignorant, Mr. Gael. I just can read an' I've
only read two books." She flushed and her pupils grew large.

Prosper saw that this matter of reading trod closely on her pain.

"Yes, he's a Chinaman from San Francisco. You know where that is."

"Yes, sir. I've heard talk of it--out on the Pacific Coast, a big

"Full of bad yellow men and a few good ones of whom let's hope Wen Ho
is one. And full of bric-a-brac like all these things that surprise
you so. Do you like bright colors, Joan?"

She pondered in the unself-conscious and unhurried fashion of the
West, stroking the yellow, spotted skin that lay over the black arm of
her chair and letting her eyes flit like butterflies in a garden on a
zigzag journey to one after another of the flowers of color in the

"Well, sir," she said, "I c'd take to 'em better if they was more one
at a time. I mean"--she pushed up the braid a little from wrinkling
brows--"jest blue is awful pretty an' jest green. They're sort of
cool, an' yeller, that's sure fine. You'd like to take it in your
hands. Red is most too much like feelin' things. I dunno, it most
hurts an' yet it warms you up, too. If I hed to live here--"

Prosper's eyebrows lifted a trifle.

"I'd--sure clear out the whole of this"--and she swept a ruthless

Again Prosper made delighted use of that upward stretching of his
arms. He laughed. "And you'd clear me out, too, wouldn't you?--if you
had to live here."

"Oh, no," said Joan. She paused and fastened her enormous, grave look
upon him. "I'd like right soon now to begin to work for you."

Again Prosper laughed. "Why," said he, "you don't know the first thing
about woman's work, Joan. What could you do?"

Joan straightened wrathfully. "I sure do know. Sure I do. I can cook
fine. I can make a room clean. I can launder--"

"Oh, pooh! The Chinaman does all that as well--no, better than you
ever could do it. That's not woman's work."

Joan saw all the business of femininity swept off the earth. Profound
astonishment, incredulity, and alarm possessed her mind and so her
face. Truly, thought Prosper, it was like talking to a grave,
trustful, and most impressionable child, the way she sat there, rather
on the edge of her chair, her hands folded, letting everything he said
disturb and astonish the whole pool of her thought.

"But, Mr. Gael, sweepin', washin', cookin',--ain't all that a woman's

"Men can do it so much better," said Prosper, blowing forth a cloud of
blue cigarette smoke and brushing it impatiently aside so that he
could smile at her evident offense and perplexity.

"But they don't do it better. They're as messy an' uncomfortable as
they can be when there ain't no woman to look after 'em."

"Not if they get good pay for keeping themselves and other people
tidy. Look at Wen Ho."

"Oh," said Joan, "that ain't properly a man."

Prosper laughed out again. It was good to be able to laugh.

"I've known plenty of real white men who could cook and wash better
than any woman."

"But--but what is a woman's work?"

Prosper remained thoughtful for a while, his head thrown back a
little, looking at her through his eyelashes. In this position he was
extraordinarily striking. His thin, sharp face gained by the slight
foreshortening and his brilliant eyes, keen nose, and high brow did
not quite so completely overbalance the sad and delicate strength of
mouth and chin. In Joan's eyes, used to the obvious, clear beauty of
Pierre, Gael was an ugly fellow, but even she, artistically untrained,
caught at the moment the picturesqueness and grace of him, the
mysterious lines of texture, of race; the bold chiselings of thought
and experience. The colors of the room became him, too, for he was
dark, with curious, catlike, greenish eyes.

"The whole duty of woman, Joan," he said, opening these eyes upon her,
"can be expressed in just one little word--charm."

And again at her look of mystification he laughed aloud.

"There's--there's babies," suggested Joan after a pause during which
she evidently wrestled in vain with the true meaning of his speech.

"Dinner is served," said Prosper, rising quickly, and, getting back of
her, he pushed her chair to the table, hiding in this way a silent
paroxysm of mirth.

At dinner, Prosper, unlike Holliwell, made no attempt to draw Joan
into talk, but sipped his wine and watched her, enjoying her composed
silence and her slow, graceful movements. Afterwards he made a couch
for her on the floor before the fire, two skins and a golden cushion,
a rug of dull blue which he threw over her, hiding the ugly skirt and
boots. He took a violin from the wall and tuned it, Joan watching him
with all her eyes.

"I don't like what you're playin' now," she told him, impersonally and

"I'm tuning up."

"Well, sir, I'd be gettin' tired of that if I was you."

"I'm almost done," said Prosper humbly.

He stood up near her feet at the corner of the hearth, tucked the
instrument under his chin and played. It was the "Aubade Provencale,"
and he played it creditably, with fair skill and with some of the
wizardry that his nervous vitality gave to everything he did. At the
first note Joan started, her pupils enlarged, she lay still. At the
end he saw that she was quivering and in tears.

He knelt down beside her, drew the hands from her face. "Why, Joan,
what's the matter? Don't you like music?"

Joan drew a shaken breath. "It's as if it shook me in here, something
trembles in my heart," she said. "I never heerd music before, jest
whistlin'." And again she wept.

Prosper stayed there on his knee beside her, his chin in his hand.
What an extraordinary being this was, what a magnificent wilderness.
The thought of exploration, of discovery, of cultivation, filled him
with excitement and delight. Such opportunities are rarely given to a
man. Even that other most beautiful adventure--yes, he could think
this already!--might have been tame beside this one. He looked long at
Joan, long into the fire, and she lay still, with the brooding beauty
of that first-heard melody upon her face.

It was the first music she had ever heard, "except whistlin'," but there
had been a great deal of "whistlin'" about the cabin up Lone River;
whistling of robins in spring--nothing sweeter--the chordlike whistlings
of thrush and vireo after sunset, that bubbling "mar-guer-ite" with
which the blackbirds woo, and the light diminuendo with which the
bluebird caressed the air after an April flight. Perhaps Joan's musical
faculty was less untrained than any other. After all, that "Aubade
Provencale" was just the melodious story of the woods in spring. Every
note linked itself to an emotional, subconscious memory. It filled
Joan's heart with the freshness of childhood and pained her only because
it struck a spear of delight into her pain. She was eighteen, she had
grown like a tree, drinking in sunshine and storm, but rooted to a
solitude where very little else but sense-experience could reach her
mind. She had seen tragedies of animal life, lonely death-struggles,
horrible flights and more horrible captures, she had seen joyous
wooings, love-pinings, partings, and bereavements. She had seen maternal
fickleness and maternal constancy, maternal savagery; the end of mated
bliss and its--renewal. She had seen the relentless catastrophes of
storm. There had been starving winters and renewing springs, sad
beautiful autumns, the riotous waste and wantonness of summer. These had
all been objective experiences, but Joan's untamed and undistracted
heart had taken them in deeply and deeply pondered upon them. There was
no morality in their teachings, unless it was the morality of complete
suspension of any judgment whatsoever, the marvelous literal, "Judge
not." She knew that the sun shone on the evil and on the good, but she
knew also that frost fell upon the good as well as upon the evil nor was
the evil to be readily distinguished. Her father prated of only one
offense, her mother's sin. Joan knew that it was a man's right to kill
his woman for "dealin's with another man." This law was human; it
evidently did not hold good with animals. There was no bitterness,
though some ferocity, in the traffic of their loves.

While she pondered through the first sleepless nights in this strange
shelter of hers, and while the blizzard Prosper had counted on drove
bayoneted battalions of snow across the plains and forced them,
screaming like madmen, along the narrow canyon, Joan came slowly and
fully to a realization of the motive of Pierre's deed. He had been
jealous. He had thought that she was having dealings with another man.
She grew hot and shamed. It was her father's sin, that branding on her
shoulder, or, perhaps, going back farther, her mother's sin. Carver
had warned Pierre--of the hot and smothered heart--to beware of Joan's
"lookin' an' lookin' at another man." Now, in piteous woman fashion,
Joan went over and over her memories of Pierre's love, altering them
to fit her terrible experience. It was a different process from that
simple seeing of pictures in the fire from which she had been startled
by Pierre's return. A man's mind in her situation would have been
intensely occupied with thoughts of the new companion, but Joan,
thorough as a woman always is, had not yet caught up. She was still
held by all the strong mesh of her short married life. She had simply
not got as far as Prosper Gael. She accepted his hospitality vaguely,
himself even more vaguely. When she would be done with her passionate
grief, her laborious going-over of the past, her active and tormenting
anger with the lover whom Prosper had told her was dead, then it would
be time to study this other man. As for her future, she had no plans
at all. Joan's life came to her as it comes to a child, unsullied by
curiosity. At this time Prosper was infinitely the more curious, the
more excited of the two.

Next: A Matter Of Taste

Previous: Prosper Comes To A Decision

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