Aftermath





Joan waited for Prosper on the appointed afternoon. There was a fire

on her hearth and a March snow-squall tapped against the window panes.

The crackle of the logs inside and that eerie, light sound outside

were so associated with Prosper that, even before he came, Joan,

sitting on one side of the hearth, closed her eyes and felt that he

must be opposite to her in his red-lacquered chair, his long legs

stuck out in front, his amused and greedy eyes veiled by a cloud of

cigarette smoke.



Since she had seen him at the theater, she had been suffering from

sleeplessness. At night she would go over and over the details of

their intercourse, seeing them, feeling them, living them in the light

of later knowledge, till the torment was hardly to be borne. Three

days and nights of this inner activity had brought back that sharp

line between her brows and the bitter tightening of her lips.



This afternoon she was white with suspense. Her dread of the impending

interview was like a physical illness. She sat in a high-backed chair,

hands along the arms, head resting back, eyes half-closed, in that

perfect stillness of which the animal and the savage are alone

entirely capable. There were many gifts that Joan had brought from the

seventeen years on Lone River. This grave immobility was one. She was

very carefully dressed in a gown that accentuated her height and

dignity. And she wore a few jewels. She wanted, pitifully enough, to

mark every difference between this Joan and the Joan whom Prosper had

drawn on his sled up the canyon trail. If he expected to force her

back into the position of enchanted leopardess, to see her "lie at his

feet and eat out of his hand," as Morena had once described the plight

of Zona, he would see at a glance that she was no longer so easily

mastered. In fact, sitting there, she looked as proud and perilous as

a young Medea, black-haired with long throat and cold, malevolent

lips. It was only in the eyes--those gray, unhappy, haunted eyes--that

Joan gave away her eternal simplicity of heart. They were unalterably

tender and lonely and hurt. It was the look in them that had prompted

Shorty's description, "She's plumb movin' to me--looks about halfway

between 'You go to hell' and 'You take me in your arms to rest.'"



Prosper was announced, and Joan, keeping her stillness, merely turned

her head toward him as he came into the room.



She saw his rapid observation of the room, of her, even before she

noticed the very apparent change in him. For he, too, was haggard and

utterly serious as she did not remember him. He stood before her fire

and asked her jerkily if she would let him smoke. She said "Yes," and

those were the only words spoken for five unbearable minutes the

seconds of which her heart beat out like a shaky hammer in some worn

machine.



Prosper smoked and stood there looking, now at her, now at the fire.

At last, with difficulty, he smiled. "You are not going to make it

easy for me, are you, Joan?"



For her part she was not looking at him. She kept her eyes on the fire

and this averted look distressed and irritated his nerves.



"I am not trying to make it hard," she said; "I want you to say what

you came to say and go."



"Did you ever love me, Joan?"



He had said it to force a look from her, but it had the effect only of

making her more still, if possible.



"I don't know," she said slowly, answering with her old directness. "I

thought you needed me. I was alone. I was scared of the emptiness when

I went out and looked down the valley. I thought Pierre had gone out

of the world and there was no living thing that wanted me. I came back

and you met me and you put your arms round me and you said"--she

closed her eyes and repeated his speech as though she had just heard

it--"'Don't leave me, Joan.'"



Her voice was more than ever before moving and expressive. Prosper

felt that half-forgotten thrill. The muscles of his throat contracted.

"Joan, I did want you. I spoke the truth," he pleaded.



She went on with no impatience but very coldly. "You came to tell me

your side. Will you tell me, please?"



For the first time she looked into his eyes and he drew in his breath

at the misery of hers.



"I built that cabin, Joan," he said, "for another woman."



"Your wife?" asked Joan.



"No."



"For the one I said must have been like a tall child? She wasn't your

wife? She was dead?"



Prosper shook his head. "No. Did you think that? She was a woman I

loved at that time very dearly and she was already married to another

man."



"You built that house for her? I don't understand."



"She had promised to leave her husband and to come away with me. I had

everything ready, those rooms, those clothes, those materials, and

when I went out to get her, I had a message saying that her courage

had failed her, that she wouldn't come."



"She was a better woman than me," said Joan bitterly.



Prosper laughed. "By God, she was not! She sent me down to hell. I

couldn't go back to the East again. I had laid very careful and

elaborate plans. I was trapped out there in that horrible winter

country...."



"It was not horrible," said Joan violently; "it was the most

wonderful, beautiful country in all the world." And tears ran suddenly

down her face.



But she would not let him come near to comfort her. "Go on," she said

presently.



"Before you came, Joan," Prosper went on, "it was horrible. It was

like being starved. Every thing in the house reminded me of--her. I

had planned it all very carefully and we were to have been--happy. You

can fancy what it was to be there alone."



Joan nodded. She was just and she was honestly trying to put herself

in his place. "Yes," she said; "if I had gone back and Pierre had been

dead, his homestead would have been like that to me."



"It was because I was so miserable that I went out to hunt. I'd scour

the country all day and half the night to tire myself out, that I

could get some sleep. I was pretty far from home that moonlight night

when I heard you scream for help...."



Joan's face grew whiter. "Don't tell about that," she pleaded.



He paused, choosing another opening. "After I had bandaged you and

told you that Pierre was dead--and I honestly thought he was--I didn't

know what to do with you. You couldn't be left, and there was no

neighbor nearer than my own house; besides, I had shot a man, and,

perhaps,--I don't know, maybe I was influenced by your beauty, by my

own crazy loneliness.... You were very beautiful and very desolate. I

was in a fury over the brute's treatment of you...."



"Hush!" said Joan; "you are not to talk about Pierre."



Prosper shrugged. "I decided to take you home with me. I wanted you

desperately, just, I believe, to take care of, just to be kind

to--truly, Joan, I was lonely to the point of madness. Some one to

care for, some one to talk to, was absolutely necessary to save my

reason. So when I was leading you out, I--I saw Pierre's hand move--"



Joan stood up. After a moment she controlled herself with an effort

and sat down again. "Go on. I can stand it," she said.



"And I thought to myself, 'The devil is alive and he deserves to be

dead. This woman can never live with him again. God wouldn't sanction

such an act as giving her back to his hands.' And I was half-mad

myself, I'd been alone so long ... I stood so you couldn't see him,

Joan, and I threw an elk-hide over him and led you out."



"I followed you; I didn't look at Pierre; I left him lying there,"

gasped Joan.



Prosper went on monotonously. "When I came back a week later, I

thought he would be dead. It was dusk, the wind was blowing, the snow

was driving in a scud. I came down to the cabin and dropped below the

drift by that northern window, and, the second I looked in, I dropped

out of sight. There was a light and a fire. Your husband was lying

before the fire on a cot. There was another man there, your Mr.

Holliwell; they were talking, Holliwell was dressing Pierre's wound. I

went away like a ghost, and while I was going back, I thought it all

out; and I decided to keep you for myself. I suppose," said Prosper

dully, "that that was a horrible sin. I didn't see it that way then.

I'm not sure I see it that way now. Pierre had tied you up and pressed

a white-hot iron into your bare shoulder. If you went back to him, if

he took you back, how was I to know that he might not repeat his

drunken deviltry, or do worse, if anything could be worse! It was the

act of a fiend. It put him out of court with me. Whatever I gave you,

education and beauty, and ease, must be better and happier for you

than life with such a brute as Pierre--"



"Stop!" said Joan between her teeth; "you know nothing of Pierre and

me; you only know that one dreadful night. You don't know--the rest."



"I don't want to know the rest," he said sharply; "that is enough to

justify my action. I thought so then and I think so now. You won't be

able to make me change that opinion."



"I shall not try," said Joan.



He accepted this and went on. "When I found you in your bed waiting

for news of Pierre, I thought you the most beautiful, pitiful thing I

had ever seen. I loved you then, Joan, then. Tell me, did I ever in

those days hurt you or give you a moment's anxiety or fear?"



"No," Joan admitted, "you did not. In those days you were wonderful,

kind and patient with me. I thought you were more like God than a

human then."



Prosper laughed with bitterness. "You thought very wrong, but,

according to my own lights, I was very careful of you. I meant to give

you all I could and I meant to win you with patience and forbearance.

I had respect for you and for your grief and for the horrible thing

you had suffered. Joan, by now you know better what the world is. Can

you reproach me so very bitterly for our--happiness, even if it was

short?"



"You lied to me," said Joan. "It wasn't just. We didn't start even.

And--and you knew what you wanted of me. I never guessed."



"You didn't? You never guessed?"



"No. Sometimes, toward the last, I was afraid. I felt that I ought to

go away. That day I ran off--you remember--I was afraid of you. I felt

you were bad and that I was bad too. Then it seemed to me that I'd

been dreadfully ungrateful and unkind. That was what began to make me

give way to my feelings. I was sorrowful because I had hurt you and

you so kind! The day I came in with that suit and spoke of--her as a

'tall child' and you cried, why, I felt so sorrowful that I'd made you

suffer. I wanted to comfort you, to put my hands on you in comfort,

like a mother, I felt. And you went out like you were angry and stayed

away all night as though you couldn't bear to be seeing me again in

your house that you had built for her. So I wrote you my letter and

went away. And then--it was all so awful cold and empty. I didn't know

Pierre was out there. I came back...."



They were both silent for a long time and in the silence the idyll was

re-lived. Spring came again with its crest of green along the canyon

and the lake lay like a turquoise drawing the glittering peak down

into its heart.



"My book--its success," Prosper began at last, "made me restless.

You'll understand that now that you are an artist yourself. And one

day there came a letter from that woman I had loved."



"It was a little square gray envelope," said Joan breathlessly. "I can

see it now. You never rightly looked at me again."



"Ah!" said Prosper. He turned and hid his face.



"Tell me the rest," said Joan.



He went on without turning back to her, his head bent. "The woman

wrote that her husband was dying, that I must come back to her at

once."



The snow tapped and the fire crackled.



"And when you--went back?"



"Her husband did not die," said Prosper blankly; "he is still alive."



"And you still love her very much?"



"That's the worst of it, Joan," groaned Prosper. His groan changed

into a desperate laugh. "I love you. Now truly I do love you. If I

could marry you--if I could have you for my wife--" He waited,

breathing fast, then came and stood close before her. "I have never

wanted a woman to be my wife till now. I want you. I want you to be

the mother of my children."



Then Joan did look at him with all her eyes.



"I am Pierre's wife," she said. The liquid beauty had left her voice.

It was hoarse and dry. "I am Pierre's wife and I have already been the

mother of your child."



There was a long, rigid silence. "Joan--when?--where?" Prosper's

throat clicked.



"I knew it before you left. I couldn't tell you because you were so

changed. I worked all winter. It--it was born on an awful cold March

night. I think the woman let it--made it--die. She wanted me to work

for her during the summer and she thought I would be glad if the child

didn't live. She used to say I was 'in trouble' and she'd be glad if

she could 'help me out.'... It was what I was planning to live for ...

that child."



During the heavy stillness following Joan's dreadful, brief account of

birth and death, Prosper went through a strange experience. It seemed

to him that in his soul something was born and died. Always afterwards

there was a ghost in him--the father that might have been.



"I can't talk any more," said Joan faintly. "Won't you please go?"





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