Dried Rose-leaves





The house that Prosper Gael had built for himself and for the woman

whom Joan came to think of as the "tall child," stood in a canyon, a

deep, secret fold of the hills, where a cliff stood behind it, and

where the pine-needled ground descended before its door, under the

far-flung, greenish-brown shade of fir boughs, to the lip of a green

lake. Here the highest snow-peak toppled giddily down and reared

giddily up from the crystal green to the ether blue, firs massed into

the center of the double image. In January, the lake was a glare of

snow, in which the big firs stood deep, their branches heavily

weighted. Prosper had dug a tunnel from his door through a big drift

which touched his eaves. It was curious to see Wen Ho come pattering

out of this Northern cave, his yellow, Oriental face and slant eyes

peering past the stalactite icicles as though they felt their own

incongruity almost with a sort of terror. The interior of the

five-room house gave just such an effect of bizarre and extravagant

contrast; an effect, too, of luxury, though in truth it was furnished

for the most part with stuffs and objects picked up at no very great

expense in San Francisco shops. Nevertheless, there was nothing tawdry

and, here and there, something really precious. Draperies on the

walls, furniture made by Wen Ho and Prosper, lacquered in black and

red, brass and copper, bright pewter, gay china, some fur rugs, a

gorgeous Oriental lamp, bookcases with volumes of a sober richness, in

fact the costliest and most laborious of imports to this wilderness,

small-paned, horizontal windows curtained in some heavy green-gold

stuff which slipped along the black lacquered pole on rings of jade;

all these and a hundred other points of softly brilliant color gave to

the living-room a rare and striking look, while the bedrooms were

matted, daintily furnished, carefully appointed as for a bride. Much

thought and trouble, much detailed labor, had gone to the making of

this odd nest in a Wyoming canyon. Whatever one must think of Prosper

Gael, it is difficult to shirk heartache on his account. A man of his

temperament does not lightly undertake even a companioned isolation in

a winter land. To picture what place of torment this well-appointed

cabin was to him before he brought to it Joan, as a lonely man brings

in a wounded bird to nurse and cherish, stretches the fancy on a rack

of varied painfulness.



On that night, snow was pouring itself down the narrow canyon in a

crowded whirl of dry, clean flakes. Wen Ho, watchful, for his master

was already a day or so beyond the promised date of his return, had

started a fire on the hearth and spread a single cover on the table.

He had drawn the green-and-gold curtains as though there had been

anything but whirling whiteness to look in and stood warming himself

with a rubbing of thin, dry hands before the open blaze. The real heat

of the house, and it was almost unbearably hot, came from the stoves

in kitchen and bedrooms, but this fire gave its quota of warmth and

more than its quota of that beauty so necessary to Prosper Gael.



Wen Ho put his head from one side to the other and stopped rubbing his

hands. He had heard the packing of snow under webs and runners. After

listening a moment, he nodded to himself, like a figure in a

pantomime, ran into the kitchen, did something to the stove, then

lighted a lantern and pattered out along the tunnel dodging the icicle

stalactites. Between the firs he stopped and held his lantern high so

that it touched a moving radius of flakes to silver stars. Back of him

through the open door streamed the glow of lamp and fire filling the

icicles with blood and flushing the walls and the roof of the cave.



Down the canyon Prosper shouted, "Wen Ho! Wen Ho!"



The Chinaman plunged down the trail, packed below the new-fallen snow

by frequent passage, and presently met the bent figure of his master

pulling and breathing hard. Without speaking, Wen Ho laid hold of the

sled rope and together the two men tugged up the last steep bit of the

hill.



"Velly heavy load," said Wen.



Prosper's eyes, gleaming below the visor of his cap, smiled

half-maliciously upon him. "It's a deer killed out of season," he

said, "and other cattle--no maverick either--fairly marked by its

owner. Lend me a hand and we'll unload."



Wen showed no astonishment. He removed the covering and peeped

slantwise at the strange woman who stared at him unseeingly with

large, bright eyes. She closed them, frowning faintly as though she

protested against the intrusion of a Chinese face into her disturbed

mental world.



The men took her up and carried her into the house, where they dressed

her wound and laid her with all possible gentleness in one of the two

beds of stripped and lacquered pine that stood in the bedroom facing

the lake. Afterwards they moved the other bed and Prosper went in to

his meal.



He was too tired to eat. Soon he pushed his plate away, turned his

chair to face the fire, and, slipping down to the middle of his spine,

stuck out his lean, long legs, locked his hands back of his head, let

his chin fall, and stared into the flames.



Wen Ho removed the dishes, glancing often at his master.



"You velly tired?" he questioned softly.



"It was something of a pull in the storm."



"Velly small deer," babbled the Chinaman, "velly big lady."



Prosper smiled a queer smile that sucked in and down the corners of

his mouth.



"She come after all?" asked Wen Ho.



Prosper's smile disappeared; he opened his eyes and turned a wicked,

gleaming look upon his man. What with the white face and drawn mouth

the look was rather terrible. Wen Ho vanished with an increase of

speed and silence.



Alone, Prosper twisted himself in his chair till his head rested on

his arms. It was no relaxation of weariness or grief, but an attitude

of cramped pain. His face, too, was cramped when, a motionless hour

later, he lifted it again. He got up then, broken with weariness, and

went softly across the matted hall into the room where Joan slept, and

he stood beside her bed.



A glow from the stove, and the light shining through the door, dimly

illumined her. She was sleeping very quietly now; the flush of fever

had left her face and it was clear of pain, quite simple and sad.

Prosper looked at her and looked about the room as though he felt what

he saw to be a dream. He put his hand on one long strand of Joan's

black hair.



"Poor child!" he said. "Good child!" And went out softly, shutting the

door.



In the bedroom where Joan came again to altered consciousness of life,

there stood a blue china jar of potpourri, rose-leaves dried and spiced

till they stored all the richness of a Southern summer. Joan's first

question, strangely enough, was drawn from her by the persistence of

this vague and pungent sweetness.



She was lying quietly with closed eyes, Prosper looking down at her,

his finger on her even pulse, when, without opening her long lids, she

asked, "What smells so good?"



Prosper started, drew away his fingers, then answered, smiling, "It's

a jar of dried rose-leaves. Wait a moment, I'll let you hold it."



He took the jar from the window sill and carried it to her.



She looked at it, took it in her hands, and when he removed the lid,

she stirred the leaves curiously with her long forefinger.



"I never seen roses," she said, and added, "What's basil?"



Prosper was startled. For an instant all his suppositions as to Joan

were disturbed. "Basil? Where did you ever hear of basil?"



"Isabella and Lorenzo," murmured Joan, and her eyes darkened with her

memories.



Prosper found his heart beating faster than usual. "Who are you, you

strange creature? I think it's time you told me your name. Haven't you

any curiosity about me?"



"Yes," said Joan; "I've thought a great deal about you." She wrinkled

her wide brows. "You must have been out after game, though 't was out

of season. And you must have heard me a-cryin' out an' come in. That

was right courageous, stranger. I would surely like you to know why I

come away with you," she went on, wistful and weak, "but I don't know

as how I can make it plain to you." She paused, turning the blue jar

in her hand. "You're very strange to me," she said, "an' yet,

someways, you takin' care of me so well an' so--so awful kind--" her

voice gave forth its tremolo of feeling--"seems like I knowed you

better than any other person in the world."



A flush came into his face.



"I wouldn't like you to be thinkin'--" She stopped, a little

breathless.



He took the jar, sat down on the bed, and laid a hand firmly over both

of hers. "I 'won't be thinking' anything," he said, "only what you

would like me to think. Listen--when a man finds a wounded bird out in

the winter woods, he'll bring it home to care for it. And he 'won't be

thinking' the worse of its helplessness and tameness. Of course I

know--but tell me your name, please!"



"Joan Landis."



At the name, given painfully, Joan drew a weighted breath, another,

then, pushing herself up as though oppressed beyond endurance, she

caught at Prosper's arm, clenched her fingers upon it, and bent her

black head in a terrible paroxysm of grief. It was like a tempest.

Prosper thought of storm-driven, rain-wet trees wild in a wind ... of

music, the prelude to "Fliegende Hollander." Joan's weeping bent and

rocked her. He put his arm about her, tried to soothe her. At her cry

of "Pierre! Pierre!" he whitened, but suddenly she broke from him and

threw herself back amongst the pillows.



"'T was you that killed him," she moaned. "What hev I to do with you?"



It was not the last time that bitter exclamation was to rise between

them; more and more fiercely it came to wring his peace and hers. This

time he bore it with a certain philosophy, calmed her patiently.



"How could I help it, Joan?" he pleaded. "You saw how it was?" As she

grew quieter, he talked. "I heard you scream like a person being

tortured to death--twice--a gruesome enough sound, let me tell you, to

hear in the dead of a white, still night. I didn't altogether want to

break into your house. I've heard some ugly stories about men

venturing to disturb the work of murderers. But, you see, Joan, I've a

fear of myself. I've a cruel brain. I can use it on my own failures.

I've been through some self-punishment--no! of course, you don't

understand all that.... Anyway, I came in, in great fear of my life,

and saw what I saw--a woman tied up and devilishly tortured, a man

gloating over her helplessness. Naturally, before I spoke my mind, as

a man was bound to speak it, under the pain and fury of such a

spectacle, I got ready to defend myself. Your--Pierre"--there was a

biting contempt in his tone--"saw my gesture, whipped out his gun, and

fired. My shot was half a second later than his. I might more readily

have lost my life than taken his. If he had lived, Joan, could you

have forgiven him?"



"No," sobbed Joan; "I think not." She trembled. "He said terrible hard

words to me. He didn't love me like I loved him. He planned to put a

brand on me so's I c'd be his own like as if I was a beast belongin'

to him. Mr. Holliwell said right, I don't belong to no man. I belong

to my own self."



The storm had passed into this troubled after-tossing of thought.



"Can you tell me about it all?" asked Prosper. "Would it help?"



"I couldn't," she moaned; "no, I couldn't. Only--if I hadn't 'a' left

Pierre a-lyin' there alone. A dog that had onct loved him wouldn't 'a'

done that." She sat up again, white and wild. "That's why I must go

back. I must surely go. I must! Oh, I must!"



"Go back thirty miles through wet snow when you can't walk across the

room, Joan?" He smiled pityingly.



Her hands twisting in his, she stared past him, out through the

window, where the still, sunny day shone blue through shadowy pine

branches. Tears rolled down her face.



"Can't you go back?" She turned the desolate, haunted eyes upon him.

"Oh, can't you?--to do some kindness to him? Can you ever stop

a-thinkin' of him lyin' there?"



Prosper's face was hard through its gentleness. "I've seen too many

dead men, less deserving of death. But, hush!--you lie down and go to

sleep. I'll try to manage it. I'll try to get back and show him some

kindness, as you say. There! Will you be a good girl now?"



She fell back and her eyes shone their gratitude upon him. "Oh, you

are good!" she said. "When I'm well--I'll work for you!"



He shook his head, smiled, kissed her hand, and went out.



She was entirely exhausted by her emotion, so that all her memories

fell away from her and left her in a peaceful blankness. She trusted

Prosper's word. With every fiber of her heart she trusted him, as

simply, as singly, as foolishly as a child trusts God.





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