Joan And Prosper





The situation was no doubt an extraordinary, an unimaginable one, but

it had to be met. When he returned to the box, Prosper had himself in

hand, and, sitting a little farther back than before, he watched the

second act with a sufficiency of outward calm.



This part was the most severe test of his composure, for he had

fashioned it almost in detail upon that idyll in a canyon. There were

even speeches of Joan's that he had used. To sit here and watch Joan

herself go through it, while he looked on, was an exciting form of

torment. The setting was different, tropical instead of Northern, and

the half-native heroine was more passionate, more emotional, more

animal than Joan. Nevertheless, the drama was a repetition. As Prosper

had laid his trap for Joan, silently, subtly undermining her whole

mental structure, using her loneliness, playing upon the artist soul

of her, so did this Englishman lay his trap for Zona. He was more

cruel than Prosper, rougher, necessarily more dramatic, but there was

all the essence of the original drama, the ensnarement of a simple,

direct mind by a complex and skillful one. Joan's surrender, Prosper's

victory, were there. He wondered how Joan could act it, play the part

in cold blood. Now he was condemned to live in his own imagination

through Joan's tragedy. There was that first pitifulness of a tamed

and broken spirit; then later, in London, the agony of loneliness, of

separation, of gradual awakening to the change in her master's heart.

Prosper had written the words, but it was Joan who, with her voice,

the music of memory-shaken heart-strings, made the words alive and

meaningful. Others in the audience might wonder over the girl's

ability to interpret this unusual experience, to make it natural,

human, inevitable. But Prosper did not wonder. He knew that simply she

forced herself to re-live this most painful part of her own life and

to re-live it articulately. What, in God's name, had induced her to do

it? Necessity? Poverty? Morena? All at once he remembered Betty's

belief, that Joan was the manager's mistress--his wild, beautiful

Joan, Joan the creation of his own wizardry. This thought gave him

such pain that he whitened.



"Prosper," murmured Betty, "you must tell me what is wrong. Evidently

your nerves are in bad shape. Is the excitement too much for you?"



"I believe it is," he said, avoiding her eyes and moving stiff, white

lips; "I've never seen such acting. I--I--Morena says he'll let me see

her in her dressing-room afterwards. You see, Betty, I'm badly shaken

up."



"Ye-es," drawled Betty, and looked at him through narrowed lids, and

she sat with this look on her face and with her fingers locked, when

Prosper, not giving her further notice, followed Morena out.



"Jasper,"--Prosper held his friend back in the middle of a passage

that led to the dressing-rooms,--"I want very particularly to see Miss

West alone. I am very much moved by her performance and I want to tell

her so. Also, I want her to express herself naturally with no idea of

my being the author of the play and without the presence of her

manager. Will you just ask if she will see a friend of yours--alone?"



Jasper smiled his subtle smile. "Of course, Prosper. It's all as clear

as daylight."



Prosper did not notice the Jew's intelligent expression. He was too

much absorbed in his own excitement. In a moment he would be with

Joan--Joan, his love of winter nights!



Morena tapped upon a door. A maid half-opened it.



"Ask Miss West, please, if she will see a friend of Mr. Morena's. Tell

her I particularly wish her to give him a private interview." He

scribbled a line on a card and the maid took it in.



In five minutes, during which the two men waited silently, she came

back.



"Miss West will see your friend, sir."



"Ah! Then I'll take myself off. Prosper, will you join Betty and me at

supper?"



"No, thanks. I'll have my brief interview with Miss West and then go

home, if you'll forgive me. I'm about all in. New York's too much for

a man just home from the front."



Jasper laid his hand for a moment on Prosper's shoulder, smiled,

shrugged, and turned away. Prosper waited till his friend was out of

sight and hearing, then knocked and was admitted to the dressing-room

of Miss Jane West.



She had not changed from the evening dress she had worn in the last

scene nor had she yet got rid of her make-up. She was sitting in a

narrow-backed chair that had been turned away from the dressing-table.

The maid was putting away some costumes.



Prosper walked half across the room and stopped.



"Miss West," he said quietly.



She stood up. The natural color left her face ghastly with patches of

paint and daubs of black. She threw back her head and said, "Prosper!"

just above her breath.



"Go out, Henrietta." This was spoken to the maid in the voice of Jane

the virago and Henrietta fled.



At sight of Joan, Prosper had won back instantly his old poise, his

old feeling of ascendancy.



"Joan, Joan," he said gently; "was ever anything so strange? Why

didn't you let me know? Why didn't you answer my letters? Why didn't

you take my money? I have suffered greatly on your account."



Joan laughed. Four years ago she would not have been capable of this

laugh, and Prosper started.



"I wrote again and again," he said passionately. "Wen Ho told me that

you had gone, that he didn't know anything about your plans. I went

out to Wyoming, to our house. I scoured the country for you. Did you

know that?"



"No," said Joan slowly, "I didn't know that But it makes no difference

to me."



They were still standing a few paces apart, too intent upon their

inner tumult to heed any outward situation. She lowered her head in

that dangerous way of hers, looking up at him from under her brows.

Her color had returned and the make-up had a more natural look.



"Maybe you did write, maybe you did send money, maybe you did come

back--I don't care anything for all that." She made a gesture as if to

sweep something away. "The day after you left me in that house,

Pierre, my husband, came up the trail. He was taking after me. He

meant to fetch me home. You told me"--she began to tremble so

violently that the jewels on her neck clicked softly--"you told me he

was dead."



Prosper came closer, she moving back, till, striking the chair, she

sat down on it and looked up at him with her changed and embittered

eyes.



"Would you have gone back to him, Joan Landis, after he had tied you

up and branded your shoulder with his cattlebrand?"



"What has that got to do with it?" she asked, her voice lifting on a

wave of anger. "That was between my man and me. That was not for you

to judge. He loved me. It was through loving me too much, too

ignorantly, that he hurt me so." She choked. "But you--"



"Joan," said Prosper, and he laid his hand on her cold and rigid

fingers, "I loved you too."



She was still and stiff. After a long silence she seemed to select one

question from a tide of them.



"Why did you leave me?"



"I wrote you a full explanation. The letter came back to me unread."



Again Joan gave the laugh and the gesture of disdain.



"That doesn't matter ... your loving or not loving. You made use of me

for your own ends, and when you saw fit, you left me. But that's not

my complaint. I don't say I didn't deserve that. I was easy to use.

But it was all based on what wasn't true. I was married, my man was

living, and I had dealings with you. That was sin. That was horrible.

That was what my mother did. She was a ----" Joan used the coarse and

ugly word her father had taught her, and Prosper laid a hand over her

mouth.



"Joan! No! Never say it, never think it. You are clean."



Joan twisted herself free, stood up, and walked away. "I am that!"

she said grimly; "and it was you that made me. You took lots of

trouble to make me see things in a way where nothing a person wants is

either right or wrong. You made me thirsty with your talk and your

books and your music, and when I was tormented with thirst, you came

and offered me a drink of water. That was it. I don't care about your

not marrying me. I still don't see that that has much to do with it

except, perhaps, that a man would be caring to give any woman he

rightly loves whatever help or cherishing or gifts the world has

decided to give her. But, you see, Prosper, we didn't start fair. You

knew that Pierre was alive."



"But, Joan, you say yourself that marrying--"



She stopped him with so fierce a gesture that he flinched. "Yes.

Pierre did rightly love me. He gave me his best as he knew it. Oh, he

was ignorant, a savage, I guess, like I was. But he did rightly love

me. He was not trying to break my spirit nor to tame me, nor to amuse

himself with me, nor to give me a longing for beauty and easiness and

then leave me to fight through my own rough life without any of those

things. Did you really think, Prosper Gael, that I would stay in your

house and live on your money till you should be caring to come back to

me--if ever you would care? Did you honestly think that you would be

coming back--as--as my lover? No. Whatever it was that took you away,

it was likely to keep you from me for always, wasn't it?"



"Yes," said Prosper in a muffled voice, "it was likely to. But, Joan,

Fate was on your side. Since I have been yours, I haven't belonged to

any one but you. You've put your brand on me."



"I don't want to hear about you," Joan broke in. "I am done with you.

Have you seen this play?"



"Yes." He found that in telling her so he could not meet her eyes.



"Well, the man who wrote that knew what you are, and, if he didn't,

every one that has seen me act in it, knows what you are." She paused,

breathing fast and trembling. "Good-bye," she said.



He went vaguely toward the door, then threw up his head defiantly.

"No," he said, "it's not going to be good-bye. I've found you. You

must let me tell you the truth about myself. Come, Joan, you're as

just as Heaven. You never read my explanations. You've never heard my

side of it. You'll let me come to see you and you'll hear me out.

Don't do me an injustice. I'll leave the whole thing in your hands

after that. But you must give me that one chance."



"Chance?" repeated Joan. "Chance for what?"



"Oh,"--Prosper flung up his lithe, long hands--"oh, for nothing but a

cleansing in your sight. I want what forgiveness I can wring from you.

I want what understanding I can force from you. That's all."



She thought, standing there, still and tall, her arms hanging, her

eyes wide and secret, as he had remembered them in her thin, changed,

so much more expressive face.



"Very well," she said, "you may come. I'll hear you out." She gave him

the address and named an afternoon hour. "Good-night."



It was a graceful and dignified dismissal. Prosper bit his lip, bowed

and left her.



As the door closed upon her, he knew that it had closed upon the only

real and vivid presence in his life. War had burnt away his glittering,

clever frivolity. Betty was the adventure, Betty was the tinsel; Joan

was the grave, predestined woman of his man. For the first time in his

life he found himself face to face with the cleanness of despair.





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