Prosper Comes To A Decision





Perhaps, in spite of his gruesome boast as to dead men, it was as much

to satisfy his own spirit as to comfort Joan's that Prosper actually

did undertake a journey to the cabin that had belonged to Pierre. It

was true that Prosper had never been able to stop thinking, not so

much of the tall, slim youth lying so still across the floor, all his

beauty and strength turned to an ashen slackness, as of a brown hand

that stirred. The motion of those fingers groping for life had

continually disturbed him. The man, to Prosper's mind, was an

insensate brute, deserving of death, even of torment, most deserving

of Joan's desertion, nevertheless, it was not easy to harden his

nerves against the picture of a man left, wounded and helpless, to die

slowly alone. Prosper went back expecting to find a dead man, went

back as a murderer visits the scene of his crime. He dubbed himself

more judge than murderer, but there was a restless misery of the

imagination not to be quieted by names. He went back stealthily at

dusk, choosing a dusk of wind-driven snow so that his tracks vanished

as soon as made. It was very desolate--the blank surface of the world

with its flying scud, the blank yellow-gray sky, the range, all iron

and white, the blue-black scars of leafless trees, the green-black

etchings of firs. The wind cut across like a scythe, sharp, but making

no stir above the drift. It was all dead and dark--an underground

world which, Prosper felt, never could have seen the sun, had no

memory of sun nor moon nor stars. The roof of Pierre's cabin made a

dark ridge above the snow, veiled in cloudy drift. He reached it with

a cold heart and slid down to its window, cautiously bending his face

near to the pane. He expected an interior already dark from the snow

piled round the window, so he cupped his hands about his eyes. At once

he let himself drop out of sight below the sill. There was a living

presence in the house. Prosper had seen a bright fire, the smoke of

which had been hidden by the snow-spray, a cot was drawn up before the

fire, and a big, fair young man in tweeds whose face, rosy, sensitive,

and quiet, was bent over the figure on the cot. A pair of large, white

hands were carefully busy.



Prosper, crouched below the window, considered what he had seen. It

was a week now since he had left Landis for a dying man. This big

fellow in tweeds must have come soon after the shooting. Evidently he

was not caring for a dead man. The black head on the pillow had moved.

Now there came the sound of speech, just a bass murmur. This time the

black head turned itself slightly and Prosper saw Pierre's face. He

had seen it only twice before; once when it had looked up, fierce and

crazed, at his first entrance into the house, once again when it lay

with lifted chin and pale lips on the floor. But even after so scarce

a memory, Prosper was startled by the change. Before, it had been the

face of a man beside himself with drink and the lust of animal power

and cruelty; now it was the wistful face of Pierre, drawn into a

tragic mask like Joan's when she came to herself; a miserably haunted

and harrowed face, hopeless as though it, too, like the outside world,

had lost or had never had a memory of sun. Evidently he submitted to

the dressing of his wound, but with a shamed and pitiful look.

Prosper's whole impression of the man was changed, and with the change

there began something like a struggle. He was afflicted by a crossing

of purposes and a stumbling of intention.



He did not care to risk a second look. He crept away and fled into the

windy dusk. He traveled with the wind like a blown rag, and, stopping

only for a few hours' rest at the ranger station, made the journey

home by morning of the second day. And on the journey he definitely

made up his mind concerning Joan.



Prosper Gael was a man of deliberate, though passionate, imagination.

He did not often act upon impulse, though his actions were often those

attempted only by passion-driven or impulsive folk. Prosper could

never plead thoughtlessness. He justified carefully his every action

to himself. Those were cold, dark hours of deliberation as he let the

wind drive him across the desolate land. When the wind dropped and a

splendid, still dawn swept up into the clean sky, he was at peace with

his own mind and climbed up the mountain trail with a half-smile on

his face.



In the dawn, awake on her pillows, Joan was listening for him, and at

the sound of his webs she sat up, pale to her lips. She did not know

what she feared, but she was filled with dread. The restful stupor

that had followed her storm of grief had spent itself and she was

suffering again--waves of longing for Pierre, of hatred for him,

alternately submerged her. All these bleak, gray hours of wind during

which Wen Ho had pattered in and out with meals, with wood for her

stove, with little questions as to her comfort, she had suffered as

people suffer in a dream; a restless misery like the misery of the

pine branches that leaped up and down before her window. The stillness

of the dawn, with its sound of nearing steps, gave her a sickness of

heart and brain, so that when Prosper came softly in at her door she

saw him through a mist. He moved quickly to her side, knelt by her,

took her hands. His touch at all times had a tingling charge of

vitality and will.



"He has been cared for, Joan," said Prosper. "Some friend of his came

and did all that was left to be done."



"Some friend?" In the pale, delicately expanding light Joan's face

gleamed between its black coils of hair with eyes like enchanted

tarns. In fact they had been haunted during his absence by images to

shake her soul. Prosper could see in them reflections of those terrors

that had been tormenting her. His touch pressed reassurance upon her,

his eyes, his voice.



"My poor child! My dear! I'm glad I am back to take care of you! Cry.

Let me comfort you. He has been cared for. He is not lying there

alone. He is dead. Let's forgive him, Joan." He shook her hands a

little, urgently, and a most painful memory of Pierre's beseeching

grasp came upon Joan.



She wrenched away and fell back, quivering, but she did not cry, only

asked in her most moving voice, "Who took care of Pierre--after I went

away and left him dead?"



Prosper got to his feet and stood with his arms folded, looking

wearily down at her. His mouth had fallen into rather cynical lines

and there were puckers at the corners of his eyes. "Oh, a big, fair

young man--a rosy boy-face, serious-looking, blue eyes."



Joan was startled and turned round. "It was Mr. Holliwell," she said,

in a wondering tone. "Did you talk with him? Did you tell him--?"



"No. Hardly." Prosper shook his head. "I found out what he had done

for your Pierre without asking unnecessary questions. I saw him, but

he did not see me."



"He'll be comin' to get me," said Joan. It was an entirely unemotional

statement of certainty.



Prosper pressed his lips into a line and narrowed his eyes upon her.



"Oh, he will?"



"Yes. He'll be takin' after me. He must 'a' ben scairt by somethin'

Pierre said in the town durin' their quarrel an' have come up after

him to look out what Pierre would be doin' to me.... I wisht he'd 'a'

come in time.... What must he be thinkin' of me now, to find Pierre

a-lyin' there dead, an' me gone! He'll be takin' after me to bring me

home."



Prosper would almost have questioned her then, his sharp face was

certainly at that moment the face of an inquisitor, a set of keen and

delicate instruments ready for probing, but so weary and childlike did

she look, so weary and childlike was her speech, that he forbore. What

did it matter, after all, what there was in her past? She had done

what she had done, been what she had been. If the fellow had branded

her for sin, why, she had suffered overmuch. Prosper admitted, that,

unbranded as to skin, he was scarcely fit to put his dirty civilized

soul under her clean and savage foot. Was the big, rosy chap her

lover? She had spoken of a quarrel between him and Pierre? But her

manner of speaking of him was scarcely in keeping with the thought,

rather it was the manner of a child-soul relying on the Shepherd who

would be "takin' after" some small, lost one. Well, he would have to

be a superman to find her here with no trails to follow and no fingers

to point. Pierre by now would have told his story--and Prosper knew

instinctively that he would tell it straight; whatever madness the

young savage might perpetrate under the influence of drink and

jealousy, he would hardly, with that harrowed face, be apt at

fabrications--they would be looking for Joan to come back, to go to

the town, to some neighboring ranch. They would make a search, but

winter would be against them with its teeth bared, a blizzard was on

its way. By the time they found her, thought Prosper,--and he quoted

one of Joan's quaint phrases to himself, smiling with radiance as he

did so,--"she won't be carin' to leave me." In his gay, little,

firelit room, he sat, stretched out, lank and long, in the low, deep,

red-lacquered chair, dozing through the long day, sipping strong

coffee, smoking, reading. He was singularly quiet and content. The

devil of disappointment and of thwarted desire that had wived him in

this carefully appointed hiding-place stood away a little from him and

that wizard imagination of his began to weave. By dusk, he was writing

furiously and there was a glow of rapture on his face.





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