The Whole Duty Of Woman

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.

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