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!
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
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
“Poor child!” he said.
“Good child!” And went out softly, shutting
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
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
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!”
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
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
“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.