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
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?”
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.