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
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 room.
“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 hand.
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
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
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 work?”
“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
“But but what is a woman’s
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,
“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
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
“I’m tuning up.”
“Well, sir, I’d be gettin’ tired
of that if I was you.”
“I’m almost done,” said Prosper
He stood up near her feet at the corner
of the hearth, tucked the instrument under his chin
and played. It was the “Aubade Provençale,”
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
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
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
Provençale” 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.