Joan waited for Prosper on the appointed
afternoon. There was a fire on her hearth and
a March snow-squall tapped against the window panes.
The crackle of the logs inside and that eerie, light
sound outside were so associated with Prosper that,
even before he came, Joan, sitting on one side of
the hearth, closed her eyes and felt that he must
be opposite to her in his red-lacquered chair, his
long legs stuck out in front, his amused and greedy
eyes veiled by a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Since she had seen him at the theater,
she had been suffering from sleeplessness. At
night she would go over and over the details of their
intercourse, seeing them, feeling them, living them
in the light of later knowledge, till the torment
was hardly to be borne. Three days and nights
of this inner activity had brought back that sharp
line between her brows and the bitter tightening of
This afternoon she was white with
suspense. Her dread of the impending interview
was like a physical illness. She sat in a high-backed
chair, hands along the arms, head resting back, eyes
half-closed, in that perfect stillness of which the
animal and the savage are alone entirely capable.
There were many gifts that Joan had brought from the
seventeen years on Lone River. This grave immobility
was one. She was very carefully dressed in a
gown that accentuated her height and dignity.
And she wore a few jewels. She wanted, pitifully
enough, to mark every difference between this Joan
and the Joan whom Prosper had drawn on his sled up
the canyon trail. If he expected to force her
back into the position of enchanted leopardess, to
see her “lie at his feet and eat out of his
hand,” as Morena had once described the plight
of Zona, he would see at a glance that she was no longer
so easily mastered. In fact, sitting there, she
looked as proud and perilous as a young Medea, black-haired
with long throat and cold, malevolent lips. It
was only in the eyes those gray, unhappy,
haunted eyes that Joan gave away her eternal
simplicity of heart. They were unalterably tender
and lonely and hurt. It was the look in them that
had prompted Shorty’s description, “She’s
plumb movin’ to me looks about halfway
between ‘You go to hell’ and ‘You
take me in your arms to rest.’”
Prosper was announced, and Joan, keeping
her stillness, merely turned her head toward him as
he came into the room.
She saw his rapid observation of the
room, of her, even before she noticed the very apparent
change in him. For he, too, was haggard and utterly
serious as she did not remember him. He stood
before her fire and asked her jerkily if she would
let him smoke. She said “Yes,” and
those were the only words spoken for five unbearable
minutes the seconds of which her heart beat out like
a shaky hammer in some worn machine.
Prosper smoked and stood there looking,
now at her, now at the fire. At last, with difficulty,
he smiled. “You are not going to make it
easy for me, are you, Joan?”
For her part she was not looking at
him. She kept her eyes on the fire and this averted
look distressed and irritated his nerves.
“I am not trying to make it
hard,” she said; “I want you to say what
you came to say and go.”
“Did you ever love me, Joan?”
He had said it to force a look from
her, but it had the effect only of making her more
still, if possible.
“I don’t know,”
she said slowly, answering with her old directness.
“I thought you needed me. I was alone.
I was scared of the emptiness when I went out and
looked down the valley. I thought Pierre had gone
out of the world and there was no living thing that
wanted me. I came back and you met me and you
put your arms round me and you said” she
closed her eyes and repeated his speech as though she
had just heard it “‘Don’t
leave me, Joan.’”
Her voice was more than ever before
moving and expressive. Prosper felt that half-forgotten
thrill. The muscles of his throat contracted.
“Joan, I did want you. I spoke the truth,”
She went on with no impatience but
very coldly. “You came to tell me your
side. Will you tell me, please?”
For the first time she looked into
his eyes and he drew in his breath at the misery of
“I built that cabin, Joan,”
he said, “for another woman.”
“Your wife?” asked Joan.
“For the one I said must have
been like a tall child? She wasn’t your
wife? She was dead?”
Prosper shook his head. “No.
Did you think that? She was a woman I loved at
that time very dearly and she was already married to
“You built that house for her? I don’t
“She had promised to leave her
husband and to come away with me. I had everything
ready, those rooms, those clothes, those materials,
and when I went out to get her, I had a message saying
that her courage had failed her, that she wouldn’t
“She was a better woman than me,” said
Prosper laughed. “By God,
she was not! She sent me down to hell. I
couldn’t go back to the East again. I had
laid very careful and elaborate plans. I was
trapped out there in that horrible winter country....”
“It was not horrible,”
said Joan violently; “it was the most wonderful,
beautiful country in all the world.” And
tears ran suddenly down her face.
But she would not let him come near
to comfort her. “Go on,” she said
“Before you came, Joan,”
Prosper went on, “it was horrible. It was
like being starved. Every thing in the house reminded
me of her. I had planned it all very
carefully and we were to have been happy.
You can fancy what it was to be there alone.”
Joan nodded. She was just
and she was honestly trying to put herself in his
place. “Yes,” she said; “if
I had gone back and Pierre had been dead, his homestead
would have been like that to me.”
“It was because I was so miserable
that I went out to hunt. I’d scour the
country all day and half the night to tire myself out,
that I could get some sleep. I was pretty far
from home that moonlight night when I heard you scream
Joan’s face grew whiter.
“Don’t tell about that,” she pleaded.
He paused, choosing another opening.
“After I had bandaged you and told you that
Pierre was dead and I honestly thought he
was I didn’t know what to do with
you. You couldn’t be left, and there was
no neighbor nearer than my own house; besides, I had
shot a man, and, perhaps, I don’t
know, maybe I was influenced by your beauty, by my
own crazy loneliness.... You were very beautiful
and very desolate. I was in a fury over the brute’s
treatment of you....”
“Hush!” said Joan; “you are not
to talk about Pierre.”
Prosper shrugged. “I decided
to take you home with me. I wanted you desperately,
just, I believe, to take care of, just to be kind
to truly, Joan, I was lonely to the point
of madness. Some one to care for, some one to
talk to, was absolutely necessary to save my reason.
So when I was leading you out, I I saw Pierre’s
Joan stood up. After a moment
she controlled herself with an effort and sat down
again. “Go on. I can stand it,”
“And I thought to myself, ’The
devil is alive and he deserves to be dead. This
woman can never live with him again. God wouldn’t
sanction such an act as giving her back to his hands.’
And I was half-mad myself, I’d been alone so
long ... I stood so you couldn’t see him,
Joan, and I threw an elk-hide over him and led you
“I followed you; I didn’t
look at Pierre; I left him lying there,” gasped
Prosper went on monotonously.
“When I came back a week later, I thought he
would be dead. It was dusk, the wind was blowing,
the snow was driving in a scud. I came down to
the cabin and dropped below the drift by that northern
window, and, the second I looked in, I dropped out
of sight. There was a light and a fire. Your
husband was lying before the fire on a cot. There
was another man there, your Mr. Holliwell; they were
talking, Holliwell was dressing Pierre’s wound.
I went away like a ghost, and while I was going back,
I thought it all out; and I decided to keep you for
myself. I suppose,” said Prosper dully,
“that that was a horrible sin. I didn’t
see it that way then. I’m not sure I see
it that way now. Pierre had tied you up and pressed
a white-hot iron into your bare shoulder. If you
went back to him, if he took you back, how was I to
know that he might not repeat his drunken deviltry,
or do worse, if anything could be worse! It was
the act of a fiend. It put him out of court with
me. Whatever I gave you, education and beauty,
and ease, must be better and happier for you than
life with such a brute as Pierre
“Stop!” said Joan between
her teeth; “you know nothing of Pierre and me;
you only know that one dreadful night. You don’t
know the rest.”
“I don’t want to know
the rest,” he said sharply; “that is enough
to justify my action. I thought so then and I
think so now. You won’t be able to make
me change that opinion.”
“I shall not try,” said Joan.
He accepted this and went on.
“When I found you in your bed waiting for news
of Pierre, I thought you the most beautiful, pitiful
thing I had ever seen. I loved you then, Joan,
then. Tell me, did I ever in those days hurt
you or give you a moment’s anxiety or fear?”
“No,” Joan admitted, “you
did not. In those days you were wonderful, kind
and patient with me. I thought you were more like
God than a human then.”
Prosper laughed with bitterness.
“You thought very wrong, but, according to my
own lights, I was very careful of you. I meant
to give you all I could and I meant to win you with
patience and forbearance. I had respect for you
and for your grief and for the horrible thing you
had suffered. Joan, by now you know better what
the world is. Can you reproach me so very bitterly
for our happiness, even if it was short?”
“You lied to me,” said
Joan. “It wasn’t just. We didn’t
start even. And and you knew what
you wanted of me. I never guessed.”
“You didn’t? You never guessed?”
“No. Sometimes, toward
the last, I was afraid. I felt that I ought to
go away. That day I ran off you remember I
was afraid of you. I felt you were bad and that
I was bad too. Then it seemed to me that I’d
been dreadfully ungrateful and unkind. That was
what began to make me give way to my feelings.
I was sorrowful because I had hurt you and you so
kind! The day I came in with that suit and spoke
of her as a ‘tall child’ and
you cried, why, I felt so sorrowful that I’d
made you suffer. I wanted to comfort you, to
put my hands on you in comfort, like a mother, I felt.
And you went out like you were angry and stayed away
all night as though you couldn’t bear to be seeing
me again in your house that you had built for her.
So I wrote you my letter and went away. And then it
was all so awful cold and empty. I didn’t
know Pierre was out there. I came back....”
They were both silent for a long time
and in the silence the idyll was re-lived. Spring
came again with its crest of green along the canyon
and the lake lay like a turquoise drawing the glittering
peak down into its heart.
“My book its success,”
Prosper began at last, “made me restless.
You’ll understand that now that you are an artist
yourself. And one day there came a letter from
that woman I had loved.”
“It was a little square gray
envelope,” said Joan breathlessly. “I
can see it now. You never rightly looked at me
“Ah!” said Prosper. He turned and
hid his face.
“Tell me the rest,” said Joan.
He went on without turning back to
her, his head bent. “The woman wrote that
her husband was dying, that I must come back to her
The snow tapped and the fire crackled.
“And when you went back?”
“Her husband did not die,” said Prosper
blankly; “he is still alive.”
“And you still love her very much?”
“That’s the worst of it,
Joan,” groaned Prosper. His groan changed
into a desperate laugh. “I love you.
Now truly I do love you. If I could marry you if
I could have you for my wife ” He
waited, breathing fast, then came and stood close
before her. “I have never wanted a woman
to be my wife till now. I want you. I want
you to be the mother of my children.”
Then Joan did look at him with all her eyes.
“I am Pierre’s wife,”
she said. The liquid beauty had left her voice.
It was hoarse and dry. “I am Pierre’s
wife and I have already been the mother of your child.”
There was a long, rigid silence.
“Joan when? where?”
Prosper’s throat clicked.
“I knew it before you left.
I couldn’t tell you because you were so changed.
I worked all winter. It it was born
on an awful cold March night. I think the woman
let it made it die. She
wanted me to work for her during the summer and she
thought I would be glad if the child didn’t
live. She used to say I was ‘in trouble’
and she’d be glad if she could ’help me
out.’... It was what I was planning to live
for ... that child.”
During the heavy stillness following
Joan’s dreadful, brief account of birth and
death, Prosper went through a strange experience.
It seemed to him that in his soul something was born
and died. Always afterwards there was a ghost
in him the father that might have been.
“I can’t talk any more,”
said Joan faintly. “Won’t you please