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Joan Runs Away

From: The Branding Iron

It was a January night when Joan, her rough head almost in the ashes,
had read "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" by the light of flames. It
was in March, a gray, still afternoon, when, looking through Prosper's
bookcase, she came upon the tale again.

Prosper was outdoors cutting a tunnel, freshly blocked with snow, and
Joan, having finished the "Life of Cellini," a writer she loathed, but
whose gorgeous fabrications her master had forced her to read, now
hurried to the book-shelves in search of something more to her taste.
She had the gay air of a holiday-seeker, returned "Cellini" with a
smart push, and kneeling, ran her finger along the volumes, pausing on
a binding of bright blue-and-gold. It was the color that had pleased
her and the fat, square shape, also the look of fair and well-spaced
type. She took the book and squatted on the rug happy as a child with
a new toy of his own choosing.

And then she opened her volume in its middle and her eye looked upon
familiar lines--

"So the two brothers and their murdered man--" Joan's heart fell like a
leaden weight and the color dropped from her face. In an instant she was
back in Pierre's room and the white night circled her in great silence
and she was going over the story of her love and Pierre's--their love,
their beautiful, grave, simple love that had so filled her life. And now
where was she? In the house of the man who had killed her husband! She
had been waiting for Holliwell, but for a long while now she had
forgotten that. Why was she still here? A strange, guilty terror came
with the question. She looked down at the soft, yellow crepe of the
dress she had just made and she looked at her hands lying white and fine
and useless, and she felt for the high comb Prosper had put into her
hair. Then she stared around the gorgeous little room, snug from the
world, so secret in its winter canyon. She heard Wen Ho's incessant
pattering in the kitchen, the crunch and thud of Prosper's shoveling
outside. It was suddenly a horrible nightmare, or less a nightmare than
a dream, pleasant in the dreaming, but hideous to an awakened mind. She
was awake. Isabella's story had thrown her mind, so abruptly dislocated,
back to a time before the change, back to her old normal condition of a
young wife. That little homestead of Pierre's! Such a hunger opened in
her soul that she bent her head and moaned. She could think of nothing
now but those two familiar, bare, clean rooms--Pierre's gun, Pierre's
rod, her own coat there by the door, the snowshoes. There was no place
in her mind for the later tragedy. She had gone back of it. She would
rather be alone in her own home, desolate though it was, than anywhere
else in all the homeless world.

And what could prevent her from going? She laughed aloud,--a short,
defiant laugh,--rippled to her feet, and, in her room, took off
Prosper's "pretty things" and got into her own old clothes; the coarse
underwear, the heavy stockings and boots, the rough skirt, the man's
shirt. How loosely they all hung! How thin she was! Now into her coat,
her woolen cap down over her ears, her gloves--she was ready, her
heart laboring like an exhausted stag's, her knees trembling, her
wrists mysteriously absent. She went into the hall, found her
snowshoes, bent to tie them on, and, straightening up, met Prosper who
had come in out of the snow.

He was glowing from exercise, but at sight of her and her pale
excitement, the glow left him and his face went bleak and grim. He put
out his hand and caught her by the arm and she backed from him against
the wall--this before either of them spoke.

"Where are you going, Joan?"

"I'm a-goin' home."

He let go of her arm. "You were going like this, without a word to

"Mr. Gael," she panted, "I had a feelin' like you wouldn't 'a' let me

He turned, threw open the door, and stepped aside. She confronted his
white anger.

"Mr. Gael, I left Pierre dead. I've been a-waitin' for Mr. Holliwell
to come. I'm strong now. I must be a-goin' home." Suddenly, she blazed
out: "You killed my man. What hev I to do with you?"

He bowed. Her breast labored and all the distress of her soul,
troubled by an instinctive, inarticulate consciousness of evil,
wavered in her eyes. Her reason already accused her of ingratitude and
treachery, but every fiber of her had suddenly revolted. She was all
for liberty, she must have it.

He was wise, made no attempt to hold her, let her go; but, as she fled
under the firs, her webs sinking deep into the heavy, uncrusted snow,
he stood and watched her keenly. He had not failed to notice the
trembling of her body, the quick lift and fall of her breast, the
rapid flushing and paling of her face. He let her go.

And Joan ran, drawing recklessly on the depleted store of what had
always been her inexhaustible strength. The snow was deep and soft,
heavy with moisture, the March air was moist, too, not keen with frost,
and the green firs were softly dark against an even, stone-colored sky
of cloud. To Joan's eyes, so long imprisoned, it was all astonishingly
beautiful, clean and grave, part of the old life back to which she was
running. Down the canyon trail she floundered, her short skirt
gathering a weight of snow, her webs lifting a mass of it at every
tugging step. Her speed perforce slackened, but she plodded on, out of
breath and in a sweat. She was surprised at the weakness; put it down
to excitement. "I was afeered he'd make me stay," she said, and, "I've
got to go. I've got to go." This went with her like a beating rhythm.
She came to the opening in the firs, the foot of the steep trail, and
out there stretched the valley, blank snow, blank sky, here and there a
wooded ridge, then a range of lower hills, blue, snow-mottled; not a
roof, not a thread of smoke, not a sound.

"I'm awful far away," Joan whispered to herself, and, for the first
time in her life, she doubted her strength. "I don't rightly know
where I am." She looked back. There stood a high, familiar peak, but
so were the outlines of these mountains jumbled and changed that she
could not tell if Prosper's canyon lay north or south of Pierre's
homestead. The former was high up on the foothills, and Pierre's was
well down, above the river. From where she stood, there was no
river-bed in sight. She tried to remember the journey, but nothing
came to her except a confused impression of following, following,
following. Had they gone toward the river first and then turned north
or had they traveled close to the base of the giant range? The
ranger's cabin where they had spent the night, surely that ought to be
visible. If she went farther out, say beyond the wooded spur which
shut the mountain country from her sight, perhaps she would find
it.... She braced her quivering muscles and went on. The end of the
jutting foothills seemed to crawl forward with her. She plunged into
drifts, struggled up; sometimes the snow-plane seemed to stand up like
a wall in front of her, the far hills lolling like a dragon along its
top. She could not keep the breath in her lungs. Often she sank down
and rested; when things grew steady she got up and worked on. Each
time she rested, she crouched longer; each time made slower progress;
and always the goal she had set herself, the end of that jutting hill,
thrust itself out, nosed forward, sliding down to the plain. It began
to darken, but Joan thought that her sight was failing. The enormous
efforts she was making took every atom of her will. At last her
muscles refused obedience, her laboring heart stopped. She stood a
moment, swayed, fell, and this time she made no effort to rise. She
had become a dark spot on the snow, a lifeless part of the loneliness
and silence.

Above her, where the sharp peaks touched the clouds, there came a
widening rift showing a cold, turquoise clarity. The sun was just
setting and, as the cloud-banks lifted, strong shadows, intensely
blue, pointed across the plain of snow. A small, black, energetic
figure came out from among the firs and ran forward where the longest
shadow pointed. It looked absurdly tiny and anxious; futile, in its
pigmy haste, across the exquisite stillness. Joan, lying so still, was
acquiescent; this little striving thing rebelled. It came forward
steadily, following Joan's uneven tracks, stamping them down firmly to
make a solid path, and, as the sun dropped, leaving an immense
gleaming depth of sky, he came down and bent over the black speck that
was Joan....

Prosper took her by the shoulder and turned her over a little in the
snow. Joan opened her eyes and looked at him. It was the dumb look of
a beaten dog.

"Get up, child," he said, "and come home with me."

She struggled to her feet, he helping her; and silently, just as a
savage woman, no matter what her pain, will follow her man, so Joan
followed the track he had made by pressing the snow down triply over
her former steps. "Can you do it?" he asked once, and she nodded. She
was pale, her eyes heavy, but she was glad to be found, glad to be
saved. He saw that, and he saw a dawning confusion in her eyes. At the
end he drew her arm into his, and, when they came into the house, he
knelt and took the snowshoes from her feet, she drooping against the
wall. He put a hand on each of her shoulders and looked reproach.

"You wanted to leave me, Joan? You wanted to leave me, as much as

She shook her head from side to side, then, drawing away, she stumbled
past him into the room, dropped to the bearskin rug, and held out her
hands to the flames. "It's awful good to be back," she said, and fell
to sobbing. "I didn't think you'd be carin'--I was thinkin' only of
old things. I was homesick--me that has no home."

Her shaken voice was so wonderful a music that he stood listening with
sudden tears in his eyes.

"An' I can't ferget Pierre nor the old life, Mr. Gael, an' when I
think 't was you that killed him, why, it breaks my heart. Oh, I know
you hed to do it. I saw. An' I know I couldn't 'a' stayed with him no
more. What he did, it made me hate him--but you can't be thinkin' how
it was with Pierre an' me before that night. We--we was happy. I ust
to live with my father, Mr. Gael, an' he was an awful man, an' there
was no lovin' between us, but when I first seen Pierre lookin' up at
me, I first knowed what lovin' might be like. I just came away with
him because he asked me. He put his hand on my arm an' said, 'Will you
be comin' home with me, Joan Carver?' That was the way of it.
Somethin' inside of me said, 'Yes,' fer all I was too scairt to do
anything but look at him an' shake my head. An' the next mornin' he
was there with his horses. Oh, Mr. Gael, I can't ferget him, even for
hatin'. That brand on my shoulder, it's all healed, but my heart's so
hurted, it's so hurted. An' when I come to thinkin' of how kind an'
comfortin' you are an' what you've been a-doin' fer me, why, then, at
the same time, I can't help but thinkin' that you killed my Pierre.
You killed him. Fergive me, please; I would love you if I could, but
somethin' makes me shake away from you--because Pierre's dead."

Again she wept, exhausted, broken-hearted weeping it was. And
Prosper's face was drawn by pity of her. That story of her life and
love, it was a sort of saga, something as moving as an old ballad most
beautifully sung. He half-guessed then that she had genius; at least,
he admitted that it was something more than just her beauty and her
sorrow that so greatly stirred him. To speak such sentences in such a
voice--that was a gift. She had no more need of words than had a
symphony. The varied and vibrant cadences of her voice gave every
delicate shading of feeling, of thought. She was utterly expressive.
All night, after he had seen her eat and sent her to her bed, the
phrases of her music kept repeating themselves in his ears. "An' so I
first knowed what lovin' might be like"; and, "I would love you, only
somethin' makes me shake away from you--because Pierre's dead." This
was a Joan he had not yet realized, and he knew that after all his
enchanted leopardess was a woman and that his wooing of her had hardly
yet begun. So did she baffle him by the utter directness of her heart.
There was so little of a barrier against him and yet--there was so
much. For the first time, he doubted his wizardry, and, at that, his
desire for the wild girl's love stood up like a giant and gripped his

Joan slept deeply without dreams; she had confessed herself. But
Prosper was as restless and troubled as a youth. She had not made her
escape; she had followed him home with humility, with confusion in her
eyes. She had been glad to hold out her hands again to the fire on his
hearth. And yet--he was now her prisoner.

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Previous: The Training Of A Leopardess

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