Joan Runs Away





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

me?"



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

go."



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

that?"



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

soul.



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.





Joan Reads By Firelight John Craven's Method facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback