Joan Reads By Firelight

: The Branding Iron

There is no silence so fearful, so breathless, so searching as the

night silence of a wild country buried five feet deep in snow. For

thirty miles or so, north, south, east, and west of the small,

half-smothered speck of gold in Pierre Landis's cabin window, there

lay, on a certain December night, this silence, bathed in moonlight.

The cold was intense: below the bench where Pierre's homestead lay,

there rose from the
wisted, rapid river, a cloud of steam, above

which the hoar-frosted tops of cottonwood trees were perfectly

distinct, trunk, branch, and twig, against a sky the color of iris

petals. The stars flared brilliantly, hardly dimmed by the full moon,

and over the vast surface of the snow minute crystals kept up a steady

shining of their own. The range of sharp, wind-scraped mountains,

uplifted fourteen thousand feet, rode across the country, northeast,

southwest, dazzling in white armor, spears up to the sky, a sight,

seen suddenly, to take the breath, like the crashing march of

archangels militant.

In the center of this ring of silent crystal, Pierre Landis's logs

shut in a little square of warm and ruddy human darkness. Joan, his

wife, made the heart of this defiant space--Joan, the one mind living

in this ghostly area of night. She had put out the lamp, for Pierre,

starting townward two days before, had warned her with a certain

threatening sharpness not to waste oil, and she lay on the hearth, her

rough head almost in the ashes, reading a book by the unsteady light

of the flames. She followed the printed lines with a strong, dark

forefinger and her lips framed the words with slow, whispering

motions. It was a long, strong woman's body stretched there across the

floor, heavily if not sluggishly built, dressed rudely in warm stuffs

and clumsy boots, and it was a heavy face, too, unlit from within, but

built on lines of perfect animal beauty. The head and throat had the

massive look of a marble fragment stained to one even tone and dug up

from Attic earth. And she was reading thus heavily and slowly, by

firelight in the midst of this tremendous Northern night, Keats's

version of Boccaccio's "Tale of Isabella and the Pot of Basil."

The story for some reason interested her. She felt that she could

understand the love of young Lorenzo and of Isabella, the hatred of

those two brothers and Isabella's horrible tenderness for that young

murdered head. There were even things in her own life that she

compared with these; in fact, at every phrase, she stopped, and,

staring ahead, crudely and ignorantly visualized, after her own

experience, what she had just read; and, in doing so, she pictured her

own life.

Her love and Pierre's--her life before Pierre came--to put herself in

Isabella's place, she felt back to the days before her love, when she

had lived in a desolation of bleak poverty, up and away along Lone

River in her father's shack. This log house of Pierre's was a castle

by contrast. John Carver and his daughter had shared one room between

them; Joan's bed curtained off with gunny-sacking in a corner. She

slept on hides and rolled herself up in old dingy patchwork quilts and

worn blankets. On winter mornings she would wake covered with the snow

that had sifted in between the ill-matched logs. There had been a

stove, one leg gone and substituted for by a huge cobblestone; there

had been two chairs, a long box, a table, shelves--all rudely made by

John; there had been guns and traps and snowshoes, hides, skins, the

wings of birds, a couple of fishing-rods--John made his living by

legal and illegal trapping and killing. He had looked like a trapped

or hunted creature himself, small, furtive, very dark, with long

fingers always working over his mouth, a great crooked nose--a hideous

man, surely a hideous father. He hardly ever spoke, but sometimes,

coming home from the town which he visited several times a year, but

to which he had never taken Joan, he would sit down over the stove and

go over heavily, for Joan's benefit, the story of his crime and his


Joan always told herself that she would not listen, whatever he said

she would stop her ears, but always the story fascinated her, held

her, eyes widened on the figure by the stove. He had sat huddled in

his chair, gnomelike, his face contorting with the emotions of the

story, his own brilliant eyes fixed on the round, red mouth of the

stove. The reflection of this scarlet circle was hideously noticeable

in his pupils.

"A man's a right to kill his woman if she ain't honest with him," so

the story began; "if he finds out she's ben trickin' of him, playin'

him off fer another man. That was yer mother, gel; she was a bad

woman." There followed a coarse and vivid description of her badness

and the manner of it. "That kinder thing no man can let pass by in his

wife. I found her"--again the rude details of his discovery--"an' I

found him, an' I let him go fer the white-livered coward he was, but

her I killed. I shot her dead after she'd said her prayers an' asked

God's mercy on her soul. Then I walked off, but they kotched me an' I

was tried. They didn't swing me. Out in them parts they knowed I was

in my rights; so the boys held, but 'twas a life sentence. They tuk me

by rail down to Dawson an' I give 'em the slip, handcuffs an' all.

Perhaps 'twas only a half-hearted chase they made fer me. Some of them

fellers mebbe had wives of their own." He always stopped to laugh at

this point. "An' I cut off up country till I come to a smithy at the

edge of a town. I hung round fer a spell till the smith hed gone off

an' I got into his place an' rid me of the handcuffs. 'Twas a job, but

I wasn't kotched at it an' I made myself free." Followed the story of

his wanderings and his hardships and his coming to Lone River and

setting out his traps. "In them days there weren't no law ag'in'

trappin' beaver. A man could make a honest livin'. Now they've tuk an'

made laws ag'in' a man's bread an' butter. I ask ye, if 't ain't wrong

on a Tuesday to trap yer beaver, why, 't ain't wrong the follerin'

Tuesday. I don't see it, jes becos some fellers back there has made a

law ag'in' it to suit theirselves. Anyway, the market fer beaver hides

is still prime. Mebbe I'll leave you a fortin, gel. I've saved you

from badness, anyhow. I risked a lot to go back an' git you, but I

done it. You was playin' out in front of yer aunt's house an' I come

fer you. You was a three-year-old an' a big youngster. Says I, 'What's

yer name?' Says you, 'Joan Carver'; an' I knowed you by yer likeness

to her. By God! I swore I'd save ye. I tuk you off with me, though

you put up a fight an' I hed to use you rough to silence you. 'There

ain't a-goin' to be no man in yer life, Joan Carver,' says I; 'you an'

yer big eyes is a-goin' to be fer me, to do my work an' to look after

my comforts. No pretty boys fer you an' no husbands either to go

a-shootin' of you down fer yer sins.'" He shivered and shook his head.

"No, here you stays with yer father an' grows up a good gel. There

ain't a-goin' to be no man in yer life, Joan."

But youth was stronger than the man's half-crazy will, and when she

was seventeen, Joan ran away.

She found her way easily enough to the town, for she was wise in the

tracks of a wild country, and John's trail townwards, though so rarely

used, was to her eyes plain enough; and very coolly she walked into

the hotel, past the group of loungers around the stove, and asked at

the desk, where Mrs. Upper sat, if she could get a job. Mrs. Upper and

the loungers stared, for there were few women in this frontier country

and those few were well known. This great, strong girl, heavily

graceful in her heavily awkward clothes, bareheaded, shod like a man,

her face and throat purely classic, her eyes gray and wide and as

secret in expression as an untamed beast's--no one had ever seen the

like of her before.

"What's yer name?" asked Mrs. Upper suspiciously. It was Mormon Day in

the town; there were celebrations and her house was full; she needed

extra hands, but where this wild creature was concerned she was


"Joan. I'm John Carver's daughter," answered the girl.

At once comprehension dawned; heads were nodded, then craned for a

better look. Yes, the town, the whole country even, had heard of John

Carver's imprisoned daughter. Sober and drunk, he had boasted of her

and of how there was to be "no man" in her life. It was like dangling

ripe fruit above the mouths of hungry boys to make such a boast in such

a land. But they were lazy. It was a country of lazy, slow-thinking,

slow-moving, and slow-talking adventurers--you will notice this

ponderous, inevitable quality of rolling stones--and though men talked

with humor not too fine of "travelin' up Lone River for John's gel,"

not a man had got there. Perhaps the men knew John Carver for a coward,

that most dangerous animal to meet in his own lair.

Now here stood the "gel," the mysterious secret goal of desire, a

splendid creature, virginal, savage, as certainly designed for man as

Eve. The men's eyes fastened upon her, moved and dropped.

"Your father sent you down here fer a job?" asked Mrs. Upper


"No. I come." Joan's grave gaze was unchanging. "I'm tired of it up

there. I ain't a-goin' back. I'm most eighteen now an' I kinder want a


She had not meant to be funny, but a gust of laughter rattled the

room. She shrank back. It was more terrifying to her than any cruelty

she had fancied meeting her in the town. These were the men her father

had forbidden, these loud-laughing, crinkled faces. She had turned to

brave them, a great surge of color in her brows.

"Don't mind the boys, dear," spoke Mrs. Upper. "They will laff, joke

or none. We ain't none of us blamin' you. It's a wonder you ain't run

off long afore now. I can give you a job an' welcome, but you'll be

green an' unhandy. Well, sir, we kin learn ye. You kin turn yer hand

to chamber-work an' mebbe help at the table. Maud will show you. But,

Joan, what will dad do to you? He'll be takin' after you hot-foot, I

reckon, an' be fer gettin' you back home as soon as he can."

Joan did not change her look.

"I'll not be goin' back with him," she said.

Her slow, deep voice, chest notes of a musical vibration, stirred the

room. The men were hers and gruffly said so. A sudden warmth enveloped

her from heart to foot. She followed Mrs. Upper to the initiation in

her service, clothed for the first time in human sympathies.