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Title: Ethan Frome
Author: Wharton, Edith
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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ETHAN FROME


By Edith Wharton



ETHAN FROME



I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally
happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post-office. If you
know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop
the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick
pavement to the white colonnade; and you must have asked who he was.

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and
the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure
in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much
his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled
out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the
careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step
like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable
in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an
old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.
I had this from Harmon Gow, who had driven the stage from Bettsbridge
to Starkfield in pre-trolley days and knew the chronicle of all the
families on his line.

“He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that’s
twenty-four years ago come next February,” Harmon threw out between
reminiscent pauses.

The “smash-up” it was--I gathered from the same informant--which, besides
drawing the red gash across Ethan Frome’s forehead, had so shortened and
warped his right side that it cost him a visible effort to take the few
steps from his buggy to the post-office window. He used to drive in
from his farm every day at about noon, and as that was my own hour for
fetching my mail I often passed him in the porch or stood beside him
while we waited on the motions of the distributing hand behind the
grating. I noticed that, though he came so punctually, he seldom
received anything but a copy of the Bettsbridge Eagle, which he put
without a glance into his sagging pocket. At intervals, however, the
post-master would hand him an envelope addressed to Mrs. Zenobia--or Mrs.
Zeena--Frome, and usually bearing conspicuously in the upper left-hand
corner the address of some manufacturer of patent medicine and the name
of his specific. These documents my neighbour would also pocket without
a glance, as if too much used to them to wonder at their number and
variety, and would then turn away with a silent nod to the post-master.

Every one in Starkfield knew him and gave him a greeting tempered to
his own grave mien; but his taciturnity was respected and it was only on
rare occasions that one of the older men of the place detained him for
a word. When this happened he would listen quietly, his blue eyes on the
speaker’s face, and answer in so low a tone that his words never reached
me; then he would climb stiffly into his buggy, gather up the reins in
his left hand and drive slowly away in the direction of his farm.

“It was a pretty bad smash-up?” I questioned Harmon, looking after
Frome’s retreating figure, and thinking how gallantly his lean brown
head, with its shock of light hair, must have sat on his strong
shoulders before they were bent out of shape.

“Wust kind,” my informant assented. “More’n enough to kill most men. But
the Fromes are tough. Ethan’ll likely touch a hundred.”

“Good God!” I exclaimed. At the moment Ethan Frome, after climbing to
his seat, had leaned over to assure himself of the security of a wooden
box--also with a druggist’s label on it--which he had placed in the back
of the buggy, and I saw his face as it probably looked when he thought
himself alone. “That man touch a hundred? He looks as if he was dead and
in hell now!”

Harmon drew a slab of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a wedge and
pressed it into the leather pouch of his cheek. “Guess he’s been in
Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There warn’t ever anybody
but Ethan. Fust his father--then his mother--then his wife.”

“And then the smash-up?”

Harmon chuckled sardonically. “That’s so. He had to stay then.”

“I see. And since then they’ve had to care for him?”

Harmon thoughtfully passed his tobacco to the other cheek. “Oh, as to
that: I guess it’s always Ethan done the caring.”

Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral
reach permitted there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had
the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps. But
one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about which I
grouped my subsequent inferences: “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too
many winters.”

Before my own time there was up I had learned to know what that meant.
Yet I had come in the degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and rural
delivery, when communication was easy between the scattered mountain
villages, and the bigger towns in the valleys, such as Bettsbridge and
Shadd’s Falls, had libraries, theatres and Y. M. C. A. halls to which
the youth of the hills could descend for recreation. But when winter
shut down on Starkfield and the village lay under a sheet of snow
perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life
there--or rather its negation--must have been in Ethan Frome’s young
manhood.

I had been sent up by my employers on a job connected with the big
power-house at Corbury Junction, and a long-drawn carpenters’ strike
had so delayed the work that I found myself anchored at Starkfield--the
nearest habitable spot--for the best part of the winter. I chafed at
first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of routine, gradually
began to find a grim satisfaction in the life. During the early part of
my stay I had been struck by the contrast between the vitality of
the climate and the deadness of the community. Day by day, after the
December snows were over, a blazing blue sky poured down torrents
of light and air on the white landscape, which gave them back in an
intenser glitter. One would have supposed that such an atmosphere must
quicken the emotions as well as the blood; but it seemed to produce
no change except that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of
Starkfield. When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this
phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold;
when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the
devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to
their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its
six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.
Twenty years earlier the means of resistance must have been far fewer,
and the enemy in command of almost all the lines of access between the
beleaguered villages; and, considering these things, I felt the sinister
force of Harmon’s phrase: “Most of the smart ones get away.” But if that
were the case, how could any combination of obstacles have hindered the
flight of a man like Ethan Frome?

During my stay at Starkfield I lodged with a middle-aged widow
colloquially known as Mrs. Ned Hale. Mrs. Hale’s father had been the
village lawyer of the previous generation, and “lawyer Varnum’s house,”
 where my landlady still lived with her mother, was the most considerable
mansion in the village. It stood at one end of the main street, its
classic portico and small-paned windows looking down a flagged path
between Norway spruces to the slim white steeple of the Congregational
church. It was clear that the Varnum fortunes were at the ebb, but the
two women did what they could to preserve a decent dignity; and Mrs.
Hale, in particular, had a certain wan refinement not out of keeping
with her pale old-fashioned house.

In the “best parlour,” with its black horse-hair and mahogany weakly
illuminated by a gurgling Carcel lamp, I listened every evening to
another and more delicately shaded version of the Starkfield chronicle.
It was not that Mrs. Ned Hale felt, or affected, any social superiority
to the people about her; it was only that the accident of a finer
sensibility and a little more education had put just enough distance
between herself and her neighbours to enable her to judge them with
detachment. She was not unwilling to exercise this faculty, and I had
great hopes of getting from her the missing facts of Ethan Frome’s
story, or rather such a key to his character as should co-ordinate the
facts I knew. Her mind was a store-house of innocuous anecdote and any
question about her acquaintances brought forth a volume of detail; but
on the subject of Ethan Frome I found her unexpectedly reticent. There
was no hint of disapproval in her reserve; I merely felt in her an
insurmountable reluctance to speak of him or his affairs, a low “Yes, I
knew them both... it was awful...” seeming to be the utmost concession
that her distress could make to my curiosity.

So marked was the change in her manner, such depths of sad initiation
did it imply, that, with some doubts as to my delicacy, I put the case
anew to my village oracle, Harmon Gow; but got for my pains only an
uncomprehending grunt.

“Ruth Varnum was always as nervous as a rat; and, come to think of it,
she was the first one to see ‘em after they was picked up. It happened
right below lawyer Varnum’s, down at the bend of the Corbury road, just
round about the time that Ruth got engaged to Ned Hale. The young folks
was all friends, and I guess she just can’t bear to talk about it. She’s
had troubles enough of her own.”

All the dwellers in Starkfield, as in more notable communities, had had
troubles enough of their own to make them comparatively indifferent to
those of their neighbours; and though all conceded that Ethan Frome’s
had been beyond the common measure, no one gave me an explanation of the
look in his face which, as I persisted in thinking, neither poverty
nor physical suffering could have put there. Nevertheless, I might have
contented myself with the story pieced together from these hints had
it not been for the provocation of Mrs. Hale’s silence, and--a little
later--for the accident of personal contact with the man.

On my arrival at Starkfield, Denis Eady, the rich Irish grocer, who was
the proprietor of Starkfield’s nearest approach to a livery stable, had
entered into an agreement to send me over daily to Corbury Flats, where
I had to pick up my train for the Junction. But about the middle of the
winter Eady’s horses fell ill of a local epidemic. The illness spread
to the other Starkfield stables and for a day or two I was put to it to
find a means of transport. Then Harmon Gow suggested that Ethan Frome’s
bay was still on his legs and that his owner might be glad to drive me
over.

I stared at the suggestion. “Ethan Frome? But I’ve never even spoken to
him. Why on earth should he put himself out for me?”

Harmon’s answer surprised me still more. “I don’t know as he would; but
I know he wouldn’t be sorry to earn a dollar.”

I had been told that Frome was poor, and that the saw-mill and the arid
acres of his farm yielded scarcely enough to keep his household through
the winter; but I had not supposed him to be in such want as Harmon’s
words implied, and I expressed my wonder.

“Well, matters ain’t gone any too well with him,” Harmon said. “When a
man’s been setting round like a hulk for twenty years or more, seeing
things that want doing, it eats inter him, and he loses his grit. That
Frome farm was always ‘bout as bare’s a milkpan when the cat’s been
round; and you know what one of them old water-mills is wuth nowadays.
When Ethan could sweat over ‘em both from sunup to dark he kinder choked
a living out of ‘em; but his folks ate up most everything, even then,
and I don’t see how he makes out now. Fust his father got a kick, out
haying, and went soft in the brain, and gave away money like Bible texts
afore he died. Then his mother got queer and dragged along for years as
weak as a baby; and his wife Zeena, she’s always been the greatest hand
at doctoring in the county. Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s
had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping.”

The next morning, when I looked out, I saw the hollow-backed bay between
the Varnum spruces, and Ethan Frome, throwing back his worn bearskin,
made room for me in the sleigh at his side. After that, for a week, he
drove me over every morning to Corbury Flats, and on my return in the
afternoon met me again and carried me back through the icy night to
Starkfield. The distance each way was barely three miles, but the old
bay’s pace was slow, and even with firm snow under the runners we were
nearly an hour on the way. Ethan Frome drove in silence, the reins
loosely held in his left hand, his brown seamed profile, under the
helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the
bronze image of a hero. He never turned his face to mine, or
answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such slight
pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the mute melancholy
landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm
and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing
unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of
moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that
his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic
as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the
profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.

Only once or twice was the distance between us bridged for a moment;
and the glimpses thus gained confirmed my desire to know more. Once I
happened to speak of an engineering job I had been on the previous year
in Florida, and of the contrast between the winter landscape about us
and that in which I had found myself the year before; and to my surprise
Frome said suddenly: “Yes: I was down there once, and for a good while
afterward I could call up the sight of it in winter. But now it’s all
snowed under.”

He said no more, and I had to guess the rest from the inflection of his
voice and his sharp relapse into silence.

Another day, on getting into my train at the Flats, I missed a volume
of popular science--I think it was on some recent discoveries in
bio-chemistry--which I had carried with me to read on the way. I thought
no more about it till I got into the sleigh again that evening, and saw
the book in Frome’s hand.

“I found it after you were gone,” he said.

I put the volume into my pocket and we dropped back into our usual
silence; but as we began to crawl up the long hill from Corbury Flats to
the Starkfield ridge I became aware in the dusk that he had turned his
face to mine.

“There are things in that book that I didn’t know the first word about,”
 he said.

I wondered less at his words than at the queer note of resentment in
his voice. He was evidently surprised and slightly aggrieved at his own
ignorance.

“Does that sort of thing interest you?” I asked.

“It used to.”

“There are one or two rather new things in the book: there have been
some big strides lately in that particular line of research.” I waited
a moment for an answer that did not come; then I said: “If you’d like to
look the book through I’d be glad to leave it with you.”

He hesitated, and I had the impression that he felt himself about to
yield to a stealing tide of inertia; then, “Thank you--I’ll take it,” he
answered shortly.

I hoped that this incident might set up some more direct communication
between us. Frome was so simple and straightforward that I was sure his
curiosity about the book was based on a genuine interest in its subject.
Such tastes and acquirements in a man of his condition made the contrast
more poignant between his outer situation and his inner needs, and I
hoped that the chance of giving expression to the latter might at least
unseal his lips. But something in his past history, or in his present
way of living, had apparently driven him too deeply into himself for any
casual impulse to draw him back to his kind. At our next meeting he made
no allusion to the book, and our intercourse seemed fated to remain as
negative and one-sided as if there had been no break in his reserve.

Frome had been driving me over to the Flats for about a week when one
morning I looked out of my window into a thick snow-fall. The height of
the white waves massed against the garden-fence and along the wall of
the church showed that the storm must have been going on all night,
and that the drifts were likely to be heavy in the open. I thought
it probable that my train would be delayed; but I had to be at the
power-house for an hour or two that afternoon, and I decided, if Frome
turned up, to push through to the Flats and wait there till my train
came in. I don’t know why I put it in the conditional, however, for I
never doubted that Frome would appear. He was not the kind of man to be
turned from his business by any commotion of the elements; and at
the appointed hour his sleigh glided up through the snow like a
stage-apparition behind thickening veils of gauze.

I was getting to know him too well to express either wonder or gratitude
at his keeping his appointment; but I exclaimed in surprise as I saw him
turn his horse in a direction opposite to that of the Corbury road.

“The railroad’s blocked by a freight-train that got stuck in a drift
below the Flats,” he explained, as we jogged off into the stinging
whiteness.

“But look here--where are you taking me, then?”

“Straight to the Junction, by the shortest way,” he answered, pointing
up School House Hill with his whip.

“To the Junction--in this storm? Why, it’s a good ten miles!”

“The bay’ll do it if you give him time. You said you had some business
there this afternoon. I’ll see you get there.”

He said it so quietly that I could only answer: “You’re doing me the
biggest kind of a favour.”

“That’s all right,” he rejoined.

Abreast of the schoolhouse the road forked, and we dipped down a lane
to the left, between hemlock boughs bent inward to their trunks by the
weight of the snow. I had often walked that way on Sundays, and knew
that the solitary roof showing through bare branches near the bottom of
the hill was that of Frome’s saw-mill. It looked exanimate enough, with
its idle wheel looming above the black stream dashed with yellow-white
spume, and its cluster of sheds sagging under their white load. Frome
did not even turn his head as we drove by, and still in silence we began
to mount the next slope. About a mile farther, on a road I had never
travelled, we came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over
a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow
like animals pushing out their noses to breathe. Beyond the orchard
lay a field or two, their boundaries lost under drifts; and above the
fields, huddled against the white immensities of land and sky, one of
those lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.

“That’s my place,” said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame elbow;
and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not know what to
answer. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the
house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black
wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin
wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the
wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.

“The house was bigger in my father’s time: I had to take down the ‘L,’
a while back,” Frome continued, checking with a twitch of the left rein
the bay’s evident intention of turning in through the broken-down gate.

I saw then that the unusually forlorn and stunted look of the house was
partly due to the loss of what is known in New England as the “L”:
that long deep-roofed adjunct usually built at right angles to the main
house, and connecting it, by way of storerooms and tool-house, with the
wood-shed and cow-barn. Whether because of its symbolic sense, the image
it presents of a life linked with the soil, and enclosing in itself the
chief sources of warmth and nourishment, or whether merely because
of the consolatory thought that it enables the dwellers in that harsh
climate to get to their morning’s work without facing the weather, it
is certain that the “L” rather than the house itself seems to be the
centre, the actual hearth-stone of the New England farm. Perhaps this
connection of ideas, which had often occurred to me in my rambles about
Starkfield, caused me to hear a wistful note in Frome’s words, and to
see in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body.

“We’re kinder side-tracked here now,” he added, “but there was
considerable passing before the railroad was carried through to the
Flats.” He roused the lagging bay with another twitch; then, as if the
mere sight of the house had let me too deeply into his confidence for
any farther pretence of reserve, he went on slowly: “I’ve always set
down the worst of mother’s trouble to that. When she got the rheumatism
so bad she couldn’t move around she used to sit up there and watch the
road by the hour; and one year, when they was six months mending the
Bettsbridge pike after the floods, and Harmon Gow had to bring his stage
round this way, she picked up so that she used to get down to the gate
most days to see him. But after the trains begun running nobody ever
come by here to speak of, and mother never could get it through her head
what had happened, and it preyed on her right along till she died.”

As we turned into the Corbury road the snow began to fall again, cutting
off our last glimpse of the house; and Frome’s silence fell with it,
letting down between us the old veil of reticence. This time the wind
did not cease with the return of the snow. Instead, it sprang up to
a gale which now and then, from a tattered sky, flung pale sweeps of
sunlight over a landscape chaotically tossed. But the bay was as good
as Frome’s word, and we pushed on to the Junction through the wild white
scene.

In the afternoon the storm held off, and the clearness in the west
seemed to my inexperienced eye the pledge of a fair evening. I finished
my business as quickly as possible, and we set out for Starkfield with
a good chance of getting there for supper. But at sunset the clouds
gathered again, bringing an earlier night, and the snow began to fall
straight and steadily from a sky without wind, in a soft universal
diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morning. It
seemed to be a part of the thickening darkness, to be the winter night
itself descending on us layer by layer.

The small ray of Frome’s lantern was soon lost in this smothering
medium, in which even his sense of direction, and the bay’s homing
instinct, finally ceased to serve us. Two or three times some ghostly
landmark sprang up to warn us that we were astray, and then was sucked
back into the mist; and when we finally regained our road the old horse
began to show signs of exhaustion. I felt myself to blame for having
accepted Frome’s offer, and after a short discussion I persuaded him
to let me get out of the sleigh and walk along through the snow at the
bay’s side. In this way we struggled on for another mile or two, and
at last reached a point where Frome, peering into what seemed to me
formless night, said: “That’s my gate down yonder.”

The last stretch had been the hardest part of the way. The bitter cold
and the heavy going had nearly knocked the wind out of me, and I could
feel the horse’s side ticking like a clock under my hand.

“Look here, Frome,” I began, “there’s no earthly use in your going any
farther--” but he interrupted me: “Nor you neither. There’s been about
enough of this for anybody.”

I understood that he was offering me a night’s shelter at the farm, and
without answering I turned into the gate at his side, and followed him
to the barn, where I helped him to unharness and bed down the tired
horse. When this was done he unhooked the lantern from the sleigh,
stepped out again into the night, and called to me over his shoulder:
“This way.”

Far off above us a square of light trembled through the screen of snow.
Staggering along in Frome’s wake I floundered toward it, and in the
darkness almost fell into one of the deep drifts against the front of
the house. Frome scrambled up the slippery steps of the porch, digging
a way through the snow with his heavily booted foot. Then he lifted his
lantern, found the latch, and led the way into the house. I went
after him into a low unlit passage, at the back of which a ladder-like
staircase rose into obscurity. On our right a line of light marked the
door of the room which had sent its ray across the night; and behind the
door I heard a woman’s voice droning querulously.

Frome stamped on the worn oil-cloth to shake the snow from his boots,
and set down his lantern on a kitchen chair which was the only piece of
furniture in the hall. Then he opened the door.

“Come in,” he said; and as he spoke the droning voice grew still...

It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put
together this vision of his story.



I


The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy
corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles
and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was
so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray
against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the
basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across
the endless undulations.

Young Ethan Frome walked at a quick pace along the deserted street, past
the bank and Michael Eady’s new brick store and Lawyer Varnum’s house
with the two black Norway spruces at the gate. Opposite the Varnum gate,
where the road fell away toward the Corbury valley, the church reared
its slim white steeple and narrow peristyle. As the young man walked
toward it the upper windows drew a black arcade along the side wall of
the building, but from the lower openings, on the side where the ground
sloped steeply down to the Corbury road, the light shot its long bars,
illuminating many fresh furrows in the track leading to the basement
door, and showing, under an adjoining shed, a line of sleighs with
heavily blanketed horses.

The night was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it gave
little sensation of cold. The effect produced on Frome was rather of
a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less tenuous than
ether intervened between the white earth under his feet and the metallic
dome overhead. “It’s like being in an exhausted receiver,” he
thought. Four or five years earlier he had taken a year’s course at a
technological college at Worcester, and dabbled in the laboratory with
a friendly professor of physics; and the images supplied by that
experience still cropped up, at unexpected moments, through the totally
different associations of thought in which he had since been living. His
father’s death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature
end to Ethan’s studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be
of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge
cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.

As he strode along through the snow the sense of such meanings glowed in
his brain and mingled with the bodily flush produced by his sharp tramp.
At the end of the village he paused before the darkened front of the
church. He stood there a moment, breathing quickly, and looking up and
down the street, in which not another figure moved. The pitch of
the Corbury road, below lawyer Varnum’s spruces, was the favourite
coasting-ground of Starkfield, and on clear evenings the church corner
rang till late with the shouts of the coasters; but to-night not a sled
darkened the whiteness of the long declivity. The hush of midnight lay
on the village, and all its waking life was gathered behind the church
windows, from which strains of dance-music flowed with the broad bands
of yellow light.

The young man, skirting the side of the building, went down the slope
toward the basement door. To keep out of range of the revealing rays
from within he made a circuit through the untrodden snow and gradually
approached the farther angle of the basement wall. Thence, still hugging
the shadow, he edged his way cautiously forward to the nearest window,
holding back his straight spare body and craning his neck till he got a
glimpse of the room.

Seen thus, from the pure and frosty darkness in which he stood, it
seemed to be seething in a mist of heat. The metal reflectors of the
gas-jets sent crude waves of light against the whitewashed walls, and
the iron flanks of the stove at the end of the hall looked as though
they were heaving with volcanic fires. The floor was thronged with
girls and young men. Down the side wall facing the window stood a row of
kitchen chairs from which the older women had just risen. By this time
the music had stopped, and the musicians--a fiddler, and the young lady
who played the harmonium on Sundays--were hastily refreshing themselves
at one corner of the supper-table which aligned its devastated
pie-dishes and ice-cream saucers on the platform at the end of the hall.
The guests were preparing to leave, and the tide had already set toward
the passage where coats and wraps were hung, when a young man with a
sprightly foot and a shock of black hair shot into the middle of
the floor and clapped his hands. The signal took instant effect.
The musicians hurried to their instruments, the dancers--some already
half-muffled for departure--fell into line down each side of the room,
the older spectators slipped back to their chairs, and the lively young
man, after diving about here and there in the throng, drew forth a girl
who had already wound a cherry-coloured “fascinator” about her head,
and, leading her up to the end of the floor, whirled her down its length
to the bounding tune of a Virginia reel.

Frome’s heart was beating fast. He had been straining for a glimpse
of the dark head under the cherry-coloured scarf and it vexed him that
another eye should have been quicker than his. The leader of the reel,
who looked as if he had Irish blood in his veins, danced well, and his
partner caught his fire. As she passed down the line, her light figure
swinging from hand to hand in circles of increasing swiftness, the scarf
flew off her head and stood out behind her shoulders, and Frome, at each
turn, caught sight of her laughing panting lips, the cloud of dark hair
about her forehead, and the dark eyes which seemed the only fixed points
in a maze of flying lines.

The dancers were going faster and faster, and the musicians, to keep
up with them, belaboured their instruments like jockeys lashing their
mounts on the home-stretch; yet it seemed to the young man at the window
that the reel would never end. Now and then he turned his eyes from the
girl’s face to that of her partner, which, in the exhilaration of the
dance, had taken on a look of almost impudent ownership. Denis Eady was
the son of Michael Eady, the ambitious Irish grocer, whose suppleness
and effrontery had given Starkfield its first notion of “smart” business
methods, and whose new brick store testified to the success of the
attempt. His son seemed likely to follow in his steps, and was meanwhile
applying the same arts to the conquest of the Starkfield maidenhood.
Hitherto Ethan Frome had been content to think him a mean fellow; but
now he positively invited a horse-whipping. It was strange that the
girl did not seem aware of it: that she could lift her rapt face to her
dancer’s, and drop her hands into his, without appearing to feel the
offence of his look and touch.

Frome was in the habit of walking into Starkfield to fetch home his
wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, on the rare evenings when some chance of
amusement drew her to the village. It was his wife who had suggested,
when the girl came to live with them, that such opportunities should be
put in her way. Mattie Silver came from Stamford, and when she entered
the Fromes’ household to act as her cousin Zeena’s aid it was thought
best, as she came without pay, not to let her feel too sharp a contrast
between the life she had left and the isolation of a Starkfield farm.
But for this--as Frome sardonically reflected--it would hardly have
occurred to Zeena to take any thought for the girl’s amusement.

When his wife first proposed that they should give Mattie an occasional
evening out he had inwardly demurred at having to do the extra two miles
to the village and back after his hard day on the farm; but not long
afterward he had reached the point of wishing that Starkfield might give
all its nights to revelry.

Mattie Silver had lived under his roof for a year, and from early
morning till they met at supper he had frequent chances of seeing her;
but no moments in her company were comparable to those when, her arm in
his, and her light step flying to keep time with his long stride, they
walked back through the night to the farm. He had taken to the girl from
the first day, when he had driven over to the Flats to meet her, and
she had smiled and waved to him from the train, crying out, “You must be
Ethan!” as she jumped down with her bundles, while he reflected, looking
over her slight person: “She don’t look much on housework, but she ain’t
a fretter, anyhow.” But it was not only that the coming to his house of
a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold
hearth. The girl was more than the bright serviceable creature he had
thought her. She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her
things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he
imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will.

It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most
intensely the sweetness of this communion. He had always been more
sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty. His
unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his
unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful
persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent
ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even
know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he
was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then he learned that
one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder: that at his
side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was a creature to whom
he could say: “That’s Orion down yonder; the big fellow to the right is
Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones--like bees swarming--they’re the
Pleiades...” or whom he could hold entranced before a ledge of granite
thrusting up through the fern while he unrolled the huge panorama of the
ice age, and the long dim stretches of succeeding time. The fact that
admiration for his learning mingled with Mattie’s wonder at what he
taught was not the least part of his pleasure. And there were other
sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together
with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter
hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the
intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to him
once: “It looks just as if it was painted!” it seemed to Ethan that the
art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been
found to utter his secret soul....

As he stood in the darkness outside the church these memories came back
with the poignancy of vanished things. Watching Mattie whirl down the
floor from hand to hand he wondered how he could ever have thought
that his dull talk interested her. To him, who was never gay but in her
presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference. The face she
lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw him, always
looked like a window that has caught the sunset. He even noticed two or
three gestures which, in his fatuity, he had thought she kept for him:
a way of throwing her head back when she was amused, as if to taste her
laugh before she let it out, and a trick of sinking her lids slowly when
anything charmed or moved her.

The sight made him unhappy, and his unhappiness roused his latent fears.
His wife had never shown any jealousy of Mattie, but of late she had
grumbled increasingly over the house-work and found oblique ways of
attracting attention to the girl’s inefficiency. Zeena had always been
what Starkfield called “sickly,” and Frome had to admit that, if she
were as ailing as she believed, she needed the help of a stronger arm
than the one which lay so lightly in his during the night walks to the
farm. Mattie had no natural turn for housekeeping, and her training had
done nothing to remedy the defect. She was quick to learn, but forgetful
and dreamy, and not disposed to take the matter seriously. Ethan had
an idea that if she were to marry a man she was fond of the dormant
instinct would wake, and her pies and biscuits become the pride of the
county; but domesticity in the abstract did not interest her. At first
she was so awkward that he could not help laughing at her; but she
laughed with him and that made them better friends. He did his best to
supplement her unskilled efforts, getting up earlier than usual to light
the kitchen fire, carrying in the wood overnight, and neglecting the
mill for the farm that he might help her about the house during the day.
He even crept down on Saturday nights to scrub the kitchen floor after
the women had gone to bed; and Zeena, one day, had surprised him at the
churn and had turned away silently, with one of her queer looks.

Of late there had been other signs of her disfavour, as intangible but
more disquieting. One cold winter morning, as he dressed in the dark,
his candle flickering in the draught of the ill-fitting window, he had
heard her speak from the bed behind him.

“The doctor don’t want I should be left without anybody to do for me,”
 she said in her flat whine.

He had supposed her to be asleep, and the sound of her voice had
startled him, though she was given to abrupt explosions of speech after
long intervals of secretive silence.

He turned and looked at her where she lay indistinctly outlined under
the dark calico quilt, her high-boned face taking a grayish tinge from
the whiteness of the pillow.

“Nobody to do for you?” he repeated.

“If you say you can’t afford a hired girl when Mattie goes.”

Frome turned away again, and taking up his razor stooped to catch the
reflection of his stretched cheek in the blotched looking-glass above
the wash-stand.

“Why on earth should Mattie go?”

“Well, when she gets married, I mean,” his wife’s drawl came from behind
him.

“Oh, she’d never leave us as long as you needed her,” he returned,
scraping hard at his chin.

“I wouldn’t ever have it said that I stood in the way of a poor girl
like Mattie marrying a smart fellow like Denis Eady,” Zeena answered in
a tone of plaintive self-effacement.

Ethan, glaring at his face in the glass, threw his head back to draw
the razor from ear to chin. His hand was steady, but the attitude was an
excuse for not making an immediate reply.

“And the doctor don’t want I should be left without anybody,” Zeena
continued. “He wanted I should speak to you about a girl he’s heard
about, that might come--”

Ethan laid down the razor and straightened himself with a laugh.

“Denis Eady! If that’s all, I guess there’s no such hurry to look round
for a girl.”

“Well, I’d like to talk to you about it,” said Zeena obstinately.

He was getting into his clothes in fumbling haste. “All right. But I
haven’t got the time now; I’m late as it is,” he returned, holding his
old silver turnip-watch to the candle.

Zeena, apparently accepting this as final, lay watching him in silence
while he pulled his suspenders over his shoulders and jerked his arms
into his coat; but as he went toward the door she said, suddenly and
incisively: “I guess you’re always late, now you shave every morning.”

That thrust had frightened him more than any vague insinuations about
Denis Eady. It was a fact that since Mattie Silver’s coming he had taken
to shaving every day; but his wife always seemed to be asleep when he
left her side in the winter darkness, and he had stupidly assumed that
she would not notice any change in his appearance. Once or twice in the
past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia’s way of letting things
happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in
a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and
drawn her inferences. Of late, however, there had been no room in his
thoughts for such vague apprehensions. Zeena herself, from an oppressive
reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade. All his life was lived
in the sight and sound of Mattie Silver, and he could no longer conceive
of its being otherwise. But now, as he stood outside the church, and saw
Mattie spinning down the floor with Denis Eady, a throng of disregarded
hints and menaces wove their cloud about his brain....



II


As the dancers poured out of the hall Frome, drawing back behind the
projecting storm-door, watched the segregation of the grotesquely
muffled groups, in which a moving lantern ray now and then lit up a
face flushed with food and dancing. The villagers, being afoot, were
the first to climb the slope to the main street, while the country
neighbours packed themselves more slowly into the sleighs under the
shed.

“Ain’t you riding, Mattie?” a woman’s voice called back from the throng
about the shed, and Ethan’s heart gave a jump. From where he stood he
could not see the persons coming out of the hall till they had advanced
a few steps beyond the wooden sides of the storm-door; but through its
cracks he heard a clear voice answer: “Mercy no! Not on such a night.”

She was there, then, close to him, only a thin board between. In another
moment she would step forth into the night, and his eyes, accustomed
to the obscurity, would discern her as clearly as though she stood in
daylight. A wave of shyness pulled him back into the dark angle of the
wall, and he stood there in silence instead of making his presence known
to her. It had been one of the wonders of their intercourse that from
the first, she, the quicker, finer, more expressive, instead of crushing
him by the contrast, had given him something of her own ease and
freedom; but now he felt as heavy and loutish as in his student days,
when he had tried to “jolly” the Worcester girls at a picnic.

He hung back, and she came out alone and paused within a few yards of
him. She was almost the last to leave the hall, and she stood looking
uncertainly about her as if wondering why he did not show himself.
Then a man’s figure approached, coming so close to her that under their
formless wrappings they seemed merged in one dim outline.

“Gentleman friend gone back on you? Say, Matt, that’s tough! No, I
wouldn’t be mean enough to tell the other girls. I ain’t as low-down as
that.” (How Frome hated his cheap banter!) “But look at here, ain’t it
lucky I got the old man’s cutter down there waiting for us?”

Frome heard the girl’s voice, gaily incredulous: “What on earth’s your
father’s cutter doin’ down there?”

“Why, waiting for me to take a ride. I got the roan colt too. I kinder
knew I’d want to take a ride to-night,” Eady, in his triumph, tried to
put a sentimental note into his bragging voice.

The girl seemed to waver, and Frome saw her twirl the end of her scarf
irresolutely about her fingers. Not for the world would he have made
a sign to her, though it seemed to him that his life hung on her next
gesture.

“Hold on a minute while I unhitch the colt,” Denis called to her,
springing toward the shed.

She stood perfectly still, looking after him, in an attitude of tranquil
expectancy torturing to the hidden watcher. Frome noticed that she no
longer turned her head from side to side, as though peering through the
night for another figure. She let Denis Eady lead out the horse, climb
into the cutter and fling back the bearskin to make room for her at his
side; then, with a swift motion of flight, she turned about and darted
up the slope toward the front of the church.

“Good-bye! Hope you’ll have a lovely ride!” she called back to him over
her shoulder.

Denis laughed, and gave the horse a cut that brought him quickly abreast
of her retreating figure.

“Come along! Get in quick! It’s as slippery as thunder on this turn,” he
cried, leaning over to reach out a hand to her.

She laughed back at him: “Good-night! I’m not getting in.”

By this time they had passed beyond Frome’s earshot and he could only
follow the shadowy pantomime of their silhouettes as they continued
to move along the crest of the slope above him. He saw Eady, after a
moment, jump from the cutter and go toward the girl with the reins over
one arm. The other he tried to slip through hers; but she eluded him
nimbly, and Frome’s heart, which had swung out over a black void,
trembled back to safety. A moment later he heard the jingle of departing
sleigh bells and discerned a figure advancing alone toward the empty
expanse of snow before the church.

In the black shade of the Varnum spruces he caught up with her and she
turned with a quick “Oh!”

“Think I’d forgotten you, Matt?” he asked with sheepish glee.

She answered seriously: “I thought maybe you couldn’t come back for me.”

“Couldn’t? What on earth could stop me?”

“I knew Zeena wasn’t feeling any too good to-day.”

“Oh, she’s in bed long ago.” He paused, a question struggling in him.
“Then you meant to walk home all alone?”

“Oh, I ain’t afraid!” she laughed.

They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world
glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars. He brought his
question out.

“If you thought I hadn’t come, why didn’t you ride back with Denis
Eady?”

“Why, where were you? How did you know? I never saw you!”

Her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw.
Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and ingenious. To
prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase, and brought out, in
a growl of rapture: “Come along.”

He slipped an arm through hers, as Eady had done, and fancied it was
faintly pressed against her side, but neither of them moved. It was so
dark under the spruces that he could barely see the shape of her head
beside his shoulder. He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it against
her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all night in the
blackness. She moved forward a step or two and then paused again above
the dip of the Corbury road. Its icy slope, scored by innumerable
runners, looked like a mirror scratched by travellers at an inn.

“There was a whole lot of them coasting before the moon set,” she said.

“Would you like to come in and coast with them some night?” he asked.

“Oh, would you, Ethan? It would be lovely!”

“We’ll come to-morrow if there’s a moon.”

She lingered, pressing closer to his side. “Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum
came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all
sure they were killed.” Her shiver ran down his arm. “Wouldn’t it have
been too awful? They’re so happy!”

“Oh, Ned ain’t much at steering. I guess I can take you down all right!”
 he said disdainfully.

He was aware that he was “talking big,” like Denis Eady; but his
reaction of joy had unsteadied him, and the inflection with which she
had said of the engaged couple “They’re so happy!” made the words sound
as if she had been thinking of herself and him.

“The elm is dangerous, though. It ought to be cut down,” she insisted.

“Would you be afraid of it, with me?”

“I told you I ain’t the kind to be afraid” she tossed back, almost
indifferently; and suddenly she began to walk on with a rapid step.

These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome. The
motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the
branches. The fact that he had no right to show his feelings, and thus
provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic importance
to every change in her look and tone. Now he thought she understood him,
and feared; now he was sure she did not, and despaired. To-night the
pressure of accumulated misgivings sent the scale drooping toward
despair, and her indifference was the more chilling after the flush of
joy into which she had plunged him by dismissing Denis Eady. He mounted
School House Hill at her side and walked on in silence till they
reached the lane leading to the saw-mill; then the need of some definite
assurance grew too strong for him.

“You’d have found me right off if you hadn’t gone back to have that last
reel with Denis,” he brought out awkwardly. He could not pronounce the
name without a stiffening of the muscles of his throat.

“Why, Ethan, how could I tell you were there?”

“I suppose what folks say is true,” he jerked out at her, instead of
answering.

She stopped short, and he felt, in the darkness, that her face was
lifted quickly to his. “Why, what do folks say?”

“It’s natural enough you should be leaving us” he floundered on,
following his thought.

“Is that what they say?” she mocked back at him; then, with a sudden
drop of her sweet treble: “You mean that Zeena--ain’t suited with me any
more?” she faltered.

Their arms had slipped apart and they stood motionless, each seeking to
distinguish the other’s face.

“I know I ain’t anything like as smart as I ought to be,” she went on,
while he vainly struggled for expression. “There’s lots of things a
hired girl could do that come awkward to me still--and I haven’t got much
strength in my arms. But if she’d only tell me I’d try. You know she
hardly ever says anything, and sometimes I can see she ain’t suited,
and yet I don’t know why.” She turned on him with a sudden flash of
indignation. “You’d ought to tell me, Ethan Frome--you’d ought to! Unless
you want me to go too--”

Unless he wanted her to go too! The cry was balm to his raw wound. The
iron heavens seemed to melt and rain down sweetness. Again he struggled
for the all-expressive word, and again, his arm in hers, found only a
deep “Come along.”

They walked on in silence through the blackness of the hemlock-shaded
lane, where Ethan’s sawmill gloomed through the night, and out again
into the comparative clearness of the fields. On the farther side of the
hemlock belt the open country rolled away before them grey and lonely
under the stars. Sometimes their way led them under the shade of an
overhanging bank or through the thin obscurity of a clump of leafless
trees. Here and there a farmhouse stood far back among the fields, mute
and cold as a grave-stone. The night was so still that they heard the
frozen snow crackle under their feet. The crash of a loaded branch
falling far off in the woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a
fox barked, and Mattie shrank closer to Ethan, and quickened her steps.

At length they sighted the group of larches at Ethan’s gate, and as they
drew near it the sense that the walk was over brought back his words.

“Then you don’t want to leave us, Matt?”

He had to stoop his head to catch her stifled whisper: “Where’d I go, if
I did?”

The answer sent a pang through him but the tone suffused him with joy.
He forgot what else he had meant to say and pressed her against him so
closely that he seemed to feel her warmth in his veins.

“You ain’t crying are you, Matt?”

“No, of course I’m not,” she quavered.

They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where,
enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles
through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet
company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom.
“We never got away--how should you?” seemed to be written on every
headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a
shiver: “I shall just go on living here till I join them.” But now all
desire for change had vanished, and the sight of the little enclosure
gave him a warm sense of continuance and stability.

“I guess we’ll never let you go, Matt,” he whispered, as though even the
dead, lovers once, must conspire with him to keep her; and brushing by
the graves, he thought: “We’ll always go on living here together, and
some day she’ll lie there beside me.”

He let the vision possess him as they climbed the hill to the house.
He was never so happy with her as when he abandoned himself to these
dreams. Half-way up the slope Mattie stumbled against some unseen
obstruction and clutched his sleeve to steady herself. The wave of
warmth that went through him was like the prolongation of his vision.
For the first time he stole his arm about her, and she did not resist.
They walked on as if they were floating on a summer stream.

Zeena always went to bed as soon as she had had her supper, and the
shutterless windows of the house were dark. A dead cucumber-vine dangled
from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death, and
the thought flashed through Ethan’s brain: “If it was there for Zeena--”
 Then he had a distinct sight of his wife lying in their bedroom asleep,
her mouth slightly open, her false teeth in a tumbler by the bed...

They walked around to the back of the house, between the rigid
gooseberry bushes. It was Zeena’s habit, when they came back late from
the village, to leave the key of the kitchen door under the mat. Ethan
stood before the door, his head heavy with dreams, his arm still about
Mattie. “Matt--” he began, not knowing what he meant to say.

She slipped out of his hold without speaking, and he stooped down and
felt for the key.

“It’s not there!” he said, straightening himself with a start.

They strained their eyes at each other through the icy darkness. Such a
thing had never happened before.

“Maybe she’s forgotten it,” Mattie said in a tremulous whisper; but both
of them knew that it was not like Zeena to forget.

“It might have fallen off into the snow,” Mattie continued, after a
pause during which they had stood intently listening.

“It must have been pushed off, then,” he rejoined in the same tone.
Another wild thought tore through him. What if tramps had been
there--what if...

Again he listened, fancying he heard a distant sound in the house; then
he felt in his pocket for a match, and kneeling down, passed its light
slowly over the rough edges of snow about the doorstep.

He was still kneeling when his eyes, on a level with the lower panel of
the door, caught a faint ray beneath it. Who could be stirring in that
silent house? He heard a step on the stairs, and again for an instant
the thought of tramps tore through him. Then the door opened and he saw
his wife.

Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and
angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast,
while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew
out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the
hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and
prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins. To
Ethan, still in the rosy haze of his hour with Mattie, the sight came
with the intense precision of the last dream before waking. He felt as
if he had never before known what his wife looked like.

She drew aside without speaking, and Mattie and Ethan passed into the
kitchen, which had the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the
night.

“Guess you forgot about us, Zeena,” Ethan joked, stamping the snow from
his boots.

“No. I just felt so mean I couldn’t sleep.”

Mattie came forward, unwinding her wraps, the colour of the cherry scarf
in her fresh lips and cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Zeena! Isn’t there anything
I can do?”

“No; there’s nothing.” Zeena turned away from her. “You might ‘a’ shook
off that snow outside,” she said to her husband.

She walked out of the kitchen ahead of them and pausing in the hall
raised the lamp at arm’s-length, as if to light them up the stairs.

Ethan paused also, affecting to fumble for the peg on which he hung his
coat and cap. The doors of the two bedrooms faced each other across the
narrow upper landing, and to-night it was peculiarly repugnant to him
that Mattie should see him follow Zeena.

“I guess I won’t come up yet awhile,” he said, turning as if to go back
to the kitchen.

Zeena stopped short and looked at him. “For the land’s sake--what you
going to do down here?”

“I’ve got the mill accounts to go over.”

She continued to stare at him, the flame of the unshaded lamp bringing
out with microscopic cruelty the fretful lines of her face.

“At this time o’ night? You’ll ketch your death. The fire’s out long
ago.”

Without answering he moved away toward the kitchen. As he did so his
glance crossed Mattie’s and he fancied that a fugitive warning gleamed
through her lashes. The next moment they sank to her flushed cheeks and
she began to mount the stairs ahead of Zeena.

“That’s so. It is powerful cold down here,” Ethan assented; and with
lowered head he went up in his wife’s wake, and followed her across the
threshold of their room.



III


There was some hauling to be done at the lower end of the wood-lot, and
Ethan was out early the next day.

The winter morning was as clear as crystal. The sunrise burned red in a
pure sky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly blue, and
beyond the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung
like smoke.

It was in the early morning stillness, when his muscles were swinging
to their familiar task and his lungs expanding with long draughts of
mountain air, that Ethan did his clearest thinking. He and Zeena had not
exchanged a word after the door of their room had closed on them. She
had measured out some drops from a medicine-bottle on a chair by the bed
and, after swallowing them, and wrapping her head in a piece of yellow
flannel, had lain down with her face turned away. Ethan undressed
hurriedly and blew out the light so that he should not see her when he
took his place at her side. As he lay there he could hear Mattie moving
about in her room, and her candle, sending its small ray across the
landing, drew a scarcely perceptible line of light under his door. He
kept his eyes fixed on the light till it vanished. Then the room grew
perfectly black, and not a sound was audible but Zeena’s asthmatic
breathing. Ethan felt confusedly that there were many things he ought
to think about, but through his tingling veins and tired brain only one
sensation throbbed: the warmth of Mattie’s shoulder against his. Why had
he not kissed her when he held her there? A few hours earlier he would
not have asked himself the question. Even a few minutes earlier, when
they had stood alone outside the house, he would not have dared to think
of kissing her. But since he had seen her lips in the lamplight he felt
that they were his.

Now, in the bright morning air, her face was still before him. It was
part of the sun’s red and of the pure glitter on the snow. How the
girl had changed since she had come to Starkfield! He remembered what a
colourless slip of a thing she had looked the day he had met her at the
station. And all the first winter, how she had shivered with cold when
the northerly gales shook the thin clapboards and the snow beat like
hail against the loose-hung windows!

He had been afraid that she would hate the hard life, the cold and
loneliness; but not a sign of discontent escaped her. Zeena took the
view that Mattie was bound to make the best of Starkfield since she
hadn’t any other place to go to; but this did not strike Ethan as
conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle in her own
case.

He felt all the more sorry for the girl because misfortune had, in
a sense, indentured her to them. Mattie Silver was the daughter of
a cousin of Zenobia Frome’s, who had inflamed his clan with mingled
sentiments of envy and admiration by descending from the hills to
Connecticut, where he had married a Stamford girl and succeeded to
her father’s thriving “drug” business. Unhappily Orin Silver, a man of
far-reaching aims, had died too soon to prove that the end justifies the
means. His accounts revealed merely what the means had been; and these
were such that it was fortunate for his wife and daughter that his books
were examined only after his impressive funeral. His wife died of the
disclosure, and Mattie, at twenty, was left alone to make her way on the
fifty dollars obtained from the sale of her piano. For this purpose her
equipment, though varied, was inadequate. She could trim a hat, make
molasses candy, recite “Curfew shall not ring to-night,” and play “The
Lost Chord” and a pot-pourri from “Carmen.” When she tried to extend the
field of her activities in the direction of stenography and book-keeping
her health broke down, and six months on her feet behind the counter of
a department store did not tend to restore it. Her nearest relations had
been induced to place their savings in her father’s hands, and though,
after his death, they ungrudgingly acquitted themselves of the Christian
duty of returning good for evil by giving his daughter all the advice
at their disposal, they could hardly be expected to supplement it by
material aid. But when Zenobia’s doctor recommended her looking about
for some one to help her with the house-work the clan instantly saw the
chance of exacting a compensation from Mattie. Zenobia, though doubtful
of the girl’s efficiency, was tempted by the freedom to find fault
without much risk of losing her; and so Mattie came to Starkfield.

Zenobia’s fault-finding was of the silent kind, but not the less
penetrating for that. During the first months Ethan alternately burned
with the desire to see Mattie defy her and trembled with fear of the
result. Then the situation grew less strained. The pure air, and the
long summer hours in the open, gave back life and elasticity to Mattie,
and Zeena, with more leisure to devote to her complex ailments, grew
less watchful of the girl’s omissions; so that Ethan, struggling on
under the burden of his barren farm and failing saw-mill, could at least
imagine that peace reigned in his house.

There was really, even now, no tangible evidence to the contrary; but
since the previous night a vague dread had hung on his sky-line. It was
formed of Zeena’s obstinate silence, of Mattie’s sudden look of warning,
of the memory of just such fleeting imperceptible signs as those which
told him, on certain stainless mornings, that before night there would
be rain.

His dread was so strong that, man-like, he sought to postpone certainty.
The hauling was not over till mid-day, and as the lumber was to be
delivered to Andrew Hale, the Starkfield builder, it was really easier
for Ethan to send Jotham Powell, the hired man, back to the farm on
foot, and drive the load down to the village himself. He had scrambled
up on the logs, and was sitting astride of them, close over his shaggy
grays, when, coming between him and their streaming necks, he had a
vision of the warning look that Mattie had given him the night before.

“If there’s going to be any trouble I want to be there,” was his vague
reflection, as he threw to Jotham the unexpected order to unhitch the
team and lead them back to the barn.

It was a slow trudge home through the heavy fields, and when the two
men entered the kitchen Mattie was lifting the coffee from the stove and
Zeena was already at the table. Her husband stopped short at sight of
her. Instead of her usual calico wrapper and knitted shawl she wore her
best dress of brown merino, and above her thin strands of hair, which
still preserved the tight undulations of the crimping-pins, rose a hard
perpendicular bonnet, as to which Ethan’s clearest notion was that he
had to pay five dollars for it at the Bettsbridge Emporium. On the floor
beside her stood his old valise and a bandbox wrapped in newspapers.

“Why, where are you going, Zeena?” he exclaimed.

“I’ve got my shooting pains so bad that I’m going over to Bettsbridge
to spend the night with Aunt Martha Pierce and see that new doctor,” she
answered in a matter-of-fact tone, as if she had said she was going into
the store-room to take a look at the preserves, or up to the attic to go
over the blankets.

In spite of her sedentary habits such abrupt decisions were not without
precedent in Zeena’s history. Twice or thrice before she had suddenly
packed Ethan’s valise and started off to Bettsbridge, or even
Springfield, to seek the advice of some new doctor, and her husband had
grown to dread these expeditions because of their cost. Zeena always
came back laden with expensive remedies, and her last visit to
Springfield had been commemorated by her paying twenty dollars for an
electric battery of which she had never been able to learn the use. But
for the moment his sense of relief was so great as to preclude all other
feelings. He had now no doubt that Zeena had spoken the truth in saying,
the night before, that she had sat up because she felt “too mean” to
sleep: her abrupt resolve to seek medical advice showed that, as usual,
she was wholly absorbed in her health.

As if expecting a protest, she continued plaintively; “If you’re too
busy with the hauling I presume you can let Jotham Powell drive me over
with the sorrel in time to ketch the train at the Flats.”

Her husband hardly heard what she was saying. During the winter months
there was no stage between Starkfield and Bettsbridge, and the trains
which stopped at Corbury Flats were slow and infrequent. A rapid
calculation showed Ethan that Zeena could not be back at the farm before
the following evening....

“If I’d supposed you’d ‘a’ made any objection to Jotham Powell’s driving
me over--” she began again, as though his silence had implied refusal. On
the brink of departure she was always seized with a flux of words. “All
I know is,” she continued, “I can’t go on the way I am much longer.
The pains are clear away down to my ankles now, or I’d ‘a’ walked in to
Starkfield on my own feet, sooner’n put you out, and asked Michael Eady
to let me ride over on his wagon to the Flats, when he sends to meet the
train that brings his groceries. I’d ‘a’ had two hours to wait in the
station, but I’d sooner ‘a’ done it, even with this cold, than to have
you say--”

“Of course Jotham’ll drive you over,” Ethan roused himself to answer.
He became suddenly conscious that he was looking at Mattie while Zeena
talked to him, and with an effort he turned his eyes to his wife. She
sat opposite the window, and the pale light reflected from the banks of
snow made her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless, sharpened
the three parallel creases between ear and cheek, and drew querulous
lines from her thin nose to the corners of her mouth. Though she was but
seven years her husband’s senior, and he was only twenty-eight, she was
already an old woman.

Ethan tried to say something befitting the occasion, but there was only
one thought in his mind: the fact that, for the first time since
Mattie had come to live with them, Zeena was to be away for a night. He
wondered if the girl were thinking of it too....

He knew that Zeena must be wondering why he did not offer to drive her
to the Flats and let Jotham Powell take the lumber to Starkfield, and
at first he could not think of a pretext for not doing so; then he said:
“I’d take you over myself, only I’ve got to collect the cash for the
lumber.”

As soon as the words were spoken he regretted them, not only because
they were untrue--there being no prospect of his receiving cash payment
from Hale--but also because he knew from experience the imprudence of
letting Zeena think he was in funds on the eve of one of her therapeutic
excursions. At the moment, however, his one desire was to avoid the long
drive with her behind the ancient sorrel who never went out of a walk.

Zeena made no reply: she did not seem to hear what he had said. She had
already pushed her plate aside, and was measuring out a draught from a
large bottle at her elbow.

“It ain’t done me a speck of good, but I guess I might as well use it
up,” she remarked; adding, as she pushed the empty bottle toward Mattie:
“If you can get the taste out it’ll do for pickles.”



IV


As soon as his wife had driven off Ethan took his coat and cap from the
peg. Mattie was washing up the dishes, humming one of the dance tunes
of the night before. He said “So long, Matt,” and she answered gaily “So
long, Ethan”; and that was all.

It was warm and bright in the kitchen. The sun slanted through the south
window on the girl’s moving figure, on the cat dozing in a chair, and on
the geraniums brought in from the door-way, where Ethan had planted
them in the summer to “make a garden” for Mattie. He would have liked to
linger on, watching her tidy up and then settle down to her sewing; but
he wanted still more to get the hauling done and be back at the farm
before night.

All the way down to the village he continued to think of his return to
Mattie. The kitchen was a poor place, not “spruce” and shining as his
mother had kept it in his boyhood; but it was surprising what a homelike
look the mere fact of Zeena’s absence gave it. And he pictured what it
would be like that evening, when he and Mattie were there after supper.
For the first time they would be alone together indoors, and they would
sit there, one on each side of the stove, like a married couple, he in
his stocking feet and smoking his pipe, she laughing and talking in that
funny way she had, which was always as new to him as if he had never
heard her before.

The sweetness of the picture, and the relief of knowing that his fears
of “trouble” with Zeena were unfounded, sent up his spirits with a rush,
and he, who was usually so silent, whistled and sang aloud as he
drove through the snowy fields. There was in him a slumbering spark of
sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished.
By nature grave and inarticulate, he admired recklessness and gaiety in
others and was warmed to the marrow by friendly human intercourse. At
Worcester, though he had the name of keeping to himself and not being
much of a hand at a good time, he had secretly gloried in being clapped
on the back and hailed as “Old Ethe” or “Old Stiff”; and the cessation
of such familiarities had increased the chill of his return to
Starkfield.

There the silence had deepened about him year by year. Left alone, after
his father’s accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had
no time for convivial loiterings in the village; and when his mother
fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that
of the fields. His mother had been a talker in her day, but after her
“trouble” the sound of her voice was seldom heard, though she had not
lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when
in desperation her son asked her why she didn’t “say something,” she
would lift a finger and answer: “Because I’m listening”; and on stormy
nights, when the loud wind was about the house, she would complain, if
he spoke to her: “They’re talking so out there that I can’t hear you.”

It was only when she drew toward her last illness, and his cousin
Zenobia Pierce came over from the next valley to help him nurse her,
that human speech was heard again in the house. After the mortal silence
of his long imprisonment Zeena’s volubility was music in his ears. He
felt that he might have “gone like his mother” if the sound of a new
voice had not come to steady him. Zeena seemed to understand his case
at a glance. She laughed at him for not knowing the simplest sick-bed
duties and told him to “go right along out” and leave her to see to
things. The mere fact of obeying her orders, of feeling free to go about
his business again and talk with other men, restored his shaken balance
and magnified his sense of what he owed her. Her efficiency shamed and
dazzled him. She seemed to possess by instinct all the household wisdom
that his long apprenticeship had not instilled in him. When the end came
it was she who had to tell him to hitch up and go for the undertaker,
and she thought it “funny” that he had not settled beforehand who was
to have his mother’s clothes and the sewing-machine. After the funeral,
when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning
dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was
doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought
since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring
instead of winter...

When they married it was agreed that, as soon as he could straighten out
the difficulties resulting from Mrs. Frome’s long illness, they would
sell the farm and saw-mill and try their luck in a large town. Ethan’s
love of nature did not take the form of a taste for agriculture. He had
always wanted to be an engineer, and to live in towns, where there
were lectures and big libraries and “fellows doing things.” A slight
engineering job in Florida, put in his way during his period of study at
Worcester, increased his faith in his ability as well as his eagerness
to see the world; and he felt sure that, with a “smart” wife like Zeena,
it would not be long before he had made himself a place in it.

Zeena’s native village was slightly larger and nearer to the railway
than Starkfield, and she had let her husband see from the first that
life on an isolated farm was not what she had expected when she married.
But purchasers were slow in coming, and while he waited for them Ethan
learned the impossibility of transplanting her. She chose to look down
on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked
down on her. Even Bettsbridge or Shadd’s Falls would not have been
sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities which attracted
Ethan she would have suffered a complete loss of identity. And within
a year of their marriage she developed the “sickliness” which had since
made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances.
When she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like
the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had
been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.

Then she too fell silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of life
on the farm, or perhaps, as she sometimes said, it was because Ethan
“never listened.” The charge was not wholly unfounded. When she spoke
it was only to complain, and to complain of things not in his power to
remedy; and to check a tendency to impatient retort he had first formed
the habit of not answering her, and finally of thinking of other things
while she talked. Of late, however, since he had reasons for observing
her more closely, her silence had begun to trouble him. He recalled his
mother’s growing taciturnity, and wondered if Zeena were also turning
“queer.” Women did, he knew. Zeena, who had at her fingers’ ends the
pathological chart of the whole region, had cited many cases of the kind
while she was nursing his mother; and he himself knew of certain lonely
farm-houses in the neighbourhood where stricken creatures pined, and
of others where sudden tragedy had come of their presence. At times,
looking at Zeena’s shut face, he felt the chill of such forebodings.
At other times her silence seemed deliberately assumed to conceal
far-reaching intentions, mysterious conclusions drawn from suspicions
and resentments impossible to guess. That supposition was even more
disturbing than the other; and it was the one which had come to him the
night before, when he had seen her standing in the kitchen door.

Now her departure for Bettsbridge had once more eased his mind, and all
his thoughts were on the prospect of his evening with Mattie. Only one
thing weighed on him, and that was his having told Zeena that he was to
receive cash for the lumber. He foresaw so clearly the consequences
of this imprudence that with considerable reluctance he decided to ask
Andrew Hale for a small advance on his load.

When Ethan drove into Hale’s yard the builder was just getting out of
his sleigh.

“Hello, Ethe!” he said. “This comes handy.”

Andrew Hale was a ruddy man with a big gray moustache and a stubbly
double-chin unconstrained by a collar; but his scrupulously clean shirt
was always fastened by a small diamond stud. This display of opulence
was misleading, for though he did a fairly good business it was known
that his easygoing habits and the demands of his large family frequently
kept him what Starkfield called “behind.” He was an old friend of
Ethan’s family, and his house one of the few to which Zeena occasionally
went, drawn there by the fact that Mrs. Hale, in her youth, had done
more “doctoring” than any other woman in Starkfield, and was still a
recognised authority on symptoms and treatment.

Hale went up to the grays and patted their sweating flanks.

“Well, sir,” he said, “you keep them two as if they was pets.”

Ethan set about unloading the logs and when he had finished his job he
pushed open the glazed door of the shed which the builder used as his
office. Hale sat with his feet up on the stove, his back propped against
a battered desk strewn with papers: the place, like the man, was warm,
genial and untidy.

“Sit right down and thaw out,” he greeted Ethan.

The latter did not know how to begin, but at length he managed to bring
out his request for an advance of fifty dollars. The blood rushed to his
thin skin under the sting of Hale’s astonishment. It was the builder’s
custom to pay at the end of three months, and there was no precedent
between the two men for a cash settlement.

Ethan felt that if he had pleaded an urgent need Hale might have made
shift to pay him; but pride, and an instinctive prudence, kept him from
resorting to this argument. After his father’s death it had taken time
to get his head above water, and he did not want Andrew Hale, or any one
else in Starkfield, to think he was going under again. Besides, he hated
lying; if he wanted the money he wanted it, and it was nobody’s business
to ask why. He therefore made his demand with the awkwardness of a proud
man who will not admit to himself that he is stooping; and he was not
much surprised at Hale’s refusal.

The builder refused genially, as he did everything else: he treated the
matter as something in the nature of a practical joke, and wanted to
know if Ethan meditated buying a grand piano or adding a “cupolo” to his
house; offering, in the latter case, to give his services free of cost.

Ethan’s arts were soon exhausted, and after an embarrassed pause he
wished Hale good day and opened the door of the office. As he passed out
the builder suddenly called after him: “See here--you ain’t in a tight
place, are you?”

“Not a bit,” Ethan’s pride retorted before his reason had time to
intervene.

“Well, that’s good! Because I am, a shade. Fact is, I was going to ask
you to give me a little extra time on that payment. Business is pretty
slack, to begin with, and then I’m fixing up a little house for Ned and
Ruth when they’re married. I’m glad to do it for ‘em, but it costs.” His
look appealed to Ethan for sympathy. “The young people like things nice.
You know how it is yourself: it’s not so long ago since you fixed up
your own place for Zeena.”

Ethan left the grays in Hale’s stable and went about some other business
in the village. As he walked away the builder’s last phrase lingered in
his ears, and he reflected grimly that his seven years with Zeena seemed
to Starkfield “not so long.”

The afternoon was drawing to an end, and here and there a lighted pane
spangled the cold gray dusk and made the snow look whiter. The bitter
weather had driven every one indoors and Ethan had the long rural street
to himself. Suddenly he heard the brisk play of sleigh-bells and a
cutter passed him, drawn by a free-going horse. Ethan recognised Michael
Eady’s roan colt, and young Denis Eady, in a handsome new fur cap,
leaned forward and waved a greeting. “Hello, Ethe!” he shouted and spun
on.

The cutter was going in the direction of the Frome farm, and Ethan’s
heart contracted as he listened to the dwindling bells. What more likely
than that Denis Eady had heard of Zeena’s departure for Bettsbridge, and
was profiting by the opportunity to spend an hour with Mattie? Ethan was
ashamed of the storm of jealousy in his breast. It seemed unworthy of
the girl that his thoughts of her should be so violent.

He walked on to the church corner and entered the shade of the Varnum
spruces, where he had stood with her the night before. As he passed
into their gloom he saw an indistinct outline just ahead of him. At
his approach it melted for an instant into two separate shapes and then
conjoined again, and he heard a kiss, and a half-laughing “Oh!” provoked
by the discovery of his presence. Again the outline hastily disunited
and the Varnum gate slammed on one half while the other hurried on ahead
of him. Ethan smiled at the discomfiture he had caused. What did it
matter to Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum if they were caught kissing each
other? Everybody in Starkfield knew they were engaged. It pleased Ethan
to have surprised a pair of lovers on the spot where he and Mattie had
stood with such a thirst for each other in their hearts; but he felt a
pang at the thought that these two need not hide their happiness.

He fetched the grays from Hale’s stable and started on his long climb
back to the farm. The cold was less sharp than earlier in the day and a
thick fleecy sky threatened snow for the morrow. Here and there a star
pricked through, showing behind it a deep well of blue. In an hour
or two the moon would push over the ridge behind the farm, burn a
gold-edged rent in the clouds, and then be swallowed by them. A mournful
peace hung on the fields, as though they felt the relaxing grasp of the
cold and stretched themselves in their long winter sleep.

Ethan’s ears were alert for the jingle of sleigh-bells, but not a sound
broke the silence of the lonely road. As he drew near the farm he saw,
through the thin screen of larches at the gate, a light twinkling in
the house above him. “She’s up in her room,” he said to himself, “fixing
herself up for supper”; and he remembered Zeena’s sarcastic stare when
Mattie, on the evening of her arrival, had come down to supper with
smoothed hair and a ribbon at her neck.

He passed by the graves on the knoll and turned his head to glance at
one of the older headstones, which had interested him deeply as a boy
because it bore his name.

SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF

ETHAN FROME AND ENDURANCE HIS WIFE,

WHO DWELLED TOGETHER IN PEACE

FOR FIFTY YEARS.

He used to think that fifty years sounded like a long time to live
together; but now it seemed to him that they might pass in a flash.
Then, with a sudden dart of irony, he wondered if, when their turn came,
the same epitaph would be written over him and Zeena.

He opened the barn-door and craned his head into the obscurity,
half-fearing to discover Denis Eady’s roan colt in the stall beside
the sorrel. But the old horse was there alone, mumbling his crib with
toothless jaws, and Ethan whistled cheerfully while he bedded down the
grays and shook an extra measure of oats into their mangers. His was not
a tuneful throat--but harsh melodies burst from it as he locked the barn
and sprang up the hill to the house. He reached the kitchen-porch and
turned the door-handle; but the door did not yield to his touch.

Startled at finding it locked he rattled the handle violently; then
he reflected that Mattie was alone and that it was natural she should
barricade herself at nightfall. He stood in the darkness expecting to
hear her step. It did not come, and after vainly straining his ears he
called out in a voice that shook with joy: “Hello, Matt!”

Silence answered; but in a minute or two he caught a sound on the stairs
and saw a line of light about the door-frame, as he had seen it the
night before. So strange was the precision with which the incidents of
the previous evening were repeating themselves that he half expected,
when he heard the key turn, to see his wife before him on the threshold;
but the door opened, and Mattie faced him.

She stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand, against
the black background of the kitchen. She held the light at the same
level, and it drew out with the same distinctness her slim young throat
and the brown wrist no bigger than a child’s. Then, striking upward, it
threw a lustrous fleck on her lips, edged her eyes with velvet shade,
and laid a milky whiteness above the black curve of her brows.

She wore her usual dress of darkish stuff, and there was no bow at her
neck; but through her hair she had run a streak of crimson ribbon. This
tribute to the unusual transformed and glorified her. She seemed to
Ethan taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and motion. She stood aside,
smiling silently, while he entered, and then moved away from him with
something soft and flowing in her gait. She set the lamp on the table,
and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh dough-nuts,
stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass.
A bright fire glowed in the stove and the cat lay stretched before it,
watching the table with a drowsy eye.

Ethan was suffocated with the sense of well-being. He went out into the
passage to hang up his coat and pull off his wet boots. When he came
back Mattie had set the teapot on the table and the cat was rubbing
itself persuasively against her ankles.

“Why, Puss! I nearly tripped over you,” she cried, the laughter
sparkling through her lashes.

Again Ethan felt a sudden twinge of jealousy. Could it be his coming
that gave her such a kindled face?

“Well, Matt, any visitors?” he threw off, stooping down carelessly to
examine the fastening of the stove.

She nodded and laughed “Yes, one,” and he felt a blackness settling on
his brows.

“Who was that?” he questioned, raising himself up to slant a glance at
her beneath his scowl.

Her eyes danced with malice. “Why, Jotham Powell. He came in after he
got back, and asked for a drop of coffee before he went down home.”

The blackness lifted and light flooded Ethan’s brain. “That all? Well,
I hope you made out to let him have it.” And after a pause he felt it
right to add: “I suppose he got Zeena over to the Flats all right?”

“Oh, yes; in plenty of time.”

The name threw a chill between them, and they stood a moment looking
sideways at each other before Mattie said with a shy laugh. “I guess
it’s about time for supper.”

They drew their seats up to the table, and the cat, unbidden, jumped
between them into Zeena’s empty chair. “Oh, Puss!” said Mattie, and they
laughed again.

Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on the brink of eloquence;
but the mention of Zeena had paralysed him. Mattie seemed to feel the
contagion of his embarrassment, and sat with downcast lids, sipping her
tea, while he feigned an insatiable appetite for dough-nuts and sweet
pickles. At last, after casting about for an effective opening, he took
a long gulp of tea, cleared his throat, and said: “Looks as if there’d
be more snow.”

She feigned great interest. “Is that so? Do you suppose it’ll interfere
with Zeena’s getting back?” She flushed red as the question escaped her,
and hastily set down the cup she was lifting.

Ethan reached over for another helping of pickles. “You never can tell,
this time of year, it drifts so bad on the Flats.” The name had benumbed
him again, and once more he felt as if Zeena were in the room between
them.

“Oh, Puss, you’re too greedy!” Mattie cried.

The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena’s seat to
the table, and was stealthily elongating its body in the direction
of the milk-jug, which stood between Ethan and Mattie. The two leaned
forward at the same moment and their hands met on the handle of the jug.
Mattie’s hand was underneath, and Ethan kept his clasped on it a
moment longer than was necessary. The cat, profiting by this unusual
demonstration, tried to effect an unnoticed retreat, and in doing so
backed into the pickle-dish, which fell to the floor with a crash.

Mattie, in an instant, had sprung from her chair and was down on her
knees by the fragments.

“Oh, Ethan, Ethan--it’s all to pieces! What will Zeena say?”

But this time his courage was up. “Well, she’ll have to say it to the
cat, any way!” he rejoined with a laugh, kneeling down at Mattie’s side
to scrape up the swimming pickles.

She lifted stricken eyes to him. “Yes, but, you see, she never meant it
should be used, not even when there was company; and I had to get up on
the step-ladder to reach it down from the top shelf of the china-closet,
where she keeps it with all her best things, and of course she’ll want
to know why I did it--”

The case was so serious that it called forth all of Ethan’s latent
resolution.

“She needn’t know anything about it if you keep quiet. I’ll get another
just like it to-morrow. Where did it come from? I’ll go to Shadd’s Falls
for it if I have to!”

“Oh, you’ll never get another even there! It was a wedding present--don’t
you remember? It came all the way from Philadelphia, from Zeena’s aunt
that married the minister. That’s why she wouldn’t ever use it. Oh,
Ethan, Ethan, what in the world shall I do?”

She began to cry, and he felt as if every one of her tears were pouring
over him like burning lead. “Don’t, Matt, don’t--oh, don’t!” he implored
her.

She struggled to her feet, and he rose and followed her helplessly while
she spread out the pieces of glass on the kitchen dresser. It seemed to
him as if the shattered fragments of their evening lay there.

“Here, give them to me,” he said in a voice of sudden authority.

She drew aside, instinctively obeying his tone. “Oh, Ethan, what are you
going to do?”

Without replying he gathered the pieces of glass into his broad palm
and walked out of the kitchen to the passage. There he lit a candle-end,
opened the china-closet, and, reaching his long arm up to the highest
shelf, laid the pieces together with such accuracy of touch that a close
inspection convinced him of the impossibility of detecting from below
that the dish was broken. If he glued it together the next morning
months might elapse before his wife noticed what had happened, and
meanwhile he might after all be able to match the dish at Shadd’s Falls
or Bettsbridge. Having satisfied himself that there was no risk of
immediate discovery he went back to the kitchen with a lighter step, and
found Mattie disconsolately removing the last scraps of pickle from the
floor.

“It’s all right, Matt. Come back and finish supper,” he commanded her.

Completely reassured, she shone on him through tear-hung lashes, and his
soul swelled with pride as he saw how his tone subdued her. She did not
even ask what he had done. Except when he was steering a big log down
the mountain to his mill he had never known such a thrilling sense of
mastery.



V


They finished supper, and while Mattie cleared the table Ethan went to
look at the cows and then took a last turn about the house. The earth
lay dark under a muffled sky and the air was so still that now and then
he heard a lump of snow come thumping down from a tree far off on the
edge of the wood-lot.

When he returned to the kitchen Mattie had pushed up his chair to the
stove and seated herself near the lamp with a bit of sewing. The scene
was just as he had dreamed of it that morning. He sat down, drew his
pipe from his pocket and stretched his feet to the glow. His hard day’s
work in the keen air made him feel at once lazy and light of mood, and
he had a confused sense of being in another world, where all was warmth
and harmony and time could bring no change. The only drawback to his
complete well-being was the fact that he could not see Mattie from where
he sat; but he was too indolent to move and after a moment he said:
“Come over here and sit by the stove.”

Zeena’s empty rocking-chair stood facing him. Mattie rose obediently,
and seated herself in it. As her young brown head detached itself
against the patch-work cushion that habitually framed his wife’s gaunt
countenance, Ethan had a momentary shock. It was almost as if the other
face, the face of the superseded woman, had obliterated that of the
intruder. After a moment Mattie seemed to be affected by the same sense
of constraint. She changed her position, leaning forward to bend her
head above her work, so that he saw only the foreshortened tip of her
nose and the streak of red in her hair; then she slipped to her feet,
saying “I can’t see to sew,” and went back to her chair by the lamp.

Ethan made a pretext of getting up to replenish the stove, and when he
returned to his seat he pushed it sideways that he might get a view of
her profile and of the lamplight falling on her hands. The cat, who
had been a puzzled observer of these unusual movements, jumped up into
Zeena’s chair, rolled itself into a ball, and lay watching them with
narrowed eyes.

Deep quiet sank on the room. The clock ticked above the dresser, a piece
of charred wood fell now and then in the stove, and the faint sharp
scent of the geraniums mingled with the odour of Ethan’s smoke, which
began to throw a blue haze about the lamp and to hang its greyish
cobwebs in the shadowy corners of the room.

All constraint had vanished between the two, and they began to talk
easily and simply. They spoke of every-day things, of the prospect
of snow, of the next church sociable, of the loves and quarrels of
Starkfield. The commonplace nature of what they said produced in Ethan
an illusion of long-established intimacy which no outburst of emotion
could have given, and he set his imagination adrift on the fiction that
they had always spent their evenings thus and would always go on doing
so...

“This is the night we were to have gone coasting, Matt,” he said at
length, with the rich sense, as he spoke, that they could go on any
other night they chose, since they had all time before them.

She smiled back at him. “I guess you forgot!”

“No, I didn’t forget; but it’s as dark as Egypt outdoors. We might go
to-morrow if there’s a moon.”

She laughed with pleasure, her head tilted back, the lamplight sparkling
on her lips and teeth. “That would be lovely, Ethan!”

He kept his eyes fixed on her, marvelling at the way her face changed
with each turn of their talk, like a wheat-field under a summer breeze.
It was intoxicating to find such magic in his clumsy words, and he
longed to try new ways of using it.

“Would you be scared to go down the Corbury road with me on a night like
this?” he asked.

Her cheeks burned redder. “I ain’t any more scared than you are!”

“Well, I’d be scared, then; I wouldn’t do it. That’s an ugly corner down
by the big elm. If a fellow didn’t keep his eyes open he’d go plumb into
it.” He luxuriated in the sense of protection and authority which his
words conveyed. To prolong and intensify the feeling he added: “I guess
we’re well enough here.”

She let her lids sink slowly, in the way he loved. “Yes, we’re well
enough here,” she sighed.

Her tone was so sweet that he took the pipe from his mouth and drew his
chair up to the table. Leaning forward, he touched the farther end of
the strip of brown stuff that she was hemming. “Say, Matt,” he began
with a smile, “what do you think I saw under the Varnum spruces, coming
along home just now? I saw a friend of yours getting kissed.”

The words had been on his tongue all the evening, but now that he had
spoken them they struck him as inexpressibly vulgar and out of place.

Mattie blushed to the roots of her hair and pulled her needle rapidly
twice or thrice through her work, insensibly drawing the end of it away
from him. “I suppose it was Ruth and Ned,” she said in a low voice, as
though he had suddenly touched on something grave.

Ethan had imagined that his allusion might open the way to the accepted
pleasantries, and these perhaps in turn to a harmless caress, if only
a mere touch on her hand. But now he felt as if her blush had set a
flaming guard about her. He supposed it was his natural awkwardness that
made him feel so. He knew that most young men made nothing at all of
giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before,
when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had
been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm
lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order,
she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable.

To ease his constraint he said: “I suppose they’ll be setting a date
before long.”

“Yes. I shouldn’t wonder if they got married some time along in the
summer.” She pronounced the word married as if her voice caressed it.
It seemed a rustling covert leading to enchanted glades. A pang shot
through Ethan, and he said, twisting away from her in his chair: “It’ll
be your turn next, I wouldn’t wonder.”

She laughed a little uncertainly. “Why do you keep on saying that?”

He echoed her laugh. “I guess I do it to get used to the idea.”

He drew up to the table again and she sewed on in silence, with dropped
lashes, while he sat in fascinated contemplation of the way in which her
hands went up and down above the strip of stuff, just as he had seen
a pair of birds make short perpendicular flights over a nest they were
building. At length, without turning her head or lifting her lids, she
said in a low tone: “It’s not because you think Zeena’s got anything
against me, is it?”

His former dread started up full-armed at the suggestion. “Why, what do
you mean?” he stammered.

She raised distressed eyes to his, her work dropping on the table
between them. “I don’t know. I thought last night she seemed to have.”

“I’d like to know what,” he growled.

“Nobody can tell with Zeena.” It was the first time they had ever spoken
so openly of her attitude toward Mattie, and the repetition of the name
seemed to carry it to the farther corners of the room and send it back
to them in long repercussions of sound. Mattie waited, as if to give the
echo time to drop, and then went on: “She hasn’t said anything to you?”

He shook his head. “No, not a word.”

She tossed the hair back from her forehead with a laugh. “I guess I’m
just nervous, then. I’m not going to think about it any more.”

“Oh, no--don’t let’s think about it, Matt!”

The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with
a rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought
stealing slowly across her heart. She sat silent, her hands clasped on
her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward
him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them.
Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his
finger-tips touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her
lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture, and that it had
sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless
on the other end of the strip.

As they sat thus he heard a sound behind him and turned his head. The
cat had jumped from Zeena’s chair to dart at a mouse in the wainscot,
and as a result of the sudden movement the empty chair had set up a
spectral rocking.

“She’ll be rocking in it herself this time to-morrow,” Ethan thought.
“I’ve been in a dream, and this is the only evening we’ll ever have
together.” The return to reality was as painful as the return to
consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. His body and brain ached with
indescribable weariness, and he could think of nothing to say or to do
that should arrest the mad flight of the moments.

His alteration of mood seemed to have communicated itself to Mattie. She
looked up at him languidly, as though her lids were weighted with sleep
and it cost her an effort to raise them. Her glance fell on his hand,
which now completely covered the end of her work and grasped it as if it
were a part of herself. He saw a scarcely perceptible tremor cross her
face, and without knowing what he did he stooped his head and kissed
the bit of stuff in his hold. As his lips rested on it he felt it glide
slowly from beneath them, and saw that Mattie had risen and was silently
rolling up her work. She fastened it with a pin, and then, finding
her thimble and scissors, put them with the roll of stuff into the
box covered with fancy paper which he had once brought to her from
Bettsbridge.

He stood up also, looking vaguely about the room. The clock above the
dresser struck eleven.

“Is the fire all right?” she asked in a low voice.

He opened the door of the stove and poked aimlessly at the embers. When
he raised himself again he saw that she was dragging toward the stove
the old soap-box lined with carpet in which the cat made its bed. Then
she recrossed the floor and lifted two of the geranium pots in her arms,
moving them away from the cold window. He followed her and brought the
other geraniums, the hyacinth bulbs in a cracked custard bowl and the
German ivy trained over an old croquet hoop.

When these nightly duties were performed there was nothing left to do
but to bring in the tin candlestick from the passage, light the candle
and blow out the lamp. Ethan put the candlestick in Mattie’s hand and
she went out of the kitchen ahead of him, the light that she carried
before her making her dark hair look like a drift of mist on the moon.

“Good night, Matt,” he said as she put her foot on the first step of the
stairs.

She turned and looked at him a moment. “Good night, Ethan,” she
answered, and went up.

When the door of her room had closed on her he remembered that he had
not even touched her hand.



VI


The next morning at breakfast Jotham Powell was between them, and Ethan
tried to hide his joy under an air of exaggerated indifference, lounging
back in his chair to throw scraps to the cat, growling at the weather,
and not so much as offering to help Mattie when she rose to clear away
the dishes.

He did not know why he was so irrationally happy, for nothing was
changed in his life or hers. He had not even touched the tip of her
fingers or looked her full in the eyes. But their evening together had
given him a vision of what life at her side might be, and he was glad
now that he had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture. He
had a fancy that she knew what had restrained him...

There was a last load of lumber to be hauled to the village, and Jotham
Powell--who did not work regularly for Ethan in winter--had “come round”
 to help with the job. But a wet snow, melting to sleet, had fallen in
the night and turned the roads to glass. There was more wet in the air
and it seemed likely to both men that the weather would “milden” toward
afternoon and make the going safer. Ethan therefore proposed to his
assistant that they should load the sledge at the wood-lot, as they had
done on the previous morning, and put off the “teaming” to Starkfield
till later in the day. This plan had the advantage of enabling him to
send Jotham to the Flats after dinner to meet Zenobia, while he himself
took the lumber down to the village.

He told Jotham to go out and harness up the greys, and for a moment he
and Mattie had the kitchen to themselves. She had plunged the breakfast
dishes into a tin dish-pan and was bending above it with her slim arms
bared to the elbow, the steam from the hot water beading her forehead
and tightening her rough hair into little brown rings like the tendrils
on the traveller’s joy.

Ethan stood looking at her, his heart in his throat. He wanted to say:
“We shall never be alone again like this.” Instead, he reached down his
tobacco-pouch from a shelf of the dresser, put it into his pocket and
said: “I guess I can make out to be home for dinner.”

She answered “All right, Ethan,” and he heard her singing over the
dishes as he went.

As soon as the sledge was loaded he meant to send Jotham back to
the farm and hurry on foot into the village to buy the glue for the
pickle-dish. With ordinary luck he should have had time to carry out
this plan; but everything went wrong from the start. On the way over
to the wood-lot one of the greys slipped on a glare of ice and cut his
knee; and when they got him up again Jotham had to go back to the barn
for a strip of rag to bind the cut. Then, when the loading finally
began, a sleety rain was coming down once more, and the tree trunks were
so slippery that it took twice as long as usual to lift them and get
them in place on the sledge. It was what Jotham called a sour morning
for work, and the horses, shivering and stamping under their wet
blankets, seemed to like it as little as the men. It was long past the
dinner-hour when the job was done, and Ethan had to give up going to the
village because he wanted to lead the injured horse home and wash the
cut himself.

He thought that by starting out again with the lumber as soon as he had
finished his dinner he might get back to the farm with the glue before
Jotham and the old sorrel had had time to fetch Zenobia from the Flats;
but he knew the chance was a slight one. It turned on the state of
the roads and on the possible lateness of the Bettsbridge train.
He remembered afterward, with a grim flash of self-derision, what
importance he had attached to the weighing of these probabilities...

As soon as dinner was over he set out again for the wood-lot, not daring
to linger till Jotham Powell left. The hired man was still drying his
wet feet at the stove, and Ethan could only give Mattie a quick look as
he said beneath his breath: “I’ll be back early.”

He fancied that she nodded her comprehension; and with that scant solace
he had to trudge off through the rain.

He had driven his load half-way to the village when Jotham Powell
overtook him, urging the reluctant sorrel toward the Flats. “I’ll have
to hurry up to do it,” Ethan mused, as the sleigh dropped down ahead
of him over the dip of the school-house hill. He worked like ten at the
unloading, and when it was over hastened on to Michael Eady’s for the
glue. Eady and his assistant were both “down street,” and young Denis,
who seldom deigned to take their place, was lounging by the stove with
a knot of the golden youth of Starkfield. They hailed Ethan with ironic
compliment and offers of conviviality; but no one knew where to find
the glue. Ethan, consumed with the longing for a last moment alone with
Mattie, hung about impatiently while Denis made an ineffectual search in
the obscurer corners of the store.

“Looks as if we were all sold out. But if you’ll wait around till the
old man comes along maybe he can put his hand on it.”

“I’m obliged to you, but I’ll try if I can get it down at Mrs. Homan’s,”
 Ethan answered, burning to be gone.

Denis’s commercial instinct compelled him to aver on oath that what
Eady’s store could not produce would never be found at the widow
Homan’s; but Ethan, heedless of this boast, had already climbed to
the sledge and was driving on to the rival establishment. Here, after
considerable search, and sympathetic questions as to what he wanted
it for, and whether ordinary flour paste wouldn’t do as well if she
couldn’t find it, the widow Homan finally hunted down her solitary
bottle of glue to its hiding-place in a medley of cough-lozenges and
corset-laces.

“I hope Zeena ain’t broken anything she sets store by,” she called after
him as he turned the greys toward home.

The fitful bursts of sleet had changed into a steady rain and the horses
had heavy work even without a load behind them. Once or twice, hearing
sleigh-bells, Ethan turned his head, fancying that Zeena and Jotham
might overtake him; but the old sorrel was not in sight, and he set his
face against the rain and urged on his ponderous pair.

The barn was empty when the horses turned into it and, after giving them
the most perfunctory ministrations they had ever received from him, he
strode up to the house and pushed open the kitchen door.

Mattie was there alone, as he had pictured her. She was bending over a
pan on the stove; but at the sound of his step she turned with a start
and sprang to him.

“See, here, Matt, I’ve got some stuff to mend the dish with! Let me get
at it quick,” he cried, waving the bottle in one hand while he put her
lightly aside; but she did not seem to hear him.

“Oh, Ethan--Zeena’s come,” she said in a whisper, clutching his sleeve.

They stood and stared at each other, pale as culprits.

“But the sorrel’s not in the barn!” Ethan stammered.

“Jotham Powell brought some goods over from the Flats for his wife, and
he drove right on home with them,” she explained.

He gazed blankly about the kitchen, which looked cold and squalid in the
rainy winter twilight.

“How is she?” he asked, dropping his voice to Mattie’s whisper.

She looked away from him uncertainly. “I don’t know. She went right up
to her room.”

“She didn’t say anything?”

“No.”

Ethan let out his doubts in a low whistle and thrust the bottle back
into his pocket. “Don’t fret; I’ll come down and mend it in the night,”
 he said. He pulled on his wet coat again and went back to the barn to
feed the greys.

While he was there Jotham Powell drove up with the sleigh, and when the
horses had been attended to Ethan said to him: “You might as well come
back up for a bite.” He was not sorry to assure himself of Jotham’s
neutralising presence at the supper table, for Zeena was always
“nervous” after a journey. But the hired man, though seldom loth to
accept a meal not included in his wages, opened his stiff jaws to answer
slowly: “I’m obliged to you, but I guess I’ll go along back.”

Ethan looked at him in surprise. “Better come up and dry off. Looks as
if there’d be something hot for supper.”

Jotham’s facial muscles were unmoved by this appeal and, his vocabulary
being limited, he merely repeated: “I guess I’ll go along back.”

To Ethan there was something vaguely ominous in this stolid rejection of
free food and warmth, and he wondered what had happened on the drive to
nerve Jotham to such stoicism. Perhaps Zeena had failed to see the new
doctor or had not liked his counsels: Ethan knew that in such cases
the first person she met was likely to be held responsible for her
grievance.

When he re-entered the kitchen the lamp lit up the same scene of shining
comfort as on the previous evening. The table had been as carefully
laid, a clear fire glowed in the stove, the cat dozed in its warmth, and
Mattie came forward carrying a plate of dough-nuts.

She and Ethan looked at each other in silence; then she said, as she had
said the night before: “I guess it’s about time for supper.”



VII


Ethan went out into the passage to hang up his wet garments. He listened
for Zeena’s step and, not hearing it, called her name up the stairs. She
did not answer, and after a moment’s hesitation he went up and opened
her door. The room was almost dark, but in the obscurity he saw her
sitting by the window, bolt upright, and knew by the rigidity of the
outline projected against the pane that she had not taken off her
travelling dress.

“Well, Zeena,” he ventured from the threshold.

She did not move, and he continued: “Supper’s about ready. Ain’t you
coming?”

She replied: “I don’t feel as if I could touch a morsel.”

It was the consecrated formula, and he expected it to be followed, as
usual, by her rising and going down to supper. But she remained seated,
and he could think of nothing more felicitous than: “I presume you’re
tired after the long ride.”

Turning her head at this, she answered solemnly: “I’m a great deal
sicker than you think.”

Her words fell on his ear with a strange shock of wonder. He had often
heard her pronounce them before--what if at last they were true?

He advanced a step or two into the dim room. “I hope that’s not so,
Zeena,” he said.

She continued to gaze at him through the twilight with a mien of wan
authority, as of one consciously singled out for a great fate. “I’ve got
complications,” she said.

Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in
the neighbourhood had “troubles,” frankly localized and specified;
but only the chosen had “complications.” To have them was in itself a
distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People
struggled on for years with “troubles,” but they almost always succumbed
to “complications.”

Ethan’s heart was jerking to and fro between two extremities of feeling,
but for the moment compassion prevailed. His wife looked so hard and
lonely, sitting there in the darkness with such thoughts.

“Is that what the new doctor told you?” he asked, instinctively lowering
his voice.

“Yes. He says any regular doctor would want me to have an operation.”

Ethan was aware that, in regard to the important question of surgical
intervention, the female opinion of the neighbourhood was divided, some
glorying in the prestige conferred by operations while others shunned
them as indelicate. Ethan, from motives of economy, had always been glad
that Zeena was of the latter faction.

In the agitation caused by the gravity of her announcement he sought
a consolatory short cut. “What do you know about this doctor anyway?
Nobody ever told you that before.”

He saw his blunder before she could take it up: she wanted sympathy, not
consolation.

“I didn’t need to have anybody tell me I was losing ground every day.
Everybody but you could see it. And everybody in Bettsbridge knows
about Dr. Buck. He has his office in Worcester, and comes over once
a fortnight to Shadd’s Falls and Bettsbridge for consultations. Eliza
Spears was wasting away with kidney trouble before she went to him, and
now she’s up and around, and singing in the choir.”

“Well, I’m glad of that. You must do just what he tells you,” Ethan
answered sympathetically.

She was still looking at him. “I mean to,” she said. He was struck by a
new note in her voice. It was neither whining nor reproachful, but drily
resolute.

“What does he want you should do?” he asked, with a mounting vision of
fresh expenses.

“He wants I should have a hired girl. He says I oughtn’t to have to do a
single thing around the house.”

“A hired girl?” Ethan stood transfixed.

“Yes. And Aunt Martha found me one right off. Everybody said I was lucky
to get a girl to come away out here, and I agreed to give her a dollar
extry to make sure. She’ll be over to-morrow afternoon.”

Wrath and dismay contended in Ethan. He had foreseen an immediate demand
for money, but not a permanent drain on his scant resources. He no
longer believed what Zeena had told him of the supposed seriousness of
her state: he saw in her expedition to Bettsbridge only a plot hatched
between herself and her Pierce relations to foist on him the cost of a
servant; and for the moment wrath predominated.

“If you meant to engage a girl you ought to have told me before you
started,” he said.

“How could I tell you before I started? How did I know what Dr. Buck
would say?”

“Oh, Dr. Buck--” Ethan’s incredulity escaped in a short laugh. “Did Dr.
Buck tell you how I was to pay her wages?”

Her voice rose furiously with his. “No, he didn’t. For I’d ‘a’ been
ashamed to tell him that you grudged me the money to get back my health,
when I lost it nursing your own mother!”

“You lost your health nursing mother?”

“Yes; and my folks all told me at the time you couldn’t do no less than
marry me after--”

“Zeena!”

Through the obscurity which hid their faces their thoughts seemed to
dart at each other like serpents shooting venom. Ethan was seized
with horror of the scene and shame at his own share in it. It was as
senseless and savage as a physical fight between two enemies in the
darkness.

He turned to the shelf above the chimney, groped for matches and lit the
one candle in the room. At first its weak flame made no impression on
the shadows; then Zeena’s face stood grimly out against the uncurtained
pane, which had turned from grey to black.

It was the first scene of open anger between the couple in their sad
seven years together, and Ethan felt as if he had lost an irretrievable
advantage in descending to the level of recrimination. But the practical
problem was there and had to be dealt with.

“You know I haven’t got the money to pay for a girl, Zeena. You’ll have
to send her back: I can’t do it.”

“The doctor says it’ll be my death if I go on slaving the way I’ve had
to. He doesn’t understand how I’ve stood it as long as I have.”

“Slaving!--” He checked himself again, “You sha’n’t lift a hand, if he
says so. I’ll do everything round the house myself--”

She broke in: “You’re neglecting the farm enough already,” and this
being true, he found no answer, and left her time to add ironically:
“Better send me over to the almshouse and done with it... I guess
there’s been Fromes there afore now.”

The taunt burned into him, but he let it pass. “I haven’t got the money.
That settles it.”

There was a moment’s pause in the struggle, as though the combatants
were testing their weapons. Then Zeena said in a level voice: “I thought
you were to get fifty dollars from Andrew Hale for that lumber.”

“Andrew Hale never pays under three months.” He had hardly spoken when
he remembered the excuse he had made for not accompanying his wife to
the station the day before; and the blood rose to his frowning brows.

“Why, you told me yesterday you’d fixed it up with him to pay cash down.
You said that was why you couldn’t drive me over to the Flats.”

Ethan had no suppleness in deceiving. He had never before been convicted
of a lie, and all the resources of evasion failed him. “I guess that was
a misunderstanding,” he stammered.

“You ain’t got the money?”

“No.”

“And you ain’t going to get it?”

“No.”

“Well, I couldn’t know that when I engaged the girl, could I?”

“No.” He paused to control his voice. “But you know it now. I’m sorry,
but it can’t be helped. You’re a poor man’s wife, Zeena; but I’ll do the
best I can for you.”

For a while she sat motionless, as if reflecting, her arms stretched
along the arms of her chair, her eyes fixed on vacancy. “Oh, I guess
we’ll make out,” she said mildly.

The change in her tone reassured him. “Of course we will! There’s a
whole lot more I can do for you, and Mattie--”

Zeena, while he spoke, seemed to be following out some elaborate mental
calculation. She emerged from it to say: “There’ll be Mattie’s board
less, any how--”

Ethan, supposing the discussion to be over, had turned to go down to
supper. He stopped short, not grasping what he heard. “Mattie’s board
less--?” he began.

Zeena laughed. It was on odd unfamiliar sound--he did not remember ever
having heard her laugh before. “You didn’t suppose I was going to keep
two girls, did you? No wonder you were scared at the expense!”

He still had but a confused sense of what she was saying. From the
beginning of the discussion he had instinctively avoided the mention of
Mattie’s name, fearing he hardly knew what: criticism, complaints, or
vague allusions to the imminent probability of her marrying. But the
thought of a definite rupture had never come to him, and even now could
not lodge itself in his mind.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “Mattie Silver’s not a hired
girl. She’s your relation.”

“She’s a pauper that’s hung onto us all after her father’d done his best
to ruin us. I’ve kep’ her here a whole year: it’s somebody else’s turn
now.”

As the shrill words shot out Ethan heard a tap on the door, which he had
drawn shut when he turned back from the threshold.

“Ethan--Zeena!” Mattie’s voice sounded gaily from the landing, “do you
know what time it is? Supper’s been ready half an hour.”

Inside the room there was a moment’s silence; then Zeena called out from
her seat: “I’m not coming down to supper.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! Aren’t you well? Sha’n’t I bring you up a bite of
something?”

Ethan roused himself with an effort and opened the door. “Go along down,
Matt. Zeena’s just a little tired. I’m coming.”

He heard her “All right!” and her quick step on the stairs; then he
shut the door and turned back into the room. His wife’s attitude was
unchanged, her face inexorable, and he was seized with the despairing
sense of his helplessness.

“You ain’t going to do it, Zeena?”

“Do what?” she emitted between flattened lips.

“Send Mattie away--like this?”

“I never bargained to take her for life!”

He continued with rising vehemence: “You can’t put her out of the house
like a thief--a poor girl without friends or money. She’s done her best
for you and she’s got no place to go to. You may forget she’s your kin
but everybody else’ll remember it. If you do a thing like that what do
you suppose folks’ll say of you?”

Zeena waited a moment, as if giving him time to feel the full force
of the contrast between his own excitement and her composure. Then she
replied in the same smooth voice: “I know well enough what they say of
my having kep’ her here as long as I have.”

Ethan’s hand dropped from the door-knob, which he had held clenched
since he had drawn the door shut on Mattie. His wife’s retort was like a
knife-cut across the sinews and he felt suddenly weak and powerless.
He had meant to humble himself, to argue that Mattie’s keep didn’t cost
much, after all, that he could make out to buy a stove and fix up a
place in the attic for the hired girl--but Zeena’s words revealed the
peril of such pleadings.

“You mean to tell her she’s got to go--at once?” he faltered out, in
terror of letting his wife complete her sentence.

As if trying to make him see reason she replied impartially: “The girl
will be over from Bettsbridge to-morrow, and I presume she’s got to have
somewheres to sleep.”

Ethan looked at her with loathing. She was no longer the listless
creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption,
but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long
years of silent brooding. It was the sense of his helplessness that
sharpened his antipathy. There had never been anything in her that
one could appeal to; but as long as he could ignore and command he had
remained indifferent. Now she had mastered him and he abhorred her.
Mattie was her relation, not his: there were no means by which he could
compel her to keep the girl under her roof. All the long misery of his
baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose
up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the
woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything
else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for
all the others. For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it
ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step
forward and then stopped.

“You’re--you’re not coming down?” he said in a bewildered voice.

“No. I guess I’ll lay down on the bed a little while,” she answered
mildly; and he turned and walked out of the room.

In the kitchen Mattie was sitting by the stove, the cat curled up on her
knees. She sprang to her feet as Ethan entered and carried the covered
dish of meat-pie to the table.

“I hope Zeena isn’t sick?” she asked.

“No.”

She shone at him across the table. “Well, sit right down then. You must
be starving.” She uncovered the pie and pushed it over to him. So they
were to have one more evening together, her happy eyes seemed to say!

He helped himself mechanically and began to eat; then disgust took him
by the throat and he laid down his fork.

Mattie’s tender gaze was on him and she marked the gesture.

“Why, Ethan, what’s the matter? Don’t it taste right?”

“Yes--it’s first-rate. Only I--” He pushed his plate away, rose from his
chair, and walked around the table to her side. She started up with
frightened eyes.

“Ethan, there’s something wrong! I knew there was!”

She seemed to melt against him in her terror, and he caught her in his
arms, held her fast there, felt her lashes beat his cheek like netted
butterflies.

“What is it--what is it?” she stammered; but he had found her lips at
last and was drinking unconsciousness of everything but the joy they
gave him.

She lingered a moment, caught in the same strong current; then she
slipped from him and drew back a step or two, pale and troubled. Her
look smote him with compunction, and he cried out, as if he saw her
drowning in a dream: “You can’t go, Matt! I’ll never let you!”

“Go--go?” she stammered. “Must I go?”

The words went on sounding between them as though a torch of warning
flew from hand to hand through a black landscape.

Ethan was overcome with shame at his lack of self-control in flinging
the news at her so brutally. His head reeled and he had to support
himself against the table. All the while he felt as if he were still
kissing her, and yet dying of thirst for her lips.

“Ethan, what has happened? Is Zeena mad with me?”

Her cry steadied him, though it deepened his wrath and pity. “No, no,”
 he assured her, “it’s not that. But this new doctor has scared her about
herself. You know she believes all they say the first time she sees
them. And this one’s told her she won’t get well unless she lays up and
don’t do a thing about the house--not for months--”

He paused, his eyes wandering from her miserably. She stood silent a
moment, drooping before him like a broken branch. She was so small and
weak-looking that it wrung his heart; but suddenly she lifted her head
and looked straight at him. “And she wants somebody handier in my place?
Is that it?”

“That’s what she says to-night.”

“If she says it to-night she’ll say it to-morrow.”

Both bowed to the inexorable truth: they knew that Zeena never changed
her mind, and that in her case a resolve once taken was equivalent to an
act performed.

There was a long silence between them; then Mattie said in a low voice:
“Don’t be too sorry, Ethan.”

“Oh, God--oh, God,” he groaned. The glow of passion he had felt for her
had melted to an aching tenderness. He saw her quick lids beating back
the tears, and longed to take her in his arms and soothe her.

“You’re letting your supper get cold,” she admonished him with a pale
gleam of gaiety.

“Oh, Matt--Matt--where’ll you go to?”

Her lids sank and a tremor crossed her face. He saw that for the first
time the thought of the future came to her distinctly. “I might get
something to do over at Stamford,” she faltered, as if knowing that he
knew she had no hope.

He dropped back into his seat and hid his face in his hands. Despair
seized him at the thought of her setting out alone to renew the weary
quest for work. In the only place where she was known she was surrounded
by indifference or animosity; and what chance had she, inexperienced
and untrained, among the million bread-seekers of the cities? There came
back to him miserable tales he had heard at Worcester, and the faces
of girls whose lives had begun as hopefully as Mattie’s.... It was not
possible to think of such things without a revolt of his whole being. He
sprang up suddenly.

“You can’t go, Matt! I won’t let you! She’s always had her way, but I
mean to have mine now--”

Mattie lifted her hand with a quick gesture, and he heard his wife’s
step behind him.

Zeena came into the room with her dragging down-at-the-heel step, and
quietly took her accustomed seat between them.

“I felt a little mite better, and Dr. Buck says I ought to eat all I can
to keep my strength up, even if I ain’t got any appetite,” she said in
her flat whine, reaching across Mattie for the teapot. Her “good” dress
had been replaced by the black calico and brown knitted shawl which
formed her daily wear, and with them she had put on her usual face and
manner. She poured out her tea, added a great deal of milk to it, helped
herself largely to pie and pickles, and made the familiar gesture of
adjusting her false teeth before she began to eat. The cat rubbed itself
ingratiatingly against her, and she said “Good Pussy,” stooped to stroke
it and gave it a scrap of meat from her plate.

Ethan sat speechless, not pretending to eat, but Mattie nibbled
valiantly at her food and asked Zeena one or two questions about her
visit to Bettsbridge. Zeena answered in her every-day tone and, warming
to the theme, regaled them with several vivid descriptions of intestinal
disturbances among her friends and relatives. She looked straight at
Mattie as she spoke, a faint smile deepening the vertical lines between
her nose and chin.

When supper was over she rose from her seat and pressed her hand to the
flat surface over the region of her heart. “That pie of yours always
sets a mite heavy, Matt,” she said, not ill-naturedly. She seldom
abbreviated the girl’s name, and when she did so it was always a sign of
affability.

“I’ve a good mind to go and hunt up those stomach powders I got last
year over in Springfield,” she continued. “I ain’t tried them for quite
a while, and maybe they’ll help the heartburn.”

Mattie lifted her eyes. “Can’t I get them for you, Zeena?” she ventured.

“No. They’re in a place you don’t know about,” Zeena answered darkly,
with one of her secret looks.

She went out of the kitchen and Mattie, rising, began to clear the
dishes from the table. As she passed Ethan’s chair their eyes met and
clung together desolately. The warm still kitchen looked as peaceful as
the night before. The cat had sprung to Zeena’s rocking-chair, and the
heat of the fire was beginning to draw out the faint sharp scent of the
geraniums. Ethan dragged himself wearily to his feet.

“I’ll go out and take a look around,” he said, going toward the passage
to get his lantern.

As he reached the door he met Zeena coming back into the room, her lips
twitching with anger, a flush of excitement on her sallow face.
The shawl had slipped from her shoulders and was dragging at her
down-trodden heels, and in her hands she carried the fragments of the
red glass pickle-dish.

“I’d like to know who done this,” she said, looking sternly from Ethan
to Mattie.

There was no answer, and she continued in a trembling voice: “I went to
get those powders I’d put away in father’s old spectacle-case, top of
the china-closet, where I keep the things I set store by, so’s folks
shan’t meddle with them--” Her voice broke, and two small tears hung
on her lashless lids and ran slowly down her cheeks. “It takes the
stepladder to get at the top shelf, and I put Aunt Philura Maple’s
pickle-dish up there o’ purpose when we was married, and it’s never been
down since, ‘cept for the spring cleaning, and then I always lifted it
with my own hands, so’s ‘t it shouldn’t get broke.” She laid the fragments
reverently on the table. “I want to know who done this,” she quavered.

At the challenge Ethan turned back into the room and faced her. “I can
tell you, then. The cat done it.”

“The cat?”

“That’s what I said.”

She looked at him hard, and then turned her eyes to Mattie, who was
carrying the dish-pan to the table.

“I’d like to know how the cat got into my china-closet”’ she said.

“Chasin’ mice, I guess,” Ethan rejoined. “There was a mouse round the
kitchen all last evening.”

Zeena continued to look from one to the other; then she emitted her
small strange laugh. “I knew the cat was a smart cat,” she said in a
high voice, “but I didn’t know he was smart enough to pick up the pieces
of my pickle-dish and lay ‘em edge to edge on the very shelf he knocked
‘em off of.”

Mattie suddenly drew her arms out of the steaming water. “It wasn’t
Ethan’s fault, Zeena! The cat did break the dish; but I got it down from
the china-closet, and I’m the one to blame for its getting broken.”

Zeena stood beside the ruin of her treasure, stiffening into a stony
image of resentment, “You got down my pickle-dish-what for?”

A bright flush flew to Mattie’s cheeks. “I wanted to make the
supper-table pretty,” she said.

“You wanted to make the supper-table pretty; and you waited till my back
was turned, and took the thing I set most store by of anything I’ve got,
and wouldn’t never use it, not even when the minister come to dinner,
or Aunt Martha Pierce come over from Bettsbridge--” Zeena paused with a
gasp, as if terrified by her own evocation of the sacrilege. “You’re a
bad girl, Mattie Silver, and I always known it. It’s the way your father
begun, and I was warned of it when I took you, and I tried to keep my
things where you couldn’t get at ‘em--and now you’ve took from me the one
I cared for most of all--” She broke off in a short spasm of sobs that
passed and left her more than ever like a shape of stone.

“If I’d ‘a’ listened to folks, you’d ‘a’ gone before now, and this
wouldn’t ‘a’ happened,” she said; and gathering up the bits of broken
glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body...



VIII


When Ethan was called back to the farm by his father’s illness his
mother gave him, for his own use, a small room behind the untenanted
“best parlour.” Here he had nailed up shelves for his books, built
himself a box-sofa out of boards and a mattress, laid out his papers on
a kitchen-table, hung on the rough plaster wall an engraving of Abraham
Lincoln and a calendar with “Thoughts from the Poets,” and tried, with
these meagre properties, to produce some likeness to the study of a
“minister” who had been kind to him and lent him books when he was at
Worcester. He still took refuge there in summer, but when Mattie came to
live at the farm he had to give her his stove, and consequently the room
was uninhabitable for several months of the year.

To this retreat he descended as soon as the house was quiet, and Zeena’s
steady breathing from the bed had assured him that there was to be
no sequel to the scene in the kitchen. After Zeena’s departure he and
Mattie had stood speechless, neither seeking to approach the other. Then
the girl had returned to her task of clearing up the kitchen for the
night and he had taken his lantern and gone on his usual round outside
the house. The kitchen was empty when he came back to it; but his
tobacco-pouch and pipe had been laid on the table, and under them was
a scrap of paper torn from the back of a seedsman’s catalogue, on which
three words were written: “Don’t trouble, Ethan.”

Going into his cold dark “study” he placed the lantern on the table
and, stooping to its light, read the message again and again. It was the
first time that Mattie had ever written to him, and the possession of
the paper gave him a strange new sense of her nearness; yet it deepened
his anguish by reminding him that henceforth they would have no other
way of communicating with each other. For the life of her smile, the
warmth of her voice, only cold paper and dead words!

Confused motions of rebellion stormed in him. He was too young, too
strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the
destruction of his hopes. Must he wear out all his years at the side
of a bitter querulous woman? Other possibilities had been in him,
possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena’s narrow-mindedness
and ignorance. And what good had come of it? She was a hundred times
bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her: the one
pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him. All the healthy instincts
of self-defence rose up in him against such waste...

He bundled himself into his old coon-skin coat and lay down on the
box-sofa to think. Under his cheek he felt a hard object with strange
protuberances. It was a cushion which Zeena had made for him when they
were engaged--the only piece of needlework he had ever seen her do. He
flung it across the floor and propped his head against the wall...

He knew a case of a man over the mountain--a young fellow of about his
own age--who had escaped from just such a life of misery by going West
with the girl he cared for. His wife had divorced him, and he had
married the girl and prospered. Ethan had seen the couple the summer
before at Shadd’s Falls, where they had come to visit relatives. They
had a little girl with fair curls, who wore a gold locket and was
dressed like a princess. The deserted wife had not done badly either.
Her husband had given her the farm and she had managed to sell it, and
with that and the alimony she had started a lunch-room at Bettsbridge
and bloomed into activity and importance. Ethan was fired by the
thought. Why should he not leave with Mattie the next day, instead of
letting her go alone? He would hide his valise under the seat of the
sleigh, and Zeena would suspect nothing till she went upstairs for her
afternoon nap and found a letter on the bed...

His impulses were still near the surface, and he sprang up, re-lit the
lantern, and sat down at the table. He rummaged in the drawer for a
sheet of paper, found one, and began to write.

“Zeena, I’ve done all I could for you, and I don’t see as it’s been any
use. I don’t blame you, nor I don’t blame myself. Maybe both of us will
do better separate. I’m going to try my luck West, and you can sell the
farm and mill, and keep the money--”

His pen paused on the word, which brought home to him the relentless
conditions of his lot. If he gave the farm and mill to Zeena what would
be left him to start his own life with? Once in the West he was sure of
picking up work--he would not have feared to try his chance alone. But
with Mattie depending on him the case was different. And what of Zeena’s
fate? Farm and mill were mortgaged to the limit of their value, and even
if she found a purchaser--in itself an unlikely chance--it was doubtful if
she could clear a thousand dollars on the sale. Meanwhile, how could
she keep the farm going? It was only by incessant labour and personal
supervision that Ethan drew a meagre living from his land, and his wife,
even if she were in better health than she imagined, could never carry
such a burden alone.

Well, she could go back to her people, then, and see what they would do
for her. It was the fate she was forcing on Mattie--why not let her try
it herself? By the time she had discovered his whereabouts, and brought
suit for divorce, he would probably--wherever he was--be earning enough to
pay her a sufficient alimony. And the alternative was to let Mattie go
forth alone, with far less hope of ultimate provision...

He had scattered the contents of the table-drawer in his search for a
sheet of paper, and as he took up his pen his eye fell on an old copy of
the Bettsbridge Eagle. The advertising sheet was folded uppermost, and
he read the seductive words: “Trips to the West: Reduced Rates.”

He drew the lantern nearer and eagerly scanned the fares; then the paper
fell from his hand and he pushed aside his unfinished letter. A moment
ago he had wondered what he and Mattie were to live on when they reached
the West; now he saw that he had not even the money to take her there.
Borrowing was out of the question: six months before he had given his
only security to raise funds for necessary repairs to the mill, and
he knew that without security no one at Starkfield would lend him ten
dollars. The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders
handcuffing a convict. There was no way out--none. He was a prisoner for
life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.

He crept back heavily to the sofa, stretching himself out with limbs so
leaden that he felt as if they would never move again. Tears rose in his
throat and slowly burned their way to his lids.

As he lay there, the window-pane that faced him, growing gradually
lighter, inlaid upon the darkness a square of moon-suffused sky. A
crooked tree-branch crossed it, a branch of the apple-tree under which,
on summer evenings, he had sometimes found Mattie sitting when he came
up from the mill. Slowly the rim of the rainy vapours caught fire and
burnt away, and a pure moon swung into the blue. Ethan, rising on his
elbow, watched the landscape whiten and shape itself under the sculpture
of the moon. This was the night on which he was to have taken Mattie
coasting, and there hung the lamp to light them! He looked out at the
slopes bathed in lustre, the silver-edged darkness of the woods, the
spectral purple of the hills against the sky, and it seemed as
though all the beauty of the night had been poured out to mock his
wretchedness...

He fell asleep, and when he woke the chill of the winter dawn was in the
room. He felt cold and stiff and hungry, and ashamed of being hungry.
He rubbed his eyes and went to the window. A red sun stood over the grey
rim of the fields, behind trees that looked black and brittle. He said
to himself: “This is Matt’s last day,” and tried to think what the place
would be without her.

As he stood there he heard a step behind him and she entered.

“Oh, Ethan--were you here all night?”

She looked so small and pinched, in her poor dress, with the red scarf
wound about her, and the cold light turning her paleness sallow, that
Ethan stood before her without speaking.

“You must be frozen,” she went on, fixing lustreless eyes on him.

He drew a step nearer. “How did you know I was here?”

“Because I heard you go down stairs again after I went to bed, and I
listened all night, and you didn’t come up.”

All his tenderness rushed to his lips. He looked at her and said: “I’ll
come right along and make up the kitchen fire.”

They went back to the kitchen, and he fetched the coal and kindlings
and cleared out the stove for her, while she brought in the milk and
the cold remains of the meat-pie. When warmth began to radiate from the
stove, and the first ray of sunlight lay on the kitchen floor, Ethan’s
dark thoughts melted in the mellower air. The sight of Mattie going
about her work as he had seen her on so many mornings made it seem
impossible that she should ever cease to be a part of the scene. He said
to himself that he had doubtless exaggerated the significance of Zeena’s
threats, and that she too, with the return of daylight, would come to a
saner mood.

He went up to Mattie as she bent above the stove, and laid his hand on
her arm. “I don’t want you should trouble either,” he said, looking down
into her eyes with a smile.

She flushed up warmly and whispered back: “No, Ethan, I ain’t going to
trouble.”

“I guess things’ll straighten out,” he added.

There was no answer but a quick throb of her lids, and he went on: “She
ain’t said anything this morning?”

“No. I haven’t seen her yet.”

“Don’t you take any notice when you do.”

With this injunction he left her and went out to the cow-barn. He saw
Jotham Powell walking up the hill through the morning mist, and the
familiar sight added to his growing conviction of security.

As the two men were clearing out the stalls Jotham rested on his
pitch-fork to say: “Dan’l Byrne’s goin’ over to the Flats to-day noon,
an’ he c’d take Mattie’s trunk along, and make it easier ridin’ when I
take her over in the sleigh.”

Ethan looked at him blankly, and he continued: “Mis’ Frome said the new
girl’d be at the Flats at five, and I was to take Mattie then, so’s ‘t
she could ketch the six o’clock train for Stamford.”

Ethan felt the blood drumming in his temples. He had to wait a moment
before he could find voice to say: “Oh, it ain’t so sure about Mattie’s
going--”

“That so?” said Jotham indifferently; and they went on with their work.

When they returned to the kitchen the two women were already at
breakfast. Zeena had an air of unusual alertness and activity. She drank
two cups of coffee and fed the cat with the scraps left in the pie-dish;
then she rose from her seat and, walking over to the window, snipped two
or three yellow leaves from the geraniums. “Aunt Martha’s ain’t got a
faded leaf on ‘em; but they pine away when they ain’t cared for,” she
said reflectively. Then she turned to Jotham and asked: “What time’d you
say Dan’l Byrne’d be along?”

The hired man threw a hesitating glance at Ethan. “Round about noon,” he
said.

Zeena turned to Mattie. “That trunk of yours is too heavy for the
sleigh, and Dan’l Byrne’ll be round to take it over to the Flats,” she
said.

“I’m much obliged to you, Zeena,” said Mattie.

“I’d like to go over things with you first,” Zeena continued in an
unperturbed voice. “I know there’s a huckabuck towel missing; and I
can’t make out what you done with that match-safe ‘t used to stand
behind the stuffed owl in the parlour.”

She went out, followed by Mattie, and when the men were alone Jotham
said to his employer: “I guess I better let Dan’l come round, then.”

Ethan finished his usual morning tasks about the house and barn; then
he said to Jotham: “I’m going down to Starkfield. Tell them not to wait
dinner.”

The passion of rebellion had broken out in him again. That which had
seemed incredible in the sober light of day had really come to pass,
and he was to assist as a helpless spectator at Mattie’s banishment.
His manhood was humbled by the part he was compelled to play and by the
thought of what Mattie must think of him. Confused impulses struggled
in him as he strode along to the village. He had made up his mind to do
something, but he did not know what it would be.

The early mist had vanished and the fields lay like a silver shield
under the sun. It was one of the days when the glitter of winter shines
through a pale haze of spring. Every yard of the road was alive with
Mattie’s presence, and there was hardly a branch against the sky or a
tangle of brambles on the bank in which some bright shred of memory was
not caught. Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash
was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large;
and all these things made him see that something must be done at once.

Suddenly it occurred to him that Andrew Hale, who was a kind-hearted
man, might be induced to reconsider his refusal and advance a small sum
on the lumber if he were told that Zeena’s ill-health made it necessary
to hire a servant. Hale, after all, knew enough of Ethan’s situation
to make it possible for the latter to renew his appeal without too much
loss of pride; and, moreover, how much did pride count in the ebullition
of passions in his breast?

The more he considered his plan the more hopeful it seemed. If he could
get Mrs. Hale’s ear he felt certain of success, and with fifty dollars
in his pocket nothing could keep him from Mattie...

His first object was to reach Starkfield before Hale had started for
his work; he knew the carpenter had a job down the Corbury road and was
likely to leave his house early. Ethan’s long strides grew more rapid
with the accelerated beat of his thoughts, and as he reached the foot of
School House Hill he caught sight of Hale’s sleigh in the distance. He
hurried forward to meet it, but as it drew nearer he saw that it was
driven by the carpenter’s youngest boy and that the figure at his side,
looking like a large upright cocoon in spectacles, was that of Mrs.
Hale. Ethan signed to them to stop, and Mrs. Hale leaned forward, her
pink wrinkles twinkling with benevolence.

“Mr. Hale? Why, yes, you’ll find him down home now. He ain’t going to
his work this forenoon. He woke up with a touch o’ lumbago, and I just
made him put on one of old Dr. Kidder’s plasters and set right up into
the fire.”

Beaming maternally on Ethan, she bent over to add: “I on’y just heard
from Mr. Hale ‘bout Zeena’s going over to Bettsbridge to see that new
doctor. I’m real sorry she’s feeling so bad again! I hope he thinks he
can do something for her. I don’t know anybody round here’s had more
sickness than Zeena. I always tell Mr. Hale I don’t know what she’d ‘a’
done if she hadn’t ‘a’ had you to look after her; and I used to say
the same thing ‘bout your mother. You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan
Frome.”

She gave him a last nod of sympathy while her son chirped to the horse;
and Ethan, as she drove off, stood in the middle of the road and stared
after the retreating sleigh.

It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs.
Hale. Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed
to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried
without repining the burden of three crippled lives. But Mrs. Hale had
said, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,” and he felt less
alone with his misery. If the Hales were sorry for him they would surely
respond to his appeal...

He started down the road toward their house, but at the end of a few
yards he pulled up sharply, the blood in his face. For the first time,
in the light of the words he had just heard, he saw what he was about to
do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales’ sympathy to obtain
money from them on false pretences. That was a plain statement of the
cloudy purpose which had driven him in headlong to Starkfield.

With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had carried
him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a
poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave
alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he
could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied
him.

He turned and walked slowly back to the farm.



IX


At the kitchen door Daniel Byrne sat in his sleigh behind a big-boned
grey who pawed the snow and swung his long head restlessly from side to
side.

Ethan went into the kitchen and found his wife by the stove. Her head
was wrapped in her shawl, and she was reading a book called “Kidney
Troubles and Their Cure” on which he had had to pay extra postage only a
few days before.

Zeena did not move or look up when he entered, and after a moment he
asked: “Where’s Mattie?”

Without lifting her eyes from the page she replied: “I presume she’s
getting down her trunk.”

The blood rushed to his face. “Getting down her trunk--alone?”

“Jotham Powell’s down in the wood-lot, and Dan’l Byrne says he darsn’t
leave that horse,” she returned.

Her husband, without stopping to hear the end of the phrase, had left
the kitchen and sprung up the stairs. The door of Mattie’s room was
shut, and he wavered a moment on the landing. “Matt,” he said in a low
voice; but there was no answer, and he put his hand on the door-knob.

He had never been in her room except once, in the early summer, when
he had gone there to plaster up a leak in the eaves, but he remembered
exactly how everything had looked: the red-and-white quilt on her narrow
bed, the pretty pin-cushion on the chest of drawers, and over it the
enlarged photograph of her mother, in an oxydized frame, with a bunch of
dyed grasses at the back. Now these and all other tokens of her presence
had vanished, and the room looked as bare and comfortless as when Zeena
had shown her into it on the day of her arrival. In the middle of the
floor stood her trunk, and on the trunk she sat in her Sunday dress,
her back turned to the door and her face in her hands. She had not heard
Ethan’s call because she was sobbing and she did not hear his step till
he stood close behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders.

“Matt--oh, don’t--oh, Matt!”

She started up, lifting her wet face to his. “Ethan--I thought I wasn’t
ever going to see you again!”

He took her in his arms, pressing her close, and with a trembling hand
smoothed away the hair from her forehead.

“Not see me again? What do you mean?”

She sobbed out: “Jotham said you told him we wasn’t to wait dinner for
you, and I thought--”

“You thought I meant to cut it?” he finished for her grimly.

She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her hair,
which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes, and had
the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun.

Through the door they heard Zeena’s voice calling out from below: “Dan’l
Byrne says you better hurry up if you want him to take that trunk.”

They drew apart with stricken faces. Words of resistance rushed to
Ethan’s lips and died there. Mattie found her handkerchief and dried her
eyes; then, bending down, she took hold of a handle of the trunk.

Ethan put her aside. “You let go, Matt,” he ordered her.

She answered: “It takes two to coax it round the corner”; and submitting
to this argument he grasped the other handle, and together they
manoeuvred the heavy trunk out to the landing.

“Now let go,” he repeated; then he shouldered the trunk and carried it
down the stairs and across the passage to the kitchen. Zeena, who had
gone back to her seat by the stove, did not lift her head from her book
as he passed. Mattie followed him out of the door and helped him to lift
the trunk into the back of the sleigh. When it was in place they stood
side by side on the door-step, watching Daniel Byrne plunge off behind
his fidgety horse.

It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen
hand was tightening with every tick of the clock. Twice he opened his
lips to speak to Mattie and found no breath. At length, as she turned to
re-enter the house, he laid a detaining hand on her.

“I’m going to drive you over, Matt,” he whispered.

She murmured back: “I think Zeena wants I should go with Jotham.”

“I’m going to drive you over,” he repeated; and she went into the
kitchen without answering.

At dinner Ethan could not eat. If he lifted his eyes they rested on
Zeena’s pinched face, and the corners of her straight lips seemed to
quiver away into a smile. She ate well, declaring that the mild weather
made her feel better, and pressed a second helping of beans on Jotham
Powell, whose wants she generally ignored.

Mattie, when the meal was over, went about her usual task of clearing
the table and washing up the dishes. Zeena, after feeding the cat,
had returned to her rocking-chair by the stove, and Jotham Powell, who
always lingered last, reluctantly pushed back his chair and moved toward
the door.

On the threshold he turned back to say to Ethan: “What time’ll I come
round for Mattie?”

Ethan was standing near the window, mechanically filling his pipe while
he watched Mattie move to and fro. He answered: “You needn’t come round;
I’m going to drive her over myself.”

He saw the rise of the colour in Mattie’s averted cheek, and the quick
lifting of Zeena’s head.

“I want you should stay here this afternoon, Ethan,” his wife said.
“Jotham can drive Mattie over.”

Mattie flung an imploring glance at him, but he repeated curtly: “I’m
going to drive her over myself.”

Zeena continued in the same even tone: “I wanted you should stay and fix
up that stove in Mattie’s room afore the girl gets here. It ain’t been
drawing right for nigh on a month now.”

Ethan’s voice rose indignantly. “If it was good enough for Mattie I
guess it’s good enough for a hired girl.”

“That girl that’s coming told me she was used to a house where they had
a furnace,” Zeena persisted with the same monotonous mildness.

“She’d better ha’ stayed there then,” he flung back at her; and turning
to Mattie he added in a hard voice: “You be ready by three, Matt; I’ve
got business at Corbury.”

Jotham Powell had started for the barn, and Ethan strode down after him
aflame with anger. The pulses in his temples throbbed and a fog was in
his eyes. He went about his task without knowing what force directed
him, or whose hands and feet were fulfilling its orders. It was not till
he led out the sorrel and backed him between the shafts of the sleigh
that he once more became conscious of what he was doing. As he passed
the bridle over the horse’s head, and wound the traces around the
shafts, he remembered the day when he had made the same preparations
in order to drive over and meet his wife’s cousin at the Flats. It
was little more than a year ago, on just such a soft afternoon, with a
“feel” of spring in the air. The sorrel, turning the same big ringed eye
on him, nuzzled the palm of his hand in the same way; and one by one all
the days between rose up and stood before him...

He flung the bearskin into the sleigh, climbed to the seat, and drove up
to the house. When he entered the kitchen it was empty, but Mattie’s bag
and shawl lay ready by the door. He went to the foot of the stairs and
listened. No sound reached him from above, but presently he thought he
heard some one moving about in his deserted study, and pushing open the
door he saw Mattie, in her hat and jacket, standing with her back to him
near the table.

She started at his approach and turning quickly, said: “Is it time?”

“What are you doing here, Matt?” he asked her.

She looked at him timidly. “I was just taking a look round--that’s all,”
 she answered, with a wavering smile.

They went back into the kitchen without speaking, and Ethan picked up
her bag and shawl.

“Where’s Zeena?” he asked.

“She went upstairs right after dinner. She said she had those shooting
pains again, and didn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Didn’t she say good-bye to you?”

“No. That was all she said.”

Ethan, looking slowly about the kitchen, said to himself with a shudder
that in a few hours he would be returning to it alone. Then the sense
of unreality overcame him once more, and he could not bring himself to
believe that Mattie stood there for the last time before him.

“Come on,” he said almost gaily, opening the door and putting her bag
into the sleigh. He sprang to his seat and bent over to tuck the rug
about her as she slipped into the place at his side. “Now then, go
‘long,” he said, with a shake of the reins that sent the sorrel placidly
jogging down the hill.

“We got lots of time for a good ride, Matt!” he cried, seeking her hand
beneath the fur and pressing it in his. His face tingled and he felt
dizzy, as if he had stopped in at the Starkfield saloon on a zero day
for a drink.

At the gate, instead of making for Starkfield, he turned the sorrel to
the right, up the Bettsbridge road. Mattie sat silent, giving no sign
of surprise; but after a moment she said: “Are you going round by Shadow
Pond?”

He laughed and answered: “I knew you’d know!”

She drew closer under the bearskin, so that, looking sideways around his
coat-sleeve, he could just catch the tip of her nose and a blown brown
wave of hair. They drove slowly up the road between fields glistening
under the pale sun, and then bent to the right down a lane edged with
spruce and larch. Ahead of them, a long way off, a range of hills
stained by mottlings of black forest flowed away in round white curves
against the sky. The lane passed into a pine-wood with boles reddening
in the afternoon sun and delicate blue shadows on the snow. As they
entered it the breeze fell and a warm stillness seemed to drop from the
branches with the dropping needles. Here the snow was so pure that the
tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns,
and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of
bronze.

Ethan drove on in silence till they reached a part of the wood where the
pines were more widely spaced; then he drew up and helped Mattie to get
out of the sleigh. They passed between the aromatic trunks, the snow
breaking crisply under their feet, till they came to a small sheet
of water with steep wooded sides. Across its frozen surface, from the
farther bank, a single hill rising against the western sun threw the
long conical shadow which gave the lake its name. It was a shy secret
spot, full of the same dumb melancholy that Ethan felt in his heart.

He looked up and down the little pebbly beach till his eye lit on a
fallen tree-trunk half submerged in snow.

“There’s where we sat at the picnic,” he reminded her.

The entertainment of which he spoke was one of the few that they had
taken part in together: a “church picnic” which, on a long afternoon of
the preceding summer, had filled the retired place with merry-making.
Mattie had begged him to go with her but he had refused. Then, toward
sunset, coming down from the mountain where he had been felling timber,
he had been caught by some strayed revellers and drawn into the group by
the lake, where Mattie, encircled by facetious youths, and bright as
a blackberry under her spreading hat, was brewing coffee over a gipsy
fire. He remembered the shyness he had felt at approaching her in his
uncouth clothes, and then the lighting up of her face, and the way she
had broken through the group to come to him with a cup in her hand. They
had sat for a few minutes on the fallen log by the pond, and she had
missed her gold locket, and set the young men searching for it; and it
was Ethan who had spied it in the moss.... That was all; but all their
intercourse had been made up of just such inarticulate flashes, when
they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a
butterfly in the winter woods...

“It was right there I found your locket,” he said, pushing his foot into
a dense tuft of blueberry bushes.

“I never saw anybody with such sharp eyes!” she answered.

She sat down on the tree-trunk in the sun and he sat down beside her.

“You were as pretty as a picture in that pink hat,” he said.

She laughed with pleasure. “Oh, I guess it was the hat!” she rejoined.

They had never before avowed their inclination so openly, and Ethan, for
a moment, had the illusion that he was a free man, wooing the girl he
meant to marry. He looked at her hair and longed to touch it again, and
to tell her that it smelt of the woods; but he had never learned to say
such things.

Suddenly she rose to her feet and said: “We mustn’t stay here any
longer.”

He continued to gaze at her vaguely, only half-roused from his dream.
“There’s plenty of time,” he answered.

They stood looking at each other as if the eyes of each were straining
to absorb and hold fast the other’s image. There were things he had to
say to her before they parted, but he could not say them in that place
of summer memories, and he turned and followed her in silence to
the sleigh. As they drove away the sun sank behind the hill and the
pine-boles turned from red to grey.

By a devious track between the fields they wound back to the Starkfield
road. Under the open sky the light was still clear, with a reflection of
cold red on the eastern hills. The clumps of trees in the snow seemed to
draw together in ruffled lumps, like birds with their heads under their
wings; and the sky, as it paled, rose higher, leaving the earth more
alone.

As they turned into the Starkfield road Ethan said: “Matt, what do you
mean to do?”

She did not answer at once, but at length she said: “I’ll try to get a
place in a store.”

“You know you can’t do it. The bad air and the standing all day nearly
killed you before.”

“I’m a lot stronger than I was before I came to Starkfield.”

“And now you’re going to throw away all the good it’s done you!”

There seemed to be no answer to this, and again they drove on for a
while without speaking. With every yard of the way some spot where they
had stood, and laughed together or been silent, clutched at Ethan and
dragged him back.

“Isn’t there any of your father’s folks could help you?”

“There isn’t any of ‘em I’d ask.”

He lowered his voice to say: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for
you if I could.”

“I know there isn’t.”

“But I can’t--”

She was silent, but he felt a slight tremor in the shoulder against his.

“Oh, Matt,” he broke out, “if I could ha’ gone with you now I’d ha’ done
it--”

She turned to him, pulling a scrap of paper from her breast. “Ethan--I
found this,” she stammered. Even in the failing light he saw it was the
letter to his wife that he had begun the night before and forgotten
to destroy. Through his astonishment there ran a fierce thrill of joy.
“Matt--” he cried; “if I could ha’ done it, would you?”

“Oh, Ethan, Ethan--what’s the use?” With a sudden movement she tore the
letter in shreds and sent them fluttering off into the snow.

“Tell me, Matt! Tell me!” he adjured her.

She was silent for a moment; then she said, in such a low tone that he
had to stoop his head to hear her: “I used to think of it sometimes,
summer nights when the moon was so bright. I couldn’t sleep.”

His heart reeled with the sweetness of it. “As long ago as that?”

She answered, as if the date had long been fixed for her: “The first
time was at Shadow Pond.”

“Was that why you gave me my coffee before the others?”

“I don’t know. Did I? I was dreadfully put out when you wouldn’t go to
the picnic with me; and then, when I saw you coming down the road, I
thought maybe you’d gone home that way o’ purpose; and that made me
glad.”

They were silent again. They had reached the point where the road
dipped to the hollow by Ethan’s mill and as they descended the darkness
descended with them, dropping down like a black veil from the heavy
hemlock boughs.

“I’m tied hand and foot, Matt. There isn’t a thing I can do,” he began
again.

“You must write to me sometimes, Ethan.”

“Oh, what good’ll writing do? I want to put my hand out and touch you. I
want to do for you and care for you. I want to be there when you’re sick
and when you’re lonesome.”

“You mustn’t think but what I’ll do all right.”

“You won’t need me, you mean? I suppose you’ll marry!”

“Oh, Ethan!” she cried.

“I don’t know how it is you make me feel, Matt. I’d a’most rather have
you dead than that!”

“Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!” she sobbed.

The sound of her weeping shook him out of his dark anger, and he felt
ashamed.

“Don’t let’s talk that way,” he whispered.

“Why shouldn’t we, when it’s true? I’ve been wishing it every minute of
the day.”

“Matt! You be quiet! Don’t you say it.”

“There’s never anybody been good to me but you.”

“Don’t say that either, when I can’t lift a hand for you!”

“Yes; but it’s true just the same.”

They had reached the top of School House Hill and Starkfield lay below
them in the twilight. A cutter, mounting the road from the village,
passed them by in a joyous flutter of bells, and they straightened
themselves and looked ahead with rigid faces. Along the main street
lights had begun to shine from the house-fronts and stray figures were
turning in here and there at the gates. Ethan, with a touch of his whip,
roused the sorrel to a languid trot.

As they drew near the end of the village the cries of children reached
them, and they saw a knot of boys, with sleds behind them, scattering
across the open space before the church.

“I guess this’ll be their last coast for a day or two,” Ethan said,
looking up at the mild sky.

Mattie was silent, and he added: “We were to have gone down last night.”

Still she did not speak and, prompted by an obscure desire to
help himself and her through their miserable last hour, he went on
discursively: “Ain’t it funny we haven’t been down together but just
that once last winter?”

She answered: “It wasn’t often I got down to the village.”

“That’s so,” he said.

They had reached the crest of the Corbury road, and between the
indistinct white glimmer of the church and the black curtain of the
Varnum spruces the slope stretched away below them without a sled on its
length. Some erratic impulse prompted Ethan to say: “How’d you like me
to take you down now?”

She forced a laugh. “Why, there isn’t time!”

“There’s all the time we want. Come along!” His one desire now was to
postpone the moment of turning the sorrel toward the Flats.

“But the girl,” she faltered. “The girl’ll be waiting at the station.”

“Well, let her wait. You’d have to if she didn’t. Come!”

The note of authority in his voice seemed to subdue her, and when he
had jumped from the sleigh she let him help her out, saying only, with a
vague feint of reluctance: “But there isn’t a sled round anywheres.”

“Yes, there is! Right over there under the spruces.” He threw the
bearskin over the sorrel, who stood passively by the roadside, hanging
a meditative head. Then he caught Mattie’s hand and drew her after him
toward the sled.

She seated herself obediently and he took his place behind her, so close
that her hair brushed his face. “All right, Matt?” he called out, as if
the width of the road had been between them.

She turned her head to say: “It’s dreadfully dark. Are you sure you can
see?”

He laughed contemptuously: “I could go down this coast with my
eyes tied!” and she laughed with him, as if she liked his audacity.
Nevertheless he sat still a moment, straining his eyes down the long
hill, for it was the most confusing hour of the evening, the hour when
the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising night in
a blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances.

“Now!” he cried.

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk,
gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night
opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ. Mattie sat
perfectly still, but as they reached the bend at the foot of the hill,
where the big elm thrust out a deadly elbow, he fancied that she shrank
a little closer.

“Don’t be scared, Matt!” he cried exultantly, as they spun safely past
it and flew down the second slope; and when they reached the level
ground beyond, and the speed of the sled began to slacken, he heard her
give a little laugh of glee.

They sprang off and started to walk back up the hill. Ethan dragged the
sled with one hand and passed the other through Mattie’s arm.

“Were you scared I’d run you into the elm?” he asked with a boyish
laugh.

“I told you I was never scared with you,” she answered.

The strange exaltation of his mood had brought on one of his rare fits
of boastfulness. “It is a tricky place, though. The least swerve,
and we’d never ha’ come up again. But I can measure distances to a
hair’s-breadth--always could.”

She murmured: “I always say you’ve got the surest eye...”

Deep silence had fallen with the starless dusk, and they leaned on each
other without speaking; but at every step of their climb Ethan said to
himself: “It’s the last time we’ll ever walk together.”

They mounted slowly to the top of the hill. When they were abreast of
the church he stooped his head to her to ask: “Are you tired?” and she
answered, breathing quickly: “It was splendid!”

With a pressure of his arm he guided her toward the Norway spruces. “I
guess this sled must be Ned Hale’s. Anyhow I’ll leave it where I found
it.” He drew the sled up to the Varnum gate and rested it against the
fence. As he raised himself he suddenly felt Mattie close to him among
the shadows.

“Is this where Ned and Ruth kissed each other?” she whispered
breathlessly, and flung her arms about him. Her lips, groping for his,
swept over his face, and he held her fast in a rapture of surprise.

“Good-bye-good-bye,” she stammered, and kissed him again.

“Oh, Matt, I can’t let you go!” broke from him in the same old cry.

She freed herself from his hold and he heard her sobbing. “Oh, I can’t
go either!” she wailed.

“Matt! What’ll we do? What’ll we do?”

They clung to each other’s hands like children, and her body shook with
desperate sobs.

Through the stillness they heard the church clock striking five.

“Oh, Ethan, it’s time!” she cried.

He drew her back to him. “Time for what? You don’t suppose I’m going to
leave you now?”

“If I missed my train where’d I go?”

“Where are you going if you catch it?”

She stood silent, her hands lying cold and relaxed in his.

“What’s the good of either of us going anywheres without the other one
now?” he said.

She remained motionless, as if she had not heard him. Then she snatched
her hands from his, threw her arms about his neck, and pressed a sudden
drenched cheek against his face. “Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me
down again!”

“Down where?”

“The coast. Right off,” she panted. “So ‘t we’ll never come up any
more.”

“Matt! What on earth do you mean?”

She put her lips close against his ear to say: “Right into the big elm.
You said you could. So ‘t we’d never have to leave each other any more.”

“Why, what are you talking of? You’re crazy!”

“I’m not crazy; but I will be if I leave you.”

“Oh, Matt, Matt--” he groaned.

She tightened her fierce hold about his neck. Her face lay close to his
face.

“Ethan, where’ll I go if I leave you? I don’t know how to get along
alone. You said so yourself just now. Nobody but you was ever good to
me. And there’ll be that strange girl in the house... and she’ll sleep
in my bed, where I used to lay nights and listen to hear you come up the
stairs...”

The words were like fragments torn from his heart. With them came the
hated vision of the house he was going back to--of the stairs he would
have to go up every night, of the woman who would wait for him there.
And the sweetness of Mattie’s avowal, the wild wonder of knowing at
last that all that had happened to him had happened to her too, made the
other vision more abhorrent, the other life more intolerable to return
to...

Her pleadings still came to him between short sobs, but he no longer
heard what she was saying. Her hat had slipped back and he was stroking
her hair. He wanted to get the feeling of it into his hand, so that it
would sleep there like a seed in winter. Once he found her mouth again,
and they seemed to be by the pond together in the burning August sun.
But his cheek touched hers, and it was cold and full of weeping, and he
saw the road to the Flats under the night and heard the whistle of the
train up the line.

The spruces swathed them in blackness and silence. They might have been
in their coffins underground. He said to himself: “Perhaps it’ll feel
like this...” and then again: “After this I sha’n’t feel anything...”

Suddenly he heard the old sorrel whinny across the road, and thought:
“He’s wondering why he doesn’t get his supper...”

“Come!” Mattie whispered, tugging at his hand.

Her sombre violence constrained him: she seemed the embodied instrument
of fate. He pulled the sled out, blinking like a night-bird as he passed
from the shade of the spruces into the transparent dusk of the open. The
slope below them was deserted. All Starkfield was at supper, and not a
figure crossed the open space before the church. The sky, swollen with
the clouds that announce a thaw, hung as low as before a summer storm.
He strained his eyes through the dimness, and they seemed less keen,
less capable than usual.

He took his seat on the sled and Mattie instantly placed herself in
front of him. Her hat had fallen into the snow and his lips were in her
hair. He stretched out his legs, drove his heels into the road to keep
the sled from slipping forward, and bent her head back between his
hands. Then suddenly he sprang up again.

“Get up,” he ordered her.

It was the tone she always heeded, but she cowered down in her seat,
repeating vehemently: “No, no, no!”

“Get up!”

“Why?”

“I want to sit in front.”

“No, no! How can you steer in front?”

“I don’t have to. We’ll follow the track.”

They spoke in smothered whispers, as though the night were listening.

“Get up! Get up!” he urged her; but she kept on repeating: “Why do you
want to sit in front?”

“Because I--because I want to feel you holding me,” he stammered, and
dragged her to her feet.

The answer seemed to satisfy her, or else she yielded to the power of
his voice. He bent down, feeling in the obscurity for the glassy slide
worn by preceding coasters, and placed the runners carefully between its
edges. She waited while he seated himself with crossed legs in the front
of the sled; then she crouched quickly down at his back and clasped her
arms about him. Her breath in his neck set him shuddering again, and
he almost sprang from his seat. But in a flash he remembered the
alternative. She was right: this was better than parting. He leaned back
and drew her mouth to his...

Just as they started he heard the sorrel’s whinny again, and the
familiar wistful call, and all the confused images it brought with it,
went with him down the first reach of the road. Half-way down there
was a sudden drop, then a rise, and after that another long delirious
descent. As they took wing for this it seemed to him that they were
flying indeed, flying far up into the cloudy night, with Starkfield
immeasurably below them, falling away like a speck in space... Then the
big elm shot up ahead, lying in wait for them at the bend of the road,
and he said between his teeth: “We can fetch it; I know we can fetch
it--”

As they flew toward the tree Mattie pressed her arms tighter, and her
blood seemed to be in his veins. Once or twice the sled swerved a little
under them. He slanted his body to keep it headed for the elm, repeating
to himself again and again: “I know we can fetch it”; and little phrases
she had spoken ran through his head and danced before him on the air.
The big tree loomed bigger and closer, and as they bore down on it
he thought: “It’s waiting for us: it seems to know.” But suddenly his
wife’s face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between
him and his goal, and he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside.
The sled swerved in response, but he righted it again, kept it straight,
and drove down on the black projecting mass. There was a last instant
when the air shot past him like millions of fiery wires; and then the
elm...

The sky was still thick, but looking straight up he saw a single star,
and tried vaguely to reckon whether it were Sirius, or--or--The effort
tired him too much, and he closed his heavy lids and thought that he
would sleep... The stillness was so profound that he heard a little
animal twittering somewhere near by under the snow. It made a small
frightened cheep like a field mouse, and he wondered languidly if
it were hurt. Then he understood that it must be in pain: pain so
excruciating that he seemed, mysteriously, to feel it shooting through
his own body. He tried in vain to roll over in the direction of the
sound, and stretched his left arm out across the snow. And now it was as
though he felt rather than heard the twittering; it seemed to be under
his palm, which rested on something soft and springy. The thought of
the animal’s suffering was intolerable to him and he struggled to raise
himself, and could not because a rock, or some huge mass, seemed to be
lying on him. But he continued to finger about cautiously with his left
hand, thinking he might get hold of the little creature and help it; and
all at once he knew that the soft thing he had touched was Mattie’s hair
and that his hand was on her face.

He dragged himself to his knees, the monstrous load on him moving with
him as he moved, and his hand went over and over her face, and he felt
that the twittering came from her lips...

He got his face down close to hers, with his ear to her mouth, and in
the darkness he saw her eyes open and heard her say his name.

“Oh, Matt, I thought we’d fetched it,” he moaned; and far off, up the
hill, he heard the sorrel whinny, and thought: “I ought to be getting
him his feed...”


*****


THE QUERULOUS DRONE ceased as I entered Frome’s kitchen, and of the two
women sitting there I could not tell which had been the speaker.

One of them, on my appearing, raised her tall bony figure from her seat,
not as if to welcome me--for she threw me no more than a brief glance
of surprise--but simply to set about preparing the meal which Frome’s
absence had delayed. A slatternly calico wrapper hung from her shoulders
and the wisps of her thin grey hair were drawn away from a high forehead
and fastened at the back by a broken comb. She had pale opaque eyes
which revealed nothing and reflected nothing, and her narrow lips were
of the same sallow colour as her face.

The other woman was much smaller and slighter. She sat huddled in an
arm-chair near the stove, and when I came in she turned her head quickly
toward me, without the least corresponding movement of her body.
Her hair was as grey as her companion’s, her face as bloodless and
shrivelled, but amber-tinted, with swarthy shadows sharpening the nose
and hollowing the temples. Under her shapeless dress her body kept its
limp immobility, and her dark eyes had the bright witch-like stare that
disease of the spine sometimes gives.

Even for that part of the country the kitchen was a poor-looking place.
With the exception of the dark-eyed woman’s chair, which looked like a
soiled relic of luxury bought at a country auction, the furniture was of
the roughest kind. Three coarse china plates and a broken-nosed milk-jug
had been set on a greasy table scored with knife-cuts, and a couple
of straw-bottomed chairs and a kitchen dresser of unpainted pine stood
meagrely against the plaster walls.

“My, it’s cold here! The fire must be ‘most out,” Frome said, glancing
about him apologetically as he followed me in.

The tall woman, who had moved away from us toward the dresser, took no
notice; but the other, from her cushioned niche, answered complainingly,
in a high thin voice. “It’s on’y just been made up this very minute.
Zeena fell asleep and slep’ ever so long, and I thought I’d be frozen
stiff before I could wake her up and get her to ‘tend to it.”

I knew then that it was she who had been speaking when we entered.

Her companion, who was just coming back to the table with the remains
of a cold mince-pie in a battered pie-dish, set down her unappetising
burden without appearing to hear the accusation brought against her.

Frome stood hesitatingly before her as she advanced; then he looked at
me and said: “This is my wife, Mis’ Frome.” After another interval he
added, turning toward the figure in the arm-chair: “And this is Miss
Mattie Silver...”


*****


Mrs. Hale, tender soul, had pictured me as lost in the Flats and buried
under a snow-drift; and so lively was her satisfaction on seeing me
safely restored to her the next morning that I felt my peril had caused
me to advance several degrees in her favour.

Great was her amazement, and that of old Mrs. Varnum, on learning that
Ethan Frome’s old horse had carried me to and from Corbury Junction
through the worst blizzard of the winter; greater still their surprise
when they heard that his master had taken me in for the night.

Beneath their wondering exclamations I felt a secret curiosity to know
what impressions I had received from my night in the Frome household,
and divined that the best way of breaking down their reserve was to let
them try to penetrate mine. I therefore confined myself to saying, in a
matter-of-fact tone, that I had been received with great kindness, and
that Frome had made a bed for me in a room on the ground-floor which
seemed in happier days to have been fitted up as a kind of writing-room
or study.

“Well,” Mrs. Hale mused, “in such a storm I suppose he felt he couldn’t
do less than take you in--but I guess it went hard with Ethan. I don’t
believe but what you’re the only stranger has set foot in that house for
over twenty years. He’s that proud he don’t even like his oldest friends
to go there; and I don’t know as any do, any more, except myself and the
doctor...”

“You still go there, Mrs. Hale?” I ventured.

“I used to go a good deal after the accident, when I was first married;
but after awhile I got to think it made ‘em feel worse to see us. And
then one thing and another came, and my own troubles... But I generally
make out to drive over there round about New Year’s, and once in the
summer. Only I always try to pick a day when Ethan’s off somewheres.
It’s bad enough to see the two women sitting there--but his face, when he
looks round that bare place, just kills me... You see, I can look back
and call it up in his mother’s day, before their troubles.”

Old Mrs. Varnum, by this time, had gone up to bed, and her daughter
and I were sitting alone, after supper, in the austere seclusion of
the horse-hair parlour. Mrs. Hale glanced at me tentatively, as though
trying to see how much footing my conjectures gave her; and I guessed
that if she had kept silence till now it was because she had been
waiting, through all the years, for some one who should see what she
alone had seen.

I waited to let her trust in me gather strength before I said: “Yes,
it’s pretty bad, seeing all three of them there together.”

She drew her mild brows into a frown of pain. “It was just awful from
the beginning. I was here in the house when they were carried up--they
laid Mattie Silver in the room you’re in. She and I were great friends,
and she was to have been my bridesmaid in the spring... When she came
to I went up to her and stayed all night. They gave her things to quiet
her, and she didn’t know much till to’rd morning, and then all of a
sudden she woke up just like herself, and looked straight at me out
of her big eyes, and said... Oh, I don’t know why I’m telling you all
this,” Mrs. Hale broke off, crying.

She took off her spectacles, wiped the moisture from them, and put them
on again with an unsteady hand. “It got about the next day,” she went
on, “that Zeena Frome had sent Mattie off in a hurry because she had a
hired girl coming, and the folks here could never rightly tell what she
and Ethan were doing that night coasting, when they’d ought to have been
on their way to the Flats to ketch the train... I never knew myself
what Zeena thought--I don’t to this day. Nobody knows Zeena’s thoughts.
Anyhow, when she heard o’ the accident she came right in and stayed with
Ethan over to the minister’s, where they’d carried him. And as soon as
the doctors said that Mattie could be moved, Zeena sent for her and took
her back to the farm.”

“And there she’s been ever since?”

Mrs. Hale answered simply: “There was nowhere else for her to go;” and
my heart tightened at the thought of the hard compulsions of the poor.

“Yes, there she’s been,” Mrs. Hale continued, “and Zeena’s done for her,
and done for Ethan, as good as she could. It was a miracle, considering
how sick she was--but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call
came to her. Not as she’s ever given up doctoring, and she’s had sick
spells right along; but she’s had the strength given her to care for
those two for over twenty years, and before the accident came she
thought she couldn’t even care for herself.”

Mrs. Hale paused a moment, and I remained silent, plunged in the vision
of what her words evoked. “It’s horrible for them all,” I murmured.

“Yes: it’s pretty bad. And they ain’t any of ‘em easy people either.
Mattie was, before the accident; I never knew a sweeter nature. But
she’s suffered too much--that’s what I always say when folks tell me how
she’s soured. And Zeena, she was always cranky. Not but what she bears
with Mattie wonderful--I’ve seen that myself. But sometimes the two
of them get going at each other, and then Ethan’s face’d break your
heart... When I see that, I think it’s him that suffers most... anyhow
it ain’t Zeena, because she ain’t got the time... It’s a pity, though,”
 Mrs. Hale ended, sighing, “that they’re all shut up there’n that one
kitchen. In the summertime, on pleasant days, they move Mattie into
the parlour, or out in the door-yard, and that makes it easier... but
winters there’s the fires to be thought of; and there ain’t a dime to
spare up at the Fromes.’”

Mrs. Hale drew a deep breath, as though her memory were eased of its
long burden, and she had no more to say; but suddenly an impulse of
complete avowal seized her.

She took off her spectacles again, leaned toward me across the bead-work
table-cover, and went on with lowered voice: “There was one day, about
a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn’t live.
Well, I say it’s a pity she did. I said it right out to our minister
once, and he was shocked at me. Only he wasn’t with me that morning
when she first came to... And I say, if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’
lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference
between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard;
‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold
their tongues.”





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