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Ethan Frome

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CHAPTER 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.”






CHAPTER 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 an 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...






CHAPTER 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.






CHAPTER 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.”

END