Ethan Frome (2 of 2)

Uploaded by The16thCavern on 05.11.2012

Chapter 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face, the face of the superseded woman, had obliterated that of the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
"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
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
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.
End of Chapter V
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
"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?"
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
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 doughnuts.
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."
End of Chapter VI
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
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
"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
"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—"
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
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?"
"And you ain't going to get it?"
"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
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
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.
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
"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
"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 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...
End of Chapter VII
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
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
"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
"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
"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 take 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
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
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
He turned and walked slowly back to the farm.
End of Chapter VIII
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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!"
"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
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
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
"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 of ETHAN FROME By Edith Wharton