There was some hauling to be done at the lower end of the wood-lot, and Etha_as out early the next day.
The winter morning was as clear as crystal. The sunrise burned red in a pur_ky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly blue, and beyond th_hite and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke.
It was in the early morning stillness, when his muscles were swinging to thei_amiliar task and his lungs expanding with long draughts of mountain air, tha_than did his clearest thinking. He and Zeena had not exchanged a word afte_he door of their room had closed on them. She had measured out some drop_rom a medicine-bottle on a chair by the bed and, after swallowing them, an_rapping her head in a piece of yellow flannel, had lain down with her fac_urned away. Ethan undressed hurriedly and blew out the light so that h_hould not see her when he took his place at her side. As he lay there h_ould hear Mattie moving about in her room, and her candle, sending its smal_ay across the landing, drew a scarcely perceptible line of light under hi_oor. He kept his eyes fixed on the light till it vanished. Then the room gre_erfectly black, and not a sound was audible but Zeena's asthmatic breathing.
Ethan felt confusedly that there were many things he ought to think about, bu_hrough his tingling veins and tired brain only one sensation throbbed: th_armth of Mattie's shoulder against his. Why had he not kissed her when h_eld her there? A few hours earlier he would not have asked himself th_uestion. Even a few minutes earlier, when they had stood alone outside th_ouse, he would not have dared to think of kissing her. But since he had see_er lips in the lamplight he felt that they were his.
Now, in the bright morning air, her face was still before him. It was part o_he sun's red and of the pure glitter on the snow. How the girl had change_ince she had come to Starkfield! He remembered what a colourless slip of _hing she had looked the day he had met her at the station. And all the firs_inter, how she had shivered with cold when the northerly gales shook the thi_lapboards and the snow beat like hail against the loose-hung windows!
He had been afraid that she would hate the hard life, the cold and loneliness;
but not a sign of discontent escaped her. Zeena took the view that Mattie wa_ound to make the best of Starkfield since she hadn't any other place to g_o; but this did not strike Ethan as conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did no_pply the principle in her own case.
He felt all the more sorry for the girl because misfortune had, in a sense,
indentured her to them. Mattie Silver was the daughter of a cousin of Zenobi_rome's, who had inflamed his clan with mingled sentiments of envy an_dmiration by descending from the hills to Connecticut, where he had married _tamford girl and succeeded to her father's thriving "drug" business.
Unhappily Orin Silver, a man of far-reaching aims, had died too soon to prov_hat the end justifies the means. His accounts revealed merely what the mean_ad been; and these were such that it was fortunate for his wife and daughte_hat his books were examined only after his impressive funeral. His wife die_f the disclosure, and Mattie, at twenty, was left alone to make her way o_he fifty dollars obtained from the sale of her piano. For this purpose he_quipment, though varied, was inadequate. She could trim a hat, make molasse_andy, recite "Curfew shall not ring to-night," and play "The Lost Chord" an_ pot-pourri from "Carmen." When she tried to extend the field of he_ctivities in the direction of stenography and book-keeping her health brok_own, and six months on her feet behind the counter of a department store di_ot tend to restore it. Her nearest relations had been induced to place thei_avings in her father's hands, and though, after his death, they ungrudgingl_cquitted themselves of the Christian duty of returning good for evil b_iving his daughter all the advice at their disposal, they could hardly b_xpected to supplement it by material aid. But when Zenobia's docto_ecommended her looking about for some one to help her with the house-work th_lan instantly saw the chance of exacting a compensation from Mattie. Zenobia,
though doubtful of the girl's efficiency, was tempted by the freedom to fin_ault without much risk of losing her; and so Mattie came to Starkfield.
Zenobia's fault-finding was of the silent kind, but not the less penetratin_or that. During the first months Ethan alternately burned with the desire t_ee Mattie defy her and trembled with fear of the result. Then the situatio_rew less strained. The pure air, and the long summer hours in the open, gav_ack life and elasticity to Mattie, and Zeena, with more leisure to devote t_er complex ailments, grew less watchful of the girl's omissions; so tha_than, struggling on under the burden of his barren farm and failing saw-mill,
could at least imagine that peace reigned in his house.
There was really, even now, no tangible evidence to the contrary; but sinc_he previous night a vague dread had hung on his sky-line. It was formed o_eena's obstinate silence, of Mattie's sudden look of warning, of the memor_f just such fleeting imperceptible signs as those which told him, on certai_tainless mornings, that before night there would be rain.
His dread was so strong that, man-like, he sought to postpone certainty. Th_auling was not over till mid-day, and as the lumber was to be delivered t_ndrew Hale, the Starkfield builder, it was really easier for Ethan to sen_otham Powell, the hired man, back to the farm on foot, and drive the loa_own to the village himself. He had scrambled up on the logs, and was sittin_stride of them, close over his shaggy grays, when, coming between him an_heir streaming necks, he had a vision of the warning look that Mattie ha_iven him the night before.
"If there's going to be any trouble I want to be there," was his vagu_eflection, as he threw to Jotham the unexpected order to unhitch the team an_ead them back to the barn.
It was a slow trudge home through the heavy fields, and when the two me_ntered the kitchen Mattie was lifting the coffee from the stove and Zeena wa_lready at the table. Her husband stopped short at sight of her. Instead o_er usual calico wrapper and knitted shawl she wore her best dress of brow_erino, and above her thin strands of hair, which still preserved the tigh_ndulations of the crimping-pins, rose a hard perpendicular bonnet, as t_hich Ethan's clearest notion was that he had to pay five dollars for it a_he Bettsbridge Emporium. On the floor beside her stood his old valise and _andbox wrapped in newspapers.
"Why, where are you going, Zeena?" he exclaimed.
"I've got my shooting pains so bad that I'm going over to Bettsbridge to spen_he night with Aunt Martha Pierce and see that new doctor," she answered in _atter-of-fact tone, as if she had said she was going into the store-room t_ake a look at the preserves, or up to the attic to go over the blankets.
In spite of her sedentary habits such abrupt decisions were not withou_recedent in Zeena's history. Twice or thrice before she had suddenly packe_than's valise and started off to Bettsbridge, or even Springfield, to see_he advice of some new doctor, and her husband had grown to dread thes_xpeditions because of their cost. Zeena always came back laden with expensiv_emedies, and her last visit to Springfield had been commemorated by he_aying twenty dollars for an electric battery of which she had never been abl_o learn the use. But for the moment his sense of relief was so great as t_reclude all other feelings. He had now no doubt that Zeena had spoken th_ruth in saying, the night before, that she had sat up because she felt "to_ean" to sleep: her abrupt resolve to seek medical advice showed that, a_sual, she was wholly absorbed in her health.
As if expecting a protest, she continued plaintively; "If you're too busy wit_he hauling I presume you can let Jotham Powell drive me over with the sorre_n time to ketch the train at the Flats."
Her husband hardly heard what she was saying. During the winter months ther_as no stage between Starkfield and Bettsbridge, and the trains which stoppe_t Corbury Flats were slow and infrequent. A rapid calculation showed Etha_hat Zeena could not be back at the farm before the following evening… .
"If I'd supposed you'd 'a' made any objection to Jotham Powell's driving m_ver-" she began again, as though his silence had implied refusal. On th_rink of departure she was always seized with a flux of words. "All I kno_s," she continued, "I can't go on the way I am much longer. The pains ar_lear away down to my ankles now, or I'd 'a' walked in to Starkfield on my ow_eet, sooner'n put you out, and asked Michael Eady to let me ride over on hi_agon to the Flats, when he sends to meet the train that brings his groceries.
I'd 'a' had two hours to wait in the station, but I'd sooner 'a' done it, eve_ith this cold, than to have you say-"
"Of course Jotham'll drive you over," Ethan roused himself to answer. H_ecame suddenly conscious that he was looking at Mattie while Zeena talked t_im, and with an effort he turned his eyes to his wife. She sat opposite th_indow, and the pale light reflected from the banks of snow made her face loo_ore than usually drawn and bloodless, sharpened the three parallel crease_etween ear and cheek, and drew querulous lines from her thin nose to th_orners of her mouth. Though she was but seven years her husband's senior, an_e was only twenty-eight, she was already an old woman.
Ethan tried to say something befitting the occasion, but there was only on_hought in his mind: the fact that, for the first time since Mattie had com_o live with them, Zeena was to be away for a night. He wondered if the gir_ere thinking of it too… .
He knew that Zeena must be wondering why he did not offer to drive her to th_lats and let Jotham Powell take the lumber to Starkfield, and at first h_ould not think of a pretext for not doing so; then he said: "I'd take yo_ver myself, only I've got to collect the cash for the lumber."
As soon as the words were spoken he regretted them, not only because they wer_ntrue-there being no prospect of his receiving cash payment from Hale-bu_lso because he knew from experience the imprudence of letting Zeena think h_as in funds on the eve of one of her therapeutic excursions. At the moment,
however, his one desire was to avoid the long drive with her behind th_ncient sorrel who never went out of a walk.
Zeena made no reply: she did not seem to hear what he had said. She ha_lready pushed her plate aside, and was measuring out a draught from a larg_ottle at her elbow.
"It ain't done me a speck of good, but I guess I might as well use it up," sh_emarked; adding, as she pushed the empty bottle toward Mattie: "If you ca_et the taste out it'll do for pickles."