As soon as his wife had driven off Ethan took his coat and cap from the peg.
Mattie was washing up the dishes, humming one of the dance tunes of the nigh_efore. He said "So long, Matt," and she answered gaily "So long, Ethan"; an_hat was all.
It was warm and bright in the kitchen. The sun slanted through the sout_indow on the girl's moving figure, on the cat dozing in a chair, and on th_eraniums brought in from the door-way, where Ethan had planted them in th_ummer to "make a garden" for Mattie. He would have liked to linger on, watching her tidy up and then settle down to her sewing; but he wanted stil_ore to get the hauling done and be back at the farm before night.
All the way down to the village he continued to think of his return to Mattie.
The kitchen was a poor place, not "spruce" and shining as his mother had kep_t in his boyhood; but it was surprising what a homelike look the mere fact o_eena's absence gave it. And he pictured what it would be like that evening, when he and Mattie were there after supper. For the first time they would b_lone together indoors, and they would sit there, one on each side of th_tove, like a married couple, he in his stocking feet and smoking his pipe, she laughing and talking in that funny way she had, which was always as new t_im as if he had never heard her before.
The sweetness of the picture, and the relief of knowing that his fears of
"trouble" with Zeena were unfounded, sent up his spirits with a rush, and he, who was usually so silent, whistled and sang aloud as he drove through th_nowy fields. There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which th_ong Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished. By nature grave an_narticulate, he admired recklessness and gaiety in others and was warmed t_he marrow by friendly human intercourse. At Worcester, though he had the nam_f keeping to himself and not being much of a hand at a good time, he ha_ecretly gloried in being clapped on the back and hailed as "Old Ethe" or "Ol_tiff"; and the cessation of such familiarities had increased the chill of hi_eturn to Starkfield.
There the silence had deepened about him year by year. Left alone, after hi_ather's accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had no tim_or convivial loiterings in the village; and when his mother fell ill th_oneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields. Hi_other had been a talker in her day, but after her "trouble" the sound of he_oice was seldom heard, though she had not lost the power of speech.
Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked he_hy she didn't "say something," she would lift a finger and answer: "Becaus_'m listening"; and on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about the house, she would complain, if he spoke to her: "They're talking so out there that _an't hear you."
It was only when she drew toward her last illness, and his cousin Zenobi_ierce came over from the next valley to help him nurse her, that human speec_as heard again in the house. After the mortal silence of his lon_mprisonment Zeena's volubility was music in his ears. He felt that he migh_ave "gone like his mother" if the sound of a new voice had not come to stead_im. Zeena seemed to understand his case at a glance. She laughed at him fo_ot knowing the simplest sick-bed duties and told him to "go right along out"
and leave her to see to things. The mere fact of obeying her orders, o_eeling free to go about his business again and talk with other men, restore_is shaken balance and magnified his sense of what he owed her. Her efficienc_hamed and dazzled him. She seemed to possess by instinct all the househol_isdom that his long apprenticeship had not instilled in him. When the en_ame it was she who had to tell him to hitch up and go for the undertaker, an_he thought it "funny" that he had not settled beforehand who was to have hi_other's clothes and the sewing-machine. After the funeral, when he saw he_reparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being lef_lone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her t_tay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not hav_appened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter…
When they married it was agreed that, as soon as he could straighten out th_ifficulties resulting from Mrs. Frome's long illness, they would sell th_arm and saw-mill and try their luck in a large town. Ethan's love of natur_id not take the form of a taste for agriculture. He had always wanted to b_n engineer, and to live in towns, where there were lectures and big librarie_nd "fellows doing things." A slight engineering job in Florida, put in hi_ay during his period of study at Worcester, increased his faith in hi_bility as well as his eagerness to see the world; and he felt sure that, wit_ "smart" wife like Zeena, it would not be long before he had made himself _lace in it.
Zeena's native village was slightly larger and nearer to the railway tha_tarkfield, and she had let her husband see from the first that life on a_solated farm was not what she had expected when she married. But purchaser_ere slow in coming, and while he waited for them Ethan learned th_mpossibility of transplanting her. She chose to look down on Starkfield, bu_he could not have lived in a place which looked down on her. Even Bettsbridg_r Shadd's Falls would not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in th_reater cities which attracted Ethan she would have suffered a complete los_f identity. And within a year of their marriage she developed the
"sickliness" which had since made her notable even in a community rich i_athological instances. When she came to take care of his mother she ha_eemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skil_s a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.
Then she too fell silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of life on th_arm, or perhaps, as she sometimes said, it was because Ethan "neve_istened." The charge was not wholly unfounded. When she spoke it was only t_omplain, and to complain of things not in his power to remedy; and to check _endency to impatient retort he had first formed the habit of not answerin_er, and finally of thinking of other things while she talked. Of late, however, since he had reasons for observing her more closely, her silence ha_egun to trouble him. He recalled his mother's growing taciturnity, an_ondered if Zeena were also turning "queer." Women did, he knew. Zeena, wh_ad at her fingers' ends the pathological chart of the whole region, had cite_any cases of the kind while she was nursing his mother; and he himself kne_f certain lonely farm-houses in the neighbourhood where stricken creature_ined, and of others where sudden tragedy had come of their presence. A_imes, looking at Zeena's shut face, he felt the chill of such forebodings. A_ther times her silence seemed deliberately assumed to conceal far-reachin_ntentions, mysterious conclusions drawn from suspicions and resentment_mpossible to guess. That supposition was even more disturbing than the other; and it was the one which had come to him the night before, when he had see_er standing in the kitchen door.
Now her departure for Bettsbridge had once more eased his mind, and all hi_houghts were on the prospect of his evening with Mattie. Only one thin_eighed on him, and that was his having told Zeena that he was to receive cas_or the lumber. He foresaw so clearly the consequences of this imprudence tha_ith considerable reluctance he decided to ask Andrew Hale for a small advanc_n his load.
When Ethan drove into Hale's yard the builder was just getting out of hi_leigh.
"Hello, Ethe!" he said. "This comes handy."
Andrew Hale was a ruddy man with a big gray moustache and a stubbly double- chin unconstrained by a collar; but his scrupulously clean shirt was alway_astened by a small diamond stud. This display of opulence was misleading, fo_hough he did a fairly good business it was known that his easygoing habit_nd the demands of his large family frequently kept him what Starkfield called
"behind." He was an old friend of Ethan's family, and his house one of the fe_o which Zeena occasionally went, drawn there by the fact that Mrs. Hale, i_er youth, had done more "doctoring" than any other woman in Starkfield, an_as still a recognised authority on symptoms and treatment.
Hale went up to the grays and patted their sweating flanks.
"Well, sir," he said, "you keep them two as if they was pets."
Ethan set about unloading the logs and when he had finished his job he pushe_pen the glazed door of the shed which the builder used as his office. Hal_at with his feet up on the stove, his back propped against a battered des_trewn with papers: the place, like the man, was warm, genial and untidy.
"Sit right down and thaw out," he greeted Ethan.
The latter did not know how to begin, but at length he managed to bring ou_is request for an advance of fifty dollars. The blood rushed to his thin ski_nder the sting of Hale's astonishment. It was the builder's custom to pay a_he end of three months, and there was no precedent between the two men for _ash settlement.
Ethan felt that if he had pleaded an urgent need Hale might have made shift t_ay him; but pride, and an instinctive prudence, kept him from resorting t_his argument. After his father's death it had taken time to get his hea_bove water, and he did not want Andrew Hale, or any one else in Starkfield, to think he was going under again. Besides, he hated lying; if he wanted th_oney he wanted it, and it was nobody's business to ask why. He therefore mad_is demand with the awkwardness of a proud man who will not admit to himsel_hat he is stooping; and he was not much surprised at Hale's refusal.
The builder refused genially, as he did everything else: he treated the matte_s something in the nature of a practical joke, and wanted to know if Etha_editated buying a grand piano or adding a "cupolo" to his house; offering, i_he latter case, to give his services free of cost.
Ethan's arts were soon exhausted, and after an embarrassed pause he wishe_ale good day and opened the door of the office. As he passed out the builde_uddenly called after him: "See here-you ain't in a tight place, are you?"
"Not a bit," Ethan's pride retorted before his reason had time to intervene.
"Well, that's good! Because I am, a shade. Fact is, I was going to ask you t_ive me a little extra time on that payment. Business is pretty slack, t_egin with, and then I'm fixing up a little house for Ned and Ruth whe_hey're married. I'm glad to do it for 'em, but it costs." His look appeale_o Ethan for sympathy. "The young people like things nice. You know how it i_ourself: it's not so long ago since you fixed up your own place for Zeena."
Ethan left the grays in Hale's stable and went about some other business i_he village. As he walked away the builder's last phrase lingered in his ears, and he reflected grimly that his seven years with Zeena seemed to Starkfield
"not so long."
The afternoon was drawing to an end, and here and there a lighted pan_pangled the cold gray dusk and made the snow look whiter. The bitter weathe_ad driven every one indoors and Ethan had the long rural street to himself.
Suddenly he heard the brisk play of sleigh-bells and a cutter passed him, drawn by a free-going horse. Ethan recognised Michael Eady's roan colt, an_oung Denis Eady, in a handsome new fur cap, leaned forward and waved _reeting. "Hello, Ethe!" he shouted and spun on.
The cutter was going in the direction of the Frome farm, and Ethan's hear_ontracted as he listened to the dwindling bells. What more likely than tha_enis Eady had heard of Zeena's departure for Bettsbridge, and was profitin_y the opportunity to spend an hour with Mattie? Ethan was ashamed of th_torm of jealousy in his breast. It seemed unworthy of the girl that hi_houghts of her should be so violent.
He walked on to the church corner and entered the shade of the Varnum spruces, where he had stood with her the night before. As he passed into their gloom h_aw an indistinct outline just ahead of him. At his approach it melted for a_nstant into two separate shapes and then conjoined again, and he heard _iss, and a half-laughing "Oh!" provoked by the discovery of his presence.
Again the outline hastily disunited and the Varnum gate slammed on one hal_hile the other hurried on ahead of him. Ethan smiled at the discomfiture h_ad caused. What did it matter to Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum if they were caugh_issing each other? Everybody in Starkfield knew they were engaged. It please_than to have surprised a pair of lovers on the spot where he and Mattie ha_tood with such a thirst for each other in their hearts; but he felt a pang a_he thought that these two need not hide their happiness.
He fetched the grays from Hale's stable and started on his long climb back t_he farm. The cold was less sharp than earlier in the day and a thick fleec_ky threatened snow for the morrow. Here and there a star pricked through, showing behind it a deep well of blue. In an hour or two the moon would pus_ver the ridge behind the farm, burn a gold-edged rent in the clouds, and the_e swallowed by them. A mournful peace hung on the fields, as though they fel_he relaxing grasp of the cold and stretched themselves in their long winte_leep.
Ethan's ears were alert for the jingle of sleigh-bells, but not a sound brok_he silence of the lonely road. As he drew near the farm he saw, through th_hin screen of larches at the gate, a light twinkling in the house above him.
"She's up in her room," he said to himself, "fixing herself up for supper"; and he remembered Zeena's sarcastic stare when Mattie, on the evening of he_rrival, had come down to supper with smoothed hair and a ribbon at her neck.
He passed by the graves on the knoll and turned his head to glance at one o_he older headstones, which had interested him deeply as a boy because it bor_is name.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
ETHAN FROME AND ENDURANCE HIS WIFE,
WHO DWELLED TOGETHER IN PEACE
FOR FIFTY YEARS.
He used to think that fifty years sounded like a long time to live together, but now it seemed to him that they might pass in a flash. Then, with a sudde_art of irony, he wondered if, when their turn came, the same epitaph would b_ritten over him and Zeena.
He opened the barn-door and craned his head into the obscurity, half-fearin_o discover Denis Eady's roan colt in the stall beside the sorrel. But the ol_orse was there alone, mumbling his crib with toothless jaws, and Etha_histled cheerfully while he bedded down the grays and shook an extra measur_f oats into their mangers. His was not a tuneful throat-but harsh melodie_urst from it as he locked the barn and sprang up the hill to the house. H_eached the kitchen-porch and turned the door-handle; but the door did no_ield to his touch.
Startled at finding it locked he rattled the handle violently; then h_eflected that Mattie was alone and that it was natural she should barricad_erself at nightfall. He stood in the darkness expecting to hear her step. I_id not come, and after vainly straining his ears he called out in a voic_hat shook with joy: "Hello, Matt!"
Silence answered; but in a minute or two he caught a sound on the stairs an_aw a line of light about the door-frame, as he had seen it the night before.
So strange was the precision with which the incidents of the previous evenin_ere repeating themselves that he half expected, when he heard the key turn, to see his wife before him on the threshold; but the door opened, and Matti_aced him.
She stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand, against th_lack background of the kitchen. She held the light at the same level, and i_rew out with the same distinctness her slim young throat and the brown wris_o bigger than a child's. Then, striking upward, it threw a lustrous fleck o_er lips, edged her eyes with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness abov_he black curve of her brows.
She wore her usual dress of darkish stuff, and there was no bow at her neck; but through her hair she had run a streak of crimson ribbon. This tribute t_he unusual transformed and glorified her. She seemed to Ethan taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and motion. She stood aside, smiling silently, while h_ntered, and then moved away from him with something soft and flowing in he_ait. She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid fo_upper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles i_ dish of gay red glass. A bright fire glowed in the stove and the cat la_tretched before it, watching the table with a drowsy eye.
Ethan was suffocated with the sense of well-being. He went out into th_assage to hang up his coat and pull off his wet boots. When he came bac_attie had set the teapot on the table and the cat was rubbing itsel_ersuasively against her ankles.
"Why, Puss! I nearly tripped over you," she cried, the laughter sparklin_hrough her lashes.
Again Ethan felt a sudden twinge of jealousy. Could it be his coming that gav_er such a kindled face?
"Well, Matt, any visitors?" he threw off, stooping down carelessly to examin_he fastening of the stove.
She nodded and laughed "Yes, one," and he felt a blackness settling on hi_rows.
"Who was that?" he questioned, raising himself up to slant a glance at he_eneath his scowl.
Her eyes danced with malice. "Why, Jotham Powell. He came in after he go_ack, and asked for a drop of coffee before he went down home."
The blackness lifted and light flooded Ethan's brain. "That all? Well, I hop_ou made out to let him have it." And after a pause he felt it right to add:
"I suppose he got Zeena over to the Flats all right?"
"Oh, yes; in plenty of time."
The name threw a chill between them, and they stood a moment looking sideway_t each other before Mattie said with a shy laugh. "I guess it's about tim_or supper."
They drew their seats up to the table, and the cat, unbidden, jumped betwee_hem into Zeena's empty chair. "Oh, Puss!" said Mattie, and they laughe_gain.
Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on the brink of eloquence; but th_ention of Zeena had paralysed him. Mattie seemed to feel the contagion of hi_mbarrassment, and sat with downcast lids, sipping her tea, while he feigne_n insatiable appetite for dough-nuts and sweet pickles. At last, afte_asting about for an effective opening, he took a long gulp of tea, cleare_is throat, and said: "Looks as if there'd be more snow."
She feigned great interest. "Is that so? Do you suppose it'll interfere wit_eena's getting back?" She flushed red as the question escaped her, an_astily set down the cup she was lifting.
Ethan reached over for another helping of pickles. "You never can tell, thi_ime of year, it drifts so bad on the Flats." The name had benumbed him again, and once more he felt as if Zeena were in the room between them.
"Oh, Puss, you're too greedy!" Mattie cried.
The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena's seat to th_able, and was stealthily elongating its body in the direction of the milk- jug, which stood between Ethan and Mattie. The two leaned forward at the sam_oment and their hands met on the handle of the jug. Mattie's hand wa_nderneath, and Ethan kept his clasped on it a moment longer than wa_ecessary. The cat, profiting by this unusual demonstration, tried to effec_n unnoticed retreat, and in doing so backed into the pickle-dish, which fel_o the floor with a crash.
Mattie, in an instant, had sprung from her chair and was down on her knees b_he fragments.
"Oh, Ethan, Ethan-it's all to pieces! What will Zeena say?"
But this time his courage was up. "Well, she'll have to say it to the cat, an_ay!" he rejoined with a laugh, kneeling down at Mattie's side to scrape u_he swimming pickles.
She lifted stricken eyes to him. "Yes, but, you see, she never meant it shoul_e used, not even when there was company; and I had to get up on the step- ladder to reach it down from the top shelf of the china-closet, where sh_eeps it with all her best things, and of course she'll want to know why I di_t-"
The case was so serious that it called forth all of Ethan's latent resolution.
"She needn't know anything about it if you keep quiet. I'll get another jus_ike it to-morrow. Where did it come from? I'll go to Shadd's Falls for it i_ have to!"
"Oh, you'll never get another even there! It was a wedding present-don't yo_emember? It came all the way from Philadelphia, from Zeena's aunt tha_arried the minister. That's why she wouldn't ever use it. Oh, Ethan, Ethan, what in the world shall I do?"
She began to cry, and he felt as if every one of her tears were pouring ove_im like burning lead. "Don't, Matt, don't-oh, don't!" he implored her.
She struggled to her feet, and he rose and followed her helplessly while sh_pread out the pieces of glass on the kitchen dresser. It seemed to him as i_he shattered fragments of their evening lay there.
"Here, give them to me," he said in a voice of sudden authority.
She drew aside, instinctively obeying his tone. "Oh, Ethan, what are you goin_o do?"
Without replying he gathered the pieces of glass into his broad palm an_alked out of the kitchen to the passage. There he lit a candle-end, opene_he china-closet, and, reaching his long arm up to the highest shelf, laid th_ieces together with such accuracy of touch that a close inspection convince_im of the impossibility of detecting from below that the dish was broken. I_e glued it together the next morning months might elapse before his wif_oticed what had happened, and meanwhile he might after all be able to matc_he dish at Shadd's Falls or Bettsbridge. Having satisfied himself that ther_as no risk of immediate discovery he went back to the kitchen with a lighte_tep, and found Mattie disconsolately removing the last scraps of pickle fro_he floor.
"It's all right, Matt. Come back and finish supper," he commanded her.
Completely reassured, she shone on him through tear-hung lashes, and his sou_welled with pride as he saw how his tone subdued her. She did not even as_hat he had done. Except when he was steering a big log down the mountain t_is mill he had never known such a thrilling sense of mastery.