They finished supper, and while Mattie cleared the table Ethan went to look a_he cows and then took a last turn about the house. The earth lay dark under _uffled sky and the air was so still that now and then he heard a lump of sno_ome 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 stov_nd seated herself near the lamp with a bit of sewing. The scene was just a_e had dreamed of it that morning. He sat down, drew his pipe from his pocke_nd stretched his feet to the glow. His hard day's work in the keen air mad_im feel at once lazy and light of mood, and he had a confused sense of bein_n another world, where all was warmth and harmony and time could bring n_hange. The only drawback to his complete well-being was the fact that h_ould not see Mattie from where he sat; but he was too indolent to move an_fter a moment he said: "Come over here and sit by the stove."
Zeena's empty rocking-chair stood facing him. Mattie rose obediently, an_eated herself in it. As her young brown head detached itself against th_atch-work cushion that habitually framed his wife's gaunt countenance, Etha_ad a momentary shock. It was almost as if the other face, the face of th_uperseded woman, had obliterated that of the intruder. After a moment Matti_eemed to be affected by the same sense of constraint. She changed he_osition, leaning forward to bend her head above her work, so that he saw onl_he foreshortened tip of her nose and the streak of red in her hair; then sh_lipped to her feet, saying "I can't see to sew," and went back to her chai_y the lamp.
Ethan made a pretext of getting up to replenish the stove, and when h_eturned to his seat he pushed it sideways that he might get a view of he_rofile and of the lamplight falling on her hands. The cat, who had been _uzzled 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 o_harred wood fell now and then in the stove, and the faint sharp scent of th_eraniums mingled with the odour of Ethan's smoke, which began to throw a blu_aze about the lamp and to hang its greyish cobwebs in the shadowy corners o_he room.
All constraint had vanished between the two, and they began to talk easily an_imply. They spoke of every-day things, of the prospect of snow, of the nex_hurch sociable, of the loves and quarrels of Starkfield. The commonplac_ature of what they said produced in Ethan an illusion of long-establishe_ntimacy which no outburst of emotion could have given, and he set hi_magination adrift on the fiction that they had always spent their evening_hus and would always go on doing so…
"This is the night we were to have gone coasting. Matt," he said at length,
with the rich sense, as he spoke, that they could go on any other night the_hose, 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 o_er lips and teeth. "That would be lovely, Ethan!"
He kept his eyes fixed on her, marvelling at the way her face changed wit_ach turn of their talk, like a wheat-field under a summer breeze. It wa_ntoxicating to find such magic in his clumsy words, and he longed to try ne_ays of using it.
"Would you be scared to go down the Corbury road with me on a night lik_his?" 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 b_he big elm. If a fellow didn't keep his eyes open he'd go plumb into it." H_uxuriated in the sense of protection and authority which his words conveyed.
To prolong and intensify the feeling he added: "I guess we're well enoug_ere."
She let her lids sink slowly, in the way he loved. "Yes, we're well enoug_ere," she sighed.
Her tone was so sweet that he took the pipe from his mouth and drew his chai_p to the table. Leaning forward, he touched the farther end of the strip o_rown stuff that she was hemming. "Say, Matt," he began with a smile, "what d_ou think I saw under the Varnum spruces, coming along home just now? I saw _riend of yours getting kissed."
The words had been on his tongue all the evening, but now that he had spoke_hem they struck him as inexpressibly vulgar and out of place.
Mattie blushed to the roots of her hair and pulled her needle rapidly twice o_hrice through her work, insensibly drawing the end of it away from him. "_uppose it was Ruth and Ned," she said in a low voice, as though he ha_uddenly touched on something grave.
Ethan had imagined that his allusion might open the way to the accepte_leasantries, and these perhaps in turn to a harmless caress, if only a mer_ouch on her hand. But now he felt as if her blush had set a flaming guar_bout 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 _iss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm abou_attie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the ope_rresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancien_mplications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away fro_im and more unapproachable.
To ease his constraint he said: "I suppose they'll be setting a date befor_ong."
"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 _ustling covert leading to enchanted glades. A pang shot through Ethan, and h_aid, twisting away from her in his chair: "It'll be your turn next, _ouldn'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 droppe_ashes, while he sat in fascinated contemplation of the way in which her hand_ent up and down above the strip of stuff, just as he had seen a pair of bird_ake 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'_ot because you think Zeena's got anything against me, is it?"
His former dread started up full-armed at the suggestion. "Why, what do yo_ean?" he stammered.
She raised distressed eyes to his, her work dropping on the table betwee_hem. "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 s_penly of her attitude toward Mattie, and the repetition of the name seemed t_arry it to the farther corners of the room and send it back to them in lon_epercussions 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 jus_ervous, 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, bu_radually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly acros_er heart. She sat silent, her hands clasped on her work, and it seemed to hi_hat a warm current flowed toward him along the strip of stuff that still la_nrolled between them. Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along th_able till his finger-tips touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration o_er lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture, and that it ha_ent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless o_he other end of the strip.
As they sat thus he heard a sound behind him and turned his head. The cat ha_umped from Zeena's chair to dart at a mouse in the wainscot, and as a resul_f 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'v_een in a dream, and this is the only evening we'll ever have together." Th_eturn to reality was as painful as the return to consciousness after takin_n anaesthetic. His body and brain ached with indescribable weariness, and h_ould think of nothing to say or to do that should arrest the mad flight o_he moments.
His alteration of mood seemed to have communicated itself to Mattie. Sh_ooked up at him languidly, as though her lids were weighted with sleep and i_ost her an effort to raise them. Her glance fell on his hand, which no_ompletely covered the end of her work and grasped it as if it were a part o_erself. He saw a scarcely perceptible tremor cross her face, and withou_nowing what he did he stooped his head and kissed the bit of stuff in hi_old. As his lips rested on it he felt it glide slowly from beneath them, an_aw that Mattie had risen and was silently rolling up her work. She fastene_t with a pin, and then, finding her thimble and scissors, put them with th_oll of stuff into the box covered with fancy paper which he had once brough_o her from Bettsbridge.
He stood up also, looking vaguely about the room. The clock above the dresse_truck 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 h_aised himself again he saw that she was dragging toward the stove the ol_oap-box lined with carpet in which the cat made its bed. Then she recrosse_he floor and lifted two of the geranium pots in her arms, moving them awa_rom the cold window. He followed her and brought the other geraniums, th_yacinth bulbs in a cracked custard bowl and the German ivy trained over a_ld croquet hoop.
When these nightly duties were performed there was nothing left to do but t_ring in the tin candlestick from the passage, light the candle and blow ou_he lamp. Ethan put the candlestick in Mattie's hand and she went out of th_itchen ahead of him, the light that she carried before her making her dar_air look like a drift of mist on the moon.
"Good night, Matt," he said as she put her foot on the first step of th_tairs.
She turned and looked at him a moment. "Good night, Ethan," she answered, an_ent up.
When the door of her room had closed on her he remembered that he had not eve_ouched her hand.