Ethan Frome eText - Chapter IX

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Chapter IX

AT THE KITCHEN door Daniel Byrne sat in his sleigh behind a bigboned grey who pawed the snow and swung his long head restlessly from side to side.

Ethan went into the kitchen and found his wife by the stove. Her head was wrapped in her shawl, and she was reading a book called “Kidney Troubles and Their Cure” on which he had had to pay extra postage only a few days before.

Zeena did not move or look up when he entered, and after a moment he asked: “Where's Mattie?”

Without lifting her eyes from the page she replied: “I presume she's getting down her trunk.”

The blood rushed to his face. “Getting down her trunk—alone?”

“Jotham Powell's down in the wood-lot, and Dan'l Byrne says he darsn't leave that horse,” she returned.

Her husband, without stopping to hear the end of the phrase, had left the kitchen and sprung up the stairs. The door of Mattie's room was shut, and he wavered a moment on the landing. “Matt,” he said in a low voice; but there was no answer, and he put his hand on the door-knob.

He had never been in her room except once, in the early summer, when he had gone there to plaster up a leak in the eaves, but he remembered exactly how everything had looked: the red and white quilt on her narrow bed, the pretty pin-cushion on the chest of drawers, and over it the enlarged photograph of her mother, in an oxydized frame, with a bunch of dyed grasses at the back. Now these and all other tokens of her presence had vanished, and the room looked as bare and comfortless as when Zeena had shown her into it on the day of her arrival. In the middle of the floor stood her trunk, and on the trunk she sat in her Sunday dress, her back turned to the door and her face in her hands. She had not heard Ethan's call because she was sobbing; and she did not hear his step till he stood close behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders.

“Matt—oh, don't—oh, Matt!”

She started up, lifting her wet face to his. “Ethan—I thought I wasn't ever going to see you again!”

He took her in his arms, pressing her close, and with a trembling hand smoothed away the hair from her forehead.

“Not see me again? What do you mean?”

She sobbed out: “Jotham said you told him we wasn't to wait dinner for you, and I thought—”

“You thought I meant to cut it?” he finished for her grimly.

She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her hair, which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes, and had the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun.

Through the door they heard Zeena's voice calling out from below: “Dan'l Byrne says you better hurry up if you want him to take that trunk.”

They drew apart with stricken faces. Words of resistance rushed to Ethan's lips and died there. Mattie found her handkerchief and dried her eyes; then, bending down, she took hold of a handle of the trunk.

Ethan put her aside. “You let go, Matt,” he ordered her.

She answered: “It takes two to coax it round the corner”; and submitting to this argument he grasped the other handle, and together they manoeuvred the heavy trunk out to the landing.

“Now let go,” he repeated; then he shouldered the trunk and carried it down the stairs and across the passage to the kitchen. Zeena, who had gone back to her seat by the stove, did not lift her head from her book as he passed. Mattie followed him out of the door and helped him to lift the trunk into the back of the sleigh. When it was in place they stood side by side on the door-step, watching Daniel Byrne plunge off behind his fidgety horse.

It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock. Twice he opened his lips to speak to Mattie and found no breath. At length, as she turned to re-enter the house, he laid a detaining hand on her.

“I'm going to drive you over, Matt,” he whispered.

She murmured back: “I think Zeena wants I should go with Jotham.”

“I'm going to drive you over,” he repeated; and she went into the kitchen without answering.

At dinner Ethan could not eat. If he lifted his eyes they rested on Zeena's pinched face, and the corners of her straight lips seemed to quiver away into a smile. She ate well, declaring that the mild weather made her feel better, and pressed a second helping of beans on Jotham Powell, whose wants she generally ignored.

Mattie, when the meal was over, went about her usual task of clearing the table and washing up the dishes. Zeena, after feeding the cat, had returned to her rocking-chair by the stove, and Jotham Powell, who always lingered last, reluctantly pushed back his chair and moved toward the door.

On the threshold he turned back to say to Ethan: “What time'll I come round for Mattie?”

Ethan was standing near the window, mechanically filling his pipe while he watched Mattie move to and fro. He answered: “You needn't come round; I'm going to drive her over myself.”

He saw the rise of the colour in Mattie's averted cheek, and the quick lifting of Zeena's head.

“I want you should stay here this afternoon, Ethan,” his wife said. “Jotham can drive Mattie over.”

Mattie flung an imploring glance at him, but he repeated curtly: “I'm going to drive her over myself.”

Zeena continued in the same even tone: “I wanted you should stay and fix up that stove in Mattie's room afore the girl gets here. It ain't been drawing right for nigh on a month now.”

Ethan's voice rose indignantly. “If it was good enough for Mattie I guess it's good enough for a hired girl.”

“That girl that's coming told me she was used to a house where they had a furnace,” Zeena persisted with the same monotonous mildness.

“She'd better ha’ stayed there then,” he flung back at her; and turning to Mattie he added in a hard voice: “You be ready by three, Matt; I've got business at Corbury.”

Jotham Powell had started for the barn, and Ethan strode down after him aflame with anger. The pulses in his temples throbbed and a fog was in his eyes. He went about his task without knowing what force directed him, or whose hands and feet were fulfilling its orders. It was not till he led out the sorrel and backed him between the shafts of the sleigh that he once more became conscious of what he was doing. As he passed the bridle over the horse's head, and wound the traces around the shafts, he remembered the day when he had made the same preparations in order to drive over and meet his wife's cousin at the Flats. It was little more than a year ago, on just such a soft afternoon, with a “feel” of spring in the air. The sorrel, turning the same big ringed eye on him, nuzzled the palm of his hand in the same way; and one by one all the days between rose up and stood before him…

He flung the bearskin into the sleigh, climbed to the seat, and drove up to the house. When he entered the kitchen it was empty, but Mattie's bag and shawl lay ready by the door. He went to the foot of the stairs and listened. No sound reached him from above, but presently he thought he heard some one moving about in his deserted study, and pushing open the door he saw Mattie, in her hat and jacket, standing with her back to him near the table.

She started at his approach and turning quickly, said: “Is it time?”

“What are you doing here, Matt?” he asked her.

She looked at him timidly. “I was just taking a look round—that's all,” she answered, with a wavering smile.

They went back into the kitchen without speaking, and Ethan picked up her bag and shawl.

“Where's Zeena?” he asked.

“She went upstairs right after dinner. She said she had those shooting pains again, and didn't want to be disturbed.”

“Didn't she say good-bye to you?”

“No. That was all she said.”

Ethan, looking slowly about the kitchen, said to himself with a shudder that in a few hours he would be returning to it alone. Then the sense of unreality overcame him once more, and he could not bring himself to believe that Mattie stood there for the last time before him.

“Come on,” he said almost gaily, opening the door and putting her bag into the sleigh. He sprang to his seat and bent over to tuck the rug about her as she slipped into the place at his side. “Now then, go ‘long,” he said, with a shake of the reins that sent the sorrel placidly jogging down the hill.

“We got lots of time for a good ride, Matt!” he cried, seeking her hand beneath the fur and pressing it in his. His face tingled and he felt dizzy, as if he had stopped in at the Starkfield saloon on a zero day for a drink.

At the gate, instead of making for Starkfield, he turned the sorrel to the right, up the Bettsbridge road. Mattie sat silent, giving no sign of surprise; but after a moment she said: “Are you going round by Shadow Pond?”

He laughed and answered: “I knew you'd know!”

She drew closer under the bearskin, so that, looking sideways around his coat-sleeve, he could just catch the tip of her nose and a blown brown wave of hair. They drove slowly up the road between fields glistening under the pale sun, and then bent to the right down a lane edged with spruce and larch. Ahead of them, a long way off, a range of hills stained by mottlings of black forest flowed away in round white curves against the sky. The lane passed into a pine-wood with boles reddening in the afternoon sun and delicate blue shadows on the snow. As they entered it the breeze fell and a warm stillness seemed to drop from the branches with the dropping needles. Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze.

Ethan drove on in silence till they reached a part of the wood where the pines were more widely spaced, then he drew up and helped Mattie to get out of the sleigh. They passed between the aromatic trunks, the snow breaking crisply under their feet, till they came to a small sheet of water with steep wooded sides. Across its frozen surface, from the farther bank, a single hill rising against the western sun threw the long conical shadow which gave the lake its name. It was a shy secret spot, full of the same dumb melancholy that Ethan felt in his heart.

He looked up and down the little pebbly beach till his eye lit on a fallen tree-trunk half submerged in snow.

“There's where we sat at the picnic,” he reminded her.

The entertainment of which he spoke was one of the few that they had taken part in together: a “church picnic” which, on a long afternoon of the preceding summer, had filled the retired place with merry-making. Mattie had begged him to go with her but he had refused. Then, toward sunset, coming down from the mountain where he had been felling timber, he had been caught by some strayed revellers and drawn into the group by the lake, where Mattie, encircled by facetious youths, and bright as a blackberry under her spreading hat, was brewing coffee over a gipsy fire. He remembered the shyness he had felt at approaching her in his uncouth clothes, and then the lighting up of her face, and the way she had broken through the group to come to him with a cup in her hand. They had sat for a few minutes on the fallen log by the pond, and she had missed her gold locket, and set the young men searching for it; and it was Ethan who had spied it in the moss…That was all; but all their intercourse had been made up of just such inarticulate flashes, when they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods…

“It was right there I found your locket,” he said, pushing his foot into a dense tuft of blueberry bushes.

“I never saw anybody with such sharp eyes!” she answered.

She sat down on the tree-trunk in the sun and he sat down beside her.

“You were as pretty as a picture in that pink hat,” he said.

She laughed with pleasure. “Oh, I guess it was the hat!” she rejoined.

They had never before avowed their inclination so openly, and Ethan, for a moment, had the illusion that he was a free man, wooing the girl he meant to marry. He looked at her hair and longed to touch it again, and to tell her that it smelt of the woods; but he had never learned to say such things.

Suddenly she rose to her feet and said: “We mustn't stay here any longer.”

He continued to gaze at her vaguely, only half-roused from his dream. “There's plenty of time,” he answered.

They stood looking at each other as if the eyes of each were straining to absorb and hold fast the other's image. There were things he had to say to her before they parted, but he could not say them in that place of summer memories, and he turned and followed her in silence to the sleigh. As they drove away the sun sank behind the hill and the pine-boles turned from red to grey.

By a devious track between the fields they wound back to the Starkfield road. Under the open sky the light was still clear, with a reflection of cold red on the eastern hills. The clumps of trees in the snow seemed to draw together in ruffled lumps, like birds with their heads under their wings; and the sky, as it paled, rose higher, leaving the earth more alone.

As they turned into the Starkfield road Ethan said: “Matt, what do you mean to do?”

She did not answer at once, but at length she said: “I'll try to get a place in a store.”

“You know you can't do it. The bad air and the standing all day nearly killed you before.”

“I'm a lot stronger than I was before I came to Starkfield.”

“And now you're going to throw away all the good it's done you!”

There seemed to be no answer to this, and again they drove on for a while without speaking. With every yard of the way some spot where they had stood, and laughed together or been silent, clutched at Ethan and dragged him back.

“Isn't there any of your father's folks could help you?”

“There isn't any of ’em I'd ask.”

He lowered his voice to say: “You know there's nothing I wouldn't do for you if I could.”

“I know there isn't.”

“But I can't—”

She was silent, but he felt a slight tremor in the shoulder against his.

“Oh, Matt,” he broke out, “if I could ha’ gone with you now I'd ha’ done it—”

She turned to him, pulling a scrap of paper from her breast. “Ethan—I found this,” she stammered. Even in the failing light he saw it was the letter to his wife that he had begun the night before and forgotten to destroy. Through his astonishment there ran a fierce thrill of joy. “Matt—” he cried; “if I could ha’ done it, would you?”

“Oh, Ethan, Ethan—what's the use?” With a sudden movement she tore the letter in shreds and sent them fluttering off into the snow.

“Tell me, Matt! Tell me!” he adjured her.

She was silent for a moment; then she said, in such a low tone that he had to stoop his head to hear her: “I used to think of it sometimes, summer nights, when the moon was so bright I couldn't sleep.”

His heart reeled with the sweetness of it. “As long ago as that?”

She answered, as if the date had long been fixed for her: “The first time was at Shadow Pond.”

“Was that why you gave me my coffee before the others?”

“I don't know. Did I? I was dreadfully put out when you wouldn't go to the picnic with me; and then, when I saw you coming down the road, I thought maybe you'd gone home that way o’ purpose; and that made me glad.”

They were silent again. They had reached the point where the road dipped to the hollow by Ethan's mill and as they descended the darkness descended with them, dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs.

“I'm tied hand and foot, Matt. There isn't a thing I can do,” he began again.

“You must write to me sometimes, Ethan.”

“Oh, what good'll writing do? I want to put my hand out and touch you. I want to do for you and care for you. I want to be there when you're sick and when you're lonesome.”

“You mustn't think but what I'll do all right.”

“You won't need me, you mean? I suppose you'll marry!”

“Oh, Ethan!” she cried.

“I don't know how it is you make me feel, Matt. I'd a'most rather have you dead than that!”

“Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!” she sobbed.

The sound of her weeping shook him out of his dark anger, and he felt ashamed.

“Don't let's talk that way,” he whispered.

“Why shouldn't we, when it's true? I've been wishing it every minute of the day.”

“Matt! You be quiet! Don't you say it.”

“There's never anybody been good to me but you.”

“Don't say that either, when I can't lift a hand for you!”

“Yes; but it's true just the same.”

They had reached the top of School House Hill and Starkfield lay below them in the twilight. A cutter, mounting the road from the village, passed them by in a joyous flutter of bells, and they straightened themselves and looked ahead with rigid faces. Along the main street lights had begun to shine from the house-fronts and stray figures were turning in here and there at the gates. Ethan, with a touch of his whip, roused the sorrel to a languid trot.

As they drew near the end of the village the cries of children reached them, and they saw a knot of boys, with sleds behind them, scattering across the open space before the church.

“I guess this'll be their last coast for a day or two,” Ethan said, looking up at the mild sky.

Mattie was silent, and he added: “We were to have gone down last night.”

Still she did not speak and, prompted by an obscure desire to help himself and her through their miserable last hour, he went on discursively: “Ain't it funny we haven't been down together but just that once last winter?”

She answered: “It wasn't often I got down to the village.”

“That's so,” he said.

They had reached the crest of the Corbury road, and between the indistinct white glimmer of the church and the black curtain of the Varnum spruces the slope stretched away below them without a sled on its length. Some erratic impulse prompted Ethan to say: “How'd you like me to take you down now?”

She forced a laugh. “Why, there isn't time!”

“There's all the time we want. Come along!” His one desire now was to postpone the moment of turning the sorrel toward the Flats.

“But the girl,” she faltered. “The girl'll be waiting at the station.”

“Well, let her wait. You'd have to if she didn't. Come!”

The note of authority in his voice seemed to subdue her, and when he had jumped from the sleigh she let him help her out, saying only, with a vague feint of reluctance: “But there isn't a sled round anywheres.”

“Yes, there is! Right over there under the spruces.”

He threw the bearskin over the sorrel, who stood passively by the roadside, hanging a meditative head. Then he caught Mattie's hand and drew her after him toward the sled.

She seated herself obediently and he took his place behind her, so close that her hair brushed his face. “All right, Matt?” he called out, as if the width of the road had been between them.

She turned her head to say: “It's dreadfully dark. Are you sure you can see?”

He laughed contemptuously: “I could go down this coast with my eyes tied!” and she laughed with him, as if she liked his audacity. Nevertheless he sat still a moment, straining his eyes down the long hill, for it was the most confusing hour of the evening, the hour when the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising night in a blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances.

“Now!” he cried.

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ. Mattie sat perfectly still, but as they reached the bend at the foot of the hill, where the big elm thrust out a deadly elbow, he fancied that she shrank a little closer.

“Don't be scared, Matt!” he cried exultantly, as they spun safely past it and flew down the second slope; and when they reached the level ground beyond, and the speed of the sled began to slacken, he heard her give a little laugh of glee.

They sprang off and started to walk back up the hill. Ethan dragged the sled with one hand and passed the other through Mattie's arm.

“Were you scared I'd run you into the elm?” he asked with a boyish laugh.

“I told you I was never scared with you,” she answered.

The strange exaltation of his mood had brought on one of his rare fits of boastfulness. “It is a tricky place, though. The least swerve, and we'd never ha’ come up again. But I can measure distances to a hair's-breadth-always could.”

She murmured: “I always say you've got the surest eye…”

Deep silence had fallen with the starless dusk, and they leaned on each other without speaking; but at every step of their climb Ethan said to himself: “It's the last time we'll ever walk together.”

They mounted slowly to the top of the hill. When they were abreast of the church he stooped his head to her to ask: “Are you tired?” and she answered, breathing quickly: “It was splendid!”

With a pressure of his arm he guided her toward the Norway spruces. “I guess this sled must be Ned Hale's. Anyhow I'll leave it where I found it.” He drew the sled up to the Varnum gate and rested it against the fence. As he raised himself he suddenly felt Mattie close to him among the shadows.

“Is this where Ned and Ruth kissed each other?” she whispered breathlessly, and flung her arms about him. Her lips, groping for his, swept over his face, and he held her fast in a rapture of surprise.

“Good-bye-good-bye,” she stammered, and kissed him again.

“Oh, Matt I can't let you go!” broke from him in the same old cry.

She freed herself from his hold and he heard her sobbing. “Oh, I can't go either!” she wailed.

“Matt! What'll we do? What'll we do?”

They clung to each other's hands like children, and her body shook with desperate sobs.

Through the stillness they heard the church clock striking five.

“Oh, Ethan, it's time!” she cried.

He drew her back to him. “Time for what? You don't suppose I'm going to leave you now?”

“If I missed my train where'd I go?”

“Where are you going if you catch it?”

She stood silent, her hands lying cold and relaxed in his.

“What's the good of either of us going anywheres without the other one now?” he said.

She remained motionless, as if she had not heard him. Then she snatched her hands from his, threw her arms about his neck, and pressed a sudden drenched cheek against his face. “Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again!”

“Down where?”

“The coast. Right off,” she panted. “So ’t we'll never come up any more.”

“Matt! What on earth do you mean?”

She put her lips close against his ear to say: “Right into the big elm. You said you could. So ’t we'd never have to leave each other any more.”

“Why, what are you talking of? You're crazy!”

“I'm not crazy; but I will be if I leave you.”

“Oh, Matt, Matt—” he groaned.

She tightened her fierce hold about his neck. Her face lay close to his face.

“Ethan, where'll I go if I leave you? I don't know how to get along alone. You said so yourself just now. Nobody but you was ever good to me. And there'll be that strange girl in the house… and she'll sleep in my bed, where I used to lay nights and listen to hear you come up the stairs…”

The words were like fragments torn from his heart. With them came the hated vision of the house he was going back to—of the stairs he would have to go up every night, of the woman who would wait for him there. And the sweetness of Mattie's avowal, the wild wonder of knowing at last that all that had happened to him had happened to her too, made the other vision more abhorrent, the other life more intolerable to return to…

Her pleadings still came to him between short sobs, but he no longer heard what she was saying. Her hat had slipped back and he was stroking her hair. He wanted to get the feeling of it into his hand, so that it would sleep there like a seed in winter. Once he found her mouth again, and they seemed to be by the pond together in the burning August sun. But his cheek touched hers, and it was cold and full of weeping, and he saw the road to the Flats under the night and heard the whistle of the train up the line.

The spruces swathed them in blackness and silence. They might have been in their coffins underground. He said to himself: “Perhaps it'll feel like this…” and then again: “After this I sha'n’t feel anything…”

Suddenly he heard the old sorrel whinny across the road, and thought: “He's wondering why he doesn't get his supper…”

“Come!” Mattie whispered, tugging at his hand.

Her sombre violence constrained him: she seemed the embodied instrument of fate. He pulled the sled out, blinking like a night-bird as he passed from the shade of the spruces into the transparent dusk of the open. The slope below them was deserted. All Starkfield was at supper, and not a figure crossed the open space before the church. The sky, swollen with the clouds that announce a thaw, hung as low as before a summer storm. He strained his eyes through the dimness, and they seemed less keen, less capable than usual.

He took his seat on the sled and Mattie instantly placed herself in front of him. Her hat had fallen into the snow and his lips were in her hair. He stretched out his legs, drove his heels into the road to keep the sled from slipping forward, and bent her head back between his hands. Then suddenly he sprang up again.

“Get up,” he ordered her.

It was the tone she always heeded, but she cowered down in her seat, repeating vehemently: “No, no, no!”

“Get up!”

“Why?”

“I want to sit in front.”

“No, no! How can you steer in front?”

“I don't have to. We'll follow the track.”

They spoke in smothered whispers, as though the night were listening.

“Get up! Get up!” he urged her; but she kept on repeating: “Why do you want to sit in front?”

“Because I—because I want to feel you holding me,” he stammered, and dragged her to her feet.

The answer seemed to satisfy her, or else she yielded to the power of his voice. He bent down, feeling in the obscurity for the glassy slide worn by preceding coasters, and placed the runners carefully between its edges. She waited while he seated himself with crossed legs in the front of the sled; then she crouched quickly down at his back and clasped her arms about him. Her breath in his neck set him shuddering again, and he almost sprang from his seat. But in a flash he remembered the alternative. She was right: this was better than parting. He leaned back and drew her mouth to his…

Just as they started he heard the sorrel's whinny again, and the familiar wistful call, and all the confused images it brought with it, went with him down the first reach of the road. Half-way down there was a sudden drop, then a rise, and after that another long delirious descent. As they took wing for this it seemed to him that they were flying indeed, flying far up into the cloudy night, with Starkfield immeasurably below them, falling away like a speck in space…Then the big elm shot up ahead, lying in wait for them at the bend of the road, and he said between his teeth: “We can fetch it; I know we can fetch it—”

As they flew toward the tree Mattie pressed her arms tighter, and her blood seemed to be in his veins. Once or twice the sled swerved a little under them. He slanted his body to keep it headed for the elm, repeating to himself again and again: “I know we can fetch it”; and little phrases she had spoken ran through his head and danced before him on the air. The big tree loomed bigger and closer, and as they bore down on it he thought: “It's waiting for us: it seems to know.” But suddenly his wife's face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside. The sled swerved in response, but he righted it again, kept it straight, and drove down on the black projecting mass. There was a last instant when the air shot past him like millions of fiery wires; and then the elm…

The sky was still thick, but looking straight up he saw a single star, and tried vaguely to reckon whether it were Sirius, or—or—The effort tired him too much, and he closed his heavy lids and thought that he would sleep…The stillness was so profound that he heard a little animal twittering somewhere near by under the snow. It made a small frightened cheep like a field mouse, and he wondered languidly if it were hurt. Then he understood that it must be in pain: pain so excruciating that he seemed, mysteriously, to feel it shooting through his own body. He tried in vain to roll over in the direction of the sound, and stretched his left arm out across the snow. And now it was as though he felt rather than heard the twittering; it seemed to be under his palm, which rested on something soft and springy. The thought of the animal's suffering was intolerable to him and he struggled to raise himself, and could not because a rock, or some huge mass, seemed to be lying on him. But he continued to finger about cautiously with his left hand, thinking he might get hold of the little creature and help it; and all at once he knew that the soft thing he had touched was Mattie's hair and that his hand was on her face.

He dragged himself to his knees, the monstrous load on him moving with him as he moved, and his hand went over and over her face, and he felt that the twittering came from her lips…

He got his face down close to hers, with his ear to her mouth, and in the darkness he saw her eyes open and heard her say his name.

“Oh, Matt, I thought we'd fetched it,” he moaned; and far off, up the hill, he heard the sorrel whinny, and thought: “I ought to be getting him his feed…”

. . . . . .