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 strawbottomed 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 doctor…”
“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 brides-maid 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 fo 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.”