When the news of gold discoveries in California reaches New England, Simeon and Peter Cabot, who have spent their lives piling up stones to fence their father’s farm, become restless. In the summer of 1850 they are ready to tear down the fences that seem to hem them in, to rebel against their close-fisted old father, and for once in their lives to be free. One day, Ephraim Cabot hitches up his rig and drives off, leaving the farm in charge of his three sons, Simeon, Peter, and their younger half brother, Eben, all three of whom hate their father and see him for what he is: a greedy, self-righteous hypocrite. The older brothers hate Ephraim for what he did to them, but Eben hates his father because he stole the land that belonged to his mother and then worked her to death on the farm. Eben feels that the farm belongs to him, and he means to have it. He inherits some of old Ephraim’s stony implacability as well as his sensuality, and he gives expression to the latter on his trips down the road to visit Minnie, the local prostitute, who earlier belonged to his father.
Realizing that Simeon and Peter want to go to California, yet have no money to take them there, Eben thinks up a plan to get rid of them once and for all. While Ephraim is away, he offers them three hundred dollars each in gold if they will sign a paper renouncing all claims to the farm. Eben found the money, which belonged to his mother, buried beneath the floorboards of the kitchen. The brothers accept Eben’s offer and set off for California.
Shortly afterward, old Ephraim arrives home with Abbie Putnam. He is seventy-six, she thirty-five, but she has decided that she wants a home of her own. When old Ephraim offers to marry her, she accepts him at once, and by the time she moves into the Cabot homestead she is determined that whatever happens the farm will be hers someday. She tries unsuccessfully to make friends with Eben, who at first hates her as he would hate any other woman coming to take his mother’s place and the farm that rightfully belongs to him. After a time, though, Eben begins to notice that life on the farm is easier since his stepmother arrived. However, the realization that Abbie can influence his father as she desires only strengthens Eben’s determination to resist her attempts to conciliate him. Some of his taunts become so pointed that Abbie complains to Ephraim, falsely hinting that Eben made advances toward her. When the old man thereupon threatens to kill his son, she realizes that she went too far and must take a different approach. After that, Abbie subtly instills in Ephraim’s mind the idea that a son and heir who would inherit the farm after his death would be a better way of getting back at Eben than killing him outright. The old man, flattered at the thought that at the age of seventy-six he might have a son, agrees to leave Eben alone.
One night, after Ephraim goes out to sleep in the barn, Abbie sees her opportunity to secure her hold on the farm. She lures Eben into his mother’s parlor, a room that has not been opened since her death, and seduces him, breaking down his scruples with the suggestion that by cuckolding his father he can get revenge for Ephraim’s treatment of his mother.
The result is the son Abbie hopes for. To celebrate the child’s birth, Ephraim invites all...
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the neighbors to a dance in the kitchen of the farmhouse. Many of the guests suspect the true circumstances and say so as openly as they dare. Ephraim pays no attention to the insinuations, and outdances them all, until even the fiddler drops from sheer exhaustion.
While the revelry still is going on the old man steps outside to cool off. There he and Eben, who was sulking outside, quarrel over the possession of the farm. Spitefully, Ephraim taunts his son with his knowledge of how Abbie tricked him out of his inheritance. Furious, Eben turns on Abbie, threatening to kill her and telling her he hates her and the child he fathered when she tricked him. By this time, however, Abbie is genuinely in love with Eben, and, thinking the child is the obstacle keeping them apart, she smothers it in an effort to prove to her lover that it is he and not the child she wants. When he discovers what happened, Eben is enraged and shocked, and he sets off to get the sheriff for Abbie’s arrest.
When Ephraim discovers that Abbie killed the child that was not his, he, too, is shocked, but his heart fills with contempt at his son’s cowardice in giving Abbie over to the law. On his return to the farm, Eben begins to realize how much he loves Abbie and how great her love for him must be to induce her to take the child’s life. When the sheriff comes to take Abbie away, he confesses that he is an accomplice in the crime. The two are taken off together, both destined for punishment but happy in their love. Ephraim is left alone with his farm, the best farm in the county. It is, the sheriff tells him, a place anybody would want to own.