Ethan is about to open the door to his home for the engineer on this treacherous snowy night. Inside, there is a “querulous drone” that stops the moment the door opens. The narrator sees two women but cannot tell from which of them the sound originated. One of the women gets up from her chair when the men enter, not in greeting but in preparation for the evening meal. This woman is angular and sallow, and her clothes hang from her bony frame. The other woman has a slighter build and is sitting hunched near the stove. She turns her head when the men enter, though her body does not move at all. Her hair is gray and she, too, appears “bloodless and shriveled.”
The kitchen is as destitute as the rest of the farm is. It is meager and cold, and Ethan apologizes that the fire has gone out. The woman in the chair complains that Zeena fell asleep and let the fire go out. The engineer recognizes the whine and knows it was she whose voice he heard from behind the door. The older woman is just bringing a dish to the table, and Ethan takes the opportunity to introduce the engineer to the women. His wife, Zenobia, is the woman preparing their supper; the other, the one who is paralyzed, is Mattie Silver.
The next day, after the narrator arrives at Mrs. Ned Hale’s boarding house, he is greeted with alacrity. She and her mother had both been worried about him and are shocked to hear he had spent the night at the Fromes’. They are curious about his impressions of the Fromes, but he simply tells them he slept in a makeshift bed in a small study off the parlor. Ruth believes no one has visited the Fromes in the last twenty years, even old friends, except for the doctor and herself. She goes twice a year but tries to visit at a time when she knows Ethan is not there. It is depressing enough, she says, to see the two women; to see the despair on Ethan’s face is just too much for her to bear, especially because she can remember the time before Ethan’s mother died and the trouble began.
The narrator senses Ruth would like to talk with someone else who has seen what she sees, and he waits patiently for her to tell him more of the story. Ruth continues. They brought Mattie to Ruth’s house right after the accident because they were friends. She was given sedatives to help her sleep, but when she woke up in the morning she looked right at Ruth and said—but Ruth could not bring herself to tell that part of the story. The word around town was that Ethan was taking Mattie to the train station, but no one knew why they had been coasting. Nobody knows what Zeena thought at the time, and that has not changed. Zeena simply came to Ethan’s bedside and stayed with him until he was moved home. As soon as the doctors released Mattie, Zeena brought her to the farmhouse. She has been there ever since; there was nowhere else for her to go.
Zeena seems to have gained supernatural strength, overcoming her own varied ailments to nurse her crippled cousin for the past twenty years. Ruth explains that none of them are “easy people.” When the two women quarrel, says Ruth, it breaks her heart to see Ethan’s face. They are able to move Mattie outside during the nicer months, but the winters take their toll on this...
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tragic household. Ruth leans forward and unburdens her heart to the narrator as she relates one last bit of information. There was a day, about a week after the accident, when no one expected Mattie to live. Ruth believes it was “a pity she did,” for no one else heard what Mattie had to say that first morning after the accident. Ruth believes that Ethan might have had a chance to live if Mattie had died. Instead, she does not see much difference between the Fromes in the house and the Fromes in the graveyard, except that “down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”