THE NEXT MORNING at breakfast Jotham Powell was between them, and Ethan tried to hide his joy under an air of exaggerated indifference, lounging back in his chair to throw scraps to the cat, growling at the weather, and not so much as offering to help Mattie when she rose to clear away the dishes.
He did not know why he was so irrationally happy, for nothing was changed in his life or hers. He had not even touched the tip of her fingers or looked her full in the eyes. But their evening together had given him a vision of what life at her side might be, and he was glad now that he had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture. He had a fancy that she knew what had restrained him…
There was a last load of lumber to be hauled to the village, and Jotham Powell—who did not work regularly for Ethan in winter—had “come round” to help with the job. But a wet snow, melting to sleet, had fallen in the night and turned the roads to glass. There was more wet in the air and it seemed likely to both men that the weather would “milden” toward afternoon and make the going safer. Ethan therefore proposed to his assistant that they should load the sledge at the wood-lot, as they had done on the previous morning, and put off the “teaming” to Starkfield till later in the day. This plan had the advantage of enabling him to send Jotham to the Flats after dinner to meet Zenobia, while he himself took the lumber down to the village.
He told Jotham to go out and harness up the greys, and for a moment he and Mattie had the kitchen to themselves. She had plunged the breakfast dishes into a tin dish-pan and was bending above it with her slim arms bared to the elbow, the steam from the hot water beading her forehead and tightening her rough hair into little brown rings like the tendrils on the traveller's joy.
Ethan stood looking at her, his heart in his throat. He wanted to say: “We shall never be alone again like this.” Instead, he reached down his tobaccopouch from a shelf of the dresser, put it into his pocket and said: “I guess I can make out to be home for dinner.”
She answered “All right, Ethan,” and he heard her singing over the dishes as he went.
As soon as the sledge was loaded he meant to send Jotham back to the farm and hurry on foot into the village to buy the glue for the pickle-dish. With ordinary luck he should have had time to carry out this plan; but everything went wrong from the start. On the way over to the wood-lot one of the greys slipped on a glare of ice and cut his knee; and when they got him up again Jotham had to go back to the barn for a strip of rag to bind the cut. Then, when the loading finally began, a sleety rain was coming down once more, and the tree trunks were so slippery that it took twice as long as usual to lift them and get them in place on the sledge. It was what Jotham called a sour morning for work, and the horses, shivering and stamping under their wet blankets, seemed to like it as little as the men. It was long past the dinnerhour when the job was done, and Ethan had to give up going to the village because he wanted to lead the injured horse home and wash the cut himself.
He thought that by starting out again with the lumber as soon as he had finished his dinner he might get back to the farm with the glue before Jotham and the old sorrel had had time to fetch Zenobia from the Flats; but he knew the chance was a slight one. It turned on the state of the roads and on the possible lateness of the Bettsbridge train. He remembered afterward, with a grim flash of self-derision, what importance he had attached to the weighing of these probabilities…
As soon as dinner was over he set out again for the wood-lot, not daring to linger till Jotham Powell left. The hired man was still drying his wet feet at the stove, and Ethan could only give Mattie a quick look as he said beneath his breath: “I'll be back early.”
He fancied that she nodded her comprehension; and with that scant solace he had to trudge off through the rain.
He had driven his load half-way to the village when Jotham Powell overtook him, urging the reluctant sorrel toward the Flats. “I'll have to hurry up to do it,” Ethan mused, as the sleigh dropped down ahead of him over the dip of the school-house hill. He worked like ten at the unloading, and when it was over hastened on to Michael Eady's for the glue. Eady and his assistant were both “down street,” and young Denis, who seldom deigned to take their place, was lounging by the stove with a knot of the golden youth of Starkfield. They hailed Ethan with ironic compliment and offers of conviviality; but no one knew where to find the glue. Ethan, consumed with the longing for a last moment alone with Mattie, hung about impatiently while Denis made an ineffectual search in the obscurer corners of the store.
“Looks as if we were all sold out. But if you'll wait around till the old man comes along maybe he can put his hand on it.”
“I'm obliged to you, but I'll try if I can get it down at Mrs. Homan's,” Ethan answered, burning to be gone.
Denis's commercial instinct compelled him to aver on oath that what Eady's store could not produce would never be found at the widow Homan's; but Ethan, heedless of this boast, had already climbed to the sledge and was driving on to the rival establishment. Here, after considerable search, and sympathetic questions as to what he wanted it for, and whether ordinary flour paste wouldn't do as well if she couldn't find it, the widow Homan finally hunted down her solitary bottle of glue to its hiding-place in a medley of cough-lozenges and corset-laces.
“I hope Zeena ain't broken anything she sets store by,” she called after him as he turned the greys toward home.
The fitful bursts of sleet had changed into a steady rain and the horses had heavy work even without a load behind them. Once or twice, hearing sleigh-bells, Ethan turned his head, fancying that Zeena and Jotham might overtake him; but the old sorrel was not in sight, and he set his face against the rain and urged on his ponderous pair.
The barn was empty when the horses turned into it and, after giving them the most perfunctory ministrations they had ever received from him, he strode up to the house and pushed open the kitchen door.
Mattie was there alone, as he had pictured her. She was bending over a pan on the stove; but at the sound of his step she turned with a start and sprang to him.
“See, here, Matt, I've got some stuff to mend the dish with! Let me get at it quick,” he cried, waving the bottle in one hand while he put her lightly aside; but she did not seem to hear him.
“Oh, Ethan—Zeena's come,” she said in a whisper, clutching his sleeve.
They stood and stared at each other, pale as culprits.
“But the sorrel's not in the barn!” Ethan stammered.
“Jotham Powell brought some goods over from the Flats for his wife, and he drove right on home with them,” she explained.
He gazed blankly about the kitchen, which looked cold and squalid in the rainy winter twilight.
“How is she?” he asked, dropping his voice to Mattie's whisper.
She looked away from him uncertainly. “I don't know. She went right up to her room.”
“She didn't say anything?”
Ethan let out his doubts in a low whistle and thrust the bottle back into his pocket. “Don't fret; I'll come down and mend it in the night,” he said. He pulled on his wet coat again and went back to the barn to feed the greys.
While he was there Jotham Powell drove up with the sleigh, and when the horses had been attended to Ethan said to him: “You might as well come back up for a bite.” He was not sorry to assure himself of Jotham's neutralising presence at the supper table, for Zeena was always “nervous” after a journey. But the hired man, though seldom loth to accept a meal not included in his wages, opened his stiff jaws to answer slowly: “I'm obliged to you, but I guess I'll go along back.”
Ethan looked at him in surprise. “Better come up and dry off. Looks as if there'd be something hot for supper.”
Jotham's facial muscles were unmoved by this appeal and, his vocabulary being limited, he merely repeated: “I guess I'll go along back.”
To Ethan there was something vaguely ominous in this stolid rejection of free food and warmth, and he wondered what had happened on the drive to nerve Jotham to such stoicism. Perhaps Zeena had failed to see the new doctor or had not liked his counsels: Ethan knew that in such cases the first person she met was likely to be held responsible for her grievance.
When he re-entered the kitchen the lamp lit up the same scene of shining comfort as on the previous evening. The table had been as carefully laid, a clear fire glowed in the stove, the cat dozed in its warmth, and Mattie came forward carrying a plate of doughnuts.
She and Ethan looked at each other in silence; then she said, as she had said the night before: “I guess it's about time for supper.”