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Surrey, Engeland, Verenigd Koninkrijk. Steventon, Hampshire, Engeland. Transylvania, Romania. Uppercross, Somerset, England, UK. Dorset, England, UK. The earth lay dark under a muffled sky and the air was so still that now and then he heard a lump of snow come thumping down from a tree far off on the edge of the wood-lot. The scene was just as he had dreamed of it that morning. He sat down, drew his pipe from his pocket and stretched his feet to the glow. Mattie rose obediently, and seated herself in it. It was almost as if the other face, the face of the superseded woman, had obliterated that of the intruder.
After a moment Mattie seemed to be affected by the same sense of constraint. Deep quiet sank on the room. All constraint had vanished between the two, and they began to talk easily and simply. They spoke of every-day things, of the prospect of snow, of the next church sociable, of the loves and quarrels of Starkfield.
The commonplace nature of what they said produced in Ethan an illusion of long-established intimacy which no outburst of emotion could have given, and he set his imagination adrift on the fiction that they had always spent their evenings thus and would always go on doing so She smiled back at him. Edith Wharton 51 intoxicating to find such magic in his clumsy words, and he longed to try new ways of using it. Her cheeks burned redder. Her tone was so sweet that he took the pipe from his mouth and drew his chair up to the table.
Leaning forward, he touched the farther end of the strip of brown stuff that she was hemming. I saw a friend of yours getting kissed. Mattie blushed to the roots of her hair and pulled her needle rapidly twice or thrice through her work, insensibly drawing the end of it away from him. Ethan had imagined that his allusion might open the way to the accepted pleasantries, and these perhaps in turn to a harmless caress, if only a mere touch on her hand.
But now he felt as if her blush had set a flaming guard about her. He supposed it was his natural awkwardness that made him feel so. He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. It seemed a rustling covert leading to enchanted glades.
She raised distressed eyes to his, her work dropping on the table between them. I thought last night she seemed to have. Edith Wharton 53 She tossed the hair back from her forehead with a laugh. She sat silent, her hands clasped on her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them. Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his finger-tips touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture, and that it had sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless on the other end of the strip.
His body and brain ached with indescribable weariness, and he could think of nothing to say or to do that should arrest the mad flight of the moments. His alteration of mood seemed to have communicated itself to Mattie. She looked up at him languidly, as though her lids were weighted with sleep and it cost her an effort to raise them. Her glance fell on his hand, which now completely covered the end of her work and grasped it as if it were a part of herself.
He saw a scarcely perceptible tremor cross her face, and without knowing what he did he stooped his head and kissed the bit of stuff in his hold. As his lips rested on it he felt it glide slowly from beneath them, and saw that Mattie had risen and was silently rolling up her work. The clock above the dresser struck eleven. He opened the door of the stove and poked aimlessly at the embers. When he raised himself again he saw that she was dragging toward the stove the old soapbox lined with carpet in which the cat made its bed.
Then she recrossed the floor and lifted two of the geranium pots in her arms, moving them away from the cold window. He followed her and brought the other geraniums, the hyacinth bulbs in a cracked custard bowl and the German ivy trained over an old croquet hoop. When these nightly duties were performed there was nothing left to do but to bring in the tin candlestick from the passage, light the candle and blow out the lamp.
She turned and looked at him a moment. When the door of her room had closed on her he remembered that he had not even touched her hand. Edith Wharton 55 CHAPTER VI 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 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 But a wet snow, melting to sleet, had fallen in the night and turned the roads to glass.
Ethan stood looking at her, his heart in his throat. 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 dinner-hour 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. Edith Wharton 57 self-derision, what importance he had attached to the weighing of these probabilities He had driven his load half-way to the village when Jotham Powell overtook him, urging the reluctant sorrel toward the Flats.
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. 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 sleighbells, 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. They stood and stared at each other, pale as culprits. He gazed blankly about the kitchen, which looked cold and squalid in the rainy winter twilight. She looked away from him uncertainly. She went right up to her room. He pulled on his wet coat again and went back to the barn to feed the greys.
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. The room was almost dark, but in the obscurity he saw her sitting by the window, bolt upright, and knew by the rigidity of the outline projected against the pane that she had not taken off her travelling dress.
He had often heard her pronounce them before—what if at last they were true? Edith Wharton 61 He advanced a step or two into the dim room. Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. His wife looked so hard and lonely, sitting there in the darkness with such thoughts. He says any regular doctor would want me to have an operation. Ethan, from motives of economy, had always been glad that Zeena was of the latter faction. In the agitation caused by the gravity of her announcement he sought a consolatory short cut. Nobody ever told you that before. Everybody but you could see it.
And everybody in Bettsbridge knows about Dr. He was struck by a new note in her voice. It was neither whining nor reproachful, but drily resolute. And Aunt Martha found me one right off. Everybody said I was lucky to get a girl to come away out here, and I agreed to give her a dollar extry to make sure. He had foreseen an immediate demand for money, but not a permanent drain on his scant resources. He no longer believed what Zeena had told him of the supposed seriousness of her state: he saw in her expedition to Bettsbridge only a plot hatched between herself and her Pierce relations to foist on him the cost of a servant; and for the moment wrath predominated.
How did I know what Dr. Buck would say? Buck tell you how I was to pay her wages? Ethan was seized with horror of the scene and shame at his own share in it. It was as senseless and savage as a physical fight between two enemies in the darkness. It was the first scene of open anger between the couple in their sad seven years together, and Ethan felt as if he had lost an irretrievable advantage in descending to the level of recrimination.
But the practical problem was there and had to be dealt with. That settles it. He had never before been convicted of a lie, and all the resources of evasion failed him. The change in her tone reassured him. Edith Wharton 65 Ethan, supposing the discussion to be over, had turned to go down to supper. He stopped short, not grasping what he heard. It was on odd unfamiliar sound—he did not remember ever having heard her laugh before. No wonder you were scared at the expense! But the thought of a definite rupture had never come to him, and even now could not lodge itself in his mind. She was no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding.
It was the sense of his helplessness that sharpened his antipathy. There had never been anything in her that one could appeal to; but as long as he could ignore and command he had remained indifferent. Now she had mastered him and he abhorred her. Mattie was her relation, not his: there were no means by which he could compel her to keep the girl under her roof. Edith Wharton 67 in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others.
For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step forward and then stopped. In the kitchen Mattie was sitting by the stove, the cat curled up on her knees. She sprang to her feet as Ethan entered and carried the covered dish of meat-pie to the table. You must be starving. So they were to have one more evening together, her happy eyes seemed to say! He helped himself mechanically and began to eat; then disgust took him by the throat and he laid down his fork.
She started up with frightened eyes. I knew there was! She lingered a moment, caught in the same strong current; then she slipped from him and drew back a step or two, pale and troubled. His head reeled and he had to support himself against the table. All the while he felt as if he were still kissing her, and yet dying of thirst for her lips.
Is Zeena mad with me? But this new doctor has scared her about herself. You know she believes all they say the first time she sees them. She stood silent a moment, drooping before him like a broken branch. She was so small and weaklooking that it wrung his heart; but suddenly she lifted her head and looked straight at him. Is that it? The glow of passion he had felt for her had melted to an aching tenderness. He saw her quick lids beating back the tears, and longed to take her in his arms and soothe her. He saw that for the first time the thought of the future came to her distinctly. He dropped back into his seat and hid his face in his hands.
Despair seized him at the thought of her setting out alone to renew the weary quest for work. In the only place where she was known she was surrounded by indifference or animosity; and what chance had she, inexperienced and untrained, among the million bread-seekers of the cities? It was not possible to think of such things without a revolt of his whole being. He sprang up suddenly. Zeena came into the room with her dragging down-at-the-heel step, and quietly took her accustomed seat between them.
She poured out her tea, added a great deal of milk to it, helped herself largely to pie and pickles, and made the familiar gesture of adjusting her false teeth before she began to eat. Zeena answered in her every-day tone and, warming to the theme, regaled them with several vivid descriptions of intestinal disturbances among her friends and relatives. She looked straight at Mattie as she spoke, a faint smile deepening the vertical lines between her nose and chin. She went out of the kitchen and Mattie, rising, began to clear the dishes from the table. The warm still kitchen looked as peaceful as the night before.
Ethan dragged himself wearily to his feet. As he reached the door he met Zeena coming back into the room, her lips twitching with anger, a flush of excitement on her sallow face. The shawl had slipped from her shoulders and was dragging at her down-trodden heels, and in her hands she carried the fragments of the red glass pickle-dish. The cat done it. He still took refuge there in summer, but when Mattie came to live at the farm he had to give her his stove, and consequently the room was uninhabitable for several months of the year.
Then the girl had returned to her task of clearing up the kitchen for the night and he had taken his lantern and gone on his usual round outside the house. It was the first time that Mattie had ever written to him, and the possession of the paper gave him a strange new sense of her nearness; yet it deepened his anguish by reminding him that henceforth they would have no other way of communicating with each other. For the life of her smile, the warmth of her voice, only cold paper and dead words! Confused motions of rebellion stormed in him. He was too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes.
Must he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman? And what good had come of it? She was a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her: the one pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him. All the healthy instincts of self-defence rose up in him against such waste Under his cheek he felt a hard object with strange protuberances.
It was a cushion which Zeena had made for him when they were engaged—the only piece of needlework he had ever seen her do. He flung it across the floor and propped his head against the wall He knew a case of a man over the mountain—a young fellow of about his own age—who had escaped from just such a life of misery by going West with the girl he cared for. His wife had divorced him, and he had married the girl and prospered.
They had a little girl with fair curls, who wore a gold locket and was dressed like a princess. The deserted wife had not done badly either. Her husband had given her the farm and she had managed to sell it, and with that and the alimony she had started a lunch-room at Bettsbridge and bloomed into activity and importance. Ethan was fired by the thought. Why should he not leave with Mattie the next day, instead of letting her go alone? Edith Wharton 75 nothing till she went upstairs for her afternoon nap and found a letter on the bed He rummaged in the drawer for a sheet of paper, found one, and began to write.
Maybe both of us will do better separate. If he gave the farm and mill to Zeena what would be left him to start his own life with? Once in the West he was sure of picking up work—he would not have feared to try his chance alone. But with Mattie depending on him the case was different. Farm and mill were mortgaged to the limit of their value, and even if she found a purchaser—in itself an unlikely chance—it was doubtful if she could clear a thousand dollars on the sale. Meanwhile, how could she keep the farm going?
It was only by incessant labour and personal supervision that Ethan drew a meagre living from his land, and his wife, even if she were in better health than she imagined, could never carry such a burden alone. Well, she could go back to her people, then, and see what they would do for her.
It was the fate she was forcing on Mattie—why not let her try it herself? By the time she had discovered his whereabouts, and brought suit for divorce, he would probably—wherever he was—be earning enough to pay her a sufficient alimony. And the alternative was to let Mattie go forth alone, with far less hope of ultimate provision He had scattered the contents of the table-drawer in his search for a sheet of paper, and as he took up his pen his eye fell on an old copy of the Bettsbridge Eagle.
A moment ago he had wondered what he and Mattie were to live on when they reached the West; now he saw that he had not even the money to take her there. Borrowing was out of the question: six months before he had given his only security to raise funds for necessary repairs to the mill, and he knew that without security no one at Starkfield would lend him ten dollars. The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.
Tears rose in his throat and slowly burned their way to his lids. As he lay there, the window-pane that faced him, growing gradually lighter, inlaid upon the darkness a square of moon-suffused sky. A crooked tree-branch crossed it, a branch of the apple-tree under which, on summer evenings, he had sometimes found Mattie sitting when he came up from the mill. Slowly the rim of the rainy vapours caught fire and burnt away, and a pure moon swung into the blue.
Ethan, rising on his elbow, watched the landscape whiten and shape itself under the sculpture of the moon. This was the night on which he was to have taken Mattie coasting, and there hung the lamp to light them! He looked out at the slopes bathed in lustre, the silver-edged darkness of the woods, the spectral purple of the hills against the sky, and it seemed as though all the beauty of the night had been poured out to mock his wretchedness He fell asleep, and when he woke the chill of the winter dawn was in the room. He felt cold and stiff and hungry, and ashamed of being hungry.
He rubbed his eyes and went to the window. A red sun stood over the grey rim of the fields, behind trees that looked black and brittle. As he stood there he heard a step behind him and she entered. Edith Wharton 77 She looked so small and pinched, in her poor dress, with the red scarf wound about her, and the cold light turning her paleness sallow, that Ethan stood before her without speaking.
He drew a step nearer. The sight of Mattie going about her work as he had seen her on so many mornings made it seem impossible that she should ever cease to be a part of the scene. He went up to Mattie as she bent above the stove, and laid his hand on her arm. He saw Jotham Powell walking up the hill through the morning mist, and the familiar sight added to his growing conviction of security.
When they returned to the kitchen the two women were already at breakfast. Zeena had an air of unusual alertness and activity. She drank two cups of coffee and fed the cat with the scraps left in the pie-dish; then she rose from her seat and, walking over to the window, snipped two or three yellow leaves from the geraniums.
Zeena turned to Mattie. Tell them not to wait dinner. His manhood was humbled by the part he was compelled to play and by the thought of what Mattie must think of him. Confused impulses struggled in him as he strode along to the village. He had made up his mind to do something, but he did not know what it would be.
It was one of the days when the glitter of winter shines through a pale haze of spring. Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see that something must be done at once. The more he considered his plan the more hopeful it seemed. If he could get Mrs. Ethan signed to them to stop, and Mrs. Hale leaned forward, her pink wrinkles twinkling with benevolence.
I hope he thinks he can do something for her. I always tell Mr. It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives. But Mrs. If the Hales were sorry for him they would surely respond to his appeal He started down the road toward their house, but at the end of a few yards he pulled up sharply, the blood in his face.
For the first time, in the light of the words he had just heard, he saw what he was about to do. Edith Wharton 81 pretences. That was a plain statement of the cloudy purpose which had driven him in headlong to Starkfield. With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had carried him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was.
He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him. Her husband, without stopping to hear the end of the phrase, had left the kitchen and sprung up the stairs. Edith Wharton 83 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. What do you mean? 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.
Mattie found her handkerchief and dried her eyes; then,— bending down, she took hold of a handle of the trunk.
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Ethan put her aside. 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.
At dinner Ethan could not eat. 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.
Edith Wharton 85 Ethan was standing near the window, mechanically filling his pipe while he watched Mattie move to and fro. 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. 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 looked at him timidly. They went back into the kitchen without speaking, and Ethan picked up her bag and shawl. That was all she said. 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. He sprang to his seat and bent over to tuck the rug about her as she slipped into the place at his side. His face tingled and he felt dizzy, as if he had stopped in at the Starkfield saloon on a zero day for a drink. 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 pinewood 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 treetrunk half submerged in snow.
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 She sat down on the tree-trunk in the sun and he sat down beside her.
She laughed with pleasure. 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. Edith Wharton 89 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. Under the open sky the light was still clear, with a reflection of cold red on the eastern hills.
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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. The bad air and the standing all day nearly killed you before. 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. Through his astonishment there ran a fierce thrill of joy.
Tell me! Did I? I want to put my hand out and touch you. I want to do for you and care for you. You be quiet! 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 housefronts 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. Come along! Right over there under the spruces. She seated herself obediently and he took his place behind her, so close that her hair brushed his face. Are you sure you can see?
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. Edith Wharton 93 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.
They sprang off and started to walk back up the hill. The strange exaltation of his mood had brought on one of his rare fits of boastfulness. As he raised himself he suddenly felt Mattie close to him among the shadows. Her lips, groping for his, swept over his face, and he held her fast in a rapture of surprise. She freed herself from his hold and he heard her sobbing. Through the stillness they heard the church clock striking five.
He drew her back to him. 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. I want you to take me down again! What on earth do you mean? You said you could. She tightened her fierce hold about his neck. Her face lay close to his face. You said so yourself just now. Nobody but you was ever good to me. 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.
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. 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. 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. How can you steer in front? Get up! 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 Half-way down there was a sudden drop, then a rise, and after that another long delirious descent. Edith Wharton 97 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 Once or twice the sled swerved a little under them. 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 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. 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 armchair near the stove, and when I came in she turned her head quickly toward me, without the least corresponding movement of her body. 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.
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 straw-bottomed chairs and a kitchen dresser of unpainted pine stood meagrely against the plaster walls. 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.
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. 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.
Edith Wharton 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. And then one thing and another came, and my own troubles 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. 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.
She and I were great friends, and she was to have been my bridesmaid in the spring