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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesEthan Frome - Chapter I
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Ethan Frome - Chapter I Post by :BKMiller Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :March 2011 Read :1272

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Ethan Frome - Chapter I

The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy
corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles
and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night
was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms
looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on
it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow
light far across the endless undulations.

Young Ethan Frome walked at a quick pace along the deserted street,
past the bank and Michael Eady's new brick store and Lawyer Varnum's
house with the two black Norway spruces at the gate. Opposite the
Varnum gate, where the road fell away toward the Corbury valley, the
church reared its slim white steeple and narrow peristyle. As the
young man walked toward it the upper windows drew a black arcade
along the side wall of the building, but from the lower openings, on
the side where the ground sloped steeply down to the Corbury road,
the light shot its long bars, illuminating many fresh furrows in the
track leading to the basement door, and showing, under an adjoining
shed, a line of sleighs with heavily blanketed horses.

The night was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it
gave little sensation of cold. The effect produced on Frome was
rather of a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less
tenuous than ether intervened between the white earth under his feet
and the metallic dome overhead. "It's like being in an exhausted
receiver," he thought. Four or five years earlier he had taken a
year's course at a technological college at Worcester, and dabbled
in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the
images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected
moments, through the totally different associations of thought in
which he had since been living. His father's death, and the
misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's
studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much
practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge
cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.

As he strode along through the snow the sense of such meanings
glowed in his brain and mingled with the bodily flush produced by
his sharp tramp. At the end of the village he paused before the
darkened front of the church. He stood there a moment, breathing
quickly, and looking up and down the street, in which not another
figure moved. The pitch of the Corbury road, below lawyer Varnum's
spruces, was the favourite coasting-ground of Starkfield, and on
clear evenings the church corner rang till late with the shouts of
the coasters; but to-night not a sled darkened the whiteness of the
long declivity. The hush of midnight lay on the village, and all its
waking life was gathered behind the church windows, from which
strains of dance-music flowed with the broad bands of yellow light.

The young man, skirting the side of the building, went down the
slope toward the basement door. To keep out of range of the
revealing rays from within he made a circuit through the untrodden
snow and gradually approached the farther angle of the basement
wall. Thence, still hugging the shadow, he edged his way cautiously
forward to the nearest window, holding back his straight spare body
and craning his neck till he got a glimpse of the room.

Seen thus, from the pure and frosty darkness in which he stood, it
seemed to be seething in a mist of heat. The metal reflectors of the
gas-jets sent crude waves of light against the whitewashed walls,
and the iron flanks of the stove at the end of the hall looked as
though they were heaving with volcanic fires. The floor was thronged
with girls and young men. Down the side wall facing the window stood
a row of kitchen chairs from which the older women had just risen.
By this time the music had stopped, and the musicians-a fiddler, and
the young lady who played the harmonium on Sundays-were hastily
refreshing themselves at one corner of the supper-table which
aligned its devastated pie-dishes and ice-cream saucers on the
platform at the end of the hall. The guests were preparing to leave,
and the tide had already set toward the passage where coats and
wraps were hung, when a young man with a sprightly foot and a shock
of black hair shot into the middle of the floor and clapped his
hands. The signal took instant effect. The musicians hurried to
their instruments, the dancers-some already half-muffled for
departure-fell into line down each side of the room, the older
spectators slipped back to their chairs, and the lively young man,
after diving about here and there in the throng, drew forth a girl
who had already wound a cherry-coloured "fascinator" about her head,
and, leading her up to the end of the floor, whirled her down its
length to the bounding tune of a Virginia reel.

Frome's heart was beating fast. He had been straining for a glimpse
of the dark head under the cherry-coloured scarf and it vexed him
that another eye should have been quicker than his. The leader of
the reel, who looked as if he had Irish blood in his veins, danced
well, and his partner caught his fire. As she passed down the line,
her light figure swinging from hand to hand in circles of increasing
swiftness, the scarf flew off her head and stood out behind her
shoulders, and Frome, at each turn, caught sight of her laughing
panting lips, the cloud of dark hair about her forehead, and the
dark eyes which seemed the only fixed points in a maze of flying
lines.

The dancers were going faster and faster, and the musicians, to keep
up with them, belaboured their instruments like jockeys lashing
their mounts on the home-stretch; yet it seemed to the young man at
the window that the reel would never end. Now and then he turned his
eyes from the girl's face to that of her partner, which, in the
exhilaration of the dance, had taken on a look of almost impudent
ownership. Denis Eady was the son of Michael Eady, the ambitious
Irish grocer, whose suppleness and effrontery had given Starkfield
its first notion of "smart" business methods, and whose new brick
store testified to the success of the attempt. His son seemed likely
to follow in his steps, and was meanwhile applying the same arts to
the conquest of the Starkfield maidenhood. Hitherto Ethan Frome had
been content to think him a mean fellow; but now he positively
invited a horse-whipping. It was strange that the girl did not seem
aware of it: that she could lift her rapt face to her dancer's, and
drop her hands into his, without appearing to feel the offence of
his look and touch.

Frome was in the habit of walking into Starkfield to fetch home his
wife's cousin, Mattie Silver, on the rare evenings when some chance
of amusement drew her to the village. It was his wife who had
suggested, when the girl came to live with them, that such
opportunities should be put in her way. Mattie Silver came from
Stamford, and when she entered the Fromes' household to act as her
cousin Zeena's aid it was thought best, as she came without pay, not
to let her feel too sharp a contrast between the life she had left
and the isolation of a Starkfield farm. But for this-as Frome
sardonically reflected-it would hardly have occurred to Zeena to
take any thought for the girl's amusement.

When his wife first proposed that they should give Mattie an
occasional evening out he had inwardly demurred at having to do the
extra two miles to the village and back after his hard day on the
farm; but not long afterward he had reached the point of wishing
that Starkfield might give all its nights to revelry.

Mattie Silver had lived under his roof for a year, and from early
morning till they met at supper he had frequent chances of seeing
her; but no moments in her company were comparable to those when,
her arm in his, and her light step flying to keep time with his long
stride, they walked back through the night to the farm. He had taken
to the girl from the first day, when he had driven over to the Flats
to meet her, and she had smiled and waved to him from the train,
crying out, "You must be Ethan!" as she jumped down with her
bundles, while he reflected, looking over her slight person: "She
don't look much on housework, but she ain't a fretter, anyhow." But
it was not only that the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful
young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth. The
girl was more than the bright serviceable creature he had thought
her. She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her
things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all
he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at
will.

It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most
intensely the sweetness of this communion. He had always been more
sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty.
His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even
in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and
powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as
a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He
did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did,
or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then
he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of
wonder: that at his side, living under his roof and eating his
bread, was a creature to whom he could say: "That's Orion down
yonder; the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of
little ones-like bees swarming-they're the Pleiades..." or whom he
could hold entranced before a ledge of granite thrusting up through
the fern while he unrolled the huge panorama of the ice age, and the
long dim stretches of succeeding time. The fact that admiration for
his learning mingled with Mattie's wonder at what he taught was not
the least part of his pleasure. And there were other sensations,
less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a
shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the
flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the
intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to
him once: "It looks just as if it was painted!" it seemed to Ethan
that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had
at last been found to utter his secret soul....

As he stood in the darkness outside the church these memories came
back with the poignancy of vanished things. Watching Mattie whirl
down the floor from hand to hand he wondered how he could ever have
thought that his dull talk interested her. To him, who was never gay
but in her presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference.
The face she lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw
him, always looked like a window that has caught the sunset. He even
noticed two or three gestures which, in his fatuity, he had thought
she kept for him: a way of throwing her head back when she was
amused, as if to taste her laugh before she let it out, and a trick
of sinking her lids slowly when anything charmed or moved her.

The sight made him unhappy, and his unhappiness roused his latent
fears. His wife had never shown any jealousy of Mattie, but of late
she had grumbled increasingly over the house-work and found oblique
ways of attracting attention to the girl's inefficiency. Zeena had
always been what Starkfield called "sickly," and Frome had to admit
that, if she were as ailing as she believed, she needed the help of
a stronger arm than the one which lay so lightly in his during the
night walks to the farm. Mattie had no natural turn for
housekeeping, and her training had done nothing to remedy the
defect. She was quick to learn, but forgetful and dreamy, and not
disposed to take the matter seriously. Ethan had an idea that if she
were to marry a man she was fond of the dormant instinct would wake,
and her pies and biscuits become the pride of the county; but
domesticity in the abstract did not interest her. At first she was
so awkward that he could not help laughing at her; but she laughed
with him and that made them better friends. He did his best to
supplement her unskilled efforts, getting up earlier than usual to
light the kitchen fire, carrying in the wood overnight, and
neglecting the mill for the farm that he might help her about the
house during the day. He even crept down on Saturday nights to scrub
the kitchen floor after the women had gone to bed; and Zeena, one
day, had surprised him at the churn and had turned away silently,
with one of her queer looks.

Of late there had been other signs of her disfavour, as intangible
but more disquieting. One cold winter morning, as he dressed in the
dark, his candle flickering in the draught of the ill-fitting
window, he had heard her speak from the bed behind him.

"The doctor don't want I should be left without anybody to do for
me," she said in her flat whine.

He had supposed her to be asleep, and the sound of her voice had
startled him, though she was given to abrupt explosions of speech
after long intervals of secretive silence.

He turned and looked at her where she lay indistinctly outlined
under the dark calico quilt, her high-boned face taking a grayish
tinge from the whiteness of the pillow.

"Nobody to do for you?" he repeated.

"If you say you can't afford a hired girl when Mattie goes."

Frome turned away again, and taking up his razor stooped to catch
the reflection of his stretched cheek in the blotched looking-glass
above the wash-stand.

"Why on earth should Mattie go?"

"Well, when she gets married, I mean," his wife's drawl came from
behind him.

"Oh, she'd never leave us as long as you needed her," he returned,
scraping hard at his chin.

"I wouldn't ever have it said that I stood in the way of a poor girl
like Mattie marrying a smart fellow like Denis Eady," Zeena answered
in a tone of plaintive self-effacement.

Ethan, glaring at his face in the glass, threw his head back to draw
the razor from ear to chin. His hand was steady, but the attitude
was an excuse for not making an immediate reply.

"And the doctor don't want I should be left without anybody," Zeena
continued. "He wanted I should speak to you about a girl he's heard
about, that might come-"

Ethan laid down the razor and straightened himself with a laugh.

"Denis Eady! If that's all, I guess there's no such hurry to look
round for a girl."

"Well, I'd like to talk to you about it," said Zeena obstinately.

He was getting into his clothes in fumbling haste. "All right. But I
haven't got the time now; I'm late as it is," he returned, holding
his old silver turnip-watch to the candle.

Zeena, apparently accepting this as final, lay watching him in
silence while he pulled his suspenders over his shoulders and jerked
his arms into his coat; but as he went toward the door she said,
suddenly and incisively: "I guess you're always late, now you shave
every morning."

That thrust had frightened him more than any vague insinuations
about Denis Eady. It was a fact that since Mattie Silver's coming he
had taken to shaving every day; but his wife always seemed to be
asleep when he left her side in the winter darkness, and he had
stupidly assumed that she would not notice any change in his
appearance. Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted
by Zenobia's way of letting things happen without seeming to remark
them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that
she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences. Of late,
however, there had been no room in his thoughts for such vague
apprehensions. Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded
into an insubstantial shade. All his life was lived in the sight and
sound of Mattie Silver, and he could no longer conceive of its being
otherwise. But now, as he stood outside the church, and saw Mattie
spinning down the floor with Denis Eady, a throng of disregarded
hints and menaces wove their cloud about his brain....

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As the dancers poured out of the hall Frome, drawing back behind theprojecting storm-door, watched the segregation of the grotesquelymuffled groups, in which a moving lantern ray now and then lit up aface flushed with food and dancing. The villagers, being afoot, werethe first to climb the slope to the main street, while the countryneighbours packed themselves more slowly into the sleighs under theshed."Ain't you riding, Mattie?" a woman's voice called back from thethrong about the shed, and Ethan's heart gave a jump. From where hestood he could not see the persons coming out of the hall till theyhad advanced a
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I Had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generallyhappens in such cases, each time it was a different story.If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post-office. Ifyou know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up toit, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself acrossthe brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have askedwho he was.It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time;and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most strikingfigure in Starkfield, though he was but the
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