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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesEthan Frome - Chapter II
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Ethan Frome - Chapter II Post by :lilyg Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :March 2011 Read :1712

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Ethan Frome - Chapter II

As the dancers poured out of the hall Frome, drawing back behind the
projecting storm-door, watched the segregation of the grotesquely
muffled groups, in which a moving lantern ray now and then lit up a
face flushed with food and dancing. The villagers, being afoot, were
the first to climb the slope to the main street, while the country
neighbours packed themselves more slowly into the sleighs under the
shed.

"Ain't you riding, Mattie?" a woman's voice called back from the
throng about the shed, and Ethan's heart gave a jump. From where he
stood he could not see the persons coming out of the hall till they
had advanced a few steps beyond the wooden sides of the storm-door;
but through its cracks he heard a clear voice answer: "Mercy no! Not
on such a night."

She was there, then, close to him, only a thin board between. In
another moment she would step forth into the night, and his eyes,
accustomed to the obscurity, would discern her as clearly as though
she stood in daylight. A wave of shyness pulled him back into the
dark angle of the wall, and he stood there in silence instead of
making his presence known to her. It had been one of the wonders of
their intercourse that from the first, she, the quicker, finer, more
expressive, instead of crushing him by the contrast, had given him
something of her own ease and freedom; but now he felt as heavy and
loutish as in his student days, when he had tried to "jolly" the
Worcester girls at a picnic.

He hung back, and she came out alone and paused within a few yards
of him. She was almost the last to leave the hall, and she stood
looking uncertainly about her as if wondering why he did not show
himself. Then a man's figure approached, coming so close to her that
under their formless wrappings they seemed merged in one dim
outline.

"Gentleman friend gone back on you? Say, Matt, that's tough! No, I
wouldn't be mean enough to tell the other girls. I ain't as low-down
as that." (How Frome hated his cheap banter!) "But look a here,
ain't it lucky I got the old man's cutter down there waiting for
us?"

Frome heard the girl's voice, gaily incredulous: "What on earth's
your father's cutter doin' down there?"

"Why, waiting for me to take a ride. I got the roan colt too. I
kinder knew I'd want to take a ride to-night," Eady, in his triumph,
tried to put a sentimental note into his bragging voice.

The girl seemed to waver, and Frome saw her twirl the end of her
scarf irresolutely about her fingers. Not for the world would he
have made a sign to her, though it seemed to him that his life hung
on her next gesture.

"Hold on a minute while I unhitch the colt," Denis called to her,
springing toward the shed.

She stood perfectly still, looking after him, in an attitude of
tranquil expectancy torturing to the hidden watcher. Frome noticed
that she no longer turned her head from side to side, as though
peering through the night for another figure. She let Denis Eady
lead out the horse, climb into the cutter and fling back the
bearskin to make room for her at his side; then, with a swift motion
of flight, she turned about and darted up the slope toward the front
of the church.

"Good-bye! Hope you'll have a lovely ride!" she called back to him
over her shoulder.

Denis laughed, and gave the horse a cut that brought him quickly
abreast of her retreating figure.

"Come along! Get in quick! It's as slippery as thunder on this
turn," he cried, leaning over to reach out a hand to her.

She laughed back at him: "Good-night! I'm not getting in."

By this time they had passed beyond Frome's earshot and he could
only follow the shadowy pantomime of their silhouettes as they
continued to move along the crest of the slope above him. He saw
Eady, after a moment, jump from the cutter and go toward the girl
with the reins over one arm. The other he tried to slip through
hers; but she eluded him nimbly, and Frome's heart, which had swung
out over a black void, trembled back to safety. A moment later he
heard the jingle of departing sleigh bells and discerned a figure
advancing alone toward the empty expanse of snow before the church.

In the black shade of the Varnum spruces he caught up with her and
she turned with a quick "Oh!"

"Think I'd forgotten you, Matt?" he asked with sheepish glee.

She answered seriously: "I thought maybe you couldn't come back for
me."

"Couldn't? What on earth could stop me?"

"I knew Zeena wasn't feeling any too good to-day."

"Oh, she's in bed long ago." He paused, a question struggling in
him. "Then you meant to walk home all alone?"

"Oh, I ain't afraid!" she laughed.

They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world
glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars. He brought his
question out.

"If you thought I hadn't come, why didn't you ride back with Denis
Eady?"

"Why, where were you? How did you know? I never saw you!"

Her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a
thaw. Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and
ingenious. To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase,
and brought out, in a growl of rapture: "Come along."

He slipped an arm through hers, as Eady had done, and fancied it was
faintly pressed against her side. but neither of them moved. It was
so dark under the spruces that he could barely see the shape of her
head beside his shoulder. He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it
against her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all
night in the blackness. She moved forward a step or two and then
paused again above the dip of the Corbury road. Its icy slope,
scored by innumerable runners, looked like a mirror scratched by
travellers at an inn.

"There was a whole lot of them coasting before the moon set," she
said.

"Would you like to come in and coast with them some night?" he
asked.

"Oh, would you, Ethan? It would be lovely!"

"We'll come to-morrow if there's a moon."

She lingered, pressing closer to his side. "Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum
came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were
all sure they were killed." Her shiver ran down his arm. "Wouldn't
it have been too awful? They're so happy!"

"Oh, Ned ain't much at steering. I guess I can take you down all
right!" he said disdainfully.

He was aware that he was "talking big," like Denis Eady; but his
reaction of joy had unsteadied him, and the inflection with which
she had said of the engaged couple "They're so happy!" made the
words sound as if she had been thinking of herself and him.

"The elm is dangerous, though. It ought to be cut down," she
insisted.

"Would you be afraid of it, with me?"

"I told you I ain't the kind to be afraid" she tossed back, almost
indifferently; and suddenly she began to walk on with a rapid step.

These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome.
The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird
in the branches. The fact that he had no right to show his feelings,
and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic
importance to every change in her look and tone. Now he thought she
understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and
despaired. To-night the pressure of accumulated misgivings sent the
scale drooping toward despair, and her indifference was the more
chilling after the flush of joy into which she had plunged him by
dismissing Denis Eady. He mounted School House Hill at her side and
walked on in silence till they reached the lane leading to the
saw-mill; then the need of some definite assurance grew too strong
for him.

"You'd have found me right off if you hadn't gone back to have that
last reel with Denis," he brought out awkwardly. He could not
pronounce the name without a stiffening of the muscles of his
throat.

"Why, Ethan, how could I tell you were there?"

"I suppose what folks say is true," he jerked out at her, instead of
answering.

She stopped short, and he felt, in the darkness, that her face was
lifted quickly to his. "Why, what do folks say?"

"It's natural enough you should be leaving us" he floundered on,
following his thought.

"Is that what they say?" she mocked back at him; then, with a sudden
drop of her sweet treble: "You mean that Zeena-ain't suited with me
any more?" she faltered.

Their arms had slipped apart and they stood motionless, each seeking
to distinguish the other's face.

"I know I ain't anything like as smart as I ought to be," she went
on, while he vainly struggled for expression. "There's lots of
things a hired girl could do that come awkward to me still-and I
haven't got much strength in my arms. But if she'd only tell me I'd
try. You know she hardly ever says anything, and sometimes I can see
she ain't suited, and yet I don't know why." She turned on him with
a sudden flash of indignation. "You'd ought to tell me, Ethan
Frome-you'd ought to! Unless you want me to go too-"

Unless he wanted her to go too! The cry was balm to his raw wound.
The iron heavens seemed to melt and rain down sweetness. Again he
struggled for the all-expressive word, and again, his arm in hers,
found only a deep "Come along."

They walked on in silence through the blackness of the
hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan's sawmill gloomed through the
night, and out again into the comparative clearness of the fields.
On the farther side of the hemlock belt the open country rolled away
before them grey and lonely under the stars. Sometimes their way led
them under the shade of an overhanging bank or through the thin
obscurity of a clump of leafless trees. Here and there a farmhouse
stood far back among the fields, mute and cold as a grave-stone. The
night was so still that they heard the frozen snow crackle under
their feet. The crash of a loaded branch falling far off in the
woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a fox barked, and
Mattie shrank closer to Ethan, and quickened her steps.

At length they sighted the group of larches at Ethan's gate, and as
they drew near it the sense that the walk was over brought back his
words.

"Then you don't want to leave us, Matt?"

He had to stoop his head to catch her stifled whisper: "Where'd I
go, if I did?"

The answer sent a pang through him but the tone suffused him with
joy. He forgot what else he had meant to say and pressed her against
him so closely that he seemed to feel her warmth in his veins.

"You ain't crying are you, Matt?"

"No, of course I'm not," she quavered.

They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where,
enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy
angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years
that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for
change and freedom. "We never got away-how should you?" seemed to be
written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his
gate he thought with a shiver: "I shall just go on living here till
I join them." But now all desire for change had vanished, and the
sight of the little enclosure gave him a warm sense of continuance
and stability.

"I guess we'll never let you go, Matt," he whispered, as though even
the dead, lovers once, must conspire with him to keep her; and
brushing by the graves, he thought: "We'll always go on living here
together, and some day she'll lie there beside me."

He let the vision possess him as they climbed the hill to the house.
He was never so happy with her as when he abandoned himself to these
dreams. Half-way up the slope Mattie stumbled against some unseen
obstruction and clutched his sleeve to steady herself. The wave of
warmth that went through him was like the prolongation of his
vision. For the first time he stole his arm about her, and she did
not resist. They walked on as if they were floating on a summer
stream.

Zeena always went to bed as soon as she had had her supper, and the
shutterless windows of the house were dark. A dead cucumber-vine
dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for
a death, and the thought flashed through Ethan's brain: "If it was
there for Zeena-" Then he had a distinct sight of his wife lying in
their bedroom asleep, her mouth slightly open, her false teeth in a
tumbler by the bed...

They walked around to the back of the house, between the rigid
gooseberry bushes. It was Zeena's habit, when they came back late
from the village, to leave the key of the kitchen door under the
mat. Ethan stood before the door, his head heavy with dreams, his
arm still about Mattie. "Matt-" he began, not knowing what he meant
to say.

She slipped out of his hold without speaking, and he stooped down
and felt for the key.

"It's not there!" he said, straightening himself with a start.

They strained their eyes at each other through the icy darkness.
Such a thing had never happened before.

"Maybe she's forgotten it," Mattie said in a tremulous whisper; but
both of them knew that it was not like Zeena to forget.

"It might have fallen off into the snow," Mattie continued, after a
pause during which they had stood intently listening.

"It must have been pushed off, then," he rejoined in the same tone.
Another wild thought tore through him. What if tramps had been
there-what if...

Again he listened, fancying he heard a distant sound in the house;
then he felt in his pocket for a match, and kneeling down, passed
its light slowly over the rough edges of snow about the doorstep.

He was still kneeling when his eyes, on a level with the lower panel
of the door, caught a faint ray beneath it. Who could be stirring in
that silent house? He heard a step on the stairs, and again for an
instant the thought of tramps tore through him. Then the door opened
and he saw his wife.

Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and
angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast,
while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin,
drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting
wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened
fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face
under its ring of crimping-pins. To Ethan, still in the rosy haze of
his hour with Mattie, the sight came with the intense precision of
the last dream before waking. He felt as if he had never before
known what his wife looked like.

She drew aside without speaking, and Mattie and Ethan passed into
the kitchen, which had the deadly chill of a vault after the dry
cold of the night.

"Guess you forgot about us, Zeena," Ethan joked, stamping the snow
from his boots.

"No. I just felt so mean I couldn't sleep."

Mattie came forward, unwinding her wraps, the colour of the cherry
scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Zeena! Isn't
there anything I can do?"

"No; there's nothing." Zeena turned away from her. "You might 'a'
shook off that snow outside," she said to her husband.

She walked out of the kitchen ahead of them and pausing in the hall
raised the lamp at arm's-length, as if to light them up the stairs.

Ethan paused also, affecting to fumble for the peg on which he hung
his coat and cap. The doors of the two bedrooms faced each other
across the narrow upper landing, and to-night it was peculiarly
repugnant to him that Mattie should see him follow Zeena.

"I guess I won't come up yet awhile," he said, turning as if to go
back to the kitchen.

Zeena stopped short and looked at him. "For the land's sake-what you
going to do down here?"

"I've got the mill accounts to go over."

She continued to stare at him, the flame of the unshaded lamp
bringing out with microscopic cruelty the fretful lines of her face.

"At this time o' night? You'll ketch your death. The fire's out long
ago."

Without answering he moved away toward the kitchen. As he did so his
glance crossed Mattie's and he fancied that a fugitive warning
gleamed through her lashes. The next moment they sank to her flushed
cheeks and she began to mount the stairs ahead of Zeena.

"That's so. It is powerful cold down here," Ethan assented; and with
lowered head he went up in his wife's wake, and followed her across
the threshold of their room.

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There was some hauling to be done at the lower end of the wood-lot,and Ethan was out early the next day.The winter morning was as clear as crystal. The sunrise burned redin a pure sky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darklyblue, and beyond the white and scintillating fields patches offar-off forest hung like smoke.It was in the early morning stillness, when his muscles wereswinging to their familiar task and his lungs expanding with longdraughts of mountain air, that Ethan did his clearest thinking. Heand Zeena had not exchanged a word after the door of their room hadclosed
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The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windycorners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like iciclesand Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the nightwas so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elmslooked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains onit, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellowlight 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'shouse with the two black Norway
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