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UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
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m set painting 6y
Tfte "Ethan Fro me Kitchen "
Ofd Fair bank's House,Det(ham,Mass.
BY EDITH WHARTON
Witfi an Introduction
written for this Edition
Cfiarfes ScriUner's Sons
COPYRIGHT 1911, 1912, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published September, 1911
Reprinted twice in November, 1911 ; November, 1912
May, 19 1 4; August, igi6;<iApril, 1917; February, 1919
February, 1920; <*August, 1921.
Limited edition published October, 1922.
had known something of New England village
life long before I made my home in the same county as
my imaginary Starkfield; though, during the years
spent there, certain of its aspects became much more
familiar to me.
Even before that final initiation, however, I had
had an uneasy sense that the New England of
fiction bore little except a vague botanical and
dialectical resemblance to the harsh and beautiful
land as I had seen it. Even the abundant enumer-
ation of sweet-fern, asters and mountain-laurel,
and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacu-
lar, left me with the feeling that the outcropping
granite had in both cases been overlooked. I give
the impression merely as a personal one; it accounts
for Ethan Frome, and may, to some readers, in a
measure justify it.
So much for the origin of the story; there is noth-
ing else of interest to say of it, except as concerns its
"The problem before me> as I saw in the first flash ,
was this: I had to deal with a subject of which the
dramatic climax ', or rather the anti-climax ', occurs
a generation later than the first acts of the tragedy.
Tbis enforced lapse of time would seem to anyone
persuaded as I have always been that every sub-
ject (in the novelisfs sense of the term) implicitly
contains its own form and dimensions, to mark
"Ethan Frome" as the subject for a novel. But I
never thought this for a moment l , for I had felt , at
the same time, that the theme of my tale was not one
on which many variations could be played. It must
be treated as starkly and summarily as life had
always presented itself to my protagonists; any at-
tempt to elaborate and complicate their sentiments
would necessarily have falsified the whole. 'They
were, in truth ^ these figures , my granite outcrop-
pings; but half -emerged from the soil, and scarcely
'This incompatibility between subject and plan
would perhaps have seemed to suggest that my
"situation' was after all one to be rejected. Every
novelist has been visited by the insinuating wraiths
of false "good situations" siren-subjects luring his
cockle-shell to the rocks; their voice is of tenest beard,
and their mirage-sea beheld, as he traverses the
waterless desert which awaits him half-way through
whatever work is actually in hand. I knew well
enough what song those sirens sang, and had often
tied myself to my dull job till they were out of hear-
ing perhaps carrying a lost masterpiece in their
rainbow veils. But I had no such fear of them in the
case of Ethan Frome. It was the first subject I had
ever approached with full confidence in its value,
for my own purpose, and a relative faith in my
power to render at least a part of what I saw in it.
Every novelist, again, who "intends upon" his
art, has lit upon such subjects, and been fascinated
by the difficulty of presenting them in the fullest
relief, yet without an added ornament, or a trick of
drapery or lighting. This was my task, if I were to
tell the story of Ethan Frome; and my scheme of
construction which met with the immediate and
unqualified disapproval of the few friends to whom
I tentatively outlined it / still think justified in
the given case. It appears to me, indeed, that, while
an air of artificiality is lent to a tale of complex
and sophisticated people which the novelist causes
to be guessed at and interpreted by any mere looker-
on, there need be no such drawback if the looker-on
is sophisticated, and the people he interprets are
simple. If he is capable of seeing all around them,
no violence is done to probability in allowing him
to exercise this faculty; it is natural enough that he
should act as the sympathizing intermediary be-
tween his rudimentary characters and the more
complicated minds to whom he is trying to present
them. But this is all self-evident, and needs explain-
ing only to those who have never thought of fiction as
an art of composition.
'The real merit of my construction seems to me
to lie in a minor detail. I had to find means to bring
my tragedy y in a way at once natural and picture-
making^ to the knowledge of its narrator. I might
have sat him down before a village gossip who
would have poured out the whole affair to him in a
breath, but in doing this I should have been false
to two essential elements of my picture : first, the
deep-rooted reticence and inarticulateness of the
people I was trying to draw, and secondly the effect
of "roundness'' (in the plastic sense) produced by
letting their case be seen through eyes as different
as those of Harmon Gow and Mrs. Ned Hale. Each
of my chroniclers contributes to the narrative just
so much as he or she is capable of understanding
of what, to them, is a complicated and mysterious
case; and only the narrator of the tale has scope
enough to see it all, to resolve it back into simplicity,
and to put it in its rightful place among his larger
I make no claim for originality in following a
method of which "La Grande Bretecbe" and "The
Ring and the Book" had set me the magnificent
example; my one merit is, perhaps, to have guessed
that the proceeding there employed was also appli-
cable to my small tale.
I have written this brief analysis the first I have
ever published of any of my books because, as an
author s introduction to his work, I can imagine
nothing of any value to his readers except a state-
ment as to why he decided to attempt the work in
question, and why he selected one form rather than
another for its embodiment. 'These primary aims,
the only ones that can be explicitly stated, must,
by the artist, be almost instinctively felt and acted
upon before there can pass into his creation that im-
ponderable something more which causes life to cir-
culate in it, and preserves it for a little from decay.
March jist, 1922.
I HAD the story, bit by bit, from various people,
and, as generally happens in such cases, each
time it was a different story.
If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you
know the post-office. If you know the post-office
you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it,
drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag
himself across the brick pavement to the white
colonnade: and you must have asked who 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 striking figure
in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a
man. It was not so much his great height that
marked him, for the "natives" were easily singled
out by their lank longitude from the stockier
foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look
he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step
like the jerk of a chain. There was something
bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was
so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an
old man and was surprised to hear that he was
not more than fifty-two. I had this from Harmon
Gow, who had driven the stage from Bettsbridge
to Starkfield in pre-trolley days and knew the
chronicle of all the families on his line.
"He's looked that way ever since he had his
smash-up; and that's twenty-four years ago
come next February," Harmon threw out be-
tween reminiscent pauses.
The "smash-up" it was I gathered from the
same informant which, besides drawing the red
gash across Ethan Frome's forehead, had so
shortened and warped his right side that it cost
him a visible effort to take the few steps from his
buggy to the post-office window. He used to drive
in from his farm every day at about noon, and
as that was my own hour for fetching my mail I
often passed him in the porch or stood beside him
while we waited on the motions of the distribut-
ing hand behind the grating. I noticed that, al-
though he came so punctually, he seldom received
anything but a copy of the Bettsbridge Eagle,
Ethan Frome 5
which he put without a glance into his sagging
pocket. At intervals, however, the post-master
would hand him an envelope addressed to Mrs.
Zenobia or Mrs. Zeena Frome, and usually
bearing conspicuously in the upper left-hand cor-
ner the address of some manufacturer of patent
medicine and the name of his specific. These doc-
uments my neighbour would also pocket without
a glance, as if too much used to them to wonder
at their number and variety, and would then turn
away with a silent nod to the post-master.
Every one in Starkfield knew him and gave
him a greeting tempered to his own grave mien;
but his taciturnity was respected and it was only
on rare occasions that one of the older men of the
place detained him for a word. When this hap-
pened he would listen quietly, his blue eyes on
the speaker's face, and answer in so low a tone
that his words never reached me; then he would
climb stiffly into his buggy, gather up the reins
in his left hand and drive slowly away in the
direction of his farm.
"It was a pretty bad smash-up ? " I questioned
Harmon, looking after Frame's retreating figure,
and thinking how gallantly his lean brown head,
with its shock of light hair, must have sat on his
shoulders before they were bent out of shape.
"Wust kind," my informant assented. "More'n
enough to kill most men. But the Fromes are
tough. Ethan'll likely touch a hundred."
"Good God!" I exclaimed. At the moment
Ethan Frome, after climbing to his seat, had
leaned over to assure himself of the security of
a wooden box also with a druggist's label on it
which he had placed in the back of the buggy,
and I saw his face as it probably looked when he
thought himself alone. "That man touch a hun-
dred ? He looks as if he was dead and in hell now ! "
Harmon drew a slab of tobacco from his pock-
et, cut off a wedge and pressed it into the leather
pouch of his cheek. "Guess he's been in Starkfield
too many winters. Most of the smart ones get
' Why didn't fe?"
"Somebody had to stay and care for the folks.
There warn't ever anybody but Ethan. Fust his
father then his mother then his wife."
"And then the smash-up?"
Harmon chuckled sardonically. "That's so.
He had to stay then."
"I see. And since then they Ve had to care for
Harmon thoughtfully passed his tobacco to the
other cheek. "Oh, as to that: I guess it's always
Ethan done the caring."
Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far
as his mental and moral reach permitted, there
were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I
had the sense that the deeper meaning of the
story was in the gaps. But one phrase stuck in
my memory and served as the nucleus about
which I grouped my subsequent inferences:
"Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters."
Before my own time there was up I had learned
to know what that meant. Yet I had come in the
degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and rural de-
livery, when communication was easy between
the scattered mountain villages, and the bigger
towns in the valleys, such as Bettsbridge and
Shadd's Falls, had libraries, theatres and Y. M.
C. A. halls to which the youth of the hills could
descend for recreation. But when winter shut
down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a
sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale
skies, I began to see what life there or rather
8 Ethan Frome
its negation must have been in Ethan Frame's
I had been sent up by my employers on a job
connected with the big power-house at Corbury
Junction, and a long-drawn carpenters' strike
had so delayed the work that I found myself
anchored at Starkfield the nearest habitable
spot for the best part of the winter. I chafed at
first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of
routine, gradually began to find a grim satisfac-
tion in the life. During the early part of my stay
I had been struck by the contrast between the
vitality of the climate and the deadness of the
community. Day by day, after the December
snows were over, a blazing blue sky poured down
torrents of light and air on the white landscape,
which gave them back in an intenser glitter.
One would have supposed that such an atmos-
phere must quicken the emotions as well as the
blood; but it seemed to produce no change except
that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of
Starkfield. When I had been there a little longer,
and had seen this phase of crystal clearness fol-
lowed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the
storms of February had pitched their white
tents about the devoted village, and the wild
cavalry of March winds had charged down to
their support; I began to understand why Stark-
field emerged from its six months' siege like a
starved garrison capitulating without quarter.
Twenty years earlier the means of resistance
must have been far fewer, and the enemy in
command of almost all the lines of access between
the beleaguered villages; and, considering these
things, I felt the sinister force of Harmon's
phrase: "Most of the smart ones get away."
But if that were the case, how could any combi-
nation of obstacles have hindered the flight of a
man like Ethan Frome ?
During my stay at Starkfield I lodged with
a middle-aged widow colloquially known as
Mrs. Ned Hale. Mrs. Hale's father had been the
village lawyer of the previous generation, and
"lawyer Varnum's house," where my landlady
still lived with her mother, was the most con-
siderable mansion in the village. It stood at one
end of the main street, its classic portico and
small-paned windows looking down a flagged
path between Norway spruces to the slim white
steeple of the Congregational church. It was
io Ethan Frome
clear that the Varnum fortunes were at the ebb,
but the two women did what they could to pre-
serve a decent dignity; and Mrs. Hale, in par-
ticular, had a certain wan refinement not out of
keeping with her pale old-fashioned house.
In the "best parlour," with its black horse-
hair and mahogany weakly illuminated by a
gurgling Carcel lamp, I listened every evening
to another and more delicately shaded version
of the Starkfield chronicle. It was not that Mrs.
Ned Hale felt, or affected, any social superiority
to the people about her; it was only that the
accident of a finer sensibility and a little more
education had put just enough distance between
herself and her neighbours to enable her to judge
them with detachment. She was not unwilling
to exercise this faculty, and I had great hopes of
getting from her the missing facts of Ethan
Frome's story, or rather such a key to his charac-
ter as should co-ordinate the facts I knew. Her
mind was a store-house of innocuous anecdote,
and any question about her acquaintances
brought forth a volume of detail; but on the sub-
ject of Ethan Frome I found her unexpectedly
reticent. There was no hint of disapproval in her
reserve; I merely felt in her an insurmountable
reluctance to speak of him or his affairs, a low
"Yes, I knew them both ... it was awful . . . "
seeming to be the utmost concession that her
distress could make to my curiosity.
So marked was the change in her manner,
such depths of sad initiation did it imply, that,
with some doubts as to my delicacy, I put the
case anew to my village oracle, Harmon Gow;
but got for my pains only an uncomprehending
"Ruth Varnum was always as nervous as a
rat; and, come to think of it, she was the first
one to see 'em after they was picked up. It hap-
pened right below lawyer Varnum's, down at the
bend of the Corbury road, just round about the
time that Ruth got engaged to Ned Hale. The
young folks was all friends, and I guess she just
can't bear to talk about it. She's had troubles
enough of her own."
All the dwellers in Starkfield, as in more no-
table communities, had had troubles enough of
their own to make them comparatively indiffer-
ent to those of their neighbours; and though all
conceded that Ethan Frome's had been beyond
12 Ethan Frome
the common measure, no one gave me an expla-
nation of the look in his face which, as I persisted
in thinking, neither poverty nor physical suffer-
ing could have put there. Nevertheless, I might
have contented myself with the story pieced
together from these hints had it not been for the
provocation of Mrs. Hale's silence, and a little
later for the accident of personal contact with
On my arrival at Starkfield, Denis Eady, the
rich Irish grocer, who was the proprietor of
StarkfiekTs nearest approach to a livery stable,
had entered into an agreement to send me over
daily to Corbury Flats, where I had to pick up
my train for the Junction. But about the middle
of the winter Eady's horses fell ill of a local epi-
demic. The illness spread to the other Starkfield
stables and for a day or two I was put to it to
find a means of transport. Then Harmon Gow
suggested that Ethan Frome's bay was still on
his legs and that his owner might be glad to
drive me over.
I stared at the suggestion. "Ethan Frome? But
I've never even spoken to him. Why on earth
should he put himself out for me?"
Ethan Frome 13
Harmon's answer surprised me still more. "I
don't know as he would; but I know he wouldn't
be sorry to earn a dollar."
I had been told that Frome was poor, and that
the saw-mill and the arid acres of his farm yielded
scarcely enough to keep his household through
the winter; but I had not supposed him to be in
such want as Harmon's words implied, and I
expressed my wonder.
"Well, matters ain't gone any too well with
him/' Harmon said. "When a man's been setting
round like a hulk for twenty years or more,
seeing things that want doing, it eats inter him,
and he loses his grit. That Frome farm was al-
ways 'bout as bare's a milkpan when the cat's
been round; and you know what one of them
old water-mills is wuth nowadays. When Ethan
could sweat over 'em both from sun-up to dark
he kinder choked a living out of 'em; but his folks
ate up most everything, even then, and I don't
see how he makes out now. Fust his father got
a kick, out haying, and went soft in the brain,
and gave away money like Bible texts afore he
died. Then his mother got queer and dragged
along for years as weak as a baby; and his wife
14 Ethan Frome
Zeena, she's always been the greatest hand at
doctoring in the county. Sickness and trouble:
that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with,
ever since the very first helping."
The next morning, when I looked out, I saw
the hollow-backed bay between the Varnum
spruces, and Ethan Frome, throwing back his
worn bearskin, made room for me in the sleigh
at his side. After that, for a week, he drove me
over every morning to Corbury Flats, and on my
return in the afternoon met me again and carried
me back through the icy night to Starkfield.
The distance each way was barely three miles,
but the old bay's pace was slow, and even with
firm snow under the runners we were nearly an
hour on the way. Ethan Frome drove in silence,
the reins loosely held in his left hand, his brown
seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the
cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the
bronze image of a hero. He never turned his
face to mine, or answered, except in monosylla-
bles, the questions I put, or such slight pleas-
antries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the
mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its
frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient
Ethan Frome 15
in him fast bound below the surface; but there
was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply
felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation
too remote for casual access, and I had the sense
that his loneliness was not merely the result of
his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be,
but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the
profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield
Only once or twice was the distance between
us bridged for a moment; and the glimpses thus
gained confirmed my desire to know more. Once
I happened to speak of an engineering job I had
been on the previous year in Florida, and of the
contrast between the winter landscape about us
and that in which I had found myself the year
before; and to my surprise Frome said suddenly:
"Yes: I was down there once, and for a good
while afterward I could call up the sight of it in
winter. But now it's all snowed under."
He said no more, and I had to guess the rest
from the inflection of his voice and his sharp
relapse into silence.
Another day, on getting into my train at the
Flats, I missed a volume of popular science I
1 6 Ethan Frome
think it was on some recent discoveries in bio-
chemistry which I had carried with me to read
on the way. I thought no more about it till I
got into the sleigh again that evening, and saw
the book in Frome 's hand.
"I found it after you were gone/' he said.
I put the volume into my pocket and we
dropped back into our usual silence; but as we
began to crawl up the long hill from Corbury
Flats to the Starkfield ridge I became aware in
the dusk that he had turned his face to mine.
"There are things in that book that I didn't
know the first word about/' he said.
I wondered less at his words than at the queer
note of resentment in his voice. He was evidently
surprised and slightly aggrieved at his own igno-
"Does thatsortof thing interest you?" I asked.
"It used to."
"There are one or two rather new things in the
book: there have been some big strides lately in
that particular line of research." I waited a mo-
ment for an answer that did not come; then I
said: "If you'd like to look the book through
I'd be glad to leave it with you."
Ethan Frome 17
He hesitated, and I had the impression that
he felt himself about to yield to a stealing tide
of inertia; then, "Thank you I'll take it," he
I hoped that this incident might set up some
more direct communication between us. Frome
was so simple and straightforward that I was
sure his curiosity about the book was based on a
genuine interest in its subject. Such tastes and
acquirements in a man of his condition made the
contrast more poignant between his outer situa-
tion and his inner needs, and I hoped that the
chance of giving expression to the latter might
at least unseal his lips. But something in his past
history, or in his present way of living, had ap-
parently driven him too deeply into himself for
any casual impulse to draw him back to his
kind. At our next meeting he made no allusion
to the book, and our intercourse seemed fated to
remain as negative and one-sided as if there had
been no break in his reserve.
Frome had been driving me over to the Flats
for about a week when one morning I looked out
of my window into a thick snow-fall. The height
of the white waves massed against the garden-
fence and along the wall of the church showed
that the storm must have been going on all
night, and that the drifts were likely to be heavy
in the open. I thought it probable that my train
would be delayed; but I had to be at the power-
house for an hour or two that afternoon, and I
decided, if Frome turned up, to push through to
the Flats and wait there till my train came in.
I don't know why I put it in the conditional,
however, for I never doubted that Frome would
appear. He was not the kind of man to be turned
from his business by any commotion of the ele-
ments; and at the appointed hour his sleigh glid-
ed up through the snow like a stage-apparition
behind thickening veils of gauze.
I was getting to know him too well to express
either wonder or gratitude at his keeping his ap-
pointment; but I exclaimed in surprise as I saw
him turn his horse in a direction opposite to that
of the Corbury road.
"The railroad's blocked by a freight-train that
got stuck in a drift below the Flats/' he explained,
as we jogged off into the stinging whiteness.
"But look here where are you taking me,
Ethan Frome 19
"Straight to the Junction, by the shortest way,"
he answered, pointing up School House Hill with
"To the Junction in this storm? Why, it's a
good ten miles!"
"The bay '11 do it if you give him time. You
said you had some business there this afternoon.
Til see you get there."
He said it so quietly that I could only answer:
"You're doing me the biggest kind of a favour."
"That's all right," he rejoined.
Abreast of the schoolhouse the road forked,
and we dipped down a lane to the left, between
hemlock boughs bent inward to their trunks by
the weight of the snow. I had often walked that
way on Sundays, and knew that the solitary roof
showing through bare branches near the bottom
of the hill was that of Frome's saw-mill. It looked
exanimate enough, with its idle wheel looming
above the black stream dashed with yellow-white
spume, and its cluster of sheds sagging under
their white load. Frome did not even turn his
head as we drove by, and still in silence we began
to mount the next slope. About a mile farther,
on a road I had never travelled, we came to an
orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a
hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled
up through the snow like animals pushing out
their noses to breathe. Beyond the orchard lay
a field or two, their boundaries lost under drifts;
and above the fields, huddled against the white
immensities of land and sky, one of those lonely
New England farm-houses that make the land-
"That's my place," said Frome, with a side-
way jerk of his lame elbow; and in the distress
and oppression of the scene I did not know what
to answer. The snow had ceased, and a flash of
watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope
above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black
wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the
porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their
worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind
that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.
"The house was bigger in my father's time: I
had to take down the *L,' a while back," Frome
continued, checking with a twitch of the left rein
the bay's evident intention of turning in through
the broken-down gate.
I saw then that the unusually forlorn and
stunted look of the house was partly due to the
loss of what is known in New England as the
"L": that long deep-roofed adjunct usually built
at right angles to the main house, and connecting
it, by way of store-rooms and tool-house, with
the wood-shed and cow-barn. Whether because
of its symbolic sense, the image it presents of a
life linked with the soil, and enclosing in itself
the chief sources of warmth and nourishment,
or whether merely because of the consolatory
thought that it enables the dwellers in that harsh
climate to get to their morning's work with-
out facing the weather, it is certain that the
"L" rather than the house itself seems to be the
centre, the actual hearth-stone, of the New Eng-
land farm. Perhaps this connection of ideas,
which had often occurred to me in my rambles
about Starkfield, caused me to hear a wistful
note in Frome's words, and to see in the dimin-
ished dwelling the image of his own shrunken
"We're kinder side-tracked here now," he
added, "but there was considerable passing be-
fore the railroad was carried through to the
Flats." He roused the lagging bay with another
22 Ethan Frome
twitch; then, as if the mere sight of the house
had let me too deeply into his confidence for any
farther pretence of reserve, he went on slowly:
"I've always set down the worst of mother's
trouble to that. When she got the rheumatism so
bad she couldn't move around she used to sit up
there and watch the road by the hour; and one
year, when they was six months mending the
Bettsbridge pike after the floods, and Harmon
Gow had to bring his stage round this way, she
picked up so that she used to get down to the
gate most days to see him. But after the trains
begun running nobody ever come by here to
speak of, and mother never could get it through
her head what had happened, and it preyed on
her right along till she died."
As we turned into the Corbury road the snow
began to fall again, cutting off our last glimpse of
the house; and Frome's silence fell with it, letting
down between us the old veil of reticence. This
time the wind did not cease with the return of the
snow. Instead, it sprang up to a gale which now
and then, from a tattered sky, flung pale sweeps
of sunlight over a landscape chaotically tossed.
But the bay was as good as Frome's word, and
Ethan Frome 23
we pushed on to the Junction through the wild
In the afternoon the storm held off, and the
clearness in the west seemed to my inexperienced
eye the pledge of a fair evening. I finished my
business as quickly as possible, and we set out
for Starkfield with a good chance of getting there
for supper. But at sunset the clouds gathered
again, bringing an earlier night, and the snow
began to fall straight and steadily from a sky
without wind, in a soft universal diffusion more
confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morn-
ing. It seemed to be a part of the thickening
darkness, to be the winter night itself descending
on us layer by layer.
The small ray of Frome's lantern was soon lost
in this smothering medium, in which even his sense
of direction, and the bay's homing instinct, final-
ly ceased to serve us. Two or three times some
ghostly landmark sprang up to warn us that we
were astray, and then was sucked back into the
mist; and when we finally regained our road the
old horse began to show signs of exhaustion. I
felt myself to blame for having accepted Frame's
offer, and after a short discussion I persuaded him
24 Ethan Frome
to let me get out of the sleigh and walk along
through the snow at the bay's side. In this way
we struggled on for another mile or two, and at
last reached a point where Frome, peering into
what seemed to me formless night, said: "That's
my gate down yonder."
The last stretch had been the hardest part of
the way. The bitter cold and the heavy going
had nearly knocked the wind out of me, and I
could feel the horse's side ticking like a clock
under my hand.
"Look here, Frome," I began, "there's no
earthly use in your going any farther " but he
interrupted me: "Nor you neither. There's been
about enough of this for anybody."
I understood that he was offering me a night's
shelter at the farm, and without answering I
turned into the gate at his side, and followed him
to the barn, where I helped him to unharness
and bed down the tired horse. When this was
done he unhooked the lantern from the sleigh,
stepped out again into the night, and called to
me over his shoulder: "This way."
Far off above us a square of light trembled
through the screen of snow. Staggering along in
Ethan Frome 25
Frame's wake I floundered toward it, and in the
darkness almost fell into one of the deep drifts
against the front of the house. Frome scrambled
up the slippery steps of the porch, digging a way
through the snow with his heavily booted foot.
Then he lifted his lantern, found the latch, and led
the way into the house. I went after him into a low
unlit passage, at the back of which a ladder-like
staircase rose into obscurity. On our right a line
of light marked the door of the room which had
sent its ray across the night; and behind the door
I heard a woman's voice droning querulously.
Frome stamped on the worn oil-cloth to shake
the snow from his boots, and set down his lan-
tern on a kitchen chair which was the only piece
of furniture in the hall. Then he opened the door.
"Come in," he said; and as he spoke the dron-
ing voice grew still . .4,
It was that night that I found the clue to
Ethan Frome, and began to put together this
vision of his story / , . . .
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 grey
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
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
Ethan Frome 27
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 com-
plete 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 re-
ceiver," he thought. Four or five years earlier
he had taken a year's course at a technological
college at Worcester, and dabbled in the labora-
tory 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
28 Ethan Frome
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 eve-
nings 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 wakening 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 build-
ing, 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
Ethan Frome 19
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
3 Ethan Frome
hands. The signal took instant effect. The musi-
cians hurried to their instruments, the dancers
some already half-muffled for departure fell into
line down each side of the room, the older spec-
tators 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 laugh-
ing 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.
Ethan Frome 3 1
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 tak-
en on a look of almost impudent ownership.
Denis Eady was the son of Michael Eady, the
ambitious Irish grocer, whose suppleness and ef-
frontery 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
Frome was in the habit of walking into Stark-
32 Ethan Frome
field 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 re-
flected 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
Ethan Frome 33
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, look-
ing over her slight person: "She don't look much
on house-work, 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 light-
ing 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 un-
34 Ethan Frome
happiest moments field and sky spoke to him
with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hith-
erto 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 trem-
bled 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
Ethan Frome 35
stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hem-
locks 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 un-
happiness roused his latent fears. His wife had
never shown any jealousy of Mattie, but of late
36 Ethan Frome
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 ail-
ing 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 house-keeping, 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 ab-
stract 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
Ethan Frome 37
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 his wife's
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 in-
distinctly outlined under the dark calico quilt, her
high-boned face taking a greyish 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
Frome turned away again, and taking up his
razor stooped to catch the reflection of his
3 8 Ethan Frome
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 need-
ed 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 want-
ed 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
Ethan Frome 39
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 sus-
penders 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 let-
ting 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,
4 Ethan Frome
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 .
A 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, accus-
tomed 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 ex-
pressive, 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 Denis's cheap ban-
Ethan Frome 43
ter!) "But look at 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
"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 bear-
skin to make room for her at his side; then, with
a swift motion of flight, she turned about and
44 Ethan Frome
darted up the slope toward the front of the
"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.
"Come along! Get in quick! It's as slippery as
thunder on this turn/' he cried, leaning over to
reach out a hand.
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 ex-
panse of snow before the church.
In the black shade of the Varnum spruces he
Ethan Frome 45
caught up with her and she turned with a quick
"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
"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 hav-
ing done something arch and ingenious. To pro-
long the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase, and
brought out, in a growl of rapture : "Come along."
4 6 Ethan Frome
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 for-
ward 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 be-
fore 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 run-
ning 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
"Oh, Ned ain't much at steering. I guess I
Ethan Frome 47
can take you down all right!" he said disdain-
He was aware that he was "talking big," like
Denis Eady; but his reaction of joy had un-
steadied 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 indiffer-
ence 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
"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
"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
Ethan Frome 49
motionless, each seeking to distinguish the other's
"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 strug-
gled for the all-expressive word, and again, his
arm in hers, found only a deep "Come along."
They walked on in silence through the black-
ness of the hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan's
saw-mill 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
5 Ethan Frome
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
"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,
Ethan Frome 5 1
the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles
through the snow. Ethan looked at them curi-
ously. For years that quiet company had mocked
his restlessness, his desire for change and free-
dom. "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
"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
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 prolonga-
5 2 Ethan Frome
tion 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
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 him-
self with a start.
Ethan Frome 53
They strained their eyes at each other through
the icy darkness. Such a thing had never hap-
"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 in to the snow/' Mat-
tie continued, after a pause during which they
had stood intently listening.
"It must have been pushed off, then/' he re-
joined 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
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
54 Ethan Frome
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-bone of the hand
that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastic-
ally 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
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
"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 any-
thing I can do?"
Ethan Frome 55
"No; there's nothing." Zeena turned away
from her. "You might V 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
"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
5 6 Ethan Frome
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.
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 red in a pure sky, the shad-
ows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly blue,
and beyond the white and scintillating fields
patches of far-off forest hung like smoke.
It was in the early morning stillness, when his
muscles were swinging to their familiar task and
his lungs expanding with long draughts of moun-
tain air, that Ethan did his clearest thinking.
He and Zeena had not exchanged a word after
the door of their room had closed on them. She
had measured out some drops from a medicine-
bottle on a chair by the bed and, after swallow-
ing them, and wrapping her head in a piece of
yellow flannel, had lain down with her face
turned away. Ethan undressed hurriedly and
58 Ethan Frome
blew out the light so that he should not see her
when he took his place at her side. As he lay
there he could hear Mattie moving about in her
room, and her candle, sending its small ray
across the landing, drew a scarcely perceptible
line of light under his door. He kept his eyes
fixed on the light till it vanished. Then the room
grew perfectly black, and not a sound was audi-
ble but Zeena's asthmatic breathing. Ethan felt
confusedly that there were many things he ought
to think about, but through his tingling veins
and tired brain only one sensation throbbed: the
warmth of Mattie's shoulder against his. Why
had he not kissed her when he held her there ?
A few hours earlier he would not have asked
himself the question. Even a few minutes earlier,
when they had stood alone outside the house,
he would not have dared to think of kissing her.
But since he had seen her lips in the lamplight
he felt that they were his.
Now, in the bright morning air, her face was
still before him. It was part of the sun's red and
of the pure glitter on the snow. How the girl had
changed since she had come to Starkfield! He
remembered what a colourless slip of a thing she
Ethan Frome 59
had looked the day he had met her at the station.
And all the first winter, how she had shivered with
cold when the northerly gales shook the thin clap-
boards and the snow beat like hail against the
loose-hung windows !
He had been afraid that she would hate the
hard life, the cold and loneliness; but not a sign
of discontent escaped her. Zeena took the view
that Mattie was bound to make the best of
Starkfield since she hadn't any other place to go
to; but this did not strike Ethan as conclusive.
Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle
in her own case.
He felt all the more sorry for the girl because
misfortune had, in a sense, indentured her to
them. Mattie Silver was the daughter of a
cousin of Zenobia Frome's, who had inflamed
his clan with mingled sentiments of envy and
admiration by descending from the hills to
Connecticut, where he had married a Stamford
girl and succeeded to her father's thriving "drug"
business. Unhappily Orin Silver, a man of far-
reaching aims, had died too soon to prove that
the end justifies the means. His accounts re-
vealed merely what the means had been; and
60 Ethan Frome
these were such that it was fortunate for his wife
and daughter that his books were examined only
after his impressive funeral. His wife died of the
disclosure, and Mattie, at twenty, was left alone
to make her way on the fifty dollars obtained
from the sale of her piano. For this purpose her
equipment, though varied, was inadequate. She
could trim a hat, make molasses candy, recite
"Curfew shall not ring to-night," and play "The
Lost Chord" and a pot-pourri from "Carmen."
When she tried to extend the field of her activi-
ties in the direction of stenography and book-
keeping her health broke down, and six months
on her feet behind the counter of a department
store did not tend to restore it. Her nearest
relations had been induced to place their savings
in her father's hands, and though, after his death,
they ungrudgingly acquitted themselves of the
Christian duty of returning good for evil by
giving his daughter all the advice at their dis-
posal, they could hardly be expected to supple-
ment it by material aid. But when Zenobia's
doctor recommended her looking about for some
one to help her with the house-work the clan
instantly saw the chance of exacting a compensa-
Ethan Frome 61
tion from Mattie. Zenobia, though doubtful of
the girl's efficiency, was tempted by the freedom
to find fault without much risk of losing her;
and so Mattie came to Starkfield.
Zenobia's fault-finding was of the silent kind,
but not the less penetrating for that. During the
first months Ethan alternately burned with the
desire to see Mattie defy her and trembled with
fear of the result. Then the situation grew less
strained. The pure air, and the long summer
hours in the open, gave back life and elasticity
to Mattie, and Zeena, with more leisure to devote
to her complex ailments, grew less watchful of
the girl's omissions ; so that Ethan, struggling
on under the burden of his barren farm and fail-
ing saw-mill, could at least imagine that peace
reigned in his house.
There was really, even now, no tangible evi-
dence to the contrary; but since the previous
night a vague dread had hung on his sky-line.
It was formed of Zeena's obstinate silence, of
Mattie's sudden look of warning, of the memory
of just such fleeting imperceptible signs as those
which told him, on certain stainless mornings,
that before night there would be rain.
62 Ethan Frome
His dread was so strong that, man-like, he
sought to postpone certainty. The hauling was
not over till mid-day, and as the lumber was to
be delivered to Andrew Hale, the Starkfield
builder, it was really easier for Ethan to send
Jotham Powell, the hired man, back to the farm
on foot, and drive the load down to the village
himself. He had scrambled up on the logs, and
was sitting astride of them, close over his shag-
gy greys, when, coming between him and their
steaming necks, he had a vision of the warning
look that Mattie had given him the night before.
"If there's going to be any trouble I want to be
there," was his vague reflection, as he threw to
Jotham the unexpected order to unhitch the
team and lead them back to the barn.
It was a slow trudge home through the heavy
fields, and when the two men entered the kitchen
Mattie was lifting the coffee from the stove and
Zeena was already at the table. Her husband
stopped short at sight of her. Instead of her
usual calico wrapper and knitted shawl she wore
her best dress of brown merino, and above her
thin strands of hair, which still preserved the
tight undulations of the crimping-pins, rose a
Ethan Frome 63
hard perpendicular bonnet, as to which Ethan's
clearest notion was that he had had to pay five
dollars for it at the Bettsbridge Emporium. On
the floor beside her stood his old valise and a
bandbox wrapped in newspapers.
"Why, where are you going, Zeena?" he ex-
"I've got my shooting pains so bad that Fm
going over to Bettsbridge to spend the night with
Aunt Martha Pierce and see that new doctor/'
she answered in a matter-of-fact tone, as if she
had said she was going into the storeroom to
take a look at the preserves, or up to the attic to
go over the blankets.
In spite of her sedentary habits such abrupt
decisions were not without precedent in Zeena's
history. Twice or thrice before she had suddenly
packed Ethan's valise and started off to Betts-
bridge, or even Springfield, to seek the advice of
some new doctor, and her husband had grown to
dread these expeditions because of their cost.
Zeena always came back laden with expensive
remedies, and her last visit to Springfield had
been commemorated by her paying twenty dol-
lars for an electric battery of which she had never
64 Ethan Frome
been able to learn the use. But for the moment
his sense of relief was so great as to preclude all
other feelings. He had now no doubt that Zeena
had spoken the truth in saying, the night before,
that she had sat up because she felt "too mean"
to sleep : her abrupt resolve to seek medical advice
showed that, as usual, she was wholly absorbed
in her health.
As if expecting a protest, she continued plain-
tively : " If you're too busy with the hauling I pre-
sume you can let Jotham Powell drive me over with
the sorrel in time to ketch the train at the Flats."
Her husband hardly heard what she was say-
ing. During the winter months there was no
stage between Starkfield and Bettsbridge, and
the trains which stopped at Corbury Flats were
slow and infrequent. A rapid calculation showed
Ethan that Zeena could not be back at the farm
before the following evening. . . .
"If I'd supposed you'd 'a' made any objection
to Jotham Powell's driving me over " she began
again, as though his silence had implied refusal.
On the brink of departure she was always seized
with a flux of words. "All I know is," she con-
tinued, "I can't go on the way I am much longer.
Ethan Frome 65
The pains are clear away down to my ankles
now, or Fd 'a' walked in to Starkfield on my own
feet, sooner'n put you out, and asked Michael
Eady to let me ride over on his wagon to the
Flats, when he sends to meet the train that
brings his groceries. I'd V had two hours to wait
in the station, but I'd sooner 'a* done it, even
with this cold, than to have you say "
"Of course Jotham'll drive you over," Ethan
roused himself to answer. He became suddenly
conscious that he was looking at Mattie while
Zeena talked to him, and with an effort he turned
his eyes to his wife. She sat opposite the window,
and the pale light reflected from the banks of
snow made her face look more than usually
drawn and bloodless, sharpened the three parallel
creases between ear and cheek, and drew queru-
lous lines from her thin nose to the corners of her
mouth. Though she was but seven years her
husband's senior, and he was only twenty-eight,
she was already an old woman.
Ethan tried to say something befitting the occa-
sion, but there was only one thought in his mind:
the fact that, for the first time since Mattie had
come to live with them, Zeena was to be away for
66 Ethan Frome
a night. He wondered if the girl were thinking of
it too. . . .
He knew that Zeena must be wondering why
he did not offer to drive her to the Flats and let
Jotham Powell take the lumber to Starkfield, and
at first he could not think of a pretext for not
doing so; then he said: "I'd take you over myself,
only I've got to collect the cash for the lumber."
As soon as the words were spoken he regretted
them, not only because they were untrue there
being no prospect of his receiving cash payment
from Hale but also because he knew from experi-
ence the imprudence of letting Zeena think he was
in funds on the eve of one of her therapeutic ex-
cursions. At the moment, however, his one desire
was to avoid the long drive with her behind the
ancient sorrel who never went out of a walk.
Zeena made no reply: she did not seem to hear
what he had said. She had already pushed her
plate aside, and was measuring out a draught
from a large bottle at her elbow.
"It ain't done me a speck of good, but I guess
I might as well use it up," she remarked; adding,
as she pushed the empty bottle toward Mattie:
"If you can get the taste out it'll do for pickles."
A soon as his wife had driven off Ethan took
his coat and cap from the peg. Mattie was
washing up the dishes, humming one of the dance
tunes of the night before. He said "So long,
Matt," and she answered gaily "So long, Ethan";
and that was all.
It was warm and bright in the kitchen. The
sun slanted through the south window on the
girl's moving figure, on the cat dozing in a chair,
and on the geraniums brought in from the door-
way, where Ethan had planted them in the sum-
mer to "make a garden" for Mattie. He would
have liked to linger on, watching her tidy up and
then settle down to her sewing; but he wanted
still more to get the hauling done and be back at
the farm before night.
All the way down to the village he continued
to think of his return to Mattie. The kitchen
was a poor place, not "spruce" and shining as his
68 Ethan Frome
mother had kept it in his boyhood; but it was
surprising what a homelike look the mere fact of
Zeena's absence gave it. And he pictured what it
would be like that evening, when he and Mattie
were there after supper. For the first time they
would be alone together indoors, and they would
sit there, one on each side of the stove, like a
married couple, he in his stocking feet and smok-
ing his pipe, she laughing and talking in that
funny way she had, which was always as new
to him as if he had never heard her before.
The sweetness of the picture, and the relief of
knowing that his fears of "trouble" with Zeena
were unfounded, sent up his spirits with a rush,
and he, who was usually so silent, whistled and
sang aloud as he drove through the snowy fields.
There was in him a slumbering spark of sociabil-
ity which the long Starkfield winters had not yet
extinguished. By nature grave and inarticulate,
he admired recklessness and gaiety in others and
was warmed to the marrow by friendly human
intercourse. At Worcester, though he had the
name of keeping to himself and not being much
of a hand at a good time, he had secretly gloried
in being clapped on the back and hailed as "Old
Ethan Frome 69
Ethe" or "Old Stiff"; and the cessation of such
familiarities had increased the chill of his return
There the silence had deepened about him year
by year. Left alone, after his father's accident,
to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had
had no time for convivial loiterings in the village;
and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the
house grew more oppressive than that of the
fields. His mother had been a talker in her day,
but after her "trouble" the sound of her voice
was seldom heard, though she had not lost the
power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter
evenings, when in desperation her son asked her
why she didn't "say something," she would lift a
finger and answer: "Because I'm listening"; and
on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about
the house, she would complain, if he spoke to her :
"They're talking so out there that I can't hear you."
It was only when she drew toward her last ill-
ness, and his cousin Zenobia Pierce came over
from the next valley to help him nurse her, that
human speech was heard again in the house.
After the mortal silence of his long imprisonment
Zeena's volubility was music in his ears. He felt
7 Ethan Frome
that he might have "gone like his mother" if the
sound of a new voice had not come to steady him.
Zeena seemed to understand his case at a glance.
She laughed at him for not knowing the simplest
sick-bed duties and told him to "go right along
out" and leave her to see to things. The mere
fact of obeying her orders, of feeling free to go
about his business again and talk with other men,
restored his shaken balance and magnified his
sense of what he owed her. Her efficiency shamed
and dazzled him. She seemed to possess by in-
stinct all the household wisdom that his long
apprenticeship had not instilled in him. When
the end came it was she who had to tell him to
hitch up and go for the undertaker, and she
thought it "funny" that he had not settled
beforehand who was to have his mother's clothes
and the sewing-machine. After the funeral, when
he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized
with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on
the farm; and before he knew what he was doing
he had asked her to stay there with him. He had
often thought since that it would not have hap-
pened if his mother had died in spring instead of
Ethan Frome 71
When they married it was agreed that, as soon
as he could straighten out the difficulties result-
ing from Mrs. Frome's long illness, they would
sell the farm and saw-mill and try their luck in
a large town. Ethan's love of nature did not take
the form of a taste for agriculture. He had always
wanted to be an engineer, and to live in towns,
where there were lectures and big libraries and
"fellows doing things." A slight engineering job
in Florida, put in his way during his period of
study at Worcester, increased his faith in his
ability as well as his eagerness to see the world;
and he felt sure that, with a "smart" wife like
Zeena, it would not be long before he had made
himself a place in it.
Zeena's native village was slightly larger and
nearer to the railway than Starkfield, and she
had let her husband see from the first that life
on an isolated farm was not what she had ex-
pected when she married. But purchasers were
slow in coming, and while he waited for them
Ethan learned the impossibility of transplanting
her. She chose to look down on Starkfield, but
she could not have lived in a place which looked
down on her. Even Bettsbridge or Shadd's Falls
7 2 Ethan Frome
would not have been sufficiently aware of her,
and in the greater cities which attracted Ethan
she would have suffered a complete loss of iden-
tity. And within a year of their marriage she
developed the "sickliness" which had since made
her notable even in a community rich in patho-
logical instances. When she came to take care of
his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very
genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill
as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed
observation of her own symptoms.
Then she too fell silent. Perhaps it was the
inevitable effect of life on the farm, or perhaps,
as she sometimes said, it was because Ethan
"never listened." The charge was not wholly un-
founded. When she spoke it was only to com-
plain, and to complain of things not in his power
to remedy; and to check a tendency to impatient
retort he had first formed the habit of not
answering her, and finally of thinking of other
things while she talked. Of late, however, since
he had had reasons for observing her more
closely, her silence had begun to trouble him.
He recalled his mother's growing taciturnity,
and wondered if Zeena were also turning"queer."
Ethan Frome 73
Women did, he knew. Zeena, who had at her
finger's ends the pathological chart of the whole
region, had cited many cases of the kind while
she was nursing his mother; and he himself knew
of certain lonely farm-houses in the neighbour-
hood where stricken creatures pined, and of
others where sudden tragedy had come of their
presence. At times, looking at Zeena's shut face,
he felt the chill of such forebodings. At other
times her silence seemed deliberately assumed to
conceal far-reaching intentions, mysterious con-
clusions drawn from suspicions and resentments
impossible to guess. That supposition was even
more disturbing than the other; and it was the one
which had come to him the night before, when
he had seen her standing in the kitchen door.
Now her departure for Bettsbridge had once
more eased his mind, and all his thoughts were on
the prospect of his evening with Mattie. Only
one thing weighed on him, and that was his hav-
ing told Zeena that he was to receive cash for the
lumber. He forsaw so clearly the consequences
of this imprudence that with considerable reluc-
tance he decided to ask Andrew Hale for a small
advance on his load.
74 Ethan Frome
When Ethan drove into Kale's yard the builder
was just getting out of his sleigh.
"Hello, Ethe!" he said. "This comes handy."
Andrew Hale was a ruddy man with a big grey
moustache and a stubby double-chin uncon-
strained by a collar; but his scrupulously clean
shirt was always fastened by a small diamond
stud. This display of opulence was misleading,
for though he did a fairly good business it was
known that his easy-going habits and the de-
mands of his large family frequently kept him
what Starkfield called "behind." He was an old
friend of Ethan's family, and his house one of
the few to which Zeena occasionally went, drawn
there by the fact that Mrs. Hale, in her youth,
had done more "doctoring" than any other
woman in Starkfield, and was still a recognised
authority on symptoms and treatment.
Hale went up to the greys and patted their
"Well, sir," he said, "you keep them two as if
they was pets."
Ethan set about unloading the logs and when
he had finished his job he pushed open the glazed
door of the shed which the builder used as his
Ethan Frome 75
office. Hale sat with his feet up on the stove, his
back propped against a battered desk strewn
with papers: the place, like the man, was warm,
genial and untidy.
"Sit right down and thaw out," he greeted
The latter did not know how to begin, but at
length he managed to bring out his request for
an advance of fifty dollars. The blood rushed to
his thin skin under the sting of Rale's astonish-
ment. It was the builder's custom to pay at the
end of three months, and there was no precedent
between the two men for a cash settlement.
Ethan felt that if he had pleaded an urgent
need Hale might have made shift to pay him;
but pride, and an instinctive prudence, kept
him from resorting to this argument. After his
father's death it had taken time to get his head
above water, and he did not want Andrew Hale,
or any one else in Starkfield, to think he was
going under again. Besides, he hated lying; if he
wanted the money he wanted it, and it was no-
body's business to ask why. He therefore made
his demand with the awkwardness of a proud
man who will not admit to himself that he is
76 Ethan Frome
stooping; and he was not much surprised at
The builder refused genially, as he did every-
thing else: he treated the matter as something
in the nature of a practical joke, and wanted to
know if Ethan meditated buying a grand piano
or adding a "cupolo" to his house; offering, in
the latter case, to give his services free of cost.
Ethan's arts were soon exhausted, and after an
embarrassed pause he wished Hale good-day and
opened the door of the office. As he passed out
the builder suddenly called after him: "See here
you ain't in a tight place, are you?"
"Not a bit," Ethan's pride retorted before his
reason had time to intervene.
"Well, that's good! Because I am, a shade.
Fact is, I was going to ask you to give me a
little extra time on that payment. Business is
pretty slack, to begin with, and then I'm fixing
up a little house for Ned and Ruth when they're
married. I'm glad to do it for 'em, but it costs."
His look appealed to Ethan for sympathy. "The
young people like things nice. You know how it
is yourself: it's not so long ago since you fixed
up your own place for Zeena."
Ethan Frome 77
Ethan left the greys in Hale's stable and went
about some other business in the village. As he
walked away the builder 's last phrase lingered in
his ears, and he reflected grimly that his seven years
with Zeena seemed to Starkfield "not so long/'
The afternoon was drawing to an end, and here
and there a lighted pane spangled the cold grey
dusk and made the snow look whiter. The bitter
weather had driven every one indoors and Ethan
had the long rural street to himself. Suddenly he
heard the brisk play of sleigh-bells and a cutter
passed him, drawn by a free-going horse. Ethan
recognised Michael Eady's roan colt, and young
Denis Eady, in a handsome new fur cap, leaned
forward and waved a greeting. "Hello, Ethe !" he
shouted and spun on.
The cutter was going in the direction of the
Frome farm, and Ethan's heart contracted as he
listened to the dwindling bells. What more likely
than that Denis Eady had heard of Zeena's de-
parture for Bettsbridge, and was profiting by
the opportunity to spend an hour with Mattie?
Ethan was ashamed of the storm of jealousy in
his breast. It seemed unworthy of the girl that
his thoughts of her should be so violent.
He walked on to the church corner and entered
the shade of the Varnum spruces, where he had
stood with her the night before. As he passed
into their gloom he saw an indistinct outline
just ahead of him. At his approach it melted for
an instant into two separate shapes and then
conjoined again, and he heard a kiss, and a half-
laughing "Oh!" provoked by the discovery of
his presence. Again the outline hastily disunited
and the Varnum gate slammed on one half while
the other hurried on ahead of him. Ethan smiled
at the discomfiture he had caused. What did it
matter to Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum if they
were caught kissing each other? Everybody in
Starkfield knew they were engaged. It pleased
Ethan to have surprised a pair of lovers on the
spot where he and Mattie had stood with such a
thirst for each other in their hearts ; but he felt
a pang at the thought that these two need not
hide their happiness.
He fetched the greys from Hale's stable and
started on his long climb back to the farm. The
cold was less sharp than earlier in the day and
a thick fleecy sky threatened snow for the
morrow. Here and there a star pricked through,
Ethan Frome 79
showing behind it a deep well of blue. In an hour
or two the moon would push up over the ridge
behind the farm, burn a gold-edged rent in the
clouds, and then be swallowed by them. A mourn-
ful peace hung on the fields, as though they felt
the relaxing grasp of the cold and stretched
themselves in their long winter sleep.
Ethan's ears were alert for the jingle of sleigh-
bells, but not a sound broke the silence of the
lonely road. As he drew near the farm he saw,
through the thin screen of larches at the gate, a
light twinkling in the house above him. "She's
up in her room," he said to himself, "fixing her-
self up for supper"; and he remembered Zeena's
sarcastic stare when Mattie, on the evening of
her arrival, had come down to supper with
smoothed hair and a ribbon at her neck.
He passed by the graves on the knoll and
turned his head to glance at one of the older
headstones, which had interested him deeply as
a boy because it bore his name.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
ETHAN FROME AND ENDURANCE HIS WIFE,
WHO DWELLED TOGETHER IN PEACE
FOR FIFTY YEARS.
He used to think that fifty years sounded like
a long time to live together; but now it seemed
to him that they might pass in a flash. Then,
with a sudden dart of irony, he wondered if,
when their turn came, the same epitaph would
be written over him and Zeena.
He opened the barn-door and craned his head
into the obscurity, half- fearing to discover Denis
Eady's roan colt in the stall beside the sorrel.
But the old horse was there alone, mumbling his
crib with toothless jaws, and Ethan whistled
cheerfully while he bedded down the greys and
shook an extra measure of oats into their man-
gers. His was not a tuneful throat, but harsh
melodies burst from it as he locked the barn and
sprang up the hill to the house. He reached the
kitchen-porch and turned the door-handle; but
the door did not yield to his touch.
Startled at finding it locked he rattled the
handle violently; then he reflected that Mattie
was alone and that it was natural she should
barricade herself at nightfall. He stood in the
darkness expecting to hear her step. It did not
come, and after vainly straining his ears he called
out in a voice that shook with joy : "Hello, Matt !"
Ethan Frome 81
Silence answered; but in a minute or two he
caught a sound on the stairs and saw a line of
light about the door-frame, as he had seen it the
night before. So strange was the precision with
which the incidents of the previous evening were
repeating themselves that he half expected, when
he heard the key turn, to see his wife before him
on the threshold; but the door opened, and Mat-
tie faced him.
She stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted
lamp in her hand, against the black background
of the kitchen. She held the light at the same
level, and it drew out with the same distinctness
her slim young throat and the brown wrist no
bigger than a child's. Then, striking upward, it
threw a lustrous fleck on her lips, edged her eyes
with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness
above the black curve of her brows.
She wore her usual dress of darkish stuff, and
there was no bow at her neck; but through her
hair she had run a streak of crimson ribbon.
This tribute to the unusual transformed and
glorified her. She seemed to Ethan taller, fuller,
more womanly in shape and motion. She stood
aside, smiling silently, while he entered, and
82 Ethan Frome
then moved away from him with something soft
and flowing in her gait. She set the lamp on the
table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for
supper, with fresh dough-nuts, stewed blue-
berries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay
red glass. A bright fire glowed in the stove and
the cat lay stretched before it, watching the
table with a drowsy eye.
Ethan was suffocated with the sense of well-
being. He went out into the passage to hang up
his coat and pull off his wet boots. When he
came back Mattie had set the teapot on the
table and the cat was rubbing itself persuasively
against her ankles.
"Why, Puss! I nearly tripped over you," she
cried, the laughter sparkling through her lashes.
Again Ethan felt a sudden twinge of jealousy.
Could it be his coming that gave her such a
"Well, Matt, any visitors?" he threw off,
stooping down carelessly to examine the fasten-
ing of the stove.
She nodded and laughed "Yes, one," and he
felt a blackness settling on his brows.
"Who was that?" he questioned, raising him-
Ethan Frome 83
self up to slant a glance at her beneath his scowl.
Her eyes danced with malice. "Why, Jotham
Powell. He came in after he got back, and asked
for a drop of coffee before he went down home."
The blackness lifted and light flooded Ethan's
brain. "That all? Well, I hope you made out to
let him have it." And after a pause he felt it
right to add: "I suppose he got Zeena over to the
Flats all right?"
"Oh, yes; in plenty of time."
The name threw a chill between them, and
they stood a moment looking sideways at each
other before Mattie said with a shy laugh: "I
guess it's about time for supper."
They drew their seats up to the table, and the
cat, unbidden, jumped between them into
Zeena's empty chair. "Oh, Puss!" said Mattie,
and they laughed again.
Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on
the brink of eloquence; but the mention of
Zeena had paralysed him. Mattie seemed to feel
the contagion of his embarrassment, and sat
with downcast lids, sipping her tea, while he
feigned an insatiable appetite for dough-nuts
and sweet pickles. At last, after casting about
84 Ethan Frome
for an effective opening, he took a long gulp of
tea, cleared his throat, and said: "Looks as if
there'd be more snow."
She feigned great interest. "Is that so? Do
you suppose it'll interfere with Zeena's getting
back?" She flushed red as the question escaped
her, and hastily set down the cup she was lifting.
Ethan reached over for another helping of
"You never can tell, this time of year, it
drifts so bad on the Flats." The name had be-
numbed him again, and once more he felt as if
Zeena were in the room between them.
"Oh, Puss, you're too greedy!" Mattie cried.
The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled
paws from Zeena's seat to the table, and was
stealthily elongating its body in the direction of
the milk-jug, which stood between Ethan and
Mattie. The two leaned forward at the same
moment and their hands met on the handle of
the jug. Mattie's hand was underneath, and
Ethan kept his clasped on it a moment longer
than was necessary. The cat, profiting by
his unusual demonstration, tried to effect an
unnoticed retreat, and in doing so backed into
Ethan Frame 85
the pickle-dish, which fell to the floor with a
Mattie, in an instant, had sprung from her
chair and was down on her knees by the frag-
"Oh, Ethan, Ethan it's all to pieces! What
But this time his courage was up. "Well, she'll
have to say it to the cat, any way!" he rejoined
with a laugh, kneeling down at Mattie's side to
scrape up the swimming pickles.
She lifted stricken eyes to him. "Yes, but, you
see, she never meant it should be used, not even
when there was company; and I had to get up on
the step-ladder to reach it down from the top shelf
of the china-closet, where she keeps it with all
her best things, and of course she'll want to
know why I did it "
The case was so serious that it called forth all
of Ethan's latent resolution.
"She needn't know anything about it if you
keep quiet. I'll get another just like it to-morrow.
Where did it come from? I'll go to Shadd's Falls
for it if I have to!"
"Oh, you'll never get another even there! It
86 Ethan Frame
was a wedding present don't you remember?
It came all the way from Philadelphia, from
Zeena's aunt that married the minister. That's
why she wouldn't ever use it. Oh, Ethan, Ethan,
what in the world shall I do?"
She began to cry, and he felt as if every one of
her tears were pouring over him like burning
lead. "Don't, Matt, don't oh, don't /" he im-
She struggled to her feet, and he rose and fol-
lowed her helplessly while she spread out the
pieces of glass on the kitchen dresser. It seemed
to him as if the shattered fragments of their
evening lay there.
"Here, give them to me," he said in a voice of
She drew aside, instinctively obeying his tone.
"Oh, Ethan, what are you going to do?"
Without replying he gathered the pieces of glass
into his broad palm and walked out of the kitch-
en to the passage. There he lit a candle-end,
opened the china-closet, and, reaching his long
arm up to the highest shelf, laid the pieces to-
gether with such accuracy of touch that a close
inspection convinced him of the impossibility of
Ethan Frome 87
detecting from below that the dish was broken.
If he glued it together the next morning months
might elapse before his wife noticed what had
happened, and meanwhile he might after all be
able to match the dish at Shadd's Falls or Betts-
bridge. Having satisfied himself that there was
no risk of immediate discovery he went back to
the kitchen with a lighter step, and found Mattie
disconsolately removing the last scraps of pickle
from the floor.
"It's all right, Matt. Come back and finish
supper," he commanded her.
Completely reassured, she shone on him
through tear-hung lashes, and his soul swelled
with pride as he saw how his tone subdued her.
She did not even ask what he had done. Except
when he was steering a big log down the mountain
to his mill he had never known such a thrilling
sense of mastery.
THEY finished supper, and while Mattie
cleared the table Ethan went to look at
the cows and then took a last turn about the
house. 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.
When he returned to the kitchen Mattie had
pushed up his chair to the stove and seated her-
self near the lamp with a bit of sewing. 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. His hard day's work
in the keen air made him feel at once lazy and light
of mood, and he had a confused sense of being in
another world, where all was warmth and harmony
and time could bring no change. The only draw-
back to his complete well-being was the fact that
he could not see Mattie from where he sat ; but
he was too indolent to move and after a moment he
said: "Come over here and sit by the stove."
Zeena's empty rocking-chair stood facing him.
Mattie rose obediently, and seated herself in it.
As her young brown head detatched itself against
the patch-work cushion that habitually framed
his wife's gaunt countenance, Ethan had a
momentary shock. 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. She changed her position, leaning
forward to bend her head above her work, so
that he saw only the foreshortened tip of her
nose and the streak of red in her hair; then she
slipped to her feet, saying "I can't see to sew,"
and went back to her chair by the lamp.
Ethan made a pretext of getting up to replen-
ish the stove, and when he returned to his seat he
pushed it sideways that he might have a view of
her profile and of the lamplight falling on her
hands. The cat, who had been a puzzled observer
of these unusual movements, jumped up into
Zeena's chair, rolled itself into a ball, and lay
watching them with narrowed eyes.
90 Ethan Frome
Deep quiet sank on the room. The clock ticked
above the dresser, a piece of charred wood fell
now and then in the stove, and the faint sharp
scent of the geraniums mingled with the odour of
Ethan's smoke, which began to throw a blue haze
about the lamp and to hang its greyish cobwebs
in the shadowy corners of 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 j v
"This is the night we were to have gone coast-
ing, Matt," he said at length, with the rich
sense, as he spoke, that they could go on any
other night they chose, since they had all time
She smiled back at him. "I guess you forgot!"
"No, I didn't forget; but it's as dark as Egypt
Ethan Frome 9 1
outdoors. We might go to-morrow if there's a
She laughed with pleasure, her head tilted
back, the lamplight sparkling on her lips and
teeth. "That would be lovely, Ethan!"
He kept his eyes fixed on her, marvelling at
the way her face changed with each turn of their
talk, like a wheat-field under a summer breeze.
It was intoxicating to find such magic in his
clumsy words, and he longed to try new ways of
"Would you be scared to go down the Corbury
road with me on a night like this?" he asked.
Her cheeks burned redder. "I ain't any more
scared than you are!"
"Well, Fd be scared, then; I wouldn't do it.
That's an ugly corner down by the big elm. If a
fellow didn't keep his eyes open he'd go plumb
into it." He luxuriated in the sense of protection
and authority which his words conveyed. To
prolong and intensify the feeling he added: "I
guess we're well enough here."
She let her lids sink slowly, in the way he
loved. "Yes, we're well enough here," she sighed.
Her tone was so sweet that he took the pipe
9 2 Ethan Frome
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 hem-
ming. "Say, Matt," he began with a smile, "what
do you think I saw under the Varnum spruces,
coming along home just now? I saw a friend of
yours getting kissed."
The words had been on his tongue all the eve-
ning, but now that he had spoken them they
struck him as inexpressibly vulgar and out of
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. "I suppose it was Ruth and Ned," she
said in a low voice, as though he had suddenly
touched on something grave.
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 awkward-
ness that made him feel so. He knew that most
young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty
Ethan Frome 93
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. Now,
in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient
implications of conformity and order, she seemed
infinitely farther away from him and more un-
To ease his constraint he said: "I suppose
they'll be setting a date before long."
"Yes. I shouldn't wonder if they got married
some time along in the summer." She pro-
nounced the word married as if her voice caressed
it. It seemed a rustling covert leading to en-
chanted glades. A pang shot through Ethan, and
he said, twisting away from her in his chair:
"It'll be your turn next, I wouldn't wonder."
She laughed a little uncertainly. "Why do you
keep on saying that?"
He echoed her laugh. "I guess I do it to get
used to the idea."
He drew up to the table again and she sewed
on in silence, with dropped lashes, while he sat
in fascinated contemplation of the way in which
her hands went up and down above the strip of
94 Ethan Frome
stuff, just as he had seen a pair of birds make
short perpendicular flights over a nest they were
building. At length, without turning her head
or lifting her lids, she said in a low tone: "It's
not because you think Zeena's got anything
against me, is it?"
His former dread started up full-armed at the
suggestion. "Why, what do you mean?" he
She raised distressed eyes to his, her work
dropping on the table between them. "I don't
know. I thought last night she seemed to have."
"I'd like to know what," he growled.
"Nobody can tell with Zeena." It was the first
time they had ever spoken so openly of her atti-
tude toward Mattie, and the repetition of the
name seemed to carry it to the farther corners
of the room and send it back to them in long
repercussions of sound. Mattie waited, as if to
give the echo time to drop, and then went on:
"She hasn't said anything to you?"
He shook his head. "No, not a word."
She tossed the hair back from her forehead
with a laugh. "I guess I'm just nervous, then.
I'm not going to think about it any more."
Ethan Frome 95
"Oh, no don't let's think about it, Matt!"
The sudden heat of his tone made her colour
mount again, not with a rush, but gradually,
delicately, like the reflection of a thought steal-
ing slowly across her heart. 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-down-
ward 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.
As they sat thus he heard a sound behind him
and turned his head. The cat had jumped from
Zeena's chair to dart at a mouse in the wainscot,
and as a result of the sudden movement the
empty chair had set up a spectral rocking.
"She'll be rocking in it herself this time to-
morrow," Ethan thought. "I've been in a dream,
and this is the only evening we'll ever have to-
gether." The return to reality was as painful
as the return to consciousness after taking an
96 Ethan Frome
anaesthetic. 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 com-
municated 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 per-
ceptible 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. She fastened it with
a pin, and then, finding her thimble and scissors,
put them with the roll of stuff into the box
covered with fancy paper which he had once
brought to her from Bettsbridge.
He stood up also, looking vaguely about the
room. The clock above the dresser struck eleven.
"Is the fire all right?" she asked in a low voice.
He opened the door of the stove and poked
Ethan Frome 9?
aimlessly at the embers. When he raised himself
again he saw that she was dragging toward the
stove the old soap-box 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 gerani-
ums, the hyacinth bulbs in a cracked custard
bowl and the German ivy trained over an old
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. Ethan put the candle-
stick in Mattie's hand and she went out of the
kitchen ahead of him, the light that she carried
before her making her dark hair look like a drift
of mist on the moon.
"Good night, Matt," he said as she put her
foot on the first step of the stairs.
She turned and looked at him a moment. "Good
night, Ethan," she answered, and went up.
When the door of her room had closed on her
he remembered that he had not even touched
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 sweet-
ness 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
Ethan Frome 99
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 pro-
posed 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 break-
fast 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 tobacco-pouch from a shelf of the dresser,
ioo Ethan Frome
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 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.
Ethan Frome 101
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: 'Til be back early."
He fancied that she nodded her comprehen-
sion; 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. 'Til 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 un-
102 Ethan Frome
loading, and when it was over hastened on to
Michael Eady's for the glue. Eady and his assist-
ant 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, con-
sumed with the longing for a last moment alone
with Mattie, hung about impatiently while Denis
made an ineffectual search in the obscurer cor-
ners 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. Roman's," Ethan answered, burn-
ing 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 con-
siderable search, and sympathetic questions as to
Ethan Frome 103
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 over-
take him; but the old sorrel was not in sight, and
he set his face against the rain and urged on his
The barn was empty when the horses turned
into it and, after giving them the most perfunc-
tory 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.
104 Ethan Frome
"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
"Oh, Ethan Zeena's come," she said in a
whisper, clutching his sleeve.
They stood and stared at each other, pale as
"But the sorrel's not in the barn!" Ethan
"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
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,"
Ethan Frome 105
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 pres-
ence 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
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 omi-
nous 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
io6 Ethan Frome
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 care-
fully laid, a clear fire glowed in the stove, the cat
dozed in its warmth, and Mattie came forward
carrying a plate of dough-nuts.
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."
ETHAN went out into the passage to hang up his
wet garments. He listened for Zeena's step
and, not hearing it, called her name up the stairs.
She did not answer, and after a moment's hesita-
tion he went up and opened her door. The room was
almost dark, but in the obscurity he saw her sit-
ting 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.
"Well, Zeena," he ventured from the threshold.
She did not move, and he continued: "Supper's
about ready. Ain't you coming?"
She replied: "I don't feel as if I could touch a
It was the consecrated formula, and he expected
it to be followed, as usual, by her rising and going
down to supper. But she remained seated, and
he could think of nothing more felicitous than :
"I presume you're tired after the long ride."
io8 Ethan Frome
Turning her head at this, she answered solemn-
ly: "I'm a great deal sicker than you think."
Her words fell on his ear with a strange shock
of wonder. He had often heard her pronounce
them before what if at last they were true?
He advanced a step or two into the dim room.
"I hope that's not so, Zeena," he said.
She continued to gaze at him through the twi-
light with a mien of wan authority, as of one con-
sciously singled out for a great fate. "I've got
complications," she said.
Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional
import. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood
had "troubles," frankly localized and specified;
but only the chosen had "complications." To
have them was in itself a distinction, though it
was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People
struggled on for years with "troubles," but they
almost always succumbed to "complications."
Ethan's heart was j erking to and fro between two
extremities of feeling, but for the moment compas-
sion prevailed. His wife looked so hard and lonely,
sitting there in the darkness with such thoughts.
"Is that what the new doctor told you?" he
asked, instinctively lowering his voice.
Ethan Frome 109
"Yes. He says any regular doctor would want
me to have an operation."
Ethan was aware that, in regard to the import-
ant question of surgical intervention, the female
opinion of the neighbourhood was divided, some
glorying in the prestige conferred by operations
while others shunned them as indelicate. 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.
"What do you know about this doctor anyway?
Nobody ever told you that before."
He saw his blunder before she could take it up:
she wanted sympathy, not consolation.
"I didn't need to have anybody tell me I
was losing ground every day. Everybody but
you could see it. And everybody in Bettsbridge
knows about Dr. Buck. He has his office in
Worcester, and comes over once a fortnight to
Shadd's Falls and Bettsbridge for consultations.
Eliza Spears was wasting away with kidney
trouble before she went to him, and now she's
up and around, and singing in the choir."
"Well, I'm glad of that. You must do just what
10 Ethan Frome
he tells you," Ethan answered sympathetically.
She was still looking at him. "I mean to/' she
said. He was struck by a new note in her voice.
It was neither whining nor reproachful, but drily
4 What does he want you should do ?" he asked,
with a mounting vision of fresh expenses.
"He wants I should have a hired girl. He says
I oughtn't to have to do a single thing around
"A hired girl?" Ethan stood transfixed.
"Yes. 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. She'll be over to-mor-
Wrath and dismay contended in Ethan. 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.
Ethan Frome m
"If you meant to engage a girl you ought to
have told me before you started/* he said.
"How could I tell you before I started? How
did I know what Dr. Buck would say?"
"Oh, Dr. Buck " Ethan's incredulity escaped
in a short laugh. "Did Dr. Buck tell you how I
was to pay her wages?"
Her voice rose furiously with his. "No, he
didn't. For I'd V been ashamed to tell him
that you grudged me the money to get back my
health, when I lost it nursing your own mother!"
"You lost your health nursing mother?"
"Yes; and my folks all told me at the time you
couldn't do no less than marry me after "
Through the obscurity which hid their faces
their thoughts seemed to dart at each other like
serpents shooting venom. 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.
He turned to the shelf above the chimney,
groped for matches and lit the one candle in the
room. At first its weak flame made no impression
on the shadows; then Zeena's face stood grimly
out against the uncurtained pane, which had
turned from grey to black.
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 ad-
vantage in descending to the level of recrimina-
tion. But the practical problem was there and
had to be dealt with.
"You know I haven't got the money to pay
for a girl, Zeena. You'll have to send her back:
I can't do it."
"The doctor says it'll be my death if I go on
slaving the way I've had to. He doesn't under-
stand how I've stood it as long as I have."
"Slaving! " He checked himself again. "You
sha'n't lift a hand, if he says so. I'll do everything
round the house myself - "
She broke in: "You're neglecting the farm
enough already," and this being true, he found
no answer, and left her time to add ironically:
"Better send me over to the almshouse and done
with it. . . I guess there's been Fromes there
The taunt burned into him, but he let it pass.
"I haven't got the money. That settles it."
Ethan Frome 113
There was a moment's pause in the struggle,
as though the combatants were testing their
weapons. Then Zeena said in a level voice: "I
thought you were to get fifty dollars from An-
drew Hale for that lumber/'
"Andrew Hale never pays under three months."
He had hardly spoken when he remembered the
excuse he had made for not accompanying his
wife to the station the day before; and the blood
rose to his frowning brows.
"Why, you told me yesterday you'd fixed it up
with him to pay cash down. You said that was
why you couldn't drive me over to the Flats."
Ethan had no suppleness in deceiving. He had
never before been convicted of a lie, and all the
resources of evasion failed him. "I guess that was
a misunderstanding," he stammered.
"You ain't got the money?"
"And you ain't going to get it?"
"Well, I couldn't know that when I engaged
the girl, could I ?"
"No." He paused to control his voice. "But
you know it now. I'm sorry, but it can't be helped.
You're a poor man's wife, Zeena; but I'll do the
best I can for you."
For a while she sat motionless, as if reflecting,
her arms stretched along the arms of her chair,
her eyes fixed on vacancy. "Oh, I guess we'll
make out," she said mildly.
The change in her tone reassured him. "Of
course we will ! There's a whole lot more I can do
for you, and Mattie - "
Zeena, while he spoke, seemed to be follow-
ing out some elaborate mental calculation. She
emerged from it to say: "There'll be Mattie's
board less, anyhow - "
Ethan, supposing the discussion to be over,
had turned to go down to supper. He stopped
short, not grasping what he heard. "Mattie's
board less ?" he began.
Zeena laughed. It was an odd unfamiliar sound
he did not remember ever having heard her
laugh before. "You didn't suppose I was going
to keep two girls, did you ? No wonder you were
scared at the expense!"
He still had but a confused sense of what she
was saying. From the beginning of the discus-
sion he had instinctively avoided the mention of
Ethan Frome 115
Mattie's name, fearing he hardly knew what:
criticism, complaints, or vague allusions to the
imminent probability of her marrying. But the
thought of a definite rupture had never come to
him, and even now could not lodge itself in his
"I don't know what you mean," he said. "Mat-
tie Silver's not a hired girl. She's your relation."
"She's a pauper that's hung onto us all after
her father'd done his best to ruin us. I've kep' her
here a whole year: it's somebody else's turn now."
As the shrill words shot out Ethan heard a tap
on the door, which he had drawn shut when he
turned back from the threshold.
"Ethan Zeena !" Mattie's voice sounded gaily
from the landing, "do you know what time it is?
Supper's been ready half an hour."
Inside the room there was a moment's silence;
then Zeena called out from her seat: "I'm not
coming down to supper."
"Oh, I'm sorry! Aren't you well? Shan't I
bring you up a bite of something ?"
Ethan roused himself with an effort and opened
the door. "Go along down, Matt. Zeena's just a
little tired. I'm coming."
He heard her "All right!" and her quick step
on the stairs; then he shut the door and turned
back into the room. His wife's attitude was un-
changed, her face inexorable, and he was seized
with the despairing sense of his helplessness.
"You ain't going to do it, Zeena?"
"Do what ?" she emitted between flattened lips.
"Send Mattie away like this?"
"I never bargained to take her for life!"
He continued with rising vehemence: "You
can't put her out of the house like a thief a
poor girl without friends or money. She's done
her best for you and she's got no place to go to.
You may forget she's your kin but everybody
else'll remember it. If you do a thing like that
what do you suppose folks'll say of you?"
Zeena waited a moment, as if giving him time
to feel the full force of the contrast between his
own excitement and her composure. Then she
replied in the same smooth voice: "I know well
enough what they say of my having kep' her
here as long as I have."
Ethan's hand dropped from the door-knob,
which he had held clenched since he had drawn
the door shut on Mattie. His wife's retort was
like a knife-cut across the sinews and he felt
suddenly weak and powerless. He had meant to
humble himself, to argue that Mattie's keep
didn't cost much, after all, that he could make
out to buy a stove and fix up a place in the attic
for the hired girl but Zeena's words revealed
the peril of such pleadings.
"You mean to tell her she's got to go at
once?" he faltered out, in terror of letting his
wife complete her sentence.
As if trying to make him see reason she replied
impartially: "The girl will be over from Betts-
bridge to-morrow, and I presume she's got to
have somewheres to sleep."
Ethan looked at her with loathing. She was no
longer the listless creature who had lived at his side
in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysteri-
ous 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. Mat-
tie was her relation, not his : there were no means
n8 Ethan Frome
by which he could compel her to keep the girl
under her roof. All the long misery of his baffled
past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain
effort, rose up in his soul 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
"You're you're not coming down?" he said
in a bewildered voice.
"No. I guess Til lay down on the bed a little
while," she answered mildly; and he turned and
walked out of the room.
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.
"I hope Zeena isn't sick?" she asked.
She shone at him across the table. "Well, sit
right down then. You must be starving." She
Ethan Frome 119
uncovered the pie and pushed it over to him. 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.
Mattie's tender gaze was on him and she
marked the gesture.
"Why, Ethan, what's the matter ? Don't it
"Yes it's first-rate. Only I" He pushed
his plate away, rose from his chair, and walked
around the table to her side. She started up with
"Ethan, there's something wrong! I knew
She seemed to melt against him in her terror,
and he caught her in his arms, held her fast there,
felt her lashes beat his cheek like netted butter-
"What is it what is it?" she stammered; but
he had found her lips at last and was drinking
unconsciousness of everything but the joy they
She lingered a moment, caught in the same
120 Ethan Frome
strong current; then she slipped from him and
drew back a step or two, pale and troubled. Her
look smote him with compunction, and he cried
out, as if he saw her drowning in a dream: "You
can't go, Matt! I'll never let you!"
"Go go?" she stammered. "Must I go?"
The words went on sounding between them as
though a torch of warning flew from hand to
hand through a black landscape.
Ethan was overcome with shame at his lack
of self-control in flinging the news at her so bru-
tally. His head reeled and he had to support him-
self against the table. All the while he felt as if he
were still kissing her, and yet dying of thirst for
"Ethan what has happened? Is Zeena mad
Her cry steadied him, though it deepened his
wrath and pity. "No, no," he assured her, "it's
not that. But this new doctor has scared her
about herself. You know she believes all they
say the first time she sees them. And this one's
told her she won't get well unless she lays up
and don't do a thing about the house not for
He paused, his eyes wandering from her
miserably. She stood silent a moment, drooping
before him like a broken branch. She was so
small and weak-looking that it wrung his heart;
but suddenly she lifted her head and looked
straight at him. "And she wants somebody
handier in my place? Is that it?"
"That's what she says to-night."
"If she says it to-night she'll say it to-morrow."
Both bowed to the inexorable truth: they knew
that Zeena never changed her mind, and that in
her case a resolve once taken was equivalent to
an act performed.
There was a long silence between them; then
Mattie said in a low voice: "Don't be too sorry,
"Oh, God oh, God," he groaned. The glow of
passion he had felt for her had melted to an ach-
ing tenderness. He saw her quick lids beating
back the tears, and longed to take her in his
arms and soothe her.
"You're letting your supper get cold," she ad-
monished him with a pale gleam of gaiety.
"Oh, Matt Matt where'll you go to?"
Her lids sank and a tremor crossed her face.
122 Ethan Frome
He saw that for the first time the thought of the
future came to her distinctly. "I might get some-
thing to do over at Stamford/' she faltered, as if
knowing that he knew she had no hope.
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? There came back to him miserable
tales he had heard at Worcester, and the faces
of girls whose lives had begun as hopefully as
Mattie's. ... It was not possible to think of
such things without a revolt of his whole being.
He sprang up suddenly.
"You can't go, Matt! I won't let you! She's
always had her way, but I mean to have mine
Mattie lifted her hand with a quick gesture,
and he heard his wife's step behind him.
Zeena came into the room with her dragging
down-at-the-heel step, and quietly took her ac-
customed seat between them.
Ethan Frome 123
"I felt a little mite better, and Dr. Buck says
I ought to eat all I can to keep my strength up,
even if I ain't got any appetite/' she said in her
flat whine, reaching across Mattie for the teapot.
Her "good" dress had been replaced by the black
calico and brown knitted shawl which formed her
daily wear, and with them she had put on her
usual face and manner. 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. The cat rubbed itself ingratiatingly
against her and she said "Good Pussy," stooped
to stroke it and gave it a scrap of meat from
Ethan sat speechless, not pretending to eat,
but Mattie nibbled valiantly at her food and
asked Zeena one or two questions about her
visit to Bettsbridge. Zeena answered in her
every-day tone and, warming to the theme, re-
galed 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.
124 Ethan Frome
When supper was over she rose from her seat
and pressed her hand to the flat surface over the
region of her heart. "That pie of yours always sets
a mite heavy, Matt," she said, not ill-naturedly.
She seldom abbreviated the girl's name, and
when she did so it was always a sign of affability.
"I've a good mind to go and hunt up those
stomach powders I got last year over in Spring-
field," she continued. "I ain't tried them for quite
a while, and maybe they'll help the heartburn."
Mattie lifted her eyes. "Can't I get them for
you, Zeena?" she ventured.
"No. They're in a place you don't know about,"
Zeena answered darkly, with one of her secret looks.
She went out of the kitchen and Mattie, rising,
began to clear the dishes from the table. As she
passed Ethan's chair their eyes met and clung to-
gether desolately. The warm still kitchen looked
as peaceful as the night before. The cat had
sprung to Zeena's rocking-chair, and the heat of
the fire was beginning to draw out the faint
sharp scent of the geraniums. Ethan dragged
himself wearily to his feet.
"I'll go out and take a look round," he said,
going toward the passage to get his lantern.
Ethan Frome 125
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
"I'd like to know who done this," she said,
looking sternly from Ethan to Mattie.
There was no answer, and she continued in a
trembling voice: "I went to get those powders
I'd put away in father's old spectacle-case, top
of the china-closet, where I keep the things I set
store by, so's folks sha'n't meddle with them "
Her voice broke, and two small tears hung on
her lashless lids and ran slowly down her cheeks.
"It takes the step-ladder to get at the top shelf,
and I put Aunt Philura Maple's pickle-dish up
there o' purpose when we was married, and it's
never been down since, 'cept for the spring clean-
ing, and then I always lifted it with my own hands,
so's 't it shouldn't get broke." She laid the frag-
ments reverently on the table. "I want to know
who done this," she quavered.
At the challenge Ethan turned back into the
126 Ethan Frome
room and faced her. "I can tell you, then. The
cat done it."
"That's what I said."
She looked at him hard, and then turned her
eyes to Mattie, who was carrying the dish-pan
to the table.
"I'd like to know how the cat got into my
china-closet," she said.
"Chasin' mice, I guess," Ethan rejoined.
"There was a mouse round the kitchen all last
Zeena continued to look from one to the other;
then she emitted her small strange laugh. "I
knew the cat was a smart cat," she said in a high
voice, "but I didn't know he was smart enough
to pick up the pieces of my pickle-dish and lay
'em edge to edge on the very shelf he knocked
'em off of."
Mattie suddenly drew her arms out of the
steaming water. "It wasn't Ethan's fault, Zeena !
The cat did break the dish; but I got it down from
the china-closet, and I'm the one to blame for
its getting broken."
Zeena stood beside the ruin of her treasure,
Ethan Frome 127
stiffening into a stony image of resentment.
"You got down my pickle-dish what for?"
A bright flush flew to Mattie's cheeks. "I want-
ed to make the supper-table pretty," she said.
"You wanted to make the supper-table pretty;
and you waited till my back was turned, and
took the thing I set most store by of anything
I've got, and wouldn't never use it, not even
when the minister come to dinner, or Aunt
Martha Pierce come over from Bettsbridge "
Zeena paused with a gasp, as if terrified by her
own evocation of the sacrilege. "You're a bad
girl, Mat tie Silver, and I always known it. It's
the way your father begun, and I was warned
of it when I took you, and I tried to keep my
things where you couldn't get at 'em and now
you've took from me the one I cared for most
of all " She broke off in a short spasm of sobs
that passed and left her more than ever like a
shape of stone.
"If I'd 'a' listened to folks, you'd 'a' gone
before now, and this wouldn't 'a' happened,"
she said; and gathering up the bits of broken
glass she went out of the room as if she carried
a dead body . . v'v 8
WHEN Ethan was called back to the farm
by his father's illness his mother gave him,
for his own use, a small room behind the un ten-
anted "best parlour." Here he had nailed up
shelves for his books, built himself a box-sofa
out of boards and a mattress, laid out his papers
on a kitchen- table, hung on the rough plaster
wall an engraving of Abraham Lincoln and a
calendar with "Thoughts from the Poets," and
tried, with these meagre properties to produce
some likeness to the study of a "minister" who
had been kind to him and lent him books when
he was at Worcester. He still took refuge there
in summer, but when Mattie came to live at the
farm he had had to give her his stove, and con-
sequently the room was uninhabitable for several
months of the year.
To this retreat he descended as soon as the
house was quiet, and Zeena's steady breathing
Ethan Frome 129
from the bed had assured him that there was to
be no sequel to the scene in the kitchen. After
Zeena's departure he and Mattie had stood
speechless, neither seeking to approach the
other. 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. The kitchen was empty when
he came back to it; but his tobacco-pouch and
pipe had been laid on the table, and under them
was a scrap of paper torn from the back of a
seedsman's catalogue, on which three words were
written: "Don't trouble, Ethan."
Going into his cold dark "study" he placed
the lantern on the table and, stooping to its
light, read the message again and again. 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 ? Other pos-
sibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed,
one by one, to Zeena's narrow-mindedness and
ignorance. And what good had come of it ? She
was a hundred times bitterer and more discon-
tented 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 . . .
He bundled himself into his old coon-skin coat
and lay down on the box-sofa to think. Under his
cheek he felt a hard object with strange pro-
tuberances. 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 . ; .;v
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. Ethan had seen the couple the sum-
Ethan Frome 13 l
mer before at Shadd's Falls, where they had come
to visit relatives. 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 im-
portance. Ethan was fired by the thought. Why
should he not leave with Mattie the next day,
instead of letting her go alone ? He would hide his
valise under the seat of the sleigh, and Zeena would
suspect nothing till she went upstairs for her after-
noon nap and found a letter on the bed . . *,
His impulses were still near the surface, and
he sprang up, re-lit the lantern, and sat down at
the table. He rummaged in the drawer for a
sheet of paper, found one, and began to write.
"Zeena, I've done all I could for you, and I
don't see as it's been any use. I don't blame you,
nor I don't blame myself. Maybe both of us will
do better separate. I'm going to try my luck
West, and you can sell the farm and mill, and
keep the money "
His pen paused on the word, which brought
home to him the relentless conditions of his lot.
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. And what of Zeena's fate? 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 . . v
Ethan Frome 133
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. The advertising sheet was
folded uppermost, and he read the seductive
words: "Trips to the West: Reduced Rates."
He drew the lantern nearer and eagerly scanned
the fares; then the paper fell from his hand and
he pushed aside his unfinished letter. 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 in-
exorable facts closed in on him like prison-
warders hand-cuffing 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.
He crept back heavily to the sofa, stretching
himself out with limbs so leaden that he felt as
if they would never move again. Tears rose in
his throat and slowly burned their way to his lids.
134 Ethan Frome
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 wretch-
edness . . .
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, be-
hind trees that looked black and brittle. He said
Ethan Frome 135
to himself: "This is Matt's last day/' and tried
to think what the place would be without her.
As he stood there he heard a step behind him
and she entered.
"Oh, Ethan were you here all night?"
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.
"You must be frozen," she went on, fixing
lustreless eyes on him.
He drew a step nearer. "How did you know I
"Because I heard you go down stairs again
after I went to bed, and I listened all night, and
you didn't come up."
All his tenderness rushed to his lips. He looked
at her and said: "I'll come right along and make
up the kitchen fire."
They went back to the kitchen, and he fetched
the coal and kindlings and cleared out the stove
for her, while she brought in the milk and the
cold remains of the meat-pie. When warmth
began to radiate from the stove, and the first
ray of sunlight lay on the kitchen floor, Ethan's
136 Ethan Frome
dark thoughts melted in the mellower air. 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 said to himself that he had
doubtless exaggerated the significance of Zeena's
threats, and that she too, with the return of day-
light, would come to a saner mood.
He went up to Mattie as she bent above the
stove, and laid his hand on her arm. "I don't
want you should trouble either," he said, looking
down into her eyes with a smile.
She flushed up warmly and whispered back:
"No, Ethan, I ain't going to trouble."
"I guess things'll straighten out," he added.
There was no answer but a quick throb of her
lids, and he went on: "She ain't said anything
"No. I haven't seen her yet."
"Don't you take any notice when you do."
With this injunction he left her and went out
to the cow-barn. He saw Jotham Powell walking
up the hill through the morning mist, and the
familiar sight added to his growing conviction of
Ethan Frome 13?
As the two men were clearing out the stalls
Jotham rested on his pitch-fork to say: "Dan'l
Byrne's goin' over to the Flats to-day noon, an*
he c'd take Mattie's trunk along, and make it
easier ridin' when I take her over in the sleigh."
Ethan looked at him blankly, and he con-
tinued: "Mis' Frome said the new girl'd be at
the Flats at five, and I was to take Mattie then,
so's 't she could ketch the six o'clock train for
Ethan felt the blood drumming in his temples.
He had to wait a moment before he could find
voice to say: "Oh, it ain't so sure about Mattie's
"That so?" said Jotham indifferently; and
they went on with their work.
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. "Aunt
Martha's ain't got a faded leaf on 'em; but they
pine away when they ain't cared for," she said re-
138 Ethan Frome
flectively. Then she turned to Jotham and asked :
"What time'd you sayDan'l Byrne'd be along?"
The hired man threw a hesitating glance at
Ethan. "Round about noon/' he said.
Zeena turned to Mattie. "That trunk of yours
is too heavy for the sleigh, and Dan'l Byrne'll
be round to take it over to the Flats/' she said.
"I'm much obliged to you, Zeena/ 'said Mat tie.
"I'd like to go over things with you first/'
Zeena continued in an unperturbed voice. "I
know there's a huckaback towel missing; and I
can't make out what you done with that match-
safe 't used to stand behind the stuffed owl in
She went out, followed by Mattie, and when
the men were alone Jotham said to his employer:
"I guess I better let Dan'l come round, then."
Ethan finished his usual morning tasks about
the house and barn; then he said to Jotham:
"I'm going down to Starkfield. Tell them not
to wait dinner."
The passion of rebellion had broken out in him
again. That which had seemed incredible in the
sober light of day had really come to pass, and
Ethan Frome 139
he was to assist as a helpless spectator at Mattie's
banishment. His manhood was humbled by the
part he was compelled to play and by the thought
of whatMattie must think of him. Confused im-
pulses struggled in him as he strode along to the
village. He had made up his mind to do some-
thing, but he did not know what it would be.
The early mist had vanished and the fields lay
like a silver shield under the sun. It was one of
the days when the glitter of winter shines through
a pale haze of spring. Every yard of the road was
alive with Mattie's presence, and there was hardly
a branch against the sky or a tangle of brambles
on the bank in which some bright shred of mem-
ory was not caught. 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.
Suddenly it occurred to him that Andrew Hale,
who was a kind-hearted man, might be induced
to reconsider his refusal and advance a small
sum on the lumber if he were told that Zeena's
ill-health made it necessary to hire a servant.
Hale, after all, knew enough of Ethan's situation
to make it possible for the latter to renew his
appeal without too much loss of pride; and, more-
over, how much did pride count in the ebullition
of passions in his breast?
The more he considered his plan the more
hopeful it seemed. If he could get Mrs. Kale's
ear he felt certain of success, and with fifty
dollars in his pocket nothing could keep him
from Mattie . . .
His first object was to reach Starkfield before
Hale had started for his work; he knew the car-
penter had a job down the Corbury road and
was likely to leave his house early. Ethan's long
strides grew more rapid with the accelerated
beat of his thoughts, and as he reached the foot
of School House Hill he caught sight of Hale's
sleigh in the distance. He hurried forward to
meet it, but as it drew nearer he saw that it was
driven by the carpenter's youngest boy and that
the figure at his side, looking like a large upright
cocoon in spectacles, was that of Mrs. Andrew
Hale. Ethan signed to them to stop, and Mrs.
Hale leaned forward, her pink wrinkles twinkling
"Mr. Hale? Why, yes, you'll find him down
home now. He ain't going to his work this fore-
noon. He woke up with a touch o' lumbago, and
I just made him put on one of old Dr. Kidder's
plasters and set right up into the fire."
Beaming maternally on Ethan, she bent over
to add: "I on'y just heard from Mr. Hale 'bout
Zeena's going over to Bettsbridge to see that
new doctor. I'm real sorry she's feeling so bad
again ! I hope he thinks he can do something
for her? I don't know anybody round here's had
more sickness than Zeena. I always tell Mr. Hale
I don't know what she'd 'a' done if she hadn't 'a*
had you to look after her; and I used to say the
same thing 'bout your mother. You've had an
awful mean time, Ethan Frome."
She gave him a last nod of sympathy while her
son chirped to the horse; and Ethan, as she drove
off, stood in the middle of the road and stared
after the retreating sleigh.
It was a long time since any one had spoken
to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale. 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. Hale had said
"You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,"
and he felt less alone with his misery. 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. He was planning to take
advantage of the Hales' sympathy to obtain
money from them on false 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 desti-
tute; 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.
He turned and walked slowly back to the farm.
A 1 the kitchen door Daniel Byrne sat in his
sleigh behind a big-boned grey who pawed
the snow and swung his long head restlessly from
side to side.
Ethan went into the kitchen and found his
wife by the stove. Her head was wrapped in her
shawl, and she was reading a book called "Kid-
ney Troubles and Their Cure" on which he had
had to pay extra postage only a few days before.
Zeena did not move or look up when he entered,
and after a moment he asked : "Where's Mattie ?"
Without lifting her eyes from the page she re-
plied: "I presume she's getting down her trunk."
The blood rushed to his face. "Getting down
her trunk alone?"
"Jotham Powell's down in the wood-lot, and
Dan'l Byrne says he darsn't leave that horse,"
Her husband without stopping to hear the end
144 Ethan Frome
of the phrase, had left the kitchen and sprung
up the stairs. The door of Mattie's room was
shut, and he wavered a moment on the landing.
"Matt," he said in a low voice; but there was no
answer, and he put his hand on the door-knob.
He had never been in her room except once,
in the early summer, when he had gone there to
plaster up a leak in the eaves, but he remembered
exactly how 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 oxy-
dized frame, with a bunch of dyed grasses at the
back. Now all these and other tokens of her pres-
ence 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. She had
not heard Ethan's call because she was sobbing;
and she did not hear his step till he stood close
behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders.
"Matt oh, don't-oh, Matt!"
She started up, lifting her wet face to his.
Ethan Frome 145
"Ethan I thought I wasn't ever going to see
He took her in his arms, pressing her close, and
with a trembling hand smoothed away the hair
from her forehead.
"Not see me again? What do you mean?"
She sobbed out: "Jotham said you told him we
wasn't to wait dinner for you, and I thought "
"You thought I meant to cut it?" he finished
for her grimly.
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.
Through the door they heard Zeena's voice call-
ing out from below: "Dan'l Byrne says you better
hurry up if you want him to take that trunk."
They drew apart with stricken faces. Words of
resistance rushed to Ethan's lips and died there.
Mattie found her handkerchief and dried her eyes;
then, bending down, she took hold of a handle of
Ethan put her aside. "You let go, Matt," he
She answered: "It takes two to coax it round
146 Ethan Frome
the corner"; and submitting to this argument
he grasped the other handle, and together they
manoeuvred the heavy trunk out to the landing.
"Now let go/* he repeated; then he shouldered
the trunk and carried it down the stairs and
across the passage to the kitchen. 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.
"I'm going to drive you over, Matt," he
She murmured back: "I think Zeena wants I
should go with Jotham."
"I'm going to drive you over," he repeated;
and she went into the kitchen without answering.
Ethan Frome 14?
At dinner Ethan could not eat. If he lifted his
eyes they rested on Zeena's pinched face, and the
corners of her straight lips seemed to quiver
away into a smile. 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, reluc-
tantly pushed back his chair and moved toward
On the threshold he turned back to say to
Ethan: "What time'll I come round for Mattie?"
Ethan was standing near the window, mechan-
ically filling his pipe while he watched Mattie
move to and fro. He answered: "You needn't
come round; I'm going to drive her over myself."
He saw the rise of the colour in Mattie's averted
cheek, and the quick lifting of Zeena's head.
"I want you should stay here this afternoon,
Ethan," his wife said. "Jotham can drive Mattie
148 Ethan Frome
Mattie flung an imploring glance at him, but
he repeated curtly: "I'm going to drive her over
Zeena continued in the same even tone: "I
wanted you should stay and fix up that stove in
Mattie's room afore the girl gets here. It ain't
been drawing right for nigh on a month now/'
Ethan's voice rose indignantly. "If it was good
enough for Mattie I guess it's good enough for
a hired girl."
"That girl that's coming told me she was used
to a house where they had a furnace/' Zeena per-
sisted with the same monotonous mildness.
"She'd better ha' stayed there then," he flung
back at her; and turning to Mattie he added in a
hard voice: "You be ready by three, Matt; I've
got business at Corbury."
Jotham Powell had started for the barn, and
Ethan strode down after him aflame with anger.
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
Ethan Frome 149
conscious of what he was doing. As he passed the
bridle over the horse's head, and wound the
traces around the shafts, he remembered the day
when he had made the same preparations in
order to drive over and meet his wife's cousin at
the Flats. It was little more than a year ago, on
just such a soft afternoon, with a "feel" of spring
in the air. The sorrel, turning the same big
ringed eye on him, nuzzled the palm of his hand
in the same way; and one by one all the days
between rose up and stood before him . . .
He flung the bearskin into the sleigh, climbed
to the seat, and drove up to the house. When
he entered the kitchen it was empty, but Mat-
tie's bag and shawl lay ready by the door. 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 started at his approach and turning
quickly, said: "Is it time?"
"What are you doing here, Matt?" he asked
i5 Ethan Frome
She looked at him timidly. "I was just taking
a look round that's all/' she answered, with a
They went back into the kitchen without speak-
ing, and Ethan picked up her bag and shawl.
"Where's Zeena?" he asked.
"She went upstairs right after dinner. She said
she had those shooting pains again, and didn't
want to be disturbed."
"Didn't she say good-bye to you?"
"No. That was all she said."
Ethan, looking slowly about the kitchen, said
to himself with a shudder that in a few hours he
would be returning to it alone. 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.
"Come on," he said almost gaily, opening the
door and putting her bag into the sleigh. He
sprang to his seat and bent over to tuck the rug
about her as she slipped into the place at his
side. "Now then, go 'long," he said, with a
shake of the reins that sent the sorrel placidly
jogging down the hill.
"We got lots of time for a good ride, Matt !" he
cried, seeking her hand beneath the fur and press-
ing it in his. His face tingled and he felt dizzy,
as if he had stopped in at the Starkfield saloon
on a zero day for a drink.
At the gate, instead of making for Starkfield,
he turned the sorrel to the right, up the Betts-
bridge road. Mattie sat silent, giving no sign of
surprise; but after a moment she said: "Are you
going round by Shadow Pond?"
He laughed and answered: "I knew you'd
She drew closer under the bearskin, so that,
looking sideways around his coat-sleeve, he could
just catch the tip of her nose and a blown brown
wave of hair. They drove slowly up the road be-
tween 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 pine-wood 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 Mat-
tie 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 fro-
zen 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 tree-trunk half sub-
merged in snow.
"There's where we sat at the picnic," he re-
The entertainment of which he spoke was one
of the few that they had taken part in together:
a "church picnic" which, on a long afternoon
of the preceding summer, had filled the retired
Ethan Frome 153
place with merry-making. 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 . . .
"It was right there I found your locket," he
said, pushing his foot into a dense tuft of blue-
154 Ethan Frome
"I never saw anybody with such sharp eyes!"
She sat down on the tree-trunk in the sun and
he sat down beside her.
"You were as pretty as a picture in that pink
hat/* he said.
She laughed with pleasure. "Oh, I guess it was
the hat!" she rejoined.
They had never before avowed their inclina-
tion 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.
Suddenly she rose to her feet and said: "We
mustn't stay here any longer."
He continued to gaze at her vaguely, only
half-roused from his dream. "There's plenty of
time," he answered.
They stood looking at each other as if the
eyes of each were straining to absorb and hold
fast the other's image. There were things he had
to say to her before they parted, but he could not
say them in that place of summer memories, and
Ethan Frome 155
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
By a devious track between the fields they
wound back to the Starkfield road. Under the
open sky the light was still clear, with a reflec-
tion of cold red on the eastern hills. 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.
As they turned into the Starkfield road Ethan
said: "Matt, what do you mean to do?"
She did not answer at once, but at length she
said: "I'll try to get a place in a store."
"You know you can't do it. The bad air and
the standing all day nearly killed you before."
"I'm a lot stronger than I was before I came
"And now you're going to throw away all the
good it's done you!"
There seemed to be no answer to this, and
again they drove on for a while without speak-
ing. With every yard of the way some spot
156 Ethan Frome
where they had stood, and laughed together or
been silent, clutched at Ethan and dragged him
"Isn't there any of your father's folks could
"There isn't any of 'em I'd ask."
He lowered his voice to say: "You know there's
nothing I wouldn't do for you if I could."
"I know there isn't."
"But I can't "
She was silent, but he felt a slight tremor in
the shoulder against his.
"Oh, Matt," he broke out, "if I could ha'
gone with you now, I'd ha' done it "
She turned to him, pulling a scrap of paper
from her breast. "Ethan I found this," she
stammered. Even in the failing light he saw it
was the letter to his wife that he had begun the
night before and forgotten to destroy. Through
his astonishment there ran a fierce thrill of joy.
"Matt " he cried; "if I could ha' done it, would
"Oh, Ethan, Ethan what's the use?" With
a sudden movement she tore the letter in shreds
and sent them fluttering off into the snow.
Ethan Frome 15?
"Tell me, Matt! Tell me!" he adjured her.
She was silent for a moment ; then she said,
in such a low tone that he had to stoop his head
to hear her: "I used to think of it sometimes,
summer nights, when the moon was so bright I
His heart reeled with the sweetness of it. "As
long ago as that?"
She answered, as if the date had long been fixed
for her: "The first time was at Shadow Pond."
"Was that why you gave me my coffee before
"I don't know. Did I? I was dreadfully put
out when you wouldn't go to the picnic with me;
and then, when I saw you coming down the
road, I thought maybe you'd gone home that
way o' purpose; and that made me glad."
They were silent again. They had reached the
point where the road dipped to the hollow by
Ethan's mill and as they descended the darkness
descended with them, dropping down like a black
veil from the heavy hemlock boughs.
"I'm tied hand and foot, Matt. There isn't a
thing I can do," he began again.
"You must write to me sometimes, Ethan."
158 Ethan Frome
"Oh, what goocTll writing do? I want to put
my hand out and touch you. I want to do for
you and care for you. I want to be there when
you're sick and when you're lonesome."
"You mustn't think but what I'll do all right."
"You won't need me, you mean ? I suppose
"Oh, Ethan!" she cried.
"I don't know how it is you make me feel,
Matt. I'd a'most rather have you dead than
"Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!" she sobbed.
The sound of her weeping shook him out of
his dark anger, and he felt ashamed.
"Don't let's talk that way," he whispered.
"Why shouldn't we, when it's true? I've been
wishing it every minute of the day."
"Matt! You be quiet! Don't you say it."
"There's never anybody been good to me but
"Don't say that either, when I can't lift a hand
"Yes; but it's true just the same."
They had reached the top of School House Hill
and Starkfield lay below them in the twilight.
Ethan Frome 159
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 house-fronts 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.
"I guess this'll be their last coast for a day or
two," Ethan said, looking up at the mild sky.
Mattie was silent, and he added: "We were to
have gone down last night."
Still she did not speak and, prompted by an
obscure desire to help himself and her through
their miserable last hour, he went on discursively :
"Ain't it funny we haven't been down together
but just that once last winter?"
She answered: "It wasn't often I got down to
"That's so," he said.
They had reached the crest of the Corbury
160 Ethan Frome
road, and between the indistinct white glimmer
of the church and the black curtain of the Var-
num spruces the slope stretched away below
them without a sled on its length. Some erratic
impulse prompted Ethan to say : "How'd you like
me to take you down now?"
She forced a laugh. "Why, there isn't time!"
"There's all the time we want. Come along!"
His one desire now was to postpone the moment
of turning the sorrel toward the Flats.
"But the girl," she faltered. "The girl'll be
waiting at the station."
"Well, let her wait. You'd have to if she didn't.
The note of authority in his voice seemed to
subdue her, and when he had jumped from the
sleigh she let him help her out, saying only, with
a vague feint of reluctance: "But there isn't a
sled round anywheres."
"Yes, there is! Right over there under the
He threw the bearskin over the sorrel, who
stood passively by the roadside, hanging a medi-
tative head. Then he caught Mattie's hand and
drew her after him toward the sled.
Ethan Frome 161
She seated herself obediently and he took his
place behind her, so close that her hair brushed
his face. "All right, Matt ? " he called out, as if the
width of the road had been between them.
She turned her head to say: "It's dreadfully
dark. Are you sure you can see?"
He laughed contemptuously: "I could go down
this coast with my eyes tied!" and she laughed
with him, as if she liked his audacity. Neverthe-
less 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
"Now!" he cried.
The sled started with a bound, and they flew
on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and
speed as they went, with the hollow night open-
ing out below 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.
"Don't be scared, Matt!" he cried exultantly,
162 Ethan Frome
as they spun safely past it and flew down the
second slope; and when they reached the level
ground beyond, and the speed of the sled began
to slacken, he heard her give a little laugh of glee.
They sprang off and started to walk back up
the hill. Ethan dragged the sled with one hand
and passed the other through Mattie's arm.
"Were you scared I'd run you into the elm?"
he asked with a boyish laugh.
"I told you I was never scared with you," she
The strange exultation of his mood had brought
on one of his rare fits of boastfulness. "It is a
tricky place, though. The least swerve, and we'd
never ha' come up again. But I can measure
distances to a hair's-breadth always could."
She murmured: "I always say you've got the
surest eye ..."
Deep silence had fallen with the starless dusk,
and they leaned on each other without speaking;
but at every step of their climb Ethan said to
himself: "It's the last time we'll ever walk to-
They mounted slowly to the top of the hill.
When they were abreast of the church he stooped
Ethan Frome 163
his head to her to ask: "Are you tired?" and she
answered, breathing quickly: "It was splendid!"
With a pressure of his arm he guided her to-
ward the Norway spruces. "I guess this sled
must be Ned Male's. Anyhow I'll leave it where
I found it." He drew the sled up to the Varnum
gate and rested it against the fence. As he raised
himself he suddenly felt Mattie close to him
among the shadows.
"Is this where Ned and Ruth kissed each
other?" she whispered breathlessly, and flung
her arms about him. Her lips, groping for his,
swept over his face, and he held her fast in a
rapture of surprise.
"Good-bye good-bye," she stammered, and
kissed him again.
"Oh, Matt, I can't let you go !" broke from him
in the same old cry.
She freed herself from his hold and he heard
her sobbing. "Oh, I can't go either!" she wailed.
"Matt! What'll we do? What'll we do?"
They clung to each other's hands like children,
and her body shook with desperate sobs.
Through the stillness they heard the church
clock striking five.
164 Ethan Frome
"Oh, Ethan, it's time!" she cried.
He drew her back to him. "Time for what?
You don't suppose I'm going to leave you now?"
"If I missed my train where'd I go?"
"Where are you going if you catch it?"
She stood silent, her hands lying cold and re-
laxed in his.
"What's the good of either of us going any-
wheres without the other one now?" he said.
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. "Ethan !
Ethan! I want you to take me down again!"
"The coast. Right off," she pan ted. "So 't we'll
never come up any more."
"Matt! What on earth do you mean?"
She put her lips close against his ear to say:
"Right into the big elm. You said you could.
So 't we'd never have to leave each other any
"Why, what are you talking of? You're crazy !"
"I'm not crazy; but I will be if I leave you."
"Oh, Matt, Matt " he groaned.
Ethan Frome 165
She tightened her fierce hold about his neck.
Her face lay close to his face.
"Ethan, where'll I go if I leave you? I don't
know how to get along alone. You said so your-
self just now. Nobody but you was ever good
to me. And there'll be that strange girl in the
house . . . and she'll sleep in my bed, where I
used to lay nights and listen to hear you come
up the stairs ..."
The words were like fragments torn from his
heart. 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. And the sweetness
of Mattie's avowal, the wild wonder of know-
ing at last that all that had happened to him
had happened to her too, made the other vision
more abhorrent, the other life more intolerable
to return to ...
Her pleadings still came to him between short
sobs, but he no longer heard what she was say-
ing. Her hat had slipped back and he was strok-
ing 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,
1 66 Ethan Frome
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. He said to himself: "Perhaps it'll
feel like this . . . " and then again: "After this
I sha'n't feel anything . . ."
Suddenly he heard the old sorrel whinny across
the road, and thought: "He's wondering why he
doesn't get his supper ..."
"Come," Mat tie whispered, tugging at his
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
Ethan Frome 167
dimness, and they seemed less keen, less capable
He took his seat on the sled and Mattie in-
stantly placed herself in front of him. 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 for-
ward, and bent her head back between his hands.
Then suddenly he sprang up again.
"Get up," he ordered her.
It was the tone she always heeded, but she
cowered down in her seat, repeating vehemently:
"No, no, no!"
"I want to sit in front."
"No, no! How can you steer in front?"
"I don't have to. We'll follow the track."
They spoke in smothered whispers, as though
the night were listening.
"Get up! Get up!" he urged her; but she kept
on repeating: "Why do you want to sit in front?"
"Because I because I want to feel you hold-
ing me," he stammered, and dragged her to her
1 68 Ethan Frome
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. . .
Just as they started he heard the sorrel's
whinny again, and the familiar wistful call, and
all the confused images it brought with it, went
with him down the first reach of the road. Half-
way down there was a sudden drop, then a rise,
and after that another long delirious descent.
As they took wing for this it 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
. . . Then the big elm shot up ahead, lying in
wait for them at the bend of the road, and he
Ethan Frome 169
said between his teeth: "We can fetch it; I know
we can fetch it "
As they flew toward the tree Mattie pressed
her arms tighter, and her blood seemed to be
in his veins. Once or twice the sled swerved a
little under them. He slanted his body to keep
it headed for the elm, repeating to himself again
and again: "I know we can fetch it"; and little
phrases she had spoken ran through his head
and danced before him on the air. The big tree
loomed bigger and closer, and as they bore down
on it he thought: "It's waiting for us: it seems
to know." But suddenly his wife's face, with
twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself be-
tween him and his goal, and he made an instinc-
tive movement to brush it aside. 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 sky was still thick, but looking straight up
he saw a single star, and tried vaguely to reckon
whether it were Sirius, or or The effort tired
i? Ethan Frome
him too much, and he closed his heavy lids and
thought that he would sleep. . . 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. The thought of the animal's suffering
was intolerable to him and he struggled to raise
himself, and could not because a rock, or some
huge mass, seemed to be lying on him. But he
continued to finger about cautiously with his
left hand, thinking he might get hold of the little
creature and help it; and all at once he knew that
the soft thing he had touched was Mattie's hair
and that his hand was on her face.
He dragged himself to his knees, the mon-
strous load on him moving with him as he moved,
and his hand went over and over her face, and he
felt that the twittering came from her lips . . .
He got his face down close to hers, with his ear
to her mouth, and in the darkness he saw her
eyes open and heard her say his name.
"Oh, Matt, I thought we'd fetched it," he
moaned; and far off, up the hill, he heard the
sorrel whinny, and thought: "I ought to be
getting him his feed. . . "
THE querulous drone ceased as I entered
Frome's kitchen, and of the two women
sitting there I could not tell which had been the
One of them, on my appearing, raised her tall
bony figure from her seat, not as if to welcome
me for she threw me no more than a brief
glance of surprise but simply to set about pre-
paring the meal which Frome's absence had
delayed. 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 arm-chair near
the stove, and when I came in she turned her
head quickly toward me, without the least cor-
Ethan Frome 173
responding movement of her body. Her hair was
as grey as her companion's, her face as bloodless
and shrivelled, but amber-tinted, with swarthy
shadows sharpening the nose and hollowing the
temples. 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
Even for that part of the country the kitchen
was a poor-looking place. With the exception of
the dark-eyed woman's chair, which looked like
a soiled relic of luxury bought at a country auc-
tion, the furniture was of the roughest kind.
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.
"My, it's cold here! The fire must be 'most
out," Frome said, glancing about him apolo-
getically as he followed me in.
The tall woman, who had moved away from
us toward the dresser, took no notice; but the
other, from her cushioned niche, answered com-
plainingly, in a high thin voice: "It's on'y just
J 74 Ethan Frome
been made up this very minute. Zeena fell asleep
and slep' ever so long, and I thought I'd be
frozen stiff before I could wake her up and get
her to 'tend to it."
I knew then that it was she who had been
speaking when we entered.
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.
Frome stood hesitatingly before her as she ad-
vanced; then he looked at me and said: "This
is my wife, Mis' Frome." After another interval
he added, turning toward the figure in the arm-
chair : "And this is Miss Mattie Silver . .
Mrs. Ned Hale, tender soul, had pictured me
as lost in the Flats and buried under a snow-
drift; and her satisfaction on seeing me safely
restored to her the next morning made me feel
that my peril had caused me to advance several
degrees in her favour.
Great was her amazement, and that of old
Mrs. Varnum, on learning that Ethan Frome's
Ethan Frome 175
old horse had carried me to and from Corbury
Junction through the worst blizzard of the win-
ter; greater still their surprise when they heard
that his master had taken me in for the night.
Beneath their exclamations of wonder 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. I therefore confined myself to saying, in a
matter-of-fact tone, that I had 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.
"Well," Mrs. Hale mused, "in such a storm I
suppose he felt he couldn't do less than take you
in but I guess it went hard with Ethan. I don't
believe but what you're the only stranger has
set foot in that house for over twenty years.
He's that proud he don't even like his oldest
friends to go there; and I don't know as any do,
any more, except myself and the doctor. . . "
"You still go there, Mrs. Hale?" I ventured.
"I used to go a good deal after the accident,
when I was first married; but after a while I got
to think it made 'em feel worse to see us. And
then one thing and another came, and my own
troubles . . . But I generally make out to
drive over there round about New Year's, and
once in the summer. Only I always try to pick
a day when Ethan's off somewheres. It's bad
enough to see the two women sitting there but
his face, when he looks round that bareplace,just
kills me ... You see, I can look back and call
it up in his mother's day, before their troubles."
Old Mrs. 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. Mrs. 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 be-
cause she had been waiting, through all the years,
for some one who should see what she alone had
I waited to let her trust in me gather strength
before I said: "Yes, it's pretty bad, seeing all
three of them there together."
She drew her mild brows into a frown of pain.
Ethan Frome 177
"It was just awful from the beginning. I was here
in the house when they were carried up they
laid Mat tie Silver in the room you're in. She and
I were great friends, and she was to have been
my brides-maid in the spring . . . When she
came to I went up to her and stayed all night.
They gave her things to quiet her, and she didn't
know much till to'rd morning, and then all of a
sudden she woke up just like herself, and looked
straight at me out of her big eyes, and said . . .
Oh, I don't know why I'm telling you all this,"
Mrs. Hale broke off, crying.
She took off her spectacles, wiped the moisture
from them, and put them on again with an un-
steady hand. "It got about the next day," she
went on, "that Zeena Frome had sent Mattie off
in a hurry because she had a hired girl coming,
and the folks here could never rightly tell what
she and Ethan were doing that night coasting,
when they'd ought to have been on their way to
the Flats to ketch the train ... I never knew
myself what Zeena thought I don't to this day.
Nobody knows Zeena's thoughts. Anyhow, when
she heard o' the accident she came right in and
stayed with Ethan over to the minister's, where
they'd carried him. And as soon as the doctors
said that Mattie could be moved, Zeena sent for
her and took her back to the farm."
"And there she's been ever since?"
Mrs. Hale answered simply: "There was no-
where else for her to go;" and my heart tightened
at the thought of the hard compulsions of the
"Yes, there she's been/' Mrs. Hale continued,
"and Zeena's done for her, and done for Ethan,
as good as she could. It was a miracle, consider-
ing how sick she was but she seemed to be
raised right up just when the call came to her.
Not as she's ever given up doctoring, and she's
had sick spells right along; but she's had the
strength given her to care for those two for over
twenty years, and before the accident came she
thought she couldn't even care for herself."
Mrs. Hale paused a moment, and I remained
silent, plunged in the vision of what her words
evoked. "It's horrible for them all," I murmured.
"Yes: it's pretty bad. And they ain't any of
'em easy people either. Mattie was, before the
accident; I never knew a sweeter nature. But
she's suffered too much that's what I always
Ethan Frome 179
say when folks tell me how she's soured. And
Zeena, she was always cranky. Not but what
she bears with Mattie wonderful I've seen that
myself. But sometimes the two of them get go-
ing at each other, and then Ethan's face'd break
your heart . . . When I see that, I think it's
him that suffers most . . . anyhow it ain't
Zeena, because she ain't got the time . . . It's a
pity, though," Mrs. Hale ended, sighing, "that
they're all shut up there'n that one kitchen. In
the summertime, on pleasant days, they move
Mattie into the parlour, or out in the door-yard,
and that makes it easier . . . but winters there's
the fires to be thought of; and there ain't a dime
to spare up at the Fromes'."
Mrs. Hale drew a deep breath, as though her
memory were eased of its long burden, and she
had no more to say; but suddenly an impulse of
complete avowal seized her.
She took off her spectacles again, leaned toward
me across the bead-work table-cover, and went
on with lowered voice: "There was one day, about
a week after the accident, when they all thought
Mattie couldn't live. Well, I say it's a pity she
did. I said it right out to our minister once, and
i8o Ethan Frome
he was shocked at me. Only he wasn't with me
that morning when she first came to ... And
I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived;
and the way they are now, I don't see's there's
much difference between the Fromes up at the
farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard;
'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the
women have got to hold their tongues."