As the dancers poured out of the hall Frome, drawing back behind the projecting storm-door, watched the segregation of the grotesquely muffled groups, in which a moving lantern ray now and then lit up a face flushed with food and dancing. The villagers, being afoot, were the first to climb the slope to the main street, while the country neighbours packed themselves more slowly into the sleighs under the shed.
"Ain't you riding, Mattie?" a woman's voice called back from the throng about the shed, and Ethan's heart gave a jump. From where he stood he could not see the persons coming out of the hall till they had advanced a few steps beyond the wooden sides of the storm-door; but through its cracks he heard a clear voice answer: "Mercy no! Not on such a night."
She was there, then, close to him, only a thin board between. In another moment she would step forth into the night, and his eyes, accustomed to the obscurity, would discern her as clearly as though she stood in daylight. A wave of shyness pulled him back into the dark angle of the wall, and he stood there in silence instead of making his presence known to her. It had been one of the wonders of their intercourse that from the first, she, the quicker, finer, more expressive, instead of crushing him by the contrast, had given him something of her own ease and freedom; but now he felt as heavy and loutish as in his student days, when he had tried to "jolly" the Worcester girls at a picnic.
He hung back, and she came out alone and paused within a few yards of him. She was almost the last to leave the hall, and she stood looking uncertainly about her as if wondering why he did not show himself. Then a man's figure approached, coming so close to her that under their formless wrappings they seemed merged in one dim outline.
"Gentleman friend gone back on you? Say, Matt, that's tough! No, I wouldn't be mean enough to tell the other girls. I ain't as low-down as that." (How Frome hated his cheap banter!) "But look a here, ain't it lucky I got the old man's cutter down there waiting for us?"
Frome heard the girl's voice, gaily incredulous: "What on earth's your father's cutter doin' down there?"
"Why, waiting for me to take a ride. I got the roan colt too. I kinder knew I'd want to take a ride to-night," Eady, in his triumph, tried to put a sentimental note into his bragging voice.
The girl seemed to waver, and Frome saw her twirl the end of her scarf irresolutely about her fingers. Not for the world would he have made a sign to her, though it seemed to him that his life hung on her next gesture.
"Hold on a minute while I unhitch the colt," Denis called to her, springing toward the shed.
She stood perfectly still, looking after him, in an attitude of tranquil expectancy torturing to the hidden watcher. Frome noticed that she no longer turned her head from side to side, as though peering through the night for another figure. She let Denis Eady lead out the horse, climb into the cutter and fling back the bearskin to make room for her at his side; then, with a swift motion of flight, she turned about and darted up the slope toward the front of the church.
"Good-bye! Hope you'll have a lovely ride!" she called back to him over her shoulder.
Denis laughed, and gave the horse a cut that brought him quickly abreast of her retreating figure.
"Come along! Get in quick! It's as slippery as thunder on this turn," he cried, leaning over to reach out a hand to her.
She laughed back at him: "Good-night! I'm not getting in."
By this time they had passed beyond Frome's earshot and he could only follow the shadowy pantomime of their silhouettes as they continued to move along the crest of the slope above him. He saw Eady, after a moment, jump from the cutter and go toward the girl with the reins over one arm. The other he tried to slip through hers; but she eluded him nimbly, and Frome's heart, which had swung out over a black void, trembled back to safety. A moment later he heard the jingle of departing sleigh bells and discerned a figure advancing alone toward the empty expanse of snow before the church.
In the black shade of the Varnum spruces he caught up with her and she turned with a quick "Oh!"
"Think I'd forgotten you, Matt?" he asked with sheepish glee.
She answered seriously: "I thought maybe you couldn't come back for me."
"Couldn't? What on earth could stop me?"
"I knew Zeena wasn't feeling any too good to-day."
"Oh, she's in bed long ago." He paused, a question struggling in him. "Then you meant to walk home all alone?"
"Oh, I ain't afraid!" she laughed.
They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars. He brought his question out.
"If you thought I hadn't come, why didn't you ride back with Denis Eady?"
"Why, where were you? How did you know? I never saw you!"
Her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw. Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and ingenious. To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase, and brought out, in a growl of rapture: "Come along."
He slipped an arm through hers, as Eady had done, and fancied it was faintly pressed against her side. but neither of them moved. It was so dark under the spruces that he could barely see the shape of her head beside his shoulder. He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it against her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all night in the blackness. She moved forward a step or two and then paused again above the dip of the Corbury road. Its icy slope, scored by innumerable runners, looked like a mirror scratched by travellers at an inn.
"There was a whole lot of them coasting before the moon set," she said.
"Would you like to come in and coast with them some night?" he asked.
"Oh, would you, Ethan? It would be lovely!"
"We'll come to-morrow if there's a moon."
She lingered, pressing closer to his side. "Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all sure they were killed." Her shiver ran down his arm. "Wouldn't it have been too awful? They're so happy!"
"Oh, Ned ain't much at steering. I guess I can take you down all right!" he said disdainfully.
He was aware that he was "talking big," like Denis Eady; but his reaction of joy had unsteadied him, and the inflection with which she had said of the engaged couple "They're so happy!" made the words sound as if she had been thinking of herself and him.
"The elm is dangerous, though. It ought to be cut down," she insisted.
"Would you be afraid of it, with me?"
"I told you I ain't the kind to be afraid" she tossed back, almost indifferently; and suddenly she began to walk on with a rapid step.