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 hesitation he went up and opened her door. The room was almost dark, but in the obscurity he saw her sitting by the window, bolt upright, and knew by the rigidity of the outline projected against the pane that she had not taken off her travelling dress.
"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 morsel."
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."
Turning her head at this, she answered solemnly: "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 twilight with a mien of wan authority, as of one consciously 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 jerking to and fro between two extremities of feeling, but for the moment compassion 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.
"Yes. He says any regular doctor would want me to have an operation."
Ethan was aware that, in regard to the important 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 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 resolute.
"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 the house."
"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-morrow afternoon."
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.
"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 'a' 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 advantage in descending to the level of recrimination. 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 understand 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 afore now."