She shone at him across the table. "Well, sit right down then. You must be starving." She 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 taste right?"
"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 frightened eyes.
"Ethan, there's something wrong! I knew there was!"
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 butterflies.
"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 gave him.
She lingered a moment, caught in the same 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 brutally. His head reeled and he had to support himself against the table. All the while he felt as if he were still kissing her, and yet dying of thirst for her lips.
"Ethan, what has happened? Is Zeena mad with me?"
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 months-"
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, Ethan."
"Oh, God-oh, God," he groaned. The glow of passion he had felt for her had melted to an aching 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 admonished him with a pale gleam of gaiety.
"Oh, Matt-Matt-where'll you go to?"
Her lids sank and a tremor crossed her face. He saw that for the first time the thought of the future came to her distinctly. "I might get something 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 now-"
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 accustomed seat between them.
"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 her plate.
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, regaled 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.
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 Springfield," 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 together 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 around," he said, going toward the passage to get his lantern.
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 glass pickle-dish.
"I'd like to know who done this," she said, looking sternly from Ethan to Mattie.