She started at his approach and turning quickly, said: "Is it time?"
"What are you doing here, Matt?" he asked her.
She looked at him timidly. "I was just taking a look round-that's all," she answered, with a wavering smile.
They went back into the kitchen without speaking, 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 pressing 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 Bettsbridge 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 know!"
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 between 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 Mattie 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 frozen 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 submerged in snow.
"There's where we sat at the picnic," he reminded her.
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 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 blueberry bushes.
"I never saw anybody with such sharp eyes!" she answered.
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 inclination 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 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 grey.
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 reflection 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 to Starkfield."
"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 speaking. With every yard of the way some spot where they had stood, and laughed together or been silent, clutched at Ethan and dragged him back.
"Isn't there any of your father's folks could help you?"
"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."