"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 you?"
"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.
"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 couldn't sleep."
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 the others?"
"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."
"Oh, what good'll 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 you'll marry!"
"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 that!"
"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 you."
"Don't say that either, when I can't lift a hand for you!"
"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. 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 the village."
"That's so," he said.
They had reached the crest of the Corbury road, and between the indistinct white glimmer of the church and the black curtain of the Varnum 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. Come!"
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 spruces." He threw the bearskin over the sorrel, who stood passively by the roadside, hanging a meditative head. Then he caught Mattie's hand and drew her after him toward the sled.
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. Nevertheless 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 falsifies distances.
"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 opening 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, 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 answered.
The strange exaltation 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 . . . "