They walked around to the back of the house, between the rigid gooseberry bushes. It was Zeena’s habit, when they came back late from the village, to leave the key of the kitchen door under the mat. Ethan stood before the door, his head heavy with dreams, his arm still about Mattie. “Matt-” he began, not knowing what he meant to say.
She slipped out of his hold without speaking, and he stooped down and felt for the key.
“It’s not there!” he said, straightening himself with a start.
They strained their eyes at each other through the icy darkness. Such a thing had never happened before.
“Maybe she’s forgotten it,” Mattie said in a tremulous whisper; but both of them knew that it was not like Zeena to forget.
“It might have fallen off into the snow,” Mattie continued, after a pause during which they had stood intently listening.
“It must have been pushed off, then,” he rejoined in the same tone. Another wild thought tore through him. What if tramps had been there-what if...
Again he listened, fancying he heard a distant sound in the house; then he felt in his pocket for a match, and kneeling down, passed its light slowly over the rough edges of snow about the doorstep.
He was still kneeling when his eyes, on a level with the lower panel of the door, caught a faint ray beneath it. Who could be stirring in that silent house? He heard a step on the stairs, and again for an instant the thought of tramps tore through him. Then the door opened and he saw his wife.
Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins. To Ethan, still in the rosy haze of his hour with Mattie, the sight came with the intense precision of the last dream before waking. He felt as if he had never before known what his wife looked like.
She drew aside without speaking, and Mattie and Ethan passed into the kitchen, which had the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night.
“Guess you forgot about us, Zeena,” Ethan joked, stamping the snow from his boots.
“No. I just felt so mean I couldn’t sleep.”
Mattie came forward, unwinding her wraps, the colour of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Zeena! Isn’t there anything I can do?”
“No; there’s nothing.” Zeena turned away from her. “You might ‘a’ shook off that snow outside,” she said to her husband.
She walked out of the kitchen ahead of them and pausing in the hall raised the lamp at arm’s-length, as if to light them up the stairs.
Ethan paused also, affecting to fumble for the peg on which he hung his coat and cap. The doors of the two bedrooms faced each other across the narrow upper landing, and to-night it was peculiarly repugnant to him that Mattie should see him follow Zeena.