“Sit right down and thaw out,” he greeted Ethan.
The latter did not know how to begin, but at length he managed to bring out his request for an advance of fifty dollars. The blood rushed to his thin skin under the sting of Hale’s astonishment. It was the builder’s custom to pay at the end of three months, and there was no precedent between the two men for a cash settlement.
Ethan felt that if he had pleaded an urgent need Hale might have made shift to pay him; but pride, and an instinctive prudence, kept him from resorting to this argument. After his father’s death it had taken time to get his head above water, and he did not want Andrew Hale, or any one else in Starkfield, to think he was going under again. Besides, he hated lying; if he wanted the money he wanted it, and it was nobody’s business to ask why. He therefore made his demand with the awkwardness of a proud man who will not admit to himself that he is stooping; and he was not much surprised at Hale’s refusal.
The builder refused genially, as he did everything else: he treated the matter as something in the nature of a practical joke, and wanted to know if Ethan meditated buying a grand piano or adding a “cupolo” to his house; offering, in the latter case, to give his services free of cost.
Ethan’s arts were soon exhausted, and after an embarrassed pause he wished Hale good day and opened the door of the office. As he passed out the builder suddenly called after him: “See here-you ain’t in a tight place, are you?”
“Not a bit,” Ethan’s pride retorted before his reason had time to intervene.
“Well, that’s good! Because I am, a shade. Fact is, I was going to ask you to give me a little extra time on that payment. Business is pretty slack, to begin with, and then I’m fixing up a little house for Ned and Ruth when they’re married. I’m glad to do it for ’em, but it costs.” His look appealed to Ethan for sympathy. “The young people like things nice. You know how it is yourself: it’s not so long ago since you fixed up your own place for Zeena.”
Ethan left the grays in Hale’s stable and went about some other business in the village. As he walked away the builder’s last phrase lingered in his ears, and he reflected grimly that his seven years with Zeena seemed to Starkfield “not so long.”
The afternoon was drawing to an end, and here and there a lighted pane spangled the cold gray dusk and made the snow look whiter. The bitter weather had driven every one indoors and Ethan had the long rural street to himself. Suddenly he heard the brisk play of sleigh-bells and a cutter passed him, drawn by a free-going horse. Ethan recognised Michael Eady’s roan colt, and young Denis Eady, in a handsome new fur cap, leaned forward and waved a greeting. “Hello, Ethe!” he shouted and spun on.
The cutter was going in the direction of the Frome farm, and Ethan’s heart contracted as he listened to the dwindling bells. What more likely than that Denis Eady had heard of Zeena’s departure for Bettsbridge, and was profiting by the opportunity to spend an hour with Mattie? Ethan was ashamed of the storm of jealousy in his breast. It seemed unworthy of the girl that his thoughts of her should be so violent.