Beaming maternally on Ethan, she bent over to add: “I on’y just heard from Mr. Hale ’bout Zeena’s going over to Bettsbridge to see that new doctor. I’m real sorry she’s feeling so bad again! I hope he thinks he can do something for her. I don’t know anybody round here’s had more sickness than Zeena. I always tell Mr. Hale I don’t know what she’d ‘a’ done if she hadn’t ‘a’ had you to look after her; and I used to say the same thing ’bout your mother. You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome.”
She gave him a last nod of sympathy while her son chirped to the horse; and Ethan, as she drove off, stood in the middle of the road and stared after the retreating sleigh.
It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale. Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives. But Mrs. Hale had said, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,” and he felt less alone with his misery. If the Hales were sorry for him they would surely respond to his appeal...
He started down the road toward their house, but at the end of a few yards he pulled up sharply, the blood in his face. For the first time, in the light of the words he had just heard, he saw what he was about to do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales’ sympathy to obtain money from them on false pretences. That was a plain statement of the cloudy purpose which had driven him in headlong to Starkfield.
With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had carried him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.
He turned and walked slowly back to the farm.
At the kitchen door Daniel Byrne sat in his sleigh behind a big-boned grey who pawed the snow and swung his long head restlessly from side to side.
Ethan went into the kitchen and found his wife by the stove. Her head was wrapped in her shawl, and she was reading a book called “Kidney Troubles and Their Cure” on which he had had to pay extra postage only a few days before.
Zeena did not move or look up when he entered, and after a moment he asked: “Where’s Mattie?”
Without lifting her eyes from the page she replied: “I presume she’s getting down her trunk.”
The blood rushed to his face. “Getting down her trunk-alone?”
“Jotham Powell’s down in the wood-lot, and Dan’l Byrne says he darsn’t leave that horse,” she returned.
Her husband, without stopping to hear the end of the phrase, had left the kitchen and sprung up the stairs. The door of Mattie’s room was shut, and he wavered a moment on the landing. “Matt,” he said in a low voice; but there was no answer, and he put his hand on the door-knob.