When Ethan was called back to the farm by his father's illness his mother gave
him, for his own use, a small room behind the untenanted "best parlour." Here he
had nailed up shelves for his books, built himself a box-sofa out of boards and a
mattress, laid out his papers on a kitchen-table, hung on the rough plaster wall
an engraving of Abraham Lincoln and a calendar with "Thoughts from the Poets,"
and tried, with these meagre properties, to produce some likeness to the study of
a "minister" who had been kind to him and lent him books when he was at
Worcester. He still took refuge there in summer, but when Mattie came to live at
the farm he had to give her his stove, and consequently the room was
uninhabitable for several months of the year.
To this retreat he descended as soon as the house was quiet, and Zeena's
steady breathing from the bed had assured him that there was to be no sequel to
the scene in the kitchen. After Zeena's departure he and Mattie had stood
speechless, neither seeking to approach the other. Then the girl had returned to
her task of clearing up the kitchen for the night and he had taken his lantern and
gone on his usual round outside the house. The kitchen was empty when he
came back to it; but his tobacco-pouch and pipe had been laid on the table, and
under them was a scrap of paper torn from the back of a seedsman's catalogue,
on which three words were written: "Don't trouble, Ethan."
Going into his cold dark "study" he placed the lantern on the table and, stooping
to its light, read the message again and again. It was the first time that Mattie had
ever written to him, and the possession of the paper gave him a strange new
sense of her nearness; yet it deepened his anguish by reminding him that
henceforth they would have no other way of communicating with each other. For
the life of her smile, the warmth of her voice, only cold paper and dead words!
Confused motions of rebellion stormed in him. He was too young, too strong, too
full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes. Must
he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman? Other
possibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena's
narrow-mindedness and ignorance. And what good had come of it? She was a
hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her: the
one pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him. All the healthy instincts of self-
defence rose up in him against such waste...
He bundled himself into his old coon-skin coat and lay down on the box-sofa to
think. Under his cheek he felt a hard object with strange protuberances. It was a
cushion which Zeena had made for him when they were engaged-the only piece
of needlework he had ever seen her do. He flung it across the floor and propped
his head against the wall...
He knew a case of a man over the mountain-a young fellow of about his own
age-who had escaped from just such a life of misery by going West with the girl
he cared for. His wife had divorced him, and he had married the girl and
prospered. Ethan had seen the couple the summer before at Shadd's Falls,
where they had come to visit relatives. They had a little girl with fair curls, who