When it's the beginning of the twentieth century on the street - life on a farm in Massachusetts just does not seem easy to you. Winters are long and unusually cold on these lands.
The fields are covered with snow and ice. The nights are long and dark. The sun is almost invisible at that time of year. The life of a simple farmer, Ethan, is hard. He has to work much to survive.
But his existence is not without pleasant and bright moments. It looks like Ethan is an ordinary farmer - unhurried, quiet. But he feels the beauty of the world.
He likes looking at the bright stars in the night winter sky. He is pleased to see the thick shadows of trees in the snow. He is not entirely alone on his small farm.
There are pleasant people around with whom he can share the difficulties of this endless winter.
If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post office there. If you know the post office, you have probably seen Ethan Frome driving up to it in his buggy, and you have probably wondered who he was.
It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time. He was a noticeable figure. His tall, strong body was badly twisted, and much shorter on the right side than on the left. He moved slowly and painfully, pulling himself along. Just the few steps from his buggy to the post office were clearly difficult for him. His face had a sad, grim look. It was the face and body of an old man, and I was surprised to hear that he was only fifty-two.
I learnt this from Harmon Gow, a man who knew all the families around Starkfield.
'He's been like that since his bad accident, nearly twenty-four years ago,' said Harmon. 'But Fromes don't die young. Ethan'll live to a hundred, probably.'
'He looks like a dead man already,' I said.
'I guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters,' said Harmon. 'Most smart people get out of here.'
'Why didn't he get out?' I asked.
'He had to stay and take care of his family - first his father got hurt, then his mother fell sick, then his wife.'
'And then the accident?'
Harmon gave a little smile. 'That's right. He had to stay then.'
Ethan Frome used to drive in from his farm every day at about midday, and because I picked up my mail at about the same time, I often saw him. He came to the post office only for a newspaper, and sometimes for a packet from a medicine company for 'Mrs Zeena Frome'. Starkfield people understood that he did not want to stop and talk, and on most days Frome climbed slowly back into his buggy and drove away without a word to anyone.
At that time, my company had sent me on an engineering job near Starkfield, and I was staying at the home of a lady called Mrs Ruth Hale. Before she was married, her name had been Ruth Varnum, but her husband Ned Hale was now dead, and she had returned to live with her mother in the Varnum home. It was a grand house, large and white, with tall dark trees outside. Although it was clear that the Varnums no longer had much money, theirs was still the finest house in the village.
Ruth Hale enjoyed talking about her neighbours, and I hoped that she could tell me more about Ethan Frome. But when I asked her, she just looked unhappy and said in a low voice:
'Yes, I knew them both... it was awful...
I asked other people, and everybody in Starkfield agreed that Ethan Frome had had more troubles in his life than most people. But nobody explained why he had that sad, grim took on his face, in the end, I learnt the story, piece by piece, from several people. As often happens, the story was different each time, but I slowly began to put it together. And my interest in Ethan Frome grew stronger when - a little later - I met the man himself.
It happened like this. Every day I had to travel about three miles to the station, where I got my train to work, I usually hired a horse from Denis Eady, the rich village shopkeeper. But in the middle of winter, his and most of the other Starkfield horses caught an illness. For a day or two, I could not find a horse to hire anywhere, until Harmon Gow had an idea.
'Why don't you ask Ethan Frome to drive you?' he said. 'His horse ain't sick, and he needs a dollar or two. That Frame farm and sawmill don't make enough money to keep a cat alive.'
So Ethan Frome agreed to drive me, and every day for a week I sat beside him in his sleigh as his thin horse pulled us over the hard snow to the station. Then, in the icy evenings, he brought me back to Starkfield.
He was not unfriendly, but during the hour's drive, he never turned to look at me, and spoke very little. Once I said something about Florida and he told me that he had been there. Another time he showed interest in a science book of mine, which I had left in his sleigh by mistake in the morning. But most of the time Frome drove without a word, and I began to feel that he was like the land around him. This sad, silent man and the snow-covered fields had the same kind of cold loneliness. Anything warm and alive inside him was locked away, under the deep icy cold of too many Starkfield winters.
After about a week, we were driving back one night in terrible weather. Heavy snow was falling, hiding everything in a soft white cloud, and the air had an icy coldness. The old horse was getting tired, and I got out to walk beside him, but I found it hard to keep moving.
After a time Frome looked into the darkness and said: 'That's my place down there. We've had enough of this.'
I understood that he was offering me a bed for the night, and we turned down towards the poor, lonely-looking farmhouse. After I had helped him put away the sleigh and take care of the horse, we fought our way through the snow to the front of the house. I followed him inside, and from behind a door on our right, I heard a woman's voice, a thin, high, whining voice.
Frome opened the door of the room. 'Come in,' he said to me, and as he spoke, the whining voice fell silent.
That was the night when I began to understand Ethan Frome, and to put together his story...
Coming home from the dance
It was a cold, clear night, and the village lay under deep snow. Bright, icy stars shone from a dark sky down on the silent whiteness below.
Young Ethan Frome walked quickly down the empty, moonlit street. He passed Eady's fine new shop and the Varnums' house with its two tall black trees. Below that was the slope of the Corbury road. On clear nights, this was often full of young people coasting down, laughing and shouting as they went. But there was not a sound from the icy slope as Ethan passed by. Tonight all Starkfield's life was in a room in the church. Its windows sent yellow light across the snow, and the sound of dance music flowed out into the still midnight air. Ethan hid in the shadows outside the church, and looked in through the nearest window.
The room was hot, bright, and filled with young men and girls. The music had finished, and people were getting ready to leave. Suddenly, a lively young man with thick black hair jumped into the middle of the floor. He went into the crowd and pulled out a young girl. She was dark-haired, and had a bright red scarf around her head. The music started again, and soon the floor was alive with dancing figures.
Outside in the cold, Ethan's heart was beating fast. His eyes followed the girl's red scarf and cloud of brown hair as she danced in faster and faster circles. The young, man was. Denis Eady, the son of Starkfield's most successful shopkeeper, Denis's own success with the young women of the village was well known. Ethan watched jealously as Mattie, the dark-haired girl, held Eady's hands and smiled at him with her dark, shining eyes.
'How can she look at him like that?' Ethan wondered unhappily. 'Doesn't she realize what he is like?'
Ethan used to walk into Starkfield to fetch home his wife's cousin, Mattie Silver, on the few evenings when some chance of amusement brought her to the village. Mattie had been with the Fromes for a year now. She lived with them in their lonely farmhouse and helped Ethan's wife, Zeena, with the housework. Ethan had liked the warm, smiling girl from the moment that she arrived. She brought hope and life and brightness into his home, like someone lighting a fire in a cold room. But she had more than brightness; Ethan found that she loved the beauty of the natural world around them. Here at his side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was someone who felt the same wonder as he did. He could tell her things and show her things - the bright stars in the clear night sky, birds flying over golden fields, the blue shadows of trees on sunlit snow. And he knew that these things gave Mattie and him the same feelings of deep, silent happiness.
But now those feelings seemed so far away. He watched Mattie's laughing face as she flew round and round the room, and he felt lonely and unhappy. Then he remembered a fear that he had tried to forget. His wife was a cold, silent woman who noticed everything but said very little. Her only real interest was her own ill health. But recently she had started to complain more and more about Mattie's housework, and to say things, which worried Ethan.
'I'll need someone to help me when Mattie leaves,' she had said suddenly one morning.
'Oh, Mattie'll never leave us while you need her,' he replied.
His wife lay in bed and watched, as he got dressed. 'If a poor girl like her has a chance to marry a smart boy like Denis Eady, I ain't going to stop her,' she said in her flat, whining voice. 'The doctor says I can't manage on my own, so we'll need to hire a girl.'
Life without Mattie! Ethan could not think of it. Her voice, her sweet smile, her gentle arm in his arm during those night walks back to the farm - these were the only things, which mattered in his world. Had he been stupid to think that Zeena would not notice his interest in Mattie? He had not thought about it before, but now, as he stood in the darkness outside the church, he remembered other things that Zeena had said, and his fear grew...
The dancers, now in their thick coats and scarves, came out into the cold night air. Ethan heard Mattie's voice in the crowd, and he stepped back into the shadows, suddenly afraid to speak to her. The crowd quickly disappeared, and Mattie stood alone outside the church, looking around her. Then a man's figure appeared.
'Nobody to walk you home, Matt? What a pity! But ain't I lucky that I got my dad's horse and sleigh down here waiting for us? Come on, let's take a ride!'
The girl said nothing, but stood still, watching, while Denis Eady went to untie the horse. In the shadows, Ethan too watched and waited, with his heart beating fast. Mattie held his life in her hands. Eady got into the sleigh and called to Mattie to join him. Then she turned and ran up the slope.
'Goodbye! Have a lovely ride!' she called back.
Eady laughed and followed her up the slope in his sleigh.
After a moment, he jumped down and tried to put his arm through hers. She stepped quickly out of the way, and Ethan's sudden fear turned to happiness. A moment later, he heard the sound of Eady's sleigh going away, and saw Mattie walking alone across the snow.
He caught up with her by the Varnums' trees. She turned round, surprised.
'Oh!' she said. 'I thought maybe you couldn't come.'
'If you thought I couldn't come, why didn't you ride back with Denis Eady?' he answered.
'Oh, how did you know?' she cried. 'Where were you? I never saw you!'
They stood in the dark shadows of the trees, and their laughing voices ran together like water dancing down from the mountains in springtime. He put his arm through hers, but neither of them moved. Ethan wished he could stand there with her all night in the blackness. Mattie took a few steps forward and then stopped, looking down the icy slope of the Corbury road.
'There were lots of people coasting this evening,' she said. 'Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum almost crashed into the big tree- down there. It's so dangerous, that tree.'
'You'd be safe with me, Matt,' replied Ethan. 'Would you like to come coasting some night? We could come tomorrow if there's a moon.'
'Oh, yes. How lovely!'
They walked along in silence, but then all Ethan's jealous fears returned.
'I guess it's natural that you're going to leave us,' he said at last.
'Leave? You mean Zeena ain't happy with me? I know I ain't so strong or so smart, but I want to try, I really do.'
'So you don't want to leave us, Matt?'
'Where could I go?' she whispered, almost crying.
Her answer made Ethan sad and happy at the same time. They continued their walk, with the dark, starry sky above them, and the quiet, lonely fields all around. At the entrance to Ethan's farmland they passed by the Frome graves. Ethan had always felt that the gravestones were looking at him and saying 'We never got out of Starkfield. Why should you?' But now he didn't want to escape. All he wanted was to be with Mattie, and some day to lie under that cold ground with Mattie beside him. Ethan was happy now, in his world of dreams. For the first time he put his arm around Mattie. She let it stay there, and they walked up to the farmhouse.
The house was dark and quiet. Zeena always went to bed early. On the nights when they came back late, she used to Jock up the house and hide the key outside the kitchen door. Ethan felt for the key under the usual stone.
'Matt, the key's not there!' he said. This had never happened before. They began to look for it in the darkness. Suddenly there was a sound inside the house. They heard a step on the stairs and saw light under the door. Then the door opened, and Ethan saw his wife.
She stood in the dark doorway, a tall thin woman with a blanket round her shoulders. She held a lamp in one hand, and its light threw strange shadows onto her thin lined face. She said nothing, and they stepped into the kitchen. It was deadly cold, like a grave. Ethan shook the snow off his boots. 'I guess you forgot us,' he said, looking at Zeena.
'No. I just felt too bad. I couldn't sleep.'
'I'm sorry,' said Mattie, 'Can I do anything to help, Zeena?'
'No, there's nothing you can do.' Zeena turned away from her. 'And why couldn't you shake that snow off outside?' she said to her husband.
They left the kitchen, and the two women went towards the stairs. 'If I go up now, Mattie'll see me go into the bedroom with Zeena,' thought Ethan. 'And I don't want that, not tonight.'
'I think I'll stay down here a bit longer. I've got some paperwork to do,' he said.
'What, now?' said Zeena. 'You'll die of cold.'
Ethan did not answer, but turned back towards the kitchen. Then he saw the look in Mattie's eyes. Was it a look of warning?
'I guess you're right. It is awful cold down here,' he agreed. With his head down, he slowly followed his wife up to their bedroom.
A visit to the doctor
The next morning was cold and bright. Ethan was down at his sawmill early because he had to take some wood to the village builder that day. The winter sunburned red in a clear sky, and the sunlight danced over the bright, snowy fields, leaving deep blue shadows under the trees.
Ethan's thoughts were always clearest when he was working in the quiet morning air. Last night, after the bedroom door had closed behind them, Zeena had taken her medicine and gone to bed without a word. Ethan lay next to her, watching the light from under Mattie's door, and thinking. Why had he not kissed her on the walk home? He remembered her soft lips in the moonlight. Now, in the clear morning sunshine, he could still see her face. He could see it in the red sky and in the bright shining snow.
Mattie was the daughter of Orin Silver, a cousin of Zeena Frome's. Silver's medicine company had seemed successful, and he had lived like a rich man. But when he died, his wife and daughter had a terrible surprise. They discovered that he had borrowed thousands of dollars, which he could not pay back. This awful news killed Mrs Silver immediately. He had also lost money, which belonged to his brothers and sisters, so there was nobody in the family who wanted to help poor Mattie. The twenty-year-old girl was alone in the world, without money and without friends. She was not strong, and she had never studied or learnt to do a job. So Mattie came to Starkfield to work, without pay, in her cousin Zeena's home. At first Zeena often complained about the girl's work. Then, as the months went by, Mattie grew stronger and found the work easier. Zeena had more time to think about her illnesses, and life under the Fromes' roof became more peaceful.
But now, Zeena's strange silent looks, the warning in Mattie's eyes last night... Ethan was sure that something was wrong. By midday, the wood was all loaded, ready to take to Andrew Hale the builder. But Ethan decided to go home. If there was going to be trouble, he wanted to be there. So Ethan and Jotham Powell, his hired man, walked through the fields back to the house.
When they entered the kitchen, Mattie was making coffee. Zeena was sitting at the table, wearing her best brown dress and a tall hat. A suitcase stood beside her.
'Where're you going, Zeena?' asked Ethan, surprised.
'My pains are getting really bad. I'm going over to my aunt's in Bettsbridge for the night, and tomorrow I'll see that new doctor,' she answered. 'If you're too busy, I suppose you can let Jotham Powell drive me to the station.'
Ethan said nothing. He was lost in his own thoughts. He realized that, for the first time, he and Mattie would be alone for the night. He looked at Mattie. Was she thinking the same thing? Then he looked at his wife's thin, lined, bloodless face. Zeena was thirty-five, only seven years older than he was, but she was already an old woman.
'Of course Jorham'll take you,' he said at last. 'I can't do it myself, because I've got to get the money for the wood from Andrew Hale.'
This was a lie. Andrew Hale never paid immediately, but Ethan really had no wish to make the long, slow journey to the station with his miserable wife at his side.
Zeena made no reply, and soon afterwards, she left with Jotham. Ethan picked up his coat and stood for a moment in the doorway. 'See you later, Matt,' he said.
It was warm and bright: in the kitchen. The sun shone in on the flowering pot plants by the window, and the cat sleeping in a chair. Mattie looked up from her housework. 'See you later, Ethan,' she said happily.
All the way down to the village, Ethan thought of his return to Mattie that night. Without Zeena, his house seemed more like a home. And as he drove through the snowy fields, this usually silent man began to sing.
Ethan Frome had not always been so quiet and lonely. As a student he had liked being among happy, friendly, young people. He had enjoyed his science studies and wanted to become an engineer. But after his father's accident and death, Ethan had to leave his studies and return home. Life was hard for him, working alone on the poor farm and unsuccessful sawmill. Then his mother fell ill, and became more and more silent. Sometimes she used to say a few crazy words, but for most of the time, she refused to speak at all. So with each long, cold Starkfield winter, the silence and loneliness round Ethan grew deeper.
As his mother came towards her last illness, Ethan's cousin Zeena arrived to take care of her. It was wonderful to hear another person's voice in the house again, and Zeena was an excellent nurse and housekeeper. Old Mrs Frome finally died one dark winter's day, and the idea of being alone again filled Ethan with fear. He was grateful to Zeena for all that she had done, and he asked her to stay and marry him. They had at first planned to sell the farm and move to the town. But it was hard to find a buyer, and Ethan soon realized that his wife could not live in a place where she was not someone 'important'. In less than a year her 'sickliness' appeared; then she too fell silent. Her strange, wordless looks worried Ethan. Was she going a little crazy, like his mother? What thoughts and plans were hidden behind her cold eyes?
But that afternoon, as Ethan drove to the village with his sleigh full of wood for the builder, he felt less afraid. Zeena had gone away to Bettsbridge, with all her thoughts on her own health. And tonight he had an evening alone with Mattie. But there was still one worry - the lie about the money from Andrew Hale. He knew that Zeena would want to know where it was.
When Ethan arrived at the builder's, Hale invited him into his office to sit down and get warm. He was a large, red faced and likeable man, an old friend of Ethan's family. Ethan did not know how to begin, but at last, he managed to ask Hale for the first fifty dollars towards this winter's wood. The builder was surprised. He always paid at the end of three months, never before. He refused in his warm, friendly way, and then asked:
'Look, you ain't got money problems, have, you?'
'No, not at all,' replied Ethan, very embarrassed.
The afternoon had turned into a cold grey evening by the time Ethan left the builder's. He heard the sound of sleigh-bells, and Denis Eady drove past, shouting 'Hello, Ethe!' Eady was going towards the Frome farm. Did he know that Zeena had gone? Was he going there to spend some time alone with Mattie? Ethan felt wildly jealous, then moments later was ashamed of his feelings.
By the Varnum house, Ethan saw two figures standing together under the trees. He heard a kiss, and a surprised 'Oh!' as he passed by. Two happy lovers, kissing where he had stood with Mattie the night before. But unlike him, Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale didn't need to hide their feelings. How lucky they were!
As night fell, Ethan passed by the Frome gravestones and drove up to the farmhouse. A light shone in a room upstairs.
'She's getting herself ready for supper,' he thought.
- THE END -