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who was never gay but in her presence, her gaiety seemed plain
proof of indifference. The face she lifted to her dancers was the
same which, when she saw him, always looked like a window that
has caught the sunset. He even noticed two or three gestures
which, in his fatuity, he had thought she kept for him: a way of
throwing her head back when she was amused, as if to taste her
laugh before she let it out, and a trick of sinking her lids slowly
when anything charmed or moved her.
The sight made him unhappy, and his unhappiness roused his
latent fears. His wife had never shown any jealousy of Mattie, but
of late she had grumbled increasingly over the house-work and
found oblique ways of attracting attention to the girl’s inefficiency.
Zeena had always been what Starkfield called “sickly,” and Frome
had to admit that, if she were as ailing as she believed, she needed
the help of a stronger arm than the one which lay so lightly in his
during the night walks to the farm. Mattie had no natural turn for
housekeeping, and her training had done nothing to remedy the
defect. She was quick to learn, but forgetful and dreamy, and not
disposed to take the matter seriously. Ethan had an idea that if she
were to marry a man she was fond of the dormant instinct would
wake, and her pies and biscuits become the pride of the county; but
domesticity in the abstract did not interest her. At first she was so
awkward that he could not help laughing at her; but she laughed
with him and that made them better friends. He did his best to
supplement her unskilled efforts, getting up earlier than usual to
light the kitchen fire, carrying in the wood overnight, and
neglecting the mill for the farm that he might help her about the
house during the day. He even crept down on Saturday nights to
scrub the kitchen floor after the women had gone to bed; and
Zeena, one day, had surprised him at the churn and had turned
away silently, with one of her queer looks.
Of late there had been other signs of her disfavour, as intangible
but more disquieting. One cold winter morning, as he dressed in
the dark, his candle flickering in the draught of the ill-fitting
window, he had heard her speak from the bed behind him.
“The doctor don’t want I should be left without anybody to do for
me,” she said in her flat whine.
He had supposed her to be asleep, and the sound of her voice had
startled him, though she was given to abrupt explosions of speech
after long intervals of secretive silence.
He turned and looked at her where she lay indistinctly outlined
under the dark calico quilt, her high-boned face taking a grayish
tinge from the whiteness of the pillow.
“Nobody to do for you?” he repeated.