The whining voice stopped as I stepped into Frome's kitchen. There were two women sitting there, and I could not tell which one had been the speaker.
One of them stood up when we entered, and without a word went to bring a dish of food to the table. She was tall and thin, and wore an untidy, shapeless dress. Her lined face and thin lips were of the same yellowish colour, and she had thin grey hair and grey, lifeless eyes.
The other woman was smaller, and she also had grey hair and a thin, bloodless face. She turned her head towards me quickly, but her body did not move at all. Her dark eyes shone with the crazy brightness that is sometimes seen in people with disease of the spine.
The kitchen was a poor place. The few pieces of furniture were of the poorest kind, mostly broken and dirty.
My, it's cold in here,' said Frome, looking around.
The tall woman said nothing, but the dark-eyed woman answered complainingly, in a thin, whining voice:
It's Zeena's fault. She fell asleep and the fire went out. I've been so cold, waiting for her to wake up.'
I knew then that it was her voice that I had heard.
The tall woman brought the food to the table. Frome looked at me and said: 'This is my wife, Mrs Frome.' After a moment he added, turning to the figure in the armchair: 'And this is Miss Mattie Silver...'
Ruth Hale was very pleased to see me return safely in the moming, and most surprised to hear how I had spent the night.
You must be the first stranger there in twenty years,' she said. 'It's awful to see them, all locked up together in that house. And they're not easy people, any of them. Mattie used to be; before the accident she was a really sweet girl. But not now — she's had too much pain. Now when she and Zeena fight, the look on Ethan's face is enough to break your heart.'
Yes, it must be awful for them,' I agreed.
It was just terrible at the beginning,' she went on. 'They brought Mattie here, and I stayed with her all night. Then in the morning she opened her eyes and said... Oh, I don't know why I'm telling you this...' She stopped, crying.
After a few moments she dried her tears and continued: 'Then when the doctors said we could move Mattie, Zeena sent for her and took her back to the farm.'
And she's been there ever since?' I asked.
There was no other place for her to go,' Ruth Hale answered simply; and I thought how hard life was for the poor.
Zeena's cared for the pair of them for over twenty years now,' Ruth Hale went on. 'And there they all are, shut up in that one kitchen.'
Then she looked at me and said in a low voice:
There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they thought Mattie couldn't live. Well, I say it was a pity she did. People think that's an awful thing to say, but they weren't with her when she first woke up... And I say this, too. All those years with Mattie have destroyed Ethan. The way they are now, there's not much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in their graves — except that down there they're all silent and the women have to keep quiet.'