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Robert Frost (1874–1963). North of Boston. 1915.

14. The Fear

A LANTERN light from deeper in the barn

Shone on a man and woman in the door

And threw their lurching shadows on a house

Near by, all dark in every glossy window.

A horse’s hoof pawed once the hollow floor,

And the back of the gig they stood beside

Moved in a little. The man grasped a wheel,

The woman spoke out sharply, “Whoa, stand still!”

“I saw it just as plain as a white plate,”

She said, “as the light on the dashboard ran

Along the bushes at the roadside—a man’s face.

You must have seen it too.”

“I didn’t see it.

Are you sure——”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“—it was a face?”

“Joel, I’ll have to look. I can’t go in,

I can’t, and leave a thing like that unsettled.

Doors locked and curtains drawn will make no difference.

I always have felt strange when we came home

To the dark house after so long an absence,

And the key rattled loudly into place

Seemed to warn someone to be getting out

At one door as we entered at another.

What if I’m right, and someone all the time—

Don’t hold my arm!”

“I say it’s someone passing.”

“You speak as if this were a travelled road.

You forget where we are. What is beyond

That he’d be going to or coming from

At such an hour of night, and on foot too.

What was he standing still for in the bushes?”

“It’s not so very late—it’s only dark.

There’s more in it than you’re inclined to say.

Did he look like——?”

“He looked like anyone.

I’ll never rest to-night unless I know.

Give me the lantern.”

“You don’t want the lantern.”

She pushed past him and got it for herself.

“You’re not to come,” she said. “This is my business.

If the time’s come to face it, I’m the one

To put it the right way. He’d never dare—

Listen! He kicked a stone. Hear that, hear that!

He’s coming towards us. Joel, go in—please.

Hark!—I don’t hear him now. But please go in.”

“In the first place you can’t make me believe it’s——”

“It is—or someone else he’s sent to watch.

And now’s the time to have it out with him

While we know definitely where he is.

Let him get off and he’ll be everywhere

Around us, looking out of trees and bushes

Till I sha’n’t dare to set a foot outdoors.

And I can’t stand it. Joel, let me go!”

“But it’s nonsense to think he’d care enough.”

“You mean you couldn’t understand his caring.

Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough—

Joel, I won’t—I won’t—I promise you.

We mustn’t say hard things. You mustn’t either.”

“I’ll be the one, if anybody goes!

But you give him the advantage with this light.

What couldn’t he do to us standing here!

And if to see was what he wanted, why

He has seen all there was to see and gone.”

He appeared to forget to keep his hold,

But advanced with her as she crossed the grass.

“What do you want?” she cried to all the dark.

She stretched up tall to overlook the light

That hung in both hands hot against her skirt.

“There’s no one; so you’re wrong,” he said.

“There is.—

What do you want?” she cried, and then herself

Was startled when an answer really came.

“Nothing.” It came from well along the road.

She reached a hand to Joel for support:

The smell of scorching woollen made her faint.

“What are you doing round this house at night?”

“Nothing.” A pause: there seemed no more to say.

And then the voice again: “You seem afraid.

I saw by the way you whipped up the horse.

I’ll just come forward in the lantern light

And let you see.”

“Yes, do.—Joel, go back!”

She stood her ground against the noisy steps

That came on, but her body rocked a little.

“You see,” the voice said.

“Oh.” She looked and looked.

“You don’t see—I’ve a child here by the hand.”

“What’s a child doing at this time of night——?”

“Out walking. Every child should have the memory

Of at least one long-after-bedtime walk.

What, son?”

“Then I should think you’d try to find

Somewhere to walk——”

“The highway as it happens—

We’re stopping for the fortnight down at Dean’s.”

“But if that’s all—Joel—you realize—

You won’t think anything. You understand?

You understand that we have to be careful.

This is a very, very lonely place.

Joel!” She spoke as if she couldn’t turn.

The swinging lantern lengthened to the ground,

It touched, it struck it, clattered and went out.