Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp.
As the dance ends, Ethan first hears and then sees Mattie emerge, but he shrinks back in the shadows to avoid initiating contact. The crowd thins out rapidly, and Mattie is left wondering what has kept Ethan from coming to meet her. As Mattie stands alone, Eady approaches, offering to take her for a ride in his father’s cutter (a light sleigh drawn by a horse). Ethan, still hanging back, observes Mattie seeming to waver, and wonders whether she will go with Eady or refuse his attentions. After unhitching the horse from its post and setting the cutter in motion, Eady confidently calls out to Mattie to hop in. She politely declines. When Eady attempts to pick her up by linking arms with her, she draws away gracefully. As Frome listens to the bells of the cutter fade away in the distance, he sees Mattie’s shadow walking alone up the hill toward the silent snow bank.
Ethan quickly closes in on Mattie, surprising her with his presence when he catches up to her amidst the Varnums’ spruce trees. She is genuinely caught off guard by his trick and lets out a peal of laughter that thrills Ethan. They link arms together and look at the “coasting hill,” where people go sledding. Ethan says they can sled there the following night if the moon is out. Mattie mentions that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, a young engaged couple, nearly collided with the big elm at the bottom of the hill when they were sledding. “We were all sure they were killed,” she says with a shudder.
Beginning the hike home, Ethan continues to wonder about Mattie’s feelings toward Eady and decides to press the issue by needling Mattie about her behavior at the dance. But his roundabout fashion of pursuing the conversation only leads Mattie to believe that Ethan’s wife, Zeena, is on the verge of dismissing her. Mattie wonders if Ethan himself is similarly inclined, although dismissal of Mattie is the furthest thing from Ethan’s mind. Left at an impasse, the couple drops the subject wordlessly, and Ethan and Mattie continue on their way.
At the Frome gate, Ethan attempts to reassure Mattie, and the companions then draw together as they ascend the hill. Ethan, meditating on the prospect of being with Mattie always, puts his arm decidedly around her for the first time. At the back door of the dark house, Ethan searches for the key that Zeena usually leaves out for them, but he finds nothing. When Ethan kneels down for a more thorough search, he spies a faint ray of light behind the door. The door then opens to reveal Zeena, a sickly, complaining woman. Zeena explains that she was unable to sleep on account of her poor health, and she brings her lamp around to the stairs to light the way up. Ethan declares that he will be staying downstairs for a while, as he has some accounts to review. When Zeena dismisses the idea as a foolish one, he submissively follows her and Mattie upstairs, retiring into the bedroom with his wife.
In Mattie, Ethan finds a somewhat mystical kinship—the text compares Ethan’s infatuation with his wife’s cousin to the “shock of silent joy” that he feels when he contemplates the beauties of nature. Given his sensitivity to place, it is no surprise that Ethan feels especially energized during his nighttime walks home from town with Mattie. During these moments, Ethan feels most strongly the “sweetness” of the connection between them.
Standing between Ethan and Mattie is the ailing Zeena, another character whom Wharton reveals only by hints and degrees. An early passage describes Zeena as having sharp and suspicious eyes, and although the conversation that Ethan remembers as he stands outside the church (summarized in the previous section) seems harmless, Zeena’s words resonate with hidden insight. For instance, when Zeena states to Ethan that the doctor thinks she shouldn’t be left alone, it seems that she is arguing the necessity of a housekeeper, but underlying this remark is Zeena’s sense that Ethan and Mattie could run off together. Just when we are sure that Zeena’s sole concern is the possibility of Mattie leaving, she makes a caustic remark about the fact that since Mattie’s arrival, Ethan has taken to shaving every day. This remark also seems to belie Zeena’s well-founded suspicion of an intrigue between her husband and her cousin, as does her evening vigil.
Wharton’s caricature-like depiction of Zeena makes her seem like an old woman who possesses neither beauty nor kindness. Juxtaposed with Mattie, Zeena serves as a foil (a character whose attitudes or emotions contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character), highlighting Mattie’s vigor. Mattie seems to embody health, with her vibrant scarf and her last name, Silver, which suggests brightness. Zeena, on the other hand, speaks in a “flat whine,” and when she appears at the doorway to greet Ethan, Wharton dwells on her “flat breast,” “puckered throat,” and the “hollows and prominences” of her face. The contest for Ethan’s heart is no contest at all—Mattie seems to be Ethan’s soul-mate, Zeena a nagging, hypochondriacal shrew.
Because the reader already knows, by the time the narrator meets Ethan, that Ethan is disfigured, a mood of foreboding hangs over the story. The “throng of disregarded hints and menaces” that crowd Ethan’s mind at the dance foreshadows the impending danger. The conversation about the sledding hill, with its mention of the potentially deadly elm, also constitutes a deliberate and obvious foreshadowing of later events.