Directly following her outburst over the broken dish, Zeena retires upstairs to bed, and a shaken Mattie continues to clear up the kitchen. Ethan makes his usual rounds outside the house and returns to find the kitchen empty. His tobacco pouch and pipe have been laid out on the table next to a brief note in Mattie’s handwriting telling him not to worry. Retreating into his makeshift study, Ethan contemplates the note over and over again, pondering a way out of his unbearable situation.
Flinging aside in disgust a handmade cushion of Zeena’s, Ethan mentally reviews the case of a local man who had deserted his wife in favor of the woman he loved. Encouraged by this precedent, Ethan resolves to run away with Mattie, and he prepares to write a letter of farewell to Zeena, leaving her the farm and the mill. But Ethan pauses at the prospect of starting over without any money, and he pictures the grim situation in which Zeena will be left. Slowly, he comes to the bitter recognition of his plan’s impracticality, and he crumples back to the sofa in tears, falling asleep beneath the light of a large moon in the beautiful winter night sky.
Ethan wakes up cold, stiff, and hungry, and rises in the knowledge that this will be Mattie’s last day beneath his roof. As he stands alone in his study, he hears a step behind him and turns around to see Mattie, full of concern for his well-being after having listened all night for his return upstairs. Ethan, overwhelmed by her show of caring, lights the kitchen fire for her, and, as they sit down to a breakfast of leftovers, they decide not to worry about Zeena’s threats. Ethan heads out to the cow barn, where he encounters Powell. When Powell presses to secure the details for the new hired girl’s arrival and Mattie’s departure, Ethan responds by saying that the matter of Mattie’s dismissal is itself still unresolved. Powell reacts indifferently to this piece of news.
Back in the kitchen, the men enter to find Mattie and Zeena seated at a full breakfast table. Zeena eats heartily, feeds scraps to the cat, and discusses departure and arrival times with Powell. She then endeavors to settle a few final matters with Mattie, as Ethan looks on wordlessly.
After finishing his morning tasks, Ethan tells Powell that he is heading into town and that they should not wait for him to have dinner. Frantically searching for a solution, Ethan decides again to ask Andrew Hale for the advance on the lumber, feeling that Hale would relent if he thought that the money would make a difference in Zeena’s health. With the money, Ethan decides, he will be able to run away with Mattie and start a new life elsewhere. Aiming to intercept Hale before he departs for work, Ethan runs quickly down the hill, and spots the Hale wagon in the distance. Arriving at its side, he finds not Hale but Hale’s wife in the sleigh. She informs him that Hale is resting at home for the morning, and she speaks kindly to him about his fortitude in caring for Zeena before she goes on.
Mrs. Hale’s compassionate words encourage Ethan in his errand: if the Hales feel so sympathetic toward him, he thinks, surely they will advance him the cash. But after a few paces, Ethan’s conscience catches up with his fantasies, and he realizes the extent of the deception in which he is prepared to engage. With his ethics now gaining dominance over his passions, Ethan slowly turns around and heads back to the farm.