They finish their first run smoothly, though they narrowly miss the elm that stands at the foot of the first slope. As they climb back up the hill together, Ethan is struck with the thought that these are their last moments in each other’s company. At the top of the hill, Mattie breathlessly asks Ethan if this was the same place where he once saw Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kiss each other, and she embraces him in a kiss of their own. As they say their goodbyes—still refusing to accept them as goodbyes—and kiss again, the church clock strikes five. Unable to bear the prospect of parting from Ethan, Mattie solemnly requests that Ethan steer the sled so they coast directly into the elm tree and die together. Ethan’s initial astonishment quickly gives way to his own desire to escape a future without Mattie. Locked in a lover’s embrace once again, Ethan holds Mattie close and feels her sobbing, as the train whistle sounds.
The two pile onto the sled together, with Ethan sitting in front, and Ethan sets the sled into its fatal motion. As they hurtle down the hill, Ethan feels confident that they will hit the tree, but at the last moment he swerves unexpectedly, as he seems to see Zeena’s malignant face before him. The sled glides off in a second of uncertainty before he rights it on its course again. They then hit the elm.
Ethan, dazed from the impact, hears the faint noises of what he takes to be a small animal in pain, and he makes a weakened effort to attend to it. After removing a heavy mass from on top of him, he reaches out to feel what he discovers to be Mattie’s hair and face. Rising to his knees, he bends down toward Mattie’s face, seeing her eyes open and hearing her utter his name. He moans softly back to her. Hearing his horse whinny at the top of the hill, he is brought back to the world and the duties that face him there.
From the beginning of this chapter the sense of despair and desperation begins to mount, with time running out for Ethan and Mattie. In this somber mood, the sense of unavoidable doom grows, and the narrative builds up to its dramatic climax. In his emotional strain, Ethan finds himself seemingly guided by the invisible force of destiny: Wharton describes him feeling as though his heart were tied with cords being tightened by the hand of fate. Due to this “unseen hand,” Ethan relinquishes responsibility for his own actions, pursuing his errand with Mattie as though directed by a greater force. In a heartbeat, Ethan’s notions of ethical responsibility have dissipated, and his entire sense of accountability vanishes along with it.
The dynamics between Mattie and Ethan change subtly now as Mattie, for the first time in the book, seizes the initiative in their interactions: she takes the bold step of revealing her knowledge of Ethan’s forsaken plan to elope with her and the even bolder step of confessing her own longtime love for Ethan. Yet the declaration brings no real happiness: now that we know that Ethan’s passion is not one-sided, Mattie’s imminent departure takes on an infinitely more tragic dimension. At the same time, Mattie’s daring seems to bring out a dangerously reckless quality in Ethan, as he gives in to a sudden impulse and proposes the sledding adventure.
In light of the book’s final circumstances, Ethan’s inner thoughts in this scene create a sense of bitter irony. Poised at the top of the hill for their first run, Ethan’s playful reassurance to Mattie that he could go down the hill with his eyes closed foreshadows their impending deliberate crash. Moreover, Ethan’s wish to keep Mattie with him forever will attain a terrible form of realization when Mattie is paralyzed in the ensuing crash and forced to stay with the Fromes indefinitely. Similarly, Ethan’s thought that their ascent up the hill will be the last time they walk together also bears a grave dramatic irony: they will never walk together again, as it turns out, not because Mattie is leaving him, but because she will soon be unable to walk at all.