Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756
The dancers leave the church and prepare to walk or get into their sleighs for the journey home. When someone asks Mattie if she is riding home, Ethan anxiously awaits her reply. She laughs and says of course she will be walking; Ethan steps further back into the shadows, suddenly reticent in Mattie’s presence. She looks around expectantly, but still Ethan does not make his presence known to her. Dennis Eady begins some flirtatious banter with Mattie and then offers her a ride home in his father’s sleigh. She appears to hesitate a bit, though she is no longer looking around her expectantly. Eady brings the sleigh near and throws back the rug for her, but Mattie darts off and tells him to have a nice ride home. He follows her, gets out, and tries to coax her into the sleigh, but she is not interested and will not go. Eady rides off alone and Ethan finally makes his presence known, startling Mattie with his proximity.
Mattie had assumed Ethan could not come because Zeena had not been feeling well that day, and she was prepared to walk home alone. Ethan draws her arm through his (which Dennis Eady had tried unsuccessfully to do) and imagines a slight pressure in the gesture. He wants to prolong these moments alone with Mattie, but they begin their walk home. She pauses near a coasting hill and tells Ethan people had been sledding there earlier. Ethan asks if she would like to go coasting with him sometime. Mattie eagerly says yes, even though a young couple (Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum) had nearly crashed into a giant elm at the bottom of the run. Mattie tells Ethan she is not easily frightened. Ethan assures her he could get her down the hill safely, and perhaps they would go coasting tomorrow.
Ethan is not free to express his feelings for her openly, so he is tortured by every word and tone Mattie speaks, trying to find meaning and discover feelings. Ethan starts a floundering conversation about Mattie and Dennis Eady, trying to determine if she has feelings for him as Zeena has suggested. Rather than comment on Eady, Mattie says she is dismayed that she does not seem to suit Zeena. Her housework is not good, she explains, but she will try to do better. When she fears that Ethan might want her to leave, too, Mattie begins to cry. Unable to express his feelings to her, Ethan keeps them walking in the moonlight until they reach the gate of his house. When he asks Mattie if she wants to leave, she asks her own question: “Where’d I go, if I did?”
As they pass through the gate, Ethan notices the tombstones of long-dead relatives “slanted at crazy angles” in the moonlight. At times they seem to taunt him with the thought that he would be joining them one day soon; they never got away and neither would he. But now Ethan has no desire to be anywhere but here, so the stones symbolize a stability he appreciates. His vision of the future goes so far as to place Mattie in a grave next to his own one day.
As they walk around to the front door, Ethan has a vision of a dead Zeena—then an unappealing live Zeena. He begins to speak but has no words. As he reaches under the mat for the key, Ethan is surprised to find it is not there as it has always been on these journeys. He has the sudden hopeful idea that vagabonds have gotten into the house and done Zeena harm, but this is dispelled when Zeena opens the door. She looks haggard and worn in a sharp contrast to Mattie’s youthful exuberance. As she lets them in, Ethan jokes that she must have forgotten about them. Zeena replies, “No. I just felt so mean I couldn’t sleep.” Mattie rushes forward to offer some kind of help, but Zeena brushes her aside and prepares to mount the stairs. The two bedrooms are across the hall from each other, and tonight Ethan is repelled by the thought of having Mattie see him follow Zeena docilely up the stairs and into their room. He makes an excuse to stay downstairs; however, Zeena points out how cold it will be without a fire. Ethan and Mattie exchange looks, and Mattie heads up the stairs ahead of Zeena. Hanging his head in shame, Ethan follows Zeena to their room.
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