Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 672
The next morning, Ethan goes out early to work at the mill. He reflects on the night before and contrasts the sight of Mattie Silver in the glow of the lamplight with the sight of his wife—teeth in a glass near the bed, a flannel wrapped around her head, her raspy breathing, and her back turned ever toward him. He wonders why he did not kiss Mattie last night in the moonlight and thinks about the changes in Mattie since her arrival. Unlike most people in Starkfield, who grow more colorless and cold, Mattie has come alive and gained color since she has been here. Despite the austerity of her circumstances, she seems content. Perhaps, Ethan reflects, that is because of her family trials. Her father was involved in illegal financial activities that were discovered only after his lavish funeral. Her mother died of shame shortly thereafter, leaving a twenty-year-old Mattie at the mercy of her rather pitiless family. She had fifty dollars from the sale of her piano but was dependent on others for her livelihood. Her attempts to support herself as a stenographer, a bookkeeper, and a clerk caused her to become sick, and family members who had invested in her father’s illicit dealings and lost money soon wanted her out of their lives. Mattie came to her cousin Zenobia as a kind of “indentured servant,” her only skills being such impractical things as trimming a hat and playing the piano. Zeena was skeptical, but her doctor had told her she needed help around the house. Because she would cost them virtually nothing, Zeena allowed Mattie to come.
The first days were awful for both Mattie and Ethan because Zeena’s constant fault finding created tension in the small home. As Zeena began to concentrate on her own supposed ailments, though, things became more peaceful. As he reflects on the incident the night before, however, Ethan has an uneasy feeling that the peacefulness may be coming to an end. In an attempt to avoid finding out, Ethan plans to send their hired man, Jotham, back to the farm and drive the lumber into town himself later in the day.
When he finally returns to the house, he is surprised to find Zeena in her best clothes and traveling bonnet, her suitcase at her feet. Zeena tells him she plans to spend the night in Bettsbridge with her aunt to see the new doctor there in the morning. Ethan is aware that this, like so many similar trips before, is likely to result in more medicines and more cost to him. She anticipates a protest and explains she can no longer bear the pain and would even walk to the station if she were able, but surely he can spare Jotham to drive her to the station. Ethan calculates that she could not be back any earlier than the following evening. He interrupts her to say that Jotham can certainly take her to the station. As she continues to talk to him, he looks across the table at Mattie and compares her to Zeena. At thirty-five years old (seven years older than Ethan), Zeena is “already an old woman.”
Ethan tries to participate in the conversation but he only wonders if Mattie is also thinking about a night without Zeena between them. He feels the need to explain that Jotham must take her so he can take the lumber into town himself and collect the money. As soon as he says this, however, Ethan regrets it for two reasons. First, he is not going to collect any money for the lumber because that is not the agreement he has with Hale. Second, letting Zeena know he has money is certain to empower her to purchase more unnecessary medical remedies for her supposed ailments. Zeena seems not to hear. She takes a last draught of medicine from a bottle and hands it to Mattie, telling her it will do for pickles if she can get the taste out of it.