Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
After Zeena leaves, Ethan bids Mattie a cheery farewell and heads off to cart the load of lumber to town. While the kitchen is not a particularly welcoming place, the thought of Zeena being out of it gives it a more cheerful aspect in Ethan’s mind. He envisions himself and Mattie as a comfortable married couple this evening, sitting by the fire in cozy companionship. His fears about Zeena causing trouble have evaporated, and Ethan anticipates the evening ahead.
He used to be a more sociable man, but each year back in Starkfield after his time away seemed to deepen his solitude and silence. Working the farm after his father’s death has been difficult and leaves him little time or energy for nonessential things. Once his mother began losing touch with reality, the silence deepened. Only when his cousin Zenobia came to help nurse his mother did Ethan feel the awakening of a “slumbering spark of sociability.” With the practical and efficient Zeena to manage the house and his mother, Ethan had a weight lifted from his shoulders.
After his mother died and Zeena was preparing to leave, Ethan felt a desperate need not to be left alone and asked her to stay. Upon reflection, if it had not been winter when his mother died, Ethan is sure he would not have been so weak. Ethan had always wanted to live in a city and be an engineer, so now that he was free to leave that was his dream. What he discovered during the time he was trying unsuccessfully to sell the farm was that Zeena could not be moved. She could only be content in a town small enough for her to despise; she could not bear to be in a place that might despise her. Within a year of their marriage, Zeena became chronically sickly; it was then Ethan realized her nursing skills came from her own experience. He often wondered if his wife was turning queer like his mother, for she had a furtiveness about her that Ethan found disconcerting.
As he takes the lumber to town, his fears about Zeena subside; his only worry now is the matter of getting the money he claimed he would get. When he arrives at Andrew Hale’s place, he is greeted warmly. Ethan does eventually ask, rather shamefacedly, for an advance of fifty dollars, though it is against their usual arrangement of payment every three months. If he had pleaded some kind of urgency, perhaps he would have gotten the funds; however, Ethan has no desire for Hale or anyone else in town to think he is struggling more than he already is, so he does not press the issue and leaves with nothing.
On his way out of town, Ethan sees Ned Hale steal a kiss from Ruth Varnum, and he sees Dennis Eady heading out in his sleigh. Immediately Ethan jealously assumes Eady has found out that Zeena is gone and is going to court Mattie; he listens for the sound of sleigh bells all the way home. Again he ponders the family cemetery, thinking about how long living together for fifty years used to sound, “but now it seemed to him that they might pass in a flash.” As he walks into the kitchen he does not see the one he is looking for; as he moves into the house, he sees her in much the same position as he had seen Zeena the night before. But Mattie is not brown and old and worn; she is lustrous and alive. She has set the table carefully with a meal of doughnuts, blueberries, and pickles. The cat is drowsing by the glowing fire. Ethan is “suffocated with a sense of well-being.” After washing for dinner, Ethan asks Mattie if she has had any visitors since he left. When she answers yes, Ethan prepares himself for the worst. Jotham had come back after delivering Zeena at the station, and Ethan is relieved. As they sit down to eat, the cat jumps between them and settles on Zeena’s chair, and Ethan feels almost as if Zeena were watching them even in her absence. Ethan is having difficulty conversing but Mattie seems comfortable and confident. The cat gets up and walks across the table, headed for the milk jar. Both Ethan and Mattie reach for the jar and their hands touch. Ethan keeps his hand over hers just a moment longer than he needs to, and the cat takes the opportunity to retreat, knocking over the pickle dish while doing so.
Ethan good-naturedly stoops to clean up the pickles, but Mattie is in distress. She is afraid of what Zeena will say about this particular dish being broken. It was kept in the back of the cupboard, and Zeena never intended it to be used. Ethan tells her he will replace it tomorrow, but Mattie tells him it was a wedding gift from Philadelphia, which is why Zeena never used it. She begins to cry, and Ethan feels that their evening has crashed into pieces just like the dish. In an effort to regain control of the situation, Ethan picks up the pieces of glass and reconstructs the dish in the cupboard in such a way that the casual observer would never notice the breakage. He will glue it tomorrow and that will be the end of the matter. He has taken charge of this evening, and Mattie comes back to the table. Ethan feels powerful and in charge, like when he is steering a sled down the hill.