Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090
After hanging up his wet garments, Ethan calls upstairs to Zeena; when she does not answer, he makes his way to their bedroom. He finds her sitting rigidly by the window, still in her traveling clothes. This is the pattern after such a trip, and Ethan is not surprised when she says she does not think she can eat any dinner. This time, however, after making this statement she does not immediately make her way to the table. “I’m a great deal sicker than you think,” she tells her husband. With a great sigh, she announces she has “complications”—a dire pronouncement that leaves Ethan with mixed feelings. He makes a tactical error by questioning the wisdom of this new doctor, to which Zeena reacts sharply. She tells Ethan everyone can see she is getting worse and that everyone she knows who has seen this doctor is now well. With as much sympathy as he can muster, Ethan tells her he is glad she might feel better soon and that she must do whatever the doctor tells her to do. In a sly manner, Zeena tells him she intends to do just that. Ethan’s worst fear is the potential expense, and he asks what the doctor recommended she do. Her answer is that she must have a hired girl so she does not have to do even one thing around the house. Ethan is stunned into silence, and she continues with the news that her aunt has found one for her—and she promised an extra dollar to ensure the girl’s speedy arrival by noon tomorrow.
Ethan is angry that she made such plans without consulting him and is dismayed at the prospect of this new, continued drain on his scant resources. The argument escalates, and Zeena finally claims she lost her health while nursing his mother. Ethan is outraged at the thought and they continue the argument “like serpents shooting venom.” Eventually Ethan lights a candle and they speak more calmly; he explains they simply do not have the money for a hired girl. Zeena responds that she can no longer keep slaving away and he might as well send her to the poorhouse—where other Fromes have been before now, she supposes. Ethan ignores the thrust and tells her there is just no money. Quietly, Zeena asks about the fifty dollars he got from Andrew Hale. After Ethan stammers something about a misunderstanding, Zeena’s tone changes and he grows momentarily hopeful. Ethan assures her that he and Mattie will do more, but Zeena interrupts him to casually state that at least they will not have the expense of keeping Mattie, but he is only half listening and has already started for the kitchen when her words strike him. He asks what she means, and Zeena laughs (a foreign sound for her) and says now she knows why he was so worried. He obviously did not understand that Mattie would be leaving, that it is someone else’s turn to take the “pauper.” Just then Mattie calls them to dinner.
After a moment’s hesitation, Zeena calls out to say she will not be coming down to supper. When Mattie offers to bring something up to her, Ethan tells her not to worry about it and he will be down shortly. Ethan appeals to Zeena’s sense of right and wrong, saying she cannot send her cousin away with nowhere to go and no money to live; he asks what others would say if she did so. After a significant pause, Zeena says she knows what people are saying about her having kept Mattie in...
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her house this long. This cuts Ethan and leaves him powerless to fight for his wife’s cousin without revealing his true feelings for Mattie—and Zeena knows it. Ethan never loved Zenobia, but now he loathes her. Until now he has managed to stay indifferent, but now he knows she is going to take away the one thing that matters most to him, and he can hardly believe it.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Mattie is innocently unaware of the plans that have been made and anticipates a pleasant dinner just like the one they shared the evening before. Ethan begins to eat but is unable to hide his disgust and dismay. Mattie runs to him, and he folds her in his arms and kisses her. When she pulls back, he tells her he will not let her go. She understands Zeena’s resolve on such matters and contemplates a future away from this place. Both are in despair. Ethan bravely vows to have his way on this matter, but they both know that Mattie’s fate has been sealed.
Zeena appears. She has changed clothes and claims she has to keep her strength up, according to the doctor. After the familiar adjusting of her teeth, Zeena helps herself to a great slab of the meat pie Mattie prepared and settles in to eat. The other two are unable to eat, but Zeena is in fine storytelling form and regales them with stories of her family and her journey. After she finishes her meal, Zeena criticizes Mattie’s cooking and claims she must take some stomach powders to offset the heartburn from the “heavy” pie. Mattie offers to get them, but Zeena tells her they are in a secret place and goes to get them. The remaining pair is miserable and slow to move. A devastated Zeena returns, holding the broken pickle dish in her hands.
When she asks who is responsible for the broken dish, neither Ethan nor Mattie answers. Zeena is near tears as she explains she only keeps things that matter very much to her far back in that cupboard. Even when she does spring cleaning, she is careful to lift it with both hands so it will not get broken. Zeena asks again who broke the dish, and Ethan finally answers. He tells her the cat broke it. Zeena is incredulous and wonders how a cat got into the cupboard and broke this one item. Mattie finally speaks, admitting she got it down to use for supper to make the table look pretty. Zeena calls Mattie “a bad girl,” accuses her of trying to steal something from her while she was away, and bursts again into tears. As she walks away with the broken glass in her hand, she taunts Mattie by saying this would not have happened if she had not kept her so long.