Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
When he arrives home, Zeena is reading a medical book and Mattie is upstairs sitting on her trunk in her bare room and crying. She stops when she sees Ethan and explains she thought he had left without saying good-bye. They share a short-lived moment of raw emotion and then work Mattie’s trunk around the corner and down the stairs. The trunk is sent to the station on another sleigh, and they sit down to one last meal. Clearly Zeena wants Jotham to take Mattie to the station, but Ethan insists. Zeena claims he must fix the furnace in the new girl’s room; Ethan declares that if it was good enough for Mattie it will certainly be good enough for the new girl. He leaves to go get the sleigh ready for this last ride.
When he returns he finds Mattie in his study. Zeena has gone to her room and does not intend to come back down to say good-bye. The two leave gleefully with time for a lovely ride before the train departs. Ethan takes them on a drive past places filled with memories of their time together, including a church picnic during which Mattie made Ethan feel more alive than he had ever felt before. Mattie tells him they must leave, but Ethan will not be rushed and finally asks her what she will do once she leaves. She says she may try to get a job in a store, but Ethan knows she is not strong enough for such work, despite her protests that she is stronger now than when she came. In dismay, Ethan wishes he could go with her. Mattie understands; she read the letter he started to write to Zeena. They talk tearfully about the future, and Ethan says she will probably get married. Mattie says she would rather be dead, and Ethan says he almost would prefer that. Soon they regain their senses and continue their drive.
They stop near the coasting hill, and they see and hear delighted children sledding. Ethan convinces Mattie to go for a ride with him. Though the light is growing dim, Ethan takes his place behind Mattie on a borrowed sled and steers them confidently down the hill. It is an exhilarating experience for both of them, and Ethan boasts again that he has always been able to “measure distances to a hair’s-breadth—always could.” As they pause in the sheltered spot in which Ethan caught Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing, they share a last desperate moment together. Their situation is hopeless. Then Mattie has an idea. She wants them to sled down the hill again, only this time so “we’ll never come up any more.” At first Ethan protests, but the vision of his loveless and desperate life along with the trembling and sobbing woman in front of him help change his mind.
Mattie takes her seat in the front of the sled, but Ethan insists they trade places. Mattie does not realize that Ethan is trying to spare her the worst of the crash. At the last moment Ethan hesitates, but the alternative is too grim to consider. He hears the whinny of his nearby horse and then they begin their “delirious descent.” They are heading directly for the big elm at the bottom, Mattie clinging fiercely to Ethan. Suddenly he sees the image of Zeena’s face in front of him, and he swerves. Though he corrects their path, it is not enough to reach their goal.
After a time, Ethan finds himself sprawled in the snow. He hears a slight whimpering, like the sound of a wounded animal. He feels around, hoping to find the source and offer some comfort to the poor creature, only to find that the sound is coming from Mattie. She briefly opens her eyes and speaks his name. Ethan tells her he thought they had done it. The last thing he hears is the whinny of his horse.