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As the dancers leave the hall, Ethan draws back into the shadows to watch and listen. A woman asks if Mattie will ride home, and she says no. Ethan anticipates being able to see Mattie and pulls farther into the shadows to watch. Mattie, lively and outgoing, has helped to pull Ethan out of his shell, but at the moment he is as withdrawn as during his student days.
Mattie comes out and pauses, looking uncertainly into the night. Denis Eady comes close to her and teases her about her missing gentleman friend; he then offers to drive her home himself. Ethan listens incredulously and watches as Mattie wavers. As Denis unhitches his horse and climbs in the cutter, Mattie runs up the hill away from him, calling good-bye. Denis, however, won't give up yet. As he dashes for her, she laughs and says no again; Denis then jumps out to grab her. Ethan hears the sleigh bells departing. He then makes out a lone female figure on the expanse of snow before the church. Ethan catches up with Mattie and surprises her. He wants to know if she has thought he has forgotten her. Mattie replies that she knows Zeena has been very sick, and that she thought he had been kept at home. She also adds that she is not afraid to walk home alone.
Ethan wants to know why she didn't ride with Denis Eady. Mattie is surprised at his questions and wonders how he knows. Ethan laughs, thinking he has done something clever by hiding. He then takes Mattie's arm and says, "Come along." Mattie moves forward onto the slope, which is scarred by the runners of sleds. She wistfully says that earlier there were lots of coasters. Ethan asks if she would like to coast with him one evening. She eagerly gives a positive response, and Ethan promises they will come back tomorrow.
Mattie tells him that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, so in love and so happy, nearly ran into the big elm tree at the bottom of the slope and died. Ethan promises that he is better at steering than Ned Hale. He knows he is "talking big," but he is happy. Mattie says the elm tree should be cut down, for it is too dangerous. Ethan asks, "Would you be afraid of it with me?" Mattie assures him that she "ain't the kind to be afraid." She then walks ahead rapidly.
Ethan knows he has no right to show his feelings, but the despair and joy he feels with Mattie rule his life. At the moment he is dipping towards despair as he and Mattie walk in silence. Finally Ethan tells her that she would have seen him if she had not danced the last dance with Denis, a name that Ethan has trouble saying. Mattie is bewildered by Ethan's talk until he explains that the townsfolk say she will be leaving soon. Mattie quickly realizes that this means Zeena is not happy with her. The two slip apart and stand motionless. Mattie then makes a short speech about how she knows Zeena is not always happy with her work, but never tells her what is wrong. Mattie wants to do better and be appreciated. Her momentary anger flashes at Ethan, and she accuses him of wanting her to leave as well.
Ethan tells Mattie he never wants her to go and struggles for a word to express his happiness with. The words do not form, so he again says, "Come along." They walk into the still landscape in silence, but Mattie huddles closer to him when a fox barks. When they near the trees at Ethan's gate, he asks her if she wants to leave. She says she has nowhere to go. Again, Ethan is pleased, but also pained. He hugs her, and she tries not to cry. They walk in the gate and pass the Frome graveyard, where the headstones always seem to mock him for his one-time effort to get away. Ethan shivers at the thought that he will live dully in Starkfield until he joins his ancestors in the grave. With Mattie at his side, however, change no longer seems so necessary. He turns to Mattie and tells her that they will never let her go. Ethan then imagines he and Mattie buried together in the graveyard some day.
As they climb up to the house, Mattie trips, and Ethan puts his arm around her. He feels like he is floating on a "summer stream." When they arrive, the house is dark, which means Zeena is in bed. Ethan briefly imagines that the dead cucumber vine near the door is actually a funeral wreath, and that if Zeena were only--. He is then struck by the vision of his wife in bed with her false teeth in a glass by her side.
Ethan and Mattie walk around the back to where Zeena usually leaves a key. He is just about to speak to her when he realizes that the key is not there, a situation that has never happened before. It is not like Zeena to forget anything. Ethan wonders if it has fallen in the snow or if tramps have come along and broken in. When Ethan lights a match to search the snow, he realizes there is a light on in the house. Then the door opens to reveal Zeena. She holds her lamp high, so the hollows and points of her face are noticeable; it is a completely different face than Mattie's smooth one. Ethan feels that he has seen his wife for the first time.
When Zeena steps aside silently, Ethan and Mattie walk into the chilly house. Ethan tries to joke with Zeena, but she does not respond; she says she was feeling too mean to sleep. Mattie asks if there is something she can do, but Zeena responds in the negative. She then reprimands Ethan for shaking snow off his boots indoors. Zeena lights the way upstairs, but Ethan does not want to go. Zeena stares after him with the flame of her lamp again showing the cruel contours of her face. Ethan moves away and glances at Mattie quickly. He thinks he sees a "fugitive warning" in her eyes, which she lowers as she follows Zeena upstairs. Now that he is alone, Ethan finds that the house is too cold and reluctantly follows his wife to their room.