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The next morning Ethan goes out to do some hauling. In the clear morning air, he does his clearest thinking. The night before, Zeena had taken her medicine and wrapped her head and lay down facing away from Ethan without a word. Ethan had quickly undressed and blown out the light, so he could not see Zeena, but could listen to Mattie in her room. He watched the small ray of light from her room disappear, and then lay listening to Zeena's labored breathing. He wonders why he did not kiss Mattie, out in the night and snow, when he had a chance.
In the bright morning air, Mattie's face is still before him. Then he remembers how she arrived the winter before--thin, colorless, shivering. He was afraid she would not withstand the hard winter, but she never complained. Zeena had pointed out that Mattie had little choice, but Ethan doesn't think so. Mattie's father was Zeena's cousin, a man with high hopes and a Stamford wife whose father had a drug business. Mattie's father took over the father-in- law's business, but never made it a success. At his death, his accounts were left in a mess, and his wife and daughter were poverty-stricken. His wife died shortly thereafter, and Mattie, at age twenty, was left an orphan.
Mattie, who had very limited skills, tried bookkeeping, sales, and stenography, but her health broke down. Since her nearest relations had lost their savings by putting their cash into her father's hands, they felt no responsibility toward the daughter. As a result, Mattie came to the Frome farm to help with Zeena and the chores. From the beginning, Zeena found fault with her cousin and often complained. Ethan has hoped and feared that Mattie would one day defy Zeena.
Ethan then thinks about the previous night. The scene with Denis Eady and then with Zeena has given him a feeling of foreboding and dread. Although he has planned to drive his team to town with a load of logs, he decides to stay at home. Ethan and Jotham, the hired man, go back to the house. As they enter, Ethan notices that his wife is dressed for town and has her bags packed. Ethan asks her where she going. She matter-of-factly explains that she is going to stay with her aunt in Bettsbridge and see a new doctor. She has done this before, packed off to see a new doctor, and Ethan always dreads the extra expense of the doctor and the expensive remedies. But Ethan is joyous at the prospect of spending a night alone in the house with Mattie and looks at her longingly; he wonders if she is thinking the same thing. When he turns his gaze to Zeena, it strikes him that she is already an old woman, even though she is only thirty-five and seven years older than he.
Ethan tells his wife that he cannot drive her, for he must go to Hale's place to collect the cash for some lumber. He immediately regrets his words, because he knows that Zeena will want to spend the money on her illnesses. Zeena makes no reply. She goes to take the medicine she has measured out for herself at the kitchen table, even though she says it doesn't do any good. In the end, Jotham, the hired hand, drives her to the Flats.
Chapter 3 is relatively short and emphasizes Ethan's thought process. He thinks about Mattie constantly, regrets that he did not kiss her the previous evening, engages in fantasy about her, and is overjoyed with the idea of Zeena being away from home for a night. He is sure, given the chance, he could be forever happy with Mattie.
The chapter also gives information about Mattie's circumstances. She has come to the Fromes because she has been orphaned and is destitute. She struggles on the farm because she was not raised in the country and does not know how to do manual labor. In spite of her plight, Mattie is a happy and cheerful person. In contrast, Zeena is further developed as a mean-spirited older woman. She is portrayed as conniving, whiny, and unsympathetic to her husband's financial constraints. Her only concern is her own ailments.
The chapter introduces a small element of suspense. Since Zeena is going away and Ethan will be alone with Mattie, the reader is made to wonder what will happen between them.