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Mattie clears up the dinner table, and Ethan takes a look at his cows and his farm in the falling night. When he returns to the kitchen, he expects that he and Mattie will sit by the fire and talk. He gets his pipe out and settles into a world of comfort and harmony, except that he cannot see Mattie from where he is sitting. He calls and asks her to sit by him. She comes in and sits in Zeena's rocking chair, which shocks Ethan. Mattie cannot see to do her sewing, so she leaves again. Ethan gets up to replenish the stove and moves his chair so he can see Mattie. The room is quiet and smells of Ethan's smoke. They begin to talk and, though it is common stuff, Ethan's imagination tells him that he and Mattie are long-time intimates.
Ethan remembers that they were to go coasting, but feels they have all the time in the world to do so. He tells Mattie that maybe they will go tomorrow when there is a moon. Mattie likes the idea. He watches her and asks if she would be afraid to go with him on a dark night like the present one. She says no, but he says he wouldn't dare it, not with that dangerous elm tree by the corner. They agree that they are well enough where they are.
Ethan leans forward and fingers the fabric Mattie is working on. He tells her that he saw a friend of hers getting kissed under the spruce trees. He has wanted to tell her this, but the words come out sounding vulgar. Mattie blushes and unconsciously pulls away from him. Her blush is attractive to Ethan, and he has thoughts of kissing her; but to kiss her in the house, ruled by order and conformity, is more difficult than it would have been the night before, under the "irresponsible" dark sky. The two talk of Ned and Ruth's wedding, until Ethan points out that it should be Mattie's turn to marry next. Mattie asks why he is always saying such things. Ethan says he mentions it because he has to get used to the idea. Mattie wonders if Zeena is displease with her performance; Ethan lies and says that Zeena has never even uttered such an idea.
Ethan slips his hand into the fabric Mattie is sewing, and he feels there is an emotional current between them. Then the cat jumps from Zeena's chair, and Ethan regrets that Zeena will be sitting in it the following night. The mood is broken, and Mattie rises and begins to fold up her work. She puts it away in a pretty box that Ethan has bought her. The two prepare to go upstairs for bed. They put the geraniums near the stove to keep warm, light the candle, and blow out the lamp. Mattie says goodnight and goes to her room. Ethan is sad that he did not even touch her hand.
Chapter 5 is short and to the point: Ethan's fantasy is interrupted by the reality of the situation. The cat, representing the ever- watchful and silent Zeena, spoils the mood of the evening. In spite of their affection for one another, Ethan and Mattie feel constrained. The attempts at a "normal" evening at home together come across as a bit pathetic, and by the time they call it a night, the mood is almost mournful.
It is important to notice that Ethan remembers his promise to take Mattie sledding. He says perhaps they can go the next day when the moon is bright. He adds that he would not want to go on a dark night because of the danger posed by the elm tree. Edith Wharton is definitely preparing the reader for the events that will occur later in the novel.
It is also important to realize that at the end of Chapter 5, the mid point in the book, only twenty-four hours have passed in the story. Yesterday evening, the tale began when Ethan went into town to pick up Mattie from the dance.