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Ethan slowly makes his way upstairs to Zeena, who sits rigidly in the half dark and still wears her traveling clothes. He asks her if she would like some supper, but she says she couldn't possibly eat. Ethan knows the formula; they will have this discussion, and then Zeena will go downstairs and eat her supper heartily. He asks her if she is tired. As before, she replies that she is a good deal sicker than Ethan thinks. He says that he hopes not and wonders if this time the words are true.
Zeena tells him that she has "complications," and Ethan knows that this means her illness is serious, for people hardly ever survive complications. Ethan's heart is torn by pity for her and love for Mattie. She continues by explaining that any "regular doctor" would want her to have an operation. Ethan is relieved to know that Zeena is opposed to operations. Ethan questions her about the new doctor, and Zeena takes his interest as criticism. She responds by whining about her condition and how this doctor has solved hopeless cases before. Ethan says that he is glad and tells his wife she must do what the doctor says. Zeena says she means to--with a strange new resolution in her voice.
Ethan asks what the doctor wants her to do. "He wants I should have a hired girl," is Zeena's reply. Zeena's aunt Martha has found an appropriate girl, who must be given an extra dollar for coming to such a remote spot. She will arrive tomorrow. Ethan, angry and confused, feels that the whole point of the trip to the doctor was to make him pay for a servant. He asks Zeena if the doctor also proposed how Ethan would pay the girl's wages. She replies that she would be ashamed to tell the doctor that her husband would refuse the expense, considering that she lost her health nursing his mother. Ethan doubts this aloud.
In Ethan's estimation, the discussion has turned to a fight between two serpents shooting venom in the dark, and he is horrified. As he lights the lamp, he notes that this is their first openly angry fight ever. He feels the baseness of it, but he knows the issues must be dealt with. Ethan again says he does not have the money to pay for the girl. Zeena says she cannot go on "slaving." Ethan assures her that he will do the housework himself, and says again "I haven't got the money. That settles it."
There is a brief pause in the fight. Zeena asks about the cash Ethan was supposed to get from Hale the day before. He tells her that Hale has not paid, and Zeena remarks that she had no way of knowing that. He then reminds her that she is a poor man's wife. Zeena sits motionless. Ethan perks up and starts to list some other options. Zeena adds that also there will no longer be the expense of having Mattie live with them. Ethan stops short. Zeena laughs, for the first time in their entire marriage, and says surely they would not keep two girls! Ethan points out that Mattie is a relative, not just a girl. Zeena points out that Mattie, a pauper, has been with them for a year, and now somebody else in the family should take her.
Mattie taps on the door and calls to them, for supper has been ready for half an hour. She asks Zeena if she can do anything for her. Ethan sends her back downstairs, while Zeena remains sitting--inexorable and defiant. They argue about Mattie, with Ethan saying that everyone will think Zeena is heartless to push her own kin out of the house. Zeena pauses and replies that everyone knows how very generous she has been to Mattie already. Now Zeena wants Mattie gone tomorrow, so the new girl can have her room.
Ethan's hand drops from the doorknob; he feels entirely powerless. He knows that any pleading he could do for Mattie would be hopeless. Ethan looks at his wife with loathing. His sudden helplessness causes him to see her as an evil energy. "As long as he could ignore her. . .he had remained indifferent. Now she had mastered him, and he abhorred her." All his life's vain efforts and disappointment rise up inside him. For a moment he blames it all on Zeena and takes a wild step toward her, then stops.
Zeena lies down, and Ethan goes downstairs to Mattie, who is bright and shiny and offers him some food. She senses that Ethan is upset and begs him to tell her what is wrong. He holds her in his arms and kisses her. As she he slips from him, he cries out that he will never let her go. "Go," she stammers. Ethan is ashamed at the way he has delivered the bad news. His head reels, but he explains the situation. Mattie stands silently before him, weak and drooping. They both know the strength of Zeena's resolve. Mattie tries to soothe Ethan, though she obviously fights back tears. Ethan hides his face in his hands. He thinks of terrible stories he has heard of unfortunate girls in the city. Just as he jumps up to say that he won't allow it, Zeena comes into the room. She feels better and has decided to have something to eat. She appears normal, perfectly well.
Ethan is speechless as Zeena, smiling, makes small-talk with Mattie about her trip and various ailments she encountered in her friends and relatives. After dinner she decides that Mattie's pie has given her heartburn, so she goes to get a powder. As Mattie and Ethan look at each other, Zeena returns in a state of agitation. She has found the broken pickle dish and demands to know what has happened. She is entirely broken by the breaking of her dish. She cries and demands an explanation. Ethan tells her the cat did it, but she doesn't believe him. Mattie admits that she herself took the dish from the closet and deserves the blame. Zeena wants to know why, and Mattie admits that she wanted the table to look pretty. Zeena is horrified and upbraids her, saying, "You're a bad girl, Mattie Silver." She then breaks down into sobbing spasms. Once in control again, she tells Mattie that she should have listened to other folks and not taken her in. Finally, Zeena walks away with the broken dish.