When the dance lets out, Ethan hangs back to keep his presence unknown. Mattie refuses the offer of a ride from another young man named Denis Eady and begins the walk home alone. Ethan catches up with her. As they continue on their way together, Ethan experiences a sense of thrill in Mattie’s presence, and the tension between the two becomes apparent. However, the tension dissipates when they arrive home and Zeena, Ethan’s sickly, shrewish wife, who has kept a late-night vigil in anticipation of their return, greets them. She regards the dynamic between her husband and her cousin with obvious suspicion, and Ethan goes to bed in a state of unease, without a word to Zeena and with thoughts only of Mattie.
The next day Ethan spends the morning cutting wood and returns home to find his wife prepared for a journey. She has decided to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, where she will spend the night with some distant relatives. Excited by the prospect of an evening alone with Mattie, Ethan quickly assents to his wife’s plan. He goes into town to make a lumber sale, but he hurries so as to return to Mattie in time for supper.
That evening, tensions run high between Ethan and Mattie. Although the two never consummate or even verbalize their passions, their mutual feelings hang palpably between them, unspoiled by the house’s many reminders of the absent Zeena. Catastrophe threatens when the cat shatters Zeena’s favorite pickle dish, which Mattie had taken out to celebrate their dinner together, but Ethan quickly pieces the shards together and tucks the broken dish back in its place. After supper, with Mattie busy at her sewing work, Ethan contemplates an outright demonstration of his affections, but he stops short of full disclosure. Just after eleven, the two turn in for the night without so much as touching.
The next morning, Ethan remains eager to reveal his feelings to Mattie, but the presence of his hired man, Jotham Powell, coupled with his own inhibitions, prevent him from making a move. Ethan makes a run into town to pick up some glue for the pickle dish. When he arrives back at the farm, expecting to find Mattie alone, she informs him that Zeena has returned. Quickly collecting himself, Ethan visits the bedroom to greet his wife. Zeena, however, is in no mood for kindnesses and bitterly informs Ethan that her health is failing rapidly. In light of this fact, Zeena announces, she plans to replace Mattie with a more efficient hired girl. Ethan privately resents Zeena’s decision but keeps the bulk of his anger to himself.
Going down to the kitchen, Ethan’s passions spill over, and he kisses Mattie zealously. He tells Mattie of Zeena’s plan to dismiss her, but their moment together is interrupted by Zeena herself, who had originally declined to come down to dinner but has changed her mind. After the meal, Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish while in search of some medicines and, in her rage, grows all the more determined to chase Mattie out.
That evening, Ethan retreats to his makeshift study, where he contemplates the decision that lies before him. Unable to tolerate Mattie’s dismissal, but effectively unable to prevent it, Ethan briefly considers eloping with Mattie, and even begins to draft a letter of farewell to Zeena. However, in a sober evaluation of his financial situation, Ethan comes to realize the impossibility of running away and falls asleep in a state of hopelessness.