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When Ethan arrives home, Daniel Byrne is at the door with his horse and sleigh, and Zeena is in the kitchen studying a book on kidney troubles. Ethan goes upstairs to help Mattie with her trunk. He has been in her room only once before, and now all the tokens of her presence are packed away. Mattie herself sits on the trunk, crying. Part of her concern is that she has been afraid she might never see Ethan again since he was not at home. Ethan insists on taking the trunk down himself, and Mattie helps lift it into the sleigh. Then Ethan promises to take Mattie to the train later in the day.
At dinner, Zeena is cheerful and hungry. After eating, Ethan tells Jotham that he will take Mattie to the train himself. Zeena insists that Ethan stay and repair the stove for the hired girl, but Ethan angrily tells her he is taking Mattie. It is a tense moment, and Ethan is furious. As he goes to the barn to hitch up the horse, he remembers that a year earlier he went to the train to bring Mattie out to live with them. When Ethan returns to the house for Mattie, he finds her in his study. She explains that she is "taking a look around," as if to remember everything. Zeena does not bother to say good-bye, for she has already gone upstairs.
Ethan is rather merry as they hop into the sleigh and take off. As he drives, he turns giddy, presses Mattie's hand, and heads off to Shadow Pond. Mattie draws close to him. The landscape around them is decorative and inviting, but they ride in silence until they come to their secret spot. They walk to the edge of the pond and reminisce about a picnic that had enjoyed here the summer. She had lost her gold locket in the grass, and Ethan had found it, a fact that pleased them both. Ethan remembers that Mattie wore a pink hat that day.
The couple sits on a log and comes close to openly avowing their affection for one another. There are things Ethan wants to say to Mattie, but this place of summer memories does not seem the proper spot. They go back to the sleigh and talk on the way to town. Mattie says she will work in a store, she feels stronger that she did when she tried that sort of work before. She will not ask her father's folks to do anything for her. Ethan says he would do something if he could, but he cannot. Mattie grows silent. He turns to her as if to unburden himself when she pulls out the letter he had written to Zeena the night before. Ethan is thrilled and pained; he asks her, "If I could ha' done it, would you?" Mattie says it is useless and tears the letter to shreds. He asks again, and she says she used to think of it, in summer. As they pass the farm, Ethan remarks that he is tied down, and there is nothing he can do. She wants him to write to her; but he sees no use and adds she will soon marry. He says, however, that he would rather see her dead than married to someone else. She says she wishes she were dead. Mattie begins to weep, and Ethan feels ashamed for his words. She says that no one has been as kind to her as Ethan. He says that may be true for the past, but there is nothing he can do for her now.
Ethan and Mattie arrive in town at twilight and see some boys sledding. Mattie remarks that they were to have gone sledding last night. By the church and Varnum spruces, there are no coasters, so Ethan suggests that they take a ride right then. The hired girl at the station can wait. The sudden authority in Ethan's voice again subdues Mattie, and she goes along. They find a sled, and though it is dark, Ethan insists that he knows the slope even with his eyes closed. They shoot down the hill, and Mattie winces as they pass the elm. They get up to climb the slope, and Ethan asks Mattie if she was scared that he would run her into the elm. She tells him that she is never scared with him. As they climb, Ethan becomes boastful of his steering abilities. At the top of the slope, he guides Mattie to the spruce trees where he found Ned and Ruth kissing. Mattie flings her arms around Ethan and they kiss. She says good- bye, and he says he cannot let her go. Then she sobs and says she cannot let him go either.
Mattie suggests that they take the sled down the slope one more time. She wants to drive into the elm tree and die with Ethan; then they will never be parted. At first, Ethan says she is crazy, but Mattie draws out the picture of his future miserable life without her. Ethan is torn. He wants to grab up Mattie's hair as if they were by the pond in August, but it is cold and he hears the train and the horse whinnying up the hill. Mattie insists and his "instrument of fate." He gets the sled, and they climb on. He gets up again and insists that Mattie sit behind, not in front. She does not want to, but he says he wants her to hold him so she relents. He reconsiders and nearly changes his mind; but then he leans back to kiss Mattie as he hears the horse whinny again. They fly down the first descent, and then the second. As the elm quickly looms up in front of them, Mattie hugs Ethan. He tries to aim so they will hit the tree squarely and die quickly, but at the last moment, he remembers his wife's monstrous face and makes a movement to flick the image away. The sled swerves, but he moves it back into line with the elm. The air shoots past like "millions of fiery wires," and then they hit the elm.
When Ethan opens his eyes, he is looking at the stars in the sky. He closes his eyes again. All is still, except he can hear a twittering animal near him. The animal is in pain, and he can't move towards it, for he feels weighted by a rock. He then realizes that the animal is Mattie and that the softness under his hand is her face. He drags himself to his knees and over to Mattie. She opens her eyes and says his name. He says he thought they would certainly die. Then he thinks that he hears the horse again and knows that he should go and feed it.
In this chapter, Edith Wharton's use of landscape description is strikingly clear. When Ethan and Mattie head to the pond, the snowy scene around them is described in bright, decorative terms to match their mood in the sleigh. At the pond, the description grows a bit somber to meet the mood of their memory. As they ride to town and see the Varnum spruces, the descriptions take on a darkening quality to match the falling night and their falling hopes. By the time they ride down the slope for the final time, they are desperate, and Starkfield seems a "speck in space." In its place, the elm becomes the whole landscape, large and threatening, as they head straight for it.
Mattie and Ethan are entirely caught up in their emotions, although Ethan seems to remain somewhat in the practical world as well. He hears his horse and knows he should be fed; he has sympathy with the hungry animal. He hears Mattie's arguments about suicide and knows they should be ignored; but he also has sympathy with the sad Mattie. After the accident, Mattie turns into a whimpering animal, foreshadowing what she will become; Ethan tries to comfort her. At the same time, he hears the horse calling to him, and the reader realizes Ethan will be called back to the farm.
It is intentional that Edith Wharton gives no details about the accident, not wanting to be maudlin. It was an emotional decision made in a hurry; the accident also occurred in a flash. The only information given to the reader is that the accident has failed to accomplish its purpose; Ethan and Mattie are both still alive.