As Mattie leaves the church after the dance, Denis approaches and talks with her. Ethan, shyly hiding in the shadows, eavesdrops on their conversation. Denis brags that he has his father's "cutter," a light sled, with him, and offers to drive Mattie home. To Ethan's relief and delight, she refuses the ride.
Mattie rebuffs Denis, and his fast high-end sled, in favor of walking with the married Ethan. For a woman in her position, who can gain security only through marriage, this action is reckless.
After Denis leaves, Ethan joins Mattie and they begin the walk back to the farm. They pause near the top of a hill on the road home, and Mattie tells Ethan that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum narrowly escaped sledding into a big elm tree at the bottom of the icy slope. Ethan promises Mattie that the two of them can return to "coast" when there is a moon, boasting that with him steering there will be no danger of striking the tree. Mattie claims that she is not the kind of person who would be afraid of a possible sledding accident.
The love Ethan and Mattie share is palpable, in their boastful, flirting language, but they never actually get up the courage to admit their feelings. The tale of another young couple's narrow escape foreshadows Ethan and Mattie's sledding accident. Ethan's boast that he can guide the sled to safety indicates his desire to prove his masculinity to Mattie.
Wanting to find out for sure whether Mattie has feelings for Denis, Ethan mentions that other people have been saying that Mattie will be leaving the Frome household. Mattie, however, thinks that Ethan is referring to Zeena's dissatisfaction with the way she does the housework. Mattie is clearly distressed at the prospect of having to leave, and this reassures Ethan.
Though Mattie's feelings for Ethan are obvious, Ethan can't quite believe it. Meanwhile, the mention of Zeena's dissatisfaction with Mattie already makes clear that if they want to stay together they will have to act in some way. Instead, they do nothing.
As Ethan and Mattie walk through the snowy landscape to the farm, they pass under hemlock trees and the graveyard where Ethan's ancestors are buried. Normally Ethan feels that the gravestones are mocking his inability to get away from Starkfield, but this night he wants things to stay as they are forever, with Mattie at his side.
Ethan's feelings that the gravestones mock him show his frustrated ambitions. But his delusional belief that things will just stay as they are hints that his ambitions were thwarted at least in part by his own failure to take action.
As they approach the darkened farmhouse, Ethan puts his arms around Mattie. She does not resist. A dead cucumber vine dangling from the porch reminds Ethan that if Zeena were to die, he and Mattie would be free to marry.
The dead vine's appearance at this intimate moment between Ethan and Mattie is foreboding. Ethan's hope that Zeena will die is another example of Ethan's passive daydreaming.
The key that Zeena normally leaves under the doormat isn't there, and the guilty lovers experience a moment of panic. A moment later, Zeena opens the door, looking bony and unattractive. Standing in the "vault"-like kitchen, Zeena says she felt "too mean to sleep," meaning that she feels ill. Not wanting Mattie to see him follow Zeena upstairs, Ethan claims that he wants to stay up and go over the mill accounts. Mattie warns him with her eyes not to resist, and he follows Zeena to bed.
The word "vault" is used to describe a tomb. Using that word to describe a kitchen, a room that is usually a source of warmth, emphasizes how Zeena has trapped Ethan and made his life like a living death.