On a cold night, soldiers patrol the snow-covered streets, walking by dark houses with shuttered windows. Inside one of these houses, Molly Morden sits knitting in the low light of a small lantern. She hears the footsteps of patrolmen outside—they grow in volume and fade away as the men pass. When it’s quiet again, three sharp knocks sound on the door. Molly opens the door to find Annie, who steps quickly inside and tells her that the mayor is about to arrive with two men named Will and Tom Anders. She gives Molly a piece of meat she stole from Colonel Lanser’s plate. She then tells Molly that the Anders boys are going to sail for England that night because their brother, Jack, has been shot for destroying a car. “The soldiers are looking for the rest of the family,” she says. “You know how they do.”
For the first time in the novella, it’s clear that Mayor Orden is willing to do more than refuse to cooperate with Colonel Lanser. Indeed, his involvement with the Anders’ escape plans shows that he’s actively conspiring against the invaders. The fact that the soldiers are looking for Will and Tom merely because their brother rebelled against the military says something about how fascist regimes take punishment to great lengths, extending their wrath to anybody associated with insubordination. This is, of course, an attempt to control the population, but it clearly only inspires new kinds of subversion and retaliation.
Annie explains to Molly that the mayor needs to speak to the Anders before they sail, though she doesn’t know why. She says that they’ll be along in 45 minutes, and slips out to go tell Orden the coast is clear. After she leaves, Molly hears knocks on her door and opens to find Lieutenant Tonder. “I don’t mean any harm,” he says. When she asks what he wants, Tonder says, “Miss, I only want to talk, that’s all. I want to hear you talk. That’s all I want.” He then insists that he only wants to spend time with Molly because he’s seen her in the streets and she seems nice. “Just for a little while, can’t we forget this war?” he pleads. “Just for a little while, can’t we talk together like people—together?”
Tonder’s question, “Can’t we talk together like people—together?” once more demonstrates his inability to recognize the wartime situation for what it is: a hostile military takeover. Of course, it would be easy for him to “forget this war,” since he isn’t suffering like the townspeople are. Furthermore, his repetition of the word “together” shows his intense need for human connection, something of which his time in the military has evidently left him feeling deprived. It is heavily suggested that Tonder has come to Molly’s home looking to sleep with her, which makes his pleading—and her limited agency in light of his position—all the more sinister.
Having let Tonder inside, Molly says, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” She realizes that he’s lonely, and decides to let him sit down for fifteen minutes. The house creaks, and he asks if somebody else is inside, but she explains that it’s just the snow, which is heavy on the roof because she doesn’t have a husband to shovel it off anymore. “Who did it?” Tonder asks. “Was it something we did?” When Molly nods, he offers to push the snow off her roof, but she asks him not to because it would make people think she had sided with the enemy.
The fact that Tonder doesn’t recognize Molly as the wife of Alex—the man Tonder himself executed with his own firing squad—shows how little effort he has put into actually assimilating into the town. To be fair, this is at least partly because it’s nearly impossible for an invader to integrate into the village, but Tonder’s inability to recognize Molly shows that his desire to connect with her is primarily self-interested, since if he really cared about her, he would probably try to get to know her before appearing in the middle of the night on her doorstep.
Tonder tries desperately to elicit kindness from Molly, even reciting a short poem he claims he wrote for her, though she recognizes the lines as a famous poem by the German poet Heinrich Heine. When she points this out, they laugh together for a moment, and Tonder says, “They told us the people would like us, would admire us. They do not. They only hate us.” Eventually, Molly starts speaking bluntly to Tonder, provoking him by acknowledging that he clearly wants to sleep with her, though he denies this, saying, “Please don’t hate me. I’m only a lieutenant. I didn’t ask to come here. You didn’t ask to be my enemy. I’m only a man, not a conquering man.” Molly admits she understands this, but she starts talking about her memories of Alex, telling Tonder that he was the one to kill her husband. Finally, he leaves, but only after promising he’ll come back.
For the shortest moment while they are laughing, Molly and Tonder exemplify what it might look like if the townspeople and invaders got along. It’s worth noting that this brief connection comes about when they share a laugh—an inherently human thing that reminds them that they’re both people living in a chaotic world where the allegiances that divide them may seem arbitrary. Nonetheless, this moment doesn’t have the power to transcend the lack of empathy set forth by Tonder’s fascist regime, and nothing can make Molly forget that this man has aligned himself with a group of people willing to conquer and kill her and her fellow countrymen.
Moments after Tonder’s departure, Annie returns to Molly’s house and asks Molly why a soldier was in the house. Although she’s somewhat suspicious of Molly, she fetches Mayor Orden, Doctor Winter, and Tom and Will Anders, who are all waiting outside. Once inside, Orden addresses the Anders brothers, saying that he’s heard they’re going to bring Mr. Corell with them. “It isn’t good to see him in the streets,” Will Anders says, explaining that they’ll snatch the man as he takes a nightly midnight stroll, forcing him down to the docks where his boat is tied. Orden tells the boys that he wants them to ask British officials upon their arrival to send explosives to the town. “Then we will be armed, secretly armed,” he says. “If they will even give us dynamite to hide, to bury in the ground to be ready against need, then the invader can never rest again, ever!”
Orden’s idea that the threat of dynamite would interfere with the invaders’ “rest” wisely picks up on the fact that the soldiers are growing weary and anxious. By attacking them in their moment of rest, he preys on their growing paranoia, a tactic that recalls Prackle’s advice that Tonder “watch [his] nerves.” In this sense, conquest seems to lead to an epidemic sense of insecurity, perhaps because people like Tonder sense that their task is futile and that they’ll never fully succeed in subordinating the villagers.
Tom and Will Anders agree to make a plea for explosives to the English government when they arrive. At that moment, Annie comes rushing into the room from where she’s been keeping guard at the front door. She reports that a soldier is coming up the path. Having learned that Tonder was inside Molly’s house not long ago, Orden asks the young widow if she’s in trouble. “The trouble I’m in no one can help me with,” Molly says solemnly, ushering her guests out the back door. As Tonder raps the front door, she picks up a pair of knitting scissors and slips them into her dress, saying, “I’m coming, Lieutenant, I’m coming!”
When Molly sweetly sings out, “I’m coming, Lieutenant, I’m coming!” it becomes clear that she—like Colonel Lanser—is manipulating the customs of civility. Indeed, the scissors hidden in her dress indicate that she intends to harm Tonder, but her behavior with him up to this point has remained within the realms of courtesy. In this way, Steinbeck shows that soldiers aren’t the only people who can hide wicked intentions behind cordial outward appearances.