The morning after George’s death, Anna begins scrubbing the house and prepares to burn all his possessions. However, Anys Gowdie arrives to claim her gown. She shocks Anna by saying offhandedly that herbal medicine might have helped George more than the “empty mutterings of a priest,” which is blasphemous, even criminal speech. Moreover, the gown she ordered unsettles Anna; a vivid scarlet, it defies the erstwhile Puritan laws about somber dressing and even the more relaxed conventions in effect since the return of Anglicanism. It also has a scandalously low neckline, which Anna thinks suggests an improper intimacy with George. In the end, all George’s customer’s follow Anys’s example, unwilling to surrender goods they’ve already paid for. Only Anna burns the green dress George made her.
When Anys appears to collect her gown, she flouts convention in two ways. She offhandedly denigrates religion and asserts that her own scientific remedies have more power than faith. This is an attitude Anna will come to share, but she’ll never be so cavalier about announcing it, careful not to be accused of witchcraft. Moreover, Anys is not embarrassed by her gown, which exudes sexuality. This contrasts with Anna’s anxieties about the sexual implications of a much more modest dress. Anna is shocked by Anys’s disregard for social customs she considers absolute, but she’s also fascinated and allured by her independence.
In the afternoon, Anna walks to Bradford Hall, where she staffing a large dinner that evening. On her way, she stops at the Gowdies’ cottage to ask Anys about her relationship with George. Anys airily confesses that she slept with George but that it meant nothing to either of them. This freewheeling, guiltless attitude toward extramarital sex is totally foreign to Anna, but she ends up admiring Anys’ determination to enjoy herself without getting married and becoming “any man’s chattel.”
Speaking openly of her relationship with George, Anys introduces Anna to a new type of female sexuality: she sees sexual fulfillment as inherently positive and seeks it on her own terms, without submitting to marriage or any other manifestation of male power. For Anys, while sex liberates women, romance and marriage confine them and are antithetical to the independent life she craves.
Leaving the cottage, Anna reflects that Anys defies the black-and-white concept of sin the Puritans taught her as a child. While Anys undoubtedly sins by committing “fornication and blasphemy,” she performs good works as a healer every day, and the health of the village rests on her.
Anna’s fascination with Anys leads her to question the Puritan moral scheme with which she grew up. As the novel progresses, this train of thought will grow into a conviction that severe religious paradigms are inadequate as frameworks for rationalizing all the complexities of human nature.
As she walks Anna passes the Riley farm, where her friend Lib Hancock lives with her husband as tenant farmers. They sit for a minute to catch up and discuss George’s death; in the spirit of friendship, Anna confesses that she was considering marrying George and that she had just learned of Anys’ affair with him.
Following her conversation with Anys, Anna is feeling open-minded about issues of sexuality, enough to discuss Anys’s and her own sexuality with Lib. But when Anys is accused of witchcraft, Lib will use her sexuality against her. While sex can be personally empowering, it can be catastrophic to one’s social position and safety.
Anna continues reluctantly to Bradford Hall. She dislikes and fears the Bradford family. Colonel Bradford orders everyone around mercilessly and seems to especially enjoy tormenting his wife, who is “cowed and nervous” from his constant abuse and always mistreats the servants. Elizabeth Bradford is “proud and sour,” only slightly redeemed by her genuine concern for her mother, whom she endeavors to protect from her father.
The Bradfords are a nasty family, and their faults derive from an overblown sense of their class superiority. Even within their own marriage, the Bradfords mimic a destructive class dynamic: Colonel Bradford abuses his wife because he has power over her, and Mrs. Bradford takes out her resentment on the only people she can, her servants. The Bradfords show that a rigid embrace of class dynamics doesn’t make anyone happy.
Anna waits on the Bradfords and their dinner guests. While most of them behave as though she is invisible, Elinor Mompellion stops to ask after Anna’s well-being, a breach of convention that shocks the others. A foppish young man from London catches Anna’s attention when he tells the guests about a recent plague outbreak in London and the chaos it has caused. Those who catch the disease are locked up in their houses without treatment or even food, and everyone with money or resources (including him) has escaped to the countryside. Anna immediately wonders if George’s fever was in fact the plague.
Elinor’s generous and egalitarian behavior stands in contrast with that of the man from London, who gloats about the fact that the well-born and affluent are able to protect themselves from the plague while the poor are not. Unfortunately, his description of the upper-class exodus from London shows that Elinor’s behavior is an eccentric exception rather than a rule.
The young man belittles as fools everyone altruistic enough to stay in London to fight the plague, and Mompellion takes issue, asserting that if “all who have the means” flee the plague, they just spread contagion. Rather, people should accept the plague as a “scourge” from God and remain to fight it where it appears. The young man and Colonel Bradford smirk at what they see as unnecessary selflessness, but Mompellion sticks to his convictions. When Anna returns home, she rushes to Jamie and Tom and checks them for fever, feeling profoundly relieved to find their foreheads cool.
The London man says that because class distinctions do exist, they ought to exist; this may seem odd to the modern reader but would have been conventional at the time. Rather, it’s Mompellion’s embrace of altruism and submission to God’s will that would have seemed odd. While the Bradfords have to observe religious formalities, especially in public, it’s clear that they don’t think Mompellion’s pieties apply to people of their class and resources.