Part I, Chapter 4
Judge Pommeroy and Niel go to the Forrester house and meet the Ogdens. Niel tries unsuccessfully to talk to Constance, but soon gives up and speaks with her mother instead. A large man named Frank Ellinger is also present, a bachelor aged forty, and he serves the first round of drinks. Niel watches while Constance flirts openly with Frank and is disappointed to discover that he has to sit next to her at the dining table.
Mr. Forrester is a model host, and Ellinger and Judge Pommeroy keep the conversation going. We are told that Ellinger was a "wild" youth, prone to going outside during the day with prostitutes. Mrs. Ogden is described as a very plain woman who acts too pretentious for her looks. She turns to Captain Forrester, and, in a thick East Virginia drawl, asks him to tell her daughter how he found his home.
Captain Forrester relates how he went to work for the railroads right after the civil war. He found the spot in Sweet Water after being lost one day, and planted a willow tree to mark the spot, with the intent of buying the land someday. Several years later he did, and after a bad first marriage he eventually settled on the land with the current Mrs. Forrester. He describes his philosophy to them, namely that if someone wants something enough then they will likely get it.
After dinner they play cards, and soon the Judge and Niel leave. Mrs. Forrester catches Niel at the door and makes him promise to return the next day. That night before bed she hears a noise downstairs and finds Frank drinking some brandy. She goes to him and warns him to be careful, implying that Constance may be trying to watch them. She tells him to go to bed sleep.
Niel's premonition that he dislikes Frank serves to foreshadow for the reader that everything may not be right in Mrs. Forrester's world. However, this will remain hidden to Niel for a while even as it becomes apparent to everyone else.
Captain Forrester tells the story about finding his current place. We are told that he takes it from the Indians, indicating the replacement of one group with another. However, look what Cather does in the next description of him: "Something forbidden had come into his voice, the lonely, defiant note that is so often heard in the voices of old Indians" (45). The Captain will be replaced himself, by Ivy Peters. This is a cycle that will go on and on, one group replacing another.
The Captain's philosophy is fascinating in that it is so unrealistic yet will have a profound influence on Niel. He states that America was dreamed into existence. This imagines that simply wishing for something can bring it about. We will see Niel try to hold on to the past, as if it were a mythological dream, while around him the world changes. This philosophy is reinterpreted sarcastically by Niel in Part II, Chapter 1.
Part I, Chapter 5
The next morning Niel returns to the Forrester house and watches as Mrs. Forrester and Ellinger take a sleigh into town together. His job is to remain in the house and keep Constance company. In the sleigh, Mrs. Forrester turns to Frank and comments on how glad she is to be away from the Ogdens and Constance. He laughs and asks her about Niel, whom she describes as a nice boy stuck in the small town.
They are clearly lovers, and soon Mrs. Forrester leads Frank into a cedar grove where they can have privacy. Adolph Blum, one of Niel's young friends, is hunting in the area and he comes across them. He watches while Franks puts Mrs. Forrester back in the sleigh and sees them drive away. He will keep their secret because Mrs. Forrester has always been nice to him and illegally bought game from him during the closed hunting season.
This chapter gives us one of only two moments when we see Mrs. Forrester by herself, not acting for others. "Mrs. Forrester sat with her eyes closed, her cheek pillowed on her muff, a faint, soft smile on her lips." Notice that alone she is able to keep her eyes closed and she can smile to herself. The fact that her secret is discovered by Adolph Blum has no bearing on the novel because he realizes that he is seeing a glimpse of her that no one else ever sees, a side that he will keep secret.
In this sensual scene we have the imagery of cutting again: "When the strokes of the hatchet rang out from the ravine, he could see her eyelids flutter...soft shivers went through her body" (55). The very act of cutting can be interpreted as sexual stimulation, a form of male aggression towards the woman.
Part I, Chapter 6
The winter provides Niel a chance to get to know Mrs. Forrester very well. After a major snowstorm he gets the Forrester's mail and brings it to the house. Mr. Forrester greet him and informs him that Mrs. Forrester has a headache and is in bed, but she soon emerges and Niel realizes that she has been drinking. They all have tea together and talk until the evening when Mr. Forrester falls asleep in his chair.
Mrs. Forrester and Niel go outside and run down the hill through the snow. She tells him that she is incredibly bored, unable to get exercise while sitting in her house all winter. When she mentions that Niel has thin shoulders, he thinks about Frank Ellinger and is annoyed. Niel's admiration for Mrs. Forrester is based on her perceived loyalty to her husband. He is charmed by the proprieties that she upholds yet seems to mock.
Niel has fallen in love with what Mrs. Forrester represents. We are told here that he likes her for her loyalty to the Captain. The mistake that he makes is to assume that she is a lady on whom the Captain depends. Niel has thus far failed to see that Mrs. Forrester actually depends on the Captain for her aristocratic surroundings.
This is the first chapter where Mrs. Forrester's drinking is explicitly remarked upon. As the Captain starts to fail more and more, her drinking will increase. The connection between drinking and the Captain is related to the desire to forget or escape. Only through alcohol is Mrs. Forrester able to escape into her own thoughts while living with the Captain.