Part II, Chapter 1
It is two years before Niel returns to Sweet Water. He meets Ivy Peters on the train and learns what has happened in the meantime. Ivy has drained the marsh on the Forrester property and converted the land into profitable wheat fields, paying the Forresters rent. He adds that Mrs. Forrester has started drinking rather heavily and laughs about the fact that the Forresters are now at the same financial level as everyone else.
After Ivy has left him, Niel looks out the window and reflects on the fact that pioneers like the Forresters had conquered the land, but been unable to hold it. Men like Ivy are able to come along and take it from them, converting it into profit. Niel sees the draining of the marsh as a metaphor for the decline of the western spirit.
After meeting Ivy Peters on the train, Niel recalls the philosophy of Captain Forrester. "The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence" (89). However, in this romanticized description that Niel gives, we realize that this is not the West as anyone else knows it, the rough and tumble free-for-all that most people think of. Niel too is aware of his hypocrisy, "[The Ivy Peters] would drink up the mirage" (90). He thus realizes that his description is all a mirage, it is nonsense. Niel knows that the pioneers were just as bad as Ivy Peters, that they were the ones that cut the "primeval forest". He also realizes that people like Ivy Peters will make the match-sticks out of the wood that their ancestors cut.
Cather is very careful to point out the satisfaction that Ivy gets out of draining the marsh. This action is a direct attack on the Captain, a man who stands for flowers and aesthetic beauty. It represents the raw violence in everything Ivy does directly contrasted with the aesthetic qualities of the Captain's view of life.
Part II, Chapter 2
Niel visits the Forresters and is shown a sun-dial that the Captain has recently received from Dalzell. The Captain has grown older and heavier since Niel last saw him. Niel then goes to visit Mrs. Forrester, whom he finds lying in a hammock in a cottonwood grove. She calls him handsome and asks him all about his life at college. When he asks about the marsh, she indicates that they need the money and complains that she is having trouble taking care of the house by herself.
They return to the house and Niel waits with the Captain while he shuffles into the house. As Niel is about to leave, the Captain gives him some letters to drop off, and then gives him a letter that Mrs. Forrester needs mailed. The letter is addressed to Frank Ellinger, and Niel tries to hide it when he gets it. The Captain stops him and comments on his wife's fine handwriting. Niel leaves the house with the feeling that Captain Forrester knows everything there is to know about his wife.
A powerful symbol to emerge in this chapter is that of the granite sundial. There are several interpretations that can be attributed to this symbol, which foremost acts as an emblem of the classical past, an instrument used in antiquity. By watching time go by, we see the Captain slowly counting down the last moments of his life. Thus it also represents the inexorable march to death via the slow rotation of the shadows. Later it will become an emblem that time has stopped, when the Captain's death culminates in having the sun-dial placed on his grave.
Niel's encounter with Mrs. Forrester leads to an interesting description of her as a bird. "How light and alive she was! like a bird caught in a net" (92). We cannot help but think of the first scene where the bird is injured. This scene symbolically foreshadows the death of Captain Forrester, after which Mrs. Forrester will act like the bird, flying around blindly struggling to find her proper home.
We learn that Niel hold the belief that Captain Forrester knows everything about his wife. The key moment is when we learn that he always looks at her handwriting. Since she has been writing to Ellinger for years, it is obvious that he would have been intimately aware of their friendship, if not necessarily their relationship.
Part II, Chapter 3
Niel had planned to do a lot of reading in the Forrester's grove during the summer, but the presence of Ivy Peters starts to keep him away. He watches one day while Ivy flirts with Mrs. Forrester, and in a rage he goes over to the Captain and blurts out that Ivy has the manners of a pig.
A few weeks later, when the wheat is ripe, Niel takes a late night walk. He comes across Mrs. Forrester standing on a bridge and greets her. Ivy Peters emerges from her house and tells her that he will start cutting the wheat the next morning. After he leaves, Niel asks Mrs. Forrester why she lets him be so impolite to her. She replies that Ivy is a savvy businessman and that he is also investing some money on her behalf. Niel learns that she is desperate to escape from the town and the boredom, and that she is hoping Ivy will provide her with enough money to get away. Niel realizes that she is starting to get old and is hoping to keep up her youthful vigor, and he starts to feel frightened for her.
Niel has not yet realized at this point in the novel that Mrs. Forrester is like an empty vessel that the Captain fills. She has no existence without a man in her life, and her value is derived from his values. It is therefore ironic that she is desperate to get away, to continue her aristocratic life somewhere else in California.This irony will become evident to Niel later on when he learns that even after the Captain's death she continues to pay for flowers to be put on his grave, indicating that she respects and loves the man.