Suddenly, Robert hears a noise in the drawing-room. Goring assures him there’s no one, but Robert feels apprehensive and decides to look for himself. When he looks into the drawing room, he sees Mrs. Cheveley; Goring, however, thinks that the woman waiting there is Lady Chiltern. In the conversation that follows, they are referring to two different people. Robert attacks Mrs. Cheveley, and Goring defends Lady Chiltern. Robert assumes Goring is scheming with Mrs. Cheveley, and storms out angrily.
Robert’s state of crisis causes him to fail in his moral judgment, just as Mrs. Cheveley failed. He assumes the worst of his friend Goring, because he has not adequately understood Goring’s moral grounding. This misunderstanding is a moment of comic relief, but it also shows that it’s important to understand underlying moral codes.
A content-looking Mrs. Cheveley enters the library. Lord Goring is shocked to see her. He tells her he wants to give her some advice, but she jokingly brushes him off and rerouts the conversation onto the subject of fashion; “a woman’s first duty in life is to her dressmaker,” she announces. Lord Goring guesses that she has come to sell him Sir Robert’s incriminating letter. She vaguely confirms his guess and begins talking about their earlier short-lived romance, which ended when Goring saw her flirting with another man. She tells him she loved him, and he responds that she is “far too clever to know anything about love.”
Like Goring, Mrs. Cheveley believes in the significance of fashion. But Goring would never place fashion above morality, as Mrs. Cheveley does. That is the main difference between them. Mrs. Cheveley does not perceive this difference, because she is “too clever” to understand the difference between actual and superficial moral codes. Of course, her cleverness is not true cleverness – it is another form of narrow-mindedness. Lord Goring gets at a truth by jokingly saying its opposite.
Finally, Mrs. Cheveley speaks openly: she will give him Robert’s letter if he agrees to marry her. Lord Goring waves her off, expressing his dislike and contempt for her almost involuntarily. She speaks dismissively about Robert and spitefully about Lady Chiltern, whom she claims to hate deeply. Lord Goring says that Robert’s youthful mistake does not reflect “his true character,” which is noble. Mrs. Cheveley accepts Lord Goring’s refusal to marry her with relative composure, and gets ready to leave. Goring tries to convince her to leave Robert in peace, but she is determined to bring about his ruin.
Mrs. Cheveley feels contempt for Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern because their behavior – its air of moral grace – seems to her naïve and simplistic. We can infer that her understanding (which seems to her more realistic and more truthful) is founded on an idea of human nature that is unreliable and selfish, a sort of modern correction to morality. Yet her view of personhood is not more broad-minded: it simply replaces one set of “fundamental” human qualities (goodness, love) with another (selfishness, coldness).
Lord Goring tells her that her malice toward Lady Chiltern is unforgivable. Mrs. Cheveley replies that her goal is not to torment Lady Chiltern; she only visited her, she says, to ask about a missing brooch. At this, Lord Goring lifts said brooch from a drawer and clasps it around her wrist as a bracelet. The bracelet was a gift from Lord Goring to his cousin Mary, from whom Mrs. Cheveley stole it years ago. Horrified, she tries to get the brooch off her wrist, but to no avail: as Lord Goring knows, it has a very tricky mechanism.
Mrs. Cheveley has been implying all along that morality is entirely illusory, a ghost everyone pretends to see but that vanishes easily under more skeptical scrutiny. In a way, then, this bracelet is the ghost suddenly becoming real, rigid and inflexible. The bracelet is like a scarlet letter branding her with her crimes. Mrs. Cheveley’s youthful crime does reflect her character, as Robert’s does not.
Lord Goring tells Mrs. Cheveley he will now call the police. Only on one condition will he refrain from calling: if she gives him Robert’s incriminating letter. Anguished and terrified, Mrs. Cheveley hands it over. Then she remembers Lady Chiltern’s letter – the one she considers proof of Lady Chiltern’s infidelity. She asks Goring to get her some water, and while he’s out of the room she snatches the letter from under a book, where she had hidden it earlier that evening. When he returns, she announces triumphantly that she is in possession of Lady Chiltern’s “love letter”, and that she intends to give it to Robert post haste. Before Lord Goring has a chance to intervene, she rings for Phipps to show her out.
Mrs. Cheveley has consistently feigned perfect composure. But when the bracelet clasps around her wrist, her composure disintegrates: she cannot stop herself from showing that the situation is a serious matter for her. Dandies like Lord Goring make it a point never to be serious about “serious” adult matters like money and reputation, but Mrs. Cheveley is ultimately concerned precisely with these dull things, like the red-faced banker in The Little Prince. In a way, dandyism is a variation on Peter Pan Syndrome—the resolve to never grow up.