Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock retreat to their townhouse, and Chesney Wold is occupied only by the ghosts of Dedlock ancestors. Sir Leicester reclines in great comfort in the townhouse. Mr. Tulkinghorn appears from time to time on legal business and always pays great attention to Lady Dedlock. The narrator interjects, suggesting that although Mr. Tulkinghorn seems very polite, he may secretly despise and wish to destroy Lady Dedlock.
The frequent association of the Dedlock ancestors with ghosts suggests that the Dedlock line has not been rejuvenated and that it is an old institution that haunts modern society. It also foreshadows its imminent collapse.
One evening, as Sir Leicester reads from the newspaper to Lady Dedlock, and Lady Dedlock grows bored with the political content of the article, their servant announces Mr. Guppy. Sir Leicester is amazed at this impertinence, but Lady Dedlock agrees to see him and Sir Leicester gallantly leaves them alone. Lady Dedlock coldly asks Mr. Guppy if he is the person who has written to her many times. Mr. Guppy replies that this is the case, and Lady Dedlock sits contemptuously by the fire and fans herself while Mr. Guppy explains.
Sir Leicester is amazed because Mr. Guppy is unknown to him and has arrived unexpectedly without a formal introduction, an old-fashioned ritual in British society. Lady Dedlock wishes to intimidate Mr. Guppy with her cold exterior.
Mr. Guppy explains that he works for Kenge and Carboy’s and that he has connections with Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Lady Dedlock’s attention is piqued by this. He also informs her that he knows Mr. Tulkinghorn, and that if she mentioned his conduct to anyone at Kenge and Carboy’s, then Guppy would find himself ruined. Lady Dedlock disdainfully signals for him to continue. Mr. Guppy whips out a sheet of notes and stammeringly asks Lady Dedlock if she knows Esther Summerson.
Mr. Guppy tries to win Lady Dedlock’s favor when he suggests that he is throwing himself on her mercy and that, if she tells on him, he will lose his job. This is manipulative, however, and Lady Dedlock’s demeanor suggests that she sees through it.
Lady Dedlock says that she has met the girl once. Mr. Guppy asks if Lady Dedlock noticed the resemblance between herself and Esther and Lady Dedlock replies in a steely tone that she did not. Mr. Guppy nervously continues that Esther is of mysterious parentage and that he was struck by her likeness to Lady Dedlock when he saw a portrait of her Ladyship at Chesney Wold. He stops to read his notes and mutters the name, “Mrs. Chadband.”
Mr. Guppy implies that Esther is Lady Dedlock’s daughter, although he is not bold enough to suggest this directly. Lady Dedlock’s icy glare makes him nervous and he loses his place in the notes he has brought. He clearly has evidence for his claim, through the testimony of Mrs. Chadband, who was once Mrs. Rachael, Esther’s godmother’s maid.
Mr. Guppy continues that he has fallen in love with Esther and wishes to help her solve the mystery of her birth. Mr. Guppy says that he has met someone who helped raise Esther and that this woman worked for a Miss Barbary. The color drains from Lady Dedlock’s face, but she gives no other sign that she is interested. Mr. Guppy asks Lady Dedlock if she has ever met Miss Barbary, and Lady Dedlock says no.
Mr. Guppy’s intentions are not straightforwardly honorable. He does wish to marry Esther, but it seems that he wishes to ensure that she has noble connections first. He also wants Lady Dedlock to influence Esther and convince her to marry him. It is also possible that he wants to blackmail Lady Dedlock into providing for them.
Mr. Guppy then explains that Miss Barbary admitted to his acquaintance that Esther’s real name is not Summerson, but Hawdon. Lady Dedlock utters an exclamation but recovers her poise quickly. A man of this name was found dead in Cook’s Court, Mr. Guppy tells her, but Lady Dedlock insists she knows nothing about this. Mr. Guppy then relates the strange circumstances which involved a lady in disguise, and Lady Dedlock expresses no interest in these events. Mr. Guppy says that the woman wore very expensive rings and notices the rings on Lady Dedlock’s own fingers.
The novel has already implied that Lady Dedlock was the mysterious woman who went to visit Captain Hawdon’s grave (something Mr. Guppy also seems to know, since he glances at her rings), suggesting that he was once very important to her. Esther’s connection to Captain Hawdon is a surprise to her, however, as it seems that Esther is Captain Hawdon’s daughter. Given Lady Dedlock’s resemblance to Esther, this would suggest that Lady Dedlock and Captain Hawdon were lovers and gave birth to Esther.
Lady Dedlock observes Mr. Guppy with cold fury as he explains that a bundle of letters has been found in Captain Hawdon’s room, and that the letters will be given to him the next night. He offers to bring the letters to Lady Dedlock the next evening and she says that he may do so if he wishes. Mr. Guppy implores her to give him some sign that she will keep his secret, but Lady Dedlock icily dismisses him.
Mr. Guppy implies that Captain Hawdon’s letters may contain evidence of Lady Dedlock’s love affair with him, and possibly confirmation of Esther’s parentage. Lady Dedlock sees that Mr. Guppy is trying to threaten her, although he pretends that he is helping her out, and refuses to deal with him.
The house remains silent as Mr. Guppy goes downstairs to leave. In Lady Dedlock’s room, however, she falls to her knees and tugs at her hair. Her mouth is stretched in torment as she realizes that her only child did not die after all but was raised in secret by her sister.
This passage confirms that Esther is Lady Dedlock’s daughter from her affair with Captain Hawdon. It is important that Lady Dedlock did not know of Esther’s existence, and did not conceal this fact knowingly from her husband, because this would make her less sympathetic with Dickens’s audience and would put her on a par with the cruel and neglectful mothers who also feature in the story. Lady Dedlock is a victim of circumstances, however, and a tragic figure instead of a villain.