Esther and Charley travel together to Mr. Boythorn’s house in Lincolnshire. Mr. Boythorn is away, so they have the house to themselves. Esther is delighted with the property, and she and Charley spend a long time exploring the grounds. That night, before she goes to sleep, Esther steels herself to look in the mirror for the first time. She is shocked by her changed appearance but resolves to overcome her reservations and be grateful for her situation.
Esther is a very strong character and is not at all shallow or vain. Although she is naturally disappointed to have lost her good looks, she bravely seeks to overcome this pain by thinking gratefully about the things that she does still have.
The only consideration which bothers Esther is the thought of Mr. Woodcourt and how he will take the change. She has kept his flowers but decides to dispense with all romantic notions and to remember him fondly. Ada plans to join Esther and Charley in a few days, and Esther wants to be fully recovered before her friend arrives. She resolves therefore to spend as much time outside as possible, and she and Charley spend all day riding the pony that Mr. Boythorn has left for them.
Esther has nursed hopes that Mr. Woodcourt will fall in love with her on his return. She resignedly puts these hopes aside now, as she assumes that he will never love her without her natural beauty.
The villagers are friendly with Esther, and she and Charley find that they are never short of company. Esther’s favorite place to walk takes her through the grounds of Chesney Wold, and she particularly likes the spot known as the Ghost’s Walk. Esther likes to rest here during her walks and likes to sit on a nearby bank which is crowded with violets. Esther has heard the legend of the Ghost’s Walk from Mr. Boythorn and though she is fascinated by the house, and by the Dedlock family history, she does not visit Chesney Wold because of her strange awkward feeling about Lady Dedlock.
It is pertinent that Esther likes the Ghost’s Walk as, although she does not know this, she is the “ghost,” or the secret at the heart of the Dedlock family which will inevitably tear them apart and bring disgrace to their name. She knows the legend but naturally does not connect it with herself and believes that Lady Dedlock dislikes her.
One day, while Esther sits in her favorite spot, she notices a figure coming towards her and is shocked to find that it is Lady Dedlock, who rushes towards her with a face full of concern. Esther is so startled that she calls Charley, and, when she does this, Lady Dedlock immediately stops and regains her haughty composure. She tells Esther that she has heard of her illness and hopes that she is better now. Esther thanks her and says that she is. Lady Dedlock suggests that Charley go back to the house and that she should walk a while with Esther.
Lady Dedlock lets her guard down for a moment because she thinks that she and Esther are alone. She has amazing strength of will because she is able to hide her feelings immediately, as soon as she sees that Charley is present.
When Charley has left them, Lady Dedlock sits down beside Esther and Esther is amazed when Lady Dedlock produces the handkerchief, which she left with Jenny. Lady Dedlock bursts into tears and kneels before Esther. She confesses that she is her mother and begs Esther to forgive her. Esther is shocked but forgives her mother instantly. She tries to raise her up but Lady Dedlock says that she cannot be redeemed; she is a married woman, and Esther is her secret shame. She can only reveal herself to Esther for long enough to give her a letter and then she must never speak with her again.
When Lady Dedlock procures the handkerchief, Esther realizes that Lady Dedlock is the veiled woman who has been to Jenny’s house to enquire about her. Although Dickens makes Lady Dedlock a sympathetic character, she is still positioned as a fallen woman because she had a child out of wedlock. This reflects 19th-century audience’s willingness to sympathize with unfortunate women, like Lady Dedlock, but their reluctance to let them off the hook entirely for their transgression.
Esther asks if anyone knows the secret and Lady Dedlock replies that she dreads that one man does—a mercenary, unfeeling man who seeks nothing but power and social privilege. This man is Mr. Tulkinghorn. Although Mr. Tulkinghorn suspects nothing yet, Lady Dedlock knows that he is always watching and that he cares nothing for her or for anyone but himself. Esther asks if there is no one who can help Lady Dedlock, but she again insists that she is beyond redemption. She tells Esther that she may tell Mr. Jarndyce—who is very kind—but no one else. Before she bids her daughter farewell, she implores Esther to believe that she loves her despite the mask of coldness she wears.
Lady Dedlock, who is also skilled at maintaining a façade and cloaking her true feelings, sees through Mr. Tulkinghorn’s veneer of politeness and respectability and knows that he is cruel and ruthless underneath. Lady Dedlock trusts Mr. Jarndyce because he is sympathetic and thinks of others before himself; she is sure he will put Esther’s interests first.
Esther walks home slowly, stunned by her ordeal, and hides her tears from Charley. She tells her maid that she will go to bed early and, once in her room, reads Lady Dedlock’s letter. It tells Esther what she already knows: that she was raised by her aunt, Miss Barbary. Esther burns her mother’s letter and, as she does so, is haunted by her aunt’s cruel words, which she remembers from her childhood.
Esther is still pained by her aunt’s cruelty. Miss Barbary took her from her mother without her mother’s knowledge and, therefore, denied Esther the childhood love she now knows that she would have received.
That evening, after dark, Esther goes out walking alone and walks through the Dedlock cemetery behind Chesney Wold. She wanders from here through the grounds and ends up on the Ghost’s Walk. She hears her own footsteps on the flagstones and is suddenly horrified by the realization that she is the omen in the story who will bring ruin to the Dedlock line. She runs from the house, back through the grounds, shaken with horror and despair.
Esther realizes that, if people find out her identity, Lady Dedlock’s name will be ruined and she will bring disgrace to the Dedlocks as a result. She feels, for a moment, that her identity is defined by the shame she has inherited from her mother and that people will blame her for.
When Esther arrives home, however, she has a letter from Ada. This note is full of kind words, and Esther remembers how loved she is and is grateful for the friends in her life. She wakes up the next morning anxious and excited over Ada’s arrival. She is half afraid that Ada will reject her when she sees her altered face. Her fears are allayed when Ada arrives and throws herself into Esther’s arms, delighted to see her old friend.
Esther’s shame is dispelled when she remembers how many people love and care for her; she is not defined by her mother’s actions and receives love because of her own unique identity, which is giving and kind.