British politics are in a terrible state because of a disagreement between Lord Moodle and Lord Coodle, which has become so volatile and unruly that, currently, no one is ruling the country. At Chesney Wold, Mrs. Rouncewell expects that the Dedlocks will assemble to discuss this calamity and she has prepared the house. In the sunset, the light shines in on the Dedlock portraits, which line the hall, and for a brief moment, the elderly figures in them seem to grow young again and to shimmer and move. The illusion is very brief, however, and shadow falls swiftly in the gallery. Lady Dedlock’s portrait sits in darkness.
It is pertinent that, although the government has collapsed, the country carries on as normal and no one seems to have noticed. This suggests that politicians are useless. The idea that the Dedlocks are politically relevant is nothing but an illusion, when, really, their time in the sun is over. Lady Dedlock’s imminent demise and the revelation of her secret is foreshadowed by the darkness which falls on her picture.
The Dedlocks arrive the next evening, with all the cousins in tow. Lady Dedlock is unwell and does not often join the cousins, who engage in many pleasurable pursuits to keep their spirits up. Volumnia takes an interest in the nation’s fortunes and often talks privately with Sir Leicester about it, although she does not always understand his opinions and is very naïve about politics. When Sir Leicester explains that the government has spent a great deal of money sorting out the mess, Volumnia asks what it has all been spent on. Sir Leicester is very indignant and tells her firmly that it has gone towards “necessary expenses.”
The Dedlocks’ feel that a change in government would be a blow to their social position. However, although Sir Leicester and the cousins fear social change, they are not likely to be affected by it because they are such a wealthy family and have such an important reputation. Volumnia takes an interest in Sir Leicester’s opinions because she hopes to be left an inheritance. Sir Leicester always trusts the conservative government, no matter how much money they spend.
While Sir Leicester, Volumnia, and Lady Dedlock are in the library one evening, discussing the state of the country, Mr. Tulkinghorn is announced. Volumnia cries that she has seen so little of the lawyer that she thought he was dead and a shadow passes over Lady Dedlock’s face for a second, as though she wishes this were the case. Another cousin asks how wealthy Mr. Tulkinghorn is and a gun is fired in the garden, which makes everybody jump. Lady Dedlock, who faces the window, says that the gamekeeper must have shot a rat.
Lady Dedlock wishes that Mr. Tulkinghorn was dead because she worries that he knows her secret—that she has an illegitimate child—and will expose her. The gunshot foreshadows the fatal gunshot that kills Mr. Tulkinghorn. Mr. Tulkinghorn is compared to the rat because he is a parasitic and ruthless man.
Mr. Tulkinghorn enters and informs Sir Leicester that the Dedlocks’ favored party has been ousted in one constituency, and that Mr. Rouncewell has taken this seat. Sir Leicester thinks this is most improper, and Volumnia is very put out. Mr. Tulkinghorn remarks that Mr. Rouncewell had help from his son, Watt, and Sir Leicester opens his mouth to address Lady Dedlock. She cuts him off and tells him that she will not dismiss Rosa, but Sir Leicester says that this is not what he meant. Instead he was going to tell her to warn Rosa about the kind of family she is to marry into—one that would bring down the whole British establishment if it could.
Mr. Rouncewell’s victory signifies social change and increased social mobility as Mr. Rouncewell is not a man who has land or inherited wealth—he is self-made and a servant’s son—but has successfully won over the public and has been voted into Parliament. Sir Leicester is essentially a kind man and will not dismiss an innocent girl because of her associations.
Mr. Tulkinghorn says that Mr. Rouncewell’s political group is very active and “proud.” He launches into a story about an incident much like this one. The story is about the daughter of an ironmaster who was taken on as a maid by a noble woman. This noble woman had a secret: that she was once engaged to a young soldier and that she gave birth to his illegitimate child before her marriage to her noble husband. The noble woman believed her lover was dead, but her secret was nonetheless discovered while the ironmaster’s daughter was in her service.
Mr. Tulkinghorn tells the story—a thinly veiled rehashing of her own life story—to threaten Lady Dedlock. As the events of the story echo Lady Dedlock’s own circumstances, it makes it clear to her that Mr. Tulkinghorn knows her secret and that he may, at any time, expose her.
When the secret came out and the ironmaster heard of it, he removed his daughter from the lady’s service, ashamed of his connection with her because of the scorn and disgrace she had brought upon herself and her family. Her husband, meanwhile, nearly died from grief. Mr. Tulkinghorn concludes his tale and hopes that Lady Dedlock, who remains frozen by the window, has not been upset by it. She does not reply and sits silently in front of the window all evening.
Mr. Tulkinghorn implies that Lady Dedlock’s secret will bring such intense shame on the family that even an ironmaster will not want his daughter-in-law associated with them. Men who had earned their wealth, rather than inherited it, were still considered vulgar and not truly noble compared with the landed upper classes.