In the trunk, Robert finds a letter from George’s father, Mr. Harcourt Talboys. Robert had written to Harcourt right after George’s disappearance, and Harcourt wrote back that he had dismissed all responsibility for his son when George married so far beneath the family station. But now that Robert is more certain of George’s dark fate, he decides to visit Harcourt after he leaves Southampton. He resolves to only continue his investigation if Harcourt wishes him to.
Though Robert has become more serious than he was in the beginning of the novel, he is now looking for a way out of his investigation because it is a dark subject of personal consequence to him. Harcourt’s letter once again reminds the readers of his harsh nature and strict adherence to class structure.
On the train to Southampton, Robert feels lonely without George and thinks that he would give up his wealth and privilege if he could have George back.
Robert makes the important revelation that he values friendship over his upper-class lifestyle.
Robert arrives at Southampton and is appalled by the poverty he sees around him. He sees a child’s funeral procession and thinks about how if anything happened to Georgey, he would be responsible. He finds Georgey at home with a woman of fair complexion, Mrs. Plowson. Robert notices that Mrs. Plowson seems very anxious as he chats with Georgey. Mrs. Plowson tries to take Georgey away to wash his face.
The child’s funeral builds an atmosphere of danger and melodrama, while also depicting a realistic consequence of poverty. Mrs. Plowson’s fair complexion becomes relevant in Volume 3, given that her dead daughter passed for Helen in burial.
Mrs. Plowson remains fidgety and seems to know who Robert is. Georgey babbles on about his watch given to him by the pretty lady. Robert asks about the pretty lady. Georgey says that Maldon told him not to talk about the pretty lady but he will anyway. He says that she visited when he was little, gave him the watch, cried, and then left.
Mrs. Plowson’s behavior suggests she is directly involved in the larger secrets of the story. Again, Georgey is innocent and ignorant of the schemes of adults and almost gives away clues. The “pretty lady” is Lady Audley.
Mrs. Plowson tries to hush Georgey, saying he might be annoying Robert. Georgey rambles on about Mrs. Plowson’s daughter, who was sick. Before he can continue, a drunken Maldon comes in and tells Mrs. Plowson to go wash Georgey’s face. Robert realizes that Mrs. Plowson has a stake in Maldon’s secrets. Robert remarks that the mystery is growing deeper and “a stronger hand than my own is pointing the way to my lost friend’s unknown grave.”
Robert repeats this phrase about a “stronger hand” several times in the rest of the novel. The hand could be the virtue of truth and justice, could be George’s spirit, or could be the predestined request of someone Robert hasn’t even met yet (later suggested to be Clara). Either way, he feels inspired to proceed in his investigation.