One October morning, Henry Lennox arrives at Helstone parsonage. Margaret greets him happily, excited to hear news of Edith. While waiting alone in the drawing-room, Henry finds the Hales’ place looking “smaller and shabbier than he had expected, as back-ground and frame-work for Margaret, herself so queenly.” When Margaret goes to fetch Mrs. Hale, she finds her mother in a fitful mood, so she decides to take Henry out sketching with her until lunchtime.
It’s clear that Henry’s unexpected visit doesn’t please Margaret primarily for romantic reasons. But Henry seems to have matrimony on his mind—hence his interest in Margaret’s family circumstances, and the environment that produced such a “queen.”
Henry and Margaret set out merrily. They stop to sketch some old cottages. When Margaret goes to speak to one of the old cottage dwellers, Henry sketches them. He tells Margaret, “I hardly dare tell you how much I shall like this sketch,” an uncharacteristically blunt admission, to which Margaret makes no response. When the pair returns to the house, they find Mr. Hale, and Margaret sees that his disturbed air has only been set aside, not banished.
Margaret’s interest in sketching Helstone accords with her description of it as resembling a Tennyson poem; she sees it as something that can be readily captured in a static form. For Henry, however, Helstone isn’t the main attraction, and Margaret either doesn’t realize this or is steadfastly ignoring the fact.
When Henry compliments Margaret’s drawing, he thinks to himself that “a regular London girl would understand the implied meaning of that speech.” But Margaret appears oblivious, just happily accepts the garden roses he has plucked to adorn her dress. The party enjoys an agreeable dinner.
Henry is dropping many hints of his regard for Margaret, and she continues to decline to pick them up. Henry does not seem to be put off by Margaret’s apparent naïveté.
After dinner, the family adjourns to the garden to pick pears for dessert. Henry walks through the garden with Margaret, complimenting Helstone’s perfections. He warmly tells Margaret that he will never again speak of Helstone as “a mere village in a tale.” As they turn a corner in the garden, he begins, “I could almost wish, Margaret—” then stops. Margaret is surprised by the “fluent lawyer’s” hesitation, then suddenly perceives what he is about to say. She steels herself for what’s coming, knowing she can put a stop to it with “her high maidenly dignity.”
Helstone’s connection to Margaret has endeared the village to Henry in a way that picturesque descriptions couldn’t—or, in any case, Henry knows that praising the village is the way to Margaret’s heart. His uncharacteristic fumbling finally clues her in, and though she’s not pleased, she knows her own mind and won’t let it get too far.
Taking her hand, Henry tells Margaret that he had wished to find her missing London a little more, because he loves her. Margaret extricates her hand and tells him that she didn’t know he thought of her in that way, that she thinks of him as a friend, and that she wishes to continue doing so. He asks if there is any hope of her ever thinking of him as a lover, and, after some thought, she tells him no, and asks that they forget the conversation has ever taken place.
Margaret quietly but firmly shoots down Henry’s proposal. She hasn’t interpreted their friendly interactions in the same light, suggesting that she’s been a bit sheltered. Henry’s declaration of love, though sudden in Margaret’s view, wouldn’t be unusual for a marriage proposal in the literature of the time.
Resuming his usual coldness of tone, Henry tells her that, not being given to romance in general, it will take him longer to recover from this mortification— “a struggling barrister to think of matrimony!” Despite her pain, Margaret feels contempt at this speech.
Margaret doesn’t relish giving pain to anyone, showing her compassionate nature; but her pride is also evident—Henry’s sarcastic reaction reminds her of the ways they differ. A middle-class man generally would have been expected to attain to a certain level of financial stability before marrying, as Henry’s muttered comment suggests.
At this point, they rejoin Mr. Hale, who has not yet finished eating the pear he had started. Henry spends the remainder of their visit conversing in a more sarcastic, worldly tone, puzzling Mr. Hale. When he leaves to catch the train, however, his true personality reappears, and he urges Margaret not to despise him.
The reappearance of Mr. Hale, ploddingly eating his pear, adds a touch of comic relief to the scene, and also shows just how much Margaret’s world has been rattled within a short time. Henry tries to cover his embarrassment and distance himself from Margaret by behaving in a devil-may-care manner.