In the theater lobby, Archer comes upon his friend Ned Winsett, one of the intellectual set. Winsett proposes they go to a restaurant, but Archer says he needs to get some work done. They begin to walk together, and Winsett admits he wants to know the name of the lady sitting with the Beauforts. Archer is annoyed at his curiosity. Winsett explains that she’s his neighbor and she brought his son home when he fell and cut his knee, but his wife didn’t get her name. Archer is pleased at this tale and gives Ellen’s name. Winsett wonders why a countess lives in his neighborhood, and Archer is proud to say that she doesn’t care about social rules. Winsett supposes she’s been in bigger places. They part ways.
Archer again betrays his romantic interest in Ellen by acting slightly possessive of her; he doesn’t like the idea that Winsett might be asking her name because he finds her attractive. Winsett’s tale about Ellen shows an almost heroic side of her; she’s not too self-important to help an unknown boy on the street. It’s a bit hypocritical of Archer to feel proud of Ellen’s carelessness with social rules, since he’s just convinced her not to get a divorce by impressing the importance of social judgment upon her.
Archer has only ever seen Winsett at places frequented by the intellectual set. Supposedly his wife is an invalid. Winsett hates social conventions, and Archer thinks his “Bohemian” attitude just makes fashionable people seem simpler than other people. Even so, he likes having long talks with Winsett. Winsett is naturally a literary man, but when his attempt at literary writing failed, he took a job at a women’s magazine. Though he can poke fun at this job, he’s deeply bitter about his failure. Talking to him always makes Archer realize how empty both of their lives are.
Archer seems to think that Winsett’s hatred of convention only complicates his life and makes him seem particularly fussy. Archer’s attitude emphasizes the fact that society’s rules do make life somewhat simpler, but only by allowing its members to never have to think about their actions or opinions. As a man of society, Archer doesn’t have to have ambitions, but Winsett’s ambitions make Archer feel, for the first time, his own lack of professional fulfillment.
Winsett feels that his own case is hopeless, but he insists that Archer should go into politics. Archer only laughs at this, because gentlemen don’t go into politics in America. Winsett doesn’t understand that decent people have to occupy themselves with sport and culture. Winsett argues that culture no longer exists in America. He thinks that gentlemen have to either get involved in the less refined aspects of life or emigrate to make anything of themselves. Archer always turns the conversation back to books. He doesn’t think either of these options are in the least possible. Winsett doesn’t understand that gentlemen stay out of the general fray.
Society’s rules are restricting Archer’s life, but he can’t even see their effect on him because they seem so natural. Winsett, as an outsider to society, can perceive its strangling influence on Archer, but he fails to convince his friend to break the rules in order to find a purpose in life. For Archer, being a gentleman has always been his unquestioned priority, and everything else has to fall by the wayside if society demands it.
The next morning, Archer goes looking for more yellow roses. He arrives late at the office and realizes that no one cares, which makes him feel useless. Old-fashioned law firms like his usually engage a few wealthy young men who do unimportant work because it’s proper for them to have an occupation. They usually have no ambition or motivation. Archer has interests and likes to be intellectually sharp, but he imagines that once he marries, he might easily sink into a dull routine.
Even though Archer told himself he wasn’t going to spend more time with Ellen, the yellow roses show that he’s still preoccupied with her. Archer’s lack of purpose at the law firm reinforces Winsett’s sense that Archer needs to find a worthier vocation, as he won’t be happy doing this meaningless work for his entire life. Archer is beginning to associate marriage with the boredom of sameness.
Archer sends Ellen a note asking if he can call on her, but he receives no reply until three days later. It comes from Skuytercliff, and Ellen writes that she ran away to think somewhere quiet. Archer wonders what she’s running from, but he thinks she might be prone to exaggerating in writing. She often speaks English as though translating from French, and in French, the phrase “run away” might imply only that she wanted to escape social engagements. It’s funny that the van der Luydens have taken her in, as they rarely have guests at Skuytercliff. It seems that now they’ve rescued her once, they’re determined to continue doing so.
Ellen exhibits a spontaneity that’s unusual in Archer’s circle. His observations about her way of speaking emphasize her foreignness, while his close analysis of her note betrays his excessive interest in her. Although Ellen seems unable to fit into society, the fact that such an important couple as the van der Luydens like her so much suggests that something in her charm transcends the requirements of society.
Archer is disappointed that Ellen is away, but he remembers that he just refused an invitation to the Chiverses’ house near Skuytercliff. Parties there are always filled with flirting and mild practical jokes, and he wanted to read some new books instead. But now he sends a telegram saying he’s changed his mind and will come after all.
Archer is beginning to go to great lengths to get closer to Ellen, changing his weekend plans to surprise her at Skuytercliff when she didn’t even invite him to come. However, Wharton still gives no indication that Archer is conscious of the gravity of his actions.