Back on the boat, Archer feels surprisingly calm. By any normal measure, the day has been a failure, but he feels oddly comforted by the balance Ellen holds between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves. He’s glad he didn’t tempt her to break it. Even after he says goodbye to her at the station, he feels satisfied with their meeting. He returns to the club and thinks about their day. He realizes that Ellen will only go back to Europe if she thinks she’s tempting Archer to be disloyal. He has to keep her near him, but not go too near.
Though a part of Archer is ruled entirely by his love for Ellen, he fundamentally doesn’t want to hurt their families any more than Ellen does. For this reason, he can be content with the agreement they’ve come to. Now, his job is to navigate their relationship so that he can gain satisfaction for his love, but not drive Ellen away by being bold with his love in a way that could hurt May.
Archer falls into a haze of these thoughts on the train, and is only stirred out of it once he arrives in New York and finds outside the station the same man he had vaguely recognized outside the hotel the day before. The man approaches him and asks whether they met in London. Archer suddenly recognizes him as M. Rivière. M. Rivière says he’s returning to Europe in two days, and he begins to ask Archer for a favor. Archer interrupts to ask him to lunch, but M. Rivière says he only needs help finding transportation because American stations are hard to navigate. Archer helps him and they make plans to meet that afternoon.
Perhaps influenced by his recent encounter with Ellen, which has influenced him back towards unconventionality, Archer takes this opportunity to ask M. Rivière to dine, an idea that May shot down on their last meeting. The strange coincidence of seeing the man both here and in Boston suggests that his appearance will have some unknown significance. M. Rivière’s difficulty with the station reinforces the sense that America is hostile towards foreigners and travelers.
Later, M. Rivière comes to Archer’s office. He says he thinks he saw Archer in Boston. He finds it strange that they met in the current circumstances; he has come on a special mission. Archer suddenly makes a connection about M. Rivière’s presence. He asks him to sit. M. Rivière says he wants to speak to Archer about Ellen Olenska. Though Archer knew this was coming, it still bowls him over. He asks whether M. Rivière is Count Olenski’s messenger, but M. Rivière says that his mission as such has failed, and he thinks Archer can help make it a failure with Ellen’s family, as well. Archer grows angry and says he certainly will do so. Believing that the Mingotts don’t want Ellen to return to her husband, he’s offended that M. Rivière would try to set him against the family. The Frenchman becomes distressed and timid.
Archer has liked, and perhaps even pitied, M. Rivière up until this point. Suddenly, however, the man reveals himself to be the very person who could threaten Archer’s future with Ellen, the very person whom Archer despises for the message he brings her. Archer and M. Rivière begin this interaction with a misunderstanding: Archer gets angry because he thinks M. Rivière wants him to convince the Mingotts that Ellen should return to her husband. What Archer doesn’t realize is that he doesn’t have the full picture of the situation.
M. Rivière clarifies that he wants to present his own opinion to Archer, not the arguments that he was sent with. Archer is no more receptive than before. M. Rivière asks whether Archer thinks the matter is entirely closed. Archer calms down and asks whether the matter isn’t closed. M. Rivière asks whether he agrees with the family that the new proposals he’s brought mean Ellen must return to her husband.
M. Rivière is essentially betraying his mission to do what he thinks is morally right. He assumes that the Mingotts have informed Archer about the situation and their opinion on it, but in fact, they have done no such thing. The family has chosen wealth over Ellen’s freedom, and they have an unreasonable amount of influence over her future.
Archer is shocked. He realizes that the Mingotts have kept him from even knowing that negotiations with Count Olenski were happening. They must have sensed that he wouldn’t be on their side. He remembers May saying Ellen might be happier with her husband. She hasn’t mentioned Ellen since; this must have been a test. Archer admires May’s family loyalty, but she must also believe Ellen would be better off with her husband. M. Rivière asks whether Archer knows that the Mingotts are advising Ellen to accept proposals he has brought on the Count’s behalf.
As much as the Mingotts seem to like Archer, this development proves that they don’t necessarily trust him. They know that his personal moral compass is too strong to let him simply agree with whatever the Mingotts decide is the family line. Furthermore, the deception in his marriage is going both ways, as May has obviously colluded with her family in keeping this information from Archer.
Archer wants to know why M. Rivière is even talking to him about this, and M. Rivière exclaims that Archer must not let Ellen go back to her husband. He seems passionately sincere. Archer asks whether he expressed this opinion to Ellen, but M. Rivière says he originally believed that she should go back to regain her money and social position, or else he wouldn’t have accepted his mission. However, after he spoke to Ellen and explained the Count’s offers, he changed his mind because he could see Ellen had changed. He has known Ellen for many years through his acquaintance with Count Olenski.
M. Rivière’s attitude is unexpected, considering that Count Olenski sent him to argue the exact opposite of what he’s now telling Archer. However, the risk he’s taking in doing so makes his opinion even more convincing. Ellen and Archer have just been discussing the ways in which they have changed each other, and now M. Rivière confirms that Ellen has indeed transformed since returning to America.
Archer gazes at a wall calendar with a portrait of the President on it. It seems unimaginable that such a conversation as this is going on under his rule. He asks how Ellen has changed. M. Rivière says he discovered that she’s an American, and things that are acceptable in other societies are not acceptable to Americans. If the Mingotts understood what those things were, they would surely not want her to go back, but they think her husband is just longing for domestic life. Both men are very moved. Archer thanks M. Rivière, who adds that he is currently employed by Count Olenski out of financial need, but he will quit immediately when he returns.
Something about this interaction seems distinctly not American to Archer, presumably the frank talk of deception. M. Rivière thinks that Americans are more scrupulous than foreigners are, and he makes the Mingotts seem simply naïve in their belief that life will be better for Ellen with her husband. In fact, they seem to understand Ellen’s husband’s true nature, and yet still do not change their opinion. Finally, M. Rivière wants Archer to understand that he’s an honest man who doesn’t like to be betraying his employer.