The next day, the rumors say that Beaufort has successfully called on influential people, and everyone is relieved to see Mrs. Beaufort at the opera with a new necklace. They’re all aware that Beaufort will have to be ejected from their social circle if he’s been immoral in his business dealings, but, at the least, they don’t want to lose the Beauforts’ ballroom.
As is typical, society takes Mrs. Beaufort’s appearance of wealth as proof of actual wealth, though it will later become clear that the necklace hasn’t been paid for. People don’t actually care that much about Beaufort as a person, but he’s a social fixture.
Archer has definitely decided to go to Washington, even though the case he was using as an excuse has been postponed. He figures May won’t find out. One morning, however, Mr. Letterblair meets him at the office with news that Beaufort put out rumors to give people confidence in his bank, but they have turned out to be false, and there’s been a run on the bank. It’s about to fail. Mr. Letterblair says he’s never seen anything as bad in his life, and everyone they know will lose money. Mrs. Beaufort’s only chance is to leave her husband, but her duty is to stay.
Archer is beginning to take bigger risks to see Ellen, purposely deceiving his wife. Though society has tolerated all of Beaufort’s affairs, it can’t forgive him for his financial immorality, perhaps suggesting that people care more about money than about interpersonal relationships. Mrs. Beaufort’s reputation will decline with her husband’s if she stays with him, but people will also lose respect for her if she abandons him.
A letter arrives from May. Mrs. Mingott somehow found out the night before what Beaufort had done, and it caused her to have a stroke. Archer immediately goes to Mrs. Mingott’s house. He sees all the signs of illness in the hall—coats, a doctor’s bag, letters. It seems Mrs. Mingott will be all right. Mrs. Welland tells him that the previous night, Mrs. Beaufort came to see Mrs. Mingott. They were closeted together for an hour, and when Mrs. Beaufort left, Mrs. Mingott was helped to bed. At three in the morning, the servants heard her bell and found her sitting up with a crooked smile, one hand hanging limp.
The gravity of Beaufort’s actions can best be understood from the fact that they caused such a violent physical reaction in Mrs. Mingott. At the same time, her shock acts as a reminder of society’s innocence—even one of society’s less conventional members never imagined this sort of thing could happen, and when it did, she didn’t know how to deal with it.
The stroke wasn’t too bad, but everyone is terribly indignant to find that Mrs. Beaufort came to ask Mrs. Mingott to back up her husband. Mrs. Mingott told her that she wouldn’t support dishonesty, and even Mrs. Beaufort’s Dallas heritage wouldn’t convince her otherwise. Mrs. Welland tells Archer all of this, horrified at having to face such unpleasantness. She worries about how to keep the news from Mr. Welland, who wants to preserve his illusions about the world. The doctor has promised to keep him in bed until it’s all over.
Up until now, everyone has been pitying Mrs. Beaufort because they thought her husband was dragging her down with him. Now, however, it becomes clear that she supports him wholeheartedly, even though he’s committed unacceptable acts in the eyes of society. The Wellands want to willfully remain innocent; they know they don’t see the world realistically, and they don’t want to, an attitude that Wharton condemns.
Archer can’t really be helpful, and there’s nothing much to do but discuss the Beaufort scandal. Mrs. Welland says that in her time, the wives of men disgraced in business would simply disappear with them. Mrs. Mingott herself was brought up in the country for that reason, and her mother would never have asked the family to hide their dishonor. Opinion has turned decidedly against Mrs. Beaufort. Archer believes unquestioningly in financial honesty. He feels more sorry for Mrs. Beaufort than for her relatives, but he thinks she must stand by her husband. He agrees that the one thing families can’t do is support their members in business dishonor.
Mrs. Welland thinks that Mrs. Beaufort shouldn’t try to defend what society sees as indefensible. Instead, she should accept the consequences of having chained herself to an immoral man. This, perhaps, is Wharton arguing for the necessity of divorce. Though families are expected to support their members through most scandals, business scandal falls outside this responsibility, perhaps because money is the unspoken foundation of high society.
Mrs. Mingott demands that the family telegraph for Ellen to come immediately, alone. No one wants to, but May says they must carry out her wishes. As the servants are busy, she asks Archer to take the telegram. She remarks on what a pity it is that he’ll will be going to Washington just as Ellen is leaving it, but he certainly can’t give up an important business trip. As Archer leaves, he hears May say that perhaps Mrs. Mingott wants to urge Ellen again to return to her husband.
Again, Archer and Ellen’s relationship is marked by irony. Just as Archer was going to seek her out in Washington, she’ll be coming to New York, but it would seem suspicious for him to now cancel his trip. The fact that May remarks on this reinforces the sense that she might be catching on to their affair. Meanwhile, the specter of Ellen’s husband haunts Archer.