Archer runs into Lawrence Lefferts at the telegraph office. He just heard about Mrs. Mingott’s stroke and followed Archer to find out how bad it is. He thinks it must be bad, if the family is summoning Ellen Olenska. Archer feels his temper rise, but Lefferts’s expression reminds him what bad form it would be to get angry in public. He hardly cares, but he doesn’t want to talk about Ellen with Lefferts. They leave the office together, discussing Mrs. Mingott and Beaufort.
Lefferts’s awareness that Archer is easily angered by insults to Ellen suggests that he knows Archer doesn’t share the rest of the family’s attitude towards her, and perhaps even that he, too, suspects a relationship. Lefferts’s appearance at this point acts as a warning of what Archer is in danger of becoming if he takes his affair too far—a hypocritical lout like Lefferts.
That afternoon, the Beaufort failure is in all the papers, but no one connects it with Mrs. Mingott’s stroke. There’s never been such a bad bank failure, and many of its clients were of the upper class. People begin to turn against Mrs. Beaufort even more than against her husband, as she tries to convince everyone that misfortunes are a test of friendship. Besides, she doesn’t have Beaufort’s excuse of being a foreigner. People take the situation as evidence that marriages can’t be dissolved. The Beauforts will no longer be part of society. Mrs. Archer says they’d better move to North Carolina and breed horses.
There could be negative consequences for the Mingotts if they were publicly associated in any way with Beaufort at this point. Mrs. Beaufort could preserve some of society’s respect if she accepted her disgrace along with her husband’s, but instead she fights what society has decreed, digging herself further into a hole. People expect her to know better because she’s American. In the end, society uses the situation as proof that divorce is never a realistic solution.
The next day, Mrs. Mingott is much improved, and orders that no one speak to her about the Beauforts again. She begins to pass her stroke off as indigestion. But her attitude towards life has changed, and she starts to take an interest in family members she has ignored up until now. She has never respected Mr. Welland, but now she wants him to come visit her to compare diets as soon as he’s healthy enough.
Mrs. Mingott wants to return to her state of innocence, rather than dealing with the reality of what has occurred. She becomes more ridiculous in this willful ignorance, becoming associated with Mr. Welland, who is obsessed with problems that he imagines so that he can ignore real problems.
Ellen sends a telegram announcing that she’ll arrive in New York the following evening. At lunch, the Wellands struggle to figure out who can pick her up in Jersey City, as everyone is otherwise engaged. Mrs. Welland thinks that Mrs. Mingott’s desire to see Ellen must be proof that she isn’t as well as the doctor says. Mr. Welland is dismayed and begins to worry that perhaps the doctor, who also treats him, might not be reliable. Mrs. Welland forces herself into cheerfulness again and assures him that she only meant it’s odd that Mrs. Mingott wants to see Ellen after their conflict over her marriage. Even so, Mr. Welland decides that he should find a new doctor before he gets much older.
This scene presents the absurdity of the Wellands’ marriage in a nutshell. Mrs. Welland makes an offhand comment that’s meant principally as a criticism of Ellen, but Mr. Welland, who cares only about himself, latches onto it as an indication that his health is in danger. In this marriage, Mrs. Welland spends all of her time making the world seem purer and happier than it is to protect her husband from the health problems that he makes up. Thus, they both waste their time in an imagined world.
As Mrs. Welland leads the way into the drawing room, she turns the conversation back to the problem of getting Ellen to New York the next day. Archer suggests that he can meet her after work if May sends the carriage to the ferry. May and Mrs. Welland are relieved at this solution.
For once, Archer has a stroke of luck in his attempts to see Ellen. However, it’s ironic that May and her mother are so happy for him to meet Ellen when, in reality, their interactions only serve to ruin May’s marriage.
When they leave the Wellands’, May asks Archer how he’ll be able to meet Ellen if he’s going to Washington the next day. He replies that he’s not going, because the case got postponed. She’s surprised, because she saw a note from Mr. Letterblair saying that he was going to Washington for the patent case the next day. Archer says that Letterblair decided to go instead of him. She points out that the case is not postponed, and her uncharacteristic insistence makes Archer nervous. He wishes he hadn’t given as many details when he first said he was going; he hates to see May pretending she hasn’t detected his lie. He says he’s not going until later. Their eyes meet, and they seem to understand each other more than they want to. When Archer gets out of the carriage to go to work, he wonders if May has tears in her eyes. All he can think is that he’ll have two hours with Ellen.
This scene reinforces the sense that May is beginning to suspect Archer of an inappropriate interest in Ellen. Archer is taking a risk by canceling his trip just as Ellen is arriving, and doing so requires him to lie to May even more than he already has. Because of her conditioning in New York society, May would never come out directly and accuse Archer of lying to her, but nonetheless, he can tell that her insistent questions amount to approximately the same thing. Ellen wanted only for their relationship not to hurt May, but it seems to already be doing so, since Archer can’t keep himself from deceiving May in the service of his love for Ellen.