That evening, Archer finds the drawing room empty before dinner. He knows May is home, so he wonders why she isn’t there. He has begun dwelling on such insignificant things to remain tied to reality. When May appears, she looks tired, but she has her usual tenderness. She asks what happened to him; she was waiting at Mrs. Mingott’s when Ellen arrived alone. He says he had to send a letter, and he doesn’t see why he should have gone to Mrs. Mingott’s, as he didn’t know May was there. She turns to look in a mirror, and something weary about her makes him remember that he had agreed that morning to meet her at Mrs. Mingott’s so they could drive home together. He’s irritated that she would hold this against him. He almost wishes she would voice her criticisms of him.
Archer’s new tendency to worry about insignificant things mirrors his father in law’s obsessive worry and suggests that society similarly worries about all of its ridiculous rules just to avoid thinking about unpleasant things. Archer’s relationship with Ellen is hurting May even though they aren’t acting on their desires; Archer isn’t present enough to be a responsible husband. His forgetfulness in this situation is undoubtedly a symptom of his greater failures. May’s inability to face conflict means their frustration stays bottled up.
Archer asks how Mrs. Mingott is, and May says she’s disturbed by the latest news about the Beauforts, which is that they’re planning to stay in New York. During dinner, May makes no mention of Ellen, which worries Archer slightly. Afterwards, they go up to the library, where he begins to read a history book. He’s begun to avoid reading poetry, because May always asks him to read it aloud, and he always knows what she’ll say about it. She tries to have her own opinions now, and he usually doesn’t like them. May begins to embroider, which she considers her duty even though she’s not very good at it.
The Beauforts are refusing to accept their disgrace, which weakens the power of society and the dominance of its rules. Archer used to want to teach May about art and literature, but now he’s grown protective of this part of his life, a part that could have helped them understand each other on a deeper level. They grate on each other’s nerves and make no headway in their solitary pursuits; May, bad at embroidery, for once fails at fulfilling society’s expectations.
As Archer watches May working, he realizes that she’ll never surprise him with a mood, an idea, or an emotion that he can’t predict. All her romance has disappeared now that their courtship is over. She’s turning into Mrs. Welland and turning him into Mr. Welland. He stands up and says he needs some air. He opens the window and leans out into the cold night. Seeing other houses and imagining other lives makes it easier to breathe. After a few minutes, she says he’ll catch his death. He closes the window, wanting to say that he’s been dead for months.
As has happened to him before, Archer suddenly begins to dread the sameness of his future with May. He’s not happy, and he has no hope that he will be. He pities the Wellands, but he’s destined to follow in their footsteps. He feels trapped with May, as represented by the relief he gets at opening the window. May asking him to close the window mirrors Archer’s perception that their marriage consists of May asking him every day to suffocate in monotony.
Suddenly Archer imagines May dying and leaving him free. He hardly realizes the enormity of the fact that he’s wishing this; instead it seems like a wonderful new possibility. She asks whether he’s ill. He moves to sit, saying that he pities her because he’ll never open a window without worrying her. She says quietly that she won’t worry if he’s happy, but he says he has to open windows to be happy.
Archer is becoming truly desperate; though he doesn’t actually wish May any harm, he so wants to be free of her that death seems like a good option. Their interaction about the window symbolizes their fundamental incompatibility. Archer needs something that May just can’t give him.
A week goes by without Archer seeing Ellen or hearing anything about her. He has formed a resolve that came to him when he leaned out the window. One day May says that Mrs. Mingott wants to see him. Archer asks whether they should go together, but May says he should go alone, which is exactly what he wanted. His heart is pounding when he arrives at the house. He imagines that Ellen is waiting for him inside. All he wants to know is the date she’s returning to Washington.
After his desperate moment at the window, Archer has decided to leave May once and for all and follow Ellen back to Washington. Once again, May unwittingly facilitates Archer’s plans to meet Ellen. Like usual, he imagines an entire scene with Ellen, but reality rarely goes the way he wants it to.
However, Archer is shown into Mrs. Mingott’s room without seeing Ellen. She’s sitting in her armchair, and all evidence of her stroke has disappeared besides her being pale and shadowy. She asks whether she’s hideous, and Archer says she’s more beautiful than ever, which makes her laugh. She asks whether Ellen was so very beautiful when he drove her back from the ferry, and whether that was why he left the carriage. She says it’s a pity Ellen didn’t marry him, but now Ellen’s going to stay with her.
Mrs. Mingott displays an odd attitude towards Archer. Though she seems almost to suspect that Archer is attracted to Ellen, she also teasingly encourages him in his attraction, meaning that their interactions are rather torturous and definitely ironic. If Ellen’s going to stay with Mrs. Mingott, then she and Archer will be able to see each other often.
Mrs. Mingott says that her family convinced her to cut off Ellen’s allowance until she agreed to return to her husband, but as soon as she saw Ellen, she knew she shouldn’t go back to him. She’ll stay and nurse Mrs. Mingott, and she’ll have her allowance back. Archer is stunned; he had decided so surely on his course of action that he hardly knows what to feel. But gradually he realizes that this is a wonderful opportunity, and it must be Ellen’s response to his ultimatum in the carriage.
Mrs. Mingott has always been one of the less conventional members of society, and it now becomes evident that she never disapproved of Ellen’s choices as much as people made it sound like she did. Archer believes that Ellen has agreed to this arrangement in order to allow them to be together without doing anything drastic that would hurt May, which he was in fact about to do.
Archer says that Ellen certainly couldn’t have gone back to her husband. Mrs. Mingott reveals that she wants him to convince her family to let Ellen stay. He protests that he’s not important enough, but she says he can get at them through Letterblair. Finally he agrees to support Ellen, to Mrs. Mingott’s delight. She says she was sure he would help because the family never quotes him when talking about why Ellen should return to her husband. He asks when he can see Ellen, and Mrs. Mingott says she’s gone to see Mrs. Beaufort. Ellen began visiting her the day after she got back. Mrs. Mingott didn’t want her to, but Ellen insisted that she’s a relation in need. Eventually she even convinced Mrs. Mingott to let her take her carriage. Archer kisses Mrs. Mingott’s hand. She teases him and says not to mention their talk to May.
People tend to use Archer to convince others of what’s best for Ellen, since nobody realizes how personally invested he is in Ellen’s situation. However, his vocal support of Ellen staying in New York is only going to add to the suspicions of those who already think they might be having an affair. Despite her teasing, it seems impossible that Mrs. Mingott believes anything is actually going on between them, proving that she’s so innocent she can’t see what’s right in front of her. Ellen again displays her compassion and disregard for society’s judgment by visiting Mrs. Beaufort.