Archer has trouble understanding why Ellen has decided to live with Mrs. Mingott. He’s sure that it isn’t due to financial motives, even though Ellen has barely enough to live on without her grandmother’s support. She doesn’t mind going without luxuries, even though she was used to them with her husband. Archer thinks that she must have made the decision because she could tell from him not trying to see her that he was considering doing something drastic. She probably thought it better to accept a compromise rather than have to refuse his decisive step entirely.
Up until now, Ellen has insisted that she and Archer can only be together emotionally if they remain physically distant. Now, however, she’s breaking her own rule by moving back to New York. Though Ellen constantly tries to reject her feelings for Archer for the good of everyone else, she never manages to do so, and she can’t trust herself to refuse him if he tries to run away with her.
Before Archer saw Mrs. Mingott, he had planned to learn what day Ellen was returning to Washington and join her on the train to run away wherever she would let them. He would leave a note for May that would make it impossible to return. However, he initially felt relieved when he heard he wouldn’t have to do this. Walking home, he begins to sour to the future of secrecy and duplicity now laid before him.
Archer has grown desperate enough to leave May once and for all, despite the consequences and Ellen’s disapproval. Even so, he wants fundamentally to belong, and taking this drastic step scares him. But he and Ellen have never been satisfied by the idea of having the kind of affairs that everyone else has.
Archer has long known the proper way to conduct an affair of this sort, but it’s different now that he’s married. He watched Mrs. Rushworth constantly lie to her husband while she was having an affair with Archer himself. Wives are generally judged less harshly for affairs because more excuses can be made for them, but society disapproves of husbands who have them. Archer has always agreed with this view, but he feels that his situation with Ellen is somehow different. He imagines May and all the conventions of society waiting at home, and he walks right past his street.
Although deceit has already played a large role in his marriage, Archer doesn’t want to embark on an affair that will make deceit central for an indeterminate amount of time. It seems that the typical gender double standard switches in marriage; while unmarried women must be chaste and innocent and unmarried men may do as they please, wives who have affairs are given more sympathy than husbands. While Archer once believed this, Ellen (and his own self-interest) cause him to change his mind.
Archer goes to the Beauforts’ house, thinking of his memories with May there. The house is dark except for one window, and Mrs. Mingott’s carriage is at the door. He knows society won’t take kindly to Ellen visiting here. He imagines that Ellen and Mrs. Beaufort are sitting in the only lit room. The street is deserted, and he’s glad that no one will see Ellen emerge. Just then she does emerge, and he says her name as she reaches the street.
The Beauforts’ house was the location of May and Archer’s engagement announcement and their first kiss, in a distant time when Archer was actually in love with her. Since society has collectively alienated the Beauforts, it’s daring of Ellen to go against public opinion to display her sympathy for Mrs. Beaufort.
Lawrence Lefferts and another man come down the road, but Archer stops worrying about Ellen being seen there when he feels her hand in his. He says they’ll be together now, and she understands that Mrs. Mingott has given him the news. Lefferts and his friend have crossed to the other side of the road, and Archer knows they’re helping him maintain secrecy. He feels that he and Ellen can’t live like this. He says he needs to see her alone the next day. She says she’ll be at Mrs. Mingott’s, and there aren’t any churches or monuments in New York where they can be alone. He suggests they go to the Art Museum. She gets into her carriage and drives off, Archer hating being trapped in these well-worn rituals of a common affair.
Lawrence Lefferts always represents the hypocrisy of society. Archer himself is now acting rather hypocritically; he has often judged Lefferts for his affairs, but now he’s having one himself. Furthermore, in crossing the road, Lefferts and his friend indicate that they know Archer and Ellen are having an affair. This is the sort of illicit, guilty meeting that they’ll have to make part of their normal life, and Archer can’t stand it. Besides, the fact that all other affairs are conducted in this fashion makes their love seem tawdry and unremarkable.
Ellen and Archer avoid the popular part of the Metropolitan Museum, going instead to the recovered antiquities that no one visits. Archer figures that someday it will be a great museum. Ellen wanders around the room, Archer noticing all the details of her appearance. He joins her before a case of small broken archaeological objects. Ellen says it doesn’t seem fair that eventually nothing matters more than these little things that used to be important to people. Archer says that meanwhile, everything concerning Ellen matters. They sit back down in silence until Archer begins to feel how little time they have.
In this novel, New York is known for being unwelcoming to the arts, in contrast to Europe. Thus, meeting in an art museum is reminiscent of Europe, where the social conventions they’re fighting are already not as strict. The fact that the museum will one day be revered acts as a reminder that social norms around marriage and divorce will also change with time. As the artifacts prove, time eventually changes everything.
Ellen asks what Archer wanted to tell her. He says he thinks she came to New York because she was afraid he would come to Washington. She admits he’s right, and she thinks that their current situation will hurt people less than their taking a decisive step. He says he doesn’t want them to always be near each other but have to meet in secret; he thinks it detestable. She agrees, relieved. He asks what she thinks would be better. A museum official appears, and they’re silent until he leaves.
In spite of Ellen moving back to New York, she and Archer have no better way to deal with their love than they ever did. Ellen’s sense of honor won’t let them run away together, and Archer’s sense of honor won’t let them carry on a secret affair under the noses of their friends and family. They’re essentially searching for a way to live their lives honestly, but without doing harm.
Ellen says she agreed to stay with Mrs. Mingott because it seemed she would be safer here from doing irreparable harm like so many others have done. Archer says he has the same desires as other people. She looks terrified and asks whether she should come to him once and then go home. Archer feels overwhelmed, but asks what she means by going home. She means going back to her husband, which he can’t agree to. She says she can’t stay in New York and lie to the people who have helped her; if they ran away it would destroy these people’s lives. Archer knows that the power Ellen would give him if she came to him once would make it easy to convince her not to return to her husband, but he can’t bear to trap her like that.
Up until now, Archer and Ellen’s affair has remained almost entirely centered on their emotional desire, rather than their sexual desire. At this point, however, unable to find a sustainable way to fulfill their emotional desire, they turn to sexual desire for satisfaction. Ellen seems to think that sleeping with Archer would give their affair some sort of conclusion, but such a breach of society’s rules would then require her to return to proper domesticity with her husband. Archer briefly considers blackmailing her into staying in New York, but doing such a thing would ruin their trust.
Archer says Ellen is so experienced that he doesn’t see why she doesn’t look their situation in the eye, unless she doesn’t want to make the necessary sacrifice. She frowns and says she has to go. He catches her wrist and says she should come to him once, in two days. Her face looks radiant with love, and Archer is in awe of it. She hurries away, as though his love has frightened her.
Archer thinks that Ellen’s experience with transgressing society’s rules should make it easier for her to do it again, but he doesn’t see that she’s lived with the consequences and knows better than he does what they’re risking. Consummating their love will be a new level of betrayal of May.
When Archer gets home, everything in his house looks strange to him. To his relief, May isn’t home yet. He sits in his library, feeling amazed that his situation has come to this. He had dreamed of something much different. May enters, hoping she didn’t worry him by being late. She looks pale but animated.
Archer is giving himself over more and more fully to the reality of Ellen, which means abandoning the reality of his life with May. May’s concern that he was worried about her seems pitiful, considering that he’s consciously hurting her every day and he hardly cares.
May was at Mrs. Mingott’s and ran into Ellen. They had a good, long talk. She feels that she hasn’t judged Ellen fairly lately because she acts so differently than other people. May blushes, and Archer can tell she’s trying to see something in a way she doesn’t usually. He realizes she’s trying to overcome a hatred of Ellen. He’s about to throw himself on May’s mercy, but then she says that he must understand why the family has been annoyed by Ellen’s flouting of social convention. As they rise to dress for dinner, May flings her arms around his neck and says he hasn’t kissed her that day.
Even as May tries to understand and like Ellen, her unshakeable loyalty to society’s conventions, along with her suspicions about the affair, makes it difficult. Even when she tries, May truly can’t change the perspective with which she was raised. Unbeknownst to Archer, May has actually just told Ellen that she’s pregnant, putting an abrupt end to the affair. May’s insistence on a kiss suggests that she feels the lack of Archer’s love.