At 5:30 the next evening, Archer rings the bell of the house Ellen is renting. It’s an odd neighborhood for her to be living in, as it’s mostly inhabited by writers and artists. Archer knows a journalist named Ned Winsett who lives down the street. Ellen’s modest house makes Archer think that her husband must have robbed her of her money.
Ellen’s choice of neighborhood shows partly her disregard of convention, but also her attraction to the intellectual life. Furthermore, in Europe writers and artists are often part of society, so she’s showing her European quality by deciding to live here.
Archer has had a dissatisfying day. He had lunch with the Wellands and wanted to go for a walk with May afterward to urge her to hasten their marriage, but when he hinted at this, Mrs. Welland pointed out how much there was to do before the wedding. They went on a round of family visits, Archer feeling like a trapped animal. He can hardly bear the idea of his dull life in the year before the wedding will occur. He realizes that they’re visiting the families in alphabetical order, and they’re only on D.
Archer begins trying to convince May to get married sooner right after he realizes that he is attracted to Ellen, proving that his motivations are not entirely pure—he doesn’t trust himself. Archer is also starting to feel hemmed in by the traditions of his world and to recognize that his life isn’t particularly interesting.
Archer meant to tell May that he was going to visit Ellen, but he never managed to. Besides, he knows May wants him to be kind to Ellen, so there’s no need to tell her. He’s curious about Ellen and her invitation. A maid opens the door and leads him to the drawing room, then she goes to find Ellen. The maid doesn’t speak English, but when she returns Archer manages to speak to her in Italian and learns that Ellen is out.
Archer is already making excuses for seeing Ellen without his fiancée’s knowledge, suggesting that he feels guilty about it, which means that, on some level, he recognizes his attraction to her. Ellen’s Italian maid highlights Ellen’s own foreignness.
While he waits, Archer examines the room, which is decorated unlike any room he’s seen. Certain pieces he assumes Ellen has brought back with her. Archer is proud of his knowledge of Italian art, but the Italian paintings he sees here are unlike anything he knows. He now regrets not telling May of his visit, and he worries that she might come to visit Ellen while he’s there. He thinks it odd that Ellen has forgotten him. The room’s atmosphere makes his self-consciousness disappear, replacing it with a sense of adventure. He’s impressed by the way Ellen has made the room seem foreign and romantic, and he tries to figure out what it is about the roses and the perfume that makes it seem so.
The way in which Ellen has decorated her drawing room emphasizes her difference from the rest of New York, particularly in her romanticism and love of art. Notably, she doesn’t even display the kind of Italian art that Americans admire, but instead Italian art that Archer doesn’t recognize, making it seem more purely foreign. The room also shows Ellen’s creativity. Archer’s worry about May appearing suggests that he’s already thinking of the room as a place he would meet Ellen as a lover.
Archer begins to think about what May’s drawing room will look like. Mr. Welland is already considering buying them a newly built house of greenish-yellow stone. Archer would have liked to travel and get a house later, but the Wellands are insistent. He already feels that he’ll go through that door every evening of his life, but he can’t imagine how May will decorate the interior. She’ll probably imitate the Welland house. Archer only hopes he’ll be able to decorate his own library.
Although Archer doesn’t realize what he’s doing, he’s starting to compare May with Ellen and find May lacking. Furthermore, he’s beginning to dread the sameness that he senses approaching him in married life, not only the sameness of his own routine, but also May’s imitation of her parents’ life. Archer is already trying to carve out a place—the library—where he can do as he likes.
The maid checks on Archer and leaves again. He’s beginning to feel foolish and wonders whether he should leave. He hears a carriage on the street and, looking out the window, he sees Ellen Olenska descending from Julius Beaufort’s carriage. When she enters the drawing room, she’s unsurprised to see Archer. She asks what he thinks of her house, which she loves. Her family doesn’t like it, but at least it’s not as gloomy as the van der Luydens’. Archer is amazed to hear her say such a thing about the venerated van der Luydens, but he compliments her decorations. Most of all, she says, she likes being in New York and being alone in her house.
This is the second time that Ellen has been seen with Beaufort, making their relationship somewhat suspect by the standards of New York. Just as she did with the Duke of St. Austrey, Ellen doesn’t hesitate to tell wicked truths about people who are supposed to be above insult. She also demonstrates her independence through her house, not only by liking living alone, but also by living here against her family’s wishes.
Ellen reclines in a chair by the fire. Archer says he was worried she’d forgotten him. She says that Beaufort was showing her houses, as she’s supposed to move since her current neighborhood isn’t fashionable. Ellen thinks this is foolishness, but she wants to fit in with New York society and feel safe. Archer says sarcastically that New York is terribly safe. She says it’s like being a little girl taken on holiday for being good. Archer is displeased, feeling that she’s unaware of how narrowly she has escaped social ostracism.
Beaufort is already coming between Archer and Ellen, a trend that will soon become more marked. As Ellen has appeared to willfully flout convention, it’s surprising to discover that she actually wants to fit in, even if it requires leaving this house that she so enjoys. Archer seems to simultaneously find New York a bit too safe for his liking and to want Ellen to respect the ways in which it can be dangerous.
Archer turns the conversation to the van der Luydens’ party, but Ellen doesn’t seem to understand how important it was. He says they’re very powerful but rarely have guests. Ellen points out that they’re powerful because they make themselves difficult to reach. Archer feels that she has struck them down incredibly easily, and he laughs. As tea arrives, Ellen tells him she wants help understanding society. He says that she’s the one making him see things in a new light. He wants to tell her not to be seen driving with Beaufort, but the atmosphere of the room makes this seem ridiculous. He feels as though they’re in Samarkand and he’s looking at New York through the wrong end of a telescope.
As an outsider, Ellen manages to see the van der Luydens in a way that Archer, who has been raised to venerate them, never has before. She strips them of their power by recognizing its source. Ellen and Archer each have something that the other can use—Ellen has a fresh perspective, and Archer has an understanding of tradition. Already, Ellen is making Archer see his world in a different way, as though he’s a foreigner like Ellen, and this vision makes society seem distant and trivial.
Archer points out that Ellen has plenty of people to advise her, and she says that her family is irritated that she wanted to live alone. He insists that her family can guide her. She’s surprised to hear that New York is so complicated; she likes it for being straightforward. She says that only Archer and Beaufort seem to understand her. Archer feels it his duty to show her who Beaufort really is. He suggests that she shouldn’t abandon the older women who want to help her, but she says that they refuse to hear anything unpleasant, and she can’t stand pretending so much. She begins to cry. Archer tries to reassure her, fixated on the fact that he’s just called her by her first name. May seems very far away.
Although Ellen is already changing Archer’s perspective, he can’t yet think for himself, but instead repeats what he’s always been taught about the role of the family in a woman’s life. For her part, Ellen is beginning to see that New York might not be the heaven she imagined. The stubborn innocence of the women around her makes Ellen feel alone in her troubles. She’s far more genuine than most of these people, but they don’t want her to be genuine. Archer’s use of her first name is a familiarity that seems slightly too intimate.
The maid, Nastasia, announces the Duke of St. Austrey, who enters with an old friend of his named Mrs. Struthers who wants to meet Ellen. Both Ellen and the Duke seem unaware of how strange it is for him to have brought Mrs. Struthers. Mrs. Struthers says she wants to know everyone young and interesting, and she invites Ellen to hear a pianist play at her house the next evening. Ellen accepts with pleasure. Mrs. Struthers can’t remember Archer’s name and seems sure he’s a diplomat. He leaves quickly.
Ellen and the Duke both occupy positions of importance in society, coming from old families. In contrast, Mrs. Struthers comes from new money and an uncertain background, making her unfit company for such important people. Furthermore, her failure to recognize Archer seems like an additional insult. However, Mrs. Struthers represents a love of art, and Ellen doesn’t know or care that she shouldn’t attend Mrs. Struthers’s gathering.
Archer wishes that he had left earlier and not wasted so much emotion. Outside, his perspective on the world returns to normal. He goes to a florist to send May her daily bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley, realizing he forgot to do so that morning. He sees instead some yellow roses, but they seem too strong to send to May. On an impulse, he sends them to Ellen without any message attached.
Archer feels that he got overly invested in Ellen’s life when she doesn’t even care enough about fitting in to avoid Mrs. Struthers. His failure to send May flowers suggests an early unfaithfulness, and sending the bright roses to Ellen instead of May represents the difference between the two women—the difference between innocence and experience.