Ernestina can tell that Charles has been walking. He says he slept badly, and she says she did too. She points out that he said he was tired, but he stayed up very late. Ernestina clearly isn’t keeping the goal that she made of deferring to Charles in every way. But she’s heard through Sam, Mary, and Mrs. Tranter that Charles is leaving Lyme that day, and he hasn’t told her yet. When he finally came to the house, he spoke quietly to Aunt Tranter before seeing her. Besides, she took special care with her appearance that morning, and Charles hasn’t noticed.
Ernestina feels some tension in her relationship with Charles, but she has no inkling that it’s related to Sarah. She doesn’t even seem to consider that there could be another woman in his life, but rather she blames herself for his strange behavior. This is somewhat typical of the era, as women were seen as largely responsible for the happiness of domestic relationships.
Finally, Charles sits and takes Ernestina’s hand, asking forgiveness and saying that he’s going to London to see his lawyer. She protests, but he says he also needs to tell her father what’s happened with Sir Robert. Ernestina says it’s irrelevant, but Charles insists that he must know, particularly since he might not be inheriting a title anymore. Though their love is most important, marriage is also a legal agreement. Ernestina continues to protest, saying that her parents will let her do whatever she wants. She begins to total up how much money they’ll have, but he says that’s not the issue. She asks what would happen if her father refused to let her marry him. Charles says he’s only doing his duty. Ernestina complains that she sees him less in Lyme than in London.
On the surface, at least, Charles is trying to do the honorable thing by being honest with Ernestina’s father about her prospects in marriage. In this time, marriage was a financial contract as much as a personal one. However, Charles is also—mostly subconsciously—taking this course of action because he doesn’t really want to marry Ernestina, and having her father forbid their marriage for financial reasons would be a much easier way to get out of it than breaking it off himself. Even better, he can justify his actions as his duty.
Charles stands and pastes a fake smile to his face. He doesn’t like it when Ernestina is obstinate, because it contrasts too much with her beautiful but ridiculous clothes. Mrs. Bloomer offered the Victorians practical clothing in the form of trousers, but they rejected it for hoop skirts. Charles tries to figure out how to make his exit, while Ernestina realizes that she’s made too much of a fuss about his trip. Female power comes from obedience, so she smiles at him and makes him promise to write every day and return as soon as possible.
Fowles points to fashion as evidence of the Victorians’ more general worship of form over practicality. Ernestina takes a very different, and more conventional, approach to female power. She doesn’t want it any less than Sarah does, but she thinks she can get it by working within the social system that’s already in place, whereas Sarah believes she has to work against society to have power.
Ernestina stands to be kissed, but Charles can’t make himself kiss her mouth, so he kisses her temples. He finds he can’t get away, because Ernestina is holding on to his pockets. He kisses her properly, and nothing awful happens. She looks very pretty, and Charles has a vision of a body. As she cuddles into him, he begins to get an erection. Ernestina has always had a hint of hidden wildness and perversity about her, and perhaps Charles unconsciously hopes to make her what he wants. But he feels terribly guilty for desiring her now, after kissing Sarah. He frees himself and leaves.
It seems Charles doesn’t want to kiss Ernestina in part because he’s just kissed Sarah, and it feels wrong, and in part because he’s experiencing a revulsion to Ernestina now that he’s come to understand his true feelings towards her. This scene becomes much more explicit than any Victorian novel would be, acting as a reminder of the self-censorship of Victorian society and the contrasting modernity of this novel.
Mary is standing at the door with red cheeks. Charles makes sure she understands about what happened that morning. He pays her, though she tries to refuse the money. Once he’s gone, she bites the coin like her father does. Biting it seems to prove it’s gold, just like being on the Undercliff proves that whatever Charles and Sarah were doing was sinful. But what could a country virgin know about sin?
It’s somehow particularly immoral for Charles to bribe Mary into silence in the very house of his fiancée. Charles and Sarah, neither of them natives of Lyme, haven’t internalized the inherent sexuality of the Undercliff the way Mary and Mrs. Poulteney have.