When Charles arrives in Lyme, he goes to his room and paces, preparing to talk to Ernestina. He’s terrified, but he can’t turn back now that he’s sent his letter to Sarah. Mary answers the door for him, and Ernestina appears behind her. Charles follows her into the sitting room, wishing he were dead while Ernestina is cheerful. She quickly realizes that something is wrong, and he can’t look at her at first. He asks her to sit down so he can say what he has to say. Confused, she sits. She has a letter from Mr. Freeman, and Charles says that he didn’t tell her father the truth, which is that he’s not worthy of her. She blanches, unable to believe he’s serious. She protests that his telegram to her was entirely normal, but he says he sent it before he made this decision.
This scene is initially based on falsehoods. Charles believes he’s made an irrevocable decision by sending the letter to Sarah, but he doesn’t know that she hasn’t actually received it. Furthermore, Charles means to make a new beginning outside the confines of society by breaking off this engagement, but he goes about it dishonestly, which dulls the power of the act. He tries to preserve some semblance of honor by saying that she’s too good for him, rather than admitting that he’s in love with someone else. In doing so, he actually dishonors them all further.
Ernestina begins to accept Charles’s words. Charles fears that she’ll faint or become hysterical, but she seems only to shiver. She demands that he explain himself. Charles says he has always known Ernestina would make a wonderful wife, but his attraction to her has always been somewhat due to her money. He’s always doubted his own abilities, and he felt that he could regain his self-respect by marrying her. Ernestina can’t believe her ears. She’s angry that he can say he never loved her. He insists that he didn’t plot anything, he only deceived himself.
The reasons Charles gives Ernestina here are mostly true, but he’s only realized them as a result of falling in love with Sarah, and they aren’t the main reason that he’s breaking the engagement, so he’s still being dishonest. These are actually rather conventional reasons for wanting to marry someone at this time, even if they aren’t the reasons that Ernestina wanted him to have.
Ernestina asks why Charles has suddenly come to this conclusion, and he replies that he was disappointed that Mr. Freeman didn’t break off their engagement. He mentions that Mr. Freeman wanted him to join the business, which Ernestina takes to mean that Charles is ashamed of marrying into the middle class. Charles denies this, saying that he realized how bad he would be at business. He insists that he couldn’t bear to marry her if he couldn’t give her the love she deserves. He believes that she has already doubted his love, but refused to acknowledge her doubt.
Ernestina has always been worried that her bourgeois background influences Charles’s view of her, and so Charles’s actions now seem like confirmation of this. Charles isn’t exactly ashamed to marry her for this reason, but he doesn’t admit that he would be ashamed to work in the line of business her father does. It seems likely that Ernestina has, in fact, already doubted Charles’s love, as she’s been jealous throughout the whole book.
Ernestina covers her ears, then says she realizes she has many faults, but she thought she would improve with his help. In fact, she had her pick of men, but she chose him because she thought he could help make her better. She says he thinks badly of himself, and she wanted to make him see his own value. Charles replies that her words mean a lot, but they can’t change anything. She pleads with him to reconsider, and he feels awful for hurting her. She asks him to just tell her how to act so that she can please him. She insists that her feelings are deeper than she usually lets on. But finally she realizes that something must have happened since Charles sent her the telegram.
Victorian women are trained to believe that they’re to blame for any collapse of the conventional family structure, and so Ernestina blames herself for what is really mostly Charles’s fault, or the fault of society. Her desire to be improved by him and help raise him up is also a conventional relationship between husband and wife in this society. Thus, she’s essentially trying to fight back with the one weapon whose power Charles has specifically denounced—convention.
Ernestina begins to weep but continues to look straight at Charles. She falls to her knees, and he feels disgusted by his way of twisting the truth. He decides to be more honest. Ernestina gets to her feet, and Charles says there’s a woman whom she doesn’t know, someone he’s known a long time. In London he realizes that his old feelings for her were still alive. Ernestina wants to know why he didn’t say this from the start. Though he says he wanted to spare her pain, she perceives that he wanted to spare himself shame. She weeps while Charles stares at a china sheep. Finally she says she’ll die of shame if she doesn’t kill herself first. Charles tells her never to say that again.
Incredibly, Charles’s attempt to be more honest only results in him lying even further. Maybe he thinks he’s protecting Sarah with his dishonesty, or maybe he thinks he’s protecting Ernestina’s own feelings, but the story he tells is still more acceptable to society than the truth that he’s in love with a fallen woman. In the end, he’s protecting himself from the shame that Sarah has already embraced. Unlike Sarah, Ernestina can’t stand shame, and threatens unwittingly to take on the death that Sarah has refused.
Ernestina asks what she’s supposed to tell other people. She rips her father’s letter in half. After a silence, she says coldly that there’s a course of action she can take, since Charles has broken his vow. Charles agrees she has this right. She wants everyone to know how awful he is. Charles points out that everyone will find out anyway, and having to act in this way has been punishment enough. He stands and sees himself in a mirror, and it feels like he’s always been false to her. He asks that she understand that he hates what he has done, but he can’t deceive her anymore.
Ernestina still cares, as she always has, about society’s view of her. Furthermore, she assumes that Charles cares about society’s view of him, and she’s threatening to take him to court over the broken contract of their engagement in order to publicly shame him. Even though Charles is trying not to care what others think of him, he hasn’t been able to shed all fear of judgment just yet. As usual, Ernestina is grasping at power that society can give her.
Ernestina guesses that this unknown woman is an aristocrat. She says aristocrats like Charles are no good and think their rank gives them an excuse to do whatever they want. She tries to find out more about this woman, but Charles refuses to say anything. She says that her father will destroy his reputation. As he opens the door to leave, Ernestina gropes for words, then says his name as though she wants his comfort. She falls to the floor, but her faint doesn’t seem quite real. He says he’ll write to Mr. Freeman, and he rings for Mary. Charles meets her in the hall, saying he’s going to get Dr. Grogan and she must not leave Ernestina. Mary goes into the room and Charles briefly watches her comfort Ernestina, but Mary’s expression orders him out.
Ernestina’s deep-seated insecurities about her class emerge again here, but ironically, Sarah is far below her in terms of class status. Ernestina insults aristocrats with good reason, but her own desire to be one still drives her insecurity, demonstrating the dilemma of the bourgeoisie in this period. She makes a last-ditch effort to use the stereotypical helplessness assigned to her gender to elicit Charles’s sympathy, but he is beyond these sorts of tricks now. Unlike Ernestina’s fiancé, Mary’s fiancé cares about her more than anything.