On a beautifully clear autumn night, Helen overhears her husband’s friends complaining about Arthur’s relative sobriety. Grimsby blames all of womankind for ruining the good times they might have, but the other men seem to blame one woman in particular. Helen assumes that they mean her, of course, and she is thrilled to think that Arthur is becoming a better man out of respect for her. She rushes out into the shrubbery where she spied Arthur, seemingly taking in the night’s beauty as well. She embraces him impulsively and he returns the embrace at first. When he sees that it’s Helen, though, he jumps back and scolds her for being so cavalier with her health. She should get inside right away, he tells her—it’s too cold out.
The weather would suggest that Helen is finally getting the good news for which she has been hoping for so long: that Arthur has finally made the decision to reform in order to be worthy of her love. The fact that his friends find his behavior tiresome is of no importance to Helen. She has learned not to care about what they think. His behavior in the shrubbery is a clue most readers will pick up on—he was expecting the embrace of a different woman—but Helen, buoyed by hope and the possibility of dreams fulfilled, does not catch on.
Helen goes in gladly, and that night she finally enjoys herself in the company of their friends. Everyone, it seems, catches her happiness, and it is a joyful gathering. Adding to her happiness is the fact that Arthur again refrains from drinking to excess, and all seems right with the world. Two days later, though, Rachel comes to Helen’s room crying. When Helen asks what is the matter, she tells her she doesn’t approve of how Arthur has been behaving. She says that if she were Helen, she would not allow Lady Lowborough to stay in the house another minute. The conversation is cut short before Helen can learn anything more. She is deeply disturbed by what Rachel told her, but hopes it is just idle servants’ gossip. That night at dinner, she can see no evidence of improper behavior on either Arthur or Annabella’s part.
Helen persists in believing that her main enemy in her marriage to Arthur is his drinking. As long as he remains relatively sober, all is well. Rachel’s news is ominous, however. So far, Rachel has proven herself a steadfast and loyal friend and not one to be swayed by idle gossip. Her words harken back to Walter Hargrave’s desire earlier in the visit to let Helen in on a secret. Helen is refusing to see the truth that is staring her in the face.
After dinner, Annabella joins her husband on a moonlit walk, and Walter Hargrave challenges Helen to a game of chess. The game goes on for a long time, sometimes with Helen having the advantage, other times Walter. Both very much want to win. In the end, Walter triumphs and Helen admits he is the better player. He tenderly congratulates her, and she rejects his tenderness. He then inquires after Arthur and Annabella. Hattersley tells him Arthur is out walking with Grimsby and Annabella with her husband. Walter, though, suggests to Helen in a private moment that Arthur is actually with Annabella. Helen rushes outside to see for herself.
The game is a representation of Helen’s immediate future. Walter will win; Helen will lose. It also is an opportunity for Helen to better understand Walter’s character. His behavior during the match is needlessly competitive and ruthless, and she sees through his smooth façade to the selfish man underneath. Further, he is not pained when giving Helen the news about Arthur and Annabella. In fact, he takes a certain amount of satisfaction in it.
What she finds is Arthur and Annabella deep in passionate conversation. Annabella says she must go—her husband will start to suspect something. She asks Arthur if he could possibly still love Helen, and he assures her that he does care at all for his wife any longer. Helen falls to the ground in a swoon of heartbreak and shock. Dead leaves rustle around her. She is in agony until she looks up at the sky. In the stars she sees proof of God, and she knows in that moment that God will never forsake her. He will give her the strength she needs to survive.
This scene mirrors the one in which Gilbert collapses to the ground, having seen Helen and Mr. Lawrence walking arm-in-arm in the Wildfell Hall garden. Helen knows the truth, and that knowledge reveals her marriage to be a lie, as dead as the leaves swirling around her. She believes, however, that her faith will sustain her. Besides little Arthur, it is all she has.
Helen goes back into the house and finds it more difficult to be strong. There are no stars here, only the laughing voices of people she cannot bear to be around. Instead of joining them for tea, she retires to the empty dining room and sees Milicent go out to try to find and comfort her. When she fails to find her, Milicent returns to the dining room, and Helen ponders for a short time how happy she was in that same room only a few nights before. She is glad that Milicent didn’t look for her in the dining room. She will bear her pain alone.
God is easier for Helen to find when she is out-of-doors and surrounded by natural beauty. He is harder to access when inside and surrounded by people she despises, some of whom have known about Annabella and Arthur for quite some time. Of course, Milicent is an exception. She alone knows what Helen must be suffering. Always independent, Helen decides not to share her pain with her friend.
Helen knows that she has to confront Arthur, though. Later, when he is walking past her bed chamber, she asks him to come in. She tells him that she knows what he and Annabella have been up to, and asks if she might take her fortune and little Arthur and go. Arthur refuses her. He will not be made the target of petty gossip because she has chosen to be upset about a trifling love affair, he says. Then he leaves. Helen makes a promise to herself that, unless he truly repents, she will no longer be a wife to him. If, however, he sees the error of his ways and learns to value her, she might be able to forgive him in the future.
Even though Arthur is the one clearly in the wrong, Helen must still ask his permission to leave. Arthur has all the power and throws the blame back on her—according to him, it’s her fault that she cannot get over a small matter like a sexual dalliance. His argument is not unlike the many times Helen has blamed herself for his bad behavior. By now Helen has lost her ability to see clearly—she only wants to save her marriage, not herself, because she has no real self left.
Rachel comes to help Helen undress and Helen confesses to her old nurse that she knows everything. Rachel pities her, but Helen assures her that she has made her peace with the situation and plans to sleep well. Sleep eludes her, however, and the next morning she is exhausted and full of anxiety about how to meet everyone at breakfast. She finds strength in the thought that she is blameless in the matter. That will be her comfort.
A system that forces women into the role of angel or temptress has molded a very determined angel out of Helen. She takes comfort in her own righteousness, her own goodness, but that means she is still in many waves a slave. To be a blameless, faultless angel is to always serve the needs of others.