Gilbert is home with Rose and Fergus one day when Eliza Millward pays a visit to the Markham house. At first she pays lip service to her concern for Gilbert’s health, but then she reveals the true reason for her visit. She has heard that Helen Graham has left the neighborhood, and in a scandalous way. She was never a widow, Eliza said, and now has gone back to her husband. Gilbert doesn’t believe her report, and asks her where she heard it. Eliza says she came by the information thanks to a maid working at Frederick Lawrence’s estate. Gilbert immediately takes off for Woodford to ask Frederick if there is any truth to Eliza’s story.
Eliza assumes that she is imparting the kind of information sure to make Gilbert think less of Helen. She does not know, of course, that Gilbert thinks too highly of Helen to give much credence to an idle report, especially when said report is coming from Eliza Millward, a petty young woman motivated primarily by jealousy and spite. Still, Helen was threatening to leave Wildfell Hall to make her life and Gilbert’s easier.
To his shock, the story is true. Helen went back to Grassdale Manor because Arthur Huntingdon is ill. He injured himself falling from his horse and she returned home to nurse him. The governess, Miss Myers, apparently left him some time ago. Frederick has a letter explaining Helen’s situation, and Gilbert snatches it from his hand. In the letter, Helen describes Arthur’s state. His injuries were not severe, but his drinking worsens his condition considerably and when she arrives he mistakes her for a different woman. He keeps calling her Alice, and refuses to believe Helen is actually there.
Helen declared Lord Lowborough too good for this world, but the description could be applied to her as well. Arthur does not deserve her kindness or her loyalty. That is made clear by the fact that he doesn’t even recognize her and calls her by another woman’s name. But Helen’s religious convictions do not allow to her neglect a man in need, even if it is the man who made her life a living hell for five years.
Arthur eventually grows coherent enough to recognize Helen and register her presence. He assumes she is tending to him out of Christian charity and as a way to get herself a better seat in Heaven. Helen tells him that she is simply there to help, because no one else could care for him as well as she will. He begs to see little Arthur, but she refuses. Until he is willing to sign a document promising that little Arthur is hers to take wherever she pleases, she will not let him see his son.
Helen’s main concern at this moment is for her son. She left Arthur primarily to save her son from becoming like him, and that concern has not abated. She also has been living independently for some time now, and so knows that she is capable of taking care of little Arthur on her own.
Arthur reluctantly agrees to her demands and Helen asks Rachel to bring his son to him. Little Arthur is afraid of his father, and Mr. Huntingdon blames Helen for his timid manner, when really his own feverish demeanor is to blame. Later, Arthur abuses Helen for lording her Christian goodness over him. He supposes she is enjoying her position of power, but Helen tells him that nothing could be further from the truth. She is miserable, and she’s not sure why she is making such sacrifices for someone as ungrateful as he.
Arthur does not deserve Helen’s nursing, but she is so accustomed to playing the role of his mother, not to mention that of the angelic woman, that she finds she has to tend to him and his needs even when he makes it nearly impossible for her to do so.
After Arthur is bled the next day, he grows somewhat calmer, and they talk about whether or not this illness might prove fatal. Helen says it all depends on the extent of his internal injuries. Arthur cannot bear to think of dying, and so he vows that if she nurses him back to health he will agree to any proposal of hers. Helen ends her letter to Frederick saying she will continue to do her duty, even though it brings her no joy and no benefit.
Doctors believed “bleeding” patients, or drawing large quantities of blood from them, was beneficial because it helped balance the body’s “humors.” In reality, it weakened people considerably and often caused unnecessary fatalities.
When Gilbert finishes reading the letter, Frederick asks him what he makes of it. Gilbert wishes Helen weren’t wasting her time nursing someone who isn’t worth her effort, but her selflessness only raises her in his estimation. He asks Frederick if he might keep the letter, and Frederick hands it over. Gilbert then wonders if Frederick will ask Helen for her permission to enlighten Gilbert’s mother and sister as to Helen’s actual circumstances. Frederick promises to do so.
Finally, Gilbert will have the chance to clear Helen’s name. The fact that she is tending to her unfaithful and ungrateful husband should only serve to raise Helen in Mrs. Markham and Rose’s estimation.