Gilbert soon finds that he very much enjoys the company of Helen Graham and her son. He begins to meet them more and more on walks on the moors and on the pasturelands around his property. Helen is warmer to Gilbert than she has been before, but she is still reluctant to let him take little Arthur out of her sight for any long stretch of time. Gilbert is ashamed to admit that he has started to prefer conversing with Helen to flirting with Eliza, and when he arrives home after a particularly bracing discussion with Helen to find Eliza and Rose alone in the parlour, Gilbert’s conscience strikes him. He also notices that Eliza’s talk is insipid when compared with Helen’s. His conduct, he tells himself, is blameless because he has no desire or plans to marry either of the women. He decides that he might as well enjoy his talks with Helen.
Because Gilbert’s interest in Eliza Millward is mostly physical and based on his need for affirmation, he soon finds Helen’s intelligence more attractive than Eliza’s empty-headed coyness. He knows, though, that he is toying with both of them. He might rationalize his behavior by claiming that his lack of serious designs lets him off the hook, but his casual courting of two women at the same time would, it can be assumed, earn him a stern lecture from his mother or the reverend, were he a woman.
On a clear day in March, Gilbert finds Helen painting on the edge of a brook. He admires her skill with winter trees for some time, but she eventually grows self-conscious, and so Gilbert takes little Arthur horseback riding in nearby field. The boy has a wonderful time and Gilbert returns him to Helen, who has grown anxious in their absence. They walk back to Wildfell Hall together. Before leaving her, Gilbert says he worries about Helen being lonely, living in such a gloomy place. She tells him she often experiences loneliness, but that she is grateful for a home, “while it is left” to her.
Gilbert is growing close enough to Helen now to be generous with her. And while he does not yet know why her depiction of the bare trees is so skilled, it hints at Helen’s inner strength in the face of suffering. Her words further that impression. A woman who can paint so beautifully a scene of lack and want has obviously experienced those same feelings herself.
Gilbert then runs into Mr. Lawrence, and, without ever saying so directly, the two men admit to each other that they have no serious designs on the women the neighborhood assumes they will marry. Gilbert is disenchanted with Eliza Millward, and Lawrence is obviously indifferent to Jane Wilson. They tease each other briefly about leaving the two women alone and then go their separate ways.
The two men’s casual dismissal of the women counting on their love is callous and unfeeling, but, as young men, they have been raised to think that their right to happiness is superior to a young woman’s.
Gilbert arrives home too late for tea, but when he says his reheated drink is overdrawn, Rose sets to making a fresh pot for him. As she does so, she complains that Gilbert and Fergus get preferential treatment in the household. Mrs. Markham is forever saving the best pie and cake for Gilbert and making sure that the boys’ needs and desires are met, while either ignoring her daughter or putting her to work. While Mrs. Markham argues that this is just how a respectable home should be run, Gilbert disagrees, saying that if Rose weren’t there to remind him of how much he is indulged, he might start to take such treatment for granted. Mrs. Markham counters that it is a wife’s job to make her husband happy, while it is a husband’s job to please himself. Gilbert should take good care to remember that in the future, she says. Gilbert asks Jack if he and Rose subscribe to such a doctrine.
This reveals the essential hypocrisy in Mrs. Markham’s argument that Helen is in danger of turning her son into a “mere Nancy” through over-indulgence. Mrs. Markham indulges Gilbert completely, and believes that men are made for such treatment. As a result, Gilbert himself has not had a real acquaintance with any true hardship. Furthermore, Mrs. Markham’s doctrine that women should please their husbands while husbands should please themselves assumes that women have no value outside of their powers to make men happy.