Gilbert feels obligated to pay a call on the Millwards, partially because he hopes to let Eliza down easy, and also because the Reverend Millward expects him to visit regularly. Gilbert is sad to see that the reverend is out. He has to content himself with Eliza and Mary. Infatuated now with Helen Graham, he has grown to despise Eliza, who seems that day to be in possession of some damaging information about Helen. Eliza refuses to tell Gilbert what she knows. She claims that she doesn’t want to risk his anger, but Gilbert can see that she takes some pleasure in tormenting him.
Helen’s fears about the village rumor factory are apparently well founded. She is now the subject of gossip and an easy target for Eliza Millward whom, it would seem, Mrs. Markham was right about. She is a petty, jealous woman who used her superficial charms to fool Gilbert into “loving” her. He now knows the truth, but it’s too late. His bad behavior has opened the way for Eliza to abuse Helen.
A few days later, the Markhams invite their friends for a small party, and Gilbert finally discovers the secret Eliza was keeping. He also gets a glimpse of Eliza’s true nature. She toys with him for a while, asking if he could still possibly be ignorant of the rumors regarding Helen Graham, and when he grows angry, she breaks down in tears and makes a great show of being deeply injured. Jane Wilson, self-satisfied and smug, steps in and informs the company that she has heard that little Arthur is, in fact, Mr. Lawrence’s son. Gilbert is horrified by the pettiness of his companions and steadfastly disbelieves the rumor. He does, however, note a few similarities in appearance between Arthur and Mr. Lawrence, but sees just as many differences.
Helen is the target of a smear campaign led by two women scorned—jealousy is motivating both Eliza Millward and Jane Wilson. Eliza resents Gilbert’s growing attachment to Helen, and Jane resents Frederick Lawrence’s apparent regard for her. Helen, the unconventional, independent woman, is now the village witch, charged with putting a spell on its men and leading them away from their rightful mates. Women are pitted against each other, mostly because the marriage market demands it.
Angry and distracted, Gilbert leaves the party to take a walk outside, where he eventually meets up with Helen, who has also fled the party, mostly to escape what to her feels like an endless evening of insipid small talk. The two of them admire the beauty of the evening and discuss for a time the pitfalls of being a painter. Helen wishes she could look on such a scene with pure enjoyment rather than considering its artistic potential. Gilbert argues that the trouble she takes is well worth it in the pleasure she gives to those who get to view her paintings.
The visual artist is always working, especially if she depends on her art for a living. Gilbert’s encouraging words about Helen’s painting work not only to underscore his belief in her talents but his belief in her as a person. Helen’s painting represents her professional and personal evolution, and Gilbert is signaling that he supports her both as an artist and as a woman.
While in the garden, Gilbert sees Jane Wilson and Mr. Lawrence having an intense conversation, which Gilbert assumes is about Helen and the rumor circulating about her child’s illegitimacy. Gilbert thinks he detects a regard for Helen in Mr. Lawrence’s demeanor, and later, when the guests are leaving, Gilbert is rude to the man. Mr. Lawrence is surprised, and tries to warn Gilbert than any affections he feels for Helen are doomed. Gilbert calls him a hypocrite, and ends the evening satisfied with having obviously upset his supposed rival.
If Gilbert is steadfast in his defense of Helen, he proves himself easily led in the matter of Mr. Lawrence’s rumored guilt. A system that enforces the marriage imperative sets young women and young men at each other’s throats, turning friends into rivals and rivals into enemies.