The next morning, Stevens wakes up early and thinks again about Miss Kenton's letter. Though her married name is Mrs. Benn, Stevens continues to refer to her as Miss Kenton. She has recently moved out of Mr. Benn's house in Helston and is staying with a friend in a nearby town. Stevens believes she feels lonely, and he thinks the seeming nostalgia she expresses in her letter might indicate she might like to return to Darlington Hall as housekeeper. Stevens quotes several passages from the letter, some of which are very sad. One particular incident Miss Kenton mentions in her letter leads Stevens into a long reminiscence about the past.
Miss Kenton and Stevens's father both came to work at Darlington Hall at the same time, in the spring of 1922, because the former under-butler and housekeeper of Darlington Hall had just eloped. Stevens thinks that such abandonment of a professional post for marriage is irritating and thoroughly unprofessional. He quickly adds that though Miss Kenton did likewise leave to get married, she in no way falls into this irritating category, as she was always extremely professional and worked at Darlington Hall for many years.
Miss Kenton and Stevens's father both arrived with excellent employment histories to recommend them. However, Stevens's father was already in his seventies, and he suffered from arthritis and other ailments. Over the first few weeks of their employment, Miss Kenton points out several errors that Stevens's father has committed: he has reversed two statues in the hall, and has left traces of polish on the silver. Finally, Miss Kenton tells Stevens directly that his father has perhaps been entrusted with more responsibility than a man of his age can handle. Stevens tells Miss Kenton she is being foolish.
Two months later, Stevens's father falls down some steps on the lawn while carrying a tray to Lord Darlington and two guests. Dr. Meredith suggests that Stevens's father had been overworked. After this incident, Lord Darlington asks Stevens to reduce his father's workload. Stevens goes to speak to his father, a conversation that is awkwardly formal because the men have spoken less and less over the past few years. Stevens's father does not show any emotion, and says only that he fell because the steps on the lawn are crooked. That evening, Miss Kenton and Stevens, looking out the window of the house, see Stevens's father outside on the lawn, walking up and down the steps upon which he fell. His eyes are trained on the ground, "as though," Miss Kenton recalls in her letter, "he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there."
Stevens moves to a discussion of an international conference held at Darlington Hall in March 1923. Lord Darlington was a close friend of Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann, a distinguished German soldier who fought in the Great War (World War I). Lord Darlington was disturbed by the fact that the Treaty of Versailles sent the economy of postwar Germany spiraling into ruin—he said it did England "great discredit to treat a defeated foe like this."
A while later, Herr Bremann shot himself, most likely due to the dire conditions in Germany. This tragedy prompted Lord Darlington to try to act. He assembled leaders of a wide variety of nationalities and professions—diplomats, clergymen, writers and thinkers—to think of ways to revise the Treaty of Versailles to alleviate the situation in Germany. Though none of the dignitaries present were government officials, they were prominent figures in their respective countries, and Darlington hoped that they would influence people who held official offices before Prime Minister Lloyd George and the heads of other European nations reviewed the treaty again in Switzerland later that year.
During the period of hectic preparation for the conference, Lord Darlington gave Stevens a bizarre extra task: he asked him to tell Sir David Cardinal's son, Mr. Reginald Cardinal, who was twenty-three at the time and engaged to be married, "the facts of life." Stevens makes two failed attempts to inform Reginald Cardinal about sex, but due to the generally hectic state of the household, and the early arrival of Monsieur Dupont, Stevens never accomplishes his task.
Some of the guests present at the conference include Sir David Cardinal, Monsieur Dupont, an American named Mr. Lewis, and two German countesses. Before the arrival of M. Dupont, Lord Darlington and Mr. Lewis engage in a discussion in which Lord Darlington explains that the English find the present unforgiving French attitude towards the Germans "despicable." M. Dupont is a very important figure at the conference, as Lord Darlington was especially keen on convincing him that the Treaty of Versailles should be made more lenient.
During the first morning of the conference, Stevens's father falls ill. Dr. Meredith instructs Stevens to call him immediately if his father deteriorates at all. That night, Stevens overhears a discussion between M. Dupont and Mr. Lewis, in which Mr. Lewis tells Mr. Dupont that Lord Darlington called the French "despicable" and "barbarous." The next day, the discussions among the guests are heated and intense. Stevens keeps making trips upstairs to see his father throughout the day, but his father is usually asleep. However, when Stevens goes upstairs the next evening, a chambermaid wakes up Stevens's father. The elder Stevens asks his son if everything is in hand downstairs, and then says that he is proud of him, telling him that he has been "a good son." Stevens only replies that they can talk in the morning, and that he is "glad Father is feeling better."
At dinner that night, the last night of the conference, M. Dupont stands up and makes a speech. He says he has been impressed with the views presented and will do what he can to further less vindictive opinions in France before the upcoming conference in Switzerland. M. Dupont makes disparaging remarks about Mr. Lewis, revealing that the American made nasty remarks about everyone present, and closes by toasting Lord Darlington.
Mr. Lewis stands up in rebuttal, declaring that each dignitary present is a "naïve dreamer" who has no idea how to make official decisions. He ends by toasting "professionalism" and dismissing Lord Darlington as an "amateur." Lord Darlington responds by saying that what Lewis deems amateurism is what most people call honor. Darlington says that if deceit and cheating lie at the base of professionalism, he has no desire to acquire such a quality. The dignitaries thoroughly applaud this speech.
Miss Kenton suddenly comes in to tell Stevens that his father has become very ill. He goes up to see his father, and Mrs. Mortimer, the cook, says that his father's pulse has gone very weak. Stevens is distressed, but goes downstairs to ensure that everything is taken care with the guests. Stevens goes into the smoking room, and Mr. Reginald Cardinal and Lord Darlington both ask him if anything is wrong, concerned that he appears to be crying. Stevens apologizes and says it is merely the strain of a hard day.
Miss Kenton comes downstairs and tells Stevens that his father passed away four minutes earlier. Stevens says that he will come up and see his father in a little while, but that his father would have wanted him to take care of his duties as a butler first. Stevens seats M. Dupont, who is complaining about his sore feet, in the billiard room. Then Dr. Meredith arrives and tells Stevens that his father died of a severe stroke. Stevens thanks the doctor, asks him to tend to M. Dupont, and shows him downstairs.
Stevens feels that that night constituted a turn in his professional development with regard to the level of dignity that he displayed in his capacity as a butler. He feels that on that night he displayed a dignity that was "at least in some modest degree" worthy of his father: "For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph."
The fact that Stevens reads Miss Kenton's letter over and over is in itself a clear indication that he misses her quite a bit: he is so eager to have any news of her that he repeatedly peruses the letter for details. It also becomes clear how highly Stevens thinks of Miss Kenton as a person when he says that she was an exceptional professional who served Darlington Hall well for many years. We begin to see that when Stevens cares about someone, he makes exceptions for that person. Because Stevens thinks so highly of his father, he wants Miss Kenton to address him as Mr. Stevens; though Stevens does not approve of people leaving their stations to get married, he says that Miss Kenton did no discredit to her career by doing so.
If another employee made errors such as misplacing statues or leaving polish on the silver, Stevens would certainly call it to his attention, if not fire him. But because it is his father who makes these mistakes, Stevens is reluctant to admit to himself that his father is at fault. Stevens's reaction demonstrates that, despite the fact that his interactions with his father often seem cold, Stevens really does love and respect his father. Miss Kenton, however, persistently points out the errors Stevens's father makes; she knows that Stevens is extremely strict about her own mistakes, and she wants to make sure he applies his high standards fairly to all his workers. Miss Kenton is also afraid that it is only a matter of time until Stevens's father makes a more serious blunder.
Miss Kenton is proved right when Stevens's father falls while carrying the tray on the steps. When Stevens must give his father a revised list of chores, it is as difficult for him to do as it is for his father to hear. The fact that Stevens is so formal even with members of his own family demonstrates how completely he and his father are wedded to their jobs. Stevens clearly admires his father a great deal, and in many ways aspires to be just like him, imitating his coldly professional manner. When Stevens's father actually says that he is proud of Stevens, and that Stevens is a good son, it is a surprising and moving moment, as the two hardly ever speak.
The moment when Stevens and Miss Kenton see Stevens's father walking up and down the steps is a painfully powerful one. It is as if the elder Stevens is practicing or searching for something he has lost. This poignant image serves as a symbol for much of the novel as a whole: just as Stevens's father, in his old age, keeps examining the scene of his fall to see where he went wrong, so Stevens constantly relives his memories in an attempt to justify a life he is afraid he may have wasted.
Lord Darlington clearly has personal reasons for his sympathy to Germany. Before World War I, he believes that he and Herr Bremann will be able to be friends again after the war is over. After the war, however, the German economy suffers a great deal. Lord Darlington obviously feels partly responsible for Bremann's suicide, as England was part of the Allied forces that fought Germany and drew up the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. The personal tragedy of Bremann's death, in addition Darlington's first-hand glimpse of poverty upon visiting Germany, motivates him to hold the March 1923 conference to promote peace. Lord Darlington's motivations for helping Germany are indeed noble ones, and show how easy it can be to be led astray in a certain time by certain inclinations.
The fact that Stevens is enlisted to tell Reginald Cardinal the facts of life because two other grown men are too uncomfortable to do so is an illustration of repressed English social norms. It is simply not proper for gentlemen to speak of such things, so when someone must, no one knows how to do it. Stevens finds Reginald in the garden, and is going to use flowers or geese as a metaphor to explain sex. However, when he learns that M. Dupont has arrived at the house, he rushes off, probably relieved to escape such a daunting task. The fact that Stevens must do whatever Lord Darlington wishes him to do, however awkward and unprofessional, also illustrates the complete power that the head of the household exercised at that time.
During the final night of the conference, when Stevens must constantly rush around attending to all of the guests and run upstairs to check on his father, not once in his narrative does he admit to feeling stress or sadness. However, both Reginald Cardinal and Lord Darlington ask if Stevens is all right, and Lord Darlington even remarks that Stevens looks as though he has been crying. It is only through these remarks that we realize Stevens is upset, as his own narrative gives no indication. We learn through this instance that Stevens is not a wholly reliable narrator, as he does not always say how he is honestly feeling. The fact that Stevens does not admit, even in retrospect, that he was upset shows how deeply the denial of his emotions is ingrained in him. In moments like these, Stevens treats us, as readers, just as he treats his employer or the guests: he does not want us to be bothered by his grief, even though his father is on his deathbed upstairs. Even after his father his dead, Stevens hardly takes a moment to grieve, immediately asking the doctor to attend to the insufferable M. Dupont's sore feet.
The importance of the concept of dignity comes to light again in this section of the novel, as all of Stevens's actions are guided by his pursuit of dignity. As always, Stevens's first duty is to ensure the smooth running of the household, even if this necessitates his absence from his father's deathbed. The extreme to which Stevens negates his own emotions in this section becomes excruciatingly painful when we learn—through the comments of Reginald Cardinal and Lord Darlington—that Stevens is suffering. Ironically, the moments when Stevens feels he is being "unprofessional" are those when he seems most human, and when we can best relate to him.
Miss Kenton, in this section, is shown to be a character upon whom we may depend, much as Stevens, however unwittingly, depends upon her. It is she, not Stevens, who notices that his father's ability is waning, and who forces Stevens to realize this fact, despite his efforts to deny it. Indeed, Miss Kenton does not have the blind spots that Stevens does. Yet she also understands, to some degree, Stevens's commitment to his profession, as she is also an excellent and devoted housekeeper. When Stevens's father is dying, Miss Kenton stays with the old man when Stevens must attend to matters downstairs, and it is she who closes his father's eyes after he passes away.