Despite his failure to extract any more than a tenuous promise from Ellen, Archer is nonetheless comforted by their agreement and returns the next day to New York. As he arrives at the train station, he is surprised to meet the French tutor he had met abroad in London, and he invites the young man to call on him that afternoon. In Archer's office, the tutor relates that he had seen Archer the day before in Boston. He informs Archer that he was there to speak with Ellen on behalf of Count Olenski. Despite his connection with the Count, however, the tutor firmly believes that Ellen should not return to him and asks Archer to persuade the Mingott family to change their mind regarding the issue.

At this moment, Archer realizes that he has been excluded from the family's negotiations over Ellen's fate because they saw that he was not on their side. He asks the tutor why he feels Ellen should not accept the offer. The tutor explains that Ellen has changed, that she has become more American, and that going back to her old European life would be unbearable for her now that she has adapted to New York customs. We learn from the tutor's speech that he has known the Count and Ellen for many years. This leads Archer to wonder if he is perhaps the secretary rumored to have had an affair with Ellen.

Autumn soon arrives, and with it Archer's mother's usual complaints that society has changed in recent years for the worse. Evidence of this societal decay is the extravagant new fall fashions, Beaufort's rumored recent financial problems following unlawful speculations, and the success of Mrs. Lemuel Struthers's vulgar Sunday evening parties. At Thanksgiving dinner, the conversation turns to Ellen Olenska, who was one of the first to attend the Struthers parties. Ellen has again disappointed the family by refusing to return to her husband. Remaining in Washington with Medora, she is now considered to be a hopeless case. Archer himself has not heard from her for several months.

When Sillerton Jackson makes the waggish suggestion that Ellen may lose some financial assistance should Beaufort lose his fortune, Archer angrily responds to this implication of adultery. After his outburst, he realizes that he has exposed his ignorance of the family's decisions regarding Ellen. Unbeknownst to him, they have greatly reduced her allowance upon her refusal to return to her husband, leaving her next to penniless. Upon returning home, Archer invents an excuse to tell May to justify his going to Washington the next day. While May wishes him a good journey, her eyes indicate that she is quite aware that Archer means to see Ellen there.

Archer's plans to leave for Washington are thwarted by the collapse of Beaufort's business dealings, which promise to be the worst disaster Wall Street has ever seen. News soon reaches Archer that Mrs. Mingott has had a stroke. When he reaches her home, he is informed of the cause of her stroke. Mrs. Beaufort had been to see Mrs. Mingott the night before and had asked her the impossible: that the family support Beaufort through his financial collapse. Mrs. Mingott had refused, but the shock of Mrs. Beaufort's effrontery was great enough to induce a stroke.

Mrs. Mingott requests to see Ellen. May exclaims that it is a pity that her train to New York will cross Archer's train bound for Washington on the way.