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Stevens is sitting in the dining hall of the Rose Garden Hotel in teh town of Little Compton, Cornwall, watching the rain outside before his impending visit with Miss Kenton. He has told her he will arrive at three o'clock, so he has forty minutes to wait.
Stevens recalls his morning drive with Dr. Carlisle to refill the gas in his car. During the drive, Dr. Carlisle abruptly asks Stevens if he is really a dignitary, or just a manservant to a dignitary. Stevens, somewhat relieved, says he is indeed the butler at Darlington Hall. He begins to explain that it was not his intention to deceive anyone as to his position, but the good-natured doctor says that the simple townspeople are likely to mistake someone like Stevens for even a lord or a duke. Stevens tells Dr. Carlisle that Harry Smith spoke quite a bit during dinner. The doctor replies that many people see the benefit of have strong political views like Harry, but they cannot be bothered to have such views themselves—they would rather just be left alone. The doctor's tone is one of disgust as he makes this assertion, but Stevens does not understand why the doctor feels this way. When the two arrive at Stevens's scar, Dr. Carlisle fills up the tank, the men exchange goodbyes, and Stevens goes on his way.
Stevens once again muses on the past while he is killing time before making the trip to Miss Kenton's at three o'clock. Stevens again thinks over why it was he did not go into Miss Kenton's room after she heard that her aunt died. He says he felt a peculiar sensation inside him as he stood, transfixed by indecision, outside her door. Then he abruptly changes his mind and says that perhaps the moment he recalls so vividly was not the day Miss Kenton learned of her aunt's death, but on another occasion several months later, when he again stood outside her door. Stevens now thinks that the memory in question occurred the evening that Mr. Reginald Cardinal arrived at Darlington hall on an unexpected visit.
Reginald Cardinal, the son of Lord Darlington close friend Sir David Cardinal—who had been tragically killed in a riding accident in the 1920s—is also Lord Darlington's godson. When Stevens goes to tell Miss Kenton that Mr. Cardinal has arrived, he catches her in a pensive mood. She tells Stevens she is taking the night off, and reminds him that she had requested the time off a month ago. Miss Kenton then tells Stevens that the man she is going to meet has asked for her hand in marriage, and that she is still thinking the matter over. Stevens briefly thanks her for telling him and excuses himself.
A tense atmosphere prevails during the dinner between Lord Darlington and his godson. Darlington is expecting guests, but he refuses to tell his godson who exactly the guests are. After dinner, the two get into an argument in the smoking room. Herr Ribbentrop arrives at the house under police escort.
Miss Kenton returns from her outing and tells Stevens she has accepted her acquaintance's marriage proposal. Stevens offers her brief congratulations, but says in the same breath that he must return upstairs. Miss Kenton calls to Stevens, amazed that after all her years at Darlington Hall he has nothing more to say about her news. Stevens replies only that events of global significance are occurring in the house and that he must go upstairs. Miss Kenton then tells Stevens that she and her fiancé often pass the time by making fun of Stevens and his incessant professionalism. Stevens does not react, and merely excuses himself once again.
Mr. Cardinal, who is alone in the library, asks Stevens to fetch more brandy. When Stevens returns, Mr. Cardinal says that Lord Darlington has assembled the British Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and the German Ambassador in the other room in order to promote the idea of the Prime Minister making a visit to Nazi Germany. Cardinal says that Hitler, through Herr Ribbentrop, has been using Lord Darlington to extend Nazi influence in England. Though Lord Darlington is a true gentleman whose instinct is to help a defeated foe, the Nazis have manipulated him to their own evil ends.
Stevens then goes to fetch a bottle of port from the cellar for the dignitaries. When he reaches the first floor he sees Miss Kenton standing in the doorway of her room. She apologizes for making fun of him earlier. He replies that he can hardly recall what she said, and that furthermore he does not have time to exchange pleasantries. Stevens goes downstairs and gets the bottle of port. As he comes back upstairs and passes by Miss Kenton's room, he is under the distinct impression that she is crying on the other side of her door. He pauses, uncertain why he is so sure she is in tears, but then he hurries upstairs. As he stands outside the drawing room door where the men are talking, a sense of triumph wells up in him because he thinks he is helping to serve men who will change history.
Stevens cannot understand Dr. Carlisle's disdain for people who "just want to be left alone" and do not like to bother much about political affairs. This is not a surprise, as Stevens thinks that "ordinary" men will never understand the affairs of "great" men. This episode illustrates again Stevens's old-fashioned, conservative views. When Dr. Carlisle asks, Stevens again denies having known Lord Darlington—the third time he has done so in the novel. The more Stevens denies knowing Lord Darlington, the more certain we feel that he does not really think that Lord Darlington acted in a way befitting a gentleman.
Stevens again mentions the night when he thought Miss Kenton was crying but did not enter her room. He remembers that it was not the night of her father's death, but the night she became engaged, the same night the secret meeting took place at Darlington Hall. Perhaps, if Stevens had been less concerned with the affairs of the house and paid more attention to his own emotions, he could have told Miss Kenton of his feelings for her, which might would have prevented her from leaving and marrying the other man. The fact that Miss Kenton is crying on the same night of her engagement foreshadows the many nights she will spend crying during her unhappy marriage.
It is striking that even when Mr. Cardinal tells Stevens the alarming truth of what is really happening in the house, Stevens persists in thinking that Lord Darlington is only doing what is best for everyone involved. Mr. Cardinal cannot understand how Stevens can persist in thinking that all is well, as the Nazi agenda and motives at this point are no longer mysterious to most observers. Cardinal is very angry and upset at Lord Darlington's, and Stevens's, naïveté. Cardinal recalls Mr. Lewis's controversial views from the March 1923 conference, saying that Mr. Lewis had been right—old-fashioned gentlemen who do not fully understand what they are doing, and who hold values out of touch with the times, should not try to influence the decisions of heads of state. Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Cardinal typifies a more modern democratic political viewpoint, whereas Stevens persists in seeing things as though times have not changed. Because Stevens fails to understand that Hitler is annihilating certain racial and religious groups because they are "inferior," Stevens does not perceive how harmful it can be to say that certain people are "inferior" or "ordinary"—claims that we see him make repeatedly throughout the novel. The horror of World War II made it virtually impossible to further entertain such notions of inferiority and superiority, but because Stevens never sees the war first-hand nor evaluates its implications, his views remain outdated.
At this point, there is no doubt that Stevens has become a rather tragic and pitiable character. His reluctance to doubt Lord Darlington and his inability to acknowledge his own feelings result in dangerous political steps on Lord Darlington's part and in the departure of the woman Stevens loves. The fact that Stevens has twice mentioned the evening that he thought Miss Kenton was crying makes it clear that this memory haunts him. The only thing that can save Stevens from despair is the consolation of having done his job as a butler well, so he stubbornly clings to this thought as a drowning man would cling to a piece of driftwood. However, Stevens's eagerness to once again see Miss Kenton indicates that, through her, he hopes to recapture a past that is otherwise irretrievably lost.
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