Martha, one of the manor's numerous maidservants, greets Mary when she awakens on her first morning at Misselthwaite. Mary tells Martha how much she hates the moor; Martha replies that she will come to love it, just as Martha does herself. The housemaid is quite casual in her speech, and talks to the girl as though the two were equals. This much upsets Mistress Mary, who is used to the extreme servility of the servants who took care of her in India. When Mary asks Martha to help her in getting dressed, Martha is completely shocked. It had never occurred to her that the child might not be capable of dressing herself. In her surprise, she lapses into the dialect (meaning a form of speech particular to the people of a region) of Yorkshire. This dialect is characteristic of the speech of nearly everyone on the moor (except for the residents of the manor house itself).

Martha goes on to say that she suspects Mary's circumstances were so very different in India because there are "such a lot o' blacks there." In fact, she had imagined that Mary herself was black. Mary is outraged at this suggestion, for blacks "are not people"; in response, she insults Martha viciously and then bursts into tears. Martha, troubled by this tantrum, comforts her and agrees to help her dress.

Mary finds that the mourning black she was wearing upon her arrival at Misselthwaite has been replaced by a new set of white woolen clothes. For once, she is pleased by the change, as she "hates black things." As she helps Mary dress, Martha is again surprised by the child's behavior: she stands very still, as though she were a doll, and does nothing to help herself. When the maid asks why she insists on being dressed, Mary replies with a phrase she learned from her Indian servants: "It was the custom."

Martha begins to tell Mary about her family: her mother, father, and eleven brothers and sisters. She mentions that one of her younger brothers, Dickon, has an almost magical way with animals and keeps a wild pony as a pet. For the first time in her life, Mary finds herself interested in something other than herself: she is attracted by the idea of Dickon.

Mary refuses to eat the breakfast that is brought to her, which exasperates Martha, who has often seen her siblings go hungry. At Martha's suggestion (and in the hopes that she might see Dickon), Mary decides to explore the moor. Before she ventures out, however, Martha mentions that, somewhere on the grounds of Misselthwaite, there is a garden that has been shut up for ten years. It was once Mistress Craven's garden and, after her death, Master Craven locked its door and buried the key. Mary begins searching for the secret garden as soon as she leaves the manor. She first explores the kitchen gardens, and, over one of the garden walls, sees a robin redbreast, whose lovely appearance and cheerful song please Mary deeply. She feels certain that the tree on which he is perched is in the secret garden. In one of the kitchen gardens, Mary comes across a gruff old gardener named Ben Weatherstaff. When she mentions seeing the robin, the old man breaks into a beautiful soft whistle; Mary is terribly surprised, as the sound is so at odds with his surly appearance. The robin appears a few moments later, and lands near the old man's feet. Ben Weatherstaff tells Mary that the robin had been lonely after the rest of his brood flew away; longing for company, the robin befriended the gardener. Mary realizes that she too is lonely, and that this is one of the reasons for her contrariness. Ben Weatherstaff observes that Mary and he are alike, in that they are both unattractive and have terrible tempers; Mary is greatly discomfited, as no one has ever spoken to her with such bluntness.

The robin breaks into song, in an attempt to make friends with Mary; as she has no friends in the entire world, she is almost painfully delighted. Mary attempts to ask Ben Weatherstaff about the secret garden, but he refuses to answer and walks away without a word of goodbye.