Back at Audley Court, Sir Michael sees an advertisement posted in the paper requesting information about the whereabouts of George Talboys. However, he, Lady Audley, and Alicia are not very interested in George or his disappearance. Alicia increasingly dislikes her stepmother and her father rebukes her for her rude behavior, while Lady Audley suggests she make an attempt to be more civil. Alicia wants nothing to do with her, and Lady Audley spends more and more time with her maid, Phoebe. Phoebe has obtained a position for her fiancée Luke as a household servant, and when Lady Audley meets him she is unimpressed. She asks Phoebe why she wants to marry him, and Phoebe explains that she does not love him, but is afraid to break off the engagement in case Luke becomes violent. Lady Audley says she is happy to offer Luke money in exchange for quietly ending the engagement, but Phoebe insists that she must keep the agreement and admits that there is a secret that gives him power over her. Since Luke wants to open a pub, Lady Audley says that she will give him the money to do so, as a way of being helpful to Phoebe. When she tells Luke how much money she will give him, he rudely asks for double that amount. Lady Audley refuses but he makes a threatening implication, and Lady Audley realizes that Phoebe has shared a piece of information with him that now gives Luke power over her. At this point, the reader does not know what that information is. Phoebe apologizes and claims that Luke forced the information from her.
A few weeks later, Phoebe and Luke marry. Luke is pleased because with the money Lady Audley has given him, he has been able to buy the Castle Inn, and does not seem to care that Phoebe does not seem happy about the marriage. More time passes, and at Christmas Robert comes to visit Audley Court. He does not take part in many activities and spends most of his time loitering with Lady Audley and Alicia. Alicia expresses her frustration with his idleness and becomes emotional when trying to articulate her disappointment with the lack of attention he gives her. She runs out, leaving Robert confused about why she is so emotional. He quickly turns his attention to Lady Audley, however, especially when she asks about George Talboys. Robert explains that he has not seen or heard from George since September 7th, the day he fell asleep while fishing and woke up to find his friend gone. All of his efforts to track him down have been unsuccessful. Robert says that he believes that either George never went further than Southampton (where Captain Maldon and little George live), or that he never made it to Southampton at all. Robert explains that he is piecing together small pieces of information in order to understand what has happened to George and that he feels sure he will eventually arrive at the truth. When she hears this, Lady Audley faints.
After Christmas, when the other guests have departed, Robert announces his plan of staying on at Audley Court, and Sir Michael tells him to stay as long as he likes. Meanwhile, Sir Harry Towers, a wealthy man who lives nearby, asks Alicia to marry him, but she refuses. Sir Harry is frustrated and remarks to himself that he hopes she is not in love with her cousin Robert. Robert sees Alicia looking upset; he asks if Sir Harry has proposed to her. Alicia admits that he has, and that she has refused, but expresses her frustration that Robert doesn’t seem to care whom she marries, and threatens to change her mind and accept Sir Harry after all. He advises her not to accept Sir Harry if she prefers someone else and alludes to believing he knows whom she does prefer. Alicia is angry that he continues to be unaware of her feelings for him, and storms off. Sir Harry mourns that all of his wealth and pleasures mean nothing if he cannot have a wife to share it with. Sir Michael expresses his condolences and suggests that Alicia must be in love with her cousin, which Sir Harry rejects. After Sir Harry leaves, Lady Audley asks her husband how long Robert Audley will be staying with them. When Sir Michael answers that he will stay indefinitely, Lady Audley hints that Robert is attracted to her, and that his displays of attention make Alicia jealous, and make everyone uncomfortable. Sir Michael is angry, and tells Robert that he is behaving inappropriately and should leave. Robert seems unsurprised by this and leaves quietly. Rather than returning to London, he goes to the nearby village of Mount Stanning, and takes rooms at the inn owned by Phoebe and Luke.
As Robert gets settled in his new accommodations, Phoebe sends a messenger to deliver a note directly to Lady Audley. After she does so, she chats with Robert. He asks about what Lucy Audley was like before her marriage, but Phoebe reveals very little, and Robert notes that she is capable of being very secretive. Later that night, he speaks to both her and her husband Luke. Luke quickly starts to reveal that he does not like living in Mount Stanning; Phoebe tries to distract him, but he makes it clear that she cannot prevent him from speaking. He explains that he resents having to live in Mount Stanning, when he could have afforded an inn in a better location if a benefactor had been willing to give him more money. Phoebe seems distressed that he has disclosed this, but Robert shows very little reaction and goes to bed.
The next morning Robert is surprised to learn that Lady Audley has come to visit him at the inn. She apologizes that Robert has had to leave Audley Court, suggesting that Sir Michael is overly jealous. She then asks why he is staying at the Castle Inn. Robert replies that he is curious about Luke Marks, and comments that it would be easy to feel threatened by him. Lady Audley demands to know why he hates her. Robert replies that the loss of his friend George has altered his feelings about people. Lucy asks if he means that he does not believe that George is in Australia; Robert admits that he does not, but will not say why. He explains that he has sent inquiries to Australia for news of George and is expecting to receive an answer in only a few days. If he does not receive word of George, he will be convinced that his friend is dead, and will begin to examine the possessions that George left behind. He explains that these possessions include letters from various people in George’s life, including his wife. Lady Audley leaves, recommending that Robert not stay too long at the inn. He responds that he plans to return to London the following day. Later, he questions the driver of Lady Audley’s coach, and is told that after she left the inn she was driven to the train station, where she took the train to London. He leaves immediately afterwards, headed to London as well.
After he arrives in London, Robert lingers at the station and sees Lady Audley boarding a train to return back to her home. She seems much more relaxed and confident, and explains that she has come to London to pay a bill so that her husband will not be aware of how much she spends on clothes and accessories. Robert is curious as to what she could have accomplished in such a short time. Robert returns to his lodgings and asks Mrs. Maloney if anyone has been in his rooms. She mentions that a blacksmith had come by: he arrived at the house, claiming that Robert Audley had requested that he repair the locks on his chamber doors. Mrs. Maloney let him in to the apartment, but did not remain with him the entire time, as she was preoccupied with household tasks. Robert asks for the blacksmith’s address and goes to the house location to which Mrs. Maloney directs him. He finds the blacksmith drinking with some friends, consuming alcohol that seems surprisingly expensive, and telling some sort of story about a lady. He falls silent as soon as Robert arrives. When Robert starts to ask the blacksmith about his visit to his chambers, the blacksmith gives an uncomfortable explanation. He says that he had been summoned by a man with a similar last name and had gotten confused and gone to Robert Audley’s apartment instead, since he had been previously employed by him and thought he was being offered additional work. After Mrs. Maloney let him in, he realized the mistake since all the locks were in working order. When Robert asks why he stayed for thirty minutes if that was the case, the blacksmith hastily says that he did find one lock out of order, and fixed that since he was there anyways. Robert makes it clear that he does not entirely believe the story, and leaves. He begins to feel that he will never be able to resolve the mystery of what has happened to George Talboys.
Part of the drama of George's disappearance is that Robert is essentially alone in trying to understand it: most other characters either don't care, or assume that George did indeed go to Australia. Robert is repeatedly told that his convictions that something bad has happened to George are crazy or "mad." At this point, the term is being used casually and no one actually thinks Robert is crazy, just that he has become strangely preoccupied. However, the idea of madness and the difficulty in knowing when someone is sane or insane will become an ever more important question as the novel continues.
The tension between Robert and Lady Audley mounts rapidly in this section of the novel. When he had first met her, Robert was taken with her beauty, but he now becomes increasingly convinced that this could be a tool she uses to hide her true purposes. He is confident enough to begin making veiled accusations and implications, demonstrating his commitment to uncovering what happened to George. In these encounters, Robert begins to reveal himself as someone with shrewd psychological knowledge: he assumes that Lady Audley must be feeling guilt and anxiety about whatever secret she is hiding and that he might be able to gradually trick her into displaying evidence of her guilt, or giving away additional information.
Lady Audley, in response to Robert's pointed questions and comments, displays evidence of both fragility and cunning. She responds to some of Robert's implications with stereotypically feminine responses such as fainting and becoming emotional. We also see evidence of her vulnerability when Phoebe and Luke blackmail her and she is forced to give them money. At the same time, however, she is able to quickly craft a plan, rapidly travelling to London in order to (the novel implies) bribe a blacksmith to break into Robert's apartment and remove any incriminating evidence before he can inspect it. When she puts this plan in motion, she also makes use of gender stereotypes in order to provide a cover-up. She claims that the reason she secretly traveled to London was because she had spent a lot of money on fashion accessories and wanted to pay this bill herself, so that Sir Michael would not be aware of the amount of money she had spent. This story reflects stereotypes of women as careless consumers and many, who would see Lady Audley's greatest flaw as likely to be no more serious than an inability to control her spending, would find this lie believable. This episode provides another example of how Lady Audley manipulates gender stereotypes to her own benefit.
Questions of gender and power also play out in Phoebe's plot. While Phoebe at first seems greedy and manipulative, she becomes a more sympathetic character as she admits to feeling trapped in her engagement to Luke, and afraid of him becoming physically violent if she ends the relationship. In her conversation with Lady Audley, the two women show solidarity with one another, and there is a sense that both are frustrated by their limited options. Because they cannot be independent, they have to resort to scheming, lying, and manipulating.
Train travel, which is used throughout the novel to make the suspenseful plot possible, is important because of the speed and relative anonymity it gives travelers. When Lady Audley feels threatened that Robert will inspect George's possessions and find something she does not want him to see, she is able to rapidly and relatively secretly get to London to prevent this. As it became possible for people in the Victorian era to travel more easily and quickly, mobility could create anxiety: it was harder to know where people were at a given time, and whether they had been where they claimed to be at any particular moment. The whole mystery around George's disappearance hinges on the fact that it is impossible to confirm whether he did or did not leave Audley by train, and where he went after that.
This section of the novel shows the development of Robert's method of investigation. He is able to consider who might have knowledge that would be useful to him and question those people, as his conversations with Luke Marks reveal. Robert is skilled at gathering information without necessarily revealing why he wants to know: he has already learned not to be too trusting, and not to reveal his suspicions readily. Robert however is also beginning to experience the doubt and despair that will haunt him throughout the novel. He is afraid that he will never be able to uncover what happened to George. That he continues to search even while experiencing doubt contributes to the idea of him as a man with strong convictions and commitment.