Robert returns to London, feeling frustrated that he must now continue to try to solve the mystery. He feels some bitterness towards Clara for demanding this of him, but also admits to feeling attracted to her. He looks at the two letters Clara has given to him, which George had written to her. One is from the night before he sailed for Australia, and contains no new information. The second is from shortly after his marriage, and gives a very detailed description of the physical appearance of his wife.
A few months go by while Robert struggles with sadness and loneliness. In February, he receives a letter from Alicia that Sir Michael is ill and would like to see him. Robert goes to Audley Court immediately. He finds his uncle asleep with Lucy Audley sitting by his bed, who assures him that Sir Michael is not in any danger. Sir Michael awakes and tells Robert that he and Lady Audley must learn to get along. Mr. Dawson, the surgeon, is there to attend Sir Michael, and Robert asks to speak with him alone. He says he wants to ask him about Lucy Audley, his former employee. Mr. Dawson is uncomfortable with these questions, thinking that Robert must be in love with her, but Robert insists that it is vitally important he learn everything he can about her. Mr. Dawson explains that he had hired her as a governess a little less than 3 years before. A schoolmistress named Mrs. Vincent had recommended her. Mr. Dawson never met Mrs. Vincent; he posted an advertisement and Lucy had replied, directing him to Mrs. Vincent as her reference. Mr. Dawson corresponded with her, was satisfied with the information she gave, and hired Lucy. Mr. Dawson tells Robert the address at which Mrs. Vincent had been living.
The next day Robert returns to London and goes to the address where Mrs. Vincent was supposed to have lived. He is told that a Mrs. Vincent had formerly lived there but had moved away approximately a year and a half ago and had not given any indication where she moving. All of this matches up to Lady Audley’s story of having been unable to find her after receiving the telegram about her illness. He asks a few local shop owners, but is told only that Mrs. Vincent was badly in debt, and no one knows where she moved. Finally, a dressmaker provides him with Mrs Vincent’s new address. He goes to the address and meets her, explaining that he wants to ask questions about Lucy Graham. Mrs Vincent consults with her maid Tonks, since she has a bad memory. Mrs. Vincent says that Lucy had not provided much information about where she came from when she had arrived looking for work, but had implied that she had quarreled with her father. She had also not provided references, but Mrs. Vincent was impressed and trusted her. Tonks implies that she believes Lucy had a more sinister side, but cannot provide much information to support this. She does offer to show Robert a box that Lucy left behind when she left to go to work for Mr. Dawson. The box has a number of shipping labels on it, including one indicating the city of Turin, Italy. Robert carefully peels off two of the labels and leaves the house.
Realizing that he cannot gain any more information about Lucy Audley in the time prior to her coming to work for Mrs. Vincent, Robert decides to investigate Helen Talboys. He writes to Clara Talboys and asks her in what town George had met Mr. Maldon and Helen. Clara tells him they met when George was stationed at Wildernsea. George travels there immediately and takes rooms at a hotel. He asks a hotel waiter whether he remembers a Captain Maldon. The waiter confirms that he does, and explains that Cpt. Maldon’s daughter, Helen, married a young officer, travelled with him, and then returned. Shortly after that, her husband left her and their newborn baby in order to seek his fortune in Australia. Robert asks how long Mr. Maldon and Helen stayed after this event; the waiter is unsure, and directs Robert to Mrs. Barkamp, the landlady of the houses where they lived. Robert goes to see her and asks her to tell him when Mr. Maldon and Helen left. Mrs. Barkamp explains that they did not leave together; Helen was frustrated by her father spending the money she earned from teaching piano and left abruptly, without her son. Using a letter Mr. Maldon had sent her, Mrs. Barkamp is able to confirm that Helen Talboys left Wildernsea on August 16, 1854. This is just before the date when Tonks had confirmed that Lucy Graham had arrived at Mrs. Vincent’s school. There is also a copy of the note Helen had left for her father, in which she alludes to a secret that has been making her unhappy. Mrs. Barkamp says that Cpt. Maldon moved out a few months later, in November, taking his grandson with him to Southampton.
Back in London, Robert receives a letter from Alicia that both Sir Michael and Lady Audley want him to come to Audley Court. He travels to Audley and wanders into a local church, where he is surprised to encounter Clara Talboys, who is in the area visiting her friend Mrs. Martyn. Clara expresses her disappointment that Robert has not been able to provide new information about her brother, and Robert says that he is still gathering information, but does not want to reveal anything until he knows more. After Robert leaves, Mrs. Martyn asks Clara to whom she was talking. When she gives Robert’s name, Mrs. Martyn notes that he must be connected to Sir Michael Audley, and mentions that Sir Audley has recently married a much younger woman who had been working as a governess. Clara becomes suspicious when she hears a description of Lady Audley’s appearance, which is an exact match for how George had described his wife to her.
Back at Audley Court, Robert arranges to speak with Lady Audley alone; Alicia jealously believes that he is infatuated with her. Robert confronts her, saying he is suspicious about George’s disappearance and is beginning to suspect that Helen Talboys was not actually dead when George returned to England. He tells her that when George had found gold and begun his journey back to England from Australia, news of this had been published in the paper, and that therefore someone would have known that his return was imminent. He gives his theory: that Helen Talboys had faked her death, conspiring with Captain Maldon, since she had taken on a new identity and did not want to be discovered when her husband returned. Lady Audley points out that in that case, it would be necessary to determine who died at Ventnor under Helen’s name; Robert says that he believes Mrs. Plowson will be able to help him find out. Lady Audley repeats that this is all a delusion on his part, and he tells her that she shares the same handwriting as Helen Talboys. He then explicitly accuses her of being Helen Talboys, having invented the name of Lucy Graham and a new identity after she left Wildernsea. She denies it, and he explains that the labels from the box he inspected at Mrs. Vincent’s were first addressed to Mrs. George Talboys, and that the one pasted over top was then addressed to Lucy Graham, indicating that she had changed the name she was travelling under. Lucy becomes very upset and hints that if he keeps pursuing these ideas, he might be taken as insane. Robert becomes worried that she will use her charm and influence to persuade people that he is mad, but he tells her that if she will not confess and leave Audley, he will continue to search for the location of the body of George Talboys, which he is convinced is somewhere on the grounds. She has one outburst, and then tells him that she will never give in. Robert tells Alicia that he will not stay at the house that night, and will stay at the inn in Mount Stanning instead. After he leaves, when Alicia expresses curiosity about his strange behavior to Lady Audley, Lady Audley begins asking questions about Robert’s parents, hinting at the possibility of some sort of hereditary madness. Alicia is shocked at this suggestion and does not think Sir Michael will believe it either, but Lady Audley has no doubt she can persuade him.
Lady Audley goes in to speak to her husband, and explains Robert’s short visit and abrupt departure. She then becomes very emotional describing the conversation she had with him, upsetting Sir Michael. She suggests Robert could be insane, which Sir Michael first finds unbelievable. However, when she explains that Robert believes George Talboys was murdered at Audley Court, and wants to search for the body, Sir Michael is shocked and agitated. He says he will speak to Robert and promises that Lucy will not have to see him again if she doesn’t want to. Lucy hints that Robert seems to believe she is somehow connected with George’s disappearance and makes Sir Michael promise he would never be turned against her. He swears he will always love and trust his wife.
Robert by now is feeling frustrated and trapped by his desire to understand what happened to George. There is a temptation to abandon the quest, especially since he had enjoyed such a peaceful and pleasant life before he became obsessed with the case. His frustration takes the form of a kind of misogyny, in which he lashes out against women as manipulative and vengeful. It would seem that his beliefs about Lady Audley are beginning to influence the way he sees all women. At the same time, however, he is clearly attracted to Clara Talboys. The attraction seems to be rooted in the fact that she is willful and demanding. He also finds her attractive because of her resemblance to her brother; it is possible to see his attraction to her as a kind of repressed desire for George, directed towards another person.
Robert has been relatively secretive about his theories and investigations. Perhaps most importantly, he has not said anything to Sir Michael about his suspicions about Lady Audley. Robert's motives for withholding this information include a desire to avoid any sort of shame or public scandal, and a desire to spare Sir Michael pain. However, by not revealing what he believes about Lady Audley, Robert is potentially placing those around her at risk. The news that Sir Michael is ill makes him afraid that Lady Audley might somehow be involved, presumably by poisoning him. This episode reminds him, and readers, that his investigation actually carries urgency with it. The point is not simply to achieve justice for George: if Lady Audley is allowed to continue to get away with her crimes and lies, she poses a threat to those around her.
It is possibly this fearfulness, as well as the accumulating evidence supporting his theories, that leads Robert to finally make an explicit accusation to Lady Audley. Even when he is at his most aggressive, however, he is still fairly cautious, and attempts to bargain with her. He does not necessarily want to make this information public; he wants her to quietly leave, thereby ensuring that no one else will be in danger, but also that the Audley name will not be tarnished by scandal.
At this point, Lady Audley is torn between fear and confidence. She clearly feels threatened by Robert and the information he has been able to uncover. However, she is unwilling to admit defeat: both the position that she has achieved and the lifestyle that she leads are very important to her, and she will not give them up. She is also willing to fight back and she threatens Robert, revealing her aggression and her willingness to do whatever it takes to protect herself.
The strategy that Lady Audley plans to use to discredit Robert and protect herself reflects the centrality of the theme of madness to the novel. She thinks that if she can convince people that Robert is mad, any claims he makes against her will be dismissed. This seems like a radical strategy, since no one has any reason to think that Robert is mad, and indeed both Alicia and Sir Michael are astonished when she first raises this suggestion. Lady Audley however is very crafty in how she approaches this scheme. When Braddon was writing the novel, there was a great deal of interest in the idea that madness could be a hereditary disease. By looking for ways that Robert's family members might have shown signs of strange behavior, Lady Audley hopes to strengthen her suggestion that Robert could also be mad.
While Lady Audley's claims about Robert are a dramatic strategy that reveals how desperate she is becoming, her greatest power at this point is her ability to perform feminine fragility and evoke Sir Michael's protective impulses. When she shows her distress about the accusations Robert has made towards her, Sir Michael immediately takes her side and agrees to do whatever he has to in order to keep her safe and happy. Once again, the combination of Lady Audley's shrewd and calculating mind and her seemingly vulnerable and sensitive outward displays allow her to remain in a position of relative power, and to feel confident that she can outwit Robert.