Lady Dedlock is sick; she hasn't been feeling well for some time.
Sir Dedlock is a Member of Parliament, with a pretty solidly uncontested seat. His conservative party, however, is in some trouble in the elections. They are spending a lot of time, energy, and money to try to get their candidates elected. But no luck, regardless of how they try to bribe the voters. (Quick brain snack: it was much easier to bribe voters back then, because there were a lot fewer of them – only people who owned land or businesses could cast ballots.)
All the Dedlock cousins are helping out...or at least hanging around pretending to help out.
Volumnia is scandalized that anyone would consider voting for a candidate from the reform movement.
Sir Dedlock is happy to hear her say that and immediately likes her better for it.
Their conversation kind of goes back and forth about how the country is going to hell in a hand-basket because people are interested in candidates like Mr. Rouncewell, the Ironmaster.
Tulkinghorn comes in.
He tells Sir Dedlock about some bad election results. It seems that, although Mr. Rouncewell didn't actually run for a seat himself, he did campaign against Sir Dedlock and his candidate, helped by his son Watt, and together they managed to influence the election.
Sir Dedlock is totally furious.
He asks Lady Dedlock to keep Rosa as far away from these people as possible.
She answers that she has no desire to get rid of her.
Tulkinghorn then says he has a story to tell them. Check this out: he says that in the village of the election there was a beautiful young girl who became a favorite of a lady of high society. But the lady had a terrible secret – when she was young she gave birth to a baby out of wedlock. Although the father was dead, the secret came out anyway. And the young beautiful woman was forever tainted by being associated with this grand lady.
Wow. That sounds a lot like the plot of the novel, no?
Tulkinghorn is a master of the threat.
Lady Dedlock displays no reaction to the story. She takes a sip of water and goes to bed.