One day he discovered that she was unfaithful to him. A man (whose face was but imperfectly concealed) was stealing away from his house as he returned to it; and the wife, confronting him at the same moment, bade him kill her, but spare the man she loved. He did not kill her—then: for she had turned his love into contempt. He despised her too much to inflict even a lesser punishment, which should compromise the dignity, or disturb the outward calmness, of his life. But from that moment their union was a form; and while he worked as those do who have something to forget, and she shared the position which his labours procured for him, an impassable, if unseen, gulf lay between them.
Three years had passed, when suddenly, one night, the wife begged to speak with her husband alone. Her request was granted; and then the truth broke forth. She loved—had loved—no one but him; but she was jealous of his devotion to the State. She imagined herself second to it in his affections; and it was the jealousy in her which had made her strive to arouse it in him. That other man had been nothing to her but a tool. Her secret, she now knew, was killing her. Conscience forbade her to elude her punishment by death. She therefore spoke.
“Would she write this?” he asked; and he dictated to her the confession she had just made, in the terms most humiliating to him who was intended to hear it.
“Could she but write it in her blood!” This, too, was possible. He put into her hand a dainty Eastern weapon, one prick of which, he said, would draw so much blood as was required. It did more than this, for it was poisoned. But, before she died, she knew that her explanation had raised her husband’s contempt into hatred, and that the revenge of which she was now found worthy had quenched the hatred in forgiveness.
“She lies as erst beloved” (the narrative concludes) “in the church of him who hears this confession; whom his grate conceals as little as that cloak once did—whom vengeance overtakes at last.”
The poisoned dagger, which was the instrument of revenge—the pledge of forgiveness—is spoken of as part of a collection preserved in the so-called study, which was the scene of the interview; and the speaker dwells at some length on the impression of deadly purpose combined with loving artistic care, which their varied form and fantastic richness convey. This collection is actually in Mr. Browning’s possession; and he values it, perhaps, for the reason he imputes to its imagined owner: that those who are accustomed to the slower processes of thought, like to play with the suggestions of prompt (if murderous) action; as the soldier, tired of wielding the sword, will play with paper and pen.