Part 3, Chapter 1 Summary
Dowell is with Leonora. A week earlier, Captain Ashburnham died. Florence is also dead. As Dowell sits in Leonora's study, she tells him very calmly that Florence and her husband had an affair. Leonora also tells him that Florence committed suicide, another surprise to Dowell, who thought she had died from a heart attack.
Dowell recalls the events as they unfolded on the day of his wife's death, details he either experienced for himself or learned from other people. The captain was going to a concert with a young woman, Nancy Rufford, who became the Ashburnhams' ward after her parents abandoned her as a child. Until recently, Nancy had been raised by nuns in a convent school. She often went home to the Ashburnham estate for summers. As she matured, she became infatuated with the captain. The night the captain took Nancy to the concert, he later related to Dowell, he had no idea how much he loved Nancy. Prior to that night, he loved her like a father. However, as they listened to the music, he realized his love had developed into a deeper passion.
On that night, Florence became suspicious of the captain's attention to Nancy. After they left for the concert, Florence made an excuse to her husband and left to spy on the captain. She found Ashburnham sitting with Nancy just as he was declaring his love. Upon hearing this, Florence's heart broke. She ran back to the hotel and ingested a poisonous concoction that Dowell had thought was Florence's heart medicine. Upon finding her body, Dowell concluded that his wife had rushed home to take her medicine but found the vial too late and suffered a heart attack.
As Dowell sits with Leonora, he contemplates his own infatuation with Nancy and begins to think that now that Florence is gone, he might marry Nancy. He proclaims that his love for Nancy is not passionate but rather he merely wants to love her, and so he claims that he does. He also realizes that he had this same feeling shortly after Florence's death. Upon hearing that his wife was gone, he felt a heavy burden lifted from his shoulders. He did not realize until that moment how difficult the past twelve years of his marriage had been. He had never loved Florence. He had only taken care of her as any other man might have done.