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Robert Browning (1812–1889). A Blot in the ’Scutcheon.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Act V Scene I

Whither away so fast?

How should I know?

Methinks we should begin by taking counsel

To see what can be done to meet the case.

I’m all worked up about that wretched box.

More than all else it drives me to despair.

That box must hide some mighty mystery?

Argas, my friend who is in trouble, brought it

Himself, most secretly, and left it with me.

He chose me, in his exile, for this trust;

And on these documents, from what he said,

I judge his life and property depend.

How could you trust them to another’s hands?

By reason of a conscientious scruple.

I went straight to my traitor, to confide

In him; his sophistry made me believe

That I must give the box to him to keep,

So that, in case of search, I might deny

My having it at all, and still, by favour

Of this evasion, keep my conscience clear

Even in taking oath against the truth.

Your case is bad, so far as I can see;

This deed of gift, this trusting of the secret

To him, were both—to state my frank opinion—

Steps that you took too lightly; he can lead you

To any length, with these for hostages;

And since he holds you at such disadvantage,

You’d be still more imprudent, to provoke him;

So you must go some gentler way about.

What! Can a soul so base, a heart so false,

Hide neath the semblance of such touching fervour?

I took him in, a vagabond, a beggar!…

’Tis took much! No more pious folk for me!

I shall abhor them utterly forever,

And henceforth treat them worse than any devil.

So! There you go again, quite off the handle!

In nothing do you keep an even temper.

You never know what reason is, but always

Jump first to one extreme, and then the other.

You see your error, and you recognise

That you’ve been cozened by a feigned zeal;

But to make up for’t, in the name of reason,

Why should you plunge into a worse mistake,

And find no difference in character

Between a worthless scamp, and all good people?

What! Just because a rascal boldly duped you

With pompous show of false austerity,

Must you needs have it everybody’s like him,

And no one’s truly pious nowadays?

Leave such conclusions to mere infidels;

Distinguish virtue from its counterfeit,

Don’t give esteem too quickly, at a venture,

But try to keep, in this, the golden mean.

If you can help it, don’t uphold imposture;

But do not rail at true devoutness, either;

And if you must fall into one extreme,

Then rather err again the other way.