Dowell describes the circumstances at Nauheim under which he and Florence met the Ashburnhams. It was August, 1904, and Florence had been taking spa baths for a month. At Nauheim, Dowell feels bored and useless; there is nothing whatever to entertain him so he falls into the habit of counting his steps. In the mornings, he would walk Florence to the bath. One morning, he remembers that she stood at the door and turned back, looking beautiful and giving him a little coquettish smile. Dowell gets angry at the memory of this moment. He wonders why, for whose benefit, she should ever have done such a thing. He says again that his life was so boring, and that his boredom explains why he remembers all the details of their time at the hotel.
He first meets the Ashburnhams at dinner one night in the dining room. Captain Ashburnham is seated at a table that is not very desirable. When Leonora breezes in from another room with Florence, she insists that they all sit at one table together.
The rest of this section involves Dowell's first impressions of Edward and Leonora. Dowell thinks Edward to be extraordinarily good-looking, with fair hair and a perfect uniform. Edward's conversation revolves around where to get the best soap, the best brandy, the best of everything. For a moment Dowell wonders what all the women see in him. Then he surmises that, like all good soldiers, Edward must be a sentimentalist, someone who, when in the company of women, discusses such things as constancy, courage, bravery, and honor. Such sentimental yearning, Dowell concludes, must be attractive to women.
Dowell is first surprised by Leonora's gaiety. She can call total strangers "nice people." He comments that she does not look her best in evening wear, rather like a "white marble bust" emerging from a "black Wedgwood vase." Leonora seems slightly cold toward Dowell, as if one's lips would chill if he kissed her. Though he claims that even these nine years later he loves Leonora and would lay down his life for her, Dowell remembers being slightly offended at the way she first looked at him that night—as if he and not Florence is the invalid.
Dowell describes the tranquility of their life together. Because it was assumed that they were all "good people" and that they could all afford anything they wanted, their time was spent drinking wine, throwing yearly parties, and going on small excursions as a group. Reflecting on that period, Dowell comments about how those years were an utter waste of time, when he neither accomplished anything nor learned anything about the Ashburnhams. He concedes that he took everything for granted.
Florence is a great guide to "archaeological expeditions" and she likes nothing more than showing people the window "from which someone looked down upon the murder of someone else." Though she knows a lot of history, Florence is always angered because she can never get the better of Leonora, who seems to already know whatever Florence says. One day, very early in the aquaintance of the two couples, Florence takes them all on an expedition to the city of M— in Prussia. This is the site that holds Martin Luther's original Protest, declaring his followers to be separate from the Catholic Church.
On the train ride to M—, Dowell remembers finding it very funny when a brown cow hitched its horns under the stomach of a black and white animal and threw it into the middle of a narrow stream. He reflects that he probably should have pitied the animal but he didn't; he merely enjoyed the sight. Dowell adds that no one paid attention to him laughing.
Once they get to M—, they visit Martin Luther's bedroom and examine his Protest. With animation, Florence explains that this piece of paper is the reason that they are Protestants, hardworking, sober, industrious, and very different from the Irish and the Italians. As she says this, she touches Edward's wrist. Dowell is aware of something treacherous and evil in the day. Leonora rushes out of the room, pulling Dowell with her. She is enormously upset, claiming that "that" is the cause of sorrow in the world. Dowell does not understand what she means. When Leonora sees that Dowell does not comprehend her meaning, she re-establishes her composure and says that she is offended by Florence's comments because she is an Irish Catholic.
Dowell's inability to understand the events that are about to happen create a good deal of dramatic irony. One significant irony is the discrepancy between Dowell's perception of himself and the our perception of him. For example, Dowell considers himself extremely perceptive and insightful. Because he has had nothing to do for nine years, he reasons that he must be a faithful narrator. His attention, he explains, was entirely focused on the world around him: the decorations in the dining room, the plan of their hotel, the coquettish actions of Florence. But as he relates the story of their day at Nauheim, Dowell is the opposite of insightful. He is so enraptured in seeing things as they appear to be and in trusting "good people," that he is incapable of suspecting the beginning of a romance between Florence and Edward. Even when Leonora desperately attempts to point out the truth to him, Dowell does not understand. He happily accepts her excuse that as a Catholic, she is offended. Dowell can only recognize details which have little bearing and no importance. His wife's betrayal and Leonora's horror remain utterly invisible to him.
The scene in which Dowell laughs at the cows is a larger metaphor for the way we respond to Dowell in the novel. Dowell laughs at an act of violence among animals in a strange and awkward way. He notices the intricate relationship between the cows, but he does not notice the emotional violence amidst his very intimate group. Reflecting, Dowell concedes that he should have felt pity for the animal that was thrown into the river. But he did not feel pity at all. Likewise, we fail to pity Dowell because his situation is morbidly comic. He is so ignorant and naive that he can inspire only a strange fascination in the outside observer.