From the table at which they had
been lunching tow American ladies ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved
across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet,
looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the
Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent
approval. As they leaned there a girlish voice echoed up gaily from the
stairs leading to the court below. "Well, come along, then," it cried,
not to them but to an invisible companion, "and let’s leave the young things
to their knitting"; and a voice as fresh laughed back: "Oh, look here,
Babs, not actually knitting—" "Well, I mean figuratively," rejoined the
first. "After all, we haven’t left our poor parents much else to do…."
And at that point the turn with a tinge of smiling embarrassment, and the
smaller and paler one shook her head and colored slightly.
"Barbara!" she murmured, sending
an unheard rebuke after the mocking voice in the stairway.
The other lady, who was fuller,
and higher in color, with a small determined nose supported by vigorous
back eyebrows, gave a good-humored laugh. "That’s what our daughters think
Her companion replied by a
"Not of us individually. We
must remember that. It’s just the collective modern idea of Mothers. And
you see—" Half-guiltily she drew from her handsomely mounted black handbag
a twist of crimson silk run through by two fine knitting needles, "One
never knows," she murmured. "The new system has certainly given us a good
deal of time to kill; and sometimes I get tired just looking— even at this."
Her gesture was now addressed to the stupendous scene at their feet.
The dark lady laughed again;
and they both relapsed upon the view, contemplating it in silence, with
a sort of diffused serenity which might have been borrowed from the spring
effulgence of the Roman skies. The luncheon hour was long past, and the
two had their end of the vast terrace to themselves. At its opposite extremity
a few groups, detained by a lingering look at the outspread city, were
gathering up guidebooks and fuming for tips. The last of them scattered,
and the two ladies were alone on the air washed height.
"Well , I don’t see why we
shouldn’t just stay here," said Mrs. Slade, the lady of the high color
and energetic brows. Two derelict bask chairs stood near, and she pushed
them into the angle of the parapet, and settled herself in one, her gaze
upon the Palatine, "After all, it’s still the most beautiful view in the
"It always will be, to me,"
assented her friend Mrs. Ansley, with so slight a stress on the "me" that
Mrs. Slade though she noticed it, wondered if it were not merely accidental,
like the random underlings of old-fashioned letter writers.
"Grace Ansley was always old-fashioned,"
she thought; and added aloud, with a retrospective smile: "It’s a view
we’ve both been familiar with for a good many years. When we first met
here we were younger than our girls now. You remember?"
"Oh, yes, I remember," murmured
Mrs. Ansley, with the same undefinable stress. "There’s that headwaiter
wondering," she interpolated. She was evidently far less sure that her
companion of herself and of her rights in the world.
"I’ll cure him of wondering,"
said Mrs. Slade, stretching her hand toward a bag as discreetly opulent-looking
as Mrs. Ansley’s. Signing to the headwaiter, she explained that she and
her friend were old lovers of Rome and would like to spend the end of the
afternoon looking down on the view—that is, if it did not disturb the service?
The headwaiter, bowing over her gratuity, assured her that the ladies were
most welcome, and would be still more so if they would condescend to remain
for dinner. A full-moon night, they would remember….
Mrs. Slade’s black brows drew
together, as though references to the moon were out of place and even unwelcome.
But she smiled away her frown as the headwaiter retreated. "Well, why not?
We might do worse. There’s no knowing, I suppose, when the girls will be
back. Do you even know back from where? I don’t!"
Mrs. Ansley again colored
slightly. "I think those young Italian aviators we met at the Embassy invited
them to fly to Tarquinia for tea. I suppose they’ll want to wait and fly
back by moonlight."
a part it still plays Do you suppose they’re as sentimental as we were?"
"I’ve come to the conclusion
that I don’t in the least know what they are," said Mrs. Ansley. "And perhaps
we didn’t know much more about each other."
"No; perhaps we didn’t."
Here friend gave her a shy
glance. "I never should have supposed you were sentimental, Alida."
"Well, perhaps I wasn’t."
Mrs. Slade drew her lids together in retrospect; and for a few moments
the two ladies, who had been intimate since childhood, reflected how little
they knew each other. Each one, of course, had a label ready to attach
to the other’s name; Mrs. Delphin Slade, for instance, would have told
herself, or anyone who asked her, that Mrs. Horace Ansley, twenty-five
years ago, had been exquisitely lovely—no, you wouldn’t believe it, would
you?… though, of course, still charming, distinguished… Well, as a girl
she had been exquisite; far more beautiful than her daughter Barbara, though
certainly Babs, according to the new standards at any rate, was more effective—had
more edge, as they say. Funny where she got it, with those tow nullities
as parents. Yes; Horace Ansley was—well, just the duplicate of his wife.
Museums specimens of old New York. Good-looking, irreproachable, exemplary.
Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley had lived opposite each other—actually
as well as figuratively—for years. When the drawing-room curtains in No.
20 East 73rd Street were renewed, No. 23, across the way, was always aware
of it. And of all the movings, buyings, travels, anniversaries, illnesses—the
tame chronicle of an estimable pair. Little o fit escaped Mrs. Slade. But
she had grown bored with it by the time her husband made his bug coup in
Wall Street, and when they bought in upper Park Avenue had already begun
to think: "I’d rather live opposite a speakeasy for a change; at least
one might see it raided." The idea of seeing Grace raided was so amusing
that (before the move) she launched it at a woman’s lunch. It made a hit,
and went the rounds—she sometimes wondered if it had crossed the street,
and reached Mrs. Ansley. She hoped not, but didn’t much mind. Those wee
the days when respectability was at a discount, and it did the irreproachable
to harm to laugh at them a little.
A few years later, and not
many moths apart, both ladies lost their husbands, There was an appropriate
exchange of wreaths and condolences, and a brief renewal of intimacy in
the half-shadow of their mourning and now, after another interval, they
had run across each other in Rome, at the same hotel, each of them the
modest appendage of salient daughter. The similarity of their lot had again
drawn them together, lending itself to mild jokes, and the mutual confession
that, if in old days it must have been tiring to "keep up" with daughters,
it was now, at times, a little dull not to.
No doubt, Mrs. Slade reflected,
she felt her unemployment more than poor Grace even would. It was a big
drop from being the wife of Delphin Slade to being his widow She had always
regarded herself (with a certain conjugal pride) as his equal in social
gifts, as contributing her full share to the making of the exceptional
couple they were: but the difference after his death was irremediable.
As the wife of the famous corporation lawyer, always with an international
case or two on hand, every day brought its exciting and unexpected obligation:
the impromptu entertaining of eminent colleagues from abroad the hurried
dashes on legal business to London, Paris or Rome, where the entertaining
was so handsomely reciprocated: the amusement of hearing in her wake: "What,
that handsome woman with the good clothes and they eyes is Mrs. Slade—the
Slade’s wife? Really? Generally the wives of celebrities are such frumps."
Yes; being the Slade’s widow
was dullish business after that. In living up to such a husband all
her faculties had been engaged; now she had only her daughter to live up
to, for the son who seemed to have inherited his father’s gifts had died
suddenly in boyhood. She had fought through that agony because her husband
was there, to be helped and to help; now, after the father’s death, the
thought of the boy had become unbearable. There was nothing left but to
mother her daughter; and dear Jenny was such a perfect daughter that she
needed no excessive mothering. "Now with Babs Ansley I don’t know that
I should be so quiet," Mrs. Slade sometimes half-enviously reflected; but
Jenny, who was younger than her brilliant friend, was that rare accident,
an extremely pretty girl who somehow made youth and prettiness seem as
safe as their absence. It was all perplexing—and to Mrs. Slade a little
boring. She wished that Jenny would fall in love—with the wrong man, even;
that she might have to be watched, out-maneuvered, rescued. And instead,
it was Jenny who watched her mother, kept her out of drafts, made sure
that she had taken hr tonic….
Mrs. Ansley was much less
articulate than her friend, and her mental portrait of Mrs. Slade was slighter,
and drawn with fainter touches. "Alida Slade’s awfully brilliant; but not
as brilliant as she thinks," would have summed it up; though she would
have added for the enlightenment of strangers that Mrs. Slade had been
an extremely dashing girl; much more so than her daughter, who was pretty,
of curse, and clever in a way, but had none of her mother’s—well, "vividness,"
someone had once called it. Mrs. Ansley would take up current words like
this, and cite them in quotation marks, as unheard-of audacities. No; Jenny
was not like her mother. Sometimes Mrs. Ansley thought Alida Slade was
disappointed; on the whole she had had a sad life. Full of failures and
mistakes; Mrs. Ansley had always been rather sorry for her….
So these two ladies visualized
each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope.
For a long time they continued
to sit side by side without speaking. It seemed as though, to both, there
was a relief in laying down their somewhat futile activities in the
presence of the vast Memento Mori which faced them. Mrs. Slade sat quite
still, her eyes fixed on the golden slope of the Palace of the Caesars,
and after a while Mrs. Ansley ceased to fidget with her bag, and she too
sank into meditation. Like many intimate friends, the two ladies had never
before had occasion to be silent together, and Mrs. Ansley was slightly
embarrassed by what seemed, after so many years, a new stage in their intimacy,
and one with which she did not yet know how to deal.
Suddenly the air was full
of that deep clangor of bells which periodically covers Rome with a roof
of silver. Mrs. Slade glanced at her wristwatch. "Five o’clock already,"
she said, as though surprised.
Mrs. Ansley suggested interrogatively:
"There’s bridge at the Embassy at five." For a long time Mrs. Slae id not
answer. She appeared to be lost in contemplation, and Mrs. Ansley thought
the remark had escaped her. But after a while she said, as if speaking
out of a dream: "Bridge, did you say? Not unless you want to…. But I don’t
think I will, you know."
"Oh, no," Mrs. Ansley hastened
to assure her. "I don’t care to at all. It’s so lovely here; and so full
of old memories, as you say." She settled herself in her chair, and almost
furtively drew forth her knitting. Mrs. Slade took sideway note of this
activity, but her own beautifully cared-for hands remained motionless on
"I was just thinking," she
said slowly, "what different things Rome stands for to each generation
of travelers. To our grandmothers, Roman fever; to our mothers, sentimental
dangers—how we used to be guarded!-- to our daughters, no more dangers
than the middle of Main Street. They don’t know it—but how much they’re
The long golden light was
beginning to pale, and Mrs. Ansley lifted her knitting a little closer
to her eyes, "Yes; how we were guarded!"
"I always used to think,"
Mrs. Slade continue, "than our mothers had a much more difficult job than
our grandmothers. When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been
comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when
you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience
thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after
sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in—didn’t they?"
She turned again toward Mrs.
Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point I her knitting. "One,
two, three—slip two; yes, they must have been," she assented, without looking
Mrs. Slade’s eyes rested on
her with a deepened attention, "She can knit—in the face of this! How like
Mrs. Slade leaned back, brooding,
her eyes ranging from the ruins which faced her to the long green hollow
of the Forum, the fading glow of the church fronts beyond it, and the outlying
immensity of the Colosseum. Suddenly she thought: "It’s all very well to
say that our girls have done away with sentiment and moonlight. But if
Babs Ansley isn’t out to catch that young aviator—the one who’s a Marchese—then
I don’t know anything. And Jenny has no chance besides her. I know that
too. I wonder if that’s why Grace Ansley likes the two girls to go everywhere
together? My poor Jenny as a foil--!" Mrs. Slade gave a hardly audible
laugh, and at the sound Mrs. Ansley dropped her knitting.
"I—oh, nothing. I was only
thinking how your Babs caries everything before her. That Campolieri boy
is one of the best matches in Rome. Don’t look so innocent, my dear—you
know he is. And I was wondering, ever so respectfully, you understand…
wondering how two such exemplary characters as you and Horace had managed
to produce anything quite so dynamic." Mrs. Slade laughed again, with a
touch of asperity.
Mrs. Ansley’s hands lay inert
across her needles. She looked straight out at the great accumulated wreckage
of passion and splendor at her feet. But her small profile was almost expressionless.
At length she said: "I think you overrate Babs, my dear."
Mrs. Slade’s tone grew easier.
"No, I don’t . I appreciate her. And perhaps envy you. Oh, my girl’s perfect;
if I were a chronic invalid I’d—well, I think I’d rather b in Jenny’s hands.
There must be times… but there! I always wanted a brilliant daughter… and
never quite understood why I got an angel instead."
Mrs. Ansley echoed her laugh
in a faint murmur. "Babs is an angel too."
"Of course—of course! But
she’s got rainbow wings. Well, they’re wandering by the sea with their
young me; and her we sit… and it all brings back the past a little too
Mrs. Ansley ad resumed her
knitting. One might almost have imagined (if one had known her less well,
Mrs. Slade reflected) that, for her also, too many memories rose from the
lengthening shadows of those august ruins. But no; she was simply absorbed
in hr work. What was there for her to worry about? She knew that Babs would
almost certainly come back engaged to the extremely eligible Campolieri.
"And she’ll sell the New York house, and settle down near them in Rome.
And never be in their way… she’s much too tactful. But she’ll have an excellent
cook, and just the right people in for bridge and cocktails… and a perfectly
peaceful old age among her grandchildren."
Mrs. Slade broke off this
prophetic flight with a recoil of self-disgust. There was no one of whom
she had less right to think unkindly than of Grace Ansley. Would she never
cure herself of envying her? Perhaps she had begun too long ago.
She stood up and leaned against
the parapet, filling her troubled eyes with the tranquilizing magic of
the hour. But instead of tranquilizing her the sight seemed to increase
her exasperation. Her gaze turned toward the Colosseum. Already its golden
flank was drowned in purple shadow, and above it the sky curved crystal
clear, without light or color. It was the moment when afternoon and evening
hang balanced in mid-heaven.
Mrs. Slade turned back and
laid her hand on her friend’s arm. The gesture was so abrupt that Mrs.
Ansley looked up., startled.
"The sun’s set. You’re not
afraid, my dear?"
"Of Roman fever or pneumonia"?
I remember how ill you were that winter. As a girl ou had very delicate
throat, hadn’t you?"
"Oh, we’re all right up here.
Down below in the Forum, it does get deathly cold, all of a sudden… but
"Ah, of course you know because
you had to be so careful," Mrs. Slade turned back to the parapet. She thought:
"I must make one more effort not to hate her." Aloud she said: "Whenever
I look at the Forum from up here, I remember that story about a great-aunt
of your, wasn’t she? A dreadfully wicked great-aunt?"
"Oh, yes; great-aunt Harriet.
The one who was supposed to have sent her young sister out to the Forum
after sunset to gather a night-blooming flower for her album. All our great-aunts
and grandmothers used to have albums of dried flowers."
Mrs. Slade nodded. "But she
really sent her because they were in love with the same man—"
"Well, that was the family
tradition. They said Aunt Harriet confessed it years afterward. At any
rate, the poor little sister caught the fever and died. Mother used to
frighten us with the story when we were children."
"And you frightened me with
it, that winter when you and I were her as girls. The winter I was engaged
Mrs. Ansley gave a faint laugh.
"Oh, did I? Really frightened you? I don’t believe you’re easily frightened."
"Not often; but I was then.
I was easily frightened because I was too happy. I wonder if you know what
"I—yes…" Mrs. Ansley faltered.
"Well, I suppose that was
why the story of your wicked aunt made such an impression on me. And I
thought: ‘There’s no more Roman fever, but the Forum is deathly cold after
sunset—especially after a hot day. And the Colosseum’s even colder and
"Yes. It wasn’t easy to get
in, after the gates were locked for the night. Far from easy. Still, in
those days it could be managed; it was managed, often. Lovers met there
who couldn’t meet elsewhere. You knew that?"
"I—I dare say. I don’t remember."
"You don’t remember? You don’t
remember going to visit some ruins or other one evening, just after dark,
and catching a bad chill? You were supposed to have gone to see the moon
rise. People always said that expedition was what caused your illness."
There was a moment’s silence;
then Mrs. Ansley rejoined: "Did they? It was all so long ago."
"Yes. And you got well again—so
it didn’t matter. But I suppose it stuck your friends—the reason given
for your illness, I mean—because everybody knew you were so prudent on
account of your throat, and your mother took such care of you…. You had
been out late sight-seeing, hadn’t you, that night?"
"Perhaps I had. The most prudent
girls aren’t always prudent. What made you think of it now?"
Mrs. Slade seemed to have
no answer ready . But after a moment she broke out: "Because I simply can’t
bear it any longer--!"
Mrs. Ansley lifted her head
quickly. Her eyes were wide and very pale. "Can’t bear what?"
"Why—your not knowing that
I’ve always known why you went."
"Why I went--?"
"Yes, You think I’m bluffing,
don’t you? Well, you went to meet the man I was engaged to—and I can repeat
every word of the letter that took you there."
While Mrs. Slade spoke Mrs.
Ansley had risen unsteadily to her feet. Her bag, her knitting and gloves,
slid in a panic-stricken heap to the ground. She looked at Mrs. Slade as
though she were looking at a ghost.
"No, no—don’t." she faltered
"Why not? Listen, if
you don’t believe me. ‘My one darling, thins can’t go on like this. I must
see you alone. Come to the Colosseum immediately after dark tomorrow. There
will be somebody to let you in. No one who you need fear will suspect’—but
perhaps you’ve forgotten what the letter said?"
Mrs. Ansley met the challenge
with an unexpected composure. Steadying herself against the chair she looked
at her friend, and replied: "No; I know it by heart too."
"And the signature? ‘Only
your D.S.’ Was that it? I’m right, am I" That was the letter that took
you out that evening after dark?
Mrs. Ansley was still looking
at her. It seemed to Mrs. Slade that a slow struggle was going on behind
the voluntarily controlled mask of her small quiet face. "I shouldn’t have
thought she had herself so well in hand," Mrs. Slade reflected, almost
resentfully. But at this moment Mrs. Ansley spoke. "I don’t know how you
knew. I burnt that letter at once."
"Yes; you would, naturally—you’re
so prudent!" The sneer was open now." And if you burnt the letter you’re
wondering how on earth I know what was in it. That’s it, isn’t it?"
Mrs. Slade waited, but Mrs.
Ansley did not speak.
"Well, my dear, I know what
was in that letter because I wrote it!"
"You wrote it?"
The two women stood for a
minute starring at each other in the last golden light. Then Mrs. Ansley
dropped back into her chair. "Oh," she murmured, and covered her face with
her hands. Mrs. Slade waited nervously for another word or movement. None
came, and at length she broke out: "I horrify you."
Mrs. Ansley’s hands dropped
to her knee. The face the uncovered was streaked with tears. "I wasn’t
thinking of you. I was thinking—it was the only letter I ever had from
"And I wrote it. Yes; I wrote
it! But I was the girl he was engaged to. Did you happen to remember that?"
Mrs. Ansley’s head drooped
again. "I’m not trying to excuse myself… I remembered…."
"And still you went?"
"Still I went."
Mrs. Slade stood looking down
the small bowed figure at her side. The flame of her wrath had already
sunk, and she wondered why she had ever thought there would be any satisfaction
in inflicting so purposeless a wound on her friend. But she had to justify
"You do understand? I’d found
out—and I hated you, hated you. I knew you were in love with Delphin—and
I was afraid; afraid of you, of your quiet ways, your sweetness… your…
well, I wanted you out of the way, that’s all. Just a few weeks; just till
I was sure of him. So in a blind fury I wrote that letter… I don’t know
why I’m telling you now."
"I suppose," said Mrs. Ansley
slowly, "it’s because you’ve always gone on hating me."
"Perhaps. Or because I wanted
to get the whole thing off my mind." She paused. "I’m glad you destroyed
the letter. Of course I never thought you’d die."
Mrs. Ansley relapsed into
silence, an Mrs. Slade, leaning above hr, as conscious of a strange
sense of isolation, of being cut off from the warm current of human communion.
"You think me a monster!"
"I don’t know…. It was the
only letter I had, and you say he didn’t write it?"
"Ah, how o care for him still!"
"I cared for that memory."
Said Mrs. Ansley.
Mrs. Slade continued to look
down on her. She seemed physically reduced by the blow—as if, when she
got up, the wind might scatter her like a puff a dust. Mrs. Slade’s jealously
suddenly leapt up again at the sight. All these years the women had been
living on that letter. How she must have loved him, to treasure the mere
memory of its ashes! The letter of the man her friend was engaged to. Wasn’t
it she who as the monster?
"You tried your best to get
him away from me, didn’t you? But you failed; and I kept him. That’s all."
"Yes, That’s all."
"I wish now I hadn’t told
you I’ no idea you’d feel about it as you do; I thought you’d be amused.
It all happened so long ago, as you say; and you must do me the justice
to remember that I had no reason to think you’d ever taken it seriously.
How could I, when you were married to Horace Ansley tow months afterward?
As soon as you could get out of bed your mother rushed you off to Florence
and married you. People were rather surprise—they wondered at its being
done so quickly; but I thought I knew. I had an idea you did it out of
pique—to be able to say you’d got ahead of Delphin and me. Girls have such
silly reasons for doing the most serious things. And your marrying so soon
convinced me that you’d never really cared."
"Yes, I supposed it would."
Mrs. Ansley assented.
The clear heaven overhead
was emptied of all its gold. Dusk spread over it, abruptly darkening the
Seven Hills. Here and there lights began to twinkle through the foliage
at their feet. Steps were coming and going on the deserted terrace—waiters
looking out of the doorway at the head of the stairs, then reappearing
with rays and napkins and flasks of wine. Tables were moved, chairs straightened.
A feeble string of electric lights flickered out. Some vases of faded flowers
were carried away, and brought back replenished. A stout lady in a dust
coat suddenly appeared, asking in broken Italian if anyone had seen the
elastic band which held together her tattered Baedeker. She poked with
her stick under the table at which she had lunched, the waiters assisting.
The corner where Mrs. Slade
and Mrs. Ansley sat was still shadowy and deserted. For a long time neither
of them spoke. At length Mrs. Slade began again: "I suppose I did it as
a sort of joke--"
"Well, girls are ferocious
sometimes, you know. Girls in love especially . And I remember laughing
to myself all that evening at the idea that you were waiting around there
in the dark, dodging out of sight, listening for every sound, trying to
get in—Of course I was upset when I heard you were so ill afterward."
Mrs. Ansley had not moved
for a long time. "But now she turned slowly toward her companion. But I
didn’t wait. He’d arranged everything. He was there. We were let in at
once," she said.
Mrs. Slade sprang up from
her leaning position.
"Delphin there? They et you
in?-- Ah, now you’re lying!" she burst out with violence.
Mrs. Ansley’s voice grew clearer,
and full of surprise. "But of course he was there. Naturally he came--"
"Came? How did he know he’d
find you there? You must be raving!"
Mrs. Ansley hesitated, as
though reflecting. "But I answered the letter. I told him I’d be there.
So he came."
Mrs. Slade flung her hands
up to her face. "Oh, God—you answered! I never thought of your answering…."
"It’s odd you never thought
of it, if you wrote the letter."
"Yes. I was blind with rage."
Mrs. Ansley rose, and drew
hr fur scarf about her. "It is cold here. We’d better go… I’m sorry for
you," she said, as she clasped the fur about her throat.
The unexpected words sent
a pang through Mrs. Slade. "Yes; we’d better go." She gathered up her bag
and cloak. "I don’t know why you should be sorry for me," she muttered.
Mrs. Ansley stood looking
away from her toward the dusky secret mass of the Colosseum. "Well—because
I didn’t have to wait that night."
Mrs. Slade gave an unquiet
laugh. "Yes; I was beaten there. But I oughtn’t to begrudge it to you I
suppose. At the end of all theses years. After all, I had everything; I
had him for twenty-five years. And you had nothing but that one letter
that he didn’t write."
Mrs. Ansley was again silent.
At length she turned toward the door of the terrace. She took a step, and
turned back, facing her companion.
"I had Barbara," she said,
and began to move ahead of Mrs. Slade toward the stairway.
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