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Roman Fever- by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Read the collected works of Edith Wharton.
by Edith Wharton
From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of 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 knittingâ!”" "Well, I mean ﬁguratively," rejoined the ﬁrst. "After all, we haven't left our poor parents much else to do...." At that point the turn of the stairs engulfed the dialogue.
The two ladies looked at each other again, this time 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 black eyebrows, gave a good-humored laugh. "That's what our daughters think of us."
Her companion replied by a deprecating gesture. "Not of us individually. We must remember that. It's just the collective modern idea of Mothers. And you seeâ!”" 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 lookingâ!”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 fumbling 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 basket 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 world."
"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 underlinings 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 are now. You remember!" "Oh, yes, I remember," murmured Mrs. Ansley, with the same undeﬁnable stressâ!”"There's that head-waiter wondering," she interpolated. She was evidently far less sure than 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 viewâ!”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."
"Moonlightâ!”moonlight! What 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."
Her 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 lovelyâ!”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 effectiveâ!”had more edge, as they say. Funny where she got it, with those two nullities as parents. Yes; Horace Ansley wasâ!”well, just the duplicate of his wife. Museum specimens of old New York. Good-looking, irreproachable, exemplary. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley had lived opposite each otherâ!”actually as well as ﬁgurativelyâ!”for years. When the drawing-room curtains in No. 20 East Seventy-third Street were renewed, No. 23, across the way, was always aware of it. And of all the movings, buyings, travels, anniversaries, illnessesâ!”the tame chronicle of an estimable pair. Little of it escaped Mrs. Slade. But she had grown bored with it by the time her husband made his big 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 roundsâ!”she sometimes wondered if it had crossed the street, and reached Mrs. Ansley. She hoped not, but didn't much mind. Those were the days when respectability was at a discount, and it did the irreproachable no harm to laugh at them a little.
A few years later, and not many months 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 a 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 ever 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 wakes: "What, that handsome woman with the good clothes and the eyes is Mrs. Sladeâ!”the Slade's wife! Really! Generally the wives of celebrities are such frumps."
Yes; being the Slade's widow was a 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 help ed 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 perplexingâ!”and to Mrs. Slade a little boring. She wished that Jenny would fall in loveâ!”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 her 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 daughrer, who was pretty, of course, and clever in a way, but had none of her mother'sâ!”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.
II 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. Slade did 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 sideways note of this activity, but her own beautifully cared-for hands remained motionless on her knee.
"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 dangersâ!”how we used to be guarded!â!”to our daughters, no more dangers than the middle of Main Street. They don't know itâ!”but how much they're missing!" 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 continued, "that 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 inâ!”didn't they!" She turned again toward Mrs. Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting. "One, two, threeâ!”slip two; yes, they must have been," she assented, without looking up.
Mrs. Slade's eyes rested on her with a deepened attention. "She can knitâ!”in the face of this!
How like her.... " 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 aviatorâ!”the one who's a Marcheseâ!”then I don't know anything. And Jenny has no chance beside 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 foilâ!”!" Mrs. Slade gave a hardly audible laugh, and at the sound Mrs. Ansley dropped her knitting.
"Yesâ!”?" "Iâ!”oh, nothing. I was only thinking how your Babs carries everything before her. That Campolieri boy is one of the best matches in Rome. Don't look so innocent, my dearâ!”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.