For a long time, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade sit in silence on the terrace. The intimacy of this silence makes Mrs. Ansley uncomfortable, and when the bells chime at five o’clock, she reminds Mrs. Slade that the American Embassy is hosting Bridge games that evening. Mrs. Slade, lost in thought, says she will stay on the terrace rather than going to the Embassy. Mrs. Ansley insists that she does not want to leave the terrace either, and takes out her knitting. As her friend becomes engaged in activity, Mrs. Slade remains sitting motionless in her chair.
In keeping with their earlier interaction with the waiter, Mrs. Slade’s reaction to the quiet moment reveals a confidence and sense of ease that Mrs. Ansley seems to lack. While Mrs. Ansley attempts to match her behavior to that of Mrs. Slade by insisting that she does not want to go to the Bridge game when it seems clear that she is uncomfortable on the terrace and wishes to leave, Mrs. Slade, by contrast, is completely absorbed in her own memories and does not seem to feel obligated to Mrs. Ansley. During this time, Mrs. Ansley’s knitting functions like a shield, giving her something with which to occupy herself and stave off the discomfort of the moment.
Mrs. Slade makes a long, contemplative comment about the ways in which each generation of women visiting Rome has a different experience of the city. Their grandmothers were preoccupied with anxieties about Roman Fever that was common in those days, and fear of the disease kept their mothers from going out at night. When they were young women, she says, there was no threat of Roman Fever, and they were willing to disobey their mothers by going out at night. In fact, they relished the danger inherent in doing so, and readily disobeyed their parents. Mrs. Ansley continues knitting as her friend speaks, barely acknowledging Mrs. Slade’s comments. Mrs. Slade notes silently that it is “like her” to focus on knitting rather than on the beautiful city before them.
Mrs. Slade describes the thrill of going out at night without mentioning explicitly the romantic and sexual exploits that those excursions made possible, but her references to disobedience—coupled with her earlier comments about moonlight and its role in the lives of young lovers—make her meaning clear. The threat of Roman Fever (a particularly deadly strain of malaria) stands in for the dangers of unrestricted sexual passion. Mrs. Slade’s feels disdain at the sight of Mrs. Ansley knitting, believing that she is too prudish and emotionally limited to think deeply about the city and their time in it. This confirms what she has long believed about Mrs. Ansley and about herself.
It occurs to Mrs. Slade that Barbara must intend to win over one of the young aviators, who is a member of the Italian nobility. She realizes that Jenny cannot compete with Barbara for the young man’s affections. Turning to Mrs. Ansley, she voices her amazement at the fact that two “exemplary characters” — meaning Mrs. Ansley and Horace — could have produced a child as “dynamic” as Barbara. This comment causes Mrs. Ansley to set down her knitting and remark, without looking at her friend, that Mrs. Slade seems to “overrate” Barbara. Mrs. Slade insists that she envies her friend, and that she wishes Jenny had been “brilliant” like Barbara instead of being an “angel.” Mrs. Ansley remarks that Barbara is an “angel” as well, and resumes her knitting while Mrs. Slade makes another attempt to explain her comments about the two girls. Mrs. Slade wonders briefly whether Mrs. Ansley is as absorbed in memories as she is herself, but quickly dismisses the idea, thinking that her friend has nothing to trouble her and must simply be absorbed in her knitting.
Their brief exchange about Barbara is a conversational power struggle between the two women. Mrs. Slade does not like the idea of her daughter acting as a foil to highlight Barbara’s unique appeal, which is humiliating to her as well as to Jenny, and she manifests her anger in snide comments to Mrs. Ansley. Her remarks about Barbara’s “dynamic” personality clearly imply that she thinks Mrs. Ansley and Horace are too dull to have raised such an interesting daughter. Mrs. Ansley ignores this insult, but when Mrs. Slade suggests that Barbara is less well-behaved than Jenny, Mrs. Ansley stands up to Mrs. Slade by correcting her description of Barbara. Notably, she putts down her knitting as she does so, as if momentarily lowering her façade of civility.
Mrs. Slade tries to imagine the kind of life Mrs. Ansley will have if Barbara marries the Italian aviator: living in Rome among her grandchildren, surrounded by members of Roman high society. She berates herself for thinking such petty and unkind thoughts about her friend, and wonders whether she will ever stop envying Mrs. Ansley. Standing up, she looks at the Colosseum bathed in evening light, but she finds the beautiful sight stressful rather than calming.
Bored and dissatisfied by her own widowhood, Mrs. Slade feels agitated by thoughts of Mrs. Ansley enjoying a rich and happy life well into old age. Her internal question about whether she will ever cease “envying” Mrs. Ansley comes as a surprise after so many disparaging thoughts about her friend. It becomes clear in this moment that Mrs. Slade’s boldness and sense of entitlement mask deep insecurities and anxieties.
Mrs. Slade asks Mrs. Ansley whether she is afraid of catching Roman Fever or pneumonia, recalling that Mrs. Ansley has always had a sensitive throat. The two women begin discussing Mrs. Ansley’s Great-Aunt Harriet, who—according to family lore—once sent her younger sister on an evening errand during a trip to Rome in hope that she would catch Roman Fever. The two sisters were in love with the same man, and Harriet hoped her sister would catch the illness and die— which, in fact, she did.
Aside from its shocking conclusion, the story of Great-Aunt Harriet is in many ways the story of a typical rivalry between young women. Neither Mrs. Ansley nor Mrs. Slade remarks on how terrible it would be to murder one’s own sister in order to secure the love of a man. Their cavalier treatment of the subject suggests that they, too, believe that romantic relationships and male validation are life-and-death matters, and it is therefore not unthinkable to them that a young woman should prize a man’s love over her own sister’s life.
Mrs. Slade tells Mrs. Ansley that she was frightened by the story of Great-Aunt Harriet when she and Mrs. Ansley visited Rome as young women. Mrs. Slade suggests that she was “too happy” at that time—she was engaged to Delphin—and was easily frightened as a result. She goes on to say that, though Roman Fever was no longer a threat during that visit, she realized after hearing Harriet’s story that the cold air in the Forum and the Colosseum could still bring on a deadly illness. Mrs. Ansley expresses confusion at her friend’s comments and insists that she does not remember that time well, but Mrs. Slade goes on.
Mrs. Slade reveals the fragility of her self-conception when she suggests that the happiness she felt during the period of her engagement to Delphin caused her a great deal of anxiety and fear. For all her apparent confidence, she hangs her hopes for long-term happiness on a man. At this point in the conversation, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley are engaged in a battle for control over the situation: Mrs. Ansley is attempting to avoid discussing that time in their lives, and Mrs. Slade is pushing the subject vigorously despite her friend’s efforts to end the discussion.
Mrs. Slade recalls how, on that long-ago visit to Rome, Mrs. Ansley had become very ill after staying out late one night. Mrs. Ansley says little in response, and her friend continues speaking about the illness and the late-night sightseeing that supposedly caused it. Soon, Mrs. Slade bursts out that she has “always known” why Mrs. Ansley went out late that night. She accuses Mrs. Ansley of going to the Colosseum in response to a letter from Delphin, in which he expressed his love for her and urged her to meet him there in secret. Mrs. Ansley stands up from her chair, and her knitting falls to the ground as Mrs. Slade begins to recite from the letter.
This revelation—that Mrs. Slade knows intimate details about a secret Mrs. Ansley has kept for decades—eliminates all pretense of politeness, and reveals the conversation as the power struggle it has been since its beginning. Mrs. Slade initiates this change, but Mrs. Ansley has no choice except to change her conduct in response. Her knitting—the mask of feminine politeness that has protected Mrs. Ansley throughout the story—has fallen away. This leaves Mrs. Ansley with no choice but to face her friend honestly.
Mrs. Ansley says she burned the letter about which Mrs. Slade is speaking, and that she does not know how Mrs. Slade can know what the letter said. Sneering, Mrs. Slade reveals that it was she, not Delphin, who wrote and sent the letter. Mrs. Ansley responds with a shocked silence, covering her face with her hands. After a moment, Mrs. Slade asks whether she horrifies Mrs. Ansley. To this, Mrs. Ansley replies: “I wasn’t thinking of you. I was thinking—it was the only letter I ever had from him!”
From Mrs. Slade’s point of view, she is the most important actor in the story of the letter and its consequences. After sharing the truth about her deceit, she naïvely expects Mrs. Ansley’s reactions to center on her. Therefore, when Mrs. Ansley says that she is thinking about Delphin and their relationship in the wake of Mrs. Slade’s revelation—not of Mrs. Slade and her feelings about her—she strikes a blow to Mrs. Slade’s expectations that, by making this revelation, she would gain an upper hand in the competition.
Although she continues to taunt her friend, Mrs. Slade realizes that her own feeling of rage is fading. She feels suddenly guilty at the thought that she has caused Mrs. Ansley pain over something that happened so long ago. Eager to justify her actions, Mrs. Slade explains that she knew Mrs. Ansley had been in love with Delphin, and that she wanted Mrs. Ansley “out of the way”—sick and bedridden—so that she could not steal him away from her before they were married. Seeing Mrs. Ansley’s devastation and realizing that she must have cared very deeply for Delphin, Mrs. Slade is filled with a new wave of rage and jealousy. She reminds Mrs. Ansley that she married Horace only two months after the evening at the Colosseum, and says she has always believed that Mrs. Ansley’s marriage to Horace had been an attempt to “[get] ahead” of her and Delphin by marrying first. Mrs. Slade, citing this theory as evidence, claims that Mrs. Ansley never actually cared for Delphin. Mrs. Ansley concedes that it must have looked that way to Mrs. Slade.
Mrs. Slade is not yet able to reconcile her long-held beliefs about Mrs. Ansley with the truths about their shared history that are beginning to emerge. She has concocted her own unlikely explanation for Mrs. Ansley’s rushed marriage to Horace, ignoring the fact that much more likely and reasonable explanations exist for a young woman to marry quickly, and uses this explanation to support her beliefs about the relationship between Mrs. Ansley and Delphin. Although Mrs. Ansley has not confronted Mrs. Slade with the full truth yet, it is clear that Mrs. Slade feels defensive and afraid as she perceives the depths of her friend’s feelings for her own late husband.
Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade sit together in silence while, all around them, the waiters from the restaurant begin to prepare the terrace for dinner. They bring fresh flowers, trays, napkins, and flasks of wine to the tables. A woman appears, looking for the elastic band she uses to hold together her tattered Baedeker travel guide, which she claims to have lost while lunching on the terrace. The Seven Hills become dark.
The waiters’ straightening up of the terrace reflects the impulse, in polite society, to make everything appear clean and orderly. This can only be accomplished by eliminating evidence of the past, the way the waiters remove faded flowers from the afternoon. The woman reappearing from the lunch hour, by contrast, is a figure of the past creeping into an orderly present, creating a surprising amount of chaos with her presence.
Mrs. Slade tells Mrs. Ansley that writing the letter was intended as a cruel joke, and that she enjoyed the image of Mrs. Ansley making a fool of herself as she waited for Delphin at the Colosseum. To this, Mrs. Ansley replies that she did not wait, because Delphin met her at the Colosseum just as the letter had said he would.
When Mrs. Ansley reveals that Delphin did, in fact, meet her at the Colosseum, the tenor of the conversation shifts instantly and dramatically. Throughout their conversation, Mrs. Slade has seemed to be the more powerful one: confident, aggressive, and knowledgeable. Now, Mrs. Ansley reveals significant secrets of her own.
Shocked, Mrs. Slade asks how Delphin could have known that Mrs. Ansley would be at the Colosseum, since he never saw the letter. Mrs. Ansley reveals that she sent Delphin a letter in response to the once she received, confirming that she would meet him as he had asked. When she arrived, he was waiting for her. Mrs. Slade is stunned, and says she had never expected that Mrs. Ansley might write back.
Throughout their friendship, Mrs. Slade has perceived Mrs. Ansley as being passive and ineffectual. In responding to Delphin’s letter, Mrs. Ansley took an active role that Mrs. Slade—in her very limited perspective on her friend—was not able even to imagine.
Mrs. Ansley remarks that the terrace is cold, and that they had better leave. She tells Mrs. Slade she is sorry for her. As Mrs. Slade gathers her things, she says she does not know why Mrs. Ansley should be sorry for her. After all, she says, though her scheme with the letter went wrong, she still had twenty-five years of marriage with Delphin, while Mrs. Ansley had nothing from him except “that one letter that he didn’t write.”
Mrs. Ansley is no longer the mild-mannered knitter deferring to her charismatic friend. Rather, she has become a powerful and decisive actor in the story. Whereas earlier she allowed Mrs. Slade to determine whether they would remain on the terrace or leave, she now announces her departure without asking her friend’s input. She is able to tell Mrs. Slade that she feels sorry for her, a condescending remark unlike anything she has said up to this point. Mrs. Slade clearly wants to grab this power back, and she attempts to do so when she compares her long marriage with Delphin to Mrs. Ansley’s experience with him, which she assumes was short-lived and meager.
Mrs. Ansley takes a step toward the door of the terrace. Then, she turns back to face Mrs. Slade. “I had Barbara,” she tells her and then walks toward the stairway.
Mrs. Ansley’s revelation—that Barbara is, in fact, Delphin’s daughter—is the final blow both in their conversation, and in a lifetime of competition between Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade. Mrs. Ansley’s remark explains why she had to marry Horace so shortly after her meeting with Delphin at the Colosseum: she had been pregnant, and wanted others to think the child was Horace’s although it was Delphin’s. The revelation constitutes a major revision to Mrs. Slade’s entire life story as she knows it, but it also has major implications for Barbara and Jenny, who Mrs. Slade now understands to be half-sisters. With Mrs. Ansley’s final remark, the characterizations of the two women have now reversed: Mrs. Ansley’s complex inner life reveals itself while Mrs. Slade is passive and silent.