Two middle-aged women, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade, stand together on the terrace of an upscale restaurant in Rome, admiring a view of the city. From below, they overhear the voices of two younger women—their daughters, Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade—joking that they should “leave the young things to their knitting.” The women laugh at their daughter’s perception of them, but a moment later Mrs. Ansley sheepishly takes out her knitting,confirming the accuracy of her daughter’s joke. Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade decide to spend the rest of the afternoon on the restaurant terrace, and they settle into two basket-chairs near the parapet.
Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley discuss the beauty of the view and speculate about their daughter’s plans; they believe Barbara and Jenny have been invited to fly to Tarquinia for the evening, in the company of two young Italian aviators. Privately, Mrs. Slade reflects on the differences between Barbara, who has a dynamic and compelling personality, and Jenny, who is more prudent and reserved. She is surprised by the fact that Mrs. Ansley and her late husband, Horace—both of whom she considers dull—could produce such a “brilliant” daughter. Mrs. Slade thinks about her own late husband, Delphin, and the full, often glamorous life they shared before his death. She thinks of her son, who died in childhood, and wishes that her own “perfect” daughter were more charming and vivacious, like Barbara Ansley. All the while, Mrs. Ansley continues knitting beside Mrs. Slade, thinking that Mrs. Slade’s life had been full of failures and mistakes. The two women sit in silence, thinking about their long friendship and their perceptions of one another.
The afternoon wears on, and Mrs. Ansley suggests going to play cards at the Embassy. Mrs. Slade, lost in thought, determines that she will stay on the terrace, and Mrs. Ansley stays as well. Mrs. Slade talks, somewhat absentmindedly, about the many different meanings Rome has held for different generations of American women. For their grandmothers, the threat of Roman Fever made the city frightening after dark. By contrast, she and Mrs. Ansley, when they visited Rome together as young women, had no fear and even enjoyed the sense of danger that came with being out at night. Mrs. Ansley, apparently absorbed in her knitting, does not offer a satisfying response to these comments, and Mrs. Slade becomes frustrated.
Mrs. Slade recalls a story Mrs. Ansley had told her during that previous visit to Rome, decades earlier: how her Great-Aunt Harrie, possessive of the man she loved and afraid that her sister would compete for his affection, had sent her sister on a nighttime errand during an outbreak of Roman Fever. Harriet’s sister had caught the fever and died as a result. Prompted by this story, Mrs. Slade recalls how Mrs. Ansley herself had become very ill after going out late one night during their long-ago visit to Rome, supposedly to see the sights. Mrs. Ansley deflects Mrs. Slade’s questions about her illness, but Mrs. Slade persists. Soon, Mrs. Slade reveals that she knows the real reason Mrs. Ansley went out late on the night she fell ill: she had received a love letter from Delphin, who at the time was engaged to Mrs. Slade, confessing his love for her and requesting that she meet him at the Colosseum. Mrs. Ansley is shocked when Mrs. Slade begins quoting the letter, and even more so when Mrs. Slade admits that it was she, not Delphin, who had written the letter. Mrs. Slade explains that she had felt threatened by Mrs. Ansley’s beauty and sweetness, and was concerned when she realized that Mrs. Ansley was in love with Delphin. Mrs. Slade says she had wanted Mrs. Ansley to fall ill so that she would be “out of the way,” and that she had hoped the disappointment of arriving at the Colosseum and not finding Delphin there would eliminate her feelings for him.
Mrs. Slade, seeing how devastated Mrs. Ansley is made by the revelation that Delphin’s letter was not authentic, cruelly goes on to tell her that she had laughed at the idea of Mrs. Ansley waiting outside the Colosseum for someone who would never come. However, Mrs. Ansley corrects Mrs. Slade after this comment. She tells her that she did not have to wait for Delphin because he had come to the Colosseum on the night proposed in the letter. Mrs. Ansley had written a response to the letter Mrs. Slade had sent, confirming that she would meet him. Mrs. Slade is stunned, and admits that she had never considered the possibility that Mrs. Ansley would answer the letter.
By this time, darkness has fallen. Mrs. Ansley announces that the terrace is too cold for her, and stands to leave. As she gathers her things, she tells Mrs. Slade that she is sorry for her. Mrs. Slade protests, saying that she does not know why Mrs. Ansley should feel sorry for her. Although she had been “beaten” in her long ago plot to thwart competition from Mrs. Ansley, she had enjoyed twenty-five years of marriage with Delphin, while Mrs. Ansley had gotten nothing from Delphin except “that one letter that he didn’t write.” Mrs. Ansley, now walking toward the stairs to leave the terrace, turns back to Mrs. Slade and tells her: “I had Barbara.”