“The Guiding Miss Gowd” by Edna Ferber

“Mary Gowd, with her frumpy English hat and her dreadful English fringe, and her brick-red English cheeks, which not even the enervating Italian sun, the years of bad Italian food or the damp and dim little Roman room had been able to sallow.”

Two ladies talk on path while an Italian gaurd looks on

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Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber moved in the same circles as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward in the Algonquin Round Table. Ferber wrote Show Boat, So Big, and Giant, in addition to several other novels adapted into musicals and Oscar-winning films. Her story “The Guiding Miss Gowd,” published in 1914, follows an aging British tour guide in Rome as she saves an American family from an Italian shyster.

Published on August 15, 1914


It has long been the canny custom of writers on travel bent to defray the expense of their journeyings by dashing off tales filled with foreign flavor. Dickens did it, and Dante. It has been tried all the way from Tasso to Twain; from Ruskin to Roosevelt. A pleasing custom it is and thrifty withal, and one that has saved many a one but poorly prepared for the European robber in uniform the moist and unpleasant task of swimming home.

Your writer spends seven days, say, in Paris. Result? The Latin Quarter story. Oh,mes enfants! That Parisian student-life story! There is the beautiful young American girl — beautiful, but as earnest and good as she is beautiful, and as talented as she is earnest and good. And wedded, be it understood, to her art — preferably painting or singing. From New York! Her name must be something prim, yet winsome. Lois will do — Lois, la belle Americaine. Then the hero — American too. Madly in love with Lois. Tall he is and always clean-limbed — not handsome, but with one of those strong, rugged faces. His name, too, must be strong and plain, yet snappy. David is always good. The villain is French, fascinating, and wears a tiny black mustache to hide his mouth, which is cruel.

The rest is simple. A little French restaurant — Henri’s. Know you not Henri’s? Tiens! But Henri’s is not for the tourist. A dim little shop and shabby, modestly tucked away in the shadows of the Rue Brie. But the food I Ah, the — whadd’youcall’ems — in the savory sauce, that is Henri’s secret! The tender, broiled poularde, done to a turn! The bottle of red wine! Mais oui; there one can dine under the watchful glare of Rosa, the plump, black-eyed wife of the concierge. With a snowy apron about her buxom waist, and a pot of red geraniums somewhere, and a sleek, lazy cat contentedly purring in the sunny window!

Then Lois starving in a garret. Temptation! Sacre bleu! Zut! Also nom d’un nom! Enter David. Bon! Oh, David, take me away! Take me back to dear old Schenectady. Love is more than all else, especially when no one will buy your pictures.

The Italian story recipe is even simpler. A pearl necklace; a low, clear whistle. Was it the call of a bird or a signal? His-s-s-st! Again! A black cape; the flash of steel in the moonlight; the sound of a splash in the water; a sickening gurgle; a stifled cry; Silence! His-st! Vendetta!

There is the story made in Germany, filled with students and steins and scars; with beer and blond, blue-eyed Mädchen garbed — the Mädchen, that is — in black velvet bodice, white chemisette, scarlet skirt with two rows of black ribbon at the bottom, and one yellow braid over the shoulder. Especially is this easily accomplished if actually written in the Vaterland, German typewriting machines being equipped with umlauts.

And yet not one of these formulas would seem to fit the story of Mary Gowd. Mary Gowd, with her frumpy English hat and her dreadful English fringe, and her brick-red English cheeks, which not even the enervating Italian sun, the years of bad Italian food or the damp and dim little Roman room had been able to sallow. Mary Gowd, with her shabby blue suit and her mangy bit of fur, and the glint of humor in her pale-blue eyes. Many, many times that same glint of humor had saved English Mary Gowd from seeking peace in the muddy old Tiber.

Her card read imposingly thus: Mary M. Gowd, Cicerone. Certificated and Licensed Lecturer on Art and Archaeology. Via del Babbuino, Roma.

In plain language Mary Gowd was a guide. Now, Rome is swarming with guides; but they are men guides. They besiege you in front of Cook’s. They perch at the top of the Capitoline Hill, ready to pounce on you when you arrive panting from your climb up the shallow steps. They lie in wait in the doorway of St. Peter’s. Bland, suave, smiling, quiet, but insistent, they dog you from the Vatican to the Catacombs.

Hundreds there are of these little men — undersized, even in this land of small men — dapper, agile, low-voiced, crafty. In his inner coat pocket each carries his credentials, greasy, thumb-worn documents, but precious. He glances at your shoes — this insinuating one — or at your hat, or at any of those myriad signs by which he marks you for his own. Then up he steps and speaks to you in the language of your country, be you French, German, English, Spanish or American.

And each one of this clan — each slim, feline little man in blue serge, white-toothed, gimlet-eyed, smooth-tongued, brisk — hated Mary Gowd. They hated her with the hate of an Italian for an outlander — with the hate of an Italian for a woman who works with her brain — with the hate of an Italian who sees another taking the bread out of his mouth. All this, coupled with the fact that your Italian is a natural-born hater, may indicate that the life of Mary Gowd had not the lyric lilt that life is commonly reputed to have in sunny Italy.

Oh, there is no formula for Mary Gowd’s story. In the first place, the tale of how Mary Gowd came to be the one woman guide in Rome runs like melodrama. And Mary herself, from her white cotton gloves, darned at the fingers, to her figure, which mysteriously remained the same in spite of fifteen years of scant Italian fare, does not fit gracefully into the role of heroine.

Perhaps that story, scraped to bedrock, shorn of all floral features, may gain in force what it loses in artistry.

She was twenty-two when she came to Rome — twenty-two and art-mad. She had been pretty, with that pink-cheesecloth prettiness of the provincial English girl, who degenerates into blowsiness at thirty. Since seventeen she had saved and scrimped and contrived for this modest Roman holiday. She had given painting lessons — even painted on loathsome china — that the little hoard might grow. And when at last there was enough she had come to this Rome against the protests of the fussy English father and the spinster English sister.

The man she met quite casually one morning in the Sistine Chapel — perhaps he bumped her elbow as they stood staring up at the glorious ceiling. A thousand pardons! Ah, an artist too? In five minutes they were chattering like mad — she in bad French and exquisite English; he in bad English and exquisite French. He knew Rome — its pictures, its glories, its history — as only an Italian can. And he taught her art, and he taught her Italian, and he taught her love.

And so they were married, or ostensibly married, though Mary did not know the truth until three months later when he left her quite as casually as he had met her, taking with him the little hoard, and Mary’s English trinkets, and Mary’s English roses, and Mary’s broken pride.

A gaurd at speaks to a woman in a citySo! There was no going back to the fussy father or the spinster sister. She came very near resting her head on Father Tiber’s breast in those days. She would sit in the great galleries for hours, staring at the wonderworks. Then, one day, again in the Sistine Chapel, a fussy little American woman had approached her, her eyes snapping. Mary was sketching, or trying to.

“Do you speak English?”

“I am English,” said Mary.

The feathers in the hat of the fussy little woman quivered.

“Then tell me, is this ceiling by Raphael?”

“Ceiling!” gasped Mary Gowd. “Raphael!”

Then, very gently, she gave the master’s name.

“Of course!” snapped the excited little American. “I’m one of a party of eight. We’re all school-teachers. And this guide” — she waved a hand in the direction of a rapt little group standing in the agonizing position the ceiling demands — ” just informed us that the ceiling is by Raphael. And we’re paying him ten lire!”

“Won’t you sit here?” Mary Gowd made a place for her. “I’ll tell you.”

And she did tell her, finding a certain relief from her pain in unfolding to this commonplace little woman the glory of the masterpiece among masterpieces.

“Why — why,” gasped her listener, who had long since beckoned the other seven with frantic finger, “how beautifully you explain it! How much you know! Oh, why can’t they talk as you do?” she wailed, her eyes full of contempt for the despised guide.

“I am happy to have helped you,” said Mary Gowd.

“Helped! Why, there are hundreds of Americans who would give anything to have someone like you to be with them in Rome.”

Mary Gowd’s whole body stiffened. She stared fixedly at the grateful little American school-teacher.

“Someone like me — ”

The little teacher blushed very red.

“I beg your pardon. I wasn’t thinking. Of course you don’t need to do any such work, but I just couldn’t help saying — ”

“But I do need work,” interrupted Mary Gowd. She stood up, her cheeks pink again for the moment, her eyes bright. “I thank you. Oh, I thank you!”

“You thank me!” faltered the American.

But Mary Gowd had folded her sketchbook and was off, through the vestibule, down the splendid corridor, past the giant Swiss guard, to the noisy, sunny Piazza di San Pietro.

That had been fifteen years ago. She had taken her guide’s examinations and passed them. She knew her Rome from the crypt of St. Peter’s to the top of the Janiculum Hill; from the Campagna to Tivoli. She read and studied and learned. She delved into the past and brought up strange and interesting truths. She could tell you weird stories of those white marble men who lay so peacefully beneath St. Peter’s dome, their ringed hands crossed on their breasts. She learned to juggle dates with an ease that brought gasps from her American clients, with their history that went back little more than one hundred years.

She learned to designate as new anything that failed to have its origin stamped B. C.; and the Magnificent Augustus, he who boasted of finding Rome brick and leaving it marble, was a mere nouveau riche with his miserable A. D. 14.

She was as much at home in the Thermæ of Caracalla as you in your white-and-blue-tiled bath. She could juggle the history of emperors with one hand and the scandals of half a dozen kings with the other. No ruin was too unimportant for her attention — no picture too faded for her research. She had the centuries at her tongue’s end. Michelangelo and Canova were her brothers in art, and Rome was to her as your back-garden patch is to you.

Mary Gowd hated this Rome as only an English woman can who has spent fifteen years in that nest of intrigue. She fought the whole race of Roman guides day after day. She no longer turned sick and faint when they hissed after her vile Italian epithets that her American or English clients quite failed to understand. Quite unconcernedly she would jam down the lever of the taximeter the wily Italian cabby had pulled only halfway so that the meter might register double. And when that foul-mouthed one crowned his heap of abuse by screaming “Camorrista! Camor-r-rista!” at her, she would merely shrug her shoulders and say “Andate presto!” to show him she was above quarreling with a cabman.

She ate eggs and bread, and drank the red wine, never having conquered her disgust for Italian meat since first she saw the filthy carcasses, fly-infested, dust-covered, loathsome, being carted through the swarming streets.

It was six o’clock of an evening early in March when Mary Gowd went home to the murky little room in the Via Babbuino. She was too tired to notice the sunset. She was too tired to smile at the red-eyed baby of the cobbler’s wife, who lived in the rear. She was too tired to ask Tina for the letters that seldom came. It had been a particularly trying day, spent with a party of twenty Germans, who had said “Herrlich!” when she showed them the marvels of the Vatican and “Kolossal!” at the grandeur of the Colosseum and, for the rest, had kept their noses buried in their guidebooks.

She groped her way cautiously down the black hall. Tina had a habit of leaving sundry brushes, pans or babies lying about. After the warmth of the March sun outdoors the house was cold with that clammy, penetrating, tomblike chill of the Italian home. “Tina!” she called.

From the rear of the house came a cackle of voices. Tina was gossiping. There was no smell of supper in the air. Mary Gowd shrugged patient shoulders. Then, before taking off the dowdy hat, before removing the white cotton gloves, she went to the window that overlooked the noisy Via Babbuino, closed the massive wooden shutters, fastened the heavy windows and closed the thick curtains. Then she stood a moment, eyes shut. In that little room the roar of Rome was tamed to a dull humming. Mary Gowd, born and bred amid the green of Northern England, had never become hardened to the maddening noises of the Via Babbuino: The rattle and clatter of cab wheels; the clack-clack of thousands of iron-shod hoofs; the shrill, high cry of the street venders; the blasts of motor horns that seemed to rend the narrow street; the roar and rumble of the electric trams; the wail of fretful babies; the chatter of gossiping women; and above and through and below it all the cracking of the cabman’s whip — that scepter of the Roman cabby, that wand which is one part whip and nine parts crack. Sometimes it seemed to Mary Gowd that her brain was seared and welted by the pistol-shot reports of those eternal whips.

Woman smilingShe came forward now and lighted a candle that stood on the table and another on the dresser. Their dim light seemed to make dimmer the dark little room. She looked about with a little shiver. Then she sank into the chintz-covered chair that was the one bit of England in the somber chamber. She took off the dusty black velvet hat, passed a hand over her hair with a gesture that was more tired than tidy, and sat back, her eyes shut, her body inert, her head sagging on her breast.

The voices in the back of the house had ceased. From the kitchen came the slipslop of Tina’s slovenly feet. Mary Gowd opened her eyes and sat up very straight as Tina stood in the doorway. There was nothing picturesque about Tina. Tina was not one of those earringed, olive-tinted, melting-eyed daughters of Italy that one meets in fiction. Looking at her yellow skin and her wrinkles and her coarse hands, one wondered whether she was fifty, or sixty, or one hundred, as is the way with Italian women of Tina’s class at thirty-five.

Ah, the signora was tired! She smiled pityingly. Tired! Not at all, Mary Gowd assured her briskly. She knew that Tina despised her because she worked like a man.

“Something fine for supper?” Mary Gowd asked mockingly. Her Italian was like that of the Romans themselves, so soft, so liquid, so perfect. Tina nodded vigorously, her long earrings shaking. “Vitello” — she began, her tongue clinging lovingly to the double l sound — ”Vee-tail-loh — ”

“Ugh!” shuddered Mary Gowd. That eternal veal and mutton, pinkish, flabby, sickening!

“What then?” demanded the outraged Tina.

Mary Gowd stood up, making gestures, hat in hand.

“Clotted cream, with strawberries,” she said in English, an unknown language, which always roused Tina to fury. “And a steak — a real steak of real beef, three inches thick and covered with onions fried in butter. And creamed chicken, and English hothouse tomatoes, and fresh peaches and little hot rolls, and coffee that isn’t licorice and ink, and — and — ”

Tina’s dangling earrings disappeared in her shoulders. Her outspread palms were eloquent.

“Crazy, these English!” said the shoulders and palms. “Mad!”

Mary Gowd threw her hat on the bed, pushed aside a screen and busied herself with a little alcohol stove.

“I shall prepare an omelet,” she said over her shoulder in Italian. “Also, I have here bread and wine.”

“Ugh!” grunted Tina.

“Ugh, veal!” grunted Mary Gowd. Then, as Tina’s flapping feet turned away: “Oh, Tina! Letters?”

Tina fumbled at the bosom of her gown, thought deeply and drew out a crumpled envelope. It had been opened and clumsily closed again. Fifteen years ago Mary Gowd would have raged. Now she shrugged philosophic shoulders. Tina stole hairpins, opened letters that she could not hope to decipher, rummaged bureau drawers, rifled cupboards and fingered books; but then, so did most of the other Tinas in Rome. What use to complain?

Mary Gowd opened the thumb-marked letter, bringing it close to the candlelight. As she read, a smile appeared.

“Huh! Gregg,” she said, “Americans!” She glanced again at the hotel letterhead on the stationery — the best hotel in Naples. “Americans — and rich!”

The pleased little smile lingered as she beat the omelet briskly for her supper.

The Henry D. Greggs arrived in Rome on the two o’clock train from Naples. And all the Roman knights of the waving palm espied them from afar and hailed them with whoops of joy. The season was still young and the Henry D. Greggs looked like money — not Italian money, which is reckoned in lire, but American money, which mounts grandly to dollars. The postcard men in the Piazza delle Terme sped after their motor taxi. The swarthy brigand, with his wooden box of tawdry souvenirs, marked them as they rode past. The cripple who lurked behind a pillar in the colonnade threw aside his coat with a practiced hitch of his shoulder to reveal the sickeningly maimed arm that was his stock in trade.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry D. Gregg had left their comfortable home in Batavia, Illinois, with its sleeping porch, veranda and lawn, and seven-passenger car; with its two glistening bathrooms, and its Oriental rugs, and its laundry in the basement, and its Sunday fried chicken and ice cream, because they felt that Miss Eleanora Gregg ought to have the benefit of foreign travel. Miss Eleanora Gregg thought so too; in fact, she had thought so first.

Her name was Eleanora, but her parents called her Tweetie, which really did not sound so bad as it might if Tweetie had been one whit less pretty. Tweetie was so amazingly, Americanly pretty that she could have triumphed over a pet name twice as absurd.

The Greggs came to Rome, as has been stated, at 2 p.m. Wednesday. By 2 p.m. Thursday Tweetie had bought a pair of long, dangling earrings, a costume with a Roman striped collar and sash, and had learned to loll back in her cab in imitation of the dashing, black-eyed, sallow women she had seen driving on the Pincio. By Thursday evening she was teasing Papa Gregg for a spray of white aigrets, such as those same languorous ladies wore in feathery mists atop their hats.

“But, Tweet,” argued Papa Gregg, “what’s the use? You can’t take them back with you. Customhouse regulations forbid it.”

The rather faded but smartly dressed Mrs. Gregg asserted herself:

“They’re barbarous! We had moving-pictures at the club showing how they’re torn from the mother birds. No daughter of mine — ”

“I don’t care!” retorted Tweetie. “They’re perfectly stunning; and I’m going to have them.”

And she had them — not that the aigret incident is important; but it may serve to place the Greggs in their respective niches.

At eleven o’clock Friday morning Mary Gowd called at the Greggs’ hotel, according to appointment. In far-away Batavia, Illinois, Mrs. Gregg had heard of Mary Gowd. And Mary Gowd, with her knowledge of everything Roman — from the Forum to the best place at which to buy pearls — was to be the staff on which the Greggs were to lean.

“My husband,” said Mrs. Gregg; “my daughter Tweee — Eleanora. We’ve heard such wonderful things of you from my dear friend Mrs. Melville Peters, of Batavia.”

“Ah, yes!” exclaimed Mary Gowd. “A most charming person, Mrs. Peters.”

“After she came home from Europe she read the most wonderful paper on Rome before the Women’s West End Culture Club, of Batavia. We’re affiliated with the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, as you probably know; and — ”

“Now, mother,” interrupted Henry Gregg, “the lady can’t be interested in your club.”

“Oh, but I am!” exclaimed Mary Gowd very vivaciously. “Enormously!”

Henry Gregg eyed her through his cigar smoke with suddenly narrowed lids.

“M-m-m! Well, let’s get to the point anyway. I know Tweetie here is dying to see St. Peters, and all that.”

Tweetie had settled back inscrutably after one comprehensive, disdainful look at Mary Gowd’s suit, hat, gloves and shoes. Now she sat up, her bewitching face glowing with interest.

“Tell me,” she said, “what do they call those officers with the long pale-blue capes and the silver helmets and the swords? And the ones in dark-blue uniform with the maroon stripe at the side of the trousers? And do they ever mingle with the — that is, there was one of the blue capes here at tea yesterday — ”

Papa Gregg laughed a great, comfortable laugh.

“Oh, so that’s where you were staring yesterday, young lady! I thought you acted kind of absent-minded.” He got up to walk over and pinch Tweetie’s blushing cheek.

So it was that Mary Gowd began the process of pouring the bloody, religious, wanton, pious, thrilling, dreadful history of Rome into the pretty and unheeding ear of Tweetie Gregg.

On the fourth morning after that introductory meeting Mary Gowd arrived at the hotel at ten, as usual, to take charge of her party for the day. She encountered them in the hotel foyer, an animated little group centered about a very tall, very dashing, very black-mustachioed figure who wore a long pale-blue cape thrown gracefully over one shoulder as only an Italian officer can wear such a garment. He was looking down into the brilliantly glowing face of the pretty Eleanora, and the pretty Eleanora was looking up at him; and Pa and Ma Gregg were standing by, placidly pleased.

A grim little line appeared about Miss Gowd’s mouth. Blue Cape’s black eyes saw it, even as he bent low over Mary Gowd’s hand at the words of introduction.

“Oh, Miss Gowd,” pouted Tweetie, “it’s too bad you haven’t a telephone. You see, we shan’t need you today.”

“No?” said Miss Gowd, and glanced at Blue Cape.

“No; Signor Caldini says it’s much too perfect a day to go poking about among old ruins and things.”

Henry D. Gregg cleared his throat and took up the explanation. “Seems the — er — Signore thinks it would be just the thing to take a touring car and drive to Tivoli, and have a bite of lunch there.”

“And come back in time to see the Colosseum by moonlight!” put in Tweetie ecstatically.

“Oh, yes!” said Mary Gowd.

Pa Gregg looked at his watch.

“Well, I’ll be running along,” he said. Then, in answer to something in Mary Gowd’s eyes: “I’m not going to Tivoli, you see. I met a man from Chicago here at the hotel. He and I are going to chin a while this morning. And Mrs. Gregg and his wife are going on a shopping spree. Say, ma, if you need any more money speak up now, because I’m — ”

Mary Gowd caught his coat sleeve.

“One moment!”

Her voice was very low. “You mean — you mean Miss Eleanora will go to Tivoli and to the Colosseum alone with — with Signor Caldini?”

Henry Gregg smiled indulgently.

“The young folks always run round alone at home. We’ve got our own car at home in Batavia, but Tweetie’s beaus are always driving up for her in — ”

Mary Gowd turned her head so that only Henry Gregg could hear what she said.

“Step aside for just one moment. I must talk to you.”

“Well, what?”

“Do as I say,” whispered Mary Gowd.

Something of her earnestness seemed to convey a meaning to Henry Gregg.

“Just wait a minute, folks,” he said to the group of three, and joined Mary Gowd, who had chosen a seat a dozen paces away. “What’s the trouble?” he asked jocularly. “Hope you’re not offended because Tweet said we didn’t need you today. You know young folks — ”

“They must not go alone,” said Mary Gowd.

“But — ”

“This is not America. This is Italy — this Caldini is as Italian.”

“Why, look here; Signor Caldini was introduced to us last night. His folks really belong to the nobility.”

“I know; I know,” interrupted Mary Gowd. “I tell you they cannot go alone. Please believe me! I have been fifteen years in Rome. Noble or not, Caldini is an Italian. I ask you” — she had clasped her hands and was looking pleadingly up into his face — ” I beg of you, let me go with them. You need not pay me today. You — ”

Henry Gregg looked at her very thoughtfully and a little puzzled. Then he glanced over at the group again, with Blue Cape looking down so eagerly into Tweetie’s exquisite face and Tweetie looking up so raptly into Blue Cape’s melting eyes and Ma Gregg standing so placidly by. He turned again to Mary Gowd’s earnest face.

“Well, maybe you’re right. They do seem to use chaperons in Europe — duennas, or whatever you call ‘em. Seems a nice kind of chap, though.”

He strolled back to the waiting group. From her seat Mary Gowd heard Mrs. Gregg’s surprised exclamation, saw Tweetie’s pout, understood Caldini’s shrug and sneer. There followed a little burst of conversation. Then, with a little frown which melted into a smile for Blue Cape, Tweetie went to her room for motor coat and trifles that the long day’s outing demanded. Mrs. Gregg, still voluble, followed.

Blue Cape, with a long look at Mary Gowd, went out to confer with the porter about the motor. Papa Gregg, hand in pockets, cigar tilted, eyes narrowed, stood irresolutely in the center of the great, gaudy foyer. Then, with a decisive little hunch of his shoulders, he came back to where Mary Gowd sat.

“Did you say you’ve been fifteen years in Rome?”

“Fifteen years,” answered Mary Gowd.

Henry D. Gregg took his cigar from his mouth and regarded it thoughtfully.

“Well, that’s quite a spell. Must like it here.” Mary Gowd said nothing. “Can’t say I’m crazy about it — that is, as a place to live. I said to mother last night: ‘Little old Batavia’s good enough for Henry D.’ Of course it’s a grand education, traveling, especially for Tweetie. Funny, I always thought the fruit in Italy was regular hothouse stuff — thought the streets would just be lined with trees all hung with big, luscious oranges. But, Lord! Here we are at the best hotel in Rome, and the fruit is worse than the stuff the pushcart men at home feed to their families — little wizened bananas and oranges. Still, it’s grand here in Rome for Tweetie. I can’t stay long — just ran away from business to bring ‘em over; but I’d like Tweetie to stay in Italy until she learns the lingo. Sings, too, Tweetie does; and she and ma think they’ll have her voice cultivated over here. They’ll stay here quite a while, I guess.”

“Then you will not be here with them?” asked Mary Gowd.

“Me? No.”

They sat silent for a moment.

“I suppose you’re crazy about Rome,” said Henry Gregg again. “There’s a lot of culture here, and history, and all that; and — ”

“I hate Rome!” said Mary Gowd.

Henry Gregg stared at her in bewilderment.

“Then why in Sam Hill don’t you go back to England?”

“I’m thirty-seven years old. That’s one reason why. And I look older. Oh, yes, I do. Thanks just the same. There are too many women in England already — too many half-starving shabby genteel. I earn enough to live on here — that is, I call it living. You couldn’t. In the bad season, when there are no tourists, I live on a lira a day, including my rent.”

Henry Gregg stood up.

“My land! Why don’t you come to America?” He waved his arms. “America!”

Mary Gowd’s brick-red cheeks grew redder.

“America!” she echoed. “When I see American tourists here throwing pennies in the Fountain of Trevi, so that they’ll come back to Rome, I want to scream. By the time I save enough money to go to America I’ll be an old woman and it will be too late. And if I did contrive to scrape together enough for my passage over I couldn’t go to the United States in these clothes. I’ve seen thousands of American women here. If they look like that when they’re just traveling about, what do they wear at home!”

“Clothes?” inquired Henry Gregg, mystified. “What’s wrong with your clothes?”

“Everything! I’ve seen them look at my suit, which hunches in the back and strains across the front, and is shiny at the seams. And my gloves! And my hat! Well, even though I am English I know how frightful my hat is.”

“You’re a smart woman,” said Henry D. Gregg.

“Not smart enough,” retorted Mary Gowd, “or I shouldn’t be here.”

The two stood up as Tweetie came toward them from the lift. Tweetie pouted again at sight of Mary Gowd, but the pout cleared as Blue Cape, his arrangements completed, stood in the doorway, splendid hat in hand.

It was ten o’clock when the three returned from Tivoli and the Colosseum — Mary Gowd silent and shabbier than ever from the dust of the road; Blue Cape smiling; Tweetie frankly pettish. Pa and Ma Gregg were listening to the after-dinner concert in the foyer.

“Was it romantic — the Colosseum, I mean — by moonlight?” asked Ma Gregg, patting Tweetie’s cheek and trying not to look uncomfortable as Blue Cape kissed her hand.

“Romantic!” snapped Tweetie. “It was as romantic as Main Street on Circus Day. Hordes of people tramping about like buffaloes. Simply swarming with tourists — German ones. One couldn’t find a single ruin to sit on. Romantic!” She glared at the silent Mary Gowd.

There was a strange little glint in Mary Gowd’s eyes, and the grim line was there about the mouth again, grimmer than it had been in the morning.

“You will excuse me?” she said. “I am very tired. I will say good night.”

“And I,” announced Caldini.

Mary Gowd turned swiftly to look at him.

“You!” said Tweetie Gregg.

“I trust that I may have the very great happiness to see you in the morning,” went on Caldini in his careful English. “I cannot permit Signora Gowd to return home alone through the streets of Rome.” He bowed low and elaborately over the hands of the two women.

“Oh, well; for that matter — ” began Henry Gregg gallantly.

Caldini raised a protesting, white-gloved hand.

“I cannot permit it.”

He bowed again and looked hard at Mary Gowd. Mary Gowd returned the look. The brick-red had quite faded from her cheeks. Then, with a nod, she turned and walked toward the door. Blue Cape, sword clanking, followed her.

In silence he handed her into the fiacchero. In silence he seated himself beside her. Then he leaned very close.

Woman sitting on a bench“I will talk in this damned English,” he began, “that the pig of a fiaccheraio may not understand. This — this Gregg, he is very rich, like all Americans. And the little Eleanora! Bellissima! You must not stand in my way. It is not good.” Mary Gowd sat silent. “You will help me. Today you were not kind. There will be much money — money for me; also for you.”

Fifteen years before — ten years before — she would have died sooner than listen to a plan such as he proposed; but fifteen years of Rome blunts one’s English sensibilities. Fifteen years of privation dulls one’s moral sense. And money meant America. And little Tweetie Gregg had not lowered her voice or her laugh when she spoke that afternoon of Mary Gowd’s absurd English fringe and her red wrists above her too-short gloves.

“How much?” asked Mary Gowd. He named a figure. She laughed.

“More — much more!”

He named another figure; then another.

“You will put it down on paper,” said Mary Gowd, “and sign your name tomorrow.”

They drove the remainder of the way in silence. At her door in the Via Babbuino:

“You mean to marry her?” asked Mary Gowd.

Blue Cape shrugged eloquent shoulders:

“I think not,” he said quite simply.

It was to be the Appian Way the next morning, with a stop at the Catacombs. Mary Gowd reached the hotel very early, but not so early as Caldini.

“Think the five of us can pile into one carriage?” boomed Henry Gregg cheerily.

“A little crowded, I think,” said Mary Gowd, “for such a long drive. May I suggest that we three” — she smiled on Henry Gregg and his wife — “take this larger carriage, while Miss Eleanora and Signor Caldini follow in the single cab?”

A lightning message from Blue Cape’s eyes.

“Yes; that would be nice!” cooed Tweetie.

So it was arranged. Mary Gowd rather outdid herself as a guide that morning. She had a hundred little intimate tales at her tongue’s end. She seemed fairly to people those old ruins again with the men and women of a thousand years ago. Even Tweetie — little frivolous, indifferent Tweetie — was impressed and interested.

As they were returning to the carriages after inspecting the Baths of Caracalla, Tweetie even skipped ahead and slipped her hand for a moment into Mary Gowd’s.

“You’re simply wonderful!” she said almost shyly. “You make things sound so real. And — and I’m sorry I was so nasty to you yesterday at Tivoli.”

Mary Gowd looked down at the glowing little face. A foolish little face it was, but very, very pretty, and exquisitely young and fresh and sweet. Tweetie dropped her voice to a whisper:

“You should hear him pronounce my name. It is like music when he says it — El-e-a-no-ra; like that. And aren’t his kid gloves always beautifully white? Why, the boys back home — ”

Mary Gowd was still staring down at her. She lifted the slim, ringed little hand which lay within her white-cotton paw and stared at that too.

Then with a jerk she dropped the girl’s hand and squared her shoulders like a soldier, so that the dowdy blue suit strained more than ever at its seams; and the line that had settled about her mouth the night before faded slowly, as though a muscle too tightly drawn had relaxed.

In the carriages they were seated as before. The horses started up, with the smaller cab but a dozen paces behind. Mary Gowd leaned forward. She began to speak — her voice very low, her accent clearly English, her brevity wonderfully American.

“Listen to me!” she said. “You must leave Rome tonight!”

“Leave Rome tonight!” echoed the Greggs as though rehearsing a duet.

“Be quiet! You must not shout like that. I say you must go away.”

Mamma Gregg opened her lips and shut them, wordless for once. Henry Gregg laid one big hand on his wife’s shaking knees and eyed Mary Gowd very quietly.

“I don’t get you,” he said.

Mary Gowd looked straight at him as she said what she had to say:

“There are things in Rome you cannot understand. You could not understand unless you lived here many years. I lived here many months before I learned to step meekly off into the gutter to allow a man to pass on the narrow sidewalk. You must take your pretty daughter and go away. Tonight! No — let me finish. I will tell you what happened to me fifteen years ago, and I will tell you what this Caldini has in his mind. You will believe me and forgive me; and promise me that you will go quietly away.”

When she finished Mrs. Gregg was white-faced and luckily too frightened to weep. Henry Gregg started up in the carriage, his fists white-knuckled, his lean face turned toward the carriage crawling behind.

“Sit down!” commanded Mary Gowd. She jerked his sleeve. “Sit down!”

Henry Gregg sat down slowly. Then he wet his lips slightly and smiled.

“Oh, bosh!” he said. “This — this is the twentieth century and we’re Americans, and it’s broad daylight. Why, I’ll lick the — ”

“This is Rome,” interrupted Mary Gowd quietly, “and you will do nothing of the kind, because he would make you pay for that too, and it would be in all the papers; and your pretty daughter would hang her head in shame forever.” She put one hand on Henry Gregg’s sleeve. “You do not know! You do not! Promise me you will go.” The tears sprang suddenly to her English blue eyes. “Promise me! Promise me!”

“Henry!” cried Mamma Gregg, very gray-faced. “Promise, Henry!”

“I promise,” said Henry Gregg, and he turned away.

Mary Gowd sank back in her seat and shut her eyes for a moment.

“Presto!” she said to the half-sleeping driver. Then she waved a gay hand at the carriage in the rear. “Presto!” she called, smiling. “Presto!”

At six o’clock Mary Gowd entered the little room in the Via Babbuino. She went first to the window, closed the massive shutters, the double windows; drew the heavy curtains. The roar of Rome was hushed to a humming. She lighted a candle that stood on the table. Its dim light emphasized the gloom. She took off the battered black velvet hat and sank into the chintz-covered English chair. Tina stood in the doorway. Mary Gowd sat up with a jerk.

“Letters, Tina?”

Tina thought deeply, fumbled at the bosom of her gown and drew out a sealed envelope grudgingly.

Mary Gowd broke the seal, glanced at the letter. Then, under Tina’s startled gaze, she held it to the flaming candle and watched it burn.

“What is it that you do?” demanded Tina.

Mary Gowd smiled.

“You have heard of America?”

“America! A thousand — a million time! My brother Luigi — ”

“Naturally! This, then” — Mary Gowd deliberately gathered up the ashes into a neat pile and held them in her hand, a crumpled heap — “this then, Tina, is my trip to America.”

First page of the short story, "The Guding Miss Gowd" as it appeared in the Saturday Evening Post
Read “The Guiding Miss Gowd” by Edna Ferber, published August 15, 1914

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  1. It’s a long story. I had to read it in two sections last night and this afternoon. Ms. Ferber weaves quite a descriptive, interesting slice of life in this interacting tale of more than two cities, and even more culture clashes between the various classes in the early 20th century.

    She’s wonderfully entertaining in her appalling yet poignant comments throughout this story. It may be long, but is worth it. Edna is a a lady I’d love to have a conversation with (if it were possible), at say, Vitello’s Italian restaurant in Studio City. I’d pick up the tab unless she insisted. Otherwise, Round Table Pizza is the closest I’ll ever get to the Algonquin Round Table. Two out of three is fine by me.


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