This story was suggested by the lines of Dante that run as follows:
Deh, quando tu sarai tomato al mondo,
E riposato della lunga via,
Seguito il terzo spirito al secondo,
Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia:
Siena mi fè; disfecemi Maremma:
Salsi colui, che, innanellata pria
Disposando m’avea con la sua gemma.
“Pray, when you are returned to the world, and rested from the long journey,” followed the third spirit on the second, “remember me, who am Pia. Siena made me, Maremma unmade me: this he knows who after betrothal espoused me with his ring.”
I was a student at St. Thomas’s Hospital and the Easter vacation gave me six weeks to myself. With my clothes in a Gladstone bag and twenty pounds in my pocket I set out. I was twenty. I went to Genoa and Pisa and then to Florence. Here I took a room in the via Laura, from the window of which I could see the lovely dome of the Cathedral, in the apartment of a widow lady, with a daughter, who offered me board and lodging (after a good deal of haggling) for four lire a day. I am afraid that she did not make a very good thing out of it, since my appetite was enormous, and I could devour a mountain of macaroni without inconvenience. She had a vineyard in the Tuscan hills, and my recollection is that the Chianti she got from it was the best I have ever drunk in Italy. Her daughter gave me an Italian lesson every day. She seemed to me then of mature age, but I do not suppose that she was more than twenty-six. She had had trouble. Her betrothed, an officer, had been killed in Abyssinia and she was consecrated to virginity. It was an understood thing that on her mother’s death (a buxom, gray-haired, jovial lady who did not mean to die a day before the dear Lord saw fit) Ersilia would enter religion. But she looked forward to this with cheerfulness. She loved a good laugh. We were very gay at luncheon and dinner, but she took her lessons seriously, and when I was stupid or inattentive rapped me over the knuckles with a black ruler. I should have been indignant at being treated like a child if it had not reminded me of the old-fashioned pedagogues I had read of in books and so made me laugh.
I lived laborious days. I started each one by translating a few pages of one of Ibsen’s plays so that I might acquire mastery of technique and ease in writing dialogue; then, with Ruskin in my hand, I examined the sights of Florence. I admired according to instructions the tower of Giotto and the bronze doors of Ghiberti. I was properly enthusiastic over the Botticellis in the Uffizi and I turned the scornful shoulder of extreme youth on what the master disapproved of. After luncheon I had my Italian lesson and then going out once more I visited the churches and wandered day-dreaming along the Arno. When dinner was done I went out to look for adventure, but such was my innocence, or at least my shyness, I always came home as virtuous as I had gone out. The Signora, though she had given me a key, sighed with relief when she heard me come in and bolt the door, for she was always afraid I should forget to do this, and I returned to my perusal of the history of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. I was bitterly conscious that not thus behaved the writers of the romantic era, though I doubt whether any of them managed to spend six weeks in Italy on twenty pounds, and I much enjoyed my sober and industrious life.
I had already read the Inferno (with the help of a translation, but conscientiously looking out in a dictionary the words I did not know), so with Ersilia started on the Purgatorio. When we came to the passage I have quoted above she told me that Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out of the window. I do not know where Ersilia learnt all this, the note in my own Dante was less circumstantial, but the story for some reason caught my imagination. I turned it over in my mind and for many years from time to time would brood over it for two or three days. I used to repeat to myself the line: Siena mi fè; disfecemi Maremma. But it was one among many subjects that occupied my fancy and for long periods I forgot it. Of course I saw it as a modern story, and I could not think of a setting in the world of to-day in which such events might plausibly happen. It was not till I made a long journey in China that I found this.
I think this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something; so that the character and at least his principle action seem to be the result of a simultaneous act of the imagination. But in this case the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved; they were constructed from persons I had long known in different circumstances.
I had with this book some of the difficulties that are apt to befall an author. I had originally called my hero and heroine Lane, a common enough name, but it appeared that there were people of that name in Hong Kong. They brought an action, which the proprietors of the magazine in which my novel was serialized, settled for two hundred and fifty pounds, and I changed the name to Fane. Then the Assistant Colonial Secretary, thinking himself libeled, threatened to institute proceedings. I was surprised, since in England we can put a Prime Minister on the stage or use him as the character of a novel, an Archbishop of Canterbury or a Lord Chancellor, and the tenants of these exalted offices do not turn a hair. It seemed to me strange that the temporary occupant of so insignificant a post should think himself aimed at, but in order to save trouble I changed Hong Kong to an imaginary colony of Tching-Yen1. The book had already been published when the incident arose and was recalled. A certain number of astute reviewers who had received it did not on one pretext and another return their copies. These have now acquired a bibliographical value, I think there are about sixty of them in existence, and are bought by collectors at a high price.
 Tching-Yen has now been replaced by Hong Kong.
She gave a startled cry.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room he saw her face on a sudden distraught with terror.
“Some one just tried the door.”
“Well, perhaps it was the amah, or one of the boys.”
“They never come at this time. They know I always sleep after tiffin.”
“Who else could it be?”
“Walter,” she whispered, her lips trembling.
She pointed to his shoes. He tried to put them on, but his nervousness, for her alarm was affecting him, made him clumsy, and besides, they were on the tight side. With a faint gasp of impatience she gave him a shoe horn. She slipped into a kimono and in her bare feet went over to her dressing-table. Her hair was shingled and with a comb she had repaired its disorder before he had laced his second shoe. She handed him his coat.
“How shall I get out?”
“You’d better wait a bit. I’ll look out and see that it’s all right.”
“It can’t possibly be Walter. He doesn’t leave the laboratory till five.”
“Who is it then?”
They spoke in whispers now. She was quaking. It occurred to him that in an emergency she would lose her head and on a sudden he felt angry with her. If it wasn’t safe why the devil had she said it was? She caught her breath and put her hand on his arm. He followed the direction of her glance. They stood facing the windows that led out on the verandah. They were shuttered and the shutters were bolted. They saw the white china knob of the handle slowly turn. They had heard no one walk along the verandah. It was terrifying to see that silent motion. A minute passed and there was no sound. Then, with the ghastliness of the supernatural, in the same stealthy, noiseless and horrifying manner, they saw the white china knob of the handle at the other window turn also. It was so frightening that Kitty, her nerves failing her, opened her mouth to scream; but, seeing what she was going to do, he swiftly put his hand over it and her cry was smothered in his fingers.
Silence. She leaned against him, her knees shaking, and he was afraid she would faint. Frowning, his jaw set, he carried her to the bed and sat her down upon it. She was as white as the sheet and notwithstanding his tan his cheeks were pale too. He stood by her side looking with fascinated gaze at the china knob. They did not speak. Then he saw that she was crying.
“For God’s sake don’t do that,” he whispered irritably. “If we’re in for it we’re in for it. We shall just have to brazen it out.”
She looked for her handkerchief and knowing what she wanted he gave her her bag.
“Where’s your topee?”
“I left it downstairs.”
“Oh, my God!”
“I say, you must pull yourself together. It’s a hundred to one it wasn’t Walter. Why on earth should he come back at this hour? He never does come home in the middle of the day, does he?”
“I’ll bet you anything you like it was amah.”
She gave him the shadow of a smile. His rich, caressing voice reassured her and she took his hand and affectionately pressed it. He gave her a moment to collect herself.
“Look here, we can’t stay here for ever,” he said then. “Do you feel up to going out on the verandah and having a look?”
“I don’t think I can stand.”
“Have you got any brandy in here?”
She shook her head. A frown for an instant darkened his brow, he was growing impatient, he did not quite know what to do. Suddenly she clutched his hand more tightly.
“Suppose he’s waiting there?”
He forced his lips to smile and his voice retained the gentle, persuasive tone the effect of which he was so fully conscious of.
“That’s not very likely. Have a little pluck, Kitty. How can it possibly be your husband? If he’d come in and seen a strange topee in the hall and come upstairs and found your room locked, surely he would have made some sort of row. It must have been one of the servants. Only a Chinese would turn a handle in that way.”
She did feel more herself now.
“It’s not very pleasant even if it was only the amah.”
“She can be squared and if necessary I’ll put the fear of God into her. There are not many advantages in being a government official, but you may as well get what you can out of it.”
He must be right. She stood up and turning to him stretched out her arms: he took her in his and kissed her on the lips. It was such rapture that it was pain. She adored him. He released her and she went to the window. She slid back the bolt and opening the shutter a little looked out. There was not a soul. She slipped on to the verandah,looked into her husband’s dressing-room and then into her own sitting-room. Both were empty. She went back to the bedroom and beckoned to him.
“I believe the whole thing was an optical delusion.”
“Don’t laugh. I was terrified. Go into my sitting-room and sit down. I’ll put on my stockings and some shoes.”
He did as she bade and in five minutes she joined him. He was smoking a cigarette.
“I say, could I have a brandy and soda?”
“Yes, I’ll ring.”
“I don’t think it would hurt youby the look of things.”
They waited in silence for the boy to answer. She gave the order.
“Ring up the laboratory and ask if Walter is there,” she said then.“They won’t know your voice.”
He took up the receiver and asked for the number. He inquired whether Dr. Fane was in. He put down the receiver.
“He hasn’t been in since tiffin,” he told her. “Ask the boy whether he has been here.”
“I daren’t. It’ll look so funny if he has and I didn’t see him.”
The boy brought the drinks and Townsend helped himself. When he offered her some she shook her head.
“What’s to be done if it was Walter?” she asked.
“Perhaps he wouldn’t care.”
Her tone was incredulous.
“It’s always struck me he was rather shy. Some men can’t bear scenes, you know. He’s got sense enough to know that there’s nothing to be gained by making a scandal. I don’t believe for a minute it was Walter, but even if it was, my impression is that he’ll do nothing. I think he’ll ignore it.”
She reflected for a moment.
“He’s awfully in love with me.”
“Well, that’s all to the good. You’ll get round him.”