(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ella Mason, a twice married woman in her early fifties, recalls a European trip that she and four cousins made thirty years earlier. The five of them—Ella Mason, Eric, Ben, Jamie, and Mayfred—are members of the “three leading families” of Martinsville, Alabama, who were, the narrator confesses, somewhat “snobbish” about their social position in the small town. They are all descended from a famous Confederate general. Ella, whose mother was a Mason, has the same great-grandfather as Eric.

On a visit to New York, Ella Mason has lunch with her cousin Ben, who surprises her by remarking that he has always felt that in some way it is her fault that “we lost Eric”—an allusion to the fact that their cousin has lived for many years in Florence, Italy. Stunned, “as though the point of a cold dagger had reached a vital spot,” Ella determines to return to Italy, which she has not visited in thirty years, to see Eric and solve the riddle of his exile.

In Florence, Ella is surprised to find her cousin aged and stooped, no longer the handsome young law student whom she loved thirty years before. After dinner at a restaurant, the cousins sit on the terrace outside Eric’s apartment, reminiscing about their early years and the trip that they once made with their other cousins.

Full of optimism and joie de vivre shortly after World War II, the cousins are in many ways alike but also different, each in his or her own way. Ben, a graduate student, intensely devoted to literature and especially the work of Edgar Allan Poe, becomes a father figure to the group, while Eric, then twenty-five, has just completed final exams in law school. The young Jamie is hungry for experience, to see all the museums and churches and to gamble at the casinos. Mayfred, a beautiful distant cousin of the group, shows up in New York where they are to board the ship, accompanied by Donald Bailey, whom she has just secretly married. Ella, a college student at the University of Alabama and...

(The entire section is 821 words.)