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In a Strange Land
by [?]

I am of a roving disposition, but I travel not to see imposing monuments, which indeed somewhat bore me, nor beautiful scenery, of which too soon I tire; I travel to see men. And I avoid the great. I would not cross the road to meet a president or a king; I am content to know the writer in the pages of his book and the painter in his picture; but I have journeyed a hundred leagues to see a missionary of whom I have heard a strange story, and I have spent a fortnight in a vile hotel in order to improve my acquaintance with a billiard-marker.

I should be inclined to say that I am not surprised to meet any sort of person were it not that there is one sort which never fails to give me a little shock of amused astonishment. This is the elderly Englishwoman, generally of adequate means, who is to be found living alone in the most unexpected places. You do not wonder when you hear of her living in a villa on a hill outside a small Italian town, the only Englishwoman in the neighbourhood, and you are almost prepared for it when a lonely haciendais pointed out to you in Andalusia and you are told that in it has dwelt for many years an English lady. But it is more surprising when you hear that the only white person in a Chinese city is an Englishwoman, not a missionary, who lives there none knows why; and you are completely at a loss to explain why another should inhabit an island in the South Seas, and a third a bungalow on the outskirts of a large village in Java.

They live solitary lives, without friends, and they do not welcome the stranger. Though they may not have seen one of their own race they will pass you on the road as though they did not see you, and if, presuming on your nationality, you should call as likely as not they will decline to receive you; but if they do they will give you a cup of tea from a silver teapot and on a plate of old Worcester you will find Scotch scones. They will talk to you politely, as though they were entertaining you in a Kentish vicarage, but when you take your leave will show no particular desire to continue the acquaintance. One wonders in vain what strange instinct it is that has driven them to separate themselves from their kith and kin and thus to live apart from all their natural interests in an alien land.

But of all these Englishwomen whom I have met or perhaps only heard of, the one who remains most vividly in my memory is an elderly person who lived in Asia Minor. I had arrived after a tedious journey at a little town from which I proposed to make the ascent of a celebrated mountain, and I was taken to a rambling hotel that stood at its foot. I arrived late at night and signed my name in the book. I went up to my room. It was cold and I shivered as I undressed, but in a moment there was a knock at the door and the dragoman came in.

“Signora Niccolini’s compliments.” To my astonishment he handed me a hot-water bottle. I took it with grateful hands.

“Who is Signora Niccolini?” I asked.

“She is the proprietor of this hotel,” he answered.

I sent her my thanks and he withdrew. The last thing I expected in a scrubby little hotel in Asia Minor kept by an old Italian woman was a beautiful hot-water bottle. There is nothing I like more, and next morning, in order to thank her in person, I asked if I might see the Signora Niccolini. In a moment she came in. She was a little stout woman, not without dignity, and she wore a black apron trimmed with lace and a small black lace cap. She stood with her hands crossed. I was astonished at her appearance, for she looked exactly like a housekeeper in a great English house.