ameline took the sheet of paper from the typewriter. it was very late.
she was alone in her room, but with a guard right outside her door.
soon it would time for breakfast. although ameline spoke little at the meals, she never missed them.
she got up and looked out the window. it was very dark. and quiet.
ameline, too, dreamed of escape.
she realized it would be difficult to even think of escape without some sort of help from the guards.
unlike most of the other contestants, she had not formed any friendships or attachments with her guards, although she was always polite and made no demands on them.
she had never formed friendships easily, not even with members of her own class.
the night was cold and windy, and when ameline entered the foyer of a————— hall - the most prestigious but also the oldest and draftiest at the university - she was in such a hurry that she almost did not look in her mailbox.
a——— hall, among its other luddite practices, had several rows of old-fashioned mailboxes inside its door, where paper notes and letters could be left.
and on this evening there was a small envelope in ameline’s box.
surely it was the note she was waiting for.
placing her armload of books carefully on the floor in order to free her hands, she extracted the note and slipped it in her pocket. she wanted to be alone when she read it.
hopefully the two young women she shared a room in the hall with would be absent - they usually were.
gathering the books back up, ameline quickly went up the three flights of winding stairs to her room, not wanting to wait for the ancient creaking elevator, or risk getting stuck in it.
neither of the roommates was in. ameline turned the light on, dumped the books on the sofa beside the door and took the note out of her pocket.
she opened it, almost ripping it in her haste.
she scanned the first lines. her heart leaped up.
she had been accepted into the bluestocking club!
how ridiculous, ameline thought - that my “heart leaped up”. but it had!
taking a deep breath, she read the note through - it was handwritten, in old-fashioned script -
by bettina crawford herself - the chairwoman of the bluestockings!
the brilliant bettina crawford, whom ameline had worshipped and wished to emulate since hearing her hold forth in professor m————————’s class on the history of women (a large class,which ameline was auditing, held in an auditorium big enough to play football in).
ameline almost swooned. she did sit down on the sofa.
the note told her that the next meeting of the bluestockings was on the following friday - but ameline already knew that.
but what was this? bettina invited her, ameline, to a private meeting in bettina’s rooms on tuesday - the next night - to “ask a few questions” and to “ perhaps get to know you.”
could anything be more felicitous?
and yet - along with her excitement, ameline felt a slight trace of fear.
tuesday evening arrived.
ameline did not dare to be late, and she had no desire to seem blasé about her meeting with bettina, so she arrived fifteen minutes early .
bettina lived in the town, in an apartment building on a street of its own, surrounded by large trees.
swarms of bats flew among the tallest branches of the trees.
ameline decided to take a walk down and around the street, rather than present herself to bettina so early.
but once out of sight of the apartment building, on the street with no lights, she found herself enveloped in the dark shadows of the trees, which were beginning to sway in a cold wind.
she found herself at the end of the street, facing a dark wooded area - was it a park? there was no sign of benches, or fountains, or statues.
ameline decided it must just be a woods, untended. it was very quiet.
she retraced her steps. when she got back to the apartment building , she decided it was not too early to enter it.
she could not find a bell, but there was an old fashioned brass knocker on the door. it seemed to be in the form of a head, with curly hair, but the face had been worn away.
she raised the knocker and rapped as hard as she could with it. it did not seem to make much of a sound, and she was about to attempt to knock again, when the door opened.
a gray haired woman, obviously a concierge, looked out at ameline.
the woman nodded when ameline explained the nature of her visit. “yes, yes, you are expected. the third floor - ms crawford has the whole third floor.”
“thank you.” ameline could see the stairs behind the concierge - winding stairs very much like those in a————— hall, and she did not ask if there was an elevator.
“but,” the concierge continued, “ms crawford was called away a little while ago.”
“oh?” ameline did not know what to think.
“her friend, mlle de hautcourt, is up there expecting you.”
mlle de hautcourt! bethany de hautcourt… bettina’s toady and factotum. whose existence ameline had completely put out of her mind, in looking forward to her meeting with bettina.
not that ameline begrudged bettina a toady. any person as glamorous and courted as bettina needed a buffer between themselves and the importunate world.
and yet the thought of meeting bethany - alone - did not fill ameline with anticipation…
bethany must have heard ameline coming up the stairs, or perhaps the concierge had called her, because she was waiting at the door of bettina’s apartment when ameline reached the third floor landing.
ameline had made a conscious effort while climbing the stairs not to be annoyed or to think ill of bethany, but she felt a bit disconcerted at the sight of bethany’s silly face, framed by her ridiculous peasant girl - or were they hippie?- braids.
ameline and bethany exchanged their ritual courtesies, and bethany stood aside for ameline to enter.
the room which ameline entered was lit by a single large standing lamp. the light did not extend to the corners of the room. dark, very heavy looking curtains covered the one large window.
bethanty took ameline’s coat and hat and deposited them somewhere in the shadows of the big room.
a tea service with scones and little neatly cut sandwiches lay on a small table placed between two sofas. bethany gestured to one of the sofas and ameline seated herself .
“bettina should be back shortly,” bethany announced, as she sat down opposite ameline. “but you never know. she specifically said not to wait for us. would you like some tea now?”
“thank you, that would be very nice,” ameline replied politely. at least, she thought, bethany’s voice was not aggravating, but as melodious and civilized as the most refined listener might desire.
no sooner had ameline had this generous thought, than she noticed bethany’s ridiculous cloak and even more absurd beret thrown carelessly on a chair beyond the sofas.
and as bethany was pouring the tea ameline noticed something else - a large, thick notebook or loose leaf binder on the sofa bethany was sitting on.
ameline was finding the darkened room actually rather cozy, especially after the cold street outside.
“let’s give bettina fifteen minutes, shall we?” bethany said. “if she is not back by then i think we should get started.” she glanced over at the big notebook.
get started on what? ameline wondered. she did not know what to say. “yes,” she finally said, “i will leave that up to you.”
“it is best to be moving forward, don’t you think,“ bethany went on. “especially in times like these.”
in times like these? whatever was the silly creature talking about?
ameline nodded toward the notebook on the sofa beside bethany. “is that - is that the rules and regulations of the club?”
“the club? oh, you mean the bluestocking club. oh, no, no.” bethany laughed, and took a sip of her tea. “something much more important.”
ameline almost blurted out “more important than the bluestocking club!” but realized it might sound a bit pompous.
“not that the bluestocking club is not all very well in its way,” bethany continued. “if you like poetry and all that sort of thing. but you see - “ she looked ameline right in the eyes. “ the club is really just sort of - of a front, you might say, for other things. other things more attuned to - to - how shall i put it ? - “
“to times like these,” ameline volunteered.
“exactly. we will get started. but if i can’t explain things, bettina will explain everything. when she arrives.”
the duke di fabrizzi had been away from his castle on a “delicate mission” for many months .
it had originally been expected that he would be away for no more than a week, but as the negotiations wore on, and the outbreak of war seemed ever more certain, the wife and two daughters he had left behind, as well as the household staff of the castle, grew ever more restless and perplexed.
especially as the first actions of the hostilities, when they finally broke out, were expected to be in the immediate area of the castle.
but on this as on other matters, the duke held firm. there would be no abandonment of the castle, no relocation of its inhabitants, as this might show fatalism or lack of resolve on his part and perhaps tip the scales toward the dreaded though ever more inevitable failure of the interminable negotiations.
in this crisis, the duchess did not altogether show the firmness which her illustrious ancestors might have expected of her.
she slept badly, and was often morose and silent at breakfast.
but she usually found enough energy by lunchtime to embark on the activity which took up a great part of her day - berating her two daughters, fatima and florine, for their various derelictions.
fatima, the elder, had enough spirit to occasionally challenge the duchess. florine, not so much.
despite this, it was florine on whom the heavier and more relentless criticisms fell.
the duchess was pleased to be particularly distressed by what she regarded as florine’s unseemly relationship with her maid, betty.
betty was english, and had arrived in the household a number of years back in the company of an english governess, long since departed, named miss fortune.
florine , then a child, had taken a liking to betty and adopted her as her best friend. which no one thought remarkable or particularly interesting at the time.
neither the duke nor the duchess paid the children much attention in those days. the duke was indulgent, the duchess mostly indifferent.
florine and betty became inseparable.
betty remained in the household as florine’s personal maid after miss fortune departed.
florine never understood the exact nature of betty’s relationship with miss fortune, and no one ever explained it to her or showed any interest in it.
betty herself always acted as if her arrival with miss fortune was the most natural thing in the world and needed no explanation.
there was nothing remarkable in any of this, and things just jogged along as one sunny year succeeded another in the castle.
it was taken for granted that betty would accompany florine to university.
the clouds of approaching war intervened.
the duke spent ever more time in his diplomatic duties.
it was decided that florine would not go to university, but would remain in the castle until the international situation was “settled”.
fatima, who had been making the grand tour, was summoned home. she had been engaged to the young count of g—————, but the engagement was broken off, for reasons which remained unclear.
the two young women, fatima and florine, the latter usually accompanied by her faithful betty, spent long hours lolling about the castle.
half hearted attempts were made to find some sort of tutor for florine, but they came to nothing, in part because the prospective hires were frightened away by the castle’s location in the expected theater of war.
florine whiled away many of the long hours at the piano, mostly playing chopin and debussy, to the sneers of fatima and the enthusiastic encouragement of betty.
the duchess took up religion, and surrounded herself with pious clerics and meddlesome friars of the old school.
a casual remark of one of these worthies, to the effect that the friendship of florine and betty had “something just a bit unhealthy about it” led the duchess to notice betty, almost for the first time.
the duchess now fixed on poor betty as a convenient outlet for her increasing frustrations. she intimated to florine that she, the duchess, would like to see betty sent packing. of course she would prefer that florine, if she valued her immortal soul, send her away herself.
florine at first responded with a bit of spunk, informing her parent that she loved betty more than life itself - not a sentiment to reassure the duchess, nor, when she repeated it to him, the attentive fra giorgio, who was now an almost daily visitor at the increasingly gloomy castle.
but as the duchess kept returning to the subject, florine’s resolve began to weaken, and she became prone to sudden fits of weeping, especially when playing chopin.
betty was always there to console her with hugs and chaste kisses.
“you know, florine” fatima announced one particularly gloomy and rainy afternoon, after witnessing another scene where florine had wept and betty dried her tears, “did it ever occur to you that poor betty might actually want to leave? eh, betty? if you leave you might actually escape being blown to bits or being ravished by rampaging huns or tartars or cossacks. what do you say? i would think the high road to switzerland or wherever might look pretty good right now.”
“i love signorina florine, and will never leave her,” betty protested.
“to be sure,” fatima drawled. “to be sure. when the time comes, maybe the two of you can share a cossack or a lustful turk.”
“the signorina is pleased to be droll,” betty responded with uplifted eyes.
florine sniffled. “what a terrible thing to say, fatima. even as an attempt to be humorous.” she ran her finger across the keyboard, as betty gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“yes, fatima,” anther voice broke in on them, “that was very rude. very rude indeed.”
anna, the housekeeper , stood in the entrance to the drawing room.
“and in any case,” anna announced, “it has been determined that our dear miss betty is not going anywhere, so there is no use crying about it any more.”
“oh?” fatima asked. “has mother had a sudden change of heart?”
“no,” anna replied, advancing into the room, and taking a seat beside fatima, “but she has had a letter from the duke. he has expressly stated that no one is to leave the castle until further notice. further notice from him.”
“bah,” fatima replied. “is he going to send a battalion of soldiers or police to keep anybody from leaving? i have half a mind to leave myself, now.”
the others ignored this. anna leaned back on the sofa. she had been with the castle since the invention of dirt and treated herself as a member of the family. “what do you think of that, miss?” she asked betty. “no sleeping in a haystack for you, eh, at least for a while.”
“i have been praying to the virgin and to st rita for this,” betty replied. “and i will thank them when i say my prayers tonight.”
“save it for the friars,” anna told her. she turned to fatima. “pour me a cup of that tea, will you, dear?” she asked. “it certainly is chilly in here. perhaps somebody could throw a little wood on the fire.”
laurene and stephanie followed gustav and the parthian ambassador outside to the waiting limousine.
laurene wondered if she would ever see the blue sky again …
“i didn’t know joanie lee would get so upset at us leaving,” stephanie was saying. “i didn’t know she liked so much.”
“she’s nervous,” laurene answered. “she wanted someone to keep her company.”
the driver of the limo was leaning against it, smoking a long thin cigar.
“oh, yuck,” stephanie exclaimed. “do they all smoke i wonder?”
laurene stopped, and grabbed stephanie’s arm. gustav and the ambassador, unaware that they had stopped, moved ahead to the limo.
“stephanie,” laurene whispered, “listen to me. it was your idea to come along. you invited yourself. i have one thing to say to you - keep your mouth shut. keep - your - mouth - shut. do - not - speak unless you are spoken to. do you understand?”
“that’s more than one thing. and you’re hurting my arm.” stephanie wrenched free from laurene.
the ambassador looked back at them.
“we’re coming!” laurene assured him.
the driver threw his cigar away. he opened the rear door and then got back in his seat.
gustav opened the front passenger door but waited with his evil smirk while laurene and stephanie caught up.
the ambassador, an impatient look on his face, waved the two girls into the back seat and then got in himself.
laurene got in first. the inside was not as roomy as it looked from outside - because the exterior was so padded?
she ended up beside the right rear window, behind gustav, when he finally got in the front seat.
stephanie was in the middle, between the ambassador and laurene.
“this is cozy,” stephanie announced. she sniffed. “at least it doesn’t stink of tobacco - or anything worse.”
nobody laughed, or answered, or paid her any attention.
i give up, laurene thought, nothing will shut her up if she feels like talking. she might also decide not to talk for a month, and then nothing but out and out torture would get her to make a sound.
laurene looked out the window. i might as well enjoy the view, she thought.
the driver started the car and turned it around in the driveway and they started off.
“where, exactly, are we going?” stephanie asked.
the ambassador put his attache case on his lap and began opening it.
the limo passed the exit for the main airport.
they passed the exits for a couple of smaller airfields used by private planes.
past these exits the highway was empty on their side, going away from the airport.
there was heavy traffic on the other side, going towards the airport.
they were moving away from the coast, so it did not seem they were going anywhere by boat.
stephanie had given up trying to get anybody to talk to her.
the ambassador had finished going through the papers in his case, and sat with his phone in his hand, glancing at it from time to time.
gustav and the driver were separated from the back seat by a clear glass partition. if they were talking, laurene couldn’t hear them.
it occurred to laurene that when they had passed the airports the skies had been empty.
suddenly they turned into an unmarked road.
the road was dirt for about a hundred winding yards and then opened into a straight blacktop road which quickly led them to what looked a military checkpoint.
which after less than thirty seconds stop, they were waved through.
after getting through the checkpoint, the ambassador rolled his window down. a cool breeze filled the back seat.
laurene rolled her window down too. the ambassador paid her no notice. he continued to look at his phone, as if willing it to ring.
after another half mile of straight road, they stopped.
the ambassador stuck his phone in his pocket and got out of the car without waiting for it to be opened for him.
laurene could see a couple of small planes - that could not seat more than a half dozen people each - side by side on a runway.
she tried to open her door. she could not.
but the ambassador had left his door open.
stephanie, sitting in the center of the back seat, had fallen asleep. laurene shook her awake, and pointed to the open door.
after blinking a few times, stephanie slid out of the car and laurene followed her.
there was nothing in the clearing except the airstrip, the two planes on it , and a small wooden building, no more than a shack. there were no markings or insignia on the shack, although there was a green and red flag painted on the side of one of the planes - the flag of parthia?
the other plane was completely unmarked.
the ambassador and gustav were talking to another man beside the shack. he was wearing the same uniform as gustav, but with slightly different markings. he was bigger than gustav, and looked as mean.
laurene moved closer to hear what they were saying. the driver of the limo, still in his seat, glanced at her and then turned his attention back to lighting his cigar.
“a window of about fifteen minutes…” the uniformed man was saying.
the ambassador looked up at the clear blue sky.
“… but with any kind of turbulence…” the uniformed man continued.
“i say go for it,” gustav announced loudly, as if challenging the ambassador. “what else can we do?”
the ambassador nodded and muttered something , which seemed to surprise and gratify gustav.
the uniformed man noticed laurene and stephanie and pointed to them. gustav and the ambassador turned and looked at them.
“not much point in taking them now,” gustav said.
“oh, i don’t know,” the ambassador replied. “things might change. they might come in handy.”
this doesn’t sound very promising, thought laurene.
“suit yourself,” gustav answered the ambassador. “but let’s get going.” he glared at the two girls, who had come within thirty feet of them, and pointed to the unmarked plane.
laurene followed gustav and the ambassador to the plane. gustav grabbed her arm and gave her a hand up. then he gave the puffing ambassador two hands up and got in himself.
gustav got in the pilot’s seat. there were five little bucket seats in the back and laurene and the ambassador got in two of them.
“where’s stephanie?” laurene asked.
she looked out the small window. the uniformed man, and the limo driver, who had stepped out of the car, were pointing down the road and laughing.
stephanie had just run away.
“fasten your seat belts,” gustav announced. “because we sure aren’t waiting on her.”
gee, thought laurene, why didn’t i have enough sense to do that?