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.”