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There's one thing about the break-up and sell-off of an estate - you never quite know what's going to turn up. I'd spent quite some time working with others in the library, but now most of that had finished and I was detailed to work on my own, turning my attention to the various bureaus and smaller writing desks. I was certainly grateful; the inter-relationships between two of the group and two of the team assessing the state of the buildings was becoming somewhat wearing. I'd also been asked (on the quiet) to see if there was enough material to confirm or refute some of the interesting rumours about the family.

One bureau was proving to be a real treasure trove with letters and other papers in every drawer, some from here and some from abroad, going back a couple of hundred years and more. Two packets had caught my attention. They were tied together with tape, so clearly whoever did that - and I think we will be able to put a name to that person - wanted them to stay together. I'll start in the obvious place, with the older of the two packets. Not one of the items in that packet was complete; the paper was fraying and decaying and some even seemed to be fragments, as if the reader first tore the letter up then regretted it and retrieved what she could, while others just had parts torn from them. I've not translated every word, or indeed every letter, and the translations are all slightly rough, but if the project does go ahead that'll get handed on anyway.

Donna Adriana,
I have received your affectionate letter.
I have such great regard for you, and rejoice that you consider me a worthy
recipient. As to my news, we continue here a while
[...]
I trust that you will continue in health and enjoyment of your situation.
Yours with sincerity
Alfonso

[the top of this has been torn off]

Your gentle note reached me. Do not, from my earlier silence, judge that
you are absent from my thoughts. We should be turning towards home this next
week and I am overjoyed that the [...]
I will not write more now, as [...
Your faithful friend A

 

My very dear Adriana,
We shall surely see each other tomorrow as I will be present.
I hope to speak with your father.
Your loving A

 

My Dear - Friend,
I have today received the news that your Father has determined that the benefits
accruing to linking his House with that of the Count are superior to the sincere
love we hold for each other. It seems I must, therefore, stand aside.
Should I have had the favour granted me of keeping your company through
life [...] but I will look back on our acquaintance with pleasure and [...]
God knows I wish you happy.
May he be a husband worthy of your esteem and affections. I cannot write more.
Your sincere - Friend,
Alfonso

 

The rest come from the other packet. This packet contains letters and papers from several people. Some are annotated.

My honoured friend,
So, she is dead in childbed. Leaving a child, the boy, little more than
a babe himself, and a husband whose grief appears, from all accounts,
to be mainly directed at the fact that she took the new babe with her.
Alfonso

That was a bit of a surprise I must say. Next a note with a margin annotation of "six months prior to the wager".

Greetings,
The preferment has been offered to F.
Ah yes, he thinks, he feels - or so he says - in a deeper manner than I.
But I, _I_ am the better soldier. My men hold me in greater esteem.
My only consolation is that my chosen, the elder sister, is the
superior. He will regret his choices.

An undated piece of paper. No signature, hand different from either of the above, clearly part of, or torn from, from a longer letter. Annotation "received anonymously, after my interest in the events preceding the marriages had become known".

She is, of course, all enchantment and my day is lightened by her grace and
enthusiasm. But yet her sister has the greater sensibility. I believe her
to be wasted on him - how can he appreciate her understanding?

In yet another hand.

October.
Greetings, my kind friend,
Ah yes, our philosopher Alfonso.
I will confess myself surprised that he chose the son of his former acquaintance
(one cannot declare them to have been friends) as part of his great experiment, in
particular when one considers the old rumours[...]

I've left out quite a lot of the middle of the next one, but that too was more of the philosophical aspects (I guess that's what I should call it) of the episode. I found this extremely interesting.

My honoured friend,
Such protestations of love as were made! But the faith of lovers is like
the Arabian phoenix; everyone says it exists, but no one knows where to
find it. For a psychological demonstration to occur I needed to construct
a closed world for a day; "one must treat ethics like all the other sciences
and construct experimental ethics in the same way as experimental physics".
My hope was an advance of Reason, for "It is by the activity of the passions
that our reason is improved; for we desire knowledge only because we wish to
enjoy; and it is impossible to conceive any reason why a person who has neither
fears nor desires would give himself the trouble of reasoning."
[...]
I indeed enlisted the aid of the maidservant, Despina, and she proved a worthy
assistant. Naturally I could not tell her of the masquerade, that would have
been to trust her more than was necessary.

Dated some years afterwards; unsigned but the handwriting clearly that of the author of the undated piece of paper.

I should be wiser could I persuade myself to remain far from you.
You are on my mind, I kiss your portrait which I keep close by me.

I believe this to have been a near-verbatim transcription of a conversation. It is signed, but shakily as if the signatory were ill.


I am Despina, widow of a baker of this town, a master of his craft,
but indeed I was once maid to Donna Fiordiligi and Donna Dorabella.

You ask about the wager and deception. I did not want to spend my
life as servant, but to be a little more my own mistress. The life
of a personal maid servant can often be a limited one too. Noblewomen
do not always wish to have a crone for a maid and in service we age
faster than our mistresses - and what then?

Should I have encouraged my mistresses as I did? To do what?
To entertain the idea of lovers, as their menfolk do? As their
parents did? What harm would have come of it?

Don Alfonso paid what he said he would. For me it was as good as a
dowry. He could not have won his bet without me, and to win his bet was
a necessity for he had debts that must be paid. You did not know that?
But he did not tell me all, for I was a servant and a woman too, and
while we may be bribed we may not be trusted. Nor did he trust the men
to know of my involvement. For I was a servant and it was necessary
that they believe the other players were entirely free to act.


This is from the final item - actually the wrapper of the package.


My mother, on her death-bed, revealed a secret. My cousins are also my
half-sisters and half-brothers. I have collected here items that may cast
some light on the events. Finem lauda.


I sat at the bureau, looking out of the window but not precisely seeing what I was looking at. An idea was forming in my mind. I wasn't sure it would work but it was worth a try. I reached for the 'phone; time to send a couple of texts and see where that would take us.