|The bitter prairie wind stung Bette’s face, and would have made her eyes water had they not been filled with tears already, as they’d been so many times since she’d received Gisela’s letter a few days earlier. She’d expected it to contain greetings and best wishes for Christmas and for the year to come, but instead … |
She wiped her eyes and glanced around her, startled at how far she’d walked. She’d made an excuse to come out of the farmhouse, not wanting Giovanni and Marya to see their mother crying; but, her thoughts in a whirl, she’d wandered along unseeingly and now found herself off her employer’s land and outside the farm belonging to his neighbours, a Mr and Mrs Schmidt. She’d better get back. The children would be fine as long as Mr Bauer – an apt name for a farmer – was in the house, because he was a good man and already seemed to have grown fond of them, and they of him; but it was Christmas Eve and she had a great deal yet to do.
Her mind went back, unbidden, to all the Christmases of her youth, and to the few precious Christmases that she and Giovanni had together, and she shook her head, trying to banish the thoughts from her head. Those days were gone now, and she must try to forge a life for herself and her children here in this strange place, to put the past behind her and look to the future … but, oh, it was so hard. When she’d been a merry, laughing schoolgirl, she’d believed that most people were intrinsically good and the world, harsh though it could be at times, essentially a good place, a happy place; but now she found herself doubting everything that she’d ever thought she’d known to be true.
She’d come to terms with Giovanni’s death, cruel though it had been, because that had been an accident, and accidents happened. Nature was stronger than man, and those who chose to climb mountains chose to put themselves at risk, however careful they might be. Giovanni had known that, Captain Humphries had known that, and she had known that. But what had happened to Onkel Florian, the kind, gentle man she’d known all her life, had been no accident; and the thought of what he might have suffered, what tortures he might have gone through, were almost more than she could bear.
It was a relief, at least, to know that his suffering was at an end now, but for Tante Gisel and Gisela and Maria the anguish of knowing that he was gone for good was only just beginning; and she was thousands of miles away, unable even to try to provide her dear friends with the help and support she would so willingly have offered. And there was all too much reason to fear that Friedel von Gluck, Wanda’s husband, and Bruno von Ahlen, the young doctor who’d worked with Giovanni and the Sonnalpe and whom she and Gisela and Gertrud had often speculated was in love with Frieda Mensch, might have met a similar fate: nothing had been heard of either of them for many months now, and Gisela wrote sadly that Wanda was beginning to lose hope. She feared for her own family too, and, now that the British Empire was at war with both the Third Reich and Italy, feared that all contact with them might be lost for the duration.
She should be grateful for what she had, she knew. She and her children were alive, and they were safe, an ocean and much of a continent between them and the Nazis. The children had settled into their new life remarkably well, and she herself was, little by little, beginning to accustom herself to Saskatchewan. Before she’d come here, she’d known little of Canada, and had expected that everyone she met here would be of either British or French descent and feared that they would be suspicious of her, a half-Austrian, half-Italian woman with an Italian surname; but most of the people hereabouts had German surnames, and, although often a long way back, German ancestry.
Mr Bauer, an intelligent and well-educated man – she was ashamed now to think that she’d ever thought of farmers as people with whom those from her background would not normally associate – had explained to her that this particular area had been settled by immigrants of German origin from what had been the Russian Empire and the easternmost outposts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as from Germany itself and from the American states of North and South Dakota. Some of them were Mennonites and Hutterites – groups she’d never even heard of before – but most were either Lutherans or Catholics and, in this neighbourhood, most were Catholic.
So, amongst people with Germanic surnames and of her own faith, she might have felt herself more at home than she’d expected, but she found it difficult to talk to the other members of the small community, not knowing what a housekeeper’s place in society here might be. She even feared that they might be saying things behind her back about the impropriety of a young widow living under the same roof as a single man. Her cheeks flamed at the thought - she, who’d been brought up so correctly, who hadn’t even been allowed to meet Giovanni in a coffee house without a chaperone before they were married! But then, she chided herself, she was probably being over-sensitive. No-one had been unkind to her. She just hadn’t really got to know anyone yet. But how could she when she was so afraid of inadvertently saying or doing something she shouldn’t?
“Mrs di Bersetti? Mrs di Bersetti, are you all right? Is there something wrong? Can I do anything to help?” The concerned voice was that of Mrs Schmidt. “I’d just come out to check on my chickens and I saw you standing there. Is everything okay at the Bauer place?”
“Oh … everything’s fine, thank you so much.” Bette blushed, embarrassed. “I just came outside for a little while and I seem to have walked further than I’d realised. I wander around with my head in the clouds sometimes. Sorry: I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“It’s no bother: that’s what neighbours are for, to help out if anything’s wrong – although I’m glad to hear that in that case it isn’t.” The Canadian woman smiled. “Say, why don’t you come in for a cup of tea? It’s cold out here. No – don’t start telling me that you don’t want to be any bother and you have to be getting back! A few minutes won’t hurt, and you look as if you could do with a rest and a hot drink. I won’t take no for an answer!”
Bette smiled back. The friendly tone warmed her heart, and Frau Schmidt was right – she could do with something to warm her insides as well. “That would be topping, thank you so much,” she said sincerely. “I do need to get back, but I would be very grateful for a drink first.” She followed the kindly farmer’s wife into the house and thankfully took the proffered seat by the blazing fire and then, shortly afterwards, the promised cup of tea and a biscuit. “Thank you ever so much: it’s jolly kind of you.”
“No trouble at all,” Mrs Schmidt assured her. “And, my, you sound so English! But your name sounds Italian ... and then I’m sure Jim Bauer told us that you were Austrian – is that right?”
Bette laughed, the first time that she’d done so in a while. “It’s a bit confusing, isn’t it? I am Austrian – I’m Tyrolean, from south-west Austria – but half my family’s Italian, and my late husband was Italian too. And I went to an English boarding school – that is, a school run by an English lady in Tyrol. She always tried to get us to speak correct English, but I’m afraid I picked up an awful lot of slang from my British friends there! There were a lot of British people in the area – at the school, and at the TB sanatorium which was run by the husband of the lady who owned the school. My husband was a doctor, and he came to work there, and that’s how we met.” Her face clouded over again. “And then … and then, he was killed in a climbing accident, just before our little girl was born. Then Austria was taken over by the Nazis, and the school and the sanatorium both had to close, and I knew that I had to get away, and to get my children away, but I didn’t have much money … and … and so here I am.” She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh I’m so sorry: I didn’t mean to bore you with all that. I ... Mrs Schmidt, please forgive me.”
“Christina, please.” The older woman put a gentle hand on hers. “And your name is?”
“Bette.” Bette gulped down the rest of her tea. “Please, do call me Bette.”
“Betty? Well, Betty, it’s good to meet you properly, and to know a little more about you – although I’m so sorry that you seem to have had such a tough time of it, honey. And don’t worry a bit about talking to me. Hey, I love to talk: my John’ll tell you that! Not that I get much conversation from him, nor from my children now that they think they’re all grown up and too old to tell Mom everything any more. You’ve got two little ones, haven’t you? I’ve seen you with them.”
Bette nodded. “Giovanni and Marya.”
“Nice names,” Christina Schmidt pronounced. “Although you may find that your boy ends up being Joe once he’s settled in at school! You’ll have to bring them round here some time. I guess I should have come round to Jim Bauer’s to introduce myself and welcome you to the neighbourhood, but I was laid up with a bad foot when you first arrived and I’ve just been so busy trying to catch up with myself ever since, and … I don’t know, you seemed a little shy every time I saw you, if you don’t mind my saying so, and I didn’t rightly know what exactly to say.”
“Oh dear.” Bette blushed again. “And, you see, I didn’t know what to say to anyone. I’ve never been a housekeeper before. Well, I’ve never had any sort of job before. Not that I’m ashamed to be doing honest work, please don’t think that, but I didn’t know anything about what it was like being a housekeeper or anything about Saskatchewan and I didn’t know whether it would be correct for me to …” She stopped, aware that her tongue was running away with her again. “I just felt awkward,” she finished.
“I see.” Christina Schmidt paused, and then laughed. “At least, I think I do. Well, Betty, there’s nothing to feel awkward about, believe me! We’re all honest farming folk out here, and we all work hard, and we don’t make distinctions according who does what or who comes from where. There are few enough of us near enough to be able to pop by and share a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits like you and I are doing now, and I’m just delighted to have a new neighbour – and, I hope, a new friend. Welcome to Canada, even if it is a bit late! Come by any time you like, and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the folks round here and you’ll soon feel right at home. See if you don’t.”
“You’re so kind.” Bette’s eyes were filling with tears again. “Thank you so much. You’re so very kind. I’m a stranger to you, and you’ve invited me into your home and made me feel so welcome, when I’d been feeling so ... so lost. I can’t thank you enough, Mrs Schmidt, I mean, Christina.”
“Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?” The older woman refilled Bette’s cup. “Welcoming the stranger. But I hope you won’t think of yourself as a stranger any more, nor of any of the folk round here as strangers to you. You’ve had a terrible time, by the sounds of it, and I’m sorry about that; but you’ve got a new life now, you and your little ones, and you’re very welcome here. Merry Christmas, my dear!”
Bette smiled. “Merry Christmas,” she said sincerely. “Merry Christmas, Christina.”
And, as she made her way back to the Bauer farm, where she found Mr Bauer entertaining Giovanni and Marya with tales of the Christmases of his own childhood, and set about her work, she thought to herself that there was still a great deal of goodness in the world despite the horrors that the Nazis were currently inflicting on her homeland and beyond, and sent up a fervent prayer that evil would be defeated and peace restored. And across Canada, and in Austria, in Italy, in the Channel Islands, in the Mensch-Marani household in England, and in so many other places throughout the world, millions of others were doing exactly the same.