On the Vienna-Warsaw Railway, Russian Poland. June 29th, 1914 Outside the train’s window, the passing countryside slowed. Natalie leaned closer to the glass and watched. A peasant led a pair of oxen down the road which ran parallel to the railway embankment. He did not look up, but one of his beasts briefly raised its head and for a moment liquid brown eyes seemed to meet hers with a knowing gaze before the train left them behind. The first houses of a village rolled by, then shops and public buildings which slowed as she heard the metallic squeal of the brakes and felt herself pressed back into her seat.
The platform slid into view, and then with a slight bump the train came to rest. The whistle sounded. Steam poured by the window. An army officer and a lady with a wide-brimmed hat got off the train, followed by a porter carrying suitcases. Looking off the to right, down the platform, she could see a crowd of people with cardboard suitcases and parcels done up in string milling about as they pushed towards the third class carriage doors. Above it all hung a sign, the station name painted in large Cyrillic characters. For a moment they were spidery abstractions, utterly foreign and devoid of meaning. Then the scratches resolved themselves into letters and the unfamiliar name sounded itself out in her mind.
This, more than anything, impressed upon her the sense of being far from the convent school where she had spent her last fourteen years. Cyrillic letters had, until now, been relegated to the pages of books. The train began to pick up speed again, the platform vanished behind, and soon there were fields and trees outside the window again, but Natalie’s mind was back in old Sister Maria-Grigori’s room. There, as a girl, she had filled her exercise books with the cyrillic characters of Russian and the Latin ones of Polish while Sister Maria drank strong tea from the samovar and taught her in heavily accented French. In later years, as Sister’s eyesight failed, Natalie had spent their daily hour together reading aloud Russian novels to her and then answering the questions Sister asked in French to see if she had understood the story.
Now, here she was, in a first class railway carriage rumbling across Russian Poland. Was this the sort of train that Anna had confronted in the long, low-roofed station of the Nizhni Novgorod Railway? But no, that was far to the east near Moscow.
Reflecting on how strange it was that she thought of the land that was her home in terms of fiction, she tried to recall her last long trip along this railroad. She had been six years old when Nianka -- old Nianka, crabby Nianka, too busy to be tender except when she kissed her little Natalka goodnight almost like a mother might have -- escorted her to the convent and what was to become her life. Try as she could, however, she could remember no more than storybook images from before she came to the convent school. Nianka, of course, and the pea vines curling up the trellis in the garden, and the little brook that ran through the woods behind the house. There was a favorite window with a deep sill, where she had spent many hours with Lalka, her doll, tucked away between the curtains inside and the garden without, making up stories in which the two of them were brave adventurers who were never scolded or put to bed. But she could recall no definite impressions of her native country, and despite her daily lessons with Sister Maria-Grigori, her Russian and Polish, though adequate, were schoolroom languages less comfortable than the French she’d spoken with the other girls.
The small marks of difference -- the daily lessons with the old Polish sister; her beloved Lalka, whose painted wooden head was so different from the porcelain dolls that several of the other girls had -- seemed of little import to her life until the day that she was called into the formal sitting room in which the convent received guests. This time, however, there was no rich woman being shown the products of the charitable school to which she was thinking of giving money.
Reverend Mother was there alone, sitting behind the tea service. She gestured Natalie towards a seat opposite her and Natalie obediently sat down. Reverend Mother poured a cup of tea and handed it to her.
Tea service was the ritual which brought order to all worldly changes, good and bad, just as the singing of the Office brought order to the convent’s sacred world. If a girl’s relative had died, she was given tea and then told of her loss. If a girl was offered a job or a chance to live with a relative, she likewise was told over tea. Never having heard that she had relatives or prospects, Natalie could not imagine why she had been thus summoned. Only long training guided her through the formalities of tea, cakes and light conversation without voicing the one question which occupied her mind.
Reverend Mother put down her cup and picked up an envelope which had been sitting beside her saucer.
“I have called you here today, Mademoiselle Nowakówna, because I have received a letter from your patron.”
She paused, but Natalie sensed that no response was desired yet. Her fingers gripped the thin porcelain of her teacup so tightly she feared she would break it, yet she was sure that if she did not hold onto something, Reverend Mother would notice her trembling hand.
“He is very pleased with the reports he receives of your progress here, and he says that he has found a suitable position for you. You are to call upon him on June 29th at his city house in Warsaw and present this letter.”
Reverend mother held out a sealed envelope of blue stationery addressed to “Count Yury Kotarsky”.
“Funds -- very generous funds, I must say -- have been provided to buy you suitable things,” Reverend Mother went on. “I have asked Madame Ricard to take you to Paris tomorrow. You will be able to buy everything you need there.” She looked down, seeming to search the dregs of the teacup for the right phrase with which to close the interview. Then with a slight shake of her head she rose. “I hope that you will do the school credit in your new duties.”
And so here she sat.
Two weeks ago she had simply been one of the old girls at the school, helping the younger ones with their lessons, wearing dresses that were, despite her twenty years, still of a girlish cut. Madame Ricard had not intended to indulge her charge. Indeed, she had taken numerous opportunities during measurings and fittings to warn her against the myriad ways in which an unprotected young woman might mis-step. She must call no undue attention to herself by her dress. She must not boldly meet the eyes of men. If there were men in the family she was working for she must modestly ignore them and recall the duties for which she was employed. Most of all she must remember that for a woman in her position the slightest hint of impropriety could destroy all. It was in her blood, after all.
However, what seemed to the comfortably-provided widow respectable and sensible clothing was to the convent-raised girl luxury. The strange new suppleness of silk next to her skin when she moved, the slight heel of her neatly buttoned boots, the long but narrow skirts of the blue second-best dress that she was wearing, and the white kid gloves, so delightfully soft that she constantly found herself running the back of her hand against her lips and inhaling the delicate smell of new leather -- all of these sensations made her feel unfamiliar to herself. After an extended childhood in which the world consisted almost entirely of the girls in the school and the well-regulated sisters, she was called, with few models to mold herself upon, to dress, move and speak as a woman.
A woman traveling alone to Warsaw.
She picked up the pale blue envelope which Reverend Mother had given her and examined it again. Count Yury Kotarsky.
She had never heard the name before her conversation with Reverend Mother, and the only information she had been able to draw from her had been, “Your education here has been through his generosity.”
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