[Normally Thursday this week is when I'd put up the next installment, but it's Thanksgiving. I'm inclined to give myself the day off and post the final installment of this Natalie chapter next Monday. However, if there are people who are eager for the next installment and would have time to read it over the long weekend, I'm open to changing plans. Leave a comment if you want the next Natalie section on Thursday rather than a week from today.]
It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.
For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.
Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.
As the steam cleared Natalie sat looking out the window at the people surging past. A round man in a fawn-colored suit and a bowler hat, who had entered the carriage at Grodzisk, opened the door, grabbed his suitcase, tipped his hat to her, and vanished into the crowd. A moment later a porter entered the compartment from the corridor. He pulled her own suitcase down from the luggage rack, and carried it down onto the platform. She followed him. A moment later and she was amidst the crowd on the platform and the porter was handing her suitcase to a boy wearing a hat that suggested some sort of uniform, though he hardly looked twelve years old and the rest of his clothes were of the non-descript grubbiness of street children in any city.
The boy loaded her suitcase onto a little cart and started off down the platform. “Follow! Please, follow!” he commanded in German so accented that it took Natalie a panicked moment to realize what language she was being addressed in.
Too much was happening too quickly. Through the window of the train the foreignness of the scene had looked slightly thrilling. Now it struck her with full force and terror that she was hundreds of miles from all that was familiar. Her chest felt tight and her face flushed as she hurried after the boy with her suitcase.
“Where are we going?” she asked in Polish.
The boy turned to flash her a smile and tipped his cap to her. “Out to the street. I’ll find you a taxi. I know where the lady can find a motor taxi.”
He plunged on through the crowd and Natalie struggled desperately to stay even with him, terrified that the press of people would close between them and she would lose sight of the cart that held all her worldly belongings.
To a less hurried traveler, the massive railway terminal would have been an interesting sight. Built by an Italian architect in 1845, the white stone building was lit by skylights and arched windows. and flanked by two square clock towers Natalie, however, hardly looked around her. Focused entirely on not losing her guide, she was soon outside, watching the press of noonday traffic making its way up and down the Aleje Jerozolimskie, the Avenue of Jerusalem. Horse-drawn carts and cabs mixed with automobiles, and electric streetcars rumbled down the tracks in the center of the road.
The boy did indeed know where a motor taxi stood, and before she could consider the matter or ask any questions, first her suitcase and then she were bundled aboard the vehicle, all shining black enameled metal, polished wood and smooth leather. The boy stood looking up at her expectantly, holding open the taxi door, and she took out her purse. She had only francs and sous, but these she had in more abundance than she was used to. She held out a pair of silver coins to the boy and he accepted them eagerly, then closed the door on her. The taxi driver put his vehicle in gear and swerved away from the curb. He asked her destination and she handed him the pale blue envelope with the name of Count Kotarsky. The taxi driver nodded and tucked the envelope under his leg as he drove.
Natalie let herself relax into the leather covered comfort of the taxi’s seat and found that she could enjoy watching the bustle of the city streets now that she was doing so through the pane of a glass window. The drive was not far. Offices and public buildings gave way to row houses and then to the great city houses of the wealthy.
The house before which the taxi stopped was one of the most opulent of the mansions. The facade was built in the style of a half century before, with pale yellow brick walls embellished with lintels and columns of white stone. As a nobleman’s city house, it had no gardens or grounds; the house fronted directly on the sidewalk. Four floors of regularly spaced windows looked down, the upper story windows slightly smaller, but otherwise of identical design, thus giving the building the illusion of being even taller than it was. A balcony with an ornate railing ran the full length of the second story. From this, a pair of stairways descended to the street below, starting from the same point and diverging to form the angles of a triangle. The purpose of this design became clear as the taxi pulled directly up to the base of one of these flights of stairs: at large parties two vehicles could pull up and discharge their passengers directly onto the two sets of stairs at once.
The taxi driver opened the door for her, and a servant in livery appeared from somewhere, paid the driver, and took her suitcase. She followed him up the marble steps, looking around yet unable to fully take in the splendor of her surroundings.
The first night after receiving her news from Reverend Mother, she had sat alone in her plain little room in the convent school, looking at the pale blue envelope with “Count Yury Kotarsky” written on it and trying to imagine in what sort of fine house a count in Warsaw might live. This, however, was as beyond her imagination as it was beyond her experience. It was not simply something larger and finer than the houses she had seen before, it was something wholly beyond that realm.
The liveried servant led her into an entrance hall that could easily have swallowed up the entire sitting room at the convent. Their steps echoed on marble and a massive painting in an elaborate gilded frame hung on the wall to her right. Another, older man in a black cut-away coat approached and spoke in low tones to the liveried servant. Natalie stood looking at the painting, a massive Renaissance city-scape which seemed to offer more detail the longer she looked at it: boats moved on canals, loungers sat on the steps of a cathedral, a procession wound through the streets with colorful banners.
Now the older man in the dark coat approached her. “If you will follow me, Mademoiselle,” he said in French, “I will take you to the sitting room and find out if the Count is available.”
“Thank you,” she managed. She reached to pick up her suitcase but he waved her hand away and gestured to the liveried servant who hefted the suitcase again and led the way to the sitting room. There, the suitcase was set down, she was shown to a chair, and both servants withdrew.
This was a dimmer, wood paneled room in a different style. Portraits of many sizes were spaced close together on the walls. A number of these showed variations on a stern, round face with various forms of mustache or beard and a fanciful variety of the uniforms which had, at various times and places, been worn by elements of the Tsar’s forces. Natalie looked from portrait to portrait. Here a red kaftan with black piping and a towering bearskin hat. There a close-fitting black uniform decorated with silver braid. Over the fireplace hung one of the largest ones, this man beardless and wearing a green uniform from the Napoleonic era, sitting astride a grey charger and holding aloft his sabre.
The weight of all this past eminence seemed to press down on Natalie. She pulled her back up a little straighter and raised her chin, refusing to be intimidated by all the stern, painted gazes focused on her from the walls. Nonetheless she felt herself small before them. Who was she, sitting here? A girl just out of convent school who did not know her own parents.
Was this where she was to work, amid all this grandeur? Did the count have a daughter who needed a governess or some mother or aunt who needed a companion? She wondered if after a few weeks or months she would walk through this room with no more sense of gravity than she had felt in the familiar rooms of the convent. Or did people who lived in the house even enter these formal rooms?
She had given very little thought, during these eventful last two weeks, to what the future would hold for her. It was so utterly unknown and beyond her control that she found it hard even to imagine what might come next. These weeks of change had themselves been so eventful. The letter summoning her to meet a Polish count, the shopping trip to Paris to buy “necessities” far nicer than anything she had before owned, the trip across Europe in first class rail carriages, all of these had, in different ways, been flattering novelties. Could what followed in any way equal them? After this brief period of eminence, emerging from the chrysalis of her straightened education to flutter briefly in the splendid independence of a woman of means, would she next have to settle into the quasi-servant status of governess or lady’s companion? And if her convent education had seemed over-long, with many other girls leaving at sixteen or eighteen -- none but those contemplating taking vows with the order themselves stayed on, like her, until twenty -- was there any end to this new state which she would soon be assuming? Was this a transition or a destination?
She heard footsteps approaching before the door opened and so her eyes were already focused on it when the black-coated servant re-entered. She started to rise, as the girls in the convent had been taught to do when one of the sisters entered, then stopped herself. Women did not rise for men, men rose for women, and no one rose for servants.
The man in the dark coat gave her a bow which was the slightest inclination of the head and said, “The Count will see you now. Follow me.”
Natalie rose, picked up her suitcase, and followed him. Pausing in the doorway to make sure that his charge was following him, he stopped and said, “You may leave your suitcase here while you come to see the Count.”
She put the suitcase down, her face hot with embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize. It is of no consequence,” he replied, though the necessity of being told this made her feel it very much was of consequence. He knew the rules of the house and she did not. Whatever their relative status would be, he was currently superior.
He led the way down a hall, opened a door, and into another wood panelled room, though this one was smaller and seemed much more lived-in, the air smelling of leather and pipe tobacco. Stepping into the room, she saw that the entire wall in which the door stood was covered with built-in bookshelves packed with handsomely bound volumes. Opposite were large windows facing north, letting in a pleasant diffuse light. To the right was a large wooden desk, and looking at her from across it was a man of perhaps sixty. He had the same full features as the men in the sitting room portraits, but his hair, trimmed short and receding slightly, though still thick, was grey, tending towards white. His beard was full, trimmed short except for curling mustaches, and he wore a grey suit, which made him look much more a creature of the present than the portraits of his ancestors. Nonetheless, Natalie was certain this was Count Kotarsky.
“The young woman, Your Excellency,” the servant said in Polish, with a deep bow.
The Count nodded. “Thank you, Lach. Be so good as to leave us, and should anyone call I am not at home. I will ring when I need you.”
Lach bowed again and left, closing the door behind him.
There was silence. The Count looked fixedly at Natalie, his expression unreadable, and she began to feel uncomfortable. Determined to break the stillness in some way she stepped forward and set the blue envelope which Reverend Mother had given her on his desk.
“The letter Reverend Mother received said to give this to you.”
This had the effect which she had hoped: The count took his gaze off her and picked up the letter, running his fingers over the seal.
“Still unopened,” he said, with a slight smile. She had spoken in Polish, but he answered her in surprisingly unaccented French. “The sisters have taught you well. I am sure that required a great deal of self control. Nor would it have been easy to read the letter by holding it up to the light,” he added, holding it up for a moment to the light of the window.”
Natalie blushed. She had indeed tried many times to read through the envelope by sunlight or candlelight, but it had proved impossible to see anything.
“Ah, I see I am not far from the mark there. Well, even good training has its limits.” Count Kotarsky broke the seal and removed from the envelope a blank sheet of paper, which he displayed for her front and back. “As you see. Well, I had no need to write a letter to myself. The purpose was simply to give you my name and address so that you could arrive here as directed. Now,” he cast aside the blank piece of paper and took another sheet of paper out of a leather portfolio on the desk. “I must start by making a few points very clear. Everything will be done properly. I have family to consider and they must come first, so I have asked my lawyer to draw up for me these points.”
His manner seemed to have closed after his brief moment of humor at her expense over the letter, and Natalie could not tell what his mood was or what would happen next. She wished she were not standing there, exposed, while he sat behind the shelter of the desk with his paper before him. But there was no escape and no cover, so she folded her hands, squared her shoulders, and tried to prepare herself for whatever was to come.
“You are not to see me again,” he said. He looked at the desk rather than at her, his finger tracing down the list before him. Uncertainty gripped Natalie stomach, almost like a cramp, and she felt her back tighten. She did not know what would come next, but these words alone were enough to create fear when she was hundreds of miles from anyone she knew.
“You must never come to visit me. You may not write to me. You may not claim to know me. If you make any such claim, all support for you will be revoked. This is the address of my lawyers.” He pushed a card across the desk towards her but did not look up from the paper he was reading from. “If you are ever in need, you must contact them and they will determine what to do. If you need to contact me, it must be through them, but any reply will be at their discretion.”
He looked up and met her gaze, and she saw with surprise and incomprehension that there were tears in his eyes.
“I have authorized them to do everything which is needed to take care of you, but I myself will never see you again.”
First from one eye and then the other, the tears overflowed and ran down his cheek. He did not wipe them away but, rising, pushed back his chair and rushed around the desk to her. A moment later he was enveloping her in his arms. Natalie started back from this unexpected embrace, a degree of physical closeness she had seldom had since childhood and never from a man, but he held her tightly and against the big man whose shoulder the top of her head barely reached she was terrifyingly helpless.
He cupped her chin in one big hand and tilted her face up to look at his. She felt a tear drop onto her face and the words he was saying finally registered in her ears.
“My child, my child. Oh my little child.”
With an unfamiliar tenderness his hand smoothed her hair away from her face and wiped one of his tears off her cheek.
“I’m sorry.” He released her and stepped back, though the tender look remained on his face. “I was not prepared for how like your mother you look.”
Child. Mother. These were unfamiliar words and they tore at Natalie’s heart in ways for which she was not prepared. That feeling of being held close, of someone saying, “My child,” to her in a soft voice was so unfamiliar, so utterly different and yet so sweet, it took all her self possession not to throw herself back into the Count’s arms in hopes of hearing it again.
“What?” she asked in confusion. “Are you…” She found she couldn’t form the word, but the Count reached out again and smoothed her hair by way of answer.
“Tell me about my mother,” she asked. “Is she…?”
The question hung in the air, but she felt she knew the answer even before Count Kotarsky nodded. “She died when you were a baby.”
He guided her over to the big leather armchairs that sat before the north-facing windows. He sat down and drew her onto his lap. She felt strange, a woman sitting on the lap of a man she had never met before today. Her life during the last ten years and more had been one without much physical affection, and she found now that she craved this touch beyond all things. He was a big man, broad and thick, and Natalie was slight. She looked, to all the world, like a little girl sitting on her father’s lap. And she was. The feeling was so powerful upon her that she felt like she could cry great uncontrollable sobs of joy without end, but the physical manifestation of this feeling would not come yet. It was there, a huge force she could feel inside her, bursting for expression, but so long disused it could not yet come free.
“She was a good woman. A very good woman. You must not judge her by me,” Kotarsky was saying as he held her close. “My little Milenka.”
The feelings which dominated both father and daughter were not of the sort which lead to clear expression, and it was in small pieces over the next hour that Natalie, her head resting against her father’s chest, learned that her mother had been a young peasant woman who had caught the eye of the Count on one of his estates. He had set her up in a cottage of her own and provided her with what luxuries her tastes would allow, but her tastes were simple. She was happy to sew and embroider her own dresses from the materials he brought her. Whenever he came there was food ready for him, simple peasant fare. On long summer evenings they would sit outside and she would sing as she knitted or sewed.
“She wasn’t the sort of woman who wanted furs or silk dresses. She was a good woman who went to Church and made her yearly confession so she could receive on Easter. She was a better wife to me than my wife, for all that she was a peasant woman and uneducated, and I’m sure that God understands these things. That He understood her.”
This last was said with more hope than conviction, the count knowing all too well that in the eyes of both mother, and now daughter, the thing mostly clearly between Milenka and God was him.
“Tell me how she died,” Natalie asked. She took his right hand in both her own and held it close, a protection against the sadness she was calling down on herself. The picture that the count evoked of his peasant cottage escape was the sort of family home she had no memories of, had only read about longingly in books. And yet her own lack of memory made clear that this blissful time had ended not long after her arrival, perhaps because of it.
“She was happy to be expecting a child. I promised her that, boy or girl, our child would have the best of care. She sewed clothes and made blankets. I bought her a carved wooden cradle. Her only sorrow was that her mother would not come and be with her. Her mother was a very strict woman; she called her a whore and said she would never see her again.”
His left hand had been resting on Natalie’s shoulder and she felt it grip tightly for a moment at this. There was an echo of anger in his voice that made her wonder what the count might have done to a peasant family whose moral strictures had condemned their daughter’s relationship with him.
“I wanted to send a doctor to attend the birth, but she desired only the midwife from her village. I should have insisted. She had the fever after your birth, and it was nearly a month before she was well and out of bed again. Even then she was weak. That summer, when you were three months old, there was cholera in the village and she took sick. This time I did bring a doctor, all the way from Warsaw. But it did no good. She died within a week.”
Natalie held his hand tight. She wanted the tears to come, and there was a tightness in her chest, but her eyes remained stubbornly dry.
“I made the priest come to see her. No difficulty with having a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ then. And I made him say a funeral mass for her too, with a proper burial in the village cemetery. A marble headstone. I found a wetnurse for you on another estate, where no one would know your history or bear resentments. And when you were old enough, I sent you to the convent so that you could be educated as a gentlewoman.”
For several moments there was silence. Then Natalie spoke, “My mother’s parents. Are they still alive?”
She felt the count’s body tense. “They cut your mother off. They are no concern of yours.”
“Count…” She paused, about to rephrase, but the word ‘Father’ was too unfamiliar to come now. “I have never had any family at all. I dreamed of course. Every girl at the convent imagined at times that she had relatives who would send for her. Like you did. But to have grandparents…”
“No.” The word was definitive. “Her mother died in the same cholera outbreak. Her father is still alive. He has remarried and still works on one of my estates. But for my family’s sake I can not have you known as my daughter. To him, you died in the cholera outbreak twenty years ago. If you were to visit that estate-- It was well enough known in the village that Milenka was my woman. If you were to go back there now, with your education and your Paris clothes, in a day the whole estate would know that I had a daughter by Milenka I was lavishing money on. No, I’m sorry. There must be limits, and that cannot be. Put him out of your mind. A peasant grandfather would be worse than nothing to you.”
He seemed to sense as soon as he said this how little it would satisfy her, and so immediately he brought up another topic. “Here, I have something for you.”
He shifted and Natalie immediately stood up. She yearned for closeness and yet closeness with him at this moment felt less satisfying than it had before. His hardness on this point reminded her of the words with which the interview had started: “You are not to see me again.” How cruel was it that she should find and lose a whole family in the same day?
The count went to his desk, unlocked a drawer, and took out a small, folding, silver picture frame. He opened it and held it out to her. On the left was a painted miniature of a woman about her own age, with the same light brown hair, broad nose and blue-green eyes. On the right was a photograph which in faded black and white clearly showed the same woman: her face looking a little older, angular and drawn. Her eyes closed. A baby cradled in her arms.
“Those are for you,” the count said. “What little of a mother I can give you. The painting was made by an art student, the son of a friend of mine. He was staying at the estate the summer I met Milenka, and he painted her for me. The photograph… Milenka had been so sickly since your birth. When the undertaker came I realized that I had no picture of her with you. So I asked him to make her look as peaceful as he could. The photographer from the village came, and when she was arranged we put you in her arms.”
Natalie stared with mixed horror and longing at the picture of her dead mother and living self. She wanted to feel closer to the mother she could not remember by looking at these images, yet knowing that those arms had already cooled, that those apparently sleeping eyes would never open again seemed to make her mother even more distant. All of these years later, she finally saw her, and yet in an image taken a few hours too late for her to see any light of maternal love or knowledge in those eyes. The near miss made the distance greater.
She closed the frame and sat down in the armchair before the window. She felt weak and on the verge, like a pane of glass criss-crossed with fractures but not yet fallen into pieces, held together by its long accustomed frame. She held the folded silver frame flat between her hands, feeling the cool contours of the decorative pattern of leaves and flowers pressing into her skin. Her mother was restored to her only in loss. Her father was hers for this moment, but soon she would not see him again.
The count had shifted to practicalities, telling her about the family with which he had found her a position as a governess. Natalie sat watching him, his voice sounding in her ears but only as a rising and falling sound. Rather than hearing the meaning conveyed by his voice she was trying to memorize its sound. He handed her a portfolio with papers detailing the arrangements he had made for her, but it sat unopened in her lap.
He paused, then said, “But what am I saying? You are exhausted. All the last day and night on trains, and now all this newness at once. Forgive me.”
His large hand reached out and cradled her face. She felt the dry, smooth skin of his palm against her cheek and leaned into it slightly, focusing on the feeling, the slight smell of some aromatic lotion or aftershave. There was the smallest hint in that touch of something other than a father. He was a man used to touching women. Yet of this too Natalie wanted to be able to recall every moment.
For a few hours, one day, I had a father.
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