She was to leave by train again the next morning. Her new position was as governess to the daughters of an eminent surgeon who was in some sense a protege of the count. “He knows only that you are an orphan whom I have had educated at the best schools. And that is all he is to know. I hope you understand the importance of discretion. If you are responsible for starting rumors, the lawyers may decide to cut off your allowance or confiscate the savings I have put aside for you.”
It had been mid afternoon when she left the count’s house. Drained nearly to numbness, it had been easy for Natalie to avoid any display before the servants, mutely following them out to the waiting car. Her final view of her father had been from the doorway of the library, when the long instincts of her convent education caused her to pause, turn, and bob a parting curtsey in his direction. He stood before the windows, looking after her, but the light of the window was behind him and she could see nothing of his expression.
She had given no thought to where they were going until the car stopped before the white stone facade of the Hotel Bristol. Four floors of balconies looked down on the wide boulevard with its double line of streetcar tracks, each pair of tall wood and glass balcony doors flanked by columns and covered by a classical lintel. The sum of all these columns, lintels and arches, piled up in profusion and capped at the corner facing the intersection by a round, pillared tower, was opulence overbearing in its magnificence.
For a moment she stared dumbly through the car window at the doormen in his blue uniform, the shining brass buttons of his uniform matching the polished fittings of the hotel doors. After all the talk of discretion, surely this could not be for her. But then the footman was getting out from his seat next to the driver, unloading her bags, and opening the door for her. A bellhop swooped in to take her things. She followed them through the doors into the lobby, an expanse of patterned marble floor with a cut glass chandelier above and a massive dark wood registration desk presiding over all. The count’s footman spoke in a low tone for a moment to the desk clerk, who nodded.
“Of course, of course. His excellency’s usual room is available.”
He made a note in his book and gave a pair of keys to the footman. The footman in turn gave one of the keys to her with a slight bow. “Ask them for anything you need. The car will come to take you to the station at seven tomorrow morning.”
Another bow and he was gone.
She had just begun to contemplate the implications of the apparent routine being observed by desk clerk and footman when, with a “Follow me, miss,” the bellhop set off with her bags.
A whirlwind followed during which she and her few belongings were deposited in a room that seemed far too large and grand for them. A uniformed maid followed, who hung her dresses in the wardrobe and placed her other clothes in drawers. She offered to run her a bath as well, having shown the awed Natalie the large, bathroom with its tiny octagonal floor tiles of white and blue.
“Please. I just want to be alone for a while.”
“Of course! Of course, miss. Just ring the bell if you require anything.”
The door shut. She was alone.
It was as if the shutting of the door had provided the slight jar, the breath of wind, the touch required. The glass which, though shattered, had till this point held in place, now fell. A sudden tightness grasped her throat, her shoulders tightened and then convulsed. Her legs felt weak, and she half-collapsed onto the bed, wracked by sobs.
Crying was not smiled upon at the convent. As an older girl Natalie had done her share of comforting, patting the trembling shoulders of some new girl as she consigned muffled howls of loneliness, rage, or injustice to the pillow. She could not recall when he had last given herself over, without reservation, to tears. It was the day’s events that broke her down, but once the dam was opened she found there was many years accumulation pooled behind it. She cried for her mother, for that small round-faced child wrapped in her dead mother’s arms, for the father she had seen only to lose again, for the grandfather who existed but whom she must never meet, for hopes she had clung to all through her childhood for a day like this, and for the thousand small sufferings and disappointments that no parent had been there to console her for. She cried until she felt empty and limp and spent, until no more could come and she drifted into sleep.
It was not a long sleep. The late afternoon sun was still shining in the windows when she woke. The maid had opened the balcony doors to allow in whatever breeze might relieve the heat of the summer day, and the curtains were moving with the gentle stir of air, sending shadows playing on the gold and cream striped wall paper.
Natalie lay watching the shadows move on the wall, and listening to the buzzing of some unseen insect. The drained, limp feeling with which she had fallen asleep had transformed into a kind of detachment. There was something very attractive about the idea of just lying there, on this unfamiliarly large and soft bed. As if from some higher vantage point she could see herself cast disorderedly on the bed: Her boots still on. Her hair coming loose. The blue skirts of her second best dress fanned out across the white coverlet. For all the world like a doll discarded by some oversized child.
She could lie here, on this soft bed, until the morning, when she had to meet the count’s car and be taken to the train station. Or perhaps even past then. Who would rouse her if she missed the car? Who would know or care if she did not arrive? How long could she lie here before someone came and demanded that she move?
From the vantage point of self pity there was some attraction in these questions, but even as she asked them of herself she answered back that she was, for the evening, a lady. A lady with a fully paid account in a grand hotel. Yesterday she had been a convent school girl. Tomorrow she might be little better than a servant. A governess inhabited that treacherous ground which, depending on the caprices of the family might make her virtually one of the family, or a starkly isolated creature distanced both from those above and below stairs. But tonight she had all the strength of her father’s money behind her, without even the restraint of being called his daughter.
What would a lady do? She raised herself from the bed and pulled the bell.
The fashionable eat late. At half past seven it was still fully light outside. Through the plate glass windows that ran the length of the Hotel Bristol Cafe, the evening press of people and vehicle could be seen surging up and down the Krakowskie Przedmieście, but inside the white-tied waiters still outnumbered the patrons at the tables.
Natalie sat alone at a table in her best dress. She had not worn it since standing before the fitting room mirror with Madame Ricard while the seamstress bustled about making sure the fit was right. Tonight, she had needed much patience and the help of the maid to get all the tiny buttons, covered in pale pink silk to match the dress, fastened. Now, however, she looked the part of a lady traveler dining in Warsaw’s grandest new hotel. The bodice, with its white lace collar and front panel and fine pink silk, fitted smoothly over the corset which felt tightly unfamiliar compared with the more old fashioned and minimal shapewear the sisters had provided for their older girls. But however constricting and unfamiliar, the effect was satisfying as she stole a sidelong glance at her reflection in the cafe windows. Her waist was visibly narrower than when she wore her other dresses with their less constricting undergarments, and her bosom, not by nature large, was transformed into a smooth, majestic curve. All this was made more gratifying by the knowledge that this did not merely look like Paris fashion, it was in fact from Paris. And perhaps here, where Paris shopping meant much more than three hour ride on the local train, women of wealth and fashion would see the dress and think, “Ah, Paris.”
Around her neck, she wore a part of the gift from her father: a long rope of pearls -- long enough that they clicked pleasingly against the edge of the table when she leaned forward. After all the pragmatic talk about the family she would work for and her allowance, Count Kotarski had got that softer look in his eyes again, and taken from his desk drawer a small, lady’s bag. “This is for you. A small present. Open it later, and let them remind you of the father who cannot see you.”
Even now she made the silent, repressed rejoinder, “But you could see me. You saw my mother. Doubtless you see others. But you don’t choose to take the risk for a daughter.”
And yet he was her father. This imperious and selfish streak which allowed him to quietly congratulate himself for his generosity to a daughter he was sending away was a part of the same character -- passionate, egotistical -- which had made him her father in the first place.
Once dressed, the maid sent away, Natalie had opened the bag her father had given her. The bag itself would be a very nice thing to carry. Inside was a small, silver plated jewelry box. Opening it revealed a small mirror on the inside of the lid, and nestled among the cushioned blue velvet interior, the rope of pearls and a pair of earrings: long, graceful, silver hooks beneath which hung three pearls, each smaller than the one before, interspersed with beads of cut crystal and silver. They were clearly meant to go together, but the sisters had no truck with such things as ear piercings, and so Natalie had left these resting in their box. Someday, she promised herself, she would wear them all.
An older woman, accompanied by a younger one near Natalie’s own age, was seated at the next table.
“Anna!” the older woman ordered. “Go ask the staff for a newspaper. I want you to read to me while I eat. I want to hear about those barbarians who shot the poor Archduke and Duchess. Mon Dieu! We shall never have that kind of uncivilized behavior here, I trust.”
The younger woman meekly bobbed a curtsy and went off to seek a newspaper.
A waiter appeared behind Natalie and leaned close in to speak to her. “I apologize for the noise, madame. May I get you anything else? Coffee? Sherry?”
Natalie contemplated the fact that she might soon be the recipient of barked orders like the unfortunate Anna.
“Yes, I will have an after-dinner sherry. And is there desert?”
Natalie’s arrival in the Kiev’s central rail station, a vaulted Gothic creation of brick and glass, was in some respects similar to her arrival in Warsaw. After a journey which had lasted all through Tuesday and overnight in the swaying comfort of a first class sleeper car, she arrived once again at mid-morning and amidst a bustling crowd on the railway platforms, a mixture of East and West, though here East predominated. The externals were similar, but Natalie knew herself to be different. She was still alone, but she was no longer parentless. And with that came some other change, the nature of which she was still working out in her own mind: a new necessity of making her own way.
When the train stopped at the platform, she pulled her suitcase down from its rack and carried it out onto the platform. There she found a porter. “I need a taxi,” she told him in Russian. He took the suitcase and led the way.
The taxi he led her to was of the horse-drawn variety -- huge spoked wooden wheels, a black enameled carriage body, and a bearded driver who lifted his hat to her and hoisted her suitcase onto a luggage rack that sat upon the roof of the taxi. Soon they were rattling down cobbled streets. The carriage’s springs dampened some of the vibration, and the seat was of deeply upholstered leather, but the jouncing was still enough to make Natalie’s head hurt. She tried to look away into the distance. Some buildings seemed like they could have been in France: huge neo-classical public buildings with rank on rank of pillars, second empire row-houses with curlicued stone lintels and tiny gable windows peering out from slate mansard roofs. Others buildings, especially the churches with their painted arches and gilded domes, were utterly foreign to her experience. Yet others mixed styles with wild abandon.
The Lutereks lived in a house set in a small garden surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Natalie paid the taxi driver, and stood, her suitcase beside her, looking up at the building that would become her home. She tried to pick out some clue that would tell her whether he life here would be happy, but life does not often provide such physical hints of the future. The house spoke no volumes: walls of grey stone, ornately carved white stonework around the windows, a high, decorative fence with gilded leaves and birds sprouting from the black bars. She hefted her suitcase, swung the gate open, and approached her future.
Read the next installment