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Monday, February 2, 2015

Chapter 8-1

Near Kiev, Russian Ukraine. July-August, 1914. No sooner had Natalie begun to settle into the routine of the Luterek household than she was uprooted again, though this time happily. At the beginning of July the entire family retired for a eight week holiday in a summer house north east of Kiev.

The dacha itself had been newly constructed in 1903 by a Prince Sangushko, who was one of the patrons of the hospital. The good prince was spending his summer at a much grander estate outside Odessa, and the loan of this little retreat which he had only had the time to visit a handful of times had seemed an appropriate reward for the famous surgeon that his new hospital had managed to lure away from Warsaw. What to the Prince was a humble getaway cottage, to Doctor Luterek’s eyes seemed to represent all that was to be gained by edging from the professional class into the gentry. Already he had his elder son serving as a cavalry officer alongside the sons of noblemen. If in a few years he could buy a country house such as this… Who knew, perhaps some day he might even be granted a title for his medical work. Surely, there was no limit to what could be achieved by a man of drive and ability in the new Russia.

To Natalie, the vacation seemed not the promise of some future chance to rise in status but as if she really had become a noblewoman. The house itself, a builder’s fantasy of a medieval cottage with a round tower, steep red tiled roof, faux timbering, and all the modern conveniences including a large indoor bathroom on the second floor where at the turn of a faucet steaming hot water poured into the bathtub which stood on clawed brass feet amid an expanse of white tiled floor. She had her own room, as large and as well furnished as those of the Luterek daughters, and two sitting rooms, the library, and the extensive gardens in which to take her ease.

Her charges’ lessons were in abeyance for the course of the vacation and so her duties were little more than seeing that they did not completely forget their French and German. As the two girls were happy to treat her as something closer to an older sister than a teacher, this goal was easily enough achieved by joining them in daylong rambles through the countryside with a picnic hamper on the pony cart, or staging tableaux based on their favorite reading.

To say that the Lutereks had become like family to her would have been going too far, and yet it was very near to true. On the train from Warsaw to Kiev, a journey which took all of a day and a night, she had spent staring out the window of the first class railway carriage and thinking about her future. She had imagined the full range of possibilities. Would the doctor and his wife prove to be the welcoming parents that she had never had, that her father had, despite his generosity, refused to be? Or would they treat her as a servant, make her sleep in a dingy attic while leaving her to the mercies of children who knew that any naughtiness they perpetrated would be blamed on her failure to control them?

They were neither. The doctor was a benevolent but distant figure in her life. When in the city he spent long hours each day at the hospital and evenings at his club. During his few hours at home he was eager to spend time with his children, putting twelve-year-old Lena on his lap and asking fifteen-year-old Sara -- who was just beginning to wear full length skirts but not yet put her hair up -- about her reading. In these domestic scenes Natalie did not figure, unless the doctor asked her briefly, “And you, Mademoiselle Nowakówna, do you get everything you need?” At last away from the press of duties he assumed while in the city, during the holiday Dr. Luterek divided his time between long hours spent reading in the library or on in a garden chair, and rambles through the fields to satisfy his other hobby: the collecting and classification of butterflies.

Madame Luterek was home far more often, but achieved a distance of a different kind. Everything that made the family near-gentry stemmed from her husband’s career. To him was directed the respect of the other doctors, the desire of the hospital’s patrons to have the very best. When she and the doctor had married, the household had been one that she understood very well: a hard working and deserving professional in need of a devoted wife to manage the house on a modest income. Now that their position had grown so much, her role as the doctor’s wife required a great deal more, and meeting these demands kept Eliza Luterek in a constant state of nervousness and activity. She paid calls, she attended women’s charitable societies, she worried about the house’s furnishings and decorations. All of these were done with a certain desperation, for with each fresh attempt at conquering new social territory she found herself faced with an irrevocable fact: These fine ladies do not need me, and if I fail at this, they will not miss me. That no amount of these activities could earn and make permanent the position in which she found herself lent her striving so much more urgency.

If not quite a parent, Natalie did find something like an aunt or a grandmother in Mrs. Sowka, the housekeeper. While the other servants had been hired when the family moved to Kiev and expanded their household on the doctor’s new income, Mrs. Sowka had been with the family since the days when their establishment had been much more modest. Natalie was dear to the old woman because she too was Polish, unlike the newly hired Ukrainian servants. And Natalie with her convent-raised habits was quite willing to accompany Mrs. Sowka to the Latin Rite cathedral of St. Nicholas with its western Gothic spires, unlike the Luterek family, who followed the doctor’s secular tendencies in going to church only on Christmas and Easter. During evenings when the family was otherwise engaged, the housekeeper would invite Natalie to her sitting room and tell her all about the doings of her nieces and nephews back in Warsaw, while serving strong tea from the samovar and doing needlework in her rocking chair.

With the two girls, everything was simple and open. It was to them that Natalie was most attached and with whom she spent most of her time.

On the evening of August 2nd, the young people had retired to the dacha’s upstairs sitting room, where they were sitting before a fire -- unnecessary but cheerful in the mild summer weather -- and talking while the samovar burbled cheerfully on the side table. Their little group had been expanded that week by the arrival of Borys, the Luterek’s second son, nineteen years old and on break from the University of Warsaw where he was studying to be an architectural engineer.

Lena was seated in one of the wooden rocking chairs, her body half slumped over one armrest with the utter unselfconsciousness of the twelve-year-old, one arm trailing along the ground as she rocked.

“This is so dull! Why couldn’t we have a campfire outside and pretend to be shipwrecked?”

“Because last time you got covered in mosquito bites and swelled up like a pincushion, and mother said you mustn’t do it again and ruin your complexion with scars,” said Sara, who was curled up on the cushioned window seat with a magazine of color illustrations showing the latest Paris fashion designs.

Natalie sat in the other wooden rocking chair, working on a piece of embroidery in the Polish style which Mrs. Sowka had been teaching her: brilliantly colored designs of flowers and vines on a black background. Experience had taught her that these brief squalls between the girls quickly worked themselves out, and did so more peacefully if she allowed them to follow their course without intervening.

Borys lay on the carpet before the fire, resting on one elbow and constructing an arch out of wooden blocks. Natalie had spent little time around men, growing up in the convent school, and they had been the subject of many warnings, all the more so when it came to sons of a household to which she might be assigned one day as governess. Do not meet his eyes, but do not look away flirtatiously. Do not speak to him boldly, but do not allow yourself to develop a silent mystery.

When the girls had rushed into the upstairs sitting room one evening to tell her that Borys would be joining the family for the rest of the summer holiday, she had silently feared that the introduction of a man into the intimate circle she had with her pupils would put an end to their good times, that she would have to excuse herself each night to go spend the evening quietly in her room or with Mrs. Sowka. What had surprised her most upon Borys arrival was his boyishness. At nineteen he was only one year younger than she -- and he stood a full head taller -- but here he was lying on the floor, one foot kicking lazily in the air, playing with blocks.

“Don’t fight, girls,” said Borys, breaking in on his sisters’ mutual accusations. “Remember how we used to tell stories at night in the nursery? Why don’t you do that instead of arguing about a campfire you know mother has forbidden?”

“We’re getting rather old for that, don’t you think?” Sara asked.

If Lena might otherwise have objected to the suggestion, her sister’s opposition was enough to seal her agreement. “You’re not so very old,” she objected, drawing herself back up into a sitting position on her rocking chair. “I’ll tell one first, and you see if you can tell a better one.”

“That sounds like a good idea. I’ll judge,” said Borys, and he flashed a smile in Natalie’s direction.

“Once there was a king’s son,” began Lena, “And he set off to wander his father’s kingdom disguised as a commoner to see what he would discover.”

“A lot of corrupt officials, I should imagine,” said Borys in an undertone.

“Be quiet! You can tell your own story,” scolded the storyteller.

“How about if for practice you tell your stories in French,” Natalie suggested.

Lena frowned. “Don’t make it a lesson. This is holidays!”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” said Sara, whose French was better than her younger sister’s. “You can judge us on how good our French is and Borys can judge the story.”

“Oh, very well.” She knit her brows for a moment and then began again, “Il était le fils d'un roi...

The king’s son underwent several dangerous adventures which Lena gleefully described, and then met a beautiful young woman who was actually a princess in disguise.

“Why does she have to be a princess?” Borys objected. “Why can’t it be a beautiful common woman?”

“A prince can tell,” said Sara, and laughed at her private joke.

“I am telling this story, and it’s a princess,” said Lena. “Her father had died, and her cruel uncle had taken control of the kingdom, so she was forced to go about in disguise.”

“Perhaps the three neighboring kingdoms got together and decided to divide the kingdom between themselves,” offered Borys, but neither of his sisters had any interest in bringing a political fable into the story.

Lena had just resumed when there was a soft knock at the door and Dr. Luterek let himself in.

“Quite the little evening party you are having, children,” he said, smiling around at the all. Afterwards, Sara and Lena argued about whether he had said this with a touch of sadness, perhaps even brushed away a tear, but they could not be sure if this was truth or the imposition of later memories.

“I’m glad to find you all together. I have just received some news” he said, holding out a pair of telegram papers. “One is from the hospital. It seems that there is to be a war.”

Borys sat up suddenly, and the arch he had been building tottered and fell to the floor. “War? With whom? Why?”

“Germany. The telegram is very short. That’s all it says. I’ve asked Kokel to go into town tomorrow and see if he can get a newspaper. What that means for us is that our holiday is to be cut short. I must be back at the hospital within ten days.”

Lena began to object to this, but her father cut her off.

“However, I also have good news. This second telegram is from Konrad. He says that his squadron is being mobilized, but in the meantime he has a week’s leave, and he is coming here to see us.”


The news of Konrad’s imminent arrival threw the household into a paroxysm of preparation. Mrs. Sowka determined that the dacha should be cleaned from top to bottom. The housekeeper was more than competent to oversee this but Madame Luterek also joined in, asking the two housemaids what they were doing, whether they had done this yet, and what Mrs. Sowka had asked them to do next. The cook sent out for more food. There would be a saddle of venison the night he arrived and stuffed quail. Nothing was too good for young Lieutenant Luterek.

Dr. Luterek sent off to rent a pair of hunters from the stable in town, determined that his son should be afforded every country enjoyment during his week with them.

It was late on Tuesday, August 4th that the much anticipated arrival occurred. Konrad had arrived on the 10:05 train in the town, and having secured its one motor taxi made the thirty minute drive out to the dacha. Lena, who had been watching in the direction of the road from her bedroom window, gave a shout the minute that she saw headlamps approaching, and so the entire household was gathered on the front steps of the house when the car rolled through the gate. The tall young man in a green cavalryman’s uniform stood up and waved his cap to them, then jumped down before the car had came to a stop.

“Good evening, sir!” He bowed to his father, then took his hand and wrung it cheerfully. “Awfully good of them to start a war so that I can come see you all for a week.” The doctor smiled and pulled his son -- who stood taller than his father and definitely looked more dashing in his crisp uniform and tall, brown cavalry boots -- into an embrace.

Natalie watched the two of them. To all of the household, herself most of all, the doctor was treated with a certain reverence. He was the famous surgeon, the one who made all of this possible. There was something in Konrad’s greeting which spoke to a confidence and sense of authority that seemed all the deeper for the fact that it was assumed rather than earned. It was as if the young officer, serving alongside sons of the empire’s aristocracy, had taken on the same kind of unconscious command which she had seen in her father.

Father and son finished their embrace, and then Madame Luterek and both her daughters swooped in. All three hugged him. Madame Luterek cried and asked if he was hungry and said she had not been able to sleep thinking about him going to war.

“Have Mrs. Sowka say her rosary for me every night and light a candle before the Virgin and I’ll be fine, Mother. Don’t you worry. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to it. The men of my squadron are all such splendid fellows. I can’t imagine what the Germans are thinking of, but we’ll soon have them dealt with.”

“Yes, tell us about war,” Borys said. “We’ve had only one paper here since the declaration and it was quite unsatisfactory. What’s happening? Is this a real threat against Russia or some political political posturing that will come to nothing? Have the Germans invaded?”

“It’s a war that requires cavalry, that’s that I can tell you!” Konrad replied. Then, seeing Borys’s downcast look, “Yes, I’ve read about it and heard some talk around the barracks. I’ll tell you everything your bookish heart could wish, but not this moment. Give me a little time. And now--” He turned and looked Natalie full in the face. “Tell me, where did we acquire this new flower in our family garden?”

He smiled at her, and Natalie had an intense sense of his uniform, his blond hair tousled from being under his uniform cap all day, his blue eyes, his mustache curling up at the ends. He stepped over and looked down into her eyes. It was a gaze too direct to be returned, and flushing she looked away.

“That is Mademoiselle Nowakówna, the girls’ new governess,” his mother said.

“And a very nice governess she is, I’m sure,” Lieutenant Konrad said, taking her hand. “Do you have a first name, Mademoiselle Nowakówna, or are you too severe for that?”

“My name is Natalie,” she said, trying to look up and meet his eyes as she said it, but immediately finding it uncomfortable and looking down again. This was not itself an immediate refuge, and this mean looking down at his hand which held her own.

“Well then, Mademoiselle.” He raised her hand in his and brushed it with his lips. “I hope you’re teaching my sisters how to be a woman.”

She took her hand back, feeling flushed and ashamed and breathless all in one unreasoning rush.

“Well, what are we standing out here for? Let’s go inside,” said Konrad, turning back to his family. “You must show me this country house you’ve got hold of.”

Everyone began to move, and Natalie was relieved to find that now no one was looking at her. She hung back as the others went inside, and then slipped quietly up to her room.

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1 comment:

  1. I like the family. I'm so glad Natalie ended up with nice people. I like the way you dismissed Borys as a possible romantic interest only to introduce Konrad. The convent rules on how to avoid beguiling a man seem complicated to me. I'd never remember all that.