Near Kiev, Russian Ukraine. August 5th, 1914. The next day came, warm and sunny. The windows of the summer house were open, and through them came the smell of dew and warming earth and grass. It was the sort of day for which, long afterwards, the summer of 1914 was remembered. Far away, along the Meuse River in Belgium, German troops rushed forward in dense waves against the forts surrounding the city of Liege and were met with rifle and machine gun fire from the Belgian troops defending their small country. Such sights and sounds were unimaginable still at the Luterek’s dacha. Here were the sounds of larks singing and insects humming among the trees rather than shrapnel buzzing through the air.
Lena burst into her eldest brother’s room while it was still early, demanding that he come down to breakfast and see them all, and so rather than sleeping until late morning as might have been his wont after two days on trains and a late night discussing the military and diplomatic situation with his father and brother in the library, while dipping into the doctor’s stash of fine cigars, Konrad came down to breakfast with the family, looking handsome though slightly diminished in a civilian hunting suit of English tweed.
“Oh, you’re not going to go hunting and leave all of us, are you?” Lena asked, as soon as she saw her brother’s outfit.
“I don’t know,” Konrad replied, pouring himself a cup of tea and sitting down at the table next to her. “What sort of activities would you have me stay for? Is it to be a tea party with your dolls?”
Lena stuck her tongue out at him. “Father says we can take the pony cart. I want to pack a big picnic hamper and go for a ramble through the countryside.”
“A ramble is it?” Konrad looked around the table at the other young people.
Borys was reading the newspaper. Sara was spreading jam on her toast while trying to look indifferent to the day’s activities and thus more mature than her boisterous younger sister. Natalie was watching these reactions when she felt Konrad’s gaze upon her. She briefly met his eyes, then felt flustered and looked away. Immediately she was angry with herself for doing so.
The night before, having retreated to the solitude of her room, she had demanded of herself why why had immediately felt abashed at his compliment and his kiss on her hand. She was a lady. Gentlemen kissed ladies’ hands and paid them compliments. Why had she immediately felt in the wrong to receive these attentions from Lieutenant Konrad in front of his family? Certainly, there had been the constant warnings of the nuns: “Be on your guard against men who seek to compromise your virtue. You see in your own lives what lies before a woman who falls thus, and her child.”
Yet she must not flatter herself that he had any such grave intentions. He was a handsome young man from a good family, an officer, surely he paid such attentions to many women and meant little enough by it. Perhaps, indeed, that, rather than the warnings of her youth, was what embarrassed her: that he paid her attention merely as an amusement and not because of anything that she was, other than a woman who caught his eye for a moment. But whatever the reason, she would not allow these feelings to make her act in a way that called attention to her discomfort.
Lena had been describing her plans for the day to everyone. “And when we get back, I know Cook is making a special dinner since it’s your first one here. And then--”
“You’re very quiet, Mademoiselle Nowakówna,” Konrad interrupted. “Are you coming on this proposed ramble through the countryside?”
Natalie followed her resolution and smiled back at him calmly. “Oh, I suppose. Where the girls, I go.”
“Then I am sure we shall all have a good time,” he replied.
The preparations took some time, but at last the young people all set off. Borys drove the pony cart, with the big, wicker picnic basket loaded with china, table cloths, blankets, and food and drink, and the girls walked alongside. Konrad rode one of the rented hunters, sometimes riding calmly alongside, sometimes cantering off in some direction or other, to jump a fence and then circle back, or simply to enjoy the satisfaction of speed on a good animal.
They chose a grassy field near a stream for this picnic place. Berry bushes grew along the stream, and while Natalie worked at laying out the blankets and then the china and food on them, Sara and Lena took of their shoes and stockings and waded up and down the stream picking tins full of berries, sampling many as they went along. Their talk and occasional splashes formed a sort of half-heard background mingling with the noises of the stream itself -- not distinct enough to be understood yet enough to break the solitude and make it clear that people were nearby.
“Would you like a fire to heat the kettle over?” Konrad asked.
There were no trees nearby and they had not thought to bring firewood. “I think we’ll have to do without,” Natalie said. “There’s no wood.”
“No wood yet, little governess,” Konrad said. “These two knights errant will go questing for you.”
“Really, it’s no trouble. We don’t need to have hot tea.”
“Oh, but I insist. We must do something to make ourselves useful to you, and you seem to have everything here so well in hand.” He smiled and gave her an exaggerated bow. “We shall return with our firewood or on it.” He swung into the saddle with the grace of long practice. “Come on, Borys. I shall lead my squadron on reconnoitre and find out enemy where he lies. You bring the baggage train.” He indicated the pony cart. “Once I have defeated our foe you can bring back the spoils of war.”
Borys, who had been beginning to take off his shoes in order to join his sisters in wading the stream, tied them again and followed his brother’s lead. By the time they returned the meal was all set out and Natalie and her two charges were sitting on a blanket, feeling the warmth of the sun shine down on them and eating the berries the girls had collected.
“I see you’ve all been exerting yourselves,” Konrad said cheerfully, laying out his fire and then producing a silver cigar lighter from his pocket with which he set the tinder alight.
“We’re only waiting for you,” Sara said. “When you men have finished messing about with fire we can have lunch.”
“Such gratitude! We workers slave to heat the ladies’ tea, and heartless as they are, they chide us for not being faster.” Satisfied that the fire was started, Konrad cast himself down on the blanket next to Natalie and snagged a berry from the tin. “Now the weary knight rests him from his questing. Will maidens descend with refreshment for him?”
“The maidens have already set the table -- or blanket -- O slothful knight,” Borys told him. “They don’t put the food in your mouth for you. This is a pastoral paradise, not a Turkish seraglio.”
They ate their lunch and drank tea and finished the berries which Lena and Sara had picked. The sun had passed its highest point and begun its long, slow journey towards the horizon, and between the large meal they had just eaten and the warm sun beating down on them, the temptation was lay down and go to sleep was strong. Borys succumbed, lying on his back with his head on his folded hands. Sara and Lena lay shading themselves with their wide brimmed straw summer hats and talking quietly. To stave off her own lethargy Natalie began re-packing the picnic basket, moving quietly so as not to disturb the others. To her surprise Konrad got up as well and began to help her.
“So tell me,” he said. “How did you come to be governess to my little sisters? You don’t seem as if you would have simply wandered in from an employment bureau.”
Natalie shrugged. The question seemed, somehow, in the quiet half joking tone in which he asked it, like a request for intimacy, and intimacy she was not sure that she wanted to give. And even had she been sure she wanted to be known better by this handsome and overly confident young officer, being forced to say that she was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman and a peasant woman was not how she would have chosen to begin. And there was her father’s insistence of secrecy as well. Clearly she could not mention his name, but was even describing her origins in general terms too much? Thus far, everyone had been too polite to ask. Instead she replied, “It was very nearly that, actually. I heard that Dr. Luterek needed a governess for his daughters and a patron of mine was so good as to recommend me.”
“A patron of yours was so good as to recommend you.” His repetition made the words sound prim. “Well, if that is so very mysterious, perhaps you can tell me something else about your history. Where did you go to school. Not here in Russia, surely?”
“No.” She hesitated.
“‘No,’ she said, with an air of mystery,” he narrated back at her, teasingly. “Fathered by an island king, brought up by priestesses in a sacred grove, she was sworn not to speak of her origins or schooling.”
This annoyed her, but she made herself laugh. “There’s no great mystery to it. I was born in Poland. My mother died when I was very young, I don’t remember her at all. My father was not able to take care of me himself, but he placed me with a nurse until I was six, and then sent me to a convent school in France where I lived until I came here. You see? A very simple story.”
“Ah, simple, but it suggests so much. The distant but rich father. The severe, black-clad nuns with their repressed desires. Did they scold you and tell you that you would go to hell at the slightest provocation? Did they tell you that you were wicked when you ran and played and make you kneel before a statue and beg forgiveness of the virgin?”
The joking seemed somehow indecent, though she could not point to exactly why. “No more so than Mrs. Sowka,” Natalie replied, in what she hoped was a squelching tone. “There’s nothing any more shocking about the nuns. They’re just devout women trying to live out their lives.”
“Oh, indeed. I don’t doubt it. And yet, I’m glad you’re no longer hidden away among their somber shades.”
Back at the summer house, the evening was a festive one. The cook had outdone herself, and in concession to its being a country house, everything was served at once, buffet style, rather than in courses. There was more food than they could possibly finish. When the family could eat no more, they went outside -- the girls with tea, the adults with sherry or brandy -- to talk and watch the sunset turn into dusk, while the servants were invited to make a meal of the leftovers inside. Dr. Luterek was determined that every member of the household should rejoice at his son’s visit, and he said that more bottles of wine could be opened by the servants as well.
It was late when Natalie at last went up to her room. It was a full moon, and so even after she put out her light the room was bathed in a cool bluish light. After the day’s ramble in the fields, the large dinner, and the unaccustomed after-dinner drinks, she would have expected to sink immediately into sleep, but she found herself instead in one of those states of mental activity which make physical sleep impossible, no matter how tired the body. It was not some particular problem that troubled her, but rather that one thought or image crowded immediately upon the last so that by twists and turns she thought first with great vividness of an adventure she had with wooden-headed Lalka in the garden of her childhood, then the way that Sara had played and sang so beautifully for the family that night in the brightly lit downstairs sitting room, then the framed picture (tucked safely in the drawer with her handkerchiefs and underthings) of the mother she had never known, then a brief and uncomfortable moment that afternoon as they were packing up the picnic hamper when she and Konrad had reached for jar of jam at the same time and his hand had lingered on hers just a moment longer than seemed natural.
Time passed, and with embarrassment she realized that she would need to get out of bed and go down the hall to the bathroom. The doctor was a great believer in germs, and since the summer house was, although lacking certain modern conveniences such as electricity due to its isolation, provided with running water and a spacious upstairs bathroom, he had ordered that the servants remove the chamber pots from all the rooms. There would be no reproduction of bacteria due to the storing overnight of unsanitary waste in his house. Whatever the mortal dangers posed by unseen organisms, the ceramic pot which could be pulled out from under her bed in the convent had meant that she did not need to leave her room during the night, and she missed the privacy.
She got out of bed and put her dressing gown on over her white cotton nightgown, lest anyone be up and see her in the hall. With the moonlight shining in the windows, there was no need to carry a candle. The hallway was silent, and the bathroom with its white tiled floor seemed bathed in an unearthly light. When she opened the door to return to her room, however, she was startled to see a dim figured moving down the hall towards her. She started and almost screamed, her heart suddenly pounding uncomfortably, then realized that rather than an intruder or spector, it was Konrad. He was half undressed, his white shirt unbuttoned and the suspenders of his trousers hanging down. The physical feelings of panic immediately changed to those of embarrassment, both at her unreasoning fear and at being seen wandering the halls in her robe and nightgown.
“Hello, little governess,” he said. “I thought I heard something, but I see it wasn’t the Kaiser making a sneak attack on our secluded paradise.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, looking down at the floor and away from him, as if that would somehow cause him not to look at her in her current state.
“Ah. Neither could I.”
“Goodnight.” She stepped aside to hurry past him to her room, eager to get back into the privacy of her bed, though not wanting to be seen to actually run. Just as she was moving to the right, however, he stepped the same direction and she had to stop suddenly to avoid walking into him. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning away from his sudden closeness and moving to go around the other way.
He reached out, however, and took her hand. “There’s no great hurry,” he said, in a voice that was soft but not at all a whisper. “It’s almost one. No late hour in the city, but very late for us country mice out here. I don’t think anyone else in the house is awake.”
“I want to go back to bed. I don’t have any desire to be awake at this time.”
She pulled her hand away, and he let it go easily enough, but when she went to hurry past he was in front of her again. She looked up and saw him smiling, perhaps it was all a joke, but she did not like it.
“And yet here we are. Isn’t it convenient? Who would have thought so much could come from such a little impulse -- you to go down the hall, me to investigate a noise.”
“Excuse me,” she said, and she tried to step back, to put a more comfortable space between the, and her bare foot struck the wall. Her back was to it.
He reached out and took her chin in his hand, tilting her face up to look at his. “I’ve been wanting to do this all day. Haven’t you? And now, in the moonlight…”
He kissed her, a long, full kiss, and because she had gasped in surprise as he pressed it on her, an open-mouthed one. She had never kissed a man before, and for a moment she was too surprised by the sudden experience of this large, strong creature pressing himself against her to react. Then she felt his other hand on her hip, stroking her for a moment and then tugging at the belt of her dressing gown. She pushed him away with all her strength and he stepped back, surprised.
“No,” she said, still quiet for fear of waking others but almost trembling with a rage that almost shocked her as it welled up. “Don’t-- Don’t touch me!” The words seemed inadequate to her feelings, and they seemed to make impression on him. He smiled again and reached out to touch her cheek with a finger.
“There now, there’s no reason to get upset. Come, you’re right, I suppose. This is very public. My room is the very last on the hall, very private. Let’s go there and we can do things slowly and properly.”
She slapped his hand away from her face, and this time had no hesitation to run, her feet slapping on the wooden floor as she dodged around him and rushed to her room. She shut the door, and latched it, and pushed a chair against it, and then crouched silently on the floor next to the chair, shaking and sobbing silently.
How dare he. Here. Where she had been so happy. Where she was a lady. Where everyone liked her. Where she had begun to feel at home. To grab her, without even asking, without thinking, as if she was… Her mind shrank from assigning a word to the idea.
At last, the cruel chance which had kept her awake so long before this relented, and she found herself suddenly drained of feeling, almost limp, and utterly exhausted. She climbed into her bed, pulled the sheet over her head, and almost immediately was enveloped in mercifully dreamless sleep.
Natalie was late to appear the next morning, staying in her room until she was certain that all the other young people must be up and about. Konrad was only to be visiting a week, and while the rest of the family wished that the week could last much longer, Natalie took comfort in the knowledge that it was already Thursday and Konrad would be leaving by the early train on Monday. She was determined that on no occasion would she be alone with him during that time.
Konrad, for his part, gave no sign of being greatly discouraged by their late night encounter. He did not seem to go to any great lengths to catch her alone again, but he directed gallant comments towards her at every opportunity and seemed to manage more often than could to be accidental to reach for the same thing that she did, or step the wrong direction and find himself suddenly close to her. Natalie had hoped that his younger sisters’ presence would cool his ardor, but he seemed to have no hesitation to flirt with her in front of them. The girls soon noticed it, and far from being disapproving seemed charmed at the idea of their admired older brother falling in love with their pretty governess.
“Will Natalie marry Konrad?” Lena asked Borys in a dreamy tone. “It would be just like Jane Eyre.”
“I do not believe,” said Borys, “that Konrad has a mad wife as of yet, whatever his faults may be.” But he laughed, and he too seemed to have no great disapproval for the situation.
Feeling surrounded by Konrad’s attentions on the one side and the young people’s expectations on the other, Natalie avoided them all on Friday, keeping to her room or helping Mrs. Sowka. She ventured into company only at meals, and at times when Dr. and Madame Luterek were present. This, however, only resulted in Konrad paying her marked attentions over family dinner.
“Would you like anything more, Konrad?” Madame Luterek asked, looking over the dishes on the table.
“Only medicine for a broken heart,” Konrad said, casting a theatrically longing glance across the table. “Do you see any left in the serving dish by you, Natalie?”
Lena tittered approvingly and the doctor and his wife exchanged glances.
“Very well,” said Konrad. “There remains to me nothing but sweet oblivion and Lethe’s stream of forgetfulness.” He drained his wineglass and sighed loudly.
As the samovar was placed on the table after dinner, Natalie felt on the verge of tears, her only consolation that there were only Saturday and Sunday left before her and then this must end.
Dr. Luterek poured himself a glass of brandy while the ladies were getting their tea, and then stepped quietly to Natalie’s side.
“Mademoiselle Nowakówna, would you join me in the library for a few moments?”
Natalie had not have a private interview with the doctor since the day of her arrival, and she could not imagine why she was being thus summoned now. Surely the doctor had no sympathy for his son’s flirtation, so she was safe, at least for a time, from that difficulty. But in her current, harried state, any interest in her seemed unsettling, and it was with a knot in the pit of her stomach that she followed the doctor into the library and sat down in the chair he indicated.
She was not reassured by the way he carefully closed the door, sat down at his desk, and seemed to take an endless moment to gather his thoughts before speaking.
“You know, of course, that we all like you a great deal,” he began at last. The words seemed ominous, but Natalie could not think where they were leading. She straightened her already careful posture, sitting on the edge of the chair, knees and feet together, shoulders back, chin up. Even to the exacting standards of the convent school she was the image of the attentive and dutiful young woman.
“My daughters like and admire you very much, and I think that with your help their French has already improved,” he continued, as if lengthening his compliments in order to avoid something that he did not want to say. “And, of course, Count Kotarsky recommended you very highly. He is a great man, and I trust his judgement completely.”
He is getting rid of me.
The panicked thought came to her. She could not think why he would do such a thing. But why else this over-careful set of compliments?
“I will speak plainly with you,” he said at last. “I have noticed that my son Lieutenant Konrad has been paying you particular attentions.”
Natalie nodded hesitantly. Had someone seen that moment in the hallway the other night and thought… “I had noticed that as well,” she said.
“Well, I understand. You are, if I may say so, an attractive young woman. And he is young and has the trials of war before him. And yet…” He steepled his fingers and looked down at them. “Well, the fact is: Madame Luterek and I have great hopes for Konrad. When he does marry -- and really, he is too young to marry now -- but when that time does come, we expect it to be a match which is equal to the family’s status and aspirations. Do you understand what I mean?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.” Her voice sounded, to the doctor, hesitant, but it was in fact a hesitance of unbelief. She was being warned away from him. There was nothing she wanted more in the world at this moment than for Lieutenant Konrad to leave her alone, indeed for him never to have noticed her in the first place. And this kind but proud man was warning her to leave his son alone.
“You must understand that I say this with the greatest respect for you. I know that you must be sensitive to these concerns yourself, and I would not speak of them to you if I did not trust to your prudence and discretion. But Madame Luterek and I thought it best that I have this conversation with you.”
“Please--” Her voice seemed to betray her by wavering. She took a breath and steadied it. “I want to assure you, Dr. Luterek, that I have in no way encouraged Konrad in this behavior. I do not welcome these attentions. I do not return whatever feelings he may have for me.”
“There.” He got up and came around the desk, offering her his hand. “It is natural, at a time like this: war, youth, a country house. We do not blame you. There is no need to deny anything. I just ask that you think of my son, of his prospects, and of our family, which I like to think that you are a part of. All I ask is that you think of these things and use your natural discretion. Now come, do not distress yourself. Let us rejoin the family.”
She accepted the hand he offered and rose. What use was there in arguing? It was clear that his mind was made up and it was inconceivable to him that she would not desire his favored son. She followed him back into the sitting room where the rest of the family was, and as she joined them she felt alone.
Read the next installment.