And yet even as she painted this dark picture of her situation, and felt some comforting pity for herself, she realized that it would not go on, at least not like this. On Monday morning, Konrad would leave to join his regiment in Poland. She had only to get through two days. After that, while things might not be the same as if none of this had happened, they could at least return to some form of normality. And surely, once Konrad was back among other women, the governess who had so unaccountably failed to welcome his advances would be forgotten.
With this more comforting realization she had found the peace to go to bed, and the next day she had spent in relative happiness with Mrs. Sowka, talking and sewing in the housekeeper’s room, and helping her in her work. Konrad did not know where to look for her, and the other young people were so busy enjoying their last days with their older brother that they did not notice Natalie’s absence until dinner time, and which point Natalie complained of a headache and went to bed early.
Sunday was a day of goodbyes. Konrad would be leaving early the next morning. Madame Luterek took the impending separation the hardest, and any unexpected thing could cause the tears to well up in her eyes. She sat in the downstairs sitting room, with Konrad beside her, and alternated in her conversation between memories of her favorite son’s past, and worries about his future. No amount of the young cavalry officer’s optimism could calm her maternal fears, and even his sisters had taken on an unusual solemnity.
The family seemed occupied enough in this way that Natalie felt she could take a long walk without fear of being accosted, thus leaving the family to their goodbyes. The sky was a deep blue, with steel gray clouds and a taste of thunder in the air, but it seemed too warm and too breezy, and the rest of the sky too clear, to fear rain in any serious way. After walking through the French-style formal gardens, and then out along the peasant track, between fields, to the stream, she found a dirt road that ran along the stream and walked along it, sometimes under the shade of trees that grew along the river, sometimes in the warm summer sun of afternoon.
The afternoon was so beautiful that the first rumble of thunder caught her by surprise. The wind was at her back, and as she turned and looked the way she had come, she saw that the sky towards the dacha had become much darker than the blue sky ahead. There was a new freshness in the air, a breath of cool that came with the next gust of wind was was quickly followed by another, louder rumble of thunder.
She had no umbrella, and her wide brimmed summer hat would be of little protection against any kind of down pour. She began to hurry back down the path. The wind was gusting more frequently. As the first fat drops began to fall she tried to break into a fun, but she had only gone a few dozen strides when her boot came down on a loose rock and turned her ankle painfully. It was not a sprain but enough to retain a throbbing pain. Already the rain was coming down more steadily and she must be at least two miles from the house. She slowed to a brisk walk to avoid twisting her ankle again, and lifted her skirts up to keep the hem from dragging in the mud. Already there were several brown splashes on the dark gray wool, and as she slogged down the path she was already picturing the careful washing which it would take to try to get them out.
The stream was lined with low, scrubby trees, but none that gave anything like shelter from the rain, and so she kept walking. If she was going to be soaked anyway she might as well get closer to the house while she did so. Perhaps hurrying straight back, she could reach the house in twenty minutes.
Her gaze was down on the path in front of her, looking for firm footing and avoiding the discomfort of having the rain blow into her face, and so the words, in a voice she did not want to hear, caught her by surprise.
“Here you are! Enjoying your afternoon walk, little governess? May I join you?”
She looked up and saw Konrad splashing towards her, just a few strides away, wearing a raincoat and carrying a large umbrella. He stopped next to her, the umbrella now sheltering both of them. It was such a relief to be out of the rain. She took her hat off for a moment and shook the water from it. The blue ribbon, which she had liked so much when she saw it in the Paris hat shop with Madame Ricard, had run, leaving a streaky blue stain on the white straw of the brim. Looking down on that hat and contemplating its ruin, she realized that her soaked white cotton blouse was half transparent; through the wet fabric she could clearly see the bow of pink ribbon at the top of her corset. And here was Konrad, holding an umbrella and looking down at her. Even in the cool of the breeze and wet she flushed, and she quickly put the hat back on so that she could fold her arms in front of her chest.
“What are you doing out here in all this rain?” she asked, meeting his gaze in hopes that would keep him from looking at the rest of her.
“What am I doing? Why dear lady, I had been having rather a long time of it, absorbing familial affection like a sponge and seeing nothing of the most attractive person in the house. And so, when I looked out the sitting room window and saw a storm approaching, I thought I’d go and see if there were any mermaids to be found in this neighborhood. And here you are!”
“What, I’m a mermaid?”
“Hmm, I don’t know if a mermaid exactly, now that I see her up close,” he said. “Though definitely a little damp. You do not, by any chance, turn into a seal when confronted by the sea, or anything along those lines?”
His cheerfully relentless flirtation was so maddening she felt equally inclined to laugh and cry, or perhaps most humiliatingly to do both at once. The humor seemed to mock the terror she’d felt that night in the corridor, and the bitterness of having his father tell her that his son was not for her when she wanted nothing more than for Konrad to leave her alone.
“Let’s get back to the house,” she said.
Without waiting for his reply she stepped out from under the umbrella and continued on down the path. For a moment the rain was in her face. She walked with her head up, not looking back. Then the rain ceased to fall on her again, and Konrad was walking beside her, holding the umbrella over them.
They walked for a time in mutual silence. When Konrad spoke again it was in a very different tone, low and earnest.
“I’m sorry for the way that I behaved the other night in the passage. I’d had a drink or two, and seeing you there in the moonlight-- No. No, I won’t make excuses. I’m sorry.”
Natalie walked on in silence, looking straight in front of her. She could hear Konrad walking next to her, imagined she could feel the warmth of him, next to her, in their little moving shelter from the rain, but she did not want to meet his eyes. Her training at the convent had been strict. An apology for any offense was to be met with, ‘I forgive you.’ Had not Our Lord forgiven his very executioners from the cross? And yet she did not want to tell Konrad she forgave him. The apology might be costing him some little awkwardness, but yet it seemed wholly unmatched to the terror she had felt as he pressed her against the wall and kissed her, as she wondered if he would force her and knew that she had little ability to stop him if he did.
“I blame myself,” he went on. “I should have known that a nice girl like you, a convent raised girl, wouldn’t--” He stopped rather than putting words to the idea. “If I had gone about things differently, perhaps we should be good friends now. The girls both admire you, and so does Borys. There’s so little time. Couldn’t we just start over, as if nothing had happened?”
It was clear that if she did not reply he would simply continue to speak until she did.
“Thank you for your apology,” she said, keeping her voice even and her eyes fixed ahead. At least the rain and the walk and the umbrella meant that it was easy to avoid having to look at him as they spoke.
“Can’t we have a fresh start? As if the rain had washed all that away?”
“A fresh start at what?” She stopped and faced him. Anger was coursing through her and it gave her the courage, indeed to the need, to do what she had not dared before. “You know nothing of me, you care nothing for me other than because I am a woman and I am convenient during the week before you go off to join your regiment. Your father has asked that I not entangle you, and even were I inclined to disobey him despite his kindness to me since I came to work here, I can’t imagine that I would be happy marrying against the wishes of a man’s family.”
They stood facing each other in silence, the rain running off the umbrella all around them. Now it was Konrad who broke eye contact.
“Why do women’s minds go straight to marriage? I wouldn’t have expected you to be like the society mamas trying to market the daughters they’ve just brought out.”
“And what do you expect me to be like? Other than compliant when accosted in moonlit hallways?” She was still angry and the barbs came easily, the more so because she could see in the way that he looked away that they were striking home.
“I don’t know. Free. Free to think about feelings. Not relentlessly focused on gain: status, money, property.” His sentences were short and uncertain at first, but then they began to flow more smoothly. “You should see the balls that we cavalry officers get invited to in Moscow. The aging mothers are all got up in their diamonds, ready to sell their daughters for the right combination of birth and property. ‘Oh Count Orlov, who is your handsome friend?’ To see their faces when they hear ‘The son of a very eminent surgeon.’ Mother and Father have their own version of that acquisitiveness. Some day they expect me to make them proud by marrying some girl whose family has been wealthy for centuries, as if we need to ally with such a family to prove that we’re truly respectable. But I wouldn’t have expected you to be think that way.”
Had her father thought like this when he was that age, only blessed with title and wealth to make him a true prize for any society mother? There was a logic, perhaps even an appeal, to it all, but one which only made sense if restricted only to himself.
She turned and began walking again, and Konrad fell into step next to her, holding the umbrella above them.
“The freedom that you’re talking about is only freedom for a man,” she said after they had been walking in silence for several minutes. “Freedom for you, to have a pleasant liaison with no strings attached, a little governess to slip into your room at night whenever you’re visiting your family. But what freedom would there be for her? Still working as a governess, having given away one of her few slim chances of ever becoming something more. And if she had a child… Put away somewhere as a fallen woman, raising a child with no name. There’s no freedom in that.”
This was the realization which had come during many quiet moment spent parsing through what little the Count had told her of her mother. To him, that cottage had been an escape, to a woman who seemed simple and devoted. And surely she must have loved him. But what choice had she had? Rejected by a family who would never speak to their fallen daughter again, ostracized by the village as the one who received the favors of the master, what choice had she been given but to cling fast to the man who was all that she had? And yet she had nothing but his kindness and desire to bind him to her. No freedom there. No freedom at all.
Konrad did not reply, and they walked in silence.
“I don’t expect you to think of marrying me,” she added after a time. “I doubt that I will ever marry. I bring nothing to it. But I will at least preserve my own woman’s kind of freedom, and that means not becoming anyone’s mistress.”
They crossed the footbridge and the summer house came into view. With a sinking heart Natalie saw Dr. Luterek standing out on the terrace, under another large umbrella like the one Konrad held over her. She was momentarily tempted to run, to leave Konrad behind and put as much distance between them as possible, but that would make her look no less suspect in the doctor’s eye, perhaps it would even make her more so.
“I’m glad to see you both,” said the doctor as they reached the terrace. “Your mother will be particularly glad to see you, Konrad. She has missed you. Mademoiselle Nowakówna, you look as if you were caught in the rain.”
“Yes. I was taking a long walk down the stream alone when the storm caught me.”
“Kokel said he had seen her cross the bridge and walk down the path by the stream, so when the storm came up I took an umbrella and went after her,” Konrad added.
The doctor gave a slight nod. “Well, I’m sure that you will both want to get into dry clothes before dinner.”
There was no warmth in the words, but no blame either. Perhaps that was the best that could be expected. Relieved at last to be alone again, Natalie went up to her room to change.
The family’s thoughts at dinner were all on goodbyes. It was easy for Natalie to slip away as the tea was being served, saying that she felt unwell after being caught in the rainstorm. She went to her room and locked herself in, determined not to allow Konrad to stage any sort of goodbye. It took her a long time to get to sleep, but when rest at last came she slept peacefully until the mid-morning sun was streaming in the window, thus easily achieving her goal of not leaving her room until after Konrad’s early morning departure.
When she went down to breakfast she found the family in a restrained mood after the morning’s parting. Madame Luterek had gone up to take a nap, complaining of a headache. Dr. Luterek was ensconced in the library, and the young people were listless and short tempered.
After having breakfast Natalie took her tea into the downstairs sitting room, and there saw, on the mantle, an envelope addressed in a bold, clear hand which could easily be read from across the room: To My Natalka.
It was impossible to think that the family had not seen it. She hesitated between the desire to tear it down and hide it away, perhaps simply tear it up without reading it, and the knowledge that once she took it the whole family would know that the letter was now in her keeping. She would be accepting the gesture for which she had had no desire.
She chose it ignore it, though every time she went through the room she felt its accusing gaze on her.
In the afternoon, as the family was gathering for tea, Dr. Luterek entered from the library, walked straight up to the mantle, plucked the letter from its place, and brought it to her.
“It is addressed to you,” he said, not unkindly. “Don’t you think that you had better open it?”
Natalie’s flushed with embarrassment and took the envelope, trying to shove it out of sight in the folds of her skirt. The doctor turned away to get a cup of tea, and with a fresh feeling of mortification Natalie realized that it must look as if she wanted to read the letter later in private, as if she thought it contained something she would be ashamed to read in front of everyone.
She took up the envelope again and opened it, trying to move as calmly and casually as possible as she took out the letter and unfolded it.
My Little Governess,
Something tells me that you may not choose to appear tomorrow morning when the family comes down to say farewell, so I take the liberty of writing you this letter.
Seeing you has been one of the pleasures of this visit, and one I am determined to increase with repetition.
I did a great deal of thinking after our talk in the rain today. A good officer adapts to the circumstances and the terrain, and I flatter myself that I can do as much. I see now that I did not take your finer feelings into consideration, and I will not make such a mistake again. Indeed, I admire you all the more for your principles.
I hoped that I would see you before leaving. Perhaps if we had met in the corridor again tonight, things could have been more to your satisfaction.
I will think of you often in the weeks to come, and I will write to you as often as I am able, confident that next time I see you there will be some reward for my perseverance.
Your Humble Servant,
Lieutenant Konrad Luterek
She flushed again, and started to cram the letter back into its envelope, her fingers clumsy with embarrassment. Then she made herself stop. Whatever he said to her, she had done nothing wrong, nothing to be ashamed of, and she must not allow herself to look otherwise. She smoothed the letter out again and rising, took it to Dr. Luterek.
“I did not expect a letter. I wish… he had not. I have done nothing to encourage him.”
She unfolded the paper and handed it to him. Surely, what she wanted most now was to return to the open, trusting relationship she had had with the family before, and the way to achieve that must be to hide nothing.
The doctor read the letter gravely and then handed it to his wife. “Is there an understanding between you?” he asked. “Please be frank with me.”
“No. There is certainly none on my side. And if he offered me, I promise you that I would refuse.”
The doctor nodded, and a moment later Madame Luterek finished reading the letter and handed it back to her. “Thank you for being open with us. I’m sure you know how we treasure our oldest son.”
Natalie had hoped that with Konrad gone, the family would return to the mood which had prevailed before, but there was no recapturing that carefree summer. Soon the necessities of packing took over, and at the end of the second week of August the family returned to Kiev.
Read the next installment.