I've still got to pick up the pace a bit more, but with the three day weekend I hope to have the next installment (the last of this chapter) out a lot more quickly than this one was.
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 22nd, 1914. For the next several days a state of dazed paralysis descended on the Luterek household. Madame Luterek seldom left her room where she refused food and was prone to sudden bouts of loud despair. Doctor Luterek divided his time between the hospital -- where he could forget, for a time, the tragedy in his own life while immersing himself in the difficult operations which the influx of wounded required -- and the house, where what little time he did not spend in his wife’s room, he passed in solitude in his library.
After the shock of the first day, the staff made sure that the house was cleaned and meals were put upon the table at the usual intervals, but this background of normality provided only a limited degree of comfort. The young people were left mostly to each other’s care. During hours spent in the nursery, sitting on the faded rug and armchairs which had come from the old nursery back in Warsaw, the scene of many leisure hours spent with Konrad before he had left to become a cadet, Borys, Sara and Lena told stories of their lost brother, and learned to think of him again without the choking ache of grief taking complete hold of their words.
On Sunday, Natalie encouraged Sara and Lena to accompany her and Mrs. Sowka to church. They did so gladly. This, on the third day after the news of Konrad’s death had reached the family, provided a turning point, at least for the young people. On Monday Borys left the house early on business of his own, Natalie returned to her usual schedule at the hospital, and the girls even ventured out to an aid society tea. Only Madame Luterek kept to her room and made no move towards returning to everyday life.
Thus it was that on Tuesday afternoon Madame Luterek was the only member of the family at home when a package was delivered, addressed to the family in Konrad’s handwriting.
Something in her had stirred that day. The house was quiet. The grief which had curled its soft, suffocating self around her chest, making even the smallest action which hinted at normality seem exhausting and futile, seemed to have decreased slightly in its weight. She had got out of bed, dressed, and come downstairs to have a cup of tea.
Natalie returned home at three-thirty, along with Sara and Lena who had spent the last few hours rolling bandages for the new hospital train being funded by Princess Mikhailov. They found Madame Luterek at the table in the sitting room, staring at the package, afraid to open it yet unable to leave it even for a moment.
“It’s from Konrad,” Madame Luterek told them. “He’s not dead.” The words brought a heartbreaking smile to her face.
“But mother, the letter,” Sara began, but her words trailed away.
“No. No, it’s all been a mistake,” Madame Luterek continued, getting up from the table and moving around the room, he hands folded firmly in front of her to restrain the energy that seemed about to burst from her. Even as she moved she tracked the package constantly with her eyes. “Everything is so muddled with the army these days. He is writing to us from a hospital. Or perhaps it was someone else who was killed and he is quite well.”
She took a paper knife from a drawer of the desk which stood under the window and brought it over to the package but then hesitated, set the knife down, and circled away again. “Of course we can’t open it without Borys here. And Doctor Luterek. Everyone will be so excited to see what Konrad has sent.”
Natalie saw the girls look from their mother to her, their faces unsure. Doubtless Madame Luterek was deceiving herself, was working herself up to a pitch which could only lead to some sort of collapse. Yet knowing the way in which she herself was entangled with Konrad in Madame Luterek’s mind, Natalie did not know what she could say or do without the risk of making things worse. Yet if she did nothing, and Madame Luterek continued in this vein, things might become worse either way.
“Am I late for tea?”
They had all been so intent upon the package and Madame Luterek that none of them had seen Borys enter the room.
The arrival of her younger son seemed to drain the energy from Madame Luterek. She stepped back from the table and sat down in an upholstered chair. Her hands could be seen to tremble, but then she folded them firmly in her lap.
“A package from Konrad arrived,” said Sara.
Borys approached and examined the brown-paper wrapped package.
“There’s been a mistake, don’t you see?” said Madame Luterek, her voice sounding oddly frail. “He can’t be dead. The army has made some terrible mistake.”
“Well, let us see.” Borys’s voice was calm.
He took the paperknife and cut the string which did up the package, then unwrapped the brown paper. This revealed a cardboard box with a pebbled gray finish and spidery German gothic lettering stamped on the lid in gold. Lifting this revealed shredded paper packing, and resting on top of it an envelope labeled, “The Spoils of War!” in Konrad’s sprawling hand.
Inside was a postcard, a tinted print of a wide, cobbled street lined with buildings and the legend “Insterburg Parlie am Markt” and with the postcard a letter.
To the victors go the spoils, and so I take a few minutes as we pass through Insterburg to send you these tributes from the front lines of our glorious armies. I send my love to everyone, especially that bewitching Natalie, who must be a good little woman and await my return rather than casting her spells on all the languishing officers at the hospital.
We’ve had some glorious rides, and the Germans fall back before us with hardly a fight. We’ve seen only land reserve troops and they make a very poor showing. We’ve started a pool among the officers over whether there will be a real battle before we reach Konigsberg.
I collected the enclosed at the house we stayed in last night, a very grand place which the owners left in a hurry. They’ll give you something to remember me by until you next receive word of my exploits.
Borys folded the letter and began to dig through the shredded paper packing. From it came a collection of bundles, each carefully wrapped in brown paper and with a name written on it. Lena. Father. Sara.
Lena tore hers open immediately and found a miniature porcelain cup with a cityscape painted on it. She exclaimed over the detail: the blossoming cherry trees, feathery clouds, and a little dog walking along the paving stones of the street carrying a basket by its handle in his mouth.
“Yours is big, Natalie!” Lene exclaimed, holding out the paper-wrapped bundle to Natalie. “Open it right now!”
Natalie accepted the package when it was thrust at her but hesitated, looking around at the eyes that were suddenly fixed on her. “I can open it later,” she said, feeling a flush rising her face, which increased her embarrassment by making it visible.
“Surely you have nothing to hide,” said Madame Luterek.
“No. No, of course not.” Natalie fixed her eyes on the gift, which she began to unwrap. It was a jewelry box, dark burled wood with brass inlays in the shape of leaves and Gothic designs. She opened it, but was grateful to find that it was empty except for the musky sweet scent of exotic wood. The box itself was a too extravagant present, had it contained jewelry too it would have been mortifying.
Madame sighed audibly. “At least he is alive. So good hearted that he is easily entrapped, but alive, my poor boy.”
Borys shook his head. “No, mother. Remember the letter? Konrad is dead.”
Madame Luterek stood up and snatched the letter from the table. “No! Don’t you see? He’s alive. This has all been a mistake. He can’t be dead. He wrote us this.”
She waved the letter at Borys, who took her hand in his and gently removed the letter from it, spreading the paper out on the table. “The date on this letter is September 9th, Mother. The letter telling of his death was dated September 14th. He sent the package before he died. It just took longer in transit.”
For an agonizing moment Madame Luterek stood silent, the hand which had held the letter clutched to her chest as if the sheet of paper had burned it. Then she rounded on Natalie.
“You! You took him. You took my son: all his letters, all his presents, all his thoughts, his last leave with us. You took him and now he’s--” She stopped short of the word, unwilling to slay her son aloud even if her last mad hope had been destroyed.
“Mother.” Borys’s voice was stern.
“You haven’t looked at the present he sent you,” Sara said, holding out the little wrapped bundle labeled: Mother “Won’t you please, Mother? See what he sent you.”
Madame Luterek looked from one to another of the young people, a moment horrifying because it was impossible to know what would come next. Then she screamed, an unearthly, wordless cry inhuman in its despair. She ran from the room. Borys exchanged a look with Natalie and his two sisters, then started after his mother.
“Borys,” said Sara, stopping him before he left the room.
“Are you sure there can be no mistake? Is he really... dead?” She hesitated over the last word, unintentionally giving it even more emphasis.
“Yes. Captain Lukin’s letter said that he’d seen Konrad killed. There’s no room for a mistake.”
He left the room. Lena dropped into the chair her mother had abandoned, sobbing quietly as she cradling the porcelain cup which Konrad had sent her.
Natalie looked down at the jewelry box, a final unwanted gift, giving a final wrench of pain to his family and thus to her. She could have smashed the box to the ground, but that would surely hurt the girls as much as the gift of it had hurt the mother.
She held the box out to Sara. “You should have this, not me. He’s your brother. Please.”
Sara shook her head. “No, I could never take it. He wanted you to have it. The very last thing he sent you.”
Without much hope, Natalie held it out to Lena, but she too shook her head. “He gave it to you. I know I will always treasure this.” She held the cup which Konrad had sent her to her heart.
Alone, in her room that night, Natalie regarded the jewelry box. Whatever feelings were wrapped around it, it was a beautiful thing. Had it not been a gift from Konrad, she would have loved it simply for itself. She ran a finger along the intricate tracework of brass and dark wood.
Somewhere, far away in East Prussia, a man she had never wanted to love her had taken this from another person’s house and sent it to her. Who had owned and loved this before war came? That was lost now, and it would always be a gift for a purpose undesired, but it carried the meanings given to it by several people. Its original owner. Konrad. His family. And her. She could not get rid of it as long as she was with Konrad’s family, and so she must accept this accumulation of meanings and the beautiful box that came with them.
She set it on her bare shelf, next to Lalka, her doll from before the convent, and the picture of her mother. Then, lifting the lid of the jewelry box, she put inside the much smaller, silver case which her father had given her, containing the pearl necklace and earrings. There. Now the jewelry box contained her jewelry: gifts from her father and from Konrad. The one was dead, the other had told her that he would never see her again.
Leaving the jewelry box on the shelf, she took the hinged frame which held the pictures of her mother, and battered old wooden Lalka, and carried them to bed with her. She did not care if it was childish. She held them close until she fell asleep that night.
Doctor Luterek arrived home late that night, tired yet satisfied after leading a very interesting surgery to repair an officer’s shoulder, muscles torn and bone shattered by a shell fragment. Borys followed him into the library and gave him both the gift which Konrad had directed to his father and also a description of the afternoon’s scene.
The doctor carefully unfolded the paper wrappings as he listened to his son’s story, then wound up the German pocket watch he found inside.
“I’m grateful to you, Borys, for stepping in as you did,” he said at last. “You’re the oldest son now, and that brings responsibilities. Still--” He stopped after the one word and got up to pour himself a glass of brandy -- a glass, Borys saw, that was rather more full than his usual. “You did as I would have done, Borys, but you are not me. You don’t know your mother as I do. You must not allow yourself to despise her.”
“Father! I could never--”
Doctor Luterek waved his words away and Borys fell silent.
“Perhaps you don’t think of it as despising her, but you’re a young man. Don’t try to tell me that you haven’t thought to yourself that it’s your place to play the reasonable man, to restrain the aging woman mad with grief. And protect the pretty young governess.”
Borys seemed about to object to this but his father cut him off.
“No, don’t try to deny it. I’m not accusing you of anything but chivalry. Your mother does treat Mademoiselle Nowakówna unfairly. But what you can’t understand at your age and without children are the feelings that your mother is experiencing. I have my work to hide myself in. When I cut and splice a perforated intestine, or try to rebuild a shattered bone, I need such attention to my work that even Konrad is completely gone from my mind for a time. She has nothing. And then, even if I didn’t have work that I could tell myself is saving men like Konrad, I’m his father, not his mother. The night he was born I left the specialist to do his work and paced the corridor like any other father. I came in when it was over and saw that tiny bundle resting on Eliza’s chest. ‘Doctor Luterek, meet your son,’ the delivering doctor told me. I met him, but she had carried him inside her and she held him close from the first moment he was born. Now she has to think every hour of how that tiny boy she brought forth has been torn apart by a German shell and buried somewhere she may never see. Remember that next time she seems unreasonable to you.”
The next day Doctor Luterek went to the Latin Rite cathedral. He was not a particularly religious man, but the previous day’s events had convinced him that this was precisely the sort of time for which the comforts of religion had been invented. With a Polish priest there, he arranged that a mass would be said for Konrad in a week’s time. There could be no funeral without a body, but the mass for the dead would be the same, and the priest would bless a memorial which would be set up in the small Polish cemetery. There would be a place for them to visit and leave flowers. It might not be Konrad’s resting place, but it could bring the family a degree of rest.
What the doctor could not have predicted was that the mass would become a focus of family strife.
“Do you know what they are planning?” Borys demanded, slamming the door of the nursery as he entered. “The hospital’s driver will take us to the cathedral in the Russo-Balt. That leaves just five seats: Father, Mother and the three of us.”
Sara and Lena dutifully asked what was wrong with this.
“There will be no room for Natalie!”
“That’s all right,” said Natalie, who had been sitting in the armchair reading the newspaper.
“It is not all right. Konrad cared for you. He spent his last leave with you at the summer house. He sent you letters. They have no right to exclude you from his memorial mass.”
“Borys, please. It’s all right.”
He was pacing the rug now. “Would it be all right if Father died and Grandmother didn’t want Mother to go to his funeral?”
“I’m not Konrad’s wife, Borys. He flirted with me for a few days and sent me some letters, that is all.” Would this ghost of unwanted attention never stop haunting her?
“That’s what Mother would like you to say, and you’re too good to disagree with her in her grief. But I’m sure you feel more than that.”
“No!” The shout startled Borys as much as it did Natalie and the girls, but letting his voice and his feelings rise at last gave a channel through which the feelings dammed up over the last week could flow. “The rest of us are prisoners to Mother’s grief. Father has his work, but the rest of us are trapped here, in the shadow of her sorrow, and nothing she does can be wrong because she has a mother’s wounded heart. Well I’m tired of it. Just because she’s a grieving mother doesn’t mean that everything she does is right. She wanted Konrad to fall in love with some heiress, but that doesn’t mean she can wipe away his real feelings now that he’s dead. He loved you and mother’s grief doesn’t make it right for her to pretend that never happened. Surely if this war is to mean anything, it will create a new Russia, a new Europe where we can have real equality without the old prejudices of money and nobility.”
Having given full vent to his feelings in front of Natalie and his sisters, Borys brought what he considered to be the full force of his diplomatic abilities to bear on his father, accosting him in the library that night. It got him nowhere, since Doctor Luterek was immune to all arguments when it came to doing something that he believed would upset his wife. Rebuffed, Borys lapsed briefly into sullen resentment, then convinced himself with the confidence of youth that he could win his mother over if he explained to her how deeply Konrad had cared for Natalie. Once his mother was convinced, his father would fall in line with her wishes.
The interview with his mother did not go as Borys had imagined it, ending in tears interspersed with accusations that the governess was a climbing adventuress intent upon taking both her sons from her.
His sense of justice and equality still outraged, Borys remained determined to find a way to win Natalie her due. He plotted arguments and demonstrations which would show his parents the error of their pride, but the talk he had already had with his mother proved sufficient to change her behavior. Not in the way that he had wanted, of course. Madame Luterek was still enwrapped in her grief, but Borys’s attempt to confront her had forced one idea through the barrier of her despair: Natalie was a threat to her sons, both the dead and the living. Her response to this threat was instinctual rather than considered. She did not choose to make Natalie uncomfortable at every opportunity, she did so without even having to think.
Natalie could sense a part of the prosecution's cause, but she did not know how to convince Madame Luterek of the obvious fact that she could not possibly lure Konrad into a relationship against his parents’ wishes now, nor did she realize that the mother had begun to fear the governess had a hold upon Borys as well. In response to Madame Luterek’s repeated hints that she was not wanted at the memorial mass, Natalie signed up for a double shift at the hospital on that day.
A hospital train had just arrived in Kiev, loaded full with casualties from the campaign against the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia. The main hospital was overflowing with wounded enlisted men, and even the officer’s ward had received sixty new patients. Natalie spent all day helping to remove uniforms, wash away blood and grime, and change the dressings which had been applied at the field hospital before the men were sent upon what had proved a three-day journey along a rail system stretched the breaking point by the pressure of bringing men and supplies to the front and returning the wounded to the bosom of Mother Russia.
At eight o’clock Elena, who had taken the afternoon shift off and now returned for an evening shift, was surprised to find Natalie still in the upstairs ward, collecting a stack of bedpans to be washed and sterilized.
He surprise turned to concern when her, “Natalie, are you still here? You must be exhausted,” resulted in Natalie breaking down into sobs. Elena took her into the nurses’ sitting room, and there over strong, hot tea Natalie poured out, for the first time, the whole story: her father, the Lutereks, Konrad, the night in the corridor, the letters, his parent’s suspicion of her, his death, and all the rest. The older woman listened, held her hand when she cried, and told her she was ‘a good girl’.
At last, after much snuffling and many cups of tea Elena said, “You’ll have to go back and face them again. You can’t stay here all night.”
“I know,” said Natalie. And after the relief of telling everything to another woman, it seemed bearable again.
Read the next installment.