To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Novel Scheduling

As I said in yesterday's installment, this concludes Chapter 8 and thus Part 1 of this volume.

I'm going to need to take a bit of a break here between parts. When I started putting up installments back in early November, I was a couple chapters ahead of my publication schedule, but for a couple months now I've been writing installments as I put them up, and as the novel has picked up speed that's become incredibly grueling. I've written 60,000 words since the beginning of December and 40,000 since the beginning of the year. However, that's a limit to what cutting down to five hours of sleep a night can get you. I need to do some additional research before embarking on Part 2 (which comprises Chapters 9-12) and I also need to free up a little family writing time for Cat to work on revisions to Stillwater, which she needs to start getting ready for submission to publishers.

So here's the planned schedule:

I'm going to take the next four weeks off from publishing installments. Chapter 9-1 will go up on Monday, March 16th, and the roughly 16 installments which will make up Part 2 will go up between March 16th and May 25th, roughly 10 weeks. I'll then take a second break of roughly four weeks before launching into Part 3, which will have roughly 22 more installments spread over Chapters 13-20. That means that the end of Volume One will be up by the end of October. (And yes, Volume One does close as a book. There will very clearly be more story to tell, but it won't just stop, there will be an ending to this volume which I hope will both be satisfying on its own and also leave people wanting more.)

In the meantime, we're 92,000 words into this story, which is substantially longer than my first novel. I'd appreciate it if readers, even those who normally don't comment, would leave a note on this post, here or on DarwinCatholic or Facebook, so I have some sense of the readership. I'd also appreciate any thoughts or feedback on the novel thus far: pacing, characters, genre, anything you feel like sharing.

There's something a bit experimental, certainly for me, but also in general, about this project. Every character has a substantial arc over the course of the novel as a whole, and to a lesser extent over each volume, but pulling together five characters over such a long single work (and despite the volumes this is one novel in rather the same sense that Lord of the Rings is one novel, not three) is challenging in itself. There are intersections between the characters, but some of them will be a long time in coming, and to a great extent the connections between them and the unifying theme of the novel itself is the war itself, the history. I'm determined to make it work, and I think there's something to be found in this approach to writing big history via the lives of ordinary people who are deeply changed by the central event. But in that it is something a little unusual I'm trying to do here, I would really appreciate feedback as I go along.

And of course: Thank you all who are reading. Knowing that you are out there reading about these characters and these events is one of the main things that's made it possible for me to keep up this pace and bring this dream of the last several years to reality.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Chapter 8-4

A couple days late but here's the last installment of Chapter 8. This almost marks the end of Part 1 of the this volume (there are three parts and twenty chapters total in volume one.)


Kiev, Russian Ukraine. August 22nd, 1914. The Kiev they returned to was a changed city. Soldiers were everywhere, and not the neatly uniformed soldiers who could be seen in parades on holidays: conscripts in ill-fitting brown field tunics, Cossacks in wide-skirted coats, and more exotically uniformed soldiers from further East.

Russian troops had crossed into East Prussia and Austrian Poland, and while news was vague, contradictory, and prone to sudden outbursts of enthusiasm, there was at least general agreement that the New Russia was in full swing. Thousands of miles of track had been laid, telegraph wire had been strung, reforms had been carried out, and surely in return for all this effort the Empire would be spared the humiliations which had come with the Russo-Japanese war ten years before.

War preparation had become fashionable, and at last Madame Luterek found herself prized for what she was, the wife of a famous surgeon, rather than feeling herself to be an art student’s clumsy and smudged copy of the masterpieces that were those born into position and wealth. Flattering little notes poured in on elegant stationery.

“Madame Luterek, My charitable society is packing bandages and other necessities for the field hospitals. We would be honored if you would join us and provide your advice.”

“Madame Luterek, I am sponsoring a hospital train for the treatment of wounded officers in our noble war effort. I would deeply value your assistance in choosing everything that is most modern and up to date.”

“Madame Luterek, I will be giving a charitable soiree to raise money for sending care packages to the front. Would you and the Doctor Luterek be willing to attend, and perhaps speak a few words regarding the wonders of modern medicine as it is applied today?”

Dr. Luterek himself had no truck with such society philanthropy. The hospital was expanding, with new wards being set up in a mansion lent for the purpose by Prince Mikhailov, and he was now a sought-after voice of authority in both medical and government circles. Money was flowing to the hospital, and he had been tasked to oversee the drafting of a new manual on the proper dressing and drainage of wounds. Madame Luterek, however, was eager to accept these newly offered honors. Not only did she herself accept every possible request for her time, but since she was much taken up with paying calls and attending meetings with the various noble and wealthy personages to whom she was suddenly dear, she deployed Sara and Lena, and Natalie with them, to roll bandages, assemble packages of comforts, and otherwise help to do the legwork of charity.

This meant that the girls’ lessons did not resume after the summer holiday, with only languages kept up in an informal fashion, but the girls thrived on the chance to feel themselves useful in the great national effort. Natalie also found a sense of satisfaction in doing some small piece of work to aid the sacrifice of Mother Russia’s soldiers, though being more than half a foreigner in her own land it seemed more natural to think of them in the pages of Tolstoy than as the actual men slogging down the streets in their brown uniform tunics. She also found in the aid work a welcome escape from the glances which, at moments of tiredness or frustration, Madame Luterek still cast at her. No word had yet been heard from Konrad since his departure. Each day Madame Luterek, after eagerly looking through the morning mail, would explain out loud to herself that the military post was still in chaos with so many men in motion for the mobilization, but she could not help afterwards resting her eyes on the young governess to whom her son had promised to write.

Thus it was that on Saturday, a week after the family’s return to Kiev, Natalie found herself happily occupied in the hospital’s new ward with her charges and a half dozen other young women -- in a grand, wood-paneled library of the old mansion, the shelves now emptied of books and lighter rectangles showing on the paneling where paintings that had long sheltered the wood from the darkening effects of the sun had been taken down -- folding up many-tailed bandages according to the instructions of a Red Cross nurse.

The technique was simple. First the thick, square pad of cotton, designed to stem the bleeding of some chest wound, was laid flat on the table. Then the “tails”, yard and a half long strips sewn onto each side, were paired off, pinned together at the end, and rolled up until the pad had a neat row of tail rows lying in the center. Lastly the pad itself was rolled up, and the whole bundle was placed in the case along with all the others.

“The tails on this one are not the same length,” Lena complained. She held up a pair of tails, one a foot longer than the other.

“Shoddy work,” the nurse supervisor ruled, after inspecting it. She pulled a pair of scissors from her pocket and trimmed the offending length. “This is the consequence when society girls are making bandages while paying more attention to their gossip than to their work. Let this serve as a lesson to all of you.”

Lesson given, she strode away to check on the work of another group of volunteers in the next room. Lena knit her brows and silently performed an imitation of the nurse’s scolding, drawing titters from another young woman.

“Lena,” said Natalie warningly.

The girl sighed and wrinkled her nose in annoyance, but went back to rolling bandages. Conversation returned to whether there would still be balls in the fall season despite the war.

This talk quickly blended into a background noise for Natalie. She thought of the Red Cross nurse, whom Lena had so casually mocked, comparing that figure with her plain gray wool dress, white nurse’s apron, and pinched expression to the young women around her in their summer frocks, cheerfully chattering away while wrapping bandages for wounded soldiers.

The volunteer work of the last week had provided a welcome change from the previous week at the summer house, when she had too often felt the ire of Madame Luterek on her and known that she was thinking of her treasured eldest son and the danger that he would be ensnared by a governess. Not only did rolling bandages and making care packages provide a welcome change from that silent accusation, taking her small part in the war effort provided a new sense of place and purpose which was welcome to her. It was the nurse, however, even with her air of tired frustration, with whom Natalie identified, not the cheerful young women volunteers around her. Soon these volunteers would tire of this activity and move on to some other minor piece of war-related charity or else abandon volunteerism entirely and return to their usual activities, and the hospital would not run the worse for their absence. Indeed, even as she diligently tried to do everything as instructed, Natalie wondered at times if the hospital would work more efficiently without their help than with it. However, if that nurse left, her lack would no doubt be noticed and regretted. She knew the purpose and the right way of doing things, and it seemed clear that her work was essential, not some mere hobby of the moment.

As Natalie was thinking about these things, a young woman from another team of volunteers, assigned to fold and put away bed linens, hurried into the room.

“A troop train has returned from Poland,” she announced, “and there are wounded aboard. The first patients have been moved into the officers’ ward!”

All work stopped.

“Wounded officers?” “What’s happened at the front?” “Has there been a battle?” “Of course there must have. How else could they be wounded?” “Did we win?” “Is the war over?” “How many wounded?”

The newcomer led the way down one hall and then another, past newly constructed shelves and stacks of supplies, and into what had been the ballroom, the wide expanse of polished wood floor now broken up into private niches by walls made of wood frames and white canvas. Above it all, incongruously, still hung the two huge, crystal-bedecked chandeliers, which had given light to different gatherings at which some of these same young ladies had danced with officers in brilliant dress uniforms just a few months before.

Two orderlies entered, carrying a stretcher between them with a wounded man on it. The other volunteers drew back, crowding Natalie back as well. Standing on tiptoe she could see over them a view of the officer being carried in: a gray military blanket covering him from the waist down and above a swath of bandages covering his chest, left shoulder, and the horrifyingly short remains of his left arm. His right arm and shoulder were uncovered, white flesh pristine beside the wreckage of the other. His eyes were open, his mouth a tight line which twitched at the movement of the stretcher. The men carrying him paused, as if uncertain where to go next.

A nurse strode in, her gait all confidence compared to the hesitation of the orderlies.

“Bring that man to the assessment station.”

The orderlies obeyed and set the stretcher gently down on the white draped table that stood in the center aisle between the rows of private niches. The nurse approached the officer, who asked her some question in a voice too quiet to be heard from where they stood. The nurses answer, however, was in a clear, firm voice, “Yes, it is. No more transfers for you. This is a long term ward.”

She lifted a paper tag that was pinned to the officer’s blanket, read it, nodded, and then looked around.

“You there!” It was clearly directed at the small crowd of young women volunteers standing as spectators. “What are all of you doing here?”

No one answered, and there was awkward shifting from foot to foot. With a surge of embarrassment Natalie noted again the contrast between their brightly colored dresses, their untrained eagerness and curiosity, and the nursing sister whose gray and white uniform and commanding professionalism seemed at home in the surroundings of white canvas walls, white sheets, and gray wool blankets.

“This is no place for gawkers, but since you’re here, two of you come this minute and make yourselves useful,” the nurse ordered.

For an instant no one moved. Natalie was mortified for them all, but determined that she at least would not follow shallow curiosity with timid uselessness.

“Come on,” she said to the others, and approached the nurse. For a moment no one else moved, and then she heard the sound of another woman’s boots on the wooden floor behind her. A quick glance over the shoulder and she saw that Sara was following her, eyes wide and mouth tight.

“There are no updates written on your tag,” the nurse was telling the officer. “Has anyone changed your bandages since you were treated on Wednesday?”

He shook his head.

“I’m going to have to change the outer bandages and check for signs of infection.”

She began by unwrapping the outer bandages on the stump of his arm. “No drainage tube,” she said. “Old fashioned field doctors. Dr. Luterek will not approve.” She set the bandages aside and took a notepad and pencil from her apron pocket. “You’re to take notes,” she said, handing these to Sara. “Dressings not changed since Wednesday. No drainage stent.” She sniffed at the stained under-wrappings she had revealed. “No smell of infection.” Now she reached pulled back a little of the wrapping on the shoulder. “Shoulder is warm and shows some inflammation. You,” she indicated Natalie, “Hand me the scissors over there.”

Natalie took the scissors from the side table and handed them to her. The nurse began cutting away parts of the bandages on the officer’s chest, and as she gently pulled away one of the bandages she had freed Natalie realized that what had looked an intricate nest of wrapped bandages was in fact several of the many tailed bandages such as she had just been helping to roll. The thick pads were laid across the shoulder and chest, in overlapping layers, and the long tails were then looped around the back and tied to hold the bandage in place without having to wrap a long bandage round and round the chest.

As the nurse pulled away layers of the bandages they began to come away wet, not with blood but with a slightly yellowish liquid, and a sick-sweet smell of pus and infection began to rise from the wound. The nurse was moving more and more slowly. She started to lift another layer of bandage and the officer’s body jerked sharply.

“I’m sorry,” she said to him, in a voice much softer than she had use with Natalie and the volunteers.

He nodded, tight-lipped. “Is it bad, sister?” he asked after a moment.

“There is some infection,” she said. “The surgeons may have to open it up to remove dead flesh and put in a proper drainage stent that will allow it to heal better. I won’t take off any more now, since the doctor will have to look at it anyway.”

She turned to Natalie and thrust the handful of soiled bandages into her hands. “Go put these in the soiled bag over there.” Then turning to Sara, “Write this down: Signs and smell of infection in left shoulder wound. Significant drainage. Surgeon assessment required.”

As Natalie carried the bandages, whose smell set her teeth on edge and made her back tense, to the bag for soiled linens, she saw that Sara’s hand was trembling badly as she wrote. Surely this was nothing compared to what the officer himself had seen on the field of battle, and yet she found herself horrified at the darkened and soiled bandages she was carrying. The cheerful talk and gossip while rolling bandages earlier in the day now seemed almost sacrilegiously inappropriate to the end for which those bandages were made: covering the wounds torn in human flesh by pitiless lead and steel.

After disposing of the bandages she stood looking down at her hands. She could still smell the drainage from the wound and didn’t want to touch anything until she had found some way to clean her hands.

The nurse saw her. “Over there. The white bowl is carbolic solution. Wash your hands in that, and then rinse them in the water in the blue bowl.”

The acid solution stung her hands, but after she had rinsed and dried them the smell of infection was entirely gone, replaced with a chemical smell which was at least one of cleanliness.

The orderlies were carrying the officer away from the assessment table and to one of the beds. The nursing sister turned on the volunteers. “You’ve had your eyeful now, and I have other patients to assess. Off you go.”

They obeyed, and during the rest of their volunteer shift conversation was much more restrained.

Sara in particular was nearly silent as they finished their work and during the taxi ride back to the Luterek house. Natalie put a hand on her shoulder as they reached the front door. “I’m sorry. I felt we had to do something, but… I didn’t know.”

She nodded fractionally. “I’m thinking of Konrad. You must think of him every day too. That couldn’t happen to him, could it?”

Of course it could, she could not deny it. And while there was a sense in which she thought of Konrad every day, it was not with the longing that his younger sister imagined. But what to say? She hugged Sara to her for a moment instead, and her charge gave a quiet sniff.

It was tea time. Natalie and the girls took a few minutes to freshen themselves and then reported to the sitting room. Madame Luterek was already seated by the samovar, a porcelain cup of tea in her hand and a pile of rather formidable little cakes at her side. It was the gracious ritual of the female afternoon, and yet her expression was not particularly gracious as Natalie and the girls joined her. Indeed, there was something in her look that suggested the outraged Russian bear in all its maternal glory.

Sara and Lena each drew tea from the samovar, took a cake to gnaw on, and retreated to a chair in silence. Natalie felt Madame Luterek’s gaze heavy upon her, but unconscious of wrongdoing reached for a tea cup and waited for developments, which were not long in coming.

“Is there anything that you should be telling me, Mademoiselle Nowakówna?” Madame Luterek asked.

Natalie hesitated. Surely only something to do with Konrad could inspire this level of hostility. If there was some new offense that she had committed on that front, she had no idea what it was, and yet long experience in a school in which it was held that any girl who had managed to give offense to some figure of authority must surely know her guilt -- indeed must have intended it from the bottom of her sinfully begotten soul -- told her that the one thing which was unforgivable was to express ignorance of the wrong, not matter how real that ignorance might be.

She bowed her head and remained silent, knowing that the offense would be revealed soon enough.

“The afternoon post has just arrived,” announced Madame Luterek.

Something from Konrad? Natalie bowed her head again, as if this brief factual statement of Madame Luterek’s were itself enough to explain her guilt.

“This arrived for you,” said Madame Luterek and handed her a letter addressed to Natalie in Konrad’s bold handwriting.

Natalie set down her cup of tea and accepted the letter. Yes, a letter from Konrad, and from Madame Luterek’s behavior, doubtless the only letter from Konrad. How could he think that he would win her through this behavior? For a moment she remembered the injured officer and found it in herself to wish that Konrad had suffered a similar fate, only to whichever hand it was that he used to write. Was he right or left handed? She did not know. That was the ludicrousness of it. She knew so little of him. She wanted nothing of him but to be left alone, and yet he was determined to try to win her in a fashion that made her life miserable.

Conscious of Madame Luterek’s eyes on her, opened the letter.

There were two sheets, each written on both sides. She skimmed down the page. Flattery. Oh God, how could he say that about her? She flushed. Didn’t he know that she would have to show his letter to his parents if she didn’t want to be suspected or even turned out of the house? No, doubtless he did not. That would require him to put himself in someone else’s place and think of them.

“His squadron has crossed into East Prussia, along with the rest of the First Army,” she said aloud, reading further. “Listen to this. ‘Yesterday we saw two men, out of uniform, on bicycles watching us from the top of a hill. They were clearly watching the progress of our formation, and Captain Soldetsky asked that my men and I run them down. We gave them a good chase over open roads and at last captured them as they attempted to take refuge in a barn. They would admit to nothing before the captain, but they were clearly spies and so we had them shot and the farm they were taking refuge in burned.’”

“Spies!” exclaimed Lena.

“There’s more. He says, ‘Today’ – the letter is dated the 18th, so that is Tuesday – ‘we saw our first real action. A dozen German Uhlans were seen deployed to the West. The whole squadron gave chase and we had a glorious charge over gently rolling land. They fell back behind a skirmish line of Jager troops, at the edge of a line of trees, who gave us fire. We couldn’t charge them on account of the trees, but we gave them a pair of volleys from our carbines and then fell back over the rise. The captain informed the field artillery, and they let loose a very satisfying barrage of shrapnel shells after which the infantry went over the ridge and occupied the treeline without difficulty. We are all very satisfied with ourselves and had a feast tonight during which I broke open a case of the champagne I’d bought in Warsaw.’”

She skimmed over a section in which he speculated as to how he might greet her when he returned, in order to celebrate the triumph of Russian arms, then relayed, “He says they are approaching Konigsberg with overwhelming force and expect that the war will be over quite soon.”

Sara and Lena were thrilled with this news, which entirely erased Sara’s anxiety from the day at the hospital. They insisted that she read it again to Borys when he returned to the house an hour later, and yet again at dinner for the benefit of Dr. Luterek. Madame Luterek did not criticize further, but it was clear that although she was excited at the news from her son, her resentment that it had come only to Natalie and not to the members of the family was not yet mollified.

That night Natalie sought out the doctor in his library and gave him the whole letter to read.

“This letter is to you,” he said, “and although you are a part of this household as the girls’ governess, you do still have the right to your own privacy. You do not need to share every letter that you receive with me.”

Natalie studied his face, which was set a grave expression.

“I know. And you’ve been very kind to me. But I want to you read the letter because I did not seek it, and there are some things which he says which…” she searched for the right words that would express her discomfort without reflecting badly on the family’s favored son.

“Ah, I see,” said the doctor, and accepted the letter.

He put on his spectacles and read it carefully. To Natalie, standing before him and watching him slowly turn the pages, knowing what it said and watching for his reaction, it seemed to take an age. At last he folded it and returned it to its envelope.

“I must ask you a somewhat indelicate question, after reading this letter,” he said, taking off his spectacles again and rubbing his brow with his fingers.

Natalie squared her shoulders, for she felt that she knew the sort of question that must be in his mind. “Yes?”

“Have you… had relations with my son?”

Knowing that the words were coming had not in any way prepared her for the shame of hearing them spoken aloud. She flushed and looked down at her skirts.

“No.”

“Did he try to persuade you to?”

Her face burned and she wished that she could suffer any other indignity than this. The doctor’s tone was not unfriendly. It was as if he were interrogating a patient about some troublesome symptoms. And the cough, did that start on Monday as well? But the indignity of it was felt as if she had been caught in the middle of some indecent act and forced to answer questions without having anything with which to cover herself.

“Yes.”

The doctor himself looked away, scratched the back of a knuckle, fidgeted with the envelope to which he had returned the letter, embarrassed at his own question and the answer he had received.

“I am sorry.”

She felt a wash of hope mixed with shame. He understood, and yet, what a thing to understand.

“You are a good girl,” he continued, still looking down at his hands rather than at her. “I am sure that the sisters would be pleased with your behavior. And I’m sorry that you were tested thus in my house and by my son.”

He fidgeted again with the letter. It was clear that he was not angry with her, and yet Natalie found this of curiously little comfort. All she wished was for the interview to be over and to be safely in her room, where she felt tears would come.

“I appreciate your candor in showing this to me. I will assure Madame Luterek that I have read it and know you to be blameless, but you must understand that she cannot see it. We can none of us quite know the feelings of a mother whose son is at war, and I do not think that she could bear to think her son had behaved dishonorably in any way. So this must be your secret. And mine.”

At this last he lifted his gaze to meet hers. She gritted her teeth to keep her jaw from trembling. Sobs wanted to come out, of anger, of loneliness among this family which she was close to and yet was so definitely not hers, so instead of speaking she nodded.

“Thank you, Mademoiselle Nowakówna.”

It was a dismissal, and she accepted it gladly. Without another word she turned and hurried from the library. No one saw her as she rushed up the back staircase to her room or as she cried into her pillow.

The next day was tense, and she made it pass by accompanying Mrs. Sowka to church and then, in the afternoon, going to the hospital to help again, while the girls were occupied with more familial pursuits.

Monday’s morning post brought two more letters from Konrad, one addressed to Dr. Luterek and the other to Sara. The following day brought two more, for Lena and for Madame Luterek. Last of all, on Wednesday, came a postcard for Borys. All had been written on the evening of the 18th and told of the brief cavalry engagement, but the chaotic state of the military post had apparently separated them in transit. Madame Luterek made no apologies, but her eye was, for the present, no longer accusing when it rested on Natalie.

On Friday evening Natalie again approached Dr. Luterek in his library and asked for permission to volunteer at the hospital on a full time basis. The girls were now busy on a new project of their mother’s, helping to organizing the writing of letters to comfort and encouraging those suffering bravely at the front. Wounded soldiers and officers, those injured seriously enough to justify shipping them far from the front for a long recovery, continued to arrive at the hospital, and while the trained nurses provided medical care, and the orderlies washed floors and emptied bedpans, there was need for women volunteers to help with the more everyday needs of the patients.

“The girls are so busy right now I don’t know when they will be ready to return to lessons,” said Natalie. “And the work at the hospital-- I feel that I’m doing something important.”

“Is it so uncomfortable for you here that you’d rather spend time spooning porridge for injured men?” the doctor asked.

There was some truth to this, Natalie acknowledged to herself. The wounded officers were grateful for her help, and the nurses were tolerant of her now that she knew enough of their world to be more help than hindrance. There was none of the awkwardness around the topic of the absent Konrad, ready to spring up at any moment.

“It’s good work,” she said.

“Indeed it is. And this is a medical family. Well, I certainly have no objection. You’ll maintain your wages as a governess and live here, but for the duration of the war (or until you tire of it) you may volunteer at the hospital. Perhaps you can just make sure that the girls read a good book in French every so often when they’re not busy packing comfits for the soldiers.”

“Thank you!” Natalie said. It was the most truly happy she had felt in weeks.


End Part One


Read the next installment

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Chapter 8-3

Near Kiev, Russian Ukraine. August 9th, 1914. As she had taken stock in her room on Friday night, after her interview with Dr. Luterek in the library, the world had seemed a very bitter place to Natalie. Konrad was determined to pursue her against her will, though he seemed to show little knowledge of, or interest in, what sort of person she was, other than a woman that he found attractive in the week before he went off to war, and all those who should know her, who had seemed to care for her, were misunderstanding her as a result. Sara and Lena imagined that she was a heroine out of a Gothic romance, the orphan governess suddenly catching the eye of the handsome master. And Dr. and Madame Luterek envisioned her as the interloping climber who would ensnare their son and keep him from the brilliant match they hoped him one day to make. How could she bear it if this went on?

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.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Chapter 8-2

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.

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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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