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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Chapter 13-3

It's been three weeks since the last installment: eight days of writing and two weeks of being on vacation and finding myself unable to get the time to put words on the page. Sorry for the long delay.

This installment completes Chapter 13. The next chapter will go back to Jozef, now training for the Austro-Hungarian cavalry. The total novel is now a hair under 180,000 words. Four more full length chapters to go and then three short concluding ones. I'm still hoping to put some serious work in and wrap up by the end of the calendar year.


Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 30th, 1914. Breakfast in the Luterek household was not subject to genteel pretensions. Doctor Luterek was a believer in a hearty breakfast, as he often did not have time for a midday meal, and he insisted that it be served early so that he could be at the hospital by eight.

On Tuesday, the morning after Konrad’s memorial mass, Natalie has been hesitant to join the family at table, not sure what kind of greeting would await her. Instead she had taken a currant roll and a flask of tea from the kitchen to consume on the way to the hospital. That night it seemed that peace had returned to the household, and so she joined the family for breakfast Wednesday morning in time to see that peace shattered again.

Natalie was at the sideboard loading her plate with kanapki -- little open-faced sandwiches made of buttered toast set with either fresh cheese curds and a slice of tomato or else several paper thin slices of dry sausage -- when Borys entered the dining room.

“I just got news yesterday,” he announced. All eyes were immediately upon him. “I’ve received my temporary commission as a cadet and orders to report for training as an artillery officer.”

For a moment there was silence, then Madame Luterek burst into tears while the doctor and his daughters all began to talk at once.

“What about your university studies?” The doctor’s voice cut clearly through the noise. “The cavalry was Konrad’s career, but you’ve already spent years studying to become an engineer. Are you going to throw that away?”

“I can return to the university after the war,” Borys said.

“The war can’t last much longer. It’ll be over before you’re even through training. Why throw everything up like this?

“Konrad gave his life for the new Russia, and with him gone it’s my duty to take his place. They offered me a place in an engineering company, but I insisted I had to fight, so they gave me the artillery based on my studies.”

Madame Luterek gave a cry and rushed from the room.

Doctor Luterek rose to follow her, then stopped as the door swung shut behind her. He sat down again and for a moment covered his face with his hands. Watching him Natalie noticed for the first time how the signs of age had crept upon him in the last two months. He had gained weight, his dark suit no longer fitting smoothly as it had when she had first seen him as the eminent surgeon to whose daughters she would be governess. The skin of his face was looser, and as he lowered his hands from his face she could see it hung now in a fleshy fold along his jaw. “Did it even occur to you, Borys, to think about how this would affect your mother?” he asked.

Borys folded his arms before his chest. “Mother was proud enough of Konrad’s commission. Am I not worthy to follow after him and finish his work?”

“Do you really need to ask me why your mother would rather not see you follow Konrad’s example right now?”

“But those are just a woman’s feelings, Father. I would have expected you to take a more rational approach.”

“A rational approach? My son, nothing in the world is currently taking a rational approach. Is it rational that we send millions of men out to injury and death?”

Father and son glared at each other for a moment. It was the doctor who broke away, shaking his head and cracking what was very nearly a smile.

“Come, Borys. I never thought this was the problem that I’d have with you. I remember back in Warsaw, the first time you were home from university, you talked of nothing but the corruption of the empire and the need for reform. When you told Konrad it was foolish to fight for Russia when there were just as many Poles in Austria-Hungary and they were treated better, I thought he was going to hit you. And I worried that if you kept up the student radicalism, I’d get a visit from the police some day. Now you tell me you can’t even stop to think twice before rushing off into the army?”

Borys seemed to be struggling to put his words together. “Father, I--” He threw up his hands. “It’s so easy for you! You have good work, important work, at the hospital. You fight every day to keep men alive. And Natalie too. She’s doing something about this war. But I-- I’m trapped. Nothing I do matters. Nothing I do brings this war any closer to an end. Surely now that we’re in it the only way to a better world is to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible. I don’t want to tell my children someday that I didn’t do anything when my brother gave all.”

“Borys.” The doctor’s voice seemed almost to quaver as he said the name. His tone was alarming to Natalie. It sounded too much like the voice in which the he spoke of Konrad. “My son, I just want you to be alive. Konrad won’t have any children to ask him about the war.”

Borys’s voice was hard, the more so because he was having to make an effort to keep it steady. “I have to go, Father.”

The doctor dropped his napkin on top of his half-finished plate and got up from the table.

“It’s getting late. I’m needed at the hospital. My advice to you, son, is to go see your mother in a few minutes and tell her what is most important: that you love her. Then give her some time to get used to the idea.”

He walked slowly to the door, then paused and turned back. “I am proud of you, Borys. And I hope you’re able to pay the Germans back for what their artillery has done to our family. But please, try to make it up with your mother. And stay alive.”

With that the doctor left. There was silence for a moment, and then Sara burst into her own questions: How soon would he be leaving for training. Would he be far away. Why was being in the artillery like being an engineer?

Natalie saw the room returning to something like its normal tenor and was relieved, but she herself needed to be at the hospital soon, and so she quietly excused herself.

Out in the streets the bustle was the same as on any morning. A handful of soldiers, enlisted men ambling along the street with the studied carelessness of men off duty, caught her attention. It was a common enough sight. It would have been strange to walk the mile and a half to the hospital these days without seeing soldiers in the street. But today Natalie wondered what family discussions, what tears, what ideals stood behind the presence of these men in the army.

Borys had given himself over to a cause, putting on a uniform that was in some sense a symbol of his commitment and beliefs. Doctor Luterek, when he put on his white doctor’s coat and walked the wards, was in another way devoting himself to winning the war. And she… Her work as a voluntary aid in some sense put her in the same fight as the doctor, the fight to save lives, the fight to keep the army strong and in the field. She might stand on the lowest rung of the hospital’s ladder, below the nurses and the male orderlies, but she too in her small, temporary way, was fighting to win the war.

***

Wednesday’s morning shift in the officers’ ward was, according to routine, one of the week’s busiest times, because it was a time for changing dressings. This was a labor intensive and harrowing process which occupied all the nurses and voluntary aids. One at a time, the officers were taken from the ward into a dressings room. There the voluntary aid, acting as the septic nurse, took the old, soiled dressings from his wounds and added them to the pile, redolent of old blood and fluid, which would be taken down to the boiling cauldrons of the laundry.

After the bandages were removed and the wound cleansed with antiseptic, the trained nurse, who took the duties of aseptic nurse, applied new bandages. The septic nurse was never to touch the new bandages. She did not touch the patient again after the moment she washed out the wound with antiseptic. In her turn, the aseptic nurse was never to touch the old bandages, or anything else which had not been sterilized.

The Prince Mikhailov hospital, the officer’s ward in particular, was proud of its record in preventing wound infections, and the wound dressings were carried on with all the solemnity of a sacred rite. It was exhausting work. Standing in the dressings room for hours, ever conscious of what she must not touch, would have been tiring enough, but the soul-wearing thing which left Natalie wishing to find some out of the way place to curl up and cry was the knowledge that she was hurting her patients. She saw each man grit his teeth as she began to unwind his wound dressings, as he waited for the tug which would pull away the layer of bandage which had become attached to his still open wound. She too felt every muscle and nerve on edge, the agony of knowing that she was about to cause agony. She channeled that tense fear into keeping every motion smooth, maintaining rigid control so that when the flinch or moan or even scream came, she did not jerk the bandage or stop moving but continued to move slowly and steadily until the bandage was completely removed. Then she poured antiseptic over the wound, again steeling herself against the patient’s pain, and she was done, able to stand quietly, trying to let her muscles un-tense, while the aseptic nurse applied clean dressings to the wound with the same smooth, controlled motions.

The ward was full. Noon came and went, but the men were carried into the dressings room one after another, a relentless pace that recreated the attacks which had left them thus torn and battered. Sister Levchenko, the trained nurse with whom Natalie was paired, was as relentless as the guns of the faraway battlefield. “Next patient. Remove the bandage. Gently. Antiseptic. Now dispose. Don’t touch, he’ll be all right. He’s an officer. He can withstand pain but he cannot withstand the infection your hands would give him, Nowakówna.”

Natalie had seen Sister Levchenko stay past her shift to sit all night with a dying man who had asked her to be near him. The grey haired sister did not lack feelings. When she ordered a man to keep still as she re-wrapped the gash which bared his hip to the sickly white of his pelvic crest, she did it with the calm of someone who has seen such things many times before and no longer cries at them. Natalie did not cry either, but she still wished she could.

When she was at last free to go to the nurses’ sitting room for a cup of tea, she sank into a chair and would have been happy to have spoken to no one, but Elena sought her out.

“Natalie, I thought Sister Levchenko would never let you go. I want to talk to you.”

Natalie looked at Elena. The tall, thin, middle aged volunteer was different in age and nation, but as the two voluntary aids who put in the most hours, as many as some of the professional nurses, the women had spent a great deal of time working together and shared many cups of tea. And yet...

“I can’t,” said Natalie. “There were so many this morning. I don’t want to talk to anyone right now.”

Elena’s brow furrowed with concern, and she reached out, folding Natalie briefly and silently in an embrace. “Later, then. How about tea when the afternoon shift is over?”

This would mean missing Madame Luterek’s tea at home, but although Natalie knew that might draw a certain degree of ire from her employer, she was willing enough to incur it. And perhaps with Borys’s announcement falling upon the still raw wound of Konrad’s loss, Madame Luterek would be as happy not to see anyone.

“Yes. After we’re done.” Natalie reached out and took the other woman’s hand and gave it a brief squeeze. “Thank you.”

Elena had only just left Natalie to her quiet when Sister Levchenko opened the door of the nurses’ sitting room. Her eyes scanned the room in which five voluntary aides were taking their tea between the morning and afternoon shifts. After taking in the group she settled on Natalie. “Nowakówna, I need a steady set of hands. Would you mind giving up your break?”

She did mind. She was not ready to return to the sights and smells of the morning. But Sister Levchenko, who seldom praised, had asked for her.

“Of course, Sister,” she said and put aside her tea cup.

Sister Levchenko led the way towards the breakfast room which had been converted into the downstairs operating theater. “I told Doctor Suprun about the case we saw this morning with the gas gangrene developing in the thigh.”

Natalie felt the muscles of her back tighten at the memory of the greying, malodorous flesh of the unhealed wound, flecked with the telltale sheen of tiny bubbles of gas forming in the tissue as infection destroyed it.

“He agrees that it requires immediate operation,” Sister Levchenko continued. “I will be assisting, and you will act as septic nurse and provide antiseptic irrigation to the wound during the operation.”

If she could have, Natalie would have turned and fled, left her red cross-emblazoned apron behind and with it the sight and smell of sepsis eating into men’s bodies. But she was the one who could, perhaps, help save a man’s life from the slow, agonizing death that was blood poisoning from the body’s own rot.

They reached the operating room, the patient already laid out on the table with the anaesthetist standing over him applying the mouthpiece, its pad soaked with a carefully measured amount of chloroform, to the patient’s face. At least this time he would be unconscious. The hospital did not consume precious supplies of anesthetic on the regular dressing changes -- the empire’s gallant soldiers were expected to possess the fortitude to maintain a manly silence while their old bandages were peeled away and antiseptic was poured over their open wounds -- but operations were considered worthy. She would not have to see him grit his teeth and shrink from her touch.

As the anaesthetist counted minutes on his watch and the patient sank into stillness, his breathing steady, Doctor Suprun gave his instructions. Few of them applied to Natalie, who would remove the old bandages and then use a rubber tube attached to a bottle of carbolic solution to wash the wound at intervals during the operation, assuring that as the septic tissue was cut away no infection survived upon the tools or the wound, while the doctor and trained nurse performed the rest of the procedure.

Built as a breakfast room in Prince Mikhailov’s city house, the room’s many windows faced east. The curtains which had once graced those windows had been taken down lest the folds of fabric shelter germs. The big, bare windows made the room even more light than it would normally have been. In morning it had been glaring with the direct sunlight streaming in. Now, the diffuse light of the afternoon gave it a quieter warmth. Through the glass panes, Natalie could see the windowboxes, unmaintained since the outbreak of the war, their flowers spilling over in the year’s last profusion.

On the table, the patient was still now: white bandages, dark hair, pale flesh. A sheet had been draped to maintain some semblance of decorum before the nurses, but the whole of his left leg and side was exposed. The calm sunlight of the room emphasized the contrast between the room’s use and its intent; the builders could not have imagined that a man would lie on a table there, waiting to be cut into, instead of breakfast. Nor, before the war, would Natalie have stood in a sun-drenched room looking on a male body so much exposed.

“Are we ready?” asked Doctor Suprun, having completed his instructions. “Good. Let us begin.” He turned to Natalie. “Sister, remove the bandages.”

***

The tea house catered to genteel women who lacked the money to frequent the marble topped tables of more exclusive venues. The main room was small and dim, small tables scattered across a floor of black and white tiles, its feminine character shown by the fact that there was no odor of tobacco smoke mingling with the smells of strong tea and pastries.

A young woman took their order -- a plate of pastries and a pot of strong tea -- and as they waited for these to arrive Elena took a folded piece of paper from her bag and smoothed its creases flat on the scarred wood of the tabletop.

“Did you see these notices?” The older woman was clearly excited, enough so to cut through her own exhaustion after the day’s shifts.

“No.” Natalie leaned closer to read the paper, experiencing once again the slight feeling of dislocation that still came to her on seeing official printing and signs in Cyrillic letters rather than in the blocky Latin letters of French signs and papers. These uses continued to feel alien even as she had become used to used to hearing Russian in the streets and at the hospital, and Polish in the Luterek’s home.

“Women! Enlist to Nurse the Wounded Sons of Mother Russia!” the headline enjoined. There followed a red cross, and below it several paragraphs describing the two month training program to be certified as a Red Cross Sister of Mercy.

“I read about it in the paper this morning,” Elena said. “The army needs ten thousand nurses, and so they’ve created this new program: two months to be certified a Red Cross Sister of Mercy instead of the usual year. Then I saw the notice when I got in this morning. There is to be a training class here – at the main hospital. We could be nurses before the new year.”

“Why?” The exhaustion of the day, emotional even more than physical, sat heavy upon Natalie, and Elena’s clear excitement was exasperating. Had Elena spent the afternoon shift pouring antiseptic over an infected wound as Doctor Suprun cut off more and more flesh until he decided that the entire leg needed to removed?

Elena seemed to read Natalie’s mood and looked away. Then she gave a slight shrug, her voice quiet and expressionless as she replied. “If we became fully trained sisters we’d be paid.”

“Paid?” The idea was offensive. Surely, she was already in the wards almost as many hours as any of the trained sisters. But could any pay make up for standing next to the young officer, that afternoon, when he awoke from chloroform dreams to discover that his left leg was only six inches long? He’d held her hand so tightly and called her “Sister” as he poured out to his fears about a life with one leg. Even as she’d fought to keep her own voice steady and the fog in her eyes from turning into tears that would be visible to him, she had felt a small pride blooming in her that she was a woman doing an office which only a woman could do. Could she accept money for using this womanly power of compassion and healing? The idea sounded as sacrilegious as accepting money for bearing a child.

“Yes, child. Paid.”

Before either could expand upon her thoughts the waitress arrived and placed a teacup before each of them, then a large teapot in the center of the table. Elena took the teapot and poured out cups of the strong brew for each of them.

“And what is so very bad about being paid?” Elena asked. “Before we leave here we’ll pay for our tea. The waitress will use that money to pay for her rent and dinner. And we; we need the money to keep ourselves too, don’t we?”

“Yes, but--” She tried to marshal her thoughts, but they seemed to tumble and surge to get out into the air, the sheer force of them enough to convince regardless of the order. “We give compassion and care, not things that can be bought and sold. You can’t buy a family or a friend, can’t pay for love. Demanding pay would be wrong. How could they ever pay us for the value what we do?”

Elena sat back and looked at Natalie for a moment. “You’re a governess, aren’t you?”

Natalie nodded. The older woman’s tone was calm, and she immediately felt embarrassed at having so clearly expressed her own feelings. Did Elena feel offended?

“When the family’s son died, you spent a lot of time comforting your charges, didn’t you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And they pay you a salary as a governess. Is your comfort for hire?”

“No--”

“Of course not. They pay you to teach their children French and such. You don’t give comfort for money. You give them comfort because you are there and you have a heart. How could you not comfort someone you knew who had just lost a brother?”

“But…” Natalie let the word trail off and fought down the urge to argue simply because she did not like to concede that her instinct could in any way be wrong. Why was it that the idea seemed repulsive? Perhaps her first explanation had been wrong, but there must be some good reason for her natural reaction. As she questioned herself, however, she found no further rational arguments, just a deep exhaustion of the heart, on this day in particular, and an unwillingness to commit to a life of similar days. “I’m sure you’re right. But we’re already volunteering in the wards, and they’ll keep us as long as the war goes on. Once the war is over, I’ll never want to see the inside of a hospital again. It’s too much.”

“I know. It is hard.” Elena looked down to take one of the little pastries from the plate the waitress had set before them. She held it up, a little rose-shaped blossom of pastry with soft white cheese blooming from the center of it. “These are my favorite vatrushka. I’ve been coming here to eat them since I was your age -- more years than I like to admit. Do you know how big they were a year ago? As large as my palm.”

Her attention called to it, Natalie could see that the two inch pastry was smaller than when she had first gone to the tea house with Elena, though even then they had been significantly smaller than the palm of a hand.

“Flour. Butter. Meat. They’ve all nearly doubled in price since the spring,” Elena continued. “And the income my parents left me is in bonds: five percent of principle every year, never more, never less. Except that five thousand rubles a year is becoming a good deal less very quickly. If the war goes on much longer, I won’t have any choice but to work, and nursing is something that I know now, something that helps the empire and all those poor soldiers. If I’m to work, I’d rather be a nurse than… I don’t know: Stand behind a counter all day selling silk undergarments.”

She consumed the pastry, and Natalie watched in silent thought.

“And perhaps there’s a selfish reason too,” Elena added. “What is it the novels say, ‘A woman of small but independent means’? Well I’ve never felt independent. I live off my little income that Mother and Father left me, their girl with a nose a little too big and a fortune a little too small to ever find a husband. And I spend one month out of each winter staying with each of my brothers, keeping an eye on my nephews and nieces while avoiding the cost of heating my own flat during the coldest months. My independence is all dependence on others. I think I’d enjoy finally earning a living from work I do, rather than relying on them.”

***

Natalie sat in her bed that night, her knees drawn up before her under the covers, the hinged frame with the portrait of her mother in her hands.

“I’m afraid.”

Her mother’s eyes, blue-green flecks in a face no larger than Natalie’s thumb, looked back with the same lovely but uncomprehending expression that they always bore.

Surely a lot of people were afraid. Soldiers before they went into battle. Miners before they went into the pit. Factory workers surrounded by all the steam and huge machines. But she had never had to do something she was afraid of to make her living. She had been taken care of. By Nianka. By the sisters. Without her knowledge, by her father’s money. Even now, she had a job as a governess, but that job hung somewhere in the balance between the whims of the Lutereks and the influence of her father.

“They let me have my respectability, but I’m still a kept woman,” she told the portrait. “But there is a door if I can find the courage to open it.”

Some of what was outside that door she knew: the difficult, draining work. Sometimes it was excruciating but bore some aura of heroism, as when she’d assisted in the operation that afternoon, saving a man by taking his limb. Usually it was the routine of making beds, changing bedpans, giving sponge baths -- all the household and bodily needs which the sick and wounded were unable to meet themselves.

The idea of a life spent doing all of these, no end in sight, was oppressive. And yet, coming home to find Madame Luterek taking out her anger and fear -- inspired by Borys returning home now clad in an artillery cadet’s uniform -- on the servants, she had found Elena’s desire for the independence of work taking hold in her own mind as well.

Where did Elena live? She’d spoken of a flat which she had left to stay with relatives during the winter, to avoid the cost of fuel. Could she, Natalie, have a flat if she was a nurse? She could put away all the warnings that the sisters had provided about the perils of entanglement when living as a governess or a lady’s companion, at the sufferance of her employer’s household -- always in danger of not being liked enough by the lady of the house, or liked too much by the men. Perhaps some day she would have a bird, or a cat, or even a little dog like the one Madame Ricard had brought with her on their shopping trip to Paris.

In her mind she constructed quiet and cozy refuges, which she described in hushed tones to the portrait of her mother. And to maintain those rooms, she would rely not on the whim of a host family nor on the pleasures of a man, she would pay for them with her salary, the salary she earned. She would be a nurse.

Read the next installment.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Chapter 13-2

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.

Dearest Family,

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.

“Yes?”

“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.”

“Borys--”

“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.



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