Years ago, I visited St. Petersburg, Russia. Back then, it was still called Lenningrad. But despite decades of Soviet rule, the majesty of the tsarist architecture was still there. Looking at it, touring the Hermitage, visiting the Summer Palace, etc., it was easy to imagine the magic of the city was real. I suspect that’s when the very first germs of this story took root. For more on how it came into being and to read the first snippet, follow this link. And now to continue the story. . . .
“Katya, please, go upstairs and make sure your brother is getting dressed for dinner. You know your papa will be home soon.”
Irena Baranova stood in the doorway to her husband’s study and shook her head. She’d made this simple request once already. Not that Katya had heard. The girl – no, she had to quit thinking of Katerina as a girl. She was a young woman now – had her nose in a book. As was almost always the case when she read, Katya was oblivious to the world.
Not that Irena minded. They had a few minutes before Feodor returned home. Time enough for Katya to finish the page and then see to her brother.
Eighteen year old Katerina Yelizaveta Baranova sat in a well-worn chair before the far window. The heavy draperies were pulled tightly against the falling darkness outside. The dark of the room was relieved only by the glow from the lamp next to Katya. Not that Katya realized how late it had become. Once lost in a book, nothing else existed for her.
Aggravated as she should be, Irena couldn’t help smiling as she looked at her daughter, her eldest child. Tall and willowy, it was hard to guess it from the way Katya sat curled in the chair, much like Kisa, the family cat. Katya’s thick auburn hair fell in soft waves below her shoulders. She might not be beautiful in the classic sense, but Irena knew she’d grow more beautiful as she matured, something other women would resent with the passing years. Until then, there was a strength to Katya’s features, softened by compassion, that couldn’t be ignored.
“Katya,” she repeated, a hint of impatience creeping into her voice.
“Mama.” Katya looked up from her book, her expression a mix of affection and aggravation. “Sasha’s probably got his nose pressed to his window, watching for Papa. You know how he misses him.”
“Which is why I need you to make sure he’s not so busy watching for your papa, he has forgotten to get ready for supper.”
“Mama, you worry too much.” Katya carefully marked her place before closing the book and placing it on the table next to her chair. Then, with a cat-like grace Irena envied, she uncurled her legs and climbed to her feet. “But I will go hurry Sasha along. I want to make sure he’s worked on his lessons for morning any way.”
Katya lightly kissed her mother’s cheek before leaving the study. Irena looked after her, no longer trying to hide her smile. Katya was one of a number of reasons why no one would mistake them for a “typical” Russian family, noble or not. In fact, being an atypical Russian family was something both she and Feodor, her husband these last twenty years, prided themselves on. Just as they prided themselves on raising an intelligent, independent daughter.
Of course, there were times she might wish Katya was just a bit less independent. . . . But not often.
The door to her brother’s bedroom flew open and the boy hurtled into the hallway. With the ease of much practice, Katya stepped to the side, all but hugging the wall. Her right hand reached out and closed around Sasha’s arm as he rushed past, pulling him to a halt. Twelve-year-old Aleksander glared up at her, outraged that she’d stopped him. Then, as she reached out to ruffle his dark hair, smiling in affection, he ducked his head and grinned in response.
“Papa may be home, but do you want to greet him by bouncing down the stairs on your head?” she teased.
“But my head is hard, Katya. You keep telling me that,” Sasha said with a cheeky grin.
“So I do, Sashel. But think how sad it would make Mama if you bled all over your new shirt. And what of Anna who would have to clean the mess?”
“Well –” He tilted his head to one side as he looked up at her, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth even as he pretended to consider it all. “I guess it would make for a homecoming Papa might not enjoy.”
“Then, shall we go down now and give him one that he will?”
Together they made their way downstairs a bit more slowly – although, to be honest, not that much more – than Sasha wanted. After all, he wasn’t the only one anxious to see their father after Feodor’s week long absence. But there was one person in the household who had missed Papa more than either of them and that was their mother. Knowing that, Katya hoped she’d managed to stall her brother long enough for their parents to have a short but private greeting because it would be their last time alone until Sasha went to bed and she retired to her room and her own studies.
As they entered the salon, Katya smiled to see how her father still held Mama close, love clearly reflected on both their expressions
“Papa!” Sasha rushed across the salon and flung himself into Feodor’s open arms.
“Irena, I do believe our son is glad to see me,” he said, his brown eyes twinkling. “But how about our daughter? Have I been gone so long she has forgotten me?”
Katya grinned and hurried to join her brother in their father’s embrace. “Never, Papa, but little Aleksander here didn’t look like he’d make room for me.”
Feodor cupped her chin in his big hand and kissed her cheek. “It is good to be home. Now, I know your mother and Anna have supper almost ready. Why don’t the two of you help set the table while I freshen up?”
Katya hid her smile to see how badly her brother wanted to protest. After all, Papa had just gotten home. But neither of them had been raised to either backtalk their parents or take for granted anything they had. That was one thing that made their family different from so many of those of Katya’s friends. Despite the fact her parents came from old, aristocratic families, they had taken great pains to make sure both Katya and Sasha understood that did not entitle them to anything they did not earn for themselves.
Because of that, they did not have a houseful of servants. Instead, they had Anna Petrovskaya, their live-in maid who helped Irena with the cleaning and cooking, and her husband, Viktor, who acted as butler and chauffeur. Both had come with the family when it moved to St. Petersburg in 1906 when Feodor began working for Peter Stolypin, then Minister of the Interior.
If an occasion arose when they needed additional help, Irena hired it. As a result, both Katya and Sasha had learned early on how to pick up after themselves and care for the home. After all, if they were lucky enough to have a home and nice things, they should learn how to care for them themselves.
“Come along, Sasha.” Katya smiled once more at their father and winked at their mother. “You can talk to Papa over supper.”
Later, they retired to the sitting room, as they did most evenings when the entire family was home. Unlike many of the other families of their acquaintance, they did not follow the trend of the children being sent to their rooms or the nursery while the adults went their separate ways. No, Irena and Feodor believed in the importance of spending time with their children, sharing the events of the day with one another.
Katya smiled indulgently as she watched her brother all but run across the room to settle on the floor next to their father’s favorite chair. How many nights had he spent sitting there, looking up at Feodor, raptly listening to their father talk about any variety of topics? Not that she blamed him. Katya had spent her fair share of nights sitting there as well, at least she had until her mother had taken her to one side and explained how important it was for Sasha to have some of their father’s attention now that he was growing up.
“So,” Feodor began as he leaned back and reached for his snifter of brandy. “How have things been while I was gone?”
“You know how it is, dear,” Irena began, her blue eyes twinkling as she glanced first at Sasha and then at Katya where she curled on the far end of the sofa opposite her mother. “The children miss you, but try to act as if they don’t.”
“Mama!” Sasha protested, a blush creeping across his fair cheeks.
“Don’t let your mama tease you, Sashel. I know you do your best to be the man of the family, and I appreciate it. I feel better when I have to leave, knowing you are here looking after your mother and sister.”
But he didn’t, not really, and Katya knew it. Just as she knew he wished she had been born a son. Oh, he loved her. There was no doubting that. He made it clear every day. Still, she knew he’d feel better if she had been a son, just as she knew some sort of trouble was coming and it worried her father. But what could she do? He wouldn’t talk to her about it. Nor, she suspected, had he discussed it with her mother and, until he had, there was very little any of them could do to help.
“Katya.” Concern touched Feodor’s voice and she shook herself.
“I’m sorry, Papa.”
“You were a world away, child. Is everything all right?”
“It is.” She smiled to reassure him. “I was just thinking about today’s classes.”
“Are you sure you weren’t thinking about some boy?” he teased and it was her turn to blush.
“I’m positive,” she answered firmly.
“Feodor, quit teasing the girl,” Irena scolded, her eyes sparkling with good humor. “Katya has been quite busy this week helping with Sasha’s studies as well as attending her classes at university.”
“Good.” The smile he turned to his daughter had Katya all but preening in pride. “And, Katya, I promise we will discuss sending you to either Uncle Stefan in New York or Aunt Katerina in London to attend university there very soon.”
For a moment, Katya just sat there, looking from one of her parents to the other. Then, as the full import of what Feodor said sunk in, she all but flew from the sofa to throw her arms around her father’s neck. She couldn’t believe it. She’d hoped — no, she’d prayed — to be able to go to university in England or America, but she’d never thought she’d be allowed. It cost so much money and her parents had said many times they did not want her so far away. Now, all of a sudden, it looked like her dream might come true.
What had happened to change Papa’s mind?
“Thank you, Papa, Mama.” She returned to her seat, pausing long enough to give her mother a hug equally as enthusiastic as the one she’d given her father.
“No promises, Katya. We will have to see. But I do promise your mother and I will discuss it with you soon.”
She nodded, knowing she shouldn’t get her hopes up, but unable to help it. Even discussing it was more than she’d ever expected. Whenever she’d brought up the possibility before, one or the other of her parents had always changed the subject. She didn’t care why they suddenly seemed to have changed their minds. Not if it meant possibly being able to live out her dream.
“I understand, Papa, and thank you.”
“Tell us, dear, how bad was the trip home?” Irena asked. Her fingers lightly traced the floral pattern of the teacup she held. A hint of concern colored her voice. Katya understood. They’d both worried the weather would delay Feodor’s return.
“Uneventful. Of course, if I’d left Moscow any later, I might not have made it home today. The closer to the capital we came, the worse the weather. I admit, I worried about ice on the rails.” He sipped his brandy and the reached down to ruffle Sasha’s hair. “And how was your day today, Sasha?”
For the next few minutes, the boy described in infinite detail everything that happened at school. Both Feodor and Irena listened, occasionally asking a question. Katya wasn’t surprised when her brother commented on the number of his classmates who had not been in school, taking advantage of the weather to stay home. Nor was she surprised when he named several of them. Too many of his classmates came from families who felt the rules did not apply to them unless the Tsar said they did. That attitude would only lead to more trouble for Russia.
“And your religion class?”
For a moment Sasha didn’t respond and Katya frowned in concern. He generally enjoyed his classes with Father Dmitri and couldn’t wait to tell them what he’d learned that day. Worried, Katya leaned forward, waiting.
“Sasha,” Irena prompted. “Did something happen today?”
“I don’t know, Mama.” A frown creased his forehead. “Father Dmitri taught us more about God’s covenant with man. That was interesting.”
“Sashel, what is it? What troubles you?” Feodor asked.
“We had a visitor today, Papa.”
Katya glanced from her father to her mother and back again. This was the first she’d heard of a visitor and, judging by her mother’s expression, the first Irena had heard of it as well. Still, that didn’t explain Sasha’s reluctance to talk about the class. Could something have happened, something Father Dmitri hadn’t spoken about with Irena when she collected Sasha from the cathedral?
For a moment, no one said anything. Then Feodor cleared his throat and spoke softly, gently. “Grigori Rasputin, son?”
“Did he say anything?”
“He said he wanted to know how our studies were going and he listened to us recite scripture for a few minutes. Then he left.”
“Sasha, what else?” Irena asked. When he didn’t reply, she moved to kneel before him, taking his hands in hers. “Sashel, you know you can tell us anything, no?”
He nodded once, almost reluctantly.
“Then what troubles you?”
“I know it’s wrong to fear him, Mama, but I do. He scares me.”
“Sasha.” Katya couldn’t help herself. She moved quickly to kneel next to their mother, closing the protective circle around her brother. No one, no matter who they were, was allowed to scare him. “It’s all right. There is nothing wrong with fearing him. To be honest, he scares me too.”
For a moment Sasha said nothing. Then, when he looked up at her, his blue eyes that were so much like their mother’s filled with tears. “Really?”
“Really,” she confirmed. “He is so different from Father Dmitri and the other priests. Maybe because he’s so intense. Maybe because of his role with the Royal Family. But, yes, he scares me.”
She did her best to let him see she spoke the truth. Grigori Rasputin did frighten her. She’d met him once, in Nevsky Prospect when she and their mother had been shopping. That day, she’d realized Irena didn’t like the holy man despite the fact her mother had been nothing but respectful as she introduced him to her daughter. That alone would have been enough to keep the memory sharp. But it was her own reaction to him that surprised her, and that came rushing back.
Never before had she reacted so strongly to anyone. Nor had she ever wanted to avoid being near a person as she did the holy man from Siberia. It had been all she could do not to turn and cross the street, leaving her mother to deal with Rasputin on her own. There was something about him that was wrong. She knew it, even if she didn’t understand it.
And now the man had been near her brother and had scared him. Why?
“Your sister is correct, Sasha. It isn’t wrong to fear Rasputin. But it also isn’t something to discuss outside of the family. Not even to Father Dmitri,” Feodor said, his expression troubled as he looked over his son’s head to Irena. Seeing it, Katya swallowed hard, a knot of fear growing deep inside her. “Did he do or say anything else?”
“No, Papa. Only that we were credits to Father Dmitri’s fine teaching. But it didn’t really sound like he meant it.”
“Don’t worry about it anymore, Sasha. You’ve done nothing wrong.” Feodor pulled him to his feet and gave him a hug. “Now, it is bedtime for you, my young man. Go up with your sister. She’ll help you get ready. Your mother and I will be along shortly to kiss you good night.”
“Papa’s right, Sasha,” Katya said, taking her cue from their father as she climbed to her feet. “I will take a look at your lessons while you change. Then you can read to me for a change.”
He grinned, almost despite himself, and slipped his hand in hers. With one last look over her shoulder at their parents, Katya knew she wasn’t the only one worried by Rasputin’s sudden appearance in Sasha’s class that afternoon. Unfortunately, she had a feeling neither Feodor nor Irena would discuss their concerns with her, at least not yet.
And that worried her more than the rest of it.
If you want to see more from this novel-in-progress, leave a like or comment below. Thanks!
The above snippet is from the very rough draft of Russian Nights, so there will be mistakes and changes will be made when and if it finds its way into publication. It is also copyrighted material. So please don’t share, etc., without my written permission.
Featured Image by Brigitte makes custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay