Authors: Mary Jane Staples
About the Book
1925, a damp wintry night in Berlin. Englishman Philip Gibson, in Germany to seek the answers to a tantalizing mystery surrounding the Grand Duchess Anastasia, witnesses an attack on Natasha, a young woman who has fled from Russia.
When Philip takes the fragile, lonely Natasha in to help her recuperate, she quickly falls for his kind and caring nature. But when further threats are made on her life, Philip finds himself at the heart of another mystery.
What is it that links Natasha to the mystery of the duchess? And will her love for Philip survive the secrets that will be unearthed?
When she was young, she was an irreverent mimic, an irrepressible tomboy, a teasing chatterbox and altogether so precocious that her sisters frequently discussed ways and means of getting rid of her.
‘We could post her somewhere,’ said thirteen-year-old Tatiana.
‘Post her? How could we post her?’ asked Marie, eleven.
‘We could parcel her up and address her to darkest Africa,’ said Olga, the eldest at fifteen.
‘She wouldn’t like that,’ Marie commented.
‘Nor would the darkest Africans,’ Tatiana said, laughing.
‘If we were living in Ancient Rome,’ said Olga, ‘we could throw her to the lions.’
‘Lions aren’t as silly as that, you know,’ said Marie, ‘they’d throw her back.’
‘It’s really very difficult,’ said Tatiana.
‘What is?’ asked Marie.
‘Getting rid of Anastasia,’ said Olga. ‘Even Papa says she’s as tough as old boots!’
They were inseparable companions, the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, despite all the mischievous impishness of Anastasia. There were carefree summer days at Livadia, their white palace in the Crimea, and exhilarating winter frolics in the snow at Tsarskoe Selo, their home by St Petersburg. They grew up in joy and innocence, protected by family love from the abrasive politics and harsh realities of the world outside. Olga was shy and gentle, Tatiana elegant and striking, Marie romantic and lovely, Anastasia quick-witted and full of fun. They adored their haemophiliac brother, Alexis, a boy of surprising gaiety and courage. They loved their parents, and they loved Russia and its people. They thought the people loved them. But when the Revolution came, men who said they were the representatives of the people locked them up, the whole family, and put guards around them, and finally sent them to dark and glowering Ekaterinburg in the unfriendly Urals.
On 17th July 1918, the whispered news shocked most people in Ekaterinburg. True, some citizens were indifferent, and some even said good riddance to the lot of them. But the majority were horrified.
The Bolsheviks would have preferred the people to know nothing, but it was the kind of incident that could never have remained a secret. Even though not a single announcement was made by the local Soviet, by the middle of that day everyone in the town knew that the Tsar of Russia, together with his wife, children and servants, had been executed in the house belonging to a merchant called Ipatiev. And, terrifyingly, those who had not died under the hail of bullets had been finished off by bayonets.
The Tsar, perhaps, had been a ruler of tragic errors and omissions, and Alexandra, his German wife, had proved a disaster to Russia. It was unlikely they would not have had to pay some penalty for failing the people. But the four girls and the sick boy, surely there was still innocence in them? The citizens of Ekaterinburg had not asked for innocence to be judged guilty. It was an uncomfortable thing to
realize the Ekaterinburg Soviet had ordered the execution of the whole family without consulting the people they purported to represent. The people did not protest, not openly. On hearing the news carried by the shocked whispers, they did not take to the streets and publicly demonstrate their disagreement. That kind of behaviour would have been condemned as counter-revolutionary by the Soviet, and Red soldiers would have been sent to clear the streets and shoot one or two demonstrators. The Revolution had been necessary, of course, in view of the grievous shortcomings of Tsarist Russia, but did the Bolsheviks have to be quite so bloodthirsty?
It was a terrible thing, and a worrying one, the murder of innocents, made the more worrying by the rapid progress of the advancing White Army. The Bolsheviks were going to have to run for their lives within a few days, and their Red soldiers were making plans to evacuate the town. The Whites would sweep in unopposed, discover the Imperial family had been massacred and begin at once to ask questions. They would not be kind to suspects or to anyone who refused to cooperate. If all that was not uncomfortable enough, there
was an additional unpleasantness. Only a few hours after the massacre, local commissars, accompanied by soldiers, had been hammering on people’s doors, bursting into their houses and searching, they said, for a young woman who had been wounded in some way or other. However it had happened, and whatever her condition, she was wanted. Some family was hiding her, the commissars said, and woe betide that family when she was found.
In one particular house, a house well kept and pleasant, Red soldiers stood guard over a middle-aged man, his wife and their two sons, while Commissar Vasily Bukov interrogated their young daughter in a room apart. A swarthy man with cold, grey eyes and a scar on his left cheek, Bukov had given his soul to the cause of Bolshevism. A man of festering hatreds, he had contributed ferocity and fanaticism to the Revolution.
He had already beaten and bruised the young girl, without getting from her the information he was after. So he took hold of her hair, and wrenched her head back until her slim throat was tautly and cruelly arched, her mouth open and her breathing tortured.
‘Tell me which house it was,’ he said.
She knew her mother and father would want her to say nothing, would want her to bear a little pain for the sake of one whose pain was far worse. So, because she loved her parents and honoured them, she said nothing. Also, she had promised a man, a man who was her friend, to keep quiet. She bore the pain.
‘Tell me, slut.’
The hand twisted her hair, searing her scalp until it felt on fire.
But she only gasped, ‘I know nothing.’
The cold eyes, impassive in their indifference to her suffering, bored deep into hers.
‘That was not what you said to a friend of yours.’
What she had said to her schoolfriend Tanya had only been a few words, impulsively blurted out and instantly regretted.
‘I know nothing,’ she gasped again, and for that tormented note of brave defiance he savaged her hair and scalp monstrously. Her whole being, her very soul, cried out in anguished protest that a man could be so cruel.
Her parents heard a choking cry from her, a cry she could not help. Her mother paled, and her father winced in shock. They had
not thought the commissar would be brutal to their fourteen-year-old daughter, nor could they think what it was he wanted from the girl. They had listened to the speeches of revolutionaries, but at no time had they been given the impression that a Bolshevik official would behave like the worst of the Tsarist secret police. They had read the many published declarations of Lenin and Trotsky, and neither of these men had ever intimated the Bolsheviks would ill-treat children. What they had said, more than once, was that they would do away with the excesses and cruelties of Tsarism.
‘Tell me,’ said Commissar Bukov again. The girl, head wrenched farther back, only emitted a gasping sob. ‘You will tell me,’ he said, and his total lack of emotion was as terrifying as his cruelty. He let go of her hair and clapped his hand hard over her mouth. With his other hand, he took hold of one of her fingers. Quite deliberately, he bent it back and broke it. Her scream of pain, smothered by his hand, came to his ears only as a muffled gurgle. But because she felt that that was the final pain, because it was done and he could not possibly be crueller, she still said nothing that would betray a certain man and a suffering young woman.
Commissar Bukov flung her to the floor. ‘I’ll give you fifteen minutes to nurse that finger,’ he said, ‘fifteen minutes to think about it. Then I’ll be back.’
It was always an effective ploy, to inflict excruciating pain and to give the victim an unbearably tormenting time to dwell on new agony. He locked her in, placed one of his soldiers outside the door and returned to the family. He began to question them, not for the first time. What the girl knew, the family must know. She would have told them. Her parents had told him they did not know what he was talking about. But they were middle-class hypocrites and Tsarists, of course. Which made them liars. It aroused the always smouldering fire of his hatred when the mother, instead of answering his questions, demanded to know what he had done to her daughter. He responded with a cold, venomous obscenity that shocked her.
Her husband turned white at the names the commissar called her, and her sons stared at the scarred face of hatred in incredulous horror. Four Red soldiers were present, but this did not deter the mother from speaking out in passionate denunciation of all Commissar
Bukov stood for. Her husband added his own quiet condemnation of the obscenity. They still did not realize what Bukov was capable of. His scar turned livid, his cold eyes seemed to become shot with redness, and in his fury and venom he struck the mother across the mouth. Blood ran from her broken lips. One of the sons shouted and leapt at him, kicking and striking him. He sent the boy crashing over a chair, breaking his arm. The father, appalled, spoke in passion.
‘Is this what Lenin has sent us in place of the Cossacks – animals?’
That was more than Bukov could stand. He hissed an order to his men.
‘Take them out and shoot them, all of them. They are Tsarists and counter-revolutionaries. Shoot them.’
It was not necessary for a commissar to obtain higher authorization for an execution of this kind. In him was vested the privilege of judgement and verdict as far as counter-revolutionaries were concerned. Counter-revolutionaries presented the greatest threat to the Revolution. Nor could age save the condemned. Thus, a boy of twelve and another of sixteen could be considered no less guilty than
their parents. They too could be shot on the spot.
The Red soldiers took the family out to the rear of the house, into the garden. The girl saw them from a window. She saw her parents and her brothers, and she heard the desperate pleas of her parents on behalf of her brothers. She saw the rifles of the soldiers. Frenzied, she ran to the door and beat on it. The guard unlocked the door and opened it a little.
‘I will tell! I will tell!’ she cried, for what else could she do now? What else could anyone have done?
‘Yes, when the commissar comes back,’ said the guard, and pulled the door shut.
She screamed, and ran back to the window. Her frantic hands scrabbled to open it, her broken finger forgotten in her terrible desperation. She suddenly froze. In unbelieving horror she heard the rifles fire and saw her family fall, her mother, her father and her two brothers. For a moment her lacerated mind threatened to explode into madness. But when the soldiers went with Commissar Bukov back into the house, she opened the window and climbed out. She wanted to run to her dead family, to lie with them and to sob herself to
death with them, but she knew she would be denied that. She fled, her broken finger less of an agony than the pain in her mind.