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Authors: Jane Feather

Silver Nights

BOOK: Silver Nights
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Jane Feather
Silver Nights

Contents

Prologue

The piercing wail of the newborn taking hold on life…

Chapter 1

The ancient caravan route connecting the Wild Lands—the savage steppes…

Chapter 2

Sophie left the library, fighting the urge to run to…

Chapter 3

Sophie slept little until dawn, when she fell into a…

Chapter 4

The first jubilant, bragging crow of the farmyard cock was…

Chapter 5

General, Prince Paul Dmitriev, hands clasped behind his back, marched…

Chapter 6

The silence in the lofty dining room was oppressive—part of…

Chapter 7

There was a moment of complete terror, when Sophie felt…

Chapter 8

“Disappeared! What the devil do you mean, Boris Mikhailov has…

Chapter 9

It was four weeks later, on the night that the…

Chapter 10

Sophie had lost track of time. There was little sensation…

Chapter 11

Sophie woke, naked and alone beneath the furs. She lay…

Chapter 12

It was an icy gray afternoon at the end of…

Chapter 13

“I have it in mind to invite Princess Dmitrievna to…

Chapter 14

Her laugh mocked him. Every toss of her head implied…

Chapter 15

Cannons boomed, resounding across Kiev, to announce the breakup of…

Chapter 16

“Do you notice anything at all out of the ordinary…

Chapter 17

It was a most satisfactory answer, Catherine reflected, leaning back…

Chapter 18

“How long do you think you would like to remain…

Chapter 19

“What do you mean, ‘with child'? Answer me, woman!”

Chapter 20

“Katya Novikova is a strong, healthy girl, Princess. She will…

Chapter 21

Adam felt the first prickle of foreboding at dawn. Frowning,…

Epilogue

“Is it a good idea for him to eat worms?”…

July 1764

The piercing wail of the newborn taking hold on life occurred simultaneously with the last breath of the woman who had given her that life.

The man standing by the bed, holding the child between his hands, gave a great cry of sorrow; that she should die, his Sophia in all her delicate beauty, here in this squalid chamber where rats scuttled across the earthen floor, and the light and warmth of the bright summer day outside failed to penetrate the tiny unglazed aperture that went by the name of window.

The old babushka who had attended the birthing was now attending to the dead, closing those once ravishing dark eyes, cleansing the slim, fragile body of the woman who a short time before had graced the glittering palaces of St. Petersburg and Moscow, only to die in blood-soaked agony in a wretched hovel.

“The soldiers were not more than half a day behind us. They will be here within the hour, Prince.” A voice spoke with barely concealed anxiety from the low doorway of this one-roomed roadside posting house. A bearded giant of a man in rough homespuns crouched beneath the stone lintel, massive shoulders hunched, eyes worried.

Prince Alexis Golitskov turned, the babe still in his arms. His eyes were blank as if he no longer looked upon the corporeal world. “I must bury my wife,” he said.

Boris Mikhailov regarded his master sorrowfully as he spoke the simple truth. “If you stay, Prince, you will be arrested.”

“And if we had not run, my Sophie would still live,” replied the prince. “She would not have died such a death in St. Petersburg.”

“If you had stayed, the princess would have given birth in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul,” said the other with stubborn truth. “She also was implicated in the plan to deliver Ivan from imprisonment and have him proclaimed rightful emperor in the czarina's stead. Her Imperial Majesty will not be merciful; the evidence gathered against you is at present irrefutable.” He spoke urgently in this chamber where the stench of blood and death hung heavy. “There has been one execution, six men sentenced to run the gauntlet ten times between a thousand of their strongest comrades. You know these truths, Prince. If you are found within the borders of this land, you will be arrested. If you maintain your freedom, you will have at least the chance to defend yourself.”

Alexis shook his head. “Why should I wish to defend myself now, Boris? When the one thing that gave my life meaning has been taken from me. No, I will bury my wife; but have no fear, old friend, Prince Dmitriev's soldiers will not take me here.” The shadows in his eyes deepened. “It is a puzzle, is it not, Boris, why the man Sophia Ivanova and I called friend, to whom we opened our hearts and our house, should be the instrument of the empress's justice?”

“It is to be assumed Prince Dmitriev must obey imperial orders like anyone else,” Boris Mikhailov responded. “He is a colonel in the Imperial Guard.” The statement was accurate enough, but the muzhik's tone had an ironic edge.

If the prince heard it, he ignored it and simply shrugged as if dismissing the puzzle as an irrelevancy. He held out the child. “Take the babe to Berkholzskoye. The unborn cannot be held responsible for their parents' crimes—real or manufactured.” A faint, cynical smile twisted the sculpted lips. “What could she know of assassinated emperors and hasty
words, private enemies and whispered lies? My father will care for her. Tell him she is to be called Sophia.”

“Sophia Alexeyevna,” said Boris, giving the child her patronymic as he took the scrap of humanity who had ceased wailing and stared up at him with her mother's dark eyes—a little princess of the great house of Golitskov, born in a dark, flea-ridden hovel to a desperate couple fleeing the consequences of a deadly intrigue at the court of the czarina Catherine, Empress of all the Russias.

When Prince Paul Dmitriev and his pursuing soldiers arrived at the post house, they found the old babushka with a tale of birth and death, a newly dug grave, and the body of Prince Alexis Golitskov, his hand in a death grip around the revolver that had shattered his skull.

The ancient caravan route connecting the Wild Lands—the savage steppes of the Russian empire—with the west ran from Kiev. Berkholzskoye, the Golitskov estate, bordered the River Dnieper, some fifty versts from Kiev. Sophia Alexeyevna had no memory of a place outside Berkholzskoye; no memory of a guardian other than her grandfather, Prince Golitskov; no knowledge of a world where the great Golitskov family had been once embedded in the fabric of society. The intrigue of the imperial palaces in Moscow or St. Petersburg meant nothing to a girl for whom the haunting, fearsome beauty of the steppes had always been a playground; for whom the romance of the caravan route leading to the civilized glories of Austria and Poland was the material of dreams; for whom the Cossacks, Kirghiz, and Kalmuks, the horsemen of the steppes with their long hair and wild laughter, were the princes of her reveries as the girl became woman.

She was a child of the steppes who, if she ever looked beyond them, looked west, never east into the center of her homeland.

Old Prince Golitskov, from his embittered soul, had taught his granddaughter to keep her eyes turned away from the east and the court of the czarina Catherine. He had taught her that that court and that rule had destroyed her parents, and she should ignore its very existence. And while he taught her these things, he said nothing about his own fears that the heiress to the mighty fortune of the Golitskovs would not be left forever in the obscurity of the Wild Lands that she loved,
under the unorthodox guardianship of an irascible old aristocrat who had early eschewed the duties and pleasures of the imperial court.

Such bitter thoughts, such prescient fears, did not plague Sophia Alexeyevna. On her twenty-first birthday, the day she attained her majority, she was told she was heiress to some seventy thousand souls scattered over estates comprising thousands of versts in this vast empire, but she had interest only in Berkholzskoye. Such immense wealth had no meaning for one who saw no need for it. She took for granted the sprawling mansion, the army of serfs, the magnificent horses, the well-stocked library. Her customary dress was a riding habit with a divided skirt, enabling her to ride astride. She had no reason to develop an interest in her wardrobe, since society did not abound in the steppes, and her grandfather was not one to encourage or welcome passing travelers beyond the obligatory courtesies.

Had she been asked, Princess Sophia Alexeyevna Golitskova would have declared herself utterly content with her life; she had horses, books, the companionship of her adored grandfather, and the freedom of the steppes. The vague yearnings that occasionally disturbed the customary tranquillity of her sleep she put down to the extra glass of wine or the second helping of pashka at supper.

 

The ice on the River Neva was breaking at long last, great cracks resounding in the springlike air as the splits appeared, widened; the separated blocks drifted, growing smaller under the feeble rays of the sun.

The czarina Catherine stood at the window of her study in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, looking down at the river. In a week or two, the city would be open once more to shipping; the winter isolation would be over and the outside world could again enter Catherine's frozen empire.

“It is quite alarming to think she has attained her majority already. How life gallops away with one,
mon ami
.” She turned back to the room, giving her toothless smile to its other occupant, a giant of a man in his mid-forties, long-
haired and one-eyed, no concessionary eye patch over the empty socket—a veritable cyclops dressed as a courtier.

Prince Potemkin returned the smile. “You do not bear the marks of a galloping life, Madame.” It was no obsequious flattery. He did not see a fat, toothless little lady of fifty-seven; he still saw his wonderfully sensual lover of eight years ago, and he saw the vigor, the boundless energy, the vast intelligence of the most powerful and fascinating woman in the civilized world.

Catherine did not question the compliment. Why should she? The young lovers who nightly brought their firm flesh and fresh skin to her bed reinforced her belief in her own sexual attraction.

“The latest report from our agent at Berkholzskoye indicates a somewhat ungovernable young woman,” she said thoughtfully. “From all accounts the old prince has allowed her to run wild. His own misanthropy has kept her from any outside influences.” She moved restlessly around the room, her loose caftan of violet silk swishing with every step. “I should have removed her years ago, placed her in the Smolny Institute, where she would have received the education befitting a girl of her rank.”

“I think your decision to leave her with her grandfather while keeping her under surveillance throughout her growing was both wise and humane,” Potemkin said firmly. “The story of her parents' death and the events leading up to it is well known, and to subject an orphan, torn from the only home and guardian she knows, to the taunts and whispers of the other pupils at the institute would have been cruel. She is a woman now, but still young enough for bad habits to be broken.”

“General Prince Dmitriev does not seem overly concerned about the prospect of acquiring a wife with bad habits,” mused the empress. “But then the prospect of acquiring such a fortune would compensate for much.” She laughed with the easy acceptance predominating at this worldly court. “His loyalty to us over the years has certainly earned him a reward, and if the hand and fortune of the Golitskova is his choice
then it will serve our own purposes to perfection. He will make a steadying husband for her. The old prince has apparently seen to her schooling with exemplary attention, even if she has not been taught to accept the burdens and responsibilities of a princess of the house of Golitskov. Prince Dmitriev will be able to teach her that, and she will enter Petersburg society as the wife of a wealthy nobleman of the first rank. The circumstances of her birth and upbringing will be subsumed.”

Potemkin gnawed a fingernail already bitten red and raw to the quick. “It seems curiously fitting that one so closely involved in her parents' disgrace should take on the responsibility of the innocent's social redemption.”

“We do not wish to be reminded of that dreadful business.” Catherine was suddenly empress. “It was a tragic waste of two young lives. They had no reason to flee in that manner. If the accusations were mistaken then we would have discovered it. But that was many years ago; the matter is finished.”

Potemkin bowed his acceptance of the imperial wish, while he wondered whether his empress remembered the cold, ruthless ferocity with which she had punished all those connected with the ill-conceived plan to release the deposed Ivan VI from the fortress of Schlusselburg—a plan that had led to the young man's most convenient assassination by his guards. Many people whispered that Catherine herself had instigated the attempt to release him. Such an attempt ensured that certain imperial secret instructions would be put into effect: the deposed czar was to be killed rather than allowed to escape. To squash any such implication, she had shown no mercy to those who were part of the plan for his deliverance—a plan that was said to have been hatched in the palace of the young Prince and Princess Golitskov.

Smoothly, he returned to the original subject. “It is a pity that General Prince Dmitriev was obliged to return to the Crimea to deal with the insurrection. He could otherwise have gone to Kiev to fetch Sophia Alexeyevna in person.”

Catherine's smile indicated a happy resolution to the prob
lem. “Count Danilevski has asked for leave to visit his family estates in Mogilev. The journey from there to Kiev is not so very great. I have it in mind to charge him with the escort of Princess Sophia. He is, after all, Prince Dmitriev's aide-decamp. It seems appropriate enough that he should undertake the task.”

“Adam is not a man to be moved by protests or feminine tears, either,” murmured Potemkin. “Should his charge prove resistant—”

“I do not see why she should,” Catherine interrupted briskly. “She cannot wish to spend her life languishing in the steppes as wife to some drunken minor landlord of mediocre breeding, little education, and no manners.” Her tone managed to convey the impression that a picture such as she had painted was an inconceivable future for a Golitskov. And Prince Potemkin could only agree.

“Of course,” Catherine continued, “the old prince might have some objections; he was always of an awkward turn of mind. But he cannot fail to see the advantages for his granddaughter in such a move. However, you are right. Adam combines a persuasive charm with a resolution of purpose, and he is not in the least susceptible to feminine wiles.”

“Not since that appalling affair with his wife,” agreed Potemkin. “No one seems to know the truth of her death.”

“I was under the impression it was a riding accident,” the czarina said. “But more important, everyone is agreed that she was carrying another man's child at the time of her death. The count had been campaigning in the Crimea for the previous ten months.”

“The Poles are a proud race,” Potemkin said. “They don't take kindly to smirched honor. Adam never refers to the woman; it is as if he had never been married. But he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the weaker sex.”

The czarina, who did not consider herself to be a true member of the weaker sex, took no exception to Potemkin's use of the term. Women were in general whining, feeble, and frivolous. It was merely inconvenient in her own case that
the mind of a conquering male should be housed in a body that had the needs and impulses of a weak woman.

“We will send for him at once, and set this matter in motion,” the empress declared briskly. “It is past time we executed our responsibilities toward Sophia Alexeyevna. It is time she took her place as a grown woman in the world to which she was born.”

 

Six weeks later, on a glorious April morning, Count Adam Danilevski set off from his own estates in what had once been part of Poland, before the first partition of that country—the collective rape, as it had been called—by Austria, Russia, and Prussia twelve years earlier. The territory was now known as White Russia, its inhabitants no longer under Polish sovereignty but beneath the imperial yoke of Russia.

He was on his journey to the Golitskov estates outside Kiev, accompanied by the troop of twelve soldiers who had been with him since leaving St. Petersburg; every one of the twelve knew better than to intrude on their colonel's musings. His face was as stone, the gray eyes hard, the set of his shoulders forbidding.

Visiting his family estates always depressed him, reminding him as it did of his lost nationality, of the humbling of his once proud country. After the partition, he had been taken as a boy of sixteen with other scions of the most important Polish families to St. Petersburg, there to continue his education in the Russian manner as a cornet in the prestigious Preobrazhensky regiment of the Imperial Guard. They were treated with all the honor due such young noblemen, but they were hostages for the good behavior of their annexed homeland. Twelve years of Russian sovereignty had ensured acceptance, and Adam Danilevski often was unable to separate the strands of his Polish self from his Russian self. But when he went back to Mogilev he was Polish, the head of a Polish family, the owner of Polish lands and Polish serfs. And this was the first time he had been back since Eva's death a year ago.

He had read pity for the deceived husband in every face,
heard it in every silence. His sisters' constant inane chatter considerately ensured that the subject was never referred to; his mother had alternately wept with joy at the presence of her only, beloved son, and wrung her hands in silent yet articulate unhappiness at the dismal certainty that he would never again venture into matrimony, and there would be no heir of this line to the Danilevski name and fortune.

Now, burdened with his resurrected Polishness, his mother's silent reproaches, the vision of a contemptuous compassion for one who could not keep a faithful wife, he was required to journey across this vast plain, lying mute and somber under the spring sun, to winkle out from exiled obscurity a young woman who knew nothing beyond the wilderness, and carry her back to St. Petersburg to become the wife of General, Prince Paul Dmitriev—a man thirty years her senior, who had buried three wives already.

It did not strike Count Danilevski in his present jaundiced frame of mind as appropriate work for a colonel in the Imperial Guard, aide-de-camp to the prospective bridegroom or no. But one did not protest an imperial command, even one presented as a logical request. He could hear the czarina's smooth, friendly tones explaining how convenient it was that the count desired to visit his home at this time. It was not such a great distance from Kiev, and she was certain he would be able to accomplish such a potentially tricky mission with all the diplomacy for which he was justly admired.

The memory of imperial compliments did little to soften him as he and his party followed the Dnieper to Kiev. From there they turned south, into the long waving grass of the steppes over which so many battles had been fought, so many frontiers won and lost, where man pursued his fellow in the primitive combat of hunter and prey—outlaw struggling with outlaw for the crumbs of existence in a place where stalked the ghosts of Tatar, Cossack, and Turk amid the substantive rivalries of brigand and robber.

Although not one member of this troop of the Imperial Guard would have admitted it, they were all relieved that their destination was but fifty versts from Kiev—thirty-three
miles that could be accomplished in one day's hard riding across the Wild Lands. The reed-thatched houses of the village surrounding the mansion of Berkholzskoye was a welcome sight in the distance as the sun dipped over a horizon that seemed limitless across the silent flatness.

Adam, frowningly contemplating how best to make his approach to Prince Golitskov, at first did not hear the pounding hooves until a wild yell broke the brooding silence of the terrain. One of the troop exclaimed behind him. A sword scraped as it was unsheathed. Bearing down upon them was a magnificent Cossack stallion, astride it a figure with hair streaming in the wind, a flintlock pistol flourished in one upraised hand.

BOOK: Silver Nights
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