Authors: Sarah Miller
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #Siblings, #Historical, #Military & Wars, #People & Places, #Europe
We should have worried about Aleksei.
Grigori told Mama everything would pass, but the next day we have three more telegrams from Papa, each more frightening than the last. Aleksei had gotten worse, so bad that Dr. Derevenko insisted they should bring him home. It sounds as bad as Spala, when a bruised groin nearly killed him. That time there hadn’t been a drop of blood. It all welled up under his tender skin until he couldn’t even straighten his leg.
Just like when Anya was hurt, we race to the train station. This time it’s so quiet. The station has been emptied so no one can find out that the heir to the throne is ill again. When our own imperial train pulls into the station and the brakes hiss like one giant sigh, I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Papa steps out, and right then I want to run to him. But he goes straight to Mama’s side and hooks his arm around her waist. Tatiana steps back to join my sisters as he speaks softly in Mama’s ear.
“Where’s Aleksei?” Anastasia whispers. My eyes dart back and forth across the train’s windows. All of us huddle closer. Tatiana begins to murmur a prayer. Olga joins her. Finally Papa turns to the train and nods.
Inside, something moves. A stretcher, carried by four big sailors moving slowly as a cloud passing across the sun. Only Aleksei’s mouth and sweet blue eyes peep out from the bandages wound around his pale little face, but two scarlet lines mark the place where his nose still bleeds beneath the wrappings. Like part of the stretcher himself, Nagorny braces Aleksei’s head and shoulders as the men lower our brother from the train.
“He can’t lie down,” Papa tells Mama. “We had to stop the train several times during the night to change the plugs in his nostrils. He fainted twice.”
Mama moans into Papa’s khaki shirt, and I know we’re all thinking the same thing: Spala. After days in bed, Mama and Anya took Aleksei for a carriage ride in the fresh air. But the bumpy ride only started the bleeding inside him all over again. The poor darling had nearly passed out from the pain by the time they returned to the hunting lodge. And now we have to get Aleksei from the train station all the way home, in a motorcar.
My sisters and I watch as Aleksei is loaded into one car, then we pile into another with Nagorny and Joy. I’ve always thought Dr. Derevenko’s kind eyes and sable beard are soothing as a teddy bear, but the look on his face as he climbs in behind Papa and Mama makes me want to whimper like Joy. All the way back to the palace we crane our necks around the driver to see the car ahead of us. Even motoring scarcely faster than a walk, the slightest rattle makes every one of us flinch.
Thank heaven for Mama’s private lift. Once we get him home, Aleksei glides to the children’s floor before we can clatter up the marble steps. Upstairs everyone swarms around Aleksei’s narrow army cot while his
holds Joy back. My sisters and I kneel before the iconostasis, begging God for mercy.
I’ve never been this close to my brother in the middle of one of his attacks. In Spala, I heard his screams fade into wails and groans from down the hall, but here, everything is so awfully quiet, like the train station. The doctor hardly speaks louder than our prayers.
A cough from Aleksei makes us all jump, and Dr. Derevenko swears. Beside me, Olga begins to sway. I peek over my shoulder at the crowd around Aleksei’s cot. A pile of bright bloody rags is heaped on the floor near the head of the bed. I squeeze my eyes shut, press my folded hands to my chin, and pray harder.
A clatter of metal instruments and a sound like a kitten’s mewling interrupts our prayers, and we all look again, even Tatiana. There’s a quick whiff in the air of something singed, then it’s gone. Dr. Derevenko backs away toward the window, mopping his face. I can’t tell if it’s sweat or tears sinking into his beard. Mama leans over the cot. She holds Aleksei’s limp hand against her lips, stroking the inside of his arm. Papa stands beside her, slowly stroking his beard in the same rhythm as he stares down at our brother. The smell of hot blood fills my nose, suddenly stronger than the rose oil in the icon lamps. Joy barks once, like a sob, before Nagorny can hush him.
“Get Father Grigori,” Mama whispers.
“Alix,” Papa begins, “the wound has only just been cauterized—”
“Get him, now, before it’s too late.” The panic rising up in her voice stings my ears. “The doctor has done all he can, Nicky.”
Papa closes his eyes and nods at Mama’s maid. “Quickly.” Nyuta grabs her skirt in two big handfuls and runs off to summon
When he arrives,
Grigori staggers across the room like a new fawn, even though it’s the middle of the day. Olga lets go of a tiny gasp, then covers her mouth as if nothing’s wrong. She shakes her head before I can ask. The air sours sharply as
Grigori passes. In the corner, Joy seems to calm as he nears.
“Father Grigori,” Mama begins, but he doesn’t say a word. He holds up a hand and eases himself to his knees beside the narrow cot. Aleksei lies under his blankets and bandages like a small mummy. Points of sweat stand out around his eyes.
Grigori makes the sign of the cross over Aleksei, then bends his head and shuts his eyes. We all do the same. Behind my closed eyes I listen so hard, and hear nothing. None of
Grigori’s sweet pet names for our brother, no soothing talk of finding God in the sea and the sunshine, not even a whisper of scripture or prayer.
I bite my lip and pray with all my heart. But it’s as if my words are gone too. All I can do is feel. Everything tumbles inside me, and I think I’ll break down and cry. Trying to fight off the terror in my throat, I grope for my sisters’ hands. I can’t even remember which of my sisters is beside me, but two hands squeeze back, and right then my hopes begin to burn like the flames in the icon lamps. Something clear and bright rises up in my chest, and the lump in my throat breaks apart. I open my mouth and swallow a great breath of air. Tears run down my cheeks, but I don’t care. My lips want to smile even as I taste the salt.
“Don’t be alarmed,”
Grigori’s voice says. “Nothing will happen.”
My eyes flutter open.
Grigori is already walking out of the room. I look at Mama, Papa, and my sisters. I know from their quiet that they’ve all felt what I did. But where did it come from?
We creep closer to Aleksei’s bed and peek down at him. His eyes are closed, the bandages gone. Only a faint crust of blood rims his nostrils.
Mama puts a finger to her lips. Her eyes are bright with tears, and her face glows. “He’s asleep.” The wonder and tenderness in her voice squeezes my heart and stops my breath once more. It’s as if the horrors have melted away, and she’s given birth to him all over again.
Oh please Lord, I pray, someday let me feel the way Mama looks right now.
Autumn 1915–Autumn 1916
acking ourselves into our dark blue train and getting away from horrid Petrograd is more fun than ever, now that the war’s on. There’s nothing better than going to see Papa, but I wish we could all have a real holiday instead of just visiting
for a few days at a time. It’s gotten so Olga looks like she should be a patient at the lazaret instead of a nurse, and even if Tatiana won’t ever admit it, leaving her cotton and carbolic acid behind once in a while doesn’t hurt her a bit, either.
Since Papa took over the high command, we can’t cruise the Finnish skerries on the
, or take our train south to Livadia for months in our white marble palace on the Black Sea. It’s different now, like pushing the stop lever on my camera until nothing except the war can squeeze through the lens. I don’t read the papers like Olga, or trail behind Mama every minute like Tatiana, but I’m no
. I can see Papa getting worried and tired as well as anyone. The Big Pair mopes and frets, but
won’t give Papa anything more to worry about. Soldiers need to keep up their morale, after all.
I write him cheerful letters sealed with thousands of kisses and clown about just like I always do. Papa always thanks me in his telegrams, writes back cheerful letters of his own whenever he can, and sometimes even sends me cigarettes, too! But the more I see him as the war goes on, the more I hear a little Olga-voice in the back of my own head, wondering if Papa himself is trying just as hard to keep up
’s supposed to be men’s quarters, but Mama doesn’t care, especially since Aleksei went back to the front to stay with Papa once he recovered from his nosebleed. All of us ladies have to motor back to the rail station every night to sleep on our train, but during the day we march right in. Who would dare look the empress in the eye and say, “No women allowed”?
“What do you men do all day long that’s so important?” I ask Aleksei.
“I have breakfast with Papa and all the highest-ranking officers every morning,” he says, puffing up like a dinner roll. “Then lessons. In the afternoons we usually drive along the Dneiper, and sometimes the generals eat
with us before supper. At night we write letters to you women and then play cards or read out loud together.”
Appetizers and river tours? To hear him talk, you’d think it was a camping trip instead of a war. “What about Papa?”
Aleksei shrugs. “He reads the
and eats lunch with the commanding officers while I have my lessons.”
Why in the world does Papa need to be five hundred miles from home to do any of that? “What about battles?”
“We inspected troops near the front once!” Aleksei rubs his cuff over the medal pinned to his khaki tunic. “If the Germans had fired they could have hit us, but I was brave and got the medal of St. George, fourth class.”
Whenever Papa can get away, we all motor down the river Dneiper in a launch and picnic on the shores. It’s just like Aleksei said, and almost as much fun as our summers in the skerries on the
“Bury me,” Aleksei demands, spread out on the sandy bank in his striped bathing costume. Mama won’t let us bury him, but we sprinkle shovels full of sand over his back until he looks like a breaded cutlet. Papa pins him to the ground with his boot like a hunter over a stag while they both grin at Mashka and her camera.
“Take off your cap, you idiot!” I yell from the shore when he gets loose and runs down to rinse off. “Soldiers don’t wear their hats swimming!” I think the little show-off would wear his cap
his medal with his bathing suit if he could get away with it. He’s so oafishly proud of that thing.
Farther inland, we tromp through fields and flop down together in heaps to rest in haystacks while Aleksei marches about with his miniature rifle, pretending the tall banks are trenches along the front lines. Mama mostly stays under her parasol, so I sneak smokes from the cigarettes Papa gives us. Tatiana fusses all the time, “Be careful of the ashes! You will fry us to a crisp, Anastasia Nikolaevna!” but she never once tells on me.
“Oh, Mama, please let’s stop,” Maria begs every night as we motor through the town of Mogilev on the way back to our train. “There’s Stephania and Bolyus, and I brought cherry candies especially for Gricha and Lenka.” Nobody spots the
children who come to gape at our polished black motorcars faster than Mashka. Mama won’t order the driver to stop unless we ask, but she almost never refuses, either. At first the children are shy as pill bugs, but once we’ve romped and cuddled with them and stuffed them full of sweets they swarm us like bees. Even their mamas come out to chat with the Big Pair sometimes, while ours waits in the motor.
At Christmastime, Papa and Aleksei come home to Tsarskoe Selo. While Papa walks in the imperial park, my sisters and I play and wallow in the snow with Aleksei like polar bears, lobbing snowballs at one another and making a warlike rumpus. Once, Aleksei sneaks up behind me and plasters my neck with a great mittenful of snow. I squawk and shiver while he laughs, until we hear Papa’s voice.
Too much roughhousing for the delicate little Sunbeam, I think as Aleksei trots to Papa’s side, and just when we were really having fun, too. But I’m wrong. Papa’s stern words march over the snow as I fish the slush out of my collar. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Aleksei. You’re behaving like a German, attacking anyone from behind when they can’t defend themselves. Cowardly. Leave that sort of behavior to the enemy.”
Poor Aleksei. He hangs his head so I don’t even have the heart to pummel him with snowballs the way he deserves. So far, that’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Papa commanding a battle.
Almost a whole year goes by, and practically the only thing that changes is the view out the windows as our trains chug to and from headquarters: snow drifts to lilac blooms to haystacks. Even when the seasons change, they’re the same.
’s no different. By the fall of 1916 everybody knows the war’s a mess, but you can’t tell by the way people act around us. The place is still crawling with generals and officers who bow and salute and say “Your Majesty” like a battalion of wind-up toys. They treat us like we brought a trainload of gold-plated rifles, even though all we do is stand in front of a row of Cossacks and pose in our new fur-trimmed coats for the cameras:
THE TSAR AND HIS HAPPY FAMILY AT HEADQUARTERS,
the title cards on the newsreels might say. We
happy, but it feels like pretending to make it look like we’re pleased with the war instead of just being together again.