Authors: Linda Holeman
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Olga reappears with a tray. Antonina looks at the cold mutton and the beet salad, the soft roll spread with creamy butter. She swallows. She can’t imagine eating.
“Slowly, madam,” Lilya says. “Just take a little to start.” She breaks off a piece of the roll and hands it to Antonina.
Antonina takes it and puts it in her mouth. Then she cuts the mutton and eats, chewing and swallowing very carefully, as though she has something blocking her throat, until the plate is half empty. She gives a sliver of meat to Tinka.
Then she pats her mouth on the damask napkin. “Thank you, Olga,” she says. “I’ll keep watch at the front windows.” The old woman takes the tray and leaves. Still holding Tinka, Antonina goes to the tall windows that look onto the front yard and stands unblinking, her back straight. Lilya kneels beside her and clasps her hands in prayer. “He will return soon, Tosya,” she says. “And it will be as always. You, me and our Misha.” She closes her eyes and bows her head over her hands.
Antonina puts her lips against the little dog’s head and whispers her own prayers.
The men and horses thunder through the forest with Konstantin and Grisha in the lead. The back of Grisha’s neck still stings from Konstantin’s whip.
Should the count turn on his horse now, he would be surprised at the hatred etched on the face of the man he relies on to help him run Angelkov. Grisha is not a serf but a free man who is paid a salary for his work. Konstantin considers his treatment of Grisha to be generous and fair. Konstantin also believes he had always been generous and fair to all his serfs—all the souls he once owned.
But now everything is changing. The Russian world is tilting on its axis. The Emancipation Manifesto, handed down by Tsar Alexander II two months earlier, in February 1861, has changed life for both serfs and landowners. The
serfs now owe the landowners nothing, neither
, the yearly tax they used to pay to the landowner for using some of the harvest to fill their own bellies, nor payment in goods.
Some of Konstantin’s serfs have already left the estate, wanting to start their own lives in the villages. But he can’t believe that Grisha would ever go. What would he have to call his own without Angelkov? Wasn’t he luckier than most, to have the highest position on the estate? Doesn’t Konstantin provide him with a cottage—a warm wooden cottage with blue shutters—that allows him to live on his own, away from the shared servants’ quarters or, worse, the wretched village
, little more than hovels? Doesn’t Konstantin himself sometimes seek out Grisha in the blue-shuttered house, bringing Imperial vodka and discussing politics with him, treating him almost as though he were of the same class?
As they ride, Grisha isn’t thinking of the missing child. He’s thinking of New Year’s Eve, over three months earlier, and how Count Mitlovsky and he had discussed the promise—or threat, depending on the view—of the Tsar possibly issuing an edict to free the serfs.
“It’s serfdom that holds Russia back,” he had said to his master as they drank a glass of vodka. “Were we not humiliated in the Crimea? We pride ourselves on our military strength, and yet we were no match for the armies of France, or Britain or Turkey. With respect, Count Mitlovsky, feudalism was abandoned in most of Europe centuries ago.”
The count, straightening his collar, pulling down his waistcoat and smoothing his beard, poured another round of
vodka. He lifted his small glass and drank it in one shot. “Holy Russia is a God-inspired nation. Looking at the corrupt nations to the west can teach us nothing.”
Grisha’s left eye throbbed with the effort of keeping his temper as he was forced, yet again, to have the count use his home for an assignation. He can hear Tania, the laundress at Angelkov, moving about in the bedroom.
bedroom. And while she dresses, he must listen to Mitlovsky’s posturing. He held his glass tightly but didn’t drink. “I beg to differ,
. My lord. We can learn much from countries who have allowed their people to determine their own destinies. When men are slaves, there’s no incentive to improve.”
Konstantin laughed. “Slaves? The peasants are not slaves. I own my land, and the peasants work the land. Only in this way are they bound to me.”
Grisha had to rise, bowing to the count, and then went to the window. It was black beyond the panes, and he saw his own reflection, his hair a wavy dark mass brushed back from his forehead, his eyes no more than slashes in the paler oval of his face. “Again, with all respect, Count Mitlovsky,” he said to his own image. “You control the lives of the thousands of souls you own. You have the power to deny the peasants the chance to leave your land, and you can, at will, move or sell any soul to another estate, even if that means splitting families.” He turned then, and saw that Konstantin’s eyelids were heavy, his cheeks flushed. He kept his voice low, the tone even. “You may have them beaten, or without cause sent to work in the mines or to end their lives in Siberia. You dictate whom they may marry. Is this not slavery,
Konstantin waved his hand in the air as though Grisha’s words were unimportant, as if he’d heard them too many
times to take them seriously. “Don’t talk politics any further. You bore me. The Tsar is appointed by God. He will see sense. He will not carry out his ridiculous threat. Come now, it’s the New Year. We will drink to our health, and to the health of those we love.”
Grisha joined him, and the first boom of the estate’s fireworks sounded as he drank with his master.
“Good night, my dear,” Konstantin called through the bedroom door as he stood and set down his empty glass. Grisha heard Tania’s murmured reply.
The count put a small pile of rubles on Grisha’s mantle, then left to watch the display with his wife and son. Grisha stared into the fire. The vodka burned in his belly. Count Mitlovsky was wrong; Grisha was certain that the Tsar would hand down the Emancipation Manifesto within months. And when it happened, Grisha knew exactly how he would live his life when not under the thumb of Mitlovsky.
Tania came from the bedroom with an armload of linens. Her auburn hair was tidy, her long face emotionless as she picked up the rubles from the mantle and tucked them away.
Grisha poured another glass of vodka and held it out. “Toast the New Year with me, Tania.”
“Thank you, Grigori Sergeyevich,” she said, setting down the used bed linens and taking the glass. The lines between her eyebrows and around her mouth were deep.
He touched his glass with hers and raised it. “To freedom,” he said, and tipped back his head and swallowed.
few hours have passed. Antonina sits on a straight-backed chair in front of the window, leaning forward to stare into the dusk. She hasn’t taken her eyes from the yard.
She jumps up as horses approach, handing Tinka to Lilya and rushing to the front door. She flings it open, but on the top step of the veranda stops so suddenly that Lilya bumps into her.
It is only Konstantin and Grisha.
She runs down the steps to them. “Why are you back? Mikhail—Misha …” She looks at Konstantin, slumped forward on his saddle, his mouth hanging slightly open, then to Grisha. “You didn’t find him?” She knows this, but has to ask.
Grisha shakes his head. “Not yet, madam, but Lyosha and the others are still searching. They had a good lead while it was still light, as the tracks …” He stops, glancing at
Konstantin. “The count was weak from loss of blood. He can hardly remain on his horse. I had to bring him home. But the others … they’ll find him, madam.”
Antonina clutches the shawl at her chest with one hand as if a sudden cold breeze has swept through the yard. “But it’s been too long. It’s too long, Grisha. And now it’s almost dark.”
“No, not so long,” he says, dismounting and coming to stand beside her. “Lilya! Call Pavel to help with the count.” He touches Antonina’s hand briefly. “Not long at all. And if he isn’t found tonight, we’ll begin again as soon as it’s light, with fresh horses.”
Again, his confidence and touch calm her. Konstantin’s manservant, Pavel, arrives, and he and Grisha get Konstantin off his horse. They help him to his bedchamber. Antonina follows, and when her husband is lying on his bed, his good hand over his eyes, she moves to stand beside him.
“Husband,” she says with authority, looking down at him. Konstantin takes his hand away from his eyes. “Speak to me, Konstantin Nikolevich. Tell me how you last saw Mikhail.” She sees a fresh scab on the sagging skin under his earlobe. “Kostya,” she says, louder this time.
He looks at her, but his mouth remains closed.
“Why will you not speak to me?” She grabs his shoulders and shakes him. As if in a dream, she sees herself from above, as wild as a
, perhaps Baba Yaga herself.
Konstantin stares up at her. His helpless expression fills her with rage. Grisha steps behind her and puts his hand on her shoulder, and she stops shaking her husband, ashamed.
Konstantin’s mouth opens, a black square beneath his thick white moustache, and he whispers, “My son. Tosya, our boy.” His eyes glisten with tears. “He was so brave.”
Antonina puts her hand to her mouth, and Grisha lets go of Antonina’s shoulder and steps back. She hears the door quietly closing. Pavel remains in place, ready to do her bidding. She hovers near the bed. But instead of Konstantin’s tears invoking sympathy, they arouse even more fury in her. Her own tears come from this anger, and from the terrible fear.
“Tell me,” she says, quietly this time.
“They … they just led his horse away. They didn’t hurt him—they didn’t touch him at all. He didn’t make a sound. I told him to be quiet, and he did. He did, Tosya. He’s a good boy. He was always a good boy, wasn’t he?”
Antonina can’t speak.
“He is a child of breeding, and of high intelligence. He will act in a noble way, as we have taught him. The Cossacks will see this. They’ll respect him for it.”
Antonina closes her eyes. Konstantin is a fool.
They’ve taken our child, and he talks about respect
“He sat so well on the horse, Tosya. I saw, as he rode away, that he had more control of it than I had imagined. He has the makings of a good horseman. All he needs is more riding—less time at the piano and more in the saddle.”
Does he think I don’t know my own son? I want to know what will happen next. I want to know when I will have him in my arms again
“His head was held high, Tosya. He will not bow it to them. I have taught him well.” At this Konstantin’s voice quavers, and he begins to cry in earnest, sobbing like a boy. Antonina has never seen him like this. She wishes for arms around her, wishes for some kind of comfort, but doesn’t move any nearer to her husband.
And because there’s nothing more for her to do, she kneels and prays, looking at Konstantin. His eyes are closed and tears run down the sides of his cheeks, towards his ears, but he makes no sound.
Antonina requests that Pavel fetch the vodka from Konstantin’s rosewood table near the fireplace. Unlike Lilya, Pavel obeys without hesitation. Grabbing the bottle from him, she pours herself a glass and nods at him. He bows and steps outside, although Antonina knows he will remain in the hall near the door.