Authors: Linda Holeman
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
She moves to the wide leather chair. Eventually she hears the clock on the landing strike the midnight hour. She pours from the bottle. She drinks through the first night of her son’s disappearance.
At daybreak, Konstantin calls for Pavel and sends him to fetch Grisha. Antonina hasn’t slept. She paces. She knows there is no news; had there been, Grisha would have come immediately.
When Grisha tells them that the search party returned near midnight, empty-handed, Konstantin orders them all to be beaten. He doesn’t know how else to deal with his fear and guilt. Grisha nods, but has no intention of carrying out the order.
“Surely there will be a ransom letter today,” Antonina says to Konstantin as she continues pacing in front of his bed. She wipes her lips with the back of her hand. “It will arrive today, and we’ll know what to do to have Misha returned.”
Konstantin’s skin is grey. The bandage is crusted with dried blood and blossoming with fresh blotches of scarlet.
“You should have your hand seen to,” Antonina says. “I’ll send for the doctor.”
“There’s no time. We’ll go out again,” Konstantin tells her. “Pavel, help me dress.”
“I’m going as well,” Antonina says, and Konstantin doesn’t argue with her.
By eight o’clock, they all set out in the overcast, damp April day.
They return to the clearing where Mikhail was taken. Antonina sees the churned mud and skiffs of hard snow, some of it spattered with Konstantin’s blood. They move out in a spoke-like fashion. Antonina rides with Grisha. They ride slowly, their horses finding paths through the trees. Eventually they come out into a field, and cross it to the village of Tushinsk, owned by Konstantin.
There they dismount and tie their horses, walking through the few streets. “It’s best if you stay with me, madam,” Grisha says.
Grisha questions the villagers. They are wary of him, silent, shaking their heads. They bow from the waist to Antonina. She asks them questions as well, but the faces of the men and women, when she orders them to lift their heads, show nothing.
They ride on; they don’t stop to eat or drink. With each passing hour Antonina feels more desperation. When they question a villager with a handcart on the road and he simply stares up at them, not responding to Grisha’s questions, Antonina raises her voice at the man in frustration. Grisha leans close and lays a hand on her reins.
“It’s growing late, madam. We should return to the estate. You’re cold, surely.” He looks at her wool cloak, blowing open in the cooling wind.
“I’m not cold,” she says, pulling it around her. “Let’s keep going.”
Then a light drizzle begins, and Grisha insists they turn around and ride back to Angelkov.
“Not yet, Grisha. Let’s keep going. Just another hour,” Antonina says.
Grisha shakes his head, looking at her horse. The roan Antonina has named Dunia is weary, her head down as she plods on her delicate hooves. “Perhaps the count, or the others … perhaps Mikhail Konstantinovich is home by now,” he says.
“I pray this is so, Grisha,” Antonina says, and turns Dunia to ride with Grisha back to Angelkov.
They arrive home before the others to find there has been no word from Mikhail’s captors.
Antonina goes to her bedchamber and changes out of her mud-spattered clothing. Lilya brings her one then a second glass of vodka, and afterwards Antonina stands on the veranda, shivering, arms wrapped around herself as she looks down the long treed drive, the linden branches still naked in the spring air.
Eventually she goes back inside, but within half an hour hears the sounds of men and horses, and races out in her slippers and thin woollen dress, running through the patches of dimpled, melting snow and frozen mud to the stable yard. She is willing her son to be sitting in front of his father. But he is not there.
She stares at her husband, her arms limp at her sides.
“Did a ransom note come?” Konstantin asks.
Antonina shakes her head.
Konstantin looks much older than he did yesterday. When he removes his hat, the shape of his skull, under his sweat-drenched hair, is too apparent in the dying light. He’s sixty-one to her twenty-nine. He dismounts with difficulty, relying on his one good hand. Lyosha leads his horse away.
“Konstantin? Now what?” Antonina asks, but he doesn’t answer immediately.
Finally he looks at her. “Tomorrow we begin again. That’s all we can do—search, while we wait for word about our son.”
She follows him into the house, where the servants have lit the lamps. There is the smell of beef, and the long, polished table in the grand dining room is set for two. Antonina walks past the dining room and up the curving staircase to her bedroom. Konstantin sits at the table and waits to be served, staring at the setting for Antonina, then at the spot where their son would have sat.
She doesn’t sleep, once again keeping vigil with a bottle of vodka, and she is shaky when, the next morning, Lilya comes to help her get dressed. Antonina’s thick, pale hair falls to her waist, but even her husband has never seen it completely undone. Normally it takes Lilya at least half an hour to brush through it and secure it into its fashionable style with the delicate combs Antonina favours. It’s beautiful hair, Lilya always thinks, the weight of it in her hands a marvel. She loves to wash it as her mistress lies back in the large porcelain bath. Sometimes, alone in Antonina’s room, Lilya tries to create the same style with her own dark hair.
But hers is too fine and the combs slide about, unable to find a hold. It doesn’t matter. She could never appear with her hair in anything other than the usual, her braids wound round her head.
“Do it up quickly, Lilya,” Antonina tells the woman. “I’m going out with them again. I don’t want to waste any time.” She sighs heavily as the brush slides from her scalp to the end of her hair with long, even strokes.
Lilya meets Antonina’s eye in the mirror. “All the servants are praying for Mikhail’s safe return,” she says. “Even my husband says the Cossacks wouldn’t hurt a child, especially not a child like our Mikhail.”
There is a moment of silence before Antonina says, “And what does your Soso know of Cossacks and their ways, Lilya? What does he know of my child, of children at all?”
The brush stops, and Lilya takes a breath as if she is about to defend her husband, but says, “Let us believe, then, that God will care for His lamb.” She lifts the brush again, but Antonina reaches up and grabs it.
“I will believe in men like Grisha and your brother Lyosha. If anyone can find Mikhail, they will. They will find him and return him, unharmed, to me. This is who I will believe in, Lilya. Not your crude husband. Not my weak husband. Not God.”
Lilya’s lips tighten. “Still, you should see to the count. Pavel says he’s not well at all.”
Antonina stares at the mother-of-pearl tray holding her combs.
“Tosya? Did you hear what I said?”
Antonina looks at Lilya in the oval mirror again. They’re the same age, although Lilya looks much older. She has streaks
of grey in her dark hair, and the small lines radiating from the corners of her eyes are visible even when she isn’t smiling.
“Finish then, please, Lilya.”
When Lilya is done, Antonina goes down the long, wide hall to her husband’s bedroom. When she enters, she finds Pavel standing over Konstantin, a damp cloth in his hand. Another wet cloth is draped on Konstantin’s forehead.
“Kostya?” she says. He’s holding the bandaged hand against his chest with his left hand. As well as the old and new blood, there’s ugly yellow matter on the bandage. She leans over him but immediately draws back at the smell of his breath. His dark eyes are flat and yet have a strange glitter. “Let me unwrap your hand and take a look at it.”
Konstantin shakes his head.
“Then let me send for the doctor.”
Konstantin sits up. “I must go out again. Help me, Pavel.”
“Eat before you go,” Antonina says. “You’re no good to anyone if you let yourself grow ill.”
Konstantin ignores her and, with Pavel supporting him, slowly stands.
Antonina leaves his room and goes downstairs to the drawing room and sends for Grisha. When he arrives, he bows.
“I want you to try and talk Konstantin into having his hand looked after. The wound should have been properly cleaned, and stitched. I’m sending to Pskov for the doctor, but you know how stubborn the count is. Will you speak to him, Grisha? Tell him he’s too ill to ride. He must get better … he must be well to help bring our son back. He listens to you.”
“Yes, madam,” Grisha says. “Shall I go to him now?”
“Please. He’s in his room. Without him …” She stops. “When the kidnappers make their demands, they will be to
the count.” She stands in front of Grisha, looking up at him. He’s taller than her husband. “Why hasn’t there been a ransom note, Grisha?”
Grisha looks away from her, towards the crackling fireplace. “I’m certain it will come today, madam.”
Antonina clutches his sleeve. “You truly believe this?”
“These men … they’re simply making you suffer. In this way they can be assured of your desperation.” He looks at her hand and she takes it back. “They’re biding their time so that there will be no hesitation in you following their orders.”
Antonina lets out a long breath. “It makes sense. They wouldn’t hurt Misha, would they.” It’s not a question.
“Why would they hurt the child when they will return him, madam?” Grisha asks, his voice softening. “Your son will not be hurt.”
She nods, and she is grateful to Grisha for his confidence that Mikhail is safe, and that the ransom note will come. Still, she can’t help but cry; it is as if the steward’s calmness and strength allow her to weep. She turns her head away, ashamed of her tears in front of him.
“I think you should stay home today,” he tells her, his voice still soothing. “In case a note comes.”
“But I want to help find him.” She turns to face him. “I want …” She stops as Grisha shakes his head.
“I do believe, madam, you would be more useful here. In case your son is returned, or a ransom note comes. Whichever it is, you should be here.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” she says, and takes a handkerchief from her sleeve to dry her cheeks. As she takes a deep breath, Grisha is filled with respect for her. She is handling each day
with dignity and stoicism. He knows the depth of her dedication to her son. He can guess at her despair.