Authors: Linda Holeman
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
As Grisha predicted, the ransom note arrives mid-afternoon. Pavel has to waken her—she fell into a light sleep on the sofa in the music salon.
The head stableman, Fyodor, is at the back servants’ entrance, waiting right where Pavel had said he would be. She smells Fyodor’s manure-covered boots as well as the grease and sweat wafting from his heavy jacket and the hat he holds in one hand. She notices the man’s missing left ear as he bows from the waist, his face parallel to the floor, holding out a paper. What happened to the ear? she wonders. She knew, once.
She snatches the paper from him and unfolds it, her own hands trembling. It’s poorly written, but the details are clear. She reads it once, twice, and then presses it against her chest. Fyodor is still bent in front of her.
She is so thankful for the note that she forgets to ask him who gave it to him. “You may leave, Fyodor,” she says. “Thank you.”
The man straightens, although he keeps his eyes on the floor. He backs away until he is out the door. He still acts as a serf; it will take a long time for the habits of a lifetime to disappear.
Antonina stays where she is. The note demands a huge sum, to be delivered by the estate steward the next morning at a specific time and place in the forest. The note adds that no one can accompany the steward; if others come, the kidnappers will not hand over the boy. But if the demands are carried out as asked, the child will be returned.
Antonina drops to her knees and crosses herself, whispering a prayer of gratitude.
The search party comes back to Angelkov earlier this day than the previous days. When she hears the horses, Antonina rushes outside to give Konstantin the note. He reads it and passes it to Grisha; a steward must be able to read to do the accounting for the estate.
“We’ll have him back tomorrow, Konstantin,” she says. “Tomorrow.”
“Who brought this?” he asks, and only then does Antonina realize she hadn’t asked. She tells him Fyodor delivered the note, and he and Grisha go towards the stables.
Antonina eats a few mouthfuls of dinner that night in her room. She asks Lilya to prepare a bath for her, and allows the woman to wash her hair, sighing as she sinks back in the tub of hot water. She wants to look as she always does for her son when he comes home.
Once Lilya has left her for the night, she takes a bottle of vodka from the usual place in the back of her wardrobe. She looks at it, then puts it back without opening it. She knows she will sleep without it. Mikhail Konstantinovich is coming home.
She is up well before dawn. She can’t bear waiting for Konstantin to rise, and goes to his room before seven. When she opens the door and steps into the darkened room, the putrid odour is even stronger.
Pavel rises from a pallet at the end of Konstantin’s bed.
“Konstantin Nikolevich,” she says quietly. “Please. Do you have the money ready for Grisha?”
It appears difficult for Konstantin to open his eyes, and when he does, he looks at her with vagueness, as if unsure whether he’s awake or dreaming. There’s sweat on his forehead, and the front of his nightshirt is damp.
“The doctor will come today,” she tells him.
“Is all in readiness for Grisha?” she asks again.
“I’m going with him,” Konstantin says, and pushes back the bedclothes, swinging his legs to the floor and then rocking slightly to gain enough momentum to stand.
Antonina stops him, her hand on his chest. “No. The note is very clear, Konstantin. You can’t. Nor can I. If either of us go, we’ll ruin everything.”
“I won’t let them see me.” Konstantin sways as he stands, grabbing her shoulder for support.
Pavel steps up behind her.
“Look at you. You can hardly stay on your feet. You can’t ride. You’re ill, Konstantin. Let Grisha do as the Cossacks have asked. You mustn’t go, Kostya,” she says, louder. “I won’t let you.”
“I saw my son being taken, and I will see him returned,” he says, pushing her aside with his good arm. “Stay out of my way. Pavel, get my clothes.”
Antonina shakes her head. “Don’t you understand that by going you’ll—”
“Get out,” Konstantin growls.
Antonina opens her mouth to speak further, but there is nothing more to say.
She slams the door as she leaves.
She waits on the veranda. Three hours later, Grisha and Konstantin return. Both men are on Konstantin’s tall Arabian, Grisha seated behind Konstantin, one arm around the older man’s waist. Konstantin’s head hangs forward, his chin on his chest as though he’s asleep. When Grisha stops the horse and removes his arm, Konstantin falls, slowly and ungracefully, onto the dirty snow of the yard. Grisha dismounts awkwardly. He’s hurt, one cheek already swollen and his left eye puffy and blackening. His lip is cut, and drying blood cakes his chin. His coat is gone, his tunic torn.
They do not have Mikhail.
Antonina goes down on one knee beside Konstantin. “Where is he? Where’s my son? What happened?”
But Konstantin is unconscious. At her voice, so high and thin and filled with panic, servants run from the house, from the stables and barn and greenhouse and storehouses, from the chicken coops and blacksmith shed. Men lift the count and carry him inside the house.
Antonina looks at Grisha. “Tell me what happened.”
Grisha sits in the kitchen, his glass full and a bottle of vodka in front of him. Antonina stands on the other side of the table, clasping her hands to quell the shaking. It’s hard to breathe; she feels light-headed and pours herself a glass of the strong, clear liquid. She holds it tightly with both hands while she waits for Grisha to speak.
“I asked—begged—the count not to come with me,” Grisha finally says, taking very small sips from the glass,
wincing as the alcohol touches his cut lip. “Once I had persuaded him to give me the packet of rubles—the ransom money—I rode away from him at full speed, hoping to get to the appointed spot well before him, to give over the money and retrieve the young master. I didn’t think the count would be able to keep up with me—as you know, he could barely ride.”
Antonina keeps nodding, her head moving up and down as if she has no control.
“I did get to the place the Cossacks had instructed me to come to, and—”
“Mikhail. Did you see Mikhail?” Antonina interrupts.
Grisha shakes his head. “No. I’m sorry, madam. Your son was not in sight. But three Cossacks were there. Their faces were hidden from me. As I approached, I called to them,
Where is the child?
Do you have the money?
one shouted back.
Have you come alone?
“Yes, yes, I told him, but without the boy there is no payment.
Show me Mikhail Konstantinovich Mitlovsky and I will show you the money
. One of the men turned his horse and started towards a thicket. I heard the snicker of another horse from there, madam. I think—”
“Yes? What do you think, Grisha?”
“I think Mikhail was there, hidden.”
Antonina sucks in her breath. “But you didn’t see him?”
Grisha has already answered the question. “At that moment, the count rode into the clearing. He was hardly able to stay in the saddle. He was confused, madam, shouting things that made no sense.”
Now Antonina’s voice is barely a whisper. “And?”
“When they saw him, they set upon me. They pulled me from my horse, the three of them, and beat me. I fought back, but they ripped off my coat and took the money from it.” He isn’t looking at Antonina but studying his hand, gripping the glass. Antonina sees the torn skin on his knuckles, the bruising already beginning.
“I fought them, madam,” he repeats. “I said, they had the money, why did it matter if the count had arrived? They were disguised—he couldn’t recognize them. Give me the boy, I told them, and it’s done. You wanted the money, and you have it. Now give me the boy.” Finally he looks into Antonina’s face. “They took my horse. I ran after them, but I was no match on foot. So I ran back to the count and pulled him from his horse and rode after them. But they had already disappeared. I rode in circles for some time, madam, and then went back to where the count lay and … and we came home.”
The kitchen is quiet except for steady thumping as Raisa, the cook, punches down dough. Something is bubbling on the stove; it rattles the lid of the big pot.
“So if Konstantin hadn’t arrived, Mikhail would be home with me now,” Antonina says slowly. She lifts her glass and drinks, never taking her gaze from Grisha.
Grisha gulps his vodka. He touches his torn lip with the tip of his tongue. “I believe so, madam. This I believe.” He can’t look at the countess any longer. The anguish on her face reminds him so much of another woman.
What has happened in these last few days is bringing back the old memories.
He pours more vodka. He drinks to numb the pain from his injuries, and to wash away his mother’s image.
n 1827, Grisha had been born Timofey Aleksandrovitch Kasakov in Chita, a village in the eastern province of Irkutsk in Siberia. The town closest to the west was the Buryat enclave of Upper Vdinsk.
When Grisha, or Timofey—Tima—as he was then called, left Chita for the small city of Irkutsk, the five-hundred-mile journey taught him something about his own resilience. He was fifteen years old, and he left home on his horse, Felya, carrying a small number of rubles, saddlebags of food, two heavy yak-hair blankets, the few pieces of clothing he owned, a small collection of books, his father’s crucifix and his mother’s Tibetan prayer wheel, and a wooden flute his brother, Kolya, had given him. He also carried the far heavier burden of guilt.