A Russian Summer

by James Keogh


The lodge was larger than you might imagine, it was the first time he had ever been inside. The old servant with his worn attire and little squinty eyes did nothing to assuage his nervousness. The hall was dark and cluttered with a musty odour. His eyes were drawn to the boar's head with it's wild curved tusks. The old dead boar and the servant lent an impression of entering into a sinister and threatening environment. The servant was less than agreeable.

"You are?" He said, with a gruff unwelcoming manner.

But I mastered my emotions and was not to be intimidated, neither by the rude servant, nor the sombre and cold interior.

"Is the Princess Agnia Gabrelyanov at home?"

"Bogdan!" A voice shouted from somewhere inside.

The servant immediately turned away, leaving me standing in the hall. I heard them speaking further down the corridor.

"Did you.." I heard the lady say, but a door must have closed, or they moved further away.

A short while later the old servant returned. "The Princess will receive you in the drawing room."

This room was somewhat brighter than the entrance hall and less cluttered. The furniture had been arranged neatly, although the pieces looked as if they had all seen better days. By the window, sitting in an ample armchair was the imposing figure of a lady I guessed to be fifty or older. Her dress was elegant if not also as worn as the both the servants attire and the furniture. Her striking feature was her eyes, those tiny black pins held me in her gaze when she set aside the eye glasses she held with her right hand. She had presumably been reading or else regarding something at a distance through the window. One thing was certain, the old lady did not have the pleasant features of her daughter.

Approaching the lady, I bowed. "I presume I have the honour of addressing the Princess Agnia Gabrelyanov?"

"Indeed you have," she replied. "And you are..." she paused, raising her eye glasses to peer through them as if appraising me, "the son of the Mikhailovs."

"Yes. I have a message to relay from my mother."

"Sit down."

She waived her eye glasses at me.

"Bogdan, fetch the boy something to drink."

The old servant tutted, turned, and left. I sat on the edge of the chair, my gaze roaming the room. Then I remembered I was here to give my mother's message, and explained she would be pleased to greet the Princess tomorrow at one o'clock.

"Well, I shall be sure to come," she replied.

I have to admit to not enjoying feeling her eyes on me and under scrutiny. It was a relief when Bogdan returned with a glass of water, which he ported on a silver tray.

"How old are you?" The Princess asked, in a tone of which I was uncertain if her question was genuine or made to assert her dominance over me.

"Sixteen," I replied, gulping my water.

"I see." She raised an eyebrow. "A good age."

I made no reply. At that moment her daughter, the slender young lady I had seen previously, entered the room.

"Ah! Anoushka. Where have you been?" Princess Agnia turned in her chair.

"With Konstantin, mamma."

The Princess Anoushka turned to look at me. She had that same agreeable smile she had had yesterday.

"This is..." her mother hesitated. "You didn't actually give your name, did you?" She addressed me directly.

"Alexei," I stammered, realising she was right and that was very remiss of me.

"Ah yes, Alexei Mikhailov. Our neighbours' son."

The young princess was still smiling, looking at me with her head slightly askance. "Haven't I already seen you?"

I felt a heat rising in my cheeks and was sure I was blushing. Of course she had seen me. She had smiled at me with that same gentle smile. She must, at that precise moment have decided something. It was evident by the way her regard changed.

"Are you busy?" She asked me.

I didn't know what to reply, and stammered again, "no, not..."

"Good. I need your help. Follow me."

She gave me no chance to say more. Simply turned away and walked off. I bowed to her mother. "Tomorrow," I said. "Do excuse me."

She appeared to pay no attention as I hurried after Princess Anoushka. I quickly caught up and followed behind as she led me further inside the house. We were in a room that had much better quality furniture, if sparsely furnished. The sunlight shone through the window lifting the sad gloominess of the rest of the house which I had seen.

The young princess sat down and took out a skein of wool. She motioned for me to join her and I took my place by her side. She turned to face me, the wool in her hands. She reached out and moved my arms, placing my hands apart in front of her, and began to wind the wool over them.

"What did you think of me?" She smiled again. This was a different smile, questioning, inciting me to answer.

"I... I was intrigued," I replied boldly, surprised at my own response.

"Oh! Good. Well, you should know, I am a very strange person."

I stared at her, not saying anything, I was surprised.

"I like always to be told the truth. I just heard you are sixteen, and I am twenty-one. I am much older than you, so you ought to always tell me the truth, and do what I tell you. Look at me!"

I raised my head slowly and found her eyes staring at me.

"That's better." She smiled her beautiful smile. "You have a nice face. You are polite. And... A little shy?"

It was a question I was uncertain if I had to answer.

"Do you like me? I have a presentiment we shall be friends."

This young lady posed questions to which she already had the answers, but it was not disagreeable listening to her. Although, I had a sense of being caught in a spell. In a way I was swept up. Almost unconscious, hypnotised.

"It's a bad habit for children, young men, she corrected herself, not to tell the truth. That is all very well for adults. You do like me, don't you?"

I nodded.

"Do you have a tutor?" She charged the subject.

"I have not had one for a while," I lied. My Frenchman was still back in Moscow, and we had left only a few days ago. Although he was a tutor by name only, I had no desire to admit to her that I did indeed have a tutor. Only children had tutors.

She tapped my fingers. "Keep your arms straight."

I watched her as she looked down, concentrating on the ball of wool. I wanted to inquire about the young men with whom she was occupied yesterday. One young man in particular. I imagined him with her. His short cropped black hair, his piercing eyes.

"What are you thinking?" She asked, as she raised her eyes once more to meet mine.

I avoided her gaze, certain she could read my thoughts, and not wanting to reveal them. I was not at all sure what they meant, why I was thinking like this. Perhaps I suffered a too vivid imagination.

"I know," she said, suddenly. "You are thinking about our encounter yesterday."

I blushed. She understands everything, I thought.

There was a sound from along the hall, footsteps of someone approaching.

"Konstantin is here!" screamed her mother from the drawing room.

In the doorway stood the very same young man I had been mesmerised by yesterday. Anoushka stood up, letting drop the wool. I looked up at him.

He smiled. Bowed to the princess, with a sweep of his arm.

"I have brought you a gift," he announced, and presented a tiny package.

She took this, looked at it, turning the box in her hands, examining it from every side.

"Open it!"

Konstantin glanced at me and I know I blushed yet again. He moved over to her as she stood by the window and opened the box.

"It's wonderful!"

She was very animated. I watched them dance around each other. A touch of his hand on her shoulder, another touch on her arm. Him gently pushing the ring onto her finger. Bringing her hand to his lips and kissing her finger. I watched and wished he were close to me. She rushed over to where minutes earlier we had been winding wool, and she extended her arm, pointing her hand downwards to offer me a close view of the ring.

I smiled, "It's lovely," I said.

"Yes, yes it is. Thank you, thank you, Konstantin."

She danced back to him and wrapped her arms around him. She touched his lips with her finger.

"We will not tell the others," she said.

Her took hold of both her hands and started kissing them. Then, completely unexpectedly, he looked over at me. Our eyes were locked. I sat, unmoving, held still by his gaze. It seemed to me he had a smile in those eyes, and an infinite depth.

The door opened wide and there stood the doorman from our house. He was making signs at me.

I got up and walked to the door. "What do you want?" I asked him.

"Your mamma has sent for you. She is annoyed you have not come home."

"Why?" I asked. "Have I been here long?"

"Over an hour," he replied.

"I must leave now," I announced to the room.

"Why must you go now?" The Princess turned away from Konstantin.

"I have been too long and my mother has sent our doorman to find me."

"You will come and see us again soon, I hope." She smiled at me before returning her attention to her handsome hussar.

My mother asked me what I had been doing for so long at the neighbour's house. I made no reply, and went to my room, where I fell on my bed. I tried hard not to cry. I was jealous. Jealous of the princess and her hussar.

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