A Russian Summer

by James Keogh


The next weekend after dinner everyone was assembled at the Gabrelyanovs, Konstantin was back, Vyacheslav and Radomir, the Princess greeted them and the game of forfeits began again. This time it was different, the tone of the evening had changed and each participant was charged to recount a truth on a theme Princess Anoushka chose. By virtue of my new found status as confidant I sat beside her and urged the others to their recounting of tales. It was not entirely successful, because the histories recounted were so far from being real they were like plays of the imagination, and not very good. Vyacheslav, who I had the habit of listening to his riddles, excelled at describing an encounter with an ethereal being by the lake not too far from here. This creature of strange form talked to the flowers and they talked back, they told this ghostly being secrets which he said he had overheard, but he could of course not repeat the words. I am not sure his tale was appreciated, it was so wispy and surreal as to be completely unbelievable and not terribly entertaining.

Radomir desisted when his turn arrived, saying, "I have not the imagination to tell you any tale."

Princess Anoushka said quite firmly that he must take his turn. "Imagine," she said, "if you were married and your young wife deceived you. What would you do?"

"I would take her and lock her in the house. And she would stay confined. And I would call the pastor to hear her confession."

"But if she escaped the house and ran off?" Princess Anoushka asked.

"I would give chase and capture her."

"And when you had caught her?"

"I would lock her in the house until she repented."

"But supposing she did not. What would you do then?"

"I would strike her dead!" Radomir exclaimed with a sort of self-righteousness.

"You would? And if it was I, your wife?"

"I would kill myself!"

"I see. Yours is not a very long story." She laughed.

She looked around the room and quite suddenly said, "Now listen, I will tell you my tale. It is about a queen and her suitors on the night of a grand ball in the palace. And what a magnificent palace it is. The room is adorned with fine paintings, gold, glass, and crystal chandeliers which sparkle in the candle light."

"Oh, you love luxury and beautiful things," Vyacheslav interrupted.

"Who doesn't?" She replied.

"More than what is noble?" Konstantin asked her.

"That is too clever and I am not sure I understand. Now listen." She continued her story. "Of all the suitors who dance with the queen and who are all rich, young, and brave, there is one whom she likes most, but she must choose not for love, but for her country." The Princess paused, and when she saw they were all captured by her narration, she continued. "Destiny steps in and her preferred is held captive by the ghostly apparition of another figure, one ill defined. So much so she cannot discern who this rival is. And what, gentlemen would you each do to aid your queen?"

"Would this phantom figure not be the same one Vyacheslav saw," Radomir joked.

"Be quiet!" She scowled at him, but continued with her tale. "As fate would have it this phantom is a young man and the queen cannot understand what power he has over her preferred, so she demands the others help. And I will tell you what you would do. You, Vyacheslav would recite poetry and riddles. And you Radomir, would challenge him to a duel. Whilst Konstantin, you would take poison and kill yourself." She laughed and clapped her hands together.

"A very wicked tale," Vyacheslav said, "but you made it all up did you not?"

She looked at him, then at Konstantin, and Radomir, then me. "Of course!"

I moved away from her and was not at all pleased, I felt injured, as though she were belittling me and playing light with my emotions and feelings. I did not care for her games anymore.

"And this phantom would not be a suitor, but a stranger who had bewitched the queen's favorite, but she would not have chosen her favourite anyway." Vyacheslav said.

I was becoming angry at this turn of the conversation, I felt it like an attack on myself and Konstantin. I looked at him, but he was like stone and his features were unreadable, but I had had enough.

"I think I shall take leave, Princess. It is late," I said, trying to contain my anger and upset.

"No, no, please stay," she replied as if she genuinely meant it.

"Yes, stay," added Konstantin. "Pay no attention to phantoms, reality is far more rewarding."

He looked at the Princess as he said this.

"Let's play some music to change the humour, we should be joyful, should we not?"

However, it seemed the evening had reached an abrupt conclusion and polite good nights were made as it was concurred I was right and the hour was late. Excuses were made and the party broke up. As I was leaving the Princess touched my arm and said no offence was intended we were playing imaginary games. Konstantin accompanied me to the door and in parting kissed my cheek.

Once back home I lay on my bed, but could not find sleep. My head was filled with thoughts from this evening and turmoil kept me awake. 'What was she hinting?' I asked myself, and then thought about Vyacheslav and his warning. There seemed to be a malignancy hanging in the air, as if jealousy or something else perhaps were infecting people's thoughts. I thought of the Princess as a friend and the others too, but maybe my trust was misplaced. I had believed they were welcoming of me into their midst, I was after all no equal, a mere apprentice in the art of social behaviour, but not uneducated. I remembered the expression on the Princess's face when recounting her tale and I was not now sure about her good-naturedness, nor the others. I wondered if they might not all pounce on me like vultures, and yet why would they do so? What had changed? The bedside candle flickered with a draught and I realised the window was still slightly open. I stood and moved across the bedroom to close it and as I did so I looked out into the moonlight which spread out like a pale mist illuminating the darkness with a phantom shroud. I was indignant about what had happened and unhappy with myself to not have given voice and challenged their stupid games. There was some new aspect to the Princess that I had discovered and which I may previously have ignored, but now found I disliked. The same might be said for all of them, and this made me think about Konstantin, because he too gave way to changes and a certain unpredictability.

Such was my state I could no longer even contemplate sleep and I dressed in a warm coat and went downstairs and out into the moonlit garden. The air was chill and I shivered slightly, the leaves of the trees rustled with the movement of the air. The hoot of an owl pierced the otherwise almost silent night. I took the path I knew so well towards the old greenhouse and stone wall at the far end of the garden, I thought perhaps to take shelter there and gather my thoughts in the place which in some fashion was like a sanctuary. It was as I made my way there, I heard footsteps, soft and quick, I looked about me and thought to have caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure. I was immediately reminded of the evening's tales of phantoms and shadows, and dismissed it as imaginings of a tired mind. A crack and rustle of movement drew my attention and the shiver which went through my body was not from the cold this time, but an apprehension. "Who is here?" I asked softly into the night, and I strained to here any sound.

There was no reply save the chill breeze on my face and the dancing moonlight through the branches as the wind grew a little stronger. Even the sound of the grasshoppers ceased as if a sudden cold had interrupted their singing. I hugged myself and then as quickly as the wind had picked up, it died away, and the chirping sing-song of the insects recommenced. I turned and headed back to the house and my cold bed. I had the strangest feeling, as if I had gone to a tryst and had been left lonely, passed close to another's happiness.

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