A Chance of Fate
A mere 300 hundred feet separated two coaches pulled by the same southbound locomotive, yet the gulf that lay between the people reposing within them was as great as that between the Earth and its moon. Even though they sprang from the same rich, black earth, they were set apart from birth by differing cultures and heritages, tastes and traditions, goals and aspirations. Bound together as they were on that fragile lifeline of Russian railway track, when they reached the safety of journey's end they would go their diverse ways, ignorant and uncaring of each other.
At least that was how it should have been and had been on a thousand similar journeys. But on that last December night of 1905, a freak circumstance of nature created a common ground on which two would meet. Of the some 150 passengers aboard, those two were still awake.
One sat amidst the opulence of an Imperial Russian Army dining car. He was unaware of the splendour of his surroundings for they were of his everyday experience. His attention was commanded by the glimmering banks of snow illuminated briefly by the lights of the train. Unnoticed on the table beside him stood a bottle of Chateau Signac, a fine red wine form which a glass, still untouched, had been poured. Also unnoticed, a respectful distance away, was the dining car attendant, who had fallen asleep waiting for the gentleman to leave so he could clear the last table.
His honour, Captain Andrei Alexandrovich Bodin, officer of the ancient Cavalier Guards Regiment and owner of one of the largest estates in the Western Ukraine, was very much awake. He watched the miles sweep away, bringing him ever closer to his beloved "Astradnoe", his real -- and only -- home. Just as important to him, these same miles were taking him away from the trivialities and intrigues of St. Petersburg, a city growing more uneasy with each passing day. For a whole month Andrei could set aside all thoughts of his commitments and responsibilities in the sheer enjoyment of home. It was this anticipation that denied him sleep.
How very different from the other restless passenger who kept the night watch on the train. Located behind the carriages of the officers and the accompanying soldiers, behind even the horseboxes, was the boxcar full of prisoners.
The prisoners were an odd assortment of people. All had been duly sentenced by the medieval workings of Russian law. There were several murders, numerous thieves and a small contingent of political agitators, mostly students. One of the agitators sat huddled in a corner and was kept awake, not by the cold or the noise or the stench, but by a bitter mixture of anger and despair.
Two years before he had been the celebrated new discovery of the St. Petersburg art circle. He was the winner of one of the prestigious scholarships awarded by the Academy of Fine Arts. His work was sought after, as was he. But a society willing to flirt with the new art styles of Western Europe is not necessarily one ready for the new political ideals associated with them.
Whatever the cause, Raymond Ilych Doylov had discovered that talent was no protection against malicious intent and his naively expressed opinions had inevitably led him to the Prosecutor's Office and a place in a Ukrainian labour camp.
The abrupt jarring that occurred when, the locomotive's brakes were applied, snapped both men out of their private worlds and roused the rest of the train. All onboard instinctively held on as the grinding of the metal gears fought to slow the train's forward momentum. The captain watched the front of the train as it curved right into a bend, sparks flying in great waves when the engineer applied the secondary brakes, releasing steam pressure as he did so. The engine's whistle reached a frantic pitch. In the coaches men were thrown around and a babble of voices arose. The dining car attendant tried unsuccessfully to salvage some of the china as the train at last came to a wrenching halt.
Captain Bodin stood and eyed distastefully the stain where the red wine had splashed the immaculate white of his dress uniform tunic. He lifted the table napkin to dab at it then abandoned it as he noticed activity outside. Stopping briefly at his compartment to get his greatcoat and gloves - it was many degrees below zero outside -- he made his way to the carriage door. Jumping the remaining distance from the bottom of the carriage steps he landed softly, sinking into several inches of fresh snow. Up ahead rough voices shouted commands.
The area was bright with the headlights of the train but his attention was momentarily drawn beyond the pool of light, to the darkness of the forest. It lay less than fifty yards from the track, the edges of each sturdy pine crystallised with a layer of glittering frost. Above, a cold, white moon and its entourage of stars shone uninhibited by cloud. The stillness of the place stood firm against this temporary noisy intrusion
Andrei moved forward, determined to discover the problem and hasten its resolution. He'd been separated long enough from his home.
Nearing the front of the train he saw, illuminated in the engine's headlight, the huge bank of snow and fallen trees that had halted their journey. A good fifteen feet high and of unknown depth; they had been fortunate to survive the encounter. The front metalwork of the engine was deeply embedded in the drift. The engine driver noticed his presence and broke off haranguing his fireman to greet the distinguished guest.
"Your Honour, all is well..." he assured the captain. "No harm has come to the engine. When the dispatcher at Mozhaisk realises we are overdue he will send out a plough and a gang of -- "
"How long?" Bodin asked impatiently.
"No more than a day, Your Honour."
"A day?" Bodin bristled. That was one day too many for him. "Are there tools onboard?"
"Yes, Your Honour, of course..."
"Break them out," He turned back towards the train. The engineer, long drilled in obedience to his superiors, scurried away to do as he was bid.
Two sleepy figures emerged from the officer's carriage, still suffering from the after-effects of the New Year celebrations. Forced to mark the occasion on a train journey, they had nonetheless enjoyed a sumptuous meal and consumed copious amounts of champagne. The whole thing had degenerated into a childish muddle with each one trying to outdo his brother officers in extravagance, Bodin had seen it all many times before in the Officer's Mess and, not willing to join in, remained in the dining car when the others moved into the salon. He was on board this train only because it was going in the right direction. Towards Astradnoe.
"What's happened, sir?" Anatole Szecpansky asked.
"The track is blocked. I'm going to order out the guard to clear it." His tone implied he had no further time for conversation, and he left them to enter the troopers' compartment.
Szecpansky looked at his companion.
"Whatever he's got in the country must be fascinating."
"I'm betting it's not what, but who," Nikolai Bakunin said thoughtfully.
"What or who, we're not likely to find out. I hear he doesn't even allow his family to visit the place."
"Mmmm...let's go in, it's cold."
After five hours the disgruntled troopers began to make an impression on the mountain of snow. The sun was making a grudging appearance as they broke for breakfast. Bodin sipped at his coffee and leaned back against a signal post. One of the troopers passed carrying buckets filled with water towards the rear of the train. Two others armed themselves and followed him. Andrei watched as they opened the door of the final boxcar. Urgent hands reached out to take the buckets, spilling some of the water as it was pulled inside. Bodin called the sergeant over to him.
"Are there prisoners on this train?"
The man came to attention. "Yes, sir."
"Get them out. They can begin on the other side."
"Do it, Sergeant."
He set down the cup and strode off towards the boxcar.
"Open it up," Bodin ordered the guards.
The heavy door slammed back on its metal runners releasing an unpleasant, pungent smell. The captain took an involuntary step backwards. Inside all was darkness.
"Out!" The sergeant barked.
At first, Andrei could only sense the movement, as a dishevelled line of weary men and women slowly piled out. Disoriented by the sudden plunge into light, they covered their eyes and, stumbling, fell from the wagon floor.
Andrei turned from the white faces and demanded of the sergeant, "How long since they were fed?"
"They were given food at the beginning of the journey."
That was a long time ago, he thought grimly.
"Feed them." He walked away not needing to see the order carried out and wanting to escape from this cargo of human debris. They blankly watched him go, too miserable and hungry to enjoy the freedom and fresh air and fell ravenously upon the food when it arrived.
The work progressed much faster with the extra hands. Soon the snow bank was reduced sufficiently to attempt forcing the locomotive through under its own power. The engineer built up steam and set a slow forward pace. The troopers and prisoners huddled together in groups against the deepening cold to view the breakthrough. Even some of the officers ventured out to watch the final moments of the proceedings.
The locomotive roared into controlled life, moving a few inches at a time. Steam billowed from escape valves to hang as clouds in the frosty air. As the train broke through the final obstruction to stand clear on the other side, a ragged cheer went up from the troopers. Already they were contemplating a quick return to their warm compartment and the ration of spirits the sergeant had promised them. The prisoners were herded together in preparation for the march back to the boxcar.
There was a scuffle and a shout and Andrei turned quickly to see a prisoner slam hard into one of the guards, almost come to grief himself, and then take off at break neck speed towards the embankment and the forest.
Out of pure instinct, when the rifle of the trooper standing beside him was raised, Bodin swung at it as the soldier fired. He deflected the fatal aim, but something in the path of the running man brought him down into a crazy tumble over the edge of the embankment and he disappeared from sight.
The crack of the gunshot echoed away and silence returned. No one moved. The guards returned their attention to the now terrified prisoners, coming down hard on them to prevent any further insubordination.
The captain regarded the place where the figure had fallen. There was no movement beyond it. He barely caught the sergeant's muttered comment, "I don't know where the poor bastard thought he was going anyway."
It was with these words that the futility of the action struck Bodin. Where had he been going? They were fifty miles away from the nearest village. The temperature never rose above freezing point and the forest was full of wolves. The man must be either desperate or insane.
Whatever he was, Bodin needed to see him. Morbid curiosity perhaps, but not to be resisted. When two of the troopers moved off towards the embankment to look for the prisoner, he accompanied them at a distance. As they reached the mark in the snow where he had slipped over the edge of the embankment, they turned back towards him.
"He's dead, sir," one of them offered.
Bodin pushed past them and stepped over the edge. It was difficult to make his way down for the embankment was steep and the snow drifted, but eventually he drew level with the crumpled body. He took off his thick glove and located the pulse point at the jugular. It beat steady and strong. He noted the injury to the man's face. He must have hit a tree or rock as he fell. Blood covered his forehead.
"He's alive. You two, get down here and help," he ordered.
The three of them managed to drag the unconscious man up the snowy slope. Bodin moved ahead as the troopers carried him back to the train. The sergeant met them half way, and ordered the prisoner returned to the boxcar.
The order was countermanded.
"Bring him to the baggage car."
Bodin's look sent the sergeant about his business. Once inside the baggage car the captain cleared a space and removed his greatcoat, spreading it out on the floor.
"Put him down here and find the medical orderly."
Throwing his gloves aside he knelt down to look at the wound. Not a life-threatening injury; the most noticeable damage was a ragged cut just below the hairline. Looking at the bloody, ashen face, however, Bodin considered that to be the least of the man's problems.
"He's going into shock, bring a blanket and get that stove lit," he ordered, aware of the disapproval on the sergeant's face.
"Sergeant, return to your duties."
"But, sir..." he began, then gave up and contented himself with warning the troopers to stay alert as he left.
Bodin was loath to touch the wound so he took out his handkerchief and began to clean away the blood streaks. The orderly arrived just as the train resumed its journey. He set about his work in a no-nonsense fashion and Bodin felt free to withdraw after charging him with responsibility for the prisoner and promising to return to inspect his work.
When he reached his compartment Andrei uncharacteristically did not remove his uniform, merely opened the tunic buttons and stretched out on the bed. He fell asleep at once into a recurrent dream of being shot and falling into an endless pit of white, soft snow.
The prisoner Doylov woke to a crushing wave of pain. At least he was warm and able to move freely, but apart from that his mind was foggy. As he tried to sit up the pain doubled and he reached out blindly for something to hold onto. His hands were taken in a firm grasp; opening his eyes he discovered he was supported, not by a guard or a fellow prisoner, but by an officer of the Imperial Army who eased him into a sitting position.
"Drink this," the officer commanded.
A small silver cup belonging to a field canteen was held to his lips and he drank deeply of rich, warm cognac. The strong liquor winded him and he coughed.
"Take it easy," the voice instructed, not unkindly.
"Thanks," Doylov murmured as he finished another long swallow.
"Lie back again." He was gently helped into the warmth of the coat and covered with a blanket. Beside him a stove glowed brightly and it, together with the brandy, seemed to ease the pain.
"You've got a nasty cut on your head. The orderly has done all he can. You were lucky the fall didn't kill you."
Quite suddenly the fog cleared and Doylov remembered the events of the previous few hours.
"That was a damned stupid thing to do," the officer chided, gently.
"Yes, well I must be stupid," Doylov replied bitterly, "look at the situation I find myself in."
"Educated yes, clever no," he answered, examining the man before him.
The severely cut black hair framed a face that went beyond handsome, but the eyes were cold and the mouth was hard. He was dressed in a perfectly cut tunic; the insignia was that of a captain in a cavalry regiment Tight fitting riding breeches were caught into highly polished black boots.
Doylov was confused. Why was this man helping him? Suddenly he became suspicious. He'd learned this much at least, that people were governed only by self-interest. The wariness showing in his face was redoubled when the officer dismissed the two troopers.
"I'm Captain Bodin," he introduced himself and sat down on a trunk that had been pulled out from the stack of luggage, picking up a book as he did so.
"This must be yours, one of the troopers found it."
It was almost snatched as Bodin held it forward. A man of few possessions now, this was important to Raymond Doylov and he looked from it to his benefactor.
"You thought I'd stolen it, didn't you?"
"I thought it more than likely," the man admitted. "The sketches are excellent, not that I know a great deal about these things," he qualified. "R. D. Your initials?"
As he expected the name meant nothing to the army officer.
"I've exhibited only once in St. Petersburg, but they said I had promise."
He sighed deeply.
"I suppose this is all that remains of my work. Not a good idea to admit you own a canvas painted by a political agitator."
"Political," the captain nodded. "I should have guessed."
"You're not going to ask questions I hope. I spent three memorable days with the St. Petersburg police, the bastards. They know more about me than I do."
Doylov looked at the canteen and the officer obliged him. After a long drink, he said, "I'm sure it's all comprehensively filed away on record."
"Continuously, for three days. It's amazing the effect of a well-placed boot can have on encouraging conversation," he told the officer, finishing the drink.
"Not that I actually said very much. There's nothing much to say when all you've done is express an opinion. But then that was the really stupid thing to do."
"That depends on one's opinions," Bodin countered.
"I agree, it wouldn't do to spread really perverted views such as hoping that one day all your fellow citizens would be treated like human beings, now would it?"
"I'm a soldier, not a..."
"Politician," Doylov finished the statement for him. "A surprisingly common response."
He looked into the blue eyes. This one was probably no different, but he tried again.
"Whatever you are, even a soldier, surely you have an opinion. Can't you see what's going on around you?" he questioned. "Don't you care?"
The man stood up abruptly. Doylov sighed again.
"You're bored," he said, "and I'm tired. Let's leave it at that."
The train halted as they reached the next water stop and the troopers returned.
"Orders from the sergeant, Sir, we're to return the prisoner."
"He's not ready..."
"Forget it, I'm ready to go back."
Doylov began to haul himself to his feet. Bodin moved to his side, lifting him up. As the wounded man steadied himself against the nausea and vertigo, Andrei looked into the green eyes. He could not avoid being impressed by the way the man was dealing with the desperate situation he was in.
Suddenly another response raced through him, one that was quite out of place here and he stepped back abruptly, looking down at his coat where it lay on the floor. Impulsively he picked it up and held it out to Doylov.
"Take it, it's cold."
Doylov looked at the sable lined greatcoat. "If I take that back there, I'll end up with my throat cut. I'll take the blanket though."
Doylov reached down for it and then, just as impulsively, took out his sketchbook.
"Here, keep it." He held it out. "If you want it."
"I'd be honoured." Bodin too the book. " Good lu..." he broke off realising the stupidity of what he'd been about to say. "Good bye," he amended.
"Much more appropriate," the artist replied, than laughed a little desperately.
The troopers stepped forward and he held up his hands placatingly. Wrapping the blanket more closely about himself he stepped out of the carriage. Bodin's gaze rested on the open doorway for a few moments before he returned to his compartment and handed the coat to his valet with instructions to have it cleaned.
Bodin was awake late into the night, the swaying and chugging of the train no longer a comfort to him. He longed for the wearisome journey to be at an end so he could put it from his mind in the soothing balm of Astradnoe. But the cautious driver had reduced speed, thus prolonging the torture.
His thoughts returned to the stranger whose life he had saved. He'd read somewhere that among native peoples, saving a life meant you became responsible for it. It was a fanciful notion. He turned on the lamp and reached for the sketchbook. For the third time he opened it, not leafing through this time, but systematically studying each page.
The drawings were good and he found the subjects intrigued him. Looking at them it was as if someone had opened up a vista of St. Petersburg life. The weather-beaten old flower-seller, the conductor at a band concert, a clutch of pretty girls in muslin and ribbons. People were the artist's forte; he had a gift for portraiture.
He closed the book with a snap. It would be wrong to allow such talent to waste away in a prison camp, whatever the man's crimes. Besides Doylov was no longer an anonymous prisoner, he was a person. Maybe he was responsible for the man; after all, to have bled to death in the snow would have been an easy way out if what Bodin had heard about the labour camps was true. He lifted out a sheet of paper and began to write.
"I cannot advise you strongly enough against this course of action, Your Highness," the sharp featured little lawyer insisted. "This man may be talented but he is a convicted felon. I have been honoured to serve your family, Sir, for many years and you must realise I have only your best interests at heart. To act as guarantor for this criminal's good behaviour can bring little advantage and may, in fact, compromise your own position."
Prince Andrei Alexandrovich Bodin smiled indulgently at the little man, who seemed to derive more satisfaction from the Bodin family honour than he did himself.
"Vaska," the Prince reasoned, "the commitment has already been made. I only need you to formalise the papers."
"Very well, Your Highness," he sighed, gathering up the documents, sure that his noble client could not have fully read the account of this Doylov's life. "As you wish."
He bowed formally and withdrew.
Bodin returned to his contemplation of the cherry trees lining the drive of his St. Petersburg townhouse. Today was the first one on which there was even a hint of incipient spring. He'd noticed when out exercising his horse that the harsh edge had gone off the wind and the first swifts had braved the long journey north. The entrance of the butler interrupted his reverie. A normally unflappable individual, whose face wore an unaccustomed flush.
"Your Highness -- " he broke off.
Bodin raised an enquiring eyebrow.
"Sir, a 'person' has arrived to see you."
"Who is it?"
"I am unacquainted with the name, Sir, but he is accompanied by two prison guards."
"He's here?" Bodin let his annoyance be known. "The inefficient fools! Don't they read instructions? He was to be brought to...never mind. Where is he?"
"In the stable yard, Sir."
"Have him brought into the kitchen. I'll come down."
"To the kitchen?" The tone was one verging on horror.
"Yes, to the kitchen. I do know where it is. I even know what function it fulfils." He turned away, attempting to get his anger in check and also to rein in a sudden anticipation that flared through him.
He heard the servant leave, his agitated footsteps resounding across the marble hallway. It was strange, but it was only then that Bodin realised this was the first time he'd ever heard them. The man had obviously dedicated a lifetime to being unobtrusive.
Bodin followed him with deliberation. It was a long time since he'd been in this part of the house. As a child it had been his favourite part. Marya, then the cook, had had a soft spot for him because his healthy appetite did justice to her superb cooking. But then he'd grown up and his father no longer approved of his son and heir being found flour-covered and sticky around the mouth in the presence of the servants and the kitchen had been declared off limits.
He pushed away the happy memories evoked by the sights and smells from beneath stairs and concentrated on the business at hand.
Raymond Doylov stood in the centre of the huge kitchen amid the gleaming pots and china. His hands were bound, his eyes lowered. Bodin's gaze was drawn to the man's right cheek. Where his cheekbone should have been a strange lump stood out in stark relief under the sunken eyes. He had no time to dwell on the obviously new deformity, for the overall appearance of the man chilled his blood.
What in God's name ha they done to him? The auburn curls were gone, shaved to almost nothing, although enough remained to show a premature grey at the temples. The face was gaunt and ashen. Not that Doylov had been well the only other time he'd seen him, but this was incredible. He seemed to have aged ten years, in three months. The grey prison serge clothes hanging on his body appeared several sizes too large. The man was a physical wreck and will power seemed to be the only thing keeping him on his feet.
"Release him," Bodin ordered as he descended the remaining few steps. When he heard the click of the key in the lock he again looked at his new charge. The man's eyes stayed lowered. Bodin looked past him to the knot of kitchen maids huddled together in horrified curiosity.
"Bring food, plenty of food."
The cook bobbed a curtsey and started issuing commands.
Bodin walked to the guard and asked, "Do I need to sign an authorisation?"
"It won't be necessary to sign anything. We were instructed to hand him over into your custody."
That explained the misunderstanding of his instructions. It seemed he had to take personal charge of this so-called menace to society; not that he looked particularly menacing just then. Rather it looked like a strong breeze would be enough to blow him away.
"You have done so," the Prince told the guard. "My butler will see you are taken care of."
He watched with relief as the two guards were ushered out. Thanking the cook for the abundance of food spread out on the table, he requested that Mr. Doylov and he be left alone. He sat in a chair and pushed another out, towards his 'guest'.
"For pity's sake, sit down, before you fall down."
The man did not move, but spoke in a cracked voice.
"What do you want of me?"
"Nothing, though I suppose a little gratitude wouldn't go amiss."
He admonished himself even as he spoke the words. But the man's reaction to them was not what he expected.
"If I wasn't so bloody hungry," Doylov told him around a mouthful of chicken, "I might argue the point with you."
So Bodin had a pragmatist on his hands. For that he was grateful. He feared a sensitive, artistic temperament could be tiresome.
He watched and enjoyed the relish with which the man attacked the food. Far too soon Doylov began to run out of steam; his desire for food was greater than his ability to stomach it. Three months of poor nutrition had taken its toll on the man.
Bodin stood and called for the butler. He instructed the man to prepare a bath and find suitable clothing for his guest.
"How long since you slept?" he asked Doylov.
"Two, no - three days."
"Time you did then. Sergei will find you a bed in the servants' quarters. When you're rested we'll talk."
He walked to the staircase, but turned back.
"I was made aware of the terms of my release, I won't run. Where would I go? Even here?"
He returned to the last of his food, playing with it listlessly, as Bodin issued the orders and left.
Raymond fell into a dead sleep that lasted a full day and half of the next. When he wakened he felt that a little of his strength had returned and, dressing in the clothes left out for him, he descended the servants' staircase into the kitchen. The cook, upon seeing him enter, instructed the kitchen maid to prepare him breakfast, and much to his surprise, he found he was ravenous.
When he had finished his breakfast, he was drawn out through the open kitchen door into the sunshine of the stable yard. No one questioned or even appeared to notice his leaving the house. It seemed strange after three months when every movement was supervised and restricted. There was a bustle of activity all around him. Like all great houses this one had a large staff ,and with the coming of the spring, they were all busily engaged in making good the ravages of the winter. He sat for a long time, allowing the normality of this place to seep into him, and then began to investigate it.
Rounding a corner, he found himself at the entrance to the stable loose boxes. He wandered in, enjoying the sound of the dozen or so beasts housed there. They were just settling down to their second feed of the day. He walked past the stalls, inspecting each occupant until he came to the fifth, in which he found not only a magnificent grey, but also Bodin. The officer was watching the animal being shod by the master farrier and it was some minutes before he noticed Doylov's presence. When he did, he gave the rest of his instructions to the man and left the stable indicating that Doylov should follow.
"You look much recovered," he observed.
Doylov nodded in agreement.
The Prince strode out through the stable yard towards the extensive lawns at the front of the house. Doylov had been too ill or exhausted on the previous occasions he had seen his benefactor to really observe the man with his artist's eye and he now took the opportunity of scrutinising him.
He was younger than Doylov, though not by much. He was about the same height but was more heavily built. His features could be described as strikingly handsome and his manner could only be described as cool.
Doylov caught up with him as he stepped onto the drive, its gravel drawn out in symmetrical patterns.
They walked in silence for some minutes before Doylov spoke up.
"Sir, I need to know where I stand."
"Didn't they explain the nature of the parole to you?"
"I am released into your custody for the period of one year. If at the end of that time I have proved by good behaviour my remission, my sentence will be set aside."
"That is exactly the case."
"It doesn't tell me why."
Bodin stifled irritation. Why did this man insist on asking a question he had no answer to himself? Still he had to say something.
"After the incident on the train I made enquiries of an acquaintance in the Prosecutor General's office regarding your case. I was not happy with what I found. Your trial was patently unfair, the sentence unjust."
Noting the flash of anger in Doylov's eyes, the Prince was greatly relieved that two months in a labour camp had done little to dent the man's natural impertinence.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness, you're not responsible. You've shown me only kindness and for that I thank you..."
Bodin halted him. "I'm not asking for your gratitude. I became aware of your situation and as I was in a position to do something about it, I did so. Nothing more, nothing less."
The harshness of his voice clearly indicated to Doylov that the man was uncomfortable with the whole subject so he remained silent.
"I have a question for you," the Prince said as they resumed walking. "Why did you run, that night on the train?"
Doylov thought for a few minutes.
"There's no clear answer to that. I think it was mostly panic. I'd never before experienced the fear of being totally at the mercy of other people. I don't recommend it. I don't recommend a stay in a labour camp either. You don't have to worry. I will not break the parole. I don't care to sample the hospitality of the Russian penal system again."
"That effective, is it?"
"The only truly effective system in the entire country, I should think," volunteered Doylov, his steps faltering.
Bodin became aware of the greyness creeping over his companion's face. "You're still unwell, we'll talk again when your strength returns. Rest for now." He guided both their steps back towards the house and, upon reaching, it instructed one of the footmen to see Doylov to his room. Before turning away he asked, "Do you have everything you need?"
"Yes, but I..."
"What is it?"
"I really missed holding a pencil or a brush."
"Of course. Give Sergei a list of whatever you require and it will be purchased today."
With that he was gone, before gratitude could be expressed.
Even though his spirit was willing it was many days before Doylov was able to make use of the range of artists' materials that were brought to him. At first the very effort of dressing and moving about the servants' quarters and grounds was sufficient to exhaust him. He reluctantly admitted to himself that he would have survived only a short time longer in the labour camp, gently reared as he was. Bodin had, in effect, saved his life twice over.
Doylov found it difficult to clarify his feelings towards the man. Although he freely admitted the debt, it chaffed him that it had been incurred, since he had done nothing wrong.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation at least he was somewhere where he was well cared for and shown common courtesy. And he was being allowed, even encouraged, to draw and paint. He began with sketches of the small army of servants who worked in the great house. They had made him welcome in their home and he acknowledged this by presenting each one with his or her likeness in charcoal.
Gradually he felt his confidence and strength return. He began to join in with the laughter and earthy conversations of the servants' dinner table, which he had chosen instead of a solitary meal in his room. When he had asked, a south facing attic room was cleared out for him to use as a studio and he began to paint for an hour or two each day.
He had seen and heard nothing of Bodin for well over a week when Sergei casually mentioned that the master was expected to return from his duty tour the following day. He could sense the increase in activity throughout the house as the appointed hour approached and he withdrew from the bustle to his studio, leaving his work only to watch the carriage draw up and its occupant step out.
It was well after dinner when Sergei knocked at his door to tell him the master wished to speak with him in the library.
Raymond followed him and was led for the first time into the main part of the house. They stopped before double doors of highly polished mahogany and Sergei tapped softly at the wood, then opened the door and moved inside.
Raymond had only a brief impression of the sumptuous room into which he stepped before his gaze was caught by the sight of Bodin. Although he had dined alone, the Prince had dressed formally in a black dinner suit and high, white starched collar. He stood very tall and straight at the side of a large fireplace, his face reflecting the flickering glow of the flames. His mind was obviously far away and Raymond had to cough gently to call him back. The startled blue eyes settled on him, showing a momentary disorientation that passed quickly.
"Good evening, Your Highness."
"Good evening," the Prince answered, registering the improvement in his charge's appearance. "We didn't finish our conversation the last time we spoke." His tone was very business-like. "If you are willing to accept it, I can offer you employment that will ensure you the means to return to your profession at the end of the probation year, while allowing me to honour a personal commitment."
"Tell me," Raymond prompted.
Bodin looked embarrassed and turned away to pour brandy into two glasses. "It is a vain, foolish tradition but when I marry I must commission a portrait of myself and one of my wife for the family collection. I've seen some of your work and I wish to offer you the commission."
"I'd be glad to accept," Raymond said without hesitation and he took the proffered brandy glass. "You are to be married then?"
"I have the honour to be engaged to Countess Xenia Herzen. We will be married next spring. My mother and sister are visiting her and her family in Moscow at present."
"How will you explain my presence to your family?"
"Leave that to me. I may be head of the household but such matters do require finesse."
For the first time Doylov was treated to a smile from the Prince, who then began to question him. "What about your own family? Do you wish to contact them?"
"No," Doylov answered abruptly, then relented. "Well, perhaps a brief message to say I am well. I have caused my parents too much heartache for anything more."
Bodin deliberately changed the subject. "Would you like to see the family portraits?"
"Yes, very much," Doylov agreed.
He followed the Prince out into the rococo splendour of the marble entrance hall and up the sweeping staircase to the gallery that ran the east-west length of the house. The heavy brocade drapes on the twenty large sash windows that let the morning light flood into the room, had been drawn and the candles in the five crystal chandeliers had been lit in preparation for the visit. The magnificence of the room did not compare, however, to the small collection of superb canvasses by Cezanne and Seurat, exhibited in between the most recent of the family portraits with a deftness of touch that was quite delightful.
The Prince, observing how Raymond's attention was caught, offered an explanation.
"They are my mother's one indulgence. She is a devoted patron of the arts and an avid collector. She is familiar with your work and will be pleased to hear you have e accepted the commission."
Raymond looked at the fine canvasses.
"I am honoured."
The Prince moved to stand before a large painting of a young man and woman. She was dressed in the traditional red and silver clothes of a Russian bride.
"These are my parents," Bodin said.
Doylov really did not need to be told this since the Prince favoured both parents and had his mother's dark colouring. Like the son, the father was a handsome man and from what the servants said he had been a kind and just one. The pair made a fine couple, even allowing for the conformist style of the artist, which couldn't hide the warmth of both personalities.
"Is this the style you choose?" Raymond asked, a little desperately.
"I know little of art, other than to say what I like or dislike. I will leave the matter to you."
For that Raymond breathed a sigh of relief. "When do you wish to begin?" He asked.
"There is yet time, let me know when you are ready. I must warn you, though, I have little patience for sittings... I will leave you to peruse the collection. The room is open to you at any time."
And with that he left the artist eagerly enjoying the treasure before him.
For the next several weeks, as spring began in earnest, they saw little of each other. Doylov was loath to admit it but he was severely weakened by his experience, the mental damage taking the longest to repair. Despite this, he began preliminary drawings of Bodin for the portrait, always from memory. This he enjoyed for the man was a fine subject. The collection of these drawings grew steadily. One showed the Prince as an army captain, standing in a snowy landscape with a dark forest beyond. Another took as its theme the horse lover and showed him caring for the large grey, dappled stallion. Both seemed inappropriate somehow as a representation of a Russian aristocrat. It was going to be difficult to find the correct form.
At the end of the month of April Princess Bodin and her daughter arrived home from their visit in Moscow. The excitement of the Prince's return was nothing to that generated by the homecoming of his mother and sister.
Again Doylov stayed well out of it, not even venturing out to the garden, so the invitation to dine with the family came as a total surprise. A not altogether welcome one, if he was truthful, considering the ambiguity of his situation. Sergei brought him the note. In it, Bodin requested his presence at dinner and asked that he be ready by 8.30pm.
The servant also brought a set of dress clothes, as well as all the gossip from Moscow supplied by Her Highness' maid. Apparently they had returned home early because the young Princess wished to celebrate her 'name day' among her friends. Raymond paid little heed to the servant's prattle as he read the Prince's note a second time.
Having exhausted all his available gossip, the servant left the artist in peace and Raymond spent an hour soaking in a hot bath to shed the pervasive smell of linseed oil. In good time he dressed in the rich and finely cut suit. It was a perfect fit. He felt good in the clothes and, when he checked his appearance in the full-length mirror, he realised he looked good as well. His hair had grown to an acceptable length and his healthy appetite had brought back the colour and fullness to his face.
At the appointed time he was ushered into the library by the disdainful butler, who clearly did not approve of him. Bodin was delighted by how much better he looked and told him so. He silenced Raymond's misgivings about the invitation to dinner.
"I have told you my mother knows and admires your work. She is anxious to meet you. The other matter need not be spoken of."
"If you're sure," Raymond said, "I have some preliminary sketches..."
"Already?" I shall look forward to seeing them. Shall we go in?"
Doylov nodded assent and followed his host to the salon.
"Maman, Natasha, may I present Monsieur Raymond Ilych Doylov."
The artist bowed. "Your Highness, I am honoured."
The older woman chuckled. "Come now Monsieur Doylov, has my son not told you that I am a good Frenchwoman and do not hold with such nonsense? I honour the title my husband gave me in society, in my own home I am simply 'Madame'." She held out her hand. "I am pleased to meet the man who has produced such fine work. I hope I can persuade you to paint some canvasses for me?"
"Of course, Madame," he answered, a little bewildered. It seemed the entire family was determined to make him feel under no obligation.
"Good, we shall discuss it at leisure. If you will escort Tasha we will go into dinner. I intend to monopolise my son's company as I see so little of him, Monsieur."
He noted Bodin's guilty look as he offered his arm to the young woman who took it readily, eyes alive with excitement.
"Monsieur Doylov, you must tell me all about your attempted escape and the labour camp..."
"Tasha," her mother and brother warned in unison.
Doylov was very surprised she should know of the circumstances that had brought him into their lives. He assured them that he was in no way offended, and catching the warning look in Bodin's eye, spent the rest of the evening painting a fanciful and romantic picture of his experiences, proving as eloquent with words as he was with brush and oils.
As he took his leave of the family he noted the look of gratitude on the brother's face for his sensitivity, not that it eased his conscience any. He sat late into the night completing a pencil drawing of the young lady as a gift for her name day celebration. She was a smaller and finer version of her brother, with the same dark, shinning hair and frosty blue eyes. He gave the portrait a mature look, which he knew would please her and wrapped it in a scrap of colour drawing paper.
In the morning he asked Sergei to see it was placed among the Princess's other gifts and then disappeared into the city for the rest of the day. He intended to avoid any possible contact with the stream of visitors expected by such a household celebrating a name day.
Bodin had almost drifted off to sleep when he heard the footsteps on the backstairs. He checked his pocket watch in the moonlight and was surprised to see it was after midnight. Leaving the casement window he passed through the door into the servants' wing and followed the retreating figure up to the third floor. The door was closed when he reached it and he tapped on it quietly.
"It's Bodin, may I speak with you?"
Doylov opened the door and stood aside. "Of course, come in."
The Prince entered the small room, littered with sketches of all sizes and subjects, and stood awkwardly in the centre of it.
"I want to thank you for the way you dealt with Tasha last evening. I'm selfish but I don't want her peace of mind disturbed."
"I don't think that's selfish. I wouldn't want my family to know the truth either," he answered.
"Tasha will thank you for the drawing herself. I believe it is the gift she enjoyed the most."
"It was a pleasure." Doylov noted with regret that Bodin had turned back towards the door.
The Prince paused as he took hold of the door handle. "As far as Tasha's concerned you will continue to exercise discretion, I trust. She's very young and vulnerable and from her conversation you made quite an impression on her last night."
The sardonic laugh made him look round sharply.
"I see your friend at the Prosecutor's Office didn't give you the full case history, did he?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I'm not only perverted in the political sense. Didn't he tell you that I enjoy other men? Your sister's quite safe. I thought you knew."
It was clear from the look on Bodin's face that he had not known. The shock was also plain. Doylov continued bitterly. "I can see this is more difficult to accept than my political persuasion. I have doubly compromised you. I will be ready to leave in the morning."
He was surprised by the vehemence of the Prince's declaration.
"No, that will not be necessary, we made an agreement. I will honour it if you are prepared to do so." He looked the artist straight in the eye.
"I am glad to honour it."
"That's settled then. No more shall be said of it. I leave in the morning for field manoeuvres."
With that he was gone.
Doylov sat down on the bed, utterly drained. Even after years of self-honesty, admitting the truth to another caused him anguish. Again, he felt the loneliness of his isolation sweep over him. He was always on the outside in this society, apart from these happy families. Only in the artists' quarter could he find some kind of half-hearted acceptance. Maybe occasionally the comfort of a fellow traveller, until the danger overcame the need.
He refused to let his mind go any further down that road. To inflict his problems on Bodin would be a poor way to repay his kindness. Doylov had to admit he had already pushed it to the limit. He settled himself in preparation for a long and sleepless night.
Doylov sat in the back kitchen with Sergei enjoying an early morning coffee on the first day of July. Already the temperature was rising as the sun began its climb into the cloudless sky. In the distance they heard the bell at the service entrance ring. Sergei shrugged and rose to answer it. When he returned, he handed a letter to Doylov.
"Hand-written by the master himself, Raymond Ilych," he observed.
Opening it there and then, Doylov had to read it through twice to be sure of its contents.
He was requested to prepare for a journey to Astradnoe where the Prince intended he should spend the summer carrying out the commission. He was further informed that the train passage had been booked for him on the train in which the Prince himself would be travelling. It left at eight that evening, so time to prepare for the journey was very short. The letter was marked Moscow, three days before.
"His Highness wishes me to travel to Astradnoe," he told a surprised Sergei. "Can you drive me to the station?"
"Go to Astradnoe? None of us have ever been there." He watched as Doylov carefully folded the letter and placed it in his jacket pocket. "Certainly I can take you to the station. Their Highnesses do not require a carriage at all today."
"When I'm packed, I'll request to see the Princess," he mumbled more to himself than to Sergei. "I'd better start, the canvasses and materials will need to be packed very carefully."
By 5 o'clock, he was ready to go and his request to see the Princess was forestalled by her summons. At the muted sound of the Princess' response to his knock, Doylov entered her apartment. She was seated at her writing desk, putting the final words of greeting to a letter.
"Monsieur Doylov, thank you for coming. I will not delay you long. I am finishing this letter to my son, which I hope you will be kind enough to deliver for me."
"I would be delighted to do so, Madame."
"Thank you. I would ask something more of you. Would you write telling me how Andrei Alexandrovich is doing? My son's dutiful letters tell me nothing."
Doylov was thrown by the woman's words. He had never heard her use the patronymic before. It was so affectionate and informal. Somehow it made him seem like an ordinary person, not 'His Highness' or even 'His Honour'.
The Princess had misread his confusion, however, and added, "I hope I do not presume upon you. I only ask because I have grown to trust you. I have told my son of this request." She tapped the letter.
"Forgive my hesitation, Madame, I will be happy to write to you with news."
"Thank you," she began to seal the letter. "Tasha will be so sorry she missed you. She will write to you both. And will expect an answer, I'm afraid."
"It will be no hardship, in either case. Please tell the Princess I have packed her portrait and will finish it over the summer."
"She will be pleased. I'll say good-bye for both of us and wish you and my son a safe journey."
Doylov bowed formally and left the apartment, the letter held securely in his breast pocket.
Six o'clock found him bidding goodbye to Sergei at the station. He called a porter to transport the many boxes and crates to the platform while he inquired at the ticket office.
The clerk confirmed that a first class ticket and sleeper had been purchased in his name and handed them over to him. He had time for a glass of tea in the buffet restaurant before boarding the train and, as he sat drinking the refreshing liquid, he considered the abrupt summons he had received.
He could not help but feel honoured by it, even if it was only issued to oblige his patron. He knew that Astradnoe was very special to the Prince. It was in his voice every time he spoke the name. This realization caused Doylov to be intrigued by the place. The only time he had been out of St. Petersburg was his sojourn in the Ukrainian labour camp and he had not cared for it. He looked forward to seeing the steppes again, this time as a welcome guest.
What he did not relish was the thought of spending long hours in close proximity to the Prince, during the execution of the portrait, for he could no longer deny the desire he felt and, as much as he wanted to be near him, disguising the feelings would be difficult.
With time to spare he boarded the train and was guided to his seat in the luxurious compartment by the conductor. He found himself smiling at the irony of the situation and enjoying the cocoon of grace and comfort that great wealth made possible.
Since he had no control over the situation, he felt no guilt in doing so. With so much to pre-occupy him, he was not aware that the Moscow train had arrived until the carriage door slid open and there stood Prince Andrei Alexandrovich Bodin in the full white dress uniform of the Cavalier Guards.
After he had swallowed hard and taken a deep breath, Doylov had to suppress a chuckle as he admitted to himself that, had circumstances been very different, the man would have found himself on the floor of the carriage. And walking in looking like that, he'd have deserved it.
"You Highness..." He stood up and bowed awkwardly.
After a moment's hesitation, the gesture was acknowledged. "I'm sorry about giving you such little notice. The decision was made very quickly and the telegraph was not in operation." He opened the collar of his tunic and sat down. Doylov found himself stumbling into speech.
"You're not visiting your mother?"
"No," he answered, impatient with the foolish question. Then he felt obliged to qualify it. "I've written to her, explaining."
Remembering the Princess's letter, Doylov took it from his pocket and handed it to Bodin. "Her Highness sends her best wishes and requests you write with news of Moscow."
"Mmm..." was the only reply as the letter was taken.
"How was Moscow?" Doylov asked, realizing too late that it was really none of his business.
"As it always is..."
So it was like that. Doylov saw a long and tedious journey stretch out in front of him. If this was how the Prince felt, why had he not done Doylov the favour of buying him a second-class ticket? Needed to keep a check on him, he supposed. The Prince fidgeted for a few moments and then stood.
"If you'll excuse me, I'll retire for the night. I've been travelling all day."
"Of course, Your Highness...sleep well." But the man was gone.
'Looks like I'm going to get what I want, after all,' Doylov thought, realizing that there would, in fact, be little contact between them on the journey.
Two days brought the train across the River Khoper, through the city of Ryazan and only hours away from the town of Alekseyevskaya, their point of disembarkation.
Bodin was already seated in the dining car when Raymond entered and any awkwardness was avoided when he stood and indicated that Raymond should join him. The Prince was dressed, not in formal attire, but in the block printed cotton shirt of the peasantry. It was a radical change that did not detract in any way from the man's presence or demeanour. It was not the only change in him, for his mood seemed to have lightened and, within a few minutes of sitting down, Doylov felt the tension easing.
"Waiter, Mr. Doylov will give you his order. You may serve us together."
Because of Doylov's simple tastes, the exercise did not take long and they settled down to breakfast while Bodin pointed out the passing landmarks, his delight in them apparent in his voice and eyes.
"Another hour and we'll be in Aleksayevskaya and, from there, we ride."
"On a horse?"
"But I've never ridden before."
"Never?" The Prince asked, incredulous.
"I've lived all my life in the city. If I wanted to go somewhere I took the tram."
"You'll not encounter many trams in the South-eastern Ukraine, I'm afraid. Of course, you could walk...if you had about a week to spare. And that's optimistic."
"How long will it take to ride?"
"A much shorter time than it will take you to walk."
Doylov groaned at the very thought of it and the Prince didn't have the heart to torment him further.
"Don't worry, we'll be met by a couple of the estate wagons." But before Doylov's expression could brighten, he added, "I must warn you, the roads are unmade and will still be in a bad state from the winter. It will be a hard journey."
"Will there be room for my baggage? It's quite bulky."
The Prince looked puzzled.
"All the canvasses and art materials that I'll need," he explained.
"Ah, of course, there will be ample space."
There was a moment of silence and then Doylov asked, "Have you thought any more about the form of the portrait?"
"I'd like to see your sketches, then I'll decide."
Doylov nodded, then took a deep breath. "Will Countess Xenia be joining you at Astradnoe? It would give me the opportunity to paint both por..."
He didn't get the chance to finish as Bodin coloured slightly, and spoke quickly.
"No, the Countess has many commitments in Moscow and will not be joining me."
"I see." The answer surprised Doylov. Even assuming this was an arranged match, the couple would be apart for a long time.
"It's time we were moving," The Prince said, glancing out the window. "We'll be there in about ten minutes."
The whistle sounded twice and the engine began its deceleration as the little town of Alekseyevskaya appeared on the horizon.
Getting off the train, Doylov knew that he was stepping back in time, for this part of the Empire was still held firmly in the grip of the Middle Ages. A score of ramshackle houses clustered around the church and the magistrate's court to be the sum total of the hamlet. Bodin, sensing his apprehension, felt obliged to defend the village.
"Alekseyevskaya has a doctor and a library. And there are plans for a new school."
"Really? I wouldn't be surprised if these people still think Peter the Great is the Tsar."
"No, it's not like that here. You'll see."
As he spoke, a small, old figure appeared from nowhere, fell to his knees and took the Prince's hand, kissing it.
"Welcome home, Master Andrei!"
Acutely embarrassed, the Prince quickly reached down to help the old man to his feet.
"Petya, I thought we decided you weren't going to do that anymore."
"I'm sorry, Master..."
"It's all right, Petya," he halted the man before he could begin to babble. "How are you?"
"I am well, Your Highness."
"Good. Let's get the wagons loaded."
This was quickly done by the estate labourers accompanying, Petya. The Prince then personally supervised the unloading of the horses. He was pleased with their condition after the confining journey and obtained permission to turn them out into a pasture to stretch themselves before beginning the final leg of the journey.
Doylov sat quietly in one of the wagons, storing the sights and sounds of Alekseyevskaya in his artist's memory. When everything was secured, the Prince instructed Petya to find a suitable place for lunch to be served and requested that Doylov join him.
A shaded area of the paddock was chosen and the servants set out folding chairs and a table. Soon it was spread with a superb meal and the two men sat down to eat.
"You have done justice to Tata's cooking. It will please her," Bodin told him, when they'd finished.
"The woman is an artist. Unfortunately, all I want to do now is sleep."
"That is a very good idea. We need to be on our way by five o'clock and tonight in the open will offer little comfort," he warned. "Petya has taken rooms at the inn. We have a few hours before the horses will be fit to begin the journey."
He led the way to the modest but clean inn where they took advantage of several hours of sound sleep. By the time they returned to the carts, the beasts were harnessed and the Prince's horse was saddled.
Without further delay, they set out towards the south. Bodin instructed Petya to take the cart in which Doylov rode to the front of the line so that he could ride abreast of it and they would be out of the suffocating dust that lay thick on what passed for a road.
Several hours saw them many miles from Alekseyevskaya and beginning to enjoy the cooling evening breeze. Looking around him, Doylov began to get the sense of the enormity of the country through which they travelled. He experienced the horizon as a vast circle and, and although he was at the centre of it, he found it humbling. Broken only by the occasional cluster of khata, the wattle and daub houses of the peasantry, or a grove of lime trees, the landscape was a sea of green corn.
Somehow Doylov dragged himself away from the contemplation of his surroundings back to the prattle of Petya, who seemed only to hold the reins while the horses plodded steadily on, knowing the way. He found it difficult to return to the strange Ukrainian dialect after several months of the French habitually spoken in the Bodin household, but it was beginning to make sense. The old man was bemoaning the fact that the old days seemed to be gone for good.
"I remember when the old Master, the Prince's grandfather, used to travel out. Now that was a sight to see. The entire household moved with him. In front, on a tall Spanish horse, rode Kulikovskii. He gave the signal to stop and go. Behind him was the Master's gig, and behind it, a carriage, for use in case it rained. Then there followed the children's carriages, with the governesses and the nursemaids and so on. Then came the grated cart with the entertainers, Ivan Stepanich, the Master's favourite clown." With the mention of this name, the old man roared with laughter, and when he could, he continued. "The cart for the borzois came next, but mostly they ran beside the horses. Next came a buffet carried by sixteen horses, and finally the wagons with the tents and furniture for the overnight stop in the open." He sighed deeply, lost in memory.
"Come now, Petya, that story gets more elaborate every time I hear it." The Prince reprimanded him.
"It's true, Master, as I live and breathe."
The Prince laughed at him gently and agreed. "Yes, from what I've heard of Grandfather, there's more than a grain of truth in it." He looked at Doylov. "Neither my father nor I cared to maintain his lifestyle. The light is going. Let's find somewhere to rest."
He spurred his horse forward to scout the area ahead and soon returned to guide the carts to a small track of grassland where the stock could be hobbled for the night. The servants began setting up camp and lighting a fire. Doylov winced as he jumped down from the cart and stretched his cramped muscles.
The Prince caught the action as he handed over his horse to a groom. "Just one more day," he assured, "then you can soak in a hot bath."
"Ah, so there's plumbing?"
"There is. And there's glass in the windows and we even have proper feather beds..." He glanced away in embarrassment, unable to control the image that focused in his mind.
"Ask, I'll answer if I can," Doylov prompted.
Bodin looked towards the servant, then walked down the road, Doylov in his wake.
"I'm not a child, you know," he blustered. "You don't go through boarding school and military academy without...without experiencing life."
"So what do you want to know? Tell me."
"I want to know about you," he admitted honestly, then sat down by the roadside, feeling freed by the admission.
Doylov sat down beside him, intuitively understanding for the first time the basis of their relationship. This man was bound, not only by the conventions of society, but also by his own nature, which would not allow him to ignore them. The fact that he was blessed by good fortune did not signify. To him, the artist, despite the circumstances under which they had met, had come to represent a life of freedom. He saw Doylov as a man able and willing to choose his own way, the kind of choice that would never be Bodin's. Doylov could sense the reluctant envy of his position in the other man and the attraction it held for him.
Doylov smiled as he sat down beside him and told him about his life, the hopes, disappointment and hurts. He talked about his parents, how he had protected his mother as best he could. How his father, a minor civil servant, couldn't accept him as he was. How he had escaped into the freedom of St. Petersburg's student quarter.
He told bluntly of his self-indulgence, the couple of wild years he'd had when he would have tried anything. Then he spoke of the love affair that had almost finished him, and how he had recovered from it.
When he finished, Bodin asked, "What is it like to be in love?"
"I don't think I can answer that. Looking back, I think what I experienced was more affair than love."
"Your feeling for this...man didn't last?"
"No, I still care for him. But the passion, even the hurt is gone."
Just then Petya called them. "Master, all is ready."
Bodin stood abruptly, slipping back into role as he did so. Doylov, too, stood awkwardly. This seesawing relationship was not easy. Still he felt honoured to be trusted with such vulnerability.
"Would you believe it? I'm hungry again," he asked, hoping to ease the situation.
"Let's not keep Petya waiting," Bodin agreed.
But when they returned, neither could do justice to the meal.
The company slept under the stars, gathered around the fire or in the wagons. It was clear and cold and, at first light, they were once again on the move. After several stops to rest the animals and twelve hours hard journeying, they passed through a large stone gateway and came upon a gravelled driveway lined on both side by mature poplar trees. The Prince straightened in the saddle and steadied the horse, before picking up the pace to a gallop.
Tired though the horse was, it sensed its master's excitement and within seconds, both were gone in a haze of dust. Doylov felt trapped by the draught horses sedate pace but he had little choice, other than to sit back while Petya's laughter at the Prince's exuberant action shook the solid cart.
Slowly through the falling twilight, Astradnoe appeared on the horizon. Its massive wooden form set like a bulwark against the endless rolling plain. This was the home at the heart of the Bodin family. It was from here that their strength and wealth derived. It had stood for three hundred years at the centre of the estate, the focal point of a thousand lives. The front of the house, though deeply shadowed, radiated light through all of its many windows.
"Astradnoe bids you welcome, Sir!" Petya laughed aloud and descended slowly from the cart.
Doylov took his time getting down, feeling unsure of his status here. Should he go with the servants who were disappearing towards the rear of the house?
He was spared any further discomfort when a flustered, round-faced woman rushed out of the house and curtseyed before him.
"Master Andrei asks you come to the kitchen, Sir."
Doylov indicated she should lead the way and he followed her. Clearly the Prince's lifestyle in this place was very different from St. Petersburg. As he stepped across the threshold, Doylov was aware of the warmth of the place. A good omen for the time he would spend under this roof.
They went directly to the kitchen, full of servants wearing their finest apparel, where Tata the cook met him with the traditional cup of wine and bread dipped in salt.
"You are our honoured guest, sir."
Doylov took the offering and said, "Thank you." He glanced over at Bodin, seated at the table quenching his thirst like any farmhand.
Tata spoke again. "Everything is ready, shall I serve supper?"
"No, Tata, a bath first. We'll keep the best till last."
"Very good, Master Andrei," she agreed blushing.
The Prince walked towards the door calling out to Pavel the groom. "Where are the dogs?"
"They took off early this morning and have fallen asleep somewhere I shouldn't wonder. They'll be back soon enough, when they hear the excitement," the man replied.
Bodin laughed and instructed Petya to see Mr. Doylov to his room, then took his tankard up to his bedroom, where a bath was being filled.
Having bathed and changed, Doylov joined his host at the kitchen table for the now very late supper. A range of meat stews and pies were washed down with tankards of ale. Most of the servants sat around the edge of the room, which resounded to good-humoured conversation and, eventually, music.
Already exhausted by the journey, Doylov lasted until the arrival of the three borzoi hounds, who bounded into the room in a frenzy of greeting for their returned master. Treated to their snarling suspicion, he decided to beat retreat to the safety of his bedroom, and he quickly fell into a deep and contented sleep.
The sun streamed in through Doylov's window the next morning with the promise of a crystal clear day. It was very early, but he dressed and made his way downstairs, feeling drawn towards the kitchen where the day's bread was baking in the oven. The kitchen maid poured him a cup of coffee and began to prepare breakfast.
"Just coffee for me," the Prince instructed as he entered the room. He looked as though he was still feeling the affects of the previous night's celebration.
After breakfasting, they went through the house, the Prince taking pleasure in showing it off.
"This central room is all that remains of the original house, these timbers are over three hundred years old. They were brought by river and ox cart from the northern forests. When my grandfather died, my father decided to build outward rather than destroy the old, as many others were doing at the time, replacing the old houses with neo-classical replicas. He revived the old crafts, searched the written records available and used them to create a house fitted to this country."
He leaned against one of the stout beams that formed the backbone of the house. Throughout the timber had been left unvarnished, gaining its patina from years of careful wear. Doylov walked to the huge fireplace. It was big enough for him to stand in.
"We've never been able to find where the stone came from, other than it's not local."
Bodin walked to the fireplace and stepped inside. "Some of the old servants can remember the days when a whole ox was roasted in it."
"I can believe it," Doylov said.
"We still maintain the old traditions of hospitality, even if we don't go that far. This land is too vast and too wild not to observe them. Many have rested in safety and comfort within these walls." He sounded embarrassed as he said, "I hope you will do so."
"I have rarely felt so welcome anywhere, Your Highness." Doylov assured him.
"Good...but, ah...my given name is Andrei. It is more appropriate that you call me by it here. To these people we are both 'dvoriane', and friends. They will not know how to deal with you otherwise."
"As you wish...Andrei Alexandrovich."
"That's settled then," he smiled and returned his attention to the fireplace. "In the cold months, this draws people to it like iron to a magnet. I can remember my father growling when anyone left the door open."
He led the way through to a large study. "This is the trophy room."
Every square centimetre of the walls was covered in the heads of hunted animals, mostly deer and wolves, with the occasional bear.
"Tell me, have you left anything alive out there?" Doylov smiled.
"We hunt them to eat, or to protect ourselves. You'll enjoy it too," he said smugly. "This next room will be of interest to you."
It was as large as the others they had been through, but there all similarity ceased. The feeling of solidity was gone, swept away by the wall of glass that ran the length of the room and extended part of the way into the ceiling. It was clearly a late addition, not part of the main fabric at all. Doylov looked to Andrei for an explanation.
"My father built this room because of his obsession with astronomy." He walked to a large cupboard and opened it to reveal several fine telescopes. "In the summer months, we'd spend hours outside identifying the constellations, observing the planets. In the winter, it's too cold to even think of such a thing, so we'd observe from in here. The fireplace at the end of the room is angled so its light doesn't strike the glass." He lifted out one of the telescopes and set it up. "I never shared his fascination. I enjoyed being allowed to stay up late, however."
Doylov seated himself in one of the comfortable leather couches, absorbing the atmosphere of the room. He felt completely at ease.
"Would this room be suitable to use as your studio?" Bodin questioned.
"It would be ideal, but I don't wish to be in the way. To work I need a space that can be left undisturbed."
"Then the room is yours until the work is finished. I will instruct the servants to leave everything untouched."
"Thank you, I have a good feeling about this room. I'll be able to work here."
"I'll leave you then. Petya will be waiting to take me on an inspection tour to show me how well he has managed the estate."
A few minutes after Andrei had gone, six household servants appeared with instructions to 'do Mr. Doylov's bidding' and within an hour, he had the room set up as an ideal studio. Now all he required was the sitter.
That proved more difficult than he anticipated. The man took no leisure in this summer home. In fact, he worked from dawn till dusk, inspecting and planning and then executing those plans. Such a huge estate, with its tenants, buildings and stock swallowed up the owner's time and energy. He was no absentee landlord, interested only in the income the estate generated.
Eventually Raymond realized the only way he was going to spend time in Andrei's company was to involve himself in the work, and with this in mind on the tenth morning after his arrival, he rose as the dawn was breaking and went to the kitchen.
"Good morning," he spoke to all present, including the master.
"Good morning," Andrei offered him the chair beside him and chased away the begging dogs. "Couldn't you sleep?" he asked.
"I can't paint," he said despairingly, "without my subject. So I reasoned if I am prepared to invest some time in your work, you might return the compliment."
"That seems a fair bargain to me," Andrei agreed, "but are those hands fit to the necessary tasks?"
Raymond frowned but answered freely enough, "It seems it's inevitable, it may as well be today as any other."
"Then eat well, you will need the strength."
Together they ate a huge breakfast while Petya went out to find a suitable horse for the novice rider. Within the hour, they were underway and Raymond was gratefully aware of the easy pace Andrei was setting. The animal he rode was patient and gentle, if a little plodding, and with that he found no fault at all, but by midday he was beginning to experience an unpleasant sensitivity in the tender parts of his anatomy.
They stopped for lunch, which Raymond ate while standing under the tree that granted them all welcome shade from the intense sun. They were riding out to the extreme edge of the estate where one of the tenants had complained that a winter flood had partially dammed the river. It seemed the course had been diverted away from the pastureland where it was needed and into a cultivated area, where it was washing away the topsoil.
Raymond overheard the groom's whispered complaint about the slow progress of the journey and began to regret his hasty offer to accompany them. He went to Andrei.
"If I'm delaying your work, I can travel back to the house," he offered.
"That won't be necessary. I'm enjoying the journey at this pace, you've done me a favour."
"If you're sure?"
"I am. Shall we proceed?" He gave the order to Petya to resume, while Raymond eased himself into his saddle with as must grace as he could muster.
They rode side by side from then on, sometimes casually talking, but more often travelling in companionable silence. By dusk, when they halted for the night, Raymond wholeheartedly believed he would never sit down again, and when he realized he was proving to be a source of great amusement to the others, it did little to ease his discomfort.
Andrei came to his rescue and sternly called a halt to the jokes and comments. Then he brought Raymond his dinner and made up as comfortable a bed as he could for him, close to his own.
Being too grateful and too uncomfortable, Raymond made no attempt to move to a more prudent location and so spent an uneasy couple of hours trying not to watch the handsome face set in complete repose before sleep succeeded in claiming him also.
It took another day and a half to reach their destination, and when they did, the work was begun immediately. Some of the labourers started moving aside the loose materials with picks and shovels, while Andrei organized another team, including Raymond, to move the large boulders and fallen trees with the horses.
It was hard, physical work, the kind that leaves you fit only for a dead sleep. And thought it was not unlike the work he had been forced to do in the camp, because it was done freely and in good company, Raymond found himself enjoying it.
The air was good and the river they worked in ran cool. There was an abundance of wholesome food and much good spirits round the campfire at night. So it was almost with regret that they removed the final obstructions and watched the last few steams of the river find their way back to the natural course. They took the remainder of the day to rest and enjoy the hospitality of the nearby homestead before turning in for the night.
They made much better time on the return journey and Raymond found himself as anxious to see Astradnoe again as Andrei did. As they drew near to it, by some kind of unspoken consent, they both spurred on their horses to a healthy canter that brought them to the veranda breathless and exhausted.
"You did well," Andrei said as they both drank deeply from tankards of cold spring water. "I'll fulfill my part of the bargain as agreed. We can have the first sitting this evening if you are not too fatigued?"
Raymond looked embarrassed. "Now I'm the one causing the problem, I fear." And he cautiously unclenched his hands and held them out before Andrei's gaze. They were chafed and blistered, and in some places bleeding.
Andrei whispered a soft curse. "I don't know which of us is more stupid. Why didn't you say something?"
Raymond grew annoyed, mostly with himself, but that did not stop his hasty words.
"Don't worry, I heal quickly. In a few days, I'll be able to make up any lost time." As he spoke the words, he realized that the Prince's anger had not been a selfish one, but rather caused by concern for his wellbeing. But by then it was too late, they were spoken.
"Good," Andrei said as if stung and disappeared into the house, leaving behind the warmth that had grown between them.
Raymond bathed and dressed for dinner slowly, his hands causing him great discomfort. He found an old, clean shirt and tore it into strips to bind the cuts. Eventually - having put it off as long as he could - he made his way downstairs to the dining room.
Andrei was already at the table and the atmosphere was cool. As he sat down, Raymond cast around in his mind to find a suitable form of apology, but the initiative was stolen from him.
"I should have been more considerate of your inexperience. I'm sorry you were injured..."
Raymond cut the sentence short. "I'm the one who should be apologizing, and I do so unreservedly."
"Shall we call it quits?" Andrei asked and they both laughed, happy to know that the growing friendship was more resilient than either had realized.
"Did Tata's salve ease the pain?"
"I cleaned the cuts myself."
Andrei gave an exasperated sigh and stood. Taking Raymond by the arm, he marched him into the kitchen, where cooking was still in progress.
"Sit down," he ordered and went to fetch the medical chest.
When he had cleared a space, he set out bandages and a jar of ointment. "The cuts look clean," he said when he had removed the makeshift dressings. Then, with immense gentleness, he smoothed on the balm and skilfully re-bandaged both hands.
"How does that feel?" he asked.
Raymond released the breath he had been holding; touched beyond words by the care the man had shown him. He nodded his thanks.
"Now let's get some food into you."
He turned to the cook. "Tata, you had better cut Mr. Doylov's food into small pieces."
They spent the evening in the new 'studio' going through the sketches and discussing the portrait. Andrei favoured one of the more formal poses, in which he was dressed in his Guards uniform. While together, they decided to put a reference to Astradnoe in the background of the painting.
Raymond was happy with the Prince's promise to give at least one hour each day to the portrait. He also undertook to do a series of watercolour sketches of the house, as well as some landscapes. Being well satisfied with the outcome, the Prince retired for the evening, leaving Raymond to enjoy the quiet of his newfound sanctuary.
Life at Astradnoe soon fell into a settled routine. Each morning Raymond rode out with either Andrei or Pavel, the groom, both of whom found the time to include a short lesson in horsemanship. His riding improved and it was not long before he had to feign awkwardness in order to be spared inclusion in the long treks across the estate.
By lunchtime, he was ready to work and sometimes he refused to leave the easel, even for dinner, which would be carried to him by the vigilant Tata. Each evening Andrei would dine and then change into his uniform to keep his promise. However, Raymond learned not to protest when the hour was up, for his subject always had other commitments, a mare about to drop a foal or estate accounts needing scrutinizing that could not be put off.
But when these were seen to, Andrei would return to the studio for the last hours of the day, bringing two measures of smooth cognac. Sometimes they talked; often the Prince would read a few chapters while Raymond worked on the painting.
Sometimes he sought permission to watch Raymond work. It was readily given, as the artist was not insecure with his work. He had no reason to be, he had never produced better work. He was particularly pleased with the landscapes, which caught the feeling of the place as accurately as the look of it. Andrei's expectations were fully realized as he studied the set of four watercolours of the house, painted from the same angle at different times of the day.
"These are superb, Raymond. My congratulations."
"Good," he said. "I was a little anxious, it's not the kind of work I'm most comfortable with."
"You had no need to worry. This is exactly how I see Astradnoe." He smiled at the artist.
"That's the most important test." He picked one up and held it at arm's length. "There is a piece of maple in the carpenter's store that would make suitable frames..."
"I'm sending them to Petersburg to be framed by Sviatoslav. I'm giving them to Countess Xenia as a wedding present."
"Oh," was all Raymond could manage, torn been annoyance and amusement. Somehow he didn't think a series of pictures of the woman's only serious rival for her future husband's affections would be the most tactful of gifts. But he quickly put that thought aside.
"Would you like me to pack them up, ready for shipping?"
"Yes," Andrei looked a little perplexed. "They are finished, aren't they?"
"Yes, Andrei, they're finished," he assured, trying to keep the unhappy edge out of his voice.
"Good," he said, then felt obliged to change the subject. "I received a letter from my mother this morning. I noticed you also received one. Mine contained very little, other than an account of how enjoyable your letters are in comparison to mine. I'm sure she's told you she has decided to take Tasha to Paris for a few months."
"Yes, and to be honest, I am quite envious," he answered before realizing how ungracious it sounded. "Not that I am unhappy here...it's beautiful... I..." he ran out of steam.
"I suppose it's the ambition of all artists to paint in Paris," Andrei said. "I have never understood that. I found it to be just another city."
"It's not just Paris, I want to see many places, experience many cultures," Raymond explained.
"I have travelled in Europe and it was enjoyable but this is enough for me. This is home."
"You are fortunate to have found your place," Raymond said.
"I am," he said, moving to the open French doors. "Will you walk with me?"
Together they stepped out into the twilight. The haziness of the summer's day still hung in the violet of the evening. Nothing stirred but the songbirds, seeking roosting places in the tall poplars. The air was rich with a mixture of sun-warmed black earth and the perfume of the herbs from Tata's kitchen garden.
By the simple invitation, Andrei had explained his feelings to Raymond more clearly than with any words. It was quite perfect. For the Prince, this small world, with its abundance, beauty and contentment fulfilled every requirement.
Andrei stood still and breathed a long sigh. "When I was ten years old, my father brought me out here on an evening very like this one. I only remember part of what he said and it was many years before I understood it."
He reached down and lifted a handful of earth. "He told me that this is what made us, this is what we are. The land is all. He was scornful of those who forget their roots and become slaves to the social rituals of Moscow and St. Petersburg." He let the earth fall from his hands. "And he was right."
"From what I've heard of him, he must have been an exceptional man," Raymond said.
"He was, and to my sorrow, within a year of that conversation he was gone."
They walked on and Raymond listened in silence to the words Andrei needed to speak.
"...make no mistake, he was not an intellectual or idealist. If anything, he yearned for the old days, when honour came from within, not from meaningless titles or the position held at court. At least he didn't live to see his class dishonoured by greed and stupidity, and the country going to the devil because of it. Astradnoe is the only estate in the region not mortgaged to the hilt." He laughed. "Now, I've shocked you. Half of the land is in the hands of the peasantry. As yet, neither class has realized the significance of that simple fact. Your revolution is already happening."
"Not my revolution, Andrei. I want only common justice."
The Prince looked away from him, out towards the approaching night clouds.
"Whatever happens, I will protect Astradnoe as best I can. It's getting late and I have an early start in the morning."
As they turned back towards the house, Raymond silently acknowledged his good fortune; the Bodins were probably unique among the St. Petersburg ruling class. The combination of a wise father and a European mother had produced a family uncommonly sensitive to the needs of others. He suddenly wanted to let Andrei know he understood what he was saying, but the right words evaded him. Instead he said, "The harvest begins tomorrow. I'd like to help."
"Good, I'll see you're called."
They parted at the door of Raymond's room.
It was still dark when Petya knocked on Raymond's door to call him from sleep. He brought a cup of steaming coffee and promised that breakfast would be carried out to the fields. With understandable hesitation, the volunteer farmhand left his comfortable bed, dressed and made his way to the stable yard.
Here the workers were sorting themselves into teams and he found himself handed a scythe. It seemed his team was to cut the corn in the field edges where the swathe of the horse-drawn reaper was too broad to fit.
Hoisting the vicious looking implement over his shoulder, he left the lighted yard and followed along with the others behind the leader's glimmering storm lantern. By the time they had reached the field to be cropped, dawn was breaking and he understood why they had started out so early. He silently hoped that after a day toiling in the fields, they would not be expected to walk all the way back.
They set to work immediately and one of the workers took the time to teach Raymond how to cut the corn so it could easily be reaped and he didn't lose a foot in the process. After about an hour, he mastered the skill and was finding his second wind. It was almost reluctantly that he stopped work when the cart bearing breakfast arrived and he sat down with the others to partake of a bowl of creamy oatmeal and oven-fresh bread, washed down with tankards of ale.
The sun, though still low, was making its presence felt and he was grateful when a shadow moved over him, casting a little shade. The shadow belonged to Andrei and the workers around him respectfully ceased their noisy conversation.
"I see you wasted no time in finding work," he said.
"I think this is probably where I can do the least damage."
Andrei glanced over at the scythe and said, teasingly, "I don't know about that..." he dropped a pair of heavy leather gloves into Raymond's lap "...these may be uncomfortable, but at least I'll know your hands won't be damaged."
"Thank you," Raymond said, appreciating the gesture.
"I'm driving one of the reaping teams," he pointed into the distance where Raymond could just make out the darkness of the horses against the gold of the corn, "but I'll join you for the midday meal, if I may?"
"I'd be pleased."
A nod to the workers and he re-mounted his horse and was gone, leaving a dusty trail.
They worked on, stopping briefly only to eat and drink, until the light began to fail. After hours of unremitting toil in the heat, Raymond realized that he had gone beyond exhaustion and, when the cart trundled past him, it was an effort to scramble onboard it. Still he watched with satisfaction as they wound their way home through the cropped fields.
Even though they had made only modest progress in the task of harvesting the cereal wealth of the vast estate, it made him feel good to have contributed in his own small way. He also felt good about the long, hot bath and soft bed that awaited him and it was with difficulty that he fought off sleep in the soothing, rocking motion of the cart.
It jolted to a halt in the stable yard and he jumped down, carefully carrying the scythe. It had to be returned to Petya in the tool store where it would be honed in preparation for the next day's work.
Raymond was too tired to let the thought of that worry him and he asked Petya, "Where is His Highness?"
"Master Andrei is with the draught horses, sir."
"Thank you," he said and walked over to the stable block.
Sure enough, there he found him, still working.
"Ah, Raymond, could you help out here? The mare in the last stall needs brushing down."
The artist gritted his teeth and ignored his screaming muscles as he looked around for a grooming brush. Having found one, he went to the stall, dismayed to find a huge animal with seemingly acres of sweat-streaked, bay coat. His neck and shoulders protested every stroke of the brush and it was with relief that he finished the task and dropped his head to rest against the softly cushioned warmth of the horse.
It was a few minutes before he realized he was being watched. He straightened up sharply and yelped at the strain the movement placed on his aching back.
"I'm fine, Andrei. I'm just a little tired," he assured the anxious onlooker.
"Yes, I can see that," Andrei said, taking the brush from his hand and guiding him out of the stable towards the house. Once there, he ordered a bath to be drawn for Mr. Doylov and left him to soak in its warm depths.
An hour later, Raymond slowly got out of the bath, dried himself and climbed into the big, soft bed. He was fit only to mumble a response to the soft knock at his door minutes later. Andrei entered, himself bathed and changed and carrying a tray of food. Raymond struggled to sit up and show interest in the meal.
"You're right," he offered, in between mouthfuls.
Andrei looked puzzled. "About what?" he questioned.
"I completely overdid it today. Let's face it, as a farmhand, I make a good artist."
"I think you did well today. It's not reasonable to expect to build up the amount of stamina such work required overnight. It will be easier tomorrow and easier the day after," he paused, then resumed, "that is if you want to continue?"
"I do," Raymond assured him.
"Fine," Andrei said, disappearing into the bathroom. He returned, putting the bottle he carried on the nightstand.
"Have you finished?" He indicated the tray. Raymond nodded and it was lifted away and placed on the bureau.
"Roll onto your stomach," Andrei ordered. "We'll have to work on these muscles if you're to be of any use tomorrow."
A little dazed by what was happening, Raymond did as he was told, fighting the deep response of his body to the firm massage delivered by the Prince's strong, supple hands. However, to his surprise, he soon found the soothing sensation, combined with the exhaustion of the day, led him inexorably towards a sleep that even a long denied desire could not resist.
Raymond awoke the next morning, annoyed to find he had not been called at the proper time, and complained about it to Tata.
"Master Andrei said you were to be left undisturbed," she explained. "And he said you are to drink this."
She poured a generous measure of brandy into his coffee.
Raymond had to admit as he sipped at the brew that it was easing the aches and pains in his muscles and, by the time he finished, he was quite reconciled to a day's work in the fields. He sought out Petya to obtain a scythe and was offered a lift out to the fields on the wagon carrying breakfast.
As they drove out, they stopped at each knot of workers to serve the meal from the straw insulated boxes. When they reached his team, Raymond jumped off and breakfasted with the men, then set to work.
As he had the day before, Andrei joined Raymond for the midday meal. They settled down to eat in the back of the empty cart.
"How do you feel?" Andrei asked.
"Better. You were right, it is getting easier," he answered. Then, still glowing form the memory, he went on. "The massage helped a great deal, as did the chance to sleep late. Thank you."
"It was my pleasure," Andrei said, with great conviction.
They smiled at each other before returning to the food. They ended their meal with thick wedges of watermelon. Cool and sweet, it seemed heaven-sent to those engaged in such hot, dusty work. Andrei bent the rind back to get at the fruit more easily. As he did so, it broke sharply, scattering the deep red flesh over Raymond from head to foot. They both sat for a moment, stunned by the unexpected happening, then, as Andrei watched the juice begin to drip off Raymond's chin, he began to laugh.
That was enough provocation for Raymond, who gave up trying to dry his face on the sleeve of his shirt and tried unsuccessfully to make the same thing happen. Giving up, he simply grabbed a handful of the watermelon and flung it all over Andrei. A mock battle ensued that left them both filthy and breathless. It was Petya's loud cough, reminding the Prince of his station that ended the foolishness. They both looked up to find themselves watched by a bemused group of peasants, who had never before seen such behaviour from their Prince.
Petya scolded the onlookers and ordered them back to work, then he brought over a bucket of water and two of the cloths that had covered the food. Still laughing, they washed as best they could and went back to work.
After dinner, they braved the mosquitoes to sit on the terrace. The evening had cooled and above them the expanse of velvety sky twinkled with a million stars.
"The yield was good this year. The only problem we'll have is storage. Still it's a good fault," Andrei mused aloud.
"Where is the corn sold?" Raymond asked.
"At the exchange in Kiev. But I have a trustworthy agent who deals with that, and transportation. Once the harvest is in, my involvement is finished."
"Then I suppose you will be returning to St. Petersburg."
Andrei sighed regretfully.
"Yes, certainly before the end of the month."
Raymond refused to be depressed by the news. He'd long ago learned to enjoy the moment -- and even though it was, from his point of view, unfulfilled, it was still a happy one.
"When will you return to Astradnoe?" he asked, afraid to hear the answer yet needing to know.
"Not until next summer. I shall be in Moscow for Christmas and the New Year, staying with Xenia's family. In the spring, after the wedding, we shall go to my mother's home in the south of France for several months."
"When will it be possible for me to paint the Countess's portrait?" Raymond questioned.
"My mother has planned several parties to introduce Xenia to our family and friends in St. Petersburg in the autumn. I am sure she will find time to sit for the portrait then," he answered.
"What are your plans, Raymond?"
"I want my career back. I know there'll be no welcome for me in the salons of Moscow or 'Petersburg so if I can get the money together I'll go abroad, start afresh."
"Don't be so sure...with the commissions I've offered you and a few words in the right ears you could -- "
"Don't think me ungrateful," Raymond interrupted, "but I've always dreamed of travelling. If dreams stay dreams too long, I fear they become impossible ones."
He laughed. "And if I don't make a success of my painting, I can always get work as a stable hand. I'd prefer that to the traditional starving in an attic."
"I don't think you'll ever have to worry on that score, your work is very fine. You'll do well wherever you go."
The words were so sincere and Andrei's expression so intense that Raymond had to look away.
He gathered his spinning senses and said, "Andrei, I never thanked you properly for all you have done for me. You gave my life back to me."
"You have thanked me for the little I've done by giving me friendship. So let's say no more about it."
Raymond was content to let the matter rest at that, as he sensed Andrei was uneasy with the conversation. They lapsed into silence while they contemplated the imminent new departures in both their lives.
On the last day of the harvest, Raymond awoke with a feeling of strength and well-being he had never experienced before. He intercepted Petya on his way upstairs with the master's coffee and knocked softly on the bedroom door before entering. Andrei was still asleep and Raymond watched him for a stolen moment before gently shaking him awake.
Andrei, slightly disoriented, favoured him with a long look, then reached out to take the coffee, letting his fingers linger over Raymond's as he did so.
"Good morning," Raymond said. "Petya tells me there is to be a party tonight."
"Yes, you could call it that. I hope you have a high tolerance for vodka."
"I'm afraid I have to admit, in that area, I've had plenty of practice."
Andrei drank deeply, then asked, "How's the weather holding?"
"It's good, but it feels heavy, like a storm in the making."
"Well, this is the time for them. I'd better not dawdle. Will you ask Petya to see the large barn is cleared of machinery, in case the celebrations need to be moved inside?"
"Certainly, I'll leave you to dress," Raymond told him with obvious reluctance.
Andrei's laughter followed him out of the room and Raymond smiled to himself, glad to know that the man did not feel threatened by him in any way.
The work progressed swiftly and by mid-afternoon, they had the ceremonial cutting of the final sheaf. To the sound of clapping and cheering, the crowd dispersed to prepare for the evening's celebration, leaving the empty fields to the gleaners and the wandering cattle.
Raymond soaked for a long time in his bath before dressing with care. He looked in the mirror at his tanned face framed by auburn curls. Andrei had sent him a fine white linen shirt; edged with intricate embroidery done in rich, varied colours, which he wore with tight fitting, black breeches and a pair of butter-soft Cossack riding boots.
As he fingered the soft material of the shirt, he imagined how Andrei would look dressed in the traditional finery of the region. He wouldn't have long to wait for only a few rooms away down the corridor the man in question was dressing in similar attire. A sudden aching need shuddered through the fibre of Raymond's being. So powerful was it, he felt charged with static electricity. Or maybe that was just the stormy atmosphere. Whatever it was, he knew he needed a plan to get him through the evening. Only one foolproof strategy came to mind -- like everyone else he was going to get as drunk as he could as quickly as possible. Being incapable in every sense of the word was the safest way to deal with the situation.
When he heard the music begin, he went downstairs. The lawn at the side of the house had been cut and was edged with lanterns, ready trimmed and waiting for darkness. The music from the three-piece band had already drawn some couples from their seats out to dance. Running the length of the house was a table made from trestles and planks, covered in linen cloths. From end to end, it was filled with the bounty of the fertile black soil of the Ukraine. Beside the table stood several huge kegs of ale and five barrels of vodka.
Raymond watched as Andrei came out of the house. As he expected he man looked superb in his peasant garb. The simply tailored clothes showed off his lean, athletic frame to perfection and his fine complexion and dark locks were complimented by the snowy whiteness of his shirt. It was with difficulty that Raymond looked away and went to sample a large measure of Petya's vodka.
When he had inspected the arrangements, Andrei thanked Tata and Petya for their work and gave the signal to the priest to begin the thanksgiving blessing for the harvest. There were speeches and toasts, the last of them offered by Petya on behalf of the estate workers to thank the kind master for the hefty bonuses he had paid out earlier in the day. With that concluded the party began in earnest.
Andrei's duties as host kept him busy and away from Raymond for the first hour of the celebration, but once the meal had been eaten and several kegs of vodka were drunk, the party took on a life of its own and he was free to enjoy himself.
Immediately, he went looking for Raymond and found him keeping company with a glass of vodka. He took it from his hand and insisted he join in the dancing.
"Tata will be offended if you do not dance with her, Raymond," he scolded.
Despite his unease, Raymond soon found himself caught up in the wild rhythms pouring out of the violin and balalaika.
Shortly after that, the party followed Ukrainian tradition and the men and women separated and began the ancient dances, of which Raymond knew nothing. No excuse was to be accepted, however, and he found himself being guided through the steps by Andrei.
The music, the movement and the closeness to the man he had come to love brought Raymond to a dizzy exhilaration in which he abandoned all caution. When the first brilliant lightning flash stopped the dancers dead in their tracks, he held on to Andrei, fixing him with an unguarded look that said everything of the needing and longing he felt.
He was too desperate to be surprised when the look was returned in full, and it was the deafening crack of thunder and the first drops of rain that brought them back to reality.
Fortunately, those around them were too concerned with getting out of the storm to be aware of what had been exchanged, and there was a frantic scattering, as people grabbed food, bottles and guttering lanterns and scuttled into the welcoming shelter of the big barn.
Raymond broke the look and stared to follow the others, but his hand was caught and he was pulled in the opposite direction towards the stable yard. His feet made the decision for him and he allowed Andrei to draw him into the stable block and up to the loft filled with sweet, newly mown hay.
Though deeply shadowed, the light from the single glowing lantern in the stable below allowed them to see each other clearly. As Andrei drew him into his arms, Raymond was aware of the music beginning again, distant now. It was swallowed up in the huge barn, and with it mingled the sound of shuffling hooves and the low growl in Andrei's throat as their mouths met in a kiss, tender for all its need.
He wound his arms around Andrei's neck and held on as they both went to their knees. The kiss grew more intense, more intimate and he willingly surrendered all control to the man he loved...the man to whom he wanted to give his life, his heart, his soul.
Andrei's hands reached for Raymond's belt buckle. With no help whatsoever from his lover he managed to fumble it open. Pulling the shirt free from the tight breeches, Andrei slid both hands under the linen and ran his calloused palms across Raymond's back. The kiss broke as Raymond drew in a hitching breath. He released his hold on his lover's neck and carelessly tugged the shirt up and over his head. Free of it, he reached again for Andrei and tumbled them backwards into the hay.
"Jesus," Andrei murmured as his hard cock rubbed against Raymond's thigh. "Wait..." he pleaded "...want to feel you..."
But Raymond was already riding on that upward spiral to oblivion -- this first time too desperate to be denied. Only a lifetime in this man's arms would assuage the need he felt. He wound his right leg around Andrei's and began to move sensuously. Andrei immediately capitulated and lowered his mouth to resume plundering Raymond's, his hands burying themselves in the soft, abundant curls.
There was a sudden clatter of footsteps and a loud giggle from below. Impossibly they both held still. Below a few moments of fevered struggle ended in the harsh sound of material giving way.
"Stop, Peter...no, I don't want to," a girl's voice whispered insistently.
"You'll enjoy it...I promise..." came a husky voice. "You know I love you..."
The struggle resumed, more aggressively.
"No...please stop..." the girl begged, her voice laced with fear.
Andrei and Raymond looked at each other. The cheapness of what was happening below swept over them like ripples moving outward on still water. With difficulty, Andrei knelt up and straightened his clothes before leaning over the edge of the loft.
"Peter Ivanovich, when a lady says 'no', you must learn to respect her decision."
Poor Peter nearly collapsed with fright, then leapt away from the girl as if he had been burned.
"Master Andrei...your highness...I... I'm sorry --"
"I'm not the one who required the apology. No go back to the party," he ordered firmly.
"Yes, Your Excellency," they both chorused before taking flight.
Andrei turned back to Raymond and laughed. "It never occurred to him to wonder what I'm doing in the hayloft."
"And just what are you doing?" Raymond asked, his face darkened with despair.
"Something we both want very much," he replied, reaching out to caress Raymond's face.
Raymond pushed his hand away.
"Wanted...now I'm saying no."
He stood up and began refastening his belt. From somewhere at the back of his mind a mocking voice spoke.
You fool! Take it back! You do want this...you want him!
The words were true, but the part of him that needed to mean more to Andrei than a quick roll in the hay refused to let him act upon them.
"Surely you don't believe it was my intention to...to take advantage --"
The anguished expression on Andrei's face tore at Raymond, but he couldn't respond.
"Raymond...don't you know I lo-"
"Don't...don't say it," he whispered insistently. "You owe that to someone else...and I will not be used like a whore before you are claimed by the marriage bed."
Andrei dropped to his knees in the hay.
"How did this happen?" he wondered aloud.
"Nothing happened, let's leave it that way."
Raymond slid down the ladder and ran out into the rainy night.
"Pity's sake, Master Raymond, what has happened to you?" questioned Tata as he entered the kitchen late the next morning.
"Too much to drink, I'm afraid. I fell asleep in the orchard."
She brought him a large, steaming cup of coffee and caught the sleeve of his shirt to confirm her suspicions.
"As I thought, these clothes are damp. I'll draw you a bath before you catch your death."
"Don't fuss, Tata."
"Of course, I intend to fuss. Master Andrei left me in charge of you and I --"
"Yes, this morning. He set out a first light. You young men have no thought for yourselves. Beginning such a journey with out preparation and without a night's sleep. Petya says he paced the study most of the night..."
Raymond didn't hear the rest of what she had to say, taking his coffee he abandoned the kitchen and retreated to his room. The moment he stepped through the door his gaze fell on the envelope resting on the cabinet beside the bed. He tore it open.
Forgive me. I am doing what is best for both of us. Astradnoe will make you welcome until your term of probation is completed. I will personally see to it that your discharge papers are processed and delivered to you safely.
He sat down heavily on the bed and reread the short note, allowing the bitterness of his sorrow to overwhelm him.
When he looked up, it was to find Petya's gaze upon him. He knew at once that the man knew the truth. The old man was, after all, the eyes and ears of the place, but there was no hostility in the expression on the deeply lined face. Rather Raymond sensed a degree of sympathy.
"I'll draw your bath, sir," he offered.
"Thank you, but I can see to it myself."
"As the master pleases."
And with that the old man left him to the solitary contemplation of his pain.
The beautiful summer slowly dwindled into the mists of early autumn and Raymond gave up all hope of hearing more from Andrei. Gradually the terrible ache eased and the depression lifted, so that, by the first snows of winter, he was able to respond to the kindness shown to him by Tata and Petya.
In early December, when it became clear he was not to be called to St. Petersburg to complete the commission, he returned to his painting. There was only a little work to be done on the Andrei's portrait and he decided to finish it first, even though every brush stroke evoked a tender memory. Happily they were mostly good memories and sometimes he laughed aloud as he worked. Only in dreams, over which he had no control, did the memory of that last evening surface. In these dreams, he was tormented by the taste of Andrei's mouth and the feel of his responsive body. Always, no matter how tightly he held on, the love he felt was snatched away. Its place was taken by bitter regret and a loneliness that followed him into wakefulness.
In an attempt to exorcise this demon, he decided to paint his own portrait of Andrei, and this work absorbed him through the short days and long nights when the power of winter held them all prisoner within the confines of the house.
Christmas was celebrated in the grand way at Astradnoe. The house was filled with evergreens and permeated with the smell of spiced bread and roast goose. Raymond spent a long time hand carving an oak frame in which he placed the drawing he had done of Tata's grandchildren. To Petya, he gave tobacco. Both gifts were greatly appreciated and shown off before the household drove out to the estate church for the midnight service.
In the quietness they left behind, Raymond took the opportunity to glance at the letter Petya had received from the Master, instructing him to prepare and dispatch food hampers to all the local tenants and homesteads. He took particular note of its Moscow post mark and dwelt a little on Andrei's situation. Whatever the man's feeling for him, he had made no secret of the fact that there was no love involved in his alliance with Countess Xenia. It was one of duty only. Raymond pitied them both and hoped that despite such a beginning, they would find some kind of happiness together.
When the household returned in the early hours of the morning, Raymond had coffee and brandy ready to help them shake off the chill. With sleep elusive, he volunteered to go out to the stable to feed and rug the horses.
The New Year brought an easing in the weather and the grey clouds scattered to produce several days of clear, blue skies. Raymond rode out early one morning with Pavel to check on some of the outlying homesteads and the stock being wintered there. Pleased to find that all was well, they headed back towards Astradnoe with several hours of light in hand. Despite this, it was quite dark when they trotted onto the gravel drive and turned towards the house. As they drew near, Pavel lost interest in their conversation and began to watch the bright lights streaming out of the front of the house.
"Raymond," he said excitedly, "Master Andrei has returned."
He spurred on his horse, leaving Raymond behind, reluctant to return to house, afraid of what he might find.
Slowly, he walked the horse into the stable and took off its tack. When he had fed the animal and put a rug on, he entered the house through the kitchen door and tried to unobtrusively avoid the excitement and activity. He was unsuccessful.
"Master Andrei has been calling for you, Raymond," Tata burbled. "Can you believe it? He just arrives...no warning...then expects me not to get excited."
"Has anyone travelled with him?" Raymond questioned, dreading the answer.
The answer came from a voice behind him, a voice that could make his blood turn to fire.
"No one has travelled with me."
He turned slowly and feasted his eyes on the sight most precious to him, uncaring of the audience. Andrei was even more beautiful than he remembered and the open, soft look on the man's face was like none he'd seen before.
It was Tata who ended it as she chased them out of her kitchen, exclaiming that their dinner was set out in the studio and would be spoiled if they did not go in straight away.
"Shall we sit down?" Andrei asked indicating the small table where Tata had served their meal following the Prince's instructions.
"Andrei -- " Raymond began after taking his place.
"Let me begin," Andrei interrupted.
Raymond nodded assent and watched Andrei take a sheaf of papers from his jacket pocket. He unfolded them and handed them to Raymond.
"These are your Paper of Discharge," he explained. "I have seen to it that the conviction has been expunged from the State Record. You are a free man, under no obligation...of any kind."
"Thank you," Raymond told him, honoured to know it was important to Andrei to keep his promise to deal with the matter personally.
"There is something else. I have ended my engagement to the Countess Xenia."
That brought Raymond's head up sharply from the papers to stare at Andrei's face. It was drawn and anxious.
"May I ask why?"
"I do not love her." Andrei allowed his voice to linger on the final word.
"I didn't think love was an issue in such arrangements. You have surprised me." He looked away. "No, that is a lie. If you don't love here, you have done a wise and courageous thing."
"It will be seen as a stupid and dishonourable. It will hurt a great many people... Xenia, her family, my family...my mother."
"Does she know?"
"I've written to her." He smiled ruefully. "That was not courageous."
"Will there by repercussions?"
"I will not be made welcome in many drawing rooms for a time. No group can close ranks quite like St. Petersburg society. Staying away is the best thing I can do. My mother can disown me as a prodigal and, by the end of the season it will be ancient history. If families carried grudges any longer than that, no one would be talking to anyone in either 'Petersburg or Moscow."
"You've given them the scandal of the season."
"Yes...and they don't know the half of it."
Raymond's brow furrowed at the words. He watched Andrei's colour in embarrassment and a tiny little light of hope was kindled in his heart.
"You know," he said, "you're sweeping away some of the misconceptions I've held about my 'betters'. I don't expect such common sense from your class."
"This is common sense? I don't feel very sensible, I feel...out of control."
"Everybody deserves to feel that at least once in their life. You should enjoy it."
"I intend to," Andrei told him without a trace of diffidence. "You see, I realized I couldn't go through with the marriage once I had come to know what love is."
He reached out tentatively to take Raymond's hand. Raymond gave it readily.
"I tried to say this once before...when neither of us was ready...can I say it now?"
"I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
Raymond let the foolishness of the second part go and concentrated on the first part.
"You have told me how you feel in a hundred different ways, Raymond. You'll have to be patient with me while I learn to do the same."
There was a clatter at the door and they released the handhold as Petya backed into the room carrying a bottle of wine.
"Thank you, Petya," Andrei said. "Leave it, I'll pour it myself."
The old man bowed and left, closing the door firmly behind him. Andrei carefully filled their glasses with the wine that glowed red in the firelight. They toasted each other silently and drank from the claret with relish.
When Andrei moved to refill his glass, Raymond stopped him.
"The wine is good, but that is enough."
Andrei agreed and set it aside.
"Do you know how impossible this relationship is?" Raymond asked, awed by what was happening.
"Before...anything happens...are you sure?"
"There will be no way to hide it, especially from Tata. I think Petya knows already."
"Most likely. He's loved me and treated me like a son since the day I was born. He may not approve...but he will not judge me. Besides, this way there will be no new, fussy mistress to descend on them and change their little ways."
"Very true, I see you've given this a lot of thought."
"Four months of contemplation...though most of the time I spent thinking about you."
That was almost too much for Raymond. He stood up and catching hold of Andrei's hand, he led him across the room to the easel he'd been working at.
"Go ahead," he told Andrei, indicating the cloth covering the canvas.
Andrei uncovered the painting and drew a long, shaky breath. This was not the painting of convention, its style was spare, the colours vibrant. In each brush stroke was the proof that the artist knew the Andrei Bodin the world would never glimpse, or maybe it was the image of the man he could become given the right circumstances. The beauty of it robbed Andrei of speech. He was aware of Raymond shifting uneasily beside him. He looked at the artist's apprehensive face.
"Now, I know where your thoughts have been." He ran his hand down the side of Raymond's face. Suddenly sure of himself, he went to the door and turned the key in the lock. Returning he stood in front of the fireplace and held out his hands. Raymond moved to join him in the flickering light; taking his right hand he kissed each finger in turn. Andrei shivered a little, as though this was the permission he longed for. He swept his free hand from the small of Raymond's back to the tangle of auburn curls, pulling forward gently to bring their mouths together in a long, exploring kiss so achingly sweet, it was almost painful.
As it ended, Raymond slipped his hands under the silk lining of Andrei's jacket and eased it from his shoulders. Having freed his lover from it, he tossed it aside where it was soon joined by the rest of their clothes, so easily and sensually shed. Naked, they lay down together on the pile of fireside pillows, intoxicated by the sensation of skin on skin and the musky scent of their lovemaking. Raymond, sensitive to the needs of his less experienced lover, encouraged him on top and used his artist's hands and willing body to bring them both to a deeply satisfying climax.
Afterwards, he held Andrei close and whispered into his ear, "Sleep a little...and when you wake I want to feel you inside me."
Even as he slipped away into deep sleep, the promise caused Andrei to shudder with anticipation. Raymond pulled him closer into his arms and settled down to keep watch.
-- THE END --
Finished August 2007
Part 1 originally published in Whatever We Are, You Made Us, IDP Press, 1998