The shy northern sun had already set by teatime when three of the Tsar's gendarmes took up positions at the gates of the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls. The end of term at the finest girls' boarding school in St. Petersburg was no place for policemen but there they were, unmistakable in their smart navy-blue tunics with white trimming, shiny sabers, and lambskin helmets with sultan-spikes. One clicked his fingers impatiently, another opened and closed the leather holster of his Mauser revolver and the third stood stolidly, legs wide, with his thumbs stuck into his belt. Behind them waited a traffic jam of horse-drawn sleighs, emblazoned gold and crimson with family crests, and a couple of gleaming limousines. The slow, slanting snowfall was visible only in the flickering halo of streetlights and the amber lamps of touring cars.
It was the third winter of the Great War and it seemed the darkest and the longest so far. Through the black gates, down the paved avenue, the white splendor of the pillared Institute rose out of the early twilight like an ocean liner adrift in the mist. Even this boarding school, of which the Empress herself was patron and which was filled with the daughters of aristocrats and war profiteers, could no longer feed its girls or heat its dormitories. Term was ending prematurely. The shortages had reached even the rich. Few could now afford the fuel to run a car, and horsepower was fashionable again.
The winter darkness in wartime St. Petersburg had a sticky arctic gloom all of its own. The feathery snow muffled the sounds of horses and engines but the burning cold made the smells sharper: gasoline, horse dung, the alcohol on the breath of the snoring postilions, the acrid cologne and cigarettes of chauffeurs in yellow- and red-trimmed uniforms, and the flowery perfumes on the throats of the waiting women.
Inside the burgundy leather compartment of a Delaunay-Belleville landaulet, a serious young woman with a heart-shaped face sat with an English novel on her lap, lit by a naphtha lamp. Audrey Lewis -- Mrs. Lewis to her employers and Lala to her beloved charge -- was cold. She pulled the bushy lambskin up over her lap; her hands were gloved, and she wore a wolf-fur hat and a thick coat. But still she shivered. She ignored the driver, Pantameilion, when he climbed into his seat, flicking his cigarette into the snow. Her brown eyes never left the door of the school.
"Hurry up, Sashenka!" Lala muttered to herself in English. She checked the brass clock set into the glass division that kept the chauffeur at bay. "Not long now!"
A maternal glow of anticipation spread across her chest: she imagined Sashenka's long-limbed figure running toward her across the snow. Few mothers picked up their children from the Smolny Institute, and almost no fathers. But Lala, the governess, always collected Sashenka.
Just a few minutes, my child, she thought; my adorable, clever, solemn child.
The lanterns shining through the delicate tracery of ice on the dim car windows bore her away to her childhood home in Pegsdon, a village in Hertfordshire. She had not seen England for six years and she wondered if she would ever see her family again. But if she had stayed there, she would never have known her darling Sashenka. Six years ago, she had accepted a position in the household of Baron and Baroness Zeitlin and a new life in the Russian capital, St. Petersburg. Six years ago, a young girl in a sailor suit had greeted her coolly, examined her searchingly and then offered the Englishwoman her hand, as if presenting a bouquet. The new governess spoke scarcely a word of Russian but she knelt on one knee and enclosed that small hot hand in her own palms. The girl, at first hesitantly then with growing pressure, leaned against her, finally laying her head on Lala's shoulder.
"Mne zavout Mrs. Lewis," said the Englishwoman in bad Russian.
Copyright © 2008 by Simon Montefiore
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