"Greetings to a bespoke guest, Lala! I am be-named Sashenka," replied the child in appalling English. And that had been that: Mrs. Lewis was henceforth "be-named" Lala. The need met the moment. They loved each other on sight.
"It's two minutes to five," said the chauffeur tinnily through the speaking tube.
The governess sat forward, unhooked her own speaking tube and spoke into the brass cup in excellent Russian (though with an English intonation). "Thank you, Pantameilion."
"What are the pharaohs doing here?" said the driver. Everyone used the slang term for the political police, the Gendarmerie. He chuckled. "Maybe the schoolgirls are hiding German codes in their petticoats?"
Lala was not going to discuss such matters with a chauffeur. "Pantameilion, I'll need you to come in and get her trunk," she said sternly. But why were the gendarmes there? she wondered.
The girls always came out on time. Madame Buxhoeven, the headmistress, known to the girls as Grand-maman, ran the Institute like a Prussian barracks -- but in French. Lala knew that Grand-maman was a favorite of the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna and the reigning Empress Alexandra.
A cavalry officer and a gaggle of schoolboys and students in gold-buttoned uniforms and caps walked through the gates to meet their sweethearts. In Russia, even schoolboys had uniforms. When they saw the three gendarmes, they started, then walked on, glancing back: what were the political police doing at a boarding school for noble girls?
Waiting to convey their masters' daughters home, the coachmen, in ankle-length padded robes lined with thick white lamb's fur, red sashes and bowler hats, stamped their feet and attended to their horses. They too observed the gendarmes.
Five o'clock. The double doors of the Smolny swung open, casting a ribbon of canary light down the steps toward the gates.
"Ah, here they come!" Lala tossed her book aside.
At the top of the steps, Madame Buxhoeven, severe in her black cape, serge dress and high white collar, appeared in the tent of light -- as if on wheels like a sentry on a Swiss clock, thought Lala. Grand-maman's mottled bosom, as broad as an escarpment, was visible even at this distance -- and her ringing soprano could crack ice at a hundred paces. Even though it was freezing, Lala pulled down her window and peered out, excitement rising. She thought of Sashenka's favorite tea awaiting her in the little salon, and the cookies she had bought specially from the English Shop on the Embankment. The tin of Huntley & Palmers was perched beside her on the burgundy leather seat.
The coachmen clambered up onto their creaking conveyances and settled themselves, whips in hand. Pantameilion pulled on a beribboned cap and jacket trimmed in scarlet and gold and, stroking a well-waxed mustache, winked at Lala. Why do men expect us to fall in love with them just because they can start a motorcar? Lala wondered, as the engine chugged, spluttered and burst into life.
Pantameilion smiled, revealing a mouthful of rotten fangs. His voice came breathily through the speaking tube. "So where's our little fox then! Soon I'll have two beauties in the car."
Lala shook her head. "Hurry now, Pantameilion. A trunk and a valise, both marked Aspreys of London. Bistro! Quick!"
Copyright © 2008 by Simon Montefiore
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