Newspaper report from the Kazanskii gazeta
Police in Spassk are investigating the brutal killing of a man, believed to be a homeless vagrant. No identification has been possible, due to the mutilation of the body. A boatman on the Volga found the body floating in the river, chopped into pieces and tied into a hessian sack. The sack is of the type used to transport and store potatoes, but police have been unable to identify its provenance.
Tatiana and Sofia stood at the front door of the Shuysky Palace in Moscow watching the footman load the last of Miss Greycourt’s trunks onto the back of the carriage. Miss Greycourt dabbed at her red-rimmed eyes with her lace-edged handkerchief and turned to the girls with a sorrowful look.
‘Adieu, mes petites! Adieu ma petite Tatiana; adieu ma petite Sofia,’ she said in a resolutely English accent, embracing them each delicately in turn. The girls submitted to her hugs with a wry glance between them.
‘You have both been excellent pupils, my dears. Your English is better than some of the girls I taught in London and I am so very proud of your beautiful piano-playing – nobody would guess you were only thirteen years old if they heard you. Do practise your duets during the holidays – you know how the Count loves to hear you play together. Now, Tatiana, you must make the most of your new school in Paris to perfect your French. Sofia, you have achieved so much for a girl of your class; now you must learn all you can from Mrs Belikova. She is getting on in years and the Count will soon rely on you as his housekeeper.’
With that, Miss Greycourt gave one last watery smile, descended the stone steps from the palace and was helped into the carriage. The girls stood and waved as the horses trotted down the drive to the main gate, then turned into the road. As soon as it was out of sight, they both breathed a sigh of relief and turned to each other with huge smiles on their faces.
Within seconds, however, Tatiana’s smile had faded and been replaced by an anxious frown. ‘I wish I didn’t have to go to that stupid school in Paris. I don’t care if I can’t speak perfect French and I don’t ever want to go to a ball, so what’s the point of learning to dance?’
Sofia said nothing but shrugged resignedly. ‘Come on, you know the Count wants you to be packed and ready to leave tomorrow morning. Let’s go and choose which dresses you should take.’
In Tatiana’s room they were almost finished when the Count knocked on the door and came in. Tatiana flung herself into his arms. ‘Papa! I don’t want to go. Please let me stay here with Sofia so we can both take care of you.’
Her father said nothing but held her at arm’s length and pulled out a small package from his pocket. ‘I bought this to give to your mother when you were born…’ He tailed off, shaking his head sadly. ‘Now it’s for you to take to Paris.’
Tatiana’s smile returned and she ripped off the tissue paper, letting it fall on the floor. Inside the little blue leather box was a pair of emerald earrings decorated with tiny diamonds.
‘Papa! You’re an angel – I love them,’ and she unclipped her pearl earrings, carelessly dropping them on the bed, and rushed to the dressing table mirror to put on her new acquisitions. Sofia bent to pick up the discarded tissue and earrings.
‘Why don’t you let Sofia have the pearls,’ suggested the Count. Tatiana turned and waved an impatient hand. ‘Oh, yes, of course; whatever she wants. These are much better.’
After dinner that evening the Count sat alone on the large button-backed sofa in the drawing room, sadly gazing into the flames of the fire which blazed in the hearth. Of course it was right and proper that Tatiana should go off to the Institut de l’Assomption in Paris. It is where her mother had gone to be ‘finished’ and where Tatiana herself would be polished to perfection, as bright and sparkling as one of the Shuysky diamonds. He would miss her, though. So much. He sighed and gazed up at the ceiling, blinking back his tears.
His reverie was broken by the sound of girlish laughter and the drawing room door burst open. Tatiana and Sofia romped in like a pair of boisterous puppies. Tatiana was holding some sheet music up as high as her arm would stretch and Sofia was jumping around her, trying to snatch it away.
‘Come on, Tati, you said I could choose which part to play. It’s my turn, you know it is.’
‘No, I want to play primo and you can do secondo. It’s my last chance after all. I’ll be gone tomorrow and then you’ll have to play both parts yourself. Do you think you’ll be able to grow an extra pair of hands?’
Tatiana rushed over to her father and flung herself on his lap, her arms around her neck. ‘Tell her, Papa; tell Sofia I must play primo.’
The Count said nothing but twisted his neck to look at Sofia who rolled her eyes and stomped her foot, but immediately grinned.
‘Oh, yes, of course you can, Tati. I’m only teasing. Come on Your Highness, Miss Prima Ballerina Tatiana, your Papa is waiting for his Mozart.’
The girls sat down on the velvet-covered music stool at the keyboard of the mahogany Steinway grand piano and within seconds the echoes of their high-pitched squabbling voices had dissolved away to be replaced by the lively opening of Mozart’s Sonata in D.
As the final bright major chords sounded, the Count clapped and cheered. ‘Brava! Brava! Oh goodness, my dearest Tatiana, whatever am I going to do without you. The palace simply won’t be the same.’
The girls came quietly over to sit one on either side of him. Tatiana took her father’s hands in hers and there was a long silence, filled only with the occasional explosive crackle of the wood on the fire and the tinkling chime of the ornate French clock on the mantelpiece striking the quarter hour.
‘Dear Papa,’ Tatiana raised his hands up to her lips and kissed his fingers tenderly. ‘I’m only going to school for a few months and Sofia will be here to look after you. Mrs Belikova is going to teach her to cook and sew and look after the house, so she’ll be ever so useful.’
The Count smiled and turned to Sofia.
‘You must ask Mrs Belikova to allow you to have your evenings free so you can dine with me just as you always have…’
‘Well maybe once a week or so,’ Tatiana interrupted, ‘But it may not be convenient every evening.’
‘Not convenient?! To whom? I don’t want to sit all by myself in the dining room, pecking at my food in solitary splendour and staring silently down the length of an empty table. No! Sofia must beg to be excused her evening duties. I will instruct Mrs Belikova myself and there’s an end to it.’
Tatiana frowned slightly and Sofia said nothing. Another log popped and the clock chimed the half hour. A discreet tap on the door heralded the arrival of Mr Roberts, who had replaced Mr Pluckrose as head of household the previous year.
‘Good evening, sir. Will you and the young ladies be taking hot chocolate in the drawing room tonight or in your bedrooms?’
‘We’ll have it in here, please, Roberts,’ said the Count, wistfully. ‘Our last hot chocolate together for many moons.’
Tatiana brightened and patted his cheeks playfully. ‘Oh, come on Papa, don’t be melancholic on my last evening. I’d like extra chocolate, please Roberts, and extra cream and some Turkish Delight. And Sofia would like the same, wouldn’t you, Sofia?’
‘Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.’
‘Come on, let’s play the Adagio while we’re waiting for our chocolate,’ Tatiana commanded, ‘And I’ll let you play primo this time, Sofia,’ she added, graciously.
Delicious though the hot chocolate was, it was not enough to lift the Count’s pensive mood as he drained his porcelain cup. He set the cup and saucer back on the tray with the silver chocolate pot and turned to Tatiana.
‘Will you play that piece I love – the Chopin?’
‘The E-flat Nocturne? Of course, Papa. It’s my favourite, too.’
She returned to the piano and began to play. The Count and Sofia listened, rapt, and the crackling of the logs grew ever quieter as the fire died gradually down to its embers. The Nocturne ended and Tatiana stood.
‘Sofia will play to you when you want music, won’t you Sofia?’ Tatiana tried to sound cheerful.
‘Of course – and we can read poetry together,’ Sofia picked up on Tatiana’s cue and also tried to inject an upbeat note into her voice.
Suddenly the Count smiled. ‘I know! I can teach you chess, Sofia. I’ve been missing a chess partner ever since the boys left.’
Tatiana and Sofia exchanged glances, amused and horrified in equal measure.
‘No, papa!’ Tatiana exclaimed, laughing. ‘We hate chess!’ and, laughing, she flung her arms around her father and hugged him as tightly as she could, until the laughter turned to quiet sobs and she thought her heart would crush under the weight of her sorrow.