Letter from Anatoly Shylapnikov, farmer, to his cousin.
It is with a heavy heart that I write to you to ask for your assistance and to give you a warning. In my last letter of woe I told you that the oats never germinated and that the May frost had burned and stunted the potatoes just as their shoots appeared. The late summer rain and terrible humidity brought the blight onto the rye crop. We have only harvested one tenth of what we collected last year.
To cut a long sad story short, I decided I must sell Grusha, the bay mare you admired last time you were visiting. I had to sell her because without feed, she would have starved anyway. Two days before I was due to take her to the livestock auction in Voronezh, I came in the early morning to check her only to find that she was not in her stall.
My first thought was that she had been stolen, but then I saw a trail of blood drops on the stable floor. I followed it out into the yard but then it disappeared. One week later my neighbour, fishing in the big carp pond in the village, hooked a hessian sack with my horse’s head in it – my Grusha, no doubt of that, even though the worms were chewing her eyes and nose. She had been decapitated with an axe by the look of it and her head put into a potato sack and dumped into the pond.
We searched the woods behind the long meadow and found the rest of her. An awful sight and smell that haunts me still. Who would do such a thing? To steal a beautiful animal is perhaps understandable, if despicable. But to slaughter her so brutally just for the sake of what? Fun? Spite against me? That is surely inhuman.
I went to the gendarmerie in Voronezh to report the crime. The rural crime inspector said I was not alone in my misfortune and three other horses, all mares, had been killed in the last few weeks. So make sure you lock up your horses securely. Who knows where this monster will strike next?
The poverty in which my family and I now find ourselves is now a great concern; my children are certain to go hungry. For their sakes, I am begging you to assist us. Please forgive me. I pray your harvest and luck are better than mine. Any help you can offer would be a blessing.
Your humble and broken cousin, Anatoly.
‘Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred! Ready or not, here I come!’ Vladimir removed his hands from in front of his eyes, turned around and quickly scanned the dacha garden. At thirteen he was starting to feel rather too old for such childish games, but he had to admit it was fun to be free from school and away from Moscow at the Shuyskys’ dacha for a few weeks.
Vladimir’s father, Dr Lesnoy, had told Vladimir that Count Shuysky was worried because his own son had never really mixed with ‘normal boys’. So at the age of nine, Vladimir had been volunteered by his father to befriend Count Konstantin. Now the Count and his younger brother Georgiy were nowhere to be seen. However, a flash of pink gingham from behind a rosebush and the flutter of a yellow striped dress from behind the lilac tree, combined with some barely suppressed girlish giggles, instantly gave away the whereabouts of the two little girls: Konstantin’s six-year-old sister, Countess Tatiana, and her best friend, the gardener’s daughter, Sofia.
I’ll pretend I can’t see them, Vladimir thought to himself, looking around the other end of the lawn where the cherry trees were. Standing beneath one of the trees, he heard a crack and a twig fell onto his head. He looked up and saw Georgiy.
‘Georgiy! I see you in the cherry tree.’
‘Damn you, Volodya! Why didn’t you get those stupid girls first – everyone can see where they are.’ Georgiy swung down from the tree and dropped lithely into the long grass.
‘Yes, well they’re just babies – and girls, too. We have to make allowances. Come on, let’s find Konstantin. I think he’s behind the shed – you go round that way and I’ll go this way.’
As Vladimir rounded the corner of the shed he saw his Konstantin’s bare foot disappear between two large wooden water butts resting against the shed wall.
‘Georgiy!’ he shouted ‘block Konstantin! He is hiding between the barrels!’
Georgiy and Vladimir closed in on their quarry. Konstantin appeared from his hiding place, looking sweaty and red-faced from the heat.
‘Okay, you got me Volodya. How did you know where to look?’
Vladimir smiled. ‘That’s easy. I followed your trail.’
‘The trail you left last time we played.’
‘But there is no snow, not much dust, where is the trail? Tell me how you know.’
Vladimir laughed. ‘I followed the trail of your habits. You hid here last time we played. I bet you would hide here again next time we play.’
‘But, that was ages ago, must be three or four years now. How can you remember that kind of thing? It’s not fair.’
‘I don’t know. I just can. Come on – let’s find the girls!’
The three boys raced across the lawn towards the flowerbeds. Behind the rosebush and lilac tree, the girls were standing with their fists over their eyes, giggling uncontrollably.
‘I can’t see them anywhere, can you, Georgiy?’ said Vladimir.
‘No! They’ve completely disappeared. Do you think the wolf has got them?’
‘Or a bear!’ And with a deep growl, Vladimir grabbed Tatiana from behind, making her stop giggling and start shrieking. Sofia squealed too, grabbed her friend’s hand and pulled her away from Vladimir’s grip. ‘Run, run, Tati!’ she shouted and off she sprinted, pulling Tatiana in her wake. ‘Come on, slowcoach!’
On the terrace, a jug of fresh cherry juice and a plate of seed buns were waiting for them. Konstantin poured them each a glass and they sat down, all laughing and a bit grubby. Mrs Chekhova appeared through the French doors with a large iced cake on a floral china plate. It had six miniature candles, their small flames almost invisible in the evening light.
Tatiana gasped. ‘Oh! I forgot. It’s Sofi’s birthday!’ She jumped up and hugged her friend then embraced Mrs Chekhova who placed the cake carefully on the veranda table. ‘I do so wish you were my mama, Mrs Chekhova! If you were my mama then Sofia could be my little sister.’
The gardener’s wife blushed. ‘Now, Miss Tatiana. Your father wouldn’t be pleased to hear you say that. Miss Greycourt looks after you very well, I’m sure.’
‘But she’s not my mama, she’s just a boring old governess from England. She doesn’t make yummy cakes for me.’
At that moment, the Count himself appeared on the terrace with an armful of packages and said, ‘Oh what a fine cake! Who is the birthday girl?’
‘Papa!’ Tatiana hugged her father’s legs. ‘What have you brought? Presents? For me? Oh thank you fine sir. Most pleased if I do.’
‘They are birthday presents for Sofi, you little dura,’ said Georgiy.
‘Georgiy! Don’t speak to your sister like that.’
‘Sorry Papa,’ he muttered ungraciously.
The Count laid down the parcels on the table and started singing with a melodious baritone voice in lightly-accented English. ‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Sofia, happy birthday to you.’
Sofia ran embarrassed to Mrs Chekhova and clutched her skirt, hiding her face from the Count. ‘Mama, what did that man say?’
‘I don’t know, dear. I think it was in English’.
‘It’s the “Happy Birthday” song in English,’ Tatiana told her friend, “Like ‘S dnem rozhdeniya”.’
Sofia looked at Tatiana with a confused expression on her face. ‘But what is English?’
The boys all laughed and pointed at her. ‘Ha! Sofi doesn’t know what English is,’ shouted Konstantin, gleefully.
‘Two little dury, Tati and Sofi,’ mocked Georgiy.
The Count gave his sons a look of displeasure, picked up the largest present and offered it to Sofia. ‘S dnem rozhdeniya, Sofia,’ he said, gently. Sofia looked anxiously at Mrs Chekhova then, unable to resist the gift, carefully pulled the red ribbon bow and slowly unwrapped the white tissue paper, revealing a pale green silk dress.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she gasped, curtseying to the Count. ‘Thank you, sir.’
Tatiana was frowning petulantly.
‘What about me?’ she pouted. Her brothers nudged each other and pulled faces, rolling their eyes and made grabbing actions with their hands.
The Count ignored his daughter and presented another, smaller package to Sofia. Inside was a book of poetry. ‘Thank you, sir’ she said, more hesitantly, ‘But I’m afraid I cannot read.’
The Count and Mrs Chekhova exchanged glances.
‘Well, Sofia…’ the gardener’s wife began and paused, lost for words. Another glance was exchanged and the Count took over.
‘Soon you will be able to read, Sofia. When the holidays are over and the boys go back to school, you are to return to Moscow with Tatiana and begin lessons with Miss Greycourt. That will be fun, won’t it?’ Despite his best efforts, the Count didn’t manage to sound entirely convincing and though Sofia managed another ‘Thank you, sir,’ in a more subdued tone, the Count noticed that the little girl was clutching more tightly still at Mrs Chekhova’s skirt.