January 1894
Saints Cyril and Methodius Parochial School
Letter to Mr and Mrs Stukov
Dear Mr and Mrs Stukov,
Further to your complaint, I have spoken to the child in question about his very unpleasant bullying of your daughter. He has been punished appropriately and I have every confidence that these incidents will not happen again. We will, of course, monitor the child closely to ensure the well-being and safety of your daughter.
Yours sincerely,
Mr Oleg Bogdanov, Headteacher

February 1894
Eight years ago, Irina Maslova thought as she pulled a fine-toothed tortoiseshell comb through the Countess’s long dark hair. Was it really possible that this was the eighth time she had dressed the Countess for the big winter ball? Irina smiled wistfully to herself as she remembered the day she had been promoted; it had been a big surprise and the cause of some tittle-tattle among the other chambermaids.
Count Nikolai Lvovich Shuysky had told Mr Pluckrose, the chief of his household staff, to promote Irina. The Count had just returned from his honeymoon with his new wife, Anastasia, Countess Shuyskaya. He had proudly opened the door of the black and yellow landau, drawn by a pair of pure-bred Arab horses from the Shuysky stable, and guided his slim young bride out of the carriage and into the entrance hall of the Shuysky Palace. Mr Pluckrose had arranged all the palace staff in a line to welcome their master and to meet their new mistress.
Irina recalled standing at the end of the long line of servants waiting to greet the young couple upon their return from their six-week-long trip to visit the Countess’s Italian cousins at their palazzo on Lake Como in Lombardy and then on to Budapest where the Count’s uncle owned a magnificent villa right on the west bank of the Danube. It was one of those bright Moscow days in August. The sun, already high in the sky, had cast brilliant sunbeams through the skylight high above Irina’s head down into the cool, dimly lit hall. The murmured introductions that echoed off the marble floors reminded Irina of her visit to St Basil’s cathedral to pray for her brothers and sisters far, far away on their farm near Lvov.
She remembered the butterflies flapping with enough energy to break out of her stomach and then the first cold stab of jealousy at the sight of her former lover, the Count, holding hands with his pretty young wife. For one heartbreaking moment Irina had wanted him to gaze at her with that big satisfied grin and those boyish puppydog eyes. She had wanted him to adore her and not this new girl. She had wanted the excitement and romance of a new life, untroubled with fear and doubt. It was clear that the Count and Countess were very much in love, but not in the forbidden, urgent, hidden way that Irina and Nikolai had loved. Nikolai and Anastasia were different: open, romantic lovers, lit by the sun.
Irina recalled the song that one of the Scottish kitchen girls had taught her: ‘She was poor but she was honest,’ the song had started, and ended, ‘It’s the same the whole world over. It’s the poor what gets the blame. It’s the rich what gets the pleasure. Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame?’
Finally, the newly-weds had reached the end of the line where Irina had been positioned. Irina found it impossible to look at her new mistress in the face. She looked instead at the Count who gave her a courteous smile and an almost imperceptible wink as he introduced her to his wife.
‘Countess Shuyskaya, may I introduce you to Miss Irina. Miss Irina was my mother’s favourite chambermaid and will become your personal lady’s maid. I assure you, my love, that you will not find a more loyal and devoted servant than Miss Irina. She will do anything you ask of her.’ Irina had blushed at the memory of their nights together and her slow, secret, barefoot walk back to her room before dawn. Irina’s jealousy had been tinged with relief; Anastasia’s arrival meant that Irina’s impossible affair with the Count had finally come to an end.
All the downstairs staff had agreed: the Count Nikolai and Countess Anastasia made a very handsome couple. Irina was pleased to see that the Count appeared so happy and, even when the other servants made ribald comments about the messy matrimonial bed and the trail of hastily removed garments and undergarments in the private apartments, she still felt satisfied, somehow, that the man she had once loved so dearly had found a beautiful woman of the right social standing.
More than once during their affair, Nikolai had kissed Irina’s naked body and discussed his desire, his historic duty to procreate, to sire a large family of little Shuysky Counts and Countesses, ‘At least three boys and three girls,’ he had told her between kisses on her naked belly. So when, six months after their return from Hungary, the Count announced that the Countess was expecting a child, Irina felt another moment of great loss, but she managed to smile and when Konstantin was born she joined the other servants to drink a toast to the health, wealth and good fortune of the young couple and their new baby.
Looking at the huge smile on the Count’s face and his obvious pride at becoming a father had helped Irina feel genuinely happy for him. Irina had imagined her love for Nikolai as a dance around a bright candle. Every hour, every day, every week that passed since their two summers of passion, she imagined dancing further and further away from the candle that they had once shared.
A second baby son, Georgiy, arrived in 1889. Eighteen months later, Countess Anastasia suffered a miscarriage and after that, Irina sensed a shift in the relationship between the Count and his wife. Anastasia seemed exhausted – from childbearing, the demands of her two delightful but exuberant boys, her charity work and the hectic social whirl in which the couple engaged.
So in late 1892, when Irina had been summoned to visit the Count in his private drawing room one evening when the Countess and the boys were away visiting her parents, it seemed quite natural that she and Nikolai fell upon each other wordlessly, as if nothing had changed.

Irina nudged herself out of her guilty daydream. The Countess was sitting at her dressing table surrounded by a selection of jewels, while Irina stood behind her, brushing Anastasia’s long dark hair before twisting it into curls, piling it up into an elaborate style and decorating it with hairpins each topped with one of the famous Shuysky diamonds.
‘You look tired tonight, madame.’
Anastasia sighed. ‘Yes, I wish I didn’t have to go to the Vronskys’ ball. Countess Vronskaya always looks so elegant and I – well look at me – I’m so fat, I look like a watermelon on sticks! Never again!’
‘Once you’ve had the baby you’ll soon be slim again,’ Irina said, soothingly.
Anastasia instinctively rested her hand on the large bump beneath her grey silk dress and smiled.
‘I’m praying for a beautiful baby daughter, Irina. I love my boys, but they’re so boisterous and messy. I so want to have a girl, a little doll whom I can dress in pretty clothes.’
Irina finished pinning the Countess’s hair and gently lifted up the heaviest, most sparkling piece of jewellery on the dressing table, a two-part gold necklace set with large diamonds and rubies in a modern style bought from Boucheron’s new shop in Paris. Irina placed the lower part of the necklace carefully around Anastasia’s naked shoulders and began to do up the complex set of clasps that held the upper part close against the Countess’s neck like a choker made of golden chains. Suddenly, Anastasia flinched forward and clutched her stomach.
‘Oh! Oh my God!’
‘What is it, madame?’
‘The pain! Quickly – loosen my gown.’
Irina’s nimble fingers swiftly undid the row of silk-covered buttons running down the back of Anastasia’s dress and worked the tightly knotted laces that pulled the Countess’s corset tight. Anastasia gave a deep gasp of relief and agony combined.
‘I must…’ she said, rising from her chair. Irina helped her over towards the edge of the bed, but Anastasia suddenly doubled up and clutched her middle again.
‘No! Oh, no, I think…’
A small pool of liquid darkened the pale pink pile of the carpet, turning it a shade of deep rose.
‘Madame! I must fetch the doctor. I will go to tell the Count that the baby is coming.’
‘It’s too soon; I have another month yet. Oh!’ The Countess knelt on the floor by the bed, her head on the embroidered silk coverlet, her features contorted in agony. ‘Yes, hurry, Irina, I do need the doctor…’
Irina rushed from the room and down the sweeping marble staircase, arriving in the Count’s first-floor study out of breath and almost unable to speak. ‘Sir, sir…’
Count Shuysky turned languidly from his desk, smiled and raised a wry eyebrow. ‘Calm down, Irina. What is taking the Countess so long, is she still sulking about having to go to the ball?’
‘Sir, the baby is coming.’
The Count stood abruptly and tugged on the bell-cord to summon Pluckrose.
‘Are you sure? I thought she had several weeks left?’ Irina simply shook her head. Pluckrose arrived instantly and was immediately despatched to fetch the family physician. The Count enfolded Irina in his arms and kissed the top of her blonde head.
‘Thank you, Irina. Now please go and look after the Countess until Doctor Lesnoy arrives.’

Three hours later, the Count, returning to his study, heard a high-pitched cry from upstairs and his heart clenched. A short while afterwards, the doctor poked his head round the door and smiled.
‘Congratulations, Count. You have a beautiful baby daughter. A little small, but healthy, and your wife is fine. Irina is tidying her up and then you may go and see her. I’ll be back in the morning to check on them both.’
The Count entered his wife’s bedroom and found her sitting up in bed with a tiny bundle in her arms, a cocoon of fine white wool with a little dark-haired head peeping out. Irina was picking up the grey silk dress which had been abandoned on the floor and then placing the diamond and ruby necklace back in its velvet-lined case.
Anastasia smiled at her husband. ‘Look what we have, Nikolai – a lovely daughter.’
Count Shuysky kissed his wife on the forehead and moved the woollen shawl a little to see the baby’s face. She looked pink and healthy, her rosebud lips sucking at the air.
‘What shall we call her?’ Anastasia asked.
‘You can choose, my dear. I know how much you wanted a daughter.’
‘Then I’d like to name her after my mother. ‘Tatiana’ – what do you think?’
‘Countess Tatiana Nikolaevna Shuyskaya? Yes, I approve,’ and he kissed her again and stood to leave. Both women followed him with their eyes as he disappeared through the bedroom door.
‘I think he’s pleased to have a daughter, don’t you agree, Irina? I wonder if he’ll buy me another necklace to mark the occasion? I think I’d like diamonds and emeralds this time. Countess Vronskaya has a beautiful emerald necklace…’ but Irina wasn’t listening. As the baby let out a small kitten-like mew, wanting her first milk, something stirred inside Irina and her heart pummelled against her ribcage in fear. Of course she had known, deep down, but this was real now. A living, moving creature, growing inside her. How much time did she have left? She tried to calculate. Four months? Maybe only three? She must think what to do. How much longer could she keep her secret? I must tell the Count, she decided. After all, it is his child, she thought defiantly, his secret too. Irina’s heart sank. I must tell the Count – but not now.
The following morning the Count was again in his Study, when a tentative knock on the door announced Doctor Lesnoy, looking grave. ‘The Countess has a fever, a serious one, I’m afraid. I will stay with her and do what I can, but…’ and he shook his head sadly. The Count rose immediately. ‘I must come with you,’ and the two men left the room together.
By early evening, the mood in the Shuysky household was sombre. The little boys, six-year-old Konstantin and four-year-old Georgiy, had tearfully kissed their mother goodbye and she had stroked their silky heads and murmured to them that they must be good boys for their father and look after Tatiana, their little sister. Miss Greycourt, the English governess had taken the boys to the nursery and the priest had been summoned to administer the last sacrament to Anastasia before she slipped out of consciousness for the final time.
Finally, The Count was left alone with his wife. He lay beside her on top of the bedcovers, holding her hand, now cold and white, and lifting it to his lips. ‘I’m sorry, Anastasia. I truly loved you and I tried to be a good husband, though… though I know I didn’t always succeed…’ Tears came to his eyes and he sobbed himself into a deep sleep beside her still body.

Three-and-a-half months after the birth of Tatiana Shuyskaya, in the family’s dacha at Novinki, forty-four kilometres south of Moscow, another baby’s cry was heard. The look on Doctor Lesnoy’s face was grim as he drew the sheet up over the mother’s face, put away his stethoscope and clicked shut the brass clasp on his black leather bag. Another new life; another tragic death.
Mrs Chekhova, the gardener’s wife, was holding the screaming infant, desperately trying to calm it.
‘You will have to find a wet nurse for the child,’ the doctor said. ‘There must be some woman in the village who wants some extra money. I’m sure the Count will pay her well. He wants this baby to be properly cared for.’ Mrs Chekhova raised her eyebrows curiously, but the doctor avoided her gaze and turned to leave. At the door he hesitated and turned.
‘She is to be called Sofia,’ he said, ‘Sofia… er… Ivanovna Maslova.’
In the hallway, his young son was waiting for him. ‘Come on, Volodya, I’ve finished here. It will be very late before we get home. Your mother will be wondering where we’ve got to.’ The boy noticed how tired and drawn his father looked, but just put his small hand in his father’s larger one and the pair clambered into the carriage and rode away in silence.

-=0=-

June 1894
Saints Cyril and Methodius Parochial School
Letter from Headteacher to the parish priest
It is with regret that I have to inform you that we have had to expel an eight-year-old boy from the school due to his extreme and disturbing behaviour. The most recent misdemeanour, in which he pulled the wings off a butterfly, caused great distress to his classmates who witnessed it. However, this was just the latest in a long string of incidents of bullying and cruelty.
His mother died when he was a baby and his father shows little interest in the boy or concern for his violent tendencies. We have tried to nurture his compassionate side, but to no avail, and the decision to expel him has been a last resort.
He is a highly intelligent child and we understand his father has managed to secure him a place at another school in the town.
Yours faithfully,
Mr Oleg Bogdanov, Headteacher

 

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